What a difference two months make! What a wonderful trail! What a wonderful morning!
Two months ago when I drove to the top of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park on the day that they opened it for the season, it was miserable. It was freezing cold and blowing snow.
Again today, I drove to the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet. And this time hiked down from there to the Continental Divide. If hiking down to the Continental Divide sounds strange to you, it does to me too. But the divide is at Milner Pass, elevation only 10,759.
A couple of days ago, until I started thumbing through Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Hiking Guide, I didn’t even know this trail existed. The book’s description of the part of the trail above treeline — smooth, very scenic, offering wonderful views — was irresistible. And absolutely correct.
“This hike passes through a rich variety of landscapes, from the austere beauty of the tundra, to lush forests of fir, to the hanging gardens near Poudre Lake,” the book says. “No trail surpasses this one in its abundance and diversity of wildflowers.”
The morning was wonderful, although cold at first. I wanted to get to the trailhead at first light. I was on the road by 4:30 and arrived at 6, even before daybreak. The first light on the part of the trail I was hiking came at exactly 6:22.
Another reason to get to the mountains early was to avoid traffic. Not a single vehicle held me up on the one-lane road all the way from the outskirts of Boulder to the trailhead. But I did have to watch my speed, because of the possibility of wildlife on the road. I did have to slow down for one big bull that I saw about 5:30.
A few minutes later I saw a huge herd of elk at about 12,000 feet. But it was too dark then for photos.
The weather prediction for Boulder today is 99 degrees. But the prediction for the Alpine Visitor Center was 62 degrees. So I made sure to wear my warmest shirt, an undershirt, and warmest socks. And I really needed the gloves that I wore most of the way down the trail. The temperature was probably about 35 degrees when I stared out. But the sky was clear all morning and the air was windless.
I knew where I wanted to go, but not how far. I kept changing my plans. Yesterday evening I planned on hiking down only as far as Forest Canyon Pass, 11,320 feet and 2.3 miles out. But when I got there I knew that I had to go further.
So I decided to hike down to Milner Pass. That’s 4.2 miles each way. I knew I was in shape for an 8.4 mile hike.
But then I recalled that the hiking guide says that people usually manage this hike with a car shuttle between the two possible starting points to avoid “the redundant return hike.” I don’t like “redundant” hikes, which is one of the reasons why I do like loop trails. But I had only one vehicle.
Then, the solution became blindingly clear. Hitchhike!
In fact, as soon as I got to that end of the trail I saw a guy. He told me that he was headed up to the Alpine Visitor Center, and I hitched a ride with him.
He told me that his name was Burton Webb and that he is a professor of physiology at Indiana University School of Medicine.
He took this photo of me at the end of my hike and before the drive back.
And I took this shot of him back at the Alpine Visitor Center.
On the way back home I saw a herd of elk off to my left. I was at the Toll Memorial, elevation 12,310 feet, just above the maximum elevation of Trail Ridge Road, 12,183 feet. I took 59 pictures in half an hour. But except for the first one just as I got there, the leader of the pack was sitting all the rest of the time.
I can’t think of any hike I ever enjoyed more. But now it’s time for a nap.