Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Posts tagged “rocky mountains

The grand old Rocky Mountains!

Fall color along Bear Lake Road
Peaks and Clouds from Bierstadt Lake

Clouds linger over the Continental Divide as seen from Bierstadt Lake

The grand old Rocky Mountains!

Their bold and massive forms,

Like Pyramids of age,

Defy the sweeping storms!

-Enos A. Mills, 1887

A hectic few months has kept me away from the website recently but fortunately not from my camera. My recent move to Fort Collins, CO means that my new backyard playground is Rocky Mountain National Park, only an hour from my doorstep and home to some truly spectacular scenery, especially in the fall when the aspens and willows turn golden and storms begin to dust the high alpine tundra with snow.

Fall color along Bear Lake Road

Fall colors along Bear Lake Road

My arrival in Fort Collins happened to coincide with the annual fall elk rut, in which bull elk gather large groups of females (called harems) together to mate. The many large grassy parks in RMNP are a popular gathering place for the elk and hundreds of people can be found lining the roads and trails skirting the meadows each evening to observe them in action. Even though I used to regularly see elk in our backyard growing up, this was a new experience for me.  After an evening of watching and photographing the bull elk mate, lock antlers with other males, and toss back their heads to bugle, I can now confidently check “witness an elk rut” off my non-existent bucket list. I would share some of my photos of this unique spectacle, but in order to keep this website rated PG-13, I had better pass…

Elk cow and calf

An elk cow shares a tender moment with her calf.

While snow starts to fall in the high Rockies in late September or early October, the weather usually remains pleasant well into October or even November. We’ve had a few storms the past few weeks that have dropped some not insignificant amounts of snow in the high country so every hike I’ve taken so far has been an exercise in scouting trails less likely to be covered in snow and ice.

Loch Vale in Rocky Mtn NP

The Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park

Earlier this week I decided to hike to the base of the east face of Longs Peak and Chasm Lake. I was unsure if I would actually be able to make it to the lake given its 11,700 foot elevation but I had picked Chasm Lake because I had noticed that the last (and highest) mile of trail hugged a south facing slope. A south facing slope equals more direct sun and theoretically less snow. My scouting paid off; the trail was nearly snow free save for some hard packed, but easily traverse-able snow just above tree line and the final 200 yards to the lake. The final 200 yards presented a bit of a challenge: a 30 degree slope guarding the lake that was basically one gigantic ice rink. I wasn’t going to be getting up the main trail without crampons but thankfully, a series of rock ledges alongside the trail were solid and dry, providing an alternative route up the final 200 vertical feet to the lake with only a little Class 3 scrambling required. Upon finally reaching the lake, I was met by a wonderful late autumn scene and quite happy to have avoided the the colossal disappointment of hiking 4+ miles only to get turned around with only a few hundred yards to go.

Chasm Lake and Longs Peak

The Ships Prow (left) and Longs Peak (14,259′, right) tower above Chasm Lake

The snow and ice had the added benefit of deterring the crowds that seem to linger in the park well into the fall. The previous week I had hiked to Loch Vale in a busier section of the park and just getting to the trailhead had involved being stuffed like sardines in a park shuttle bus. Chasm Lake though I had all to myself for over an hour, save for a pair of climbers descending from Longs Peak, the highest summit in the park. The east face of Longs Peak is an imposing sight, “abrupt and precipitous for three thousand feet” according to Enos A. Mills, an early resident of the area and the driving force behind the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. The silence was stunning, save for the occasional high-pitched “eeeeeeeee” of a pika, the intermittent roar of the wind whipping up loose snow, and the din of fallen icicles and chunks of glacial ice crashing their way to the base of the cliffs.

At eve and morning lighted

With liquid gold all around,

Thy crests and hills and valleys

Gleam bright with glory crowned.

—Enos A. Mills, 1887

Rocky Mountain Aspen and grass

Aspen and grass waving in the wind in Horseshoe Park

Sunset and Moon from Moraine Park

Sunset and gibbous moon from Moraine Park


So long to the Pacific Northwest

Nooksack River Cascade
Nooksack River Cascade

Hard to hike far in the Northwest without coming across spectacular unnamed cascades such as this one near Glacier, WA.

After spending the first 18 years of my life in Arizona, moving to the Pacific Northwest for college was a bit of a change for me climatically. Even living on the “dry” eastern side of Washington, I couldn’t believe how the clouds could so easily stick around for weeks on end. Relocating to one of the cloudiest cities in the country two years ago was even more of an adjustment. Somehow I had gone from 300 days of sun to 300 days of clouds in just four short years (but also from 0.85 to 3.60 breweries per 100,000 people so there’s that…). Now, after six years in the Pacific Northwest (punctuated by a few summers on the Colorado Plateau), I’m trading the Cascades for the Rockies and moving to sunnier climes in Colorado!

Kamiak Butte Flowers

Mule’s Ears on Kamiak Butte in Eastern Washington.

The Northwest is home to some fantastically diverse and photogenic landscapes, perhaps more so than any other part of the country I’ve spent time in. In Washington alone you can find sand dunes, waterfalls, and prairies amongst the rolling hills of Eastern Washington, jagged sea cliffs and pastoral farmlands along the coast in the San Juan Islands, and glacier capped peaks and rainforests so lush you swear you’ve been transported to the Amazon in the Cascades and on the Olympic Peninsula. I figured now was a good time to share some photos that represent this amazing diversity and reflect a bit on my time in the Northwest.

Nooksack River Salmon

A spawning pink salmon on the South Fork of the Nooksack River takes its final breaths.

What really epitomizes the Northwest for me is the abundance of one of the most common substances in the Universe: water. Whereas in the Southwest water is hard to find, in the Northwest it is difficult to escape. Whether on the coast, in the foothills, or in the mountains, water is never far away, be it saltwater, freshwater, glacier water, or rain water. While backpacking in the Northwest, you can almost always count on coming across a stream every few miles to replenish your supplies (unless you’re hiking around and active volcano, as I unpleasantly learned a few years back), a welcome change from carrying 8 pound gallon jugs on your back. Prolonged droughts and water restrictions, a way of life for decades in the Southwest, are near unheard of in the Northwest. Large dams in the Northwest are being removed and reservoirs drained, something that would be a cardinal sin to even think about in the arid Colorado River Basin, lest we lose even a few drops of precious water. Major rivers in the Northwest actually reach the sea, rather than being sucked dry in the desert, a la the Colorado.

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

At the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

It is this abundance of water in its many forms that makes the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest what they are. Case in point: here in the mountains of Colorado, we have peaks higher than any in the Cascades and temperatures just as cold (if not colder), yet the glacier score is Washington: 3101, Colorado: 141. As I write this from my computer in Western Colorado, a few small drops of rain are beginning to fall from a storm cloud overhead and my neighbors are gathering to comment on the spectacle. This phenomenon sums up the difference between the Southwest and Northwest perhaps more succinctly than any prose I could ever write.

More photos from my Northwest adventures will be forthcoming since I have a huge backlog of images waiting for me to think of something moderately interesting to write about. Aside from that, plan on becoming much more familiar with the landscapes of the Rocky Mountains in the coming years as I explore my new (and drier) home!

Palouse Hills Sunset

Sunset across the Palouse Hills outside of Pullman, WA

Salt Creek Low TIde

Low tide at Salt Creek Recreation Area on the Olympic Peninsula.

Red Rock Crab Whidbey

A common coastline critter in the PNW: the red rock crab.

Slug Climbing Stairs

I call this piece “Slug Climbing Stairs”

Goat Hovander Park

Curious goats at Hovander Park in Ferndale, WA


Rocky Mountain High…literally

When hiking, alone and sleepy, though a dark, pre-dawn, dense forest of tall lodgepole pine, every shadow and tree stump looks like a bear. It’s a great way to get your heart rate going early in the morning. I had risen from my restful (save for some early morning screaming and yelling coming from the campground across the road) sleep at 4:30 A.M. in an attempt to climb Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert, without getting myself electrocuted. I found myself mentally preparing to defend my White Chocolate Macadamia Nut ClifBar to the death at least half a dozen times over a 1 hour period. Not only is Mt. Elbert the highest point in Colorado, it is also the highest point in the Rocky Mountains as well as the 2nd highest point in the entire continental United States, just 65 feet lower than California’s Mt. Whitney.  Despite its height, the summit of Mt. Elbert can be reached via several well-traveled trails. All require a fair bit of elevation gain but the one I was forced to use as a result of not possessing a 4WD vehicle climbs 4,900 feet  in 4.5 miles, a healthy climb regardless of altitude.

Summer is generally considered a bad time to climb any peak that involves spending time above treeline because of the summer monsoon thunderstorms that are ubiquitous across the southwest. Unlike its Indian counterpart, the southwest monsoon generally doesn’t deposit several feet of rain on the surface (although they can produce some locally heavy, but brief, downpours) but they can, and often do, produce copious quantities of lightning. Lightning, as you most likely know, hits high places. Mt. Elbert is the highest point in Colorado. A person standing on Mt. Elbert, would then, by extension, temporarily be the highest thing still attached to the ground in Colorado. Put two and two together and you can see this makes for a potentially life-threatening situation.  The problem with these lightning storms is that they can develop incredibly rapidly and without warning out of clear blue sky. Your best chances of avoiding them is to hike early….really early.

I camped about 100 yards from the Mt. Elbert trailhead the night before the hike. A developed forest service campground was located directly across from the trailhead whose “services” I could utilized for $15 per night. Option #2 was to drive across the road and set up camp in a small clearing for $0 per night. The only things I would be missing (considering that I could simply walk across the road to use the water spigots) were the fire pit and picnic tables located in each developd campsite. Considering that I was alone (thus making a picnic table a bit unnecessary) and that a complete fire ban was in effect, I decided to save my hard-earned moolah.

Venus and Jupiter in the pre-dawn sky at the trailhead

Several vehicles were in the parking lot upon my arrival at 5 A.M.  By the midway point of the ascent, I had managed to pass all of these groups, save for a pack of Boy Scouts who had ascended beginning at 1 A.M. in order to see the sunrise from the summit. Lunatics. After about an hour or so of hiking through the forest, the Sun rose above the horizon just as I hit timberline at about 11,500 feet.  If you climb mountains on any regular basis, you’re probably aware that treeline on many peaks is a welcome sight. The lack of foliage generally provides reassurance that you’re almost there, in addition to providing spectacular vistas of the surrounding countryside. In other words, treeline often tells you: “Hang in there! Just a little bit longer!”

Treeline on Mt. Elbert invokes no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather, treeline on Mt. Elbert is merely a courtesy reminder that you are less than halfway there and that you still have more than 3,000 vertical feet to climb through ever decreasing oxygen levels. And the vistas aren’t anything to write home about from this point to boot.

Breaking out of the trees at 11,500’…still 3,000′ to go!

One of the few inhabitants of the upper mountain, the American Pika is a small, elusive rodent that call the scree slopes its humble home.

Mt. Elbert also redefines the term “false summit.”  Fortunately, for my sanity, I had thoroughly read a number of guidebooks and was well prepared for this matter. Good thing otherwise I probably would have consider hanging myself after reaching  the 2nd one and finding the true summit still out of my reach (fortunately, the lack of trees would have made this a tricky proposition…). On the way down, I encountered a number of weary and inquisitive hiking parties just below the lower-most and most evil false summit (still nearly 1000 vertical feet from the true summit) whom I regrettably had to inform that they still had a good hour or more of trudging to go. Judging by their reactions and creative use of profane adjectives, they were not as well-prepared for this as I was.

Nearing the first of the false summits. This one is particularly nasty since it is in plain view from the beginning of the trail.

Skirting around the edge of false summit #1, false summit #2 comes into view….

…and then the true summit finally appears on the horizon!

The view from the summit is, as would be expected, spectacular, although not necessarily any better than a number of other, lesser peaks in Colorado. Mountains fill the field of view as far as the eye can see in all directions. Several other Sawatch Range 14ers are visible from the summit including Colorado’s 2nd highest peak, Mt. Massive to the north (Mt. Massive is aptly named, it consists of four individual peaks of 14,000+feet along a 5 mile ridge) and La Plata Peak to the south. The view on a clear day (which it was) stretches all the way to Pikes Peak outside of Colorado Springs, almost 100 miles to the southeast, and the Maroon Bells outside of Aspen.  Being the first person apart from the overachieving group of scouts to summit that morning, I had the place all to myself for about half an hour. By the time summit-er #2 showed up at about quarter to 9, clouds were already starting to build up around the mountain so I decided to head back down.

View to the south along the Sawatch Range from Mt. Elbert. 14,000 foot peaks and other notable summits are labeled.

View to the north from Mt. Elbert. The mutiple peaks of Mt. Massive are at right. The prominent ridgeline in front of Mt. Massive is the ridge followed by the Mt. Elbert trail.

Sadly, having reached the highest peak in the Rockies, my options for setting a new personal elevation record are now somewhat limited unless Warren Buffet unexpectedly names me in his inheritance or I find a big bag of money on the street (those are pretty much the same if you think about it…) and decide to go to Alaska or South America (to make a donation, you can find my contact information on the About page). Or, on a slightly cheaper thought, Mt. Whitney anyone?

14,433 feet!