Within only a month or so of moving to Colorado, one of the things I missed quite a bit about the Midwest was the familiarity I had with the region. After 19 years in the Midwest, I had grown quite familiar with the area. I knew the traffic patterns of Chicago, as well as all of the good alternate routes. I knew what areas were popular in which situations, and therefore knew where to expect crowds. I knew how much time to allocate for driving between any area in the Midwest, allowing me to allocate my life quite efficiently. I also knew about restaurants, bar specials, people’s typical behavior patterns, and, well a host of other little intangibles that help an individual operate their lives smoothly.
I suspect many people begin to feel this way when moving to a new place. Although it is important to embrace a new experience, in order to get the best result possible, it is hard not to long for that familiarity. Different things are important to different people. But, after living in a place for a few years, most people will have gradually obtained the knowledge that is important to them. However, that first year or two always involves a scramble.
Yesterday, I learned a lesson about Colorado. I had decided I wanted to go to Rocky Mountain National Park for two reasons:
1. I decided that it was a good time to do a hike that contained a vertical climb somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 feet at a fairly high elevation. This, of course, is mostly me wanting to fit in here, with the activities that a lot of people in my age group like to do. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, fitting in involved developing an alcohol tolerance. Here it means being able to physically handle terrain, by hiking, biking, climbing, skiing, etc.
2. Last month at Badlands National Park, I bought an annual pass to the National Parks for $80, with the specific intention on using the National Parks here in Colorado.
What I found out was, leaving at 7:30 A.M. was not early enough. Well, not to do what I wanted to do, which was hike the Lawn Lake Trail, a 6.2 mile trail with a 2,450 foot accent to Lawn Lake, in the Mummy Mountain Range, and return to the car safely before thunderstorm chances increase in the afternoon. My problem was that I departed right around the height of the morning rush hour, and, decided to take U.S. highway 36 through Boulder. Not only did I encounter traffic before even getting out of Denver, but I encountered the usual Denver to Boulder traffic, and the usual delays in Boulder, where traffic is quite lousy for a city it’s size. After all of this, I did not arrive at the entrance to the park until just after 10 A.M. Luckily, I had learned from all of my recent travels that traveling within a National Park can be slow going, and therefore had selected a trail not too far from Estes Park, where I had planned to enter the park.
By that time, all of the parking spaces at the Lawn Lake Trailhead parking lot had been taken, so I had to park across the street. This was somewhat fortunate, as one of the best pictures I got from the area actually came walking across the street to get to the trailhead.
On some hiking trails, it is surprisingly easy to take a wrong turn. But, not on this one, as the trail was well marked by rocks the entire way, and even had periodic signs pointing the way.
As was advertised, the trail was quite steep. In fact, it began with several switchbacks, and it was less than half a mile into the trail that some meaningful uphill progress began to appear. That was when I saw another reminder that I am still a Colorado novice. On one of the trail markers, I saw someone had actually left a hoodie on the post. My first instinct was that having just worked up a sweat climbing the initial few switchbacks, the person had overheated a bit and decided to take their sweatshirt off. But then, I thought to myself, why would anyone want to dump off a layer of clothing when going uphill, where it will only get cooler with elevation. I also wondered if this was any kind of a signal that Coloradans know about that I do not. Could it be similar to someone tying a tie around the door knob of a college dorm room to signal to their roommates that they have company and need to not be disturbed? Only walking in on your roommate, as scary as that sounds, sounds less scary than being suddenly attacked by a bear, or giant falling rock because I did not understand this signal.
I also seem to always happen upon waterfalls at Rocky Mountain National Park. And, happening upon a waterfall I was not expecting kind of also made me reflect on some major differences between living here and in the Midwest. I happened upon a waterfall when my destination was a lake. This feels like the opposite of the way it would occur in the Midwest. In the Midwest, waterfalls are hard to come by, and it is not uncommon to travel hours to encounter a good waterfall.
Knowing the thunderstorm threat at this time of year, and the amount of time I had, I had to change courses and chose to hike the shorter trail, Ypsilon Lake. This trail, however, is also rated as “strenuous”, and at Rocky Mountain National Park, when they describe a trail as strenuous, they mean it!
I knew I had made some significant uphill progress because the density of the trees had begun to thin out. From viewing the area around me, I concluded that I was roughly 1,000 feet below the “tree line”. Later, after consulting my fabulous Colorado DeLorme Atlas, I determined that I turned around only about a mile and a half from the end of the trail, but that I had done pretty much all of the climbing. From a base elevation of 8,540 feet, I had reached somewhere in the vicinity of 10,500 feet, leaving something in the neighborhood of 200 or 250 feet of climbing remaining. I still wonder if I should have continued the rest of the way to the lake so that I could have completed the trail, but I guess I need to chalk the whole experience up to just not quite having the feel for how Colorado works yet.
Additionally, despite the fact that clouds seemed to be building on my decent, the thunderstorms actually held off. So, I ended up deciding to do a little bit of driving along the famed Trail Ridge Road, which actually ascends up to nearly 12,000 feet. On this road, one actually ascends above the tree line. According to the Alpine Visitors Center, the tree line in Northern Colorado is at 11,400 feet of elevation. Above this elevation, few trees are found, and pockets of residual snow can actually be found.
Overall, I guess I still had a productive day at Rocky Mountain National Park, but I still wish I could have traversed the entire trail to Lawn Lake. I pictured myself getting there significantly earlier than I did. I learned that Rocky Mountain National Park is farther away than I think of it in my head. For some reason I always think of this place as being right in Denver’s backyard, because, from the point of view of 1,000 miles away, it kind of is. But, it does take nearly two hours to get there from Denver. Perhaps it would be faster to follow I-25 to Longmont, cutting over to Lyons on route 66? I’ll probably try this next time, as Boulder does not do a good job of accommodating traffic.
I also learned not to expect this place to be much less crowded on a Tuesday than a Saturday. This is because most of the people here are actually not from Colorado. I actually saw a ton of Illinois plates here. People come here on vacation, and, with the kids out of school for the summer, they are likely to be vacationing for a whole week. If I really want to find a less crowded place to hike on a Tuesday, it would probably be best that I look somewhere completely different. These are all things that people who have lived in Colorado for several or more years probably know and understand well. And, over time, I will gradually get the feel for. For now, I must learn all of this, either through experiences like this one, or through solicitations of advice from others.