Column: A New York boy takes in ‘Welcome to the Rockies’ views of Colorado’s premier National Park
ESTES PARK – When Thomas Murphy first found out on Oct. 20 that I was following him westward as a departed Adirondacker bound for Colorado, we had previously shared chitchat about several odd topics.
Exchanging messages across country, the conversation ranged from the best spot to watch the 2017 total solar eclipse (Tom found himself parked in traffic randomly on a highway somewhere around Niota, Tennessee), to silly 1990s professional wrestling characters (my, how those shows weren’t exactly politically correct back in the day), to, of course, hiking the 46 Adirondack High Peaks.
But until our first Colorado meet-up in Rocky Mountain National Park early on Sunday morning, Nov. 12, we had never actually hiked together, even if we had chatted for hours upon hours about hitting the trails.
Between Tom and I, we’d hiked more than 100 mountains in the Adirondacks, including his ascents of all 46 Adirondack High Peaks above 4,000 feet.
And, even if it was mostly via Facebook Messenger, Tom was the one who gave me tips on my first sunset and sunrise hikes in the Adirondacks. That was because, as a former chef by trade, one who worked odd hours in the kitchens of Saranac Lake, New York, sunset and sunrise hikes made up many of his ascents.
He didn’t necessarily have the luxury to start hikes at dawn each time he was out. But as an admirer of the Adirondacks, he made it work. And as a reporter also working odd hours by trade, so did I, as sunrise and sunset hikes became my preferred summertime adventures.
So it was no big deal for Tom when I asked him during my second week here in Summit County if he’d be cool with leaving at 3:30 in the morning from his home down in Pueblo to meet me at daybreak for a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.
With the park open via free admission for Veterans Day weekend to pair with bluebird skies and much more snow than what Summit County has yet received, the jaunt into Emerald Lake made perfect sense.
It was also quite the escape for Tom, who lives a much different winter life down on the high desert of Pueblo. It was summarized when I first told him on Oct. 20 that I was headed his way.
“So am I making the right move, brother?” I messaged Tom.
“Haha,” he replied. “I might as well live on a different planet than where you are moving to.”
Minutes before I met up with Tom at a Shell station in Estes Park, he had already messaged me a picture of a picture.
There, within an iPhone photo, was a bull elk walking across the gas station parking lot as seen through the preview window of Tom’s Nikon.
“Got some visitors,” he messaged. “I’m in a tan Honda.”
When Tom and I arrived at the parking lot outside of the Bear Lake trailhead, we were surprised to see only a few dozen cars occupying the slots. After a couple of unexpected stops, we arrived at Bear Lake shortly before 8 a.m., feeling late. But judging by the increase in crowds a few hours later when we walked back to the trailhead, we were actually early.
We also were much more prepared than most who hit the trail. If there was one primary takeaway from the hike into Emerald Lake, it was the unpreparedness of many who not only started along the trail, but finished it as well.
Tom estimated 80 percent of the hikers only wore boots or sneakers. Another 10 percent, he figured, wore “Yak Trax” traction cleats. And the final 10 percent were in microspikes.
For full-on fun, microspikes were necessary. Trust me.
It was impressive to see just how many people ventured deep into the hilly, windy and chilly nearly 2-mile trail into Emerald Lake with no traction and jeans. One woman even sauntered around Bear Lake in block high heels. We wondered if she was better off digging the weight of those into the slick conditions compared to, say, a pair of Nike running shoes.
After the week prior’s snowstorm — the one that just skirted north of Summit County — dumped 20 inches in Rocky Mountain National Park, the trail and surrounding conditions were full-on winter. But snowshoes weren’t necessary, rather a detriment. And post-holing only occurred near the surroundings of Emerald Lake, where hikers ventured off trail to take in different views. Otherwise, everything was well packed-down.
As we continued along the trail into Emerald Lake, the first awe-inspiring “Welcome to the Rockies” view came as Tom and I stopped for a breather atop Nymph Lake.
Full-on views of Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak were still a bit away, but looking back at the west face of Long’s Peak, its Front Range backside, was something very different than anything I’d seen in the Adirondacks. Unpredictable cloud activity near above-tree-line summits like Mount Marcy and Algonquin Peak in the Adirondacks is not out of the ordinary. Neither is hiking above undercast clouds.
But seeing clouds form at and near the summit of Long’s Peak as the Sunday temperatures warmed from the teens into the 30s was truly mesmerizing.
We continued onto Dream Lake for what Tom thought was the best view of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. Even though Emerald Lake’s perspective near the base of Tyndall Glacier was more than a half mile closer, this view was indeed something out of a postcard.
Continuing on to the shores of Emerald Lake, the first thought both Tom and I had was that we weren’t going to venture out onto the frozen ice like some hikers were. Coming from the Adirondacks, Tom and I are used to temperatures as low as negative-20 fueling our deep-winter traditions like Saranac Lake’s Winter Carnival and Ice Palace.
But also as New York City kids at heart, Tom and I at our core don’t mess around with walking across unknown ice, especially this early in the season. We both could hear the cautionary words of our mothers, each with their Brooklyn and Bronx accents, saying the same thing:
“Don’t you dare.”
So the extent of our Sunday sky-blue-sky adventure in Rocky Mountain consisted of rock-hopping and post-holing only a couple of times to climb to a better view of Emerald Lake. And after throwing on our shells to protect us from the howling winds, we looked across the lake at a group of four scaling the glacier. They seemed to want to view the lake above its long shadow from east to west, even if it meant tempting an avalanche. Shaking our heads, Tom and I both decided this was enough adventure for today. Enough adventure for my first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
On the way back, late morning, the crowds seemed to exponentially grow, almost everyone without spikes. Compared to the Adirondacks, the Yak Trax choice was much more popular. I’d be lying if I said I’d ever seen them before.
Sadly, on the return trip we didn’t run into marmots or any other wildlife aside from a few bushtits. By the time we were back at our car, the parking lot was full.
About 20 minutes later, thinking our day’s adventure was in the rearview mirror, we neared Tom’s car at the Shell station in Estes Park. Then, suddenly, what seemed to be an elk cardboard cutout outside an Estes Park laundromat suddenly rose its massive rack upward.
There it was, a live bull elk calmly grazing on the yet non-snow covered grass literally feet from the laundromat’s corner entrance.
Tom and I pulled over to take some shots from his telephoto lens. But it was amazing to see the number of people standing just a couple feet from this elk, in the middle of its mid-day meal. There had to have been 25 people within 15 feet.
Much like the Adirondacks, everyone seems to come to the park to look for that perfect picture. Luckily for them, the bull elk was totally focused on his Sunday snack.
Good for him.
Antonio Olivero is the sports and outdoors editor for the Summit Daily News.
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