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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

Back to the High Country

July 19th, 2011 · 3 Comments

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When we found the ptarmigan right away, we thought the rest of our day would be anticlimactic. Hardly.

My friend Sharon and I explored the high country of Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time this year. Because of the late spring, we hadn’t previously gone about 10,000 feet. But with NOAA’s warm, dry, calm weather prediction for Trail Ridge at 11,861 feet, we were raring to go. The weather bureau said that the temperature would be 63° there and 95° in Boulder.

We got an early start to avoid crowds on Trail Ridge Road and the afternoon thunderstorms, as well as to take advantage of the quality of early morning light. Sharon wrote me that, “4 is too early, but 5 is not, if you are up for that.” I was.

Encountering no traffic, we got to the high country a few minutes after 6 and immediately saw this elk on the horizon.

A Bull Elk in the Early Morning Light

A Bull Elk in the Early Morning Light

Click on the picture above to enlarge

We were headed for Medicine Bow Curve. Here at 11,640 feet begins a short trail that offers a view up to the Medicine Bow Mountains and down to the headwaters of the Cache la Poudre River. A few days earlier someone on the mailing list for Colorado birders had reported seeing White-tailed Ptarmigan along that trail.

Neither Sharon or I had ever captured good photographs of ptarmigan before. This small bird in the grouse family is a permanent resident of the high mountains of the West above tree line. In the winter, to blend in with the snow, it is pure white except for a black beak and eyes. In the summer, to blend in with the rocks, it is mottled.

In all seasons the White-tailed Ptarmigan is hard to locate. Yesterday was the first time that I had ever located any bird by its call. The ptarmigan we photographed was about 50 yards east of the trail and impossible to see until it moved.

Distinguishing a White-tailed Ptarmigan from the Rocks Isn't Easy

Distinguishing a White-tailed Ptarmigan from the Rocks Isn't Easy

Click on the picture above to enlarge

We found this bird at 6:40 a.m. and continued to photograph it for almost an hour. I took 200 shots, of which I like these the best.

This Shot Shows the Ptarmigan's White Tail

This Shot Shows the Ptarmigan's White Tail

Click on the picture above to enlarge
A White-tailed Ptarmigan Prefers Running to Flying

A White-tailed Ptarmigan Prefers Running to Flying

Click on the picture above to enlarge

I would have been happy with any one of these shots. Finally, we broke away from this unruffled bird, thinking that the rest of our day in the high country “would be gravy,” as Sharon commented.

While it was that in terms of photography, our next stop was much more of an adventure. We back-tracked a few miles to the Alpine Visitor Center, where at 11,796 feet the 4.1 mile Old Ute Trail starts.

Except for us, however, the trail was closer to 5 miles yesterday. This is one of my favorite hikes, which I had hiked at least four times. I especially love the land above tree line at about 11,300 feet. Every earlier hike was easy, since the trail has a moderate downgrade and I always hitchhike back from the other end of the trail at Milner Pass. That is the Continental Divide, which is practically an obligatory stop for out-of-state visitors who want photographs of themselves with the Continental Divide sign. So getting a ride back to the Alpine Visitor Center is easy.

But yesterday we encountered innumerable snowdrifts. A few times we were able to detour around them. But mostly we had to hike very carefully over several feet of snow. Two or three times the snow gave way beneath me and one foot ended up two feet below the other.

Still, most of the trip was delightful. I particularly enjoyed the several stops we took for snacks. In the bright sun reflected from the snow we were so warm that I stripped off my jacket and long-sleeved shirt, stuffing it into my backpack as I covered my torso with just a T-shirt.

At one overlook along the trail the best view was right there, not in the distance.

Rock, Lichen, Flowers, and Trees Together

Rock, Lichen, Flowers, and Trees Together

Click on the picture above to enlarge

I even found a couple more birds up in this high country to photograph.

The American Pipit is a Small Songbird that Usually Prefers the Ground

The American Pipit is a Small Songbird that Usually Prefers the Ground

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The White-Crowned Sparrow is one of our Best Studied Songbirds

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Not until the last half-mile did we run into trouble. There the trail descends steeply to Poudre Lake and Milner Pass at 10,758 feet. We had hoped that we would find less snow at this lower elevation, but in fact we found more, probably because of the dense forest here keeps the snow of this late spring from melting.

The snow completely covered considerable distances of the trail. Once we hiked about half an hour looking for it.

We weren’t lost, as Sharon pointed out. While we didn’t know where the trail continued, we could and did find our way back to the trail we had come down.

By coincidence, at that point we encountered two other parties who were also searching for the trail. Finally, I spotted what looked like a small section of a clear trail about 50 yards below us. Sharon hiked down through the trees to investigate. She had found the way out!

So we led a total of nine people in our three parties back to civilization. Along the way Sharon and I stopped for lunch at Poudre Lake where we feasted on olives, cheese, nuts, and grapes. Eventually, we went on to Milner Pass, hoping to flag down a car to take us back where we left my SUV.

As soon as we reached the parking lot and even before we asked anyone, a woman named Pam from Virginia offered us a ride. She had been one of the first people we had led out, and someone else had given her a ride back to her car. Pam let her family wait while she took Sharon and me back to our vehicle. She said that she wanted to pay us back.


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Posted in: Photography

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 JAN WILLIAMS // Aug 1, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    I’m thinking that I’d like to be hiking along side you and Sharon and having fun checking out the birds and wildflowers along the trails, David….but at the same time knowing that it wouldn’t be taking long before I’d be going into the low blood sugars…that I have with little to no physical effort!

  • 2 JAN WILLIAMS // Aug 1, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    You really WERE fortunate to have found a ride back to your SUV!

  • 3 David Mendosa // Aug 2, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Dear Jan,

    Why do you go low? Is it insulin?