How could this happen? I'd taken 15 trips over the past year and a half, visiting 58 of 63 parks, seeing spectacular and historic sites coast-to-coast and beyond. A loop through Colorado, the state I lived for half my life, should have been a cakewalk. (Followed, of course, with a long jaunt to the South Pacific to officially wrap up my Challenge.)
A long-term case of fatigue, tired of finagling arrangements in exotic places, killed my enthusiasm for making plans. As the days ticked by, the threat by politicians to close down the government - close the parks! - became very real, leaving me feeling helpless for my chances to see my last handful. Why bother making plans that our dysfunctional government will torpedo?
I'd made reservations in early September to fly to American Samoa in mid-October, back when talk of a shutdown seemed an idle threat. Twice weekly Hawaiian Air flies from Honolulu to Pago Pago, the only way to fly to the territory from stateside. Unless you purchase those tickets more than a month in advance, the fare goes up by 10-15%, so I established that baseline.
Luckily, the four Colorado parks required no advance planning beyond getting there. My best friend Bill - Iron Man! - still called Ft. Collins home, and he quickly agreed to go along. I remember how his companionship during my Dakotas trip and the Utah/Grand Canyon excursion last year helped make those trips so special. One more road trip!
Still, I put off reserving my other flights, keeping a close eye on the budget debacle in Congress. To fit Colorado in before moving on to Hawaii to catch the Pago Pago flight, I'd have to wing it to Denver on 3 October. As the country careened toward the first of October budget deadline, I called the parks several times, asking what a shutdown entailed. Would they bar the parks to all visitors? Would they just close the visitor centers? Unfortunately, no one could tell me anything - they'd received absolutely no direction from the national office.
Finally, as the last week of September unfolded, I took the gamble, rolled the dice. Get the DEN-HNL tickets first. Complication: The flight to Pago Pago left Honolulu at 4:35 p.m., and (because they consider it an international flight), I'd have to collect my luggage from HNL baggage claim and carry it to the Hawaiian counter. Most flights got in to HNL around 3:00 or later, which left no margin for any issues. I finally found one leaving Denver at 6:04 a.m. and arriving at 2:00 p.m.. Done! The other flights - PHL to DEN to start, and back home from HNL posed no problems.
Nothing left now but to live on pins and needles until the last minutes, when Congress finally did their job - or at least, postponed the day of reckoning. Let's see if I can ride that victory into a smooth shuffle through my final parks!
Within National Parks is room — glorious room — room in which to find ourselves, in which to think and hope, to dream and plan, to rest and resolve. – Enos Mills (1870-1922), American naturalist and primary creator of Rocky Mountain NP.
Wednesday, 4 October 2023, Grand Lake CO
You must understand this - to plan a trip east-to-west across Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is to brazenly bet on Mother Nature. Trail Ridge Road, running from Estes Park (east) to Grand Lake across the park, reaches 12,000' elevation. Once heavy snows fall, the road (the only way across the park) closes for the winter. This has happened as early as September, but usually occurs by mid-October. The only other option to reach Grand Lake involves a four-hour detour.
How lucky do I feel?
When I made plans to spend October 3-11 seeing the Colorado parks, I changed my mind about finishing with RMNP and instead scheduled it as the first stop on the itinerary. The ten-day forecast for the state looked excellent - well, except for possible snow flurries in Grand Lake on the morning of October 3.
I flew to Denver on Tuesday 10/3, then enjoyed lunch with my sisters before heading to Fort Collins to hook up with Bill. RMNP requires reservations until late October to enter the park, but that starts each day at 9:00. Instead, we left Bill's house at 7:00 Wednesday morning, slipping into the park by 8:20. Problem solved.
We drove along the main road, looking for fall color, and turned into Endovalley. There we found the short (one-third of a mile) trail to Horseshoe Falls,
great to warm up our legs. The sign at the trailhead warns you that the trail contains a section rising at a 19% grade. Hmmm... sounds like good practice for steep Black Canyon in a couple of days. However, the sign revealed that stretch only lasts 75'. We walked up the paved path and hardly even noticed it... maybe if it lasted a quarter mile or more, it'd challenge us.
I now looked forward to revisiting the site of my wedding three decades ago: Upper Beaver Meadows. At the road junction, I tried to recall directions: turn right, then another right onto the meadow road... The thruway rose in front of us, running through switchbacks, offering elevated viewpoints. At the second viewpoint, I could see the meadow well below us. Shoulda gone left!
I pointed the car back down the mountain, reaching the meadows turn off in only ten minutes. The paved road looked as if it hadn't seen maintenance since my wedding, with large potholes narrowing the road to a single lane and limiting our speed. At the road's end, we found a reason for the reservation system: a full parking lot (early on a Wednesday morning!) with no space for latecomers.
I decided defeat was not in my dictionary. (Maybe I should get a newer dictionary without the 'DE' page missing.) Leaving Bill with the car keys to take any spot that opened up, I grabbed my camera and headed up the trail to the meadow. Even after decades, the memories flowed back. There's the bridge where we hid the bicycle-built-for-two that we pedaled away on.
There's the meadow where the guests gathered, watching as Sue and I strolled from different directions out of the woods to become one. There's the trail the horse train came down, causing a momentary disruption to our vows.
I walked a short distance up the trail, surprising a group of deer.
The scene, the memories, brought a smile to my face. But I promised Bill I'd only be a few minutes. I strolled back to the parking lot, where he'd just won a parking space. Great, now we could spend a bit more time here, hiking.
We wandered up the Ute Mountain Trail, through the wedding venue and into the woods. In a few minutes, we met a hiker coming down, and stopped to chat. "Keep a look out," he told us, "there's a pair of elk about 50 yards to your right, shortly after you take a right turn at the trail junction. They're hard to see, sitting under some trees." We heeded his advice, and Bill picked them out when we reached the right point. At first, I couldn't distinguish them from a pair of logs, but once they moved their heads, I zoomed in and caught them relaxing.
We moved on up the trail. Suddenly Bill stopped. "Did you hear that?" I shook my head. "To our left somewhere. I heard an elk bugle."
We stood still, scanning the trees downhill. Soon I heard it too, the high-pitched sound like a mixture of whine and whistle, the mystical sound of a bull cajoling one of his fairer sex. For the next few minutes, we heard it intermittently again and again, coming from out of sight.
I remembered that nature sound from trips here years ago, and had hoped I could experience it again.
Call it another win.
Before long we turned back, still needing to drive across the spine of the park. On the way down, we stopped to chat with a hiker heading up. "Do you know if they've opened Trail Ridge yet?" he asked.
I didn't like the sound of that question. "I was up there at 8:15 this morning," he continued, "and the gate on Trail Ridge Rd said, 'closed temporarily'. I hoped to cross over to see the rest of the park."
Not what we wanted to hear. Once we reclaimed our car, we headed downhill toward the Visitor Center to look for an update. As we neared the park entrance, I saw the electronic sign by the roadside: "Trail Ridge Road temporarily closed."
Maybe they haven't updated it. I pulled over and phoned the park ... and the recording dating to yesterday stated, "Due to blowing snow and wind, Trail Ridge is temporarily closed. This message will be updated when the status changes."
I looked at Bill, unhappy at the prospect of that four-hour detour. "What do you think, Bill? Take the long road around?"
He paused, then said, "The weather's nice today. We should head back up and see if it opens soon." Okay, let's take the gamble.
We returned to the road with the switchbacks, climbing higher and higher. Stopping at the overlooks, we noticed a smattering of white as we rose.
After 20 minutes, we reached the gate - which now sat wide open. I think we hit the trifecta!
Trail Ridge Road took us to 12,000', through a bleak tundra dusted with new snow. Majestic mountains surrounded us, veiled in white. We stopped a few times
for photos, but the chilly air (with a windchill likely in the 20s) insured we wouldn't stay outside long.
Across Trail Ridge, the route quickly descended.
At 10,800' elevation we crossed the Continental Divide, where water now flowed to the west. It had warmed up enough to take a quick hike at Beaver Pond, which marked the divide.
Further down, we stopped for another moderate hike, our final stroll of the day. It took us a mile through the woods to a lowly stream that would soon grow into the mighty Colorado River, carver of the Grand Canyon.
Once again, we breathed deep of the risp mountain air, tasting its freshness. From across the river, we again saw deer wandering the woodland.
The day had grown late, so we pointed the car toward Grand Lake and headed downhill. On the way out of the park, we stopped at the west-side Visitor Center for recommendations on a trail for tomorrow morning. While in college, Bill and I had hiked most of the trails on the east (Estes Park) side, but had rarely crossed over Trail Ridge to try out the far-side trails. The ranger recommended a couple we'd not taken before. Now armed with a plan, we headed down to our evening accommodations, visiting with Sue's Uncle Steve.