Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Trail Ridge Road

Wednesday, Aug 22

I had half expected to wake up Wednesday morning with a gigantic, very stiff and very sore -- right knee. But it turns out my suspicions from the day before were correct. It wasn't that kind of injury. I somehow strained that ligament, but as long as I was on the ibuprofen, further activity -- including activity that involved some minor discomfort, wasn't doing any more damage. Still, I should be careful with it.

Now Mark is not a fan of heights, but he did want to come on vacation with me and he knows I am a fan of heights. I'm a tundra junkie. The land above the trees I call God's Country. It seems other-worldly, the views are fantastic, you are where relatively few people ever get to go, and the views are incredible. (Did I mention the views? Somehow I don't think I got that in there enough.) You really (or I do, anyway) feel like you're someplace extra special. Plus, if you subscribe to the Heaven is UP theory -- I suppose it actually would be closer to the creator.

I had spent most of the previous day in God's Country, but that was different. There wasn't much time to dawdle and enjoy it. Yesterday was a rare day in that I had a goal that superceded pure enjoyment. This would not be the case for the rest of the week. At first I thought "let's find another set of lakes", but I know myself. I changed my mind before we got out of the campground. We're going up Trail Ridge while the weather is nice.

As we wound our way up, Mark didn't think switchbacks were as bad as he'd thought before. But from driving with Vicki who suffers from a bit less severe case of the same ailment -- I knew that it was because we were still below the treeline and the trees provide a sense of comfort; a psuedo guard rail.

We pulled up to the first overlook with a restroom (rrrrring! hello? this is your morning coffee calling. yeah, we're all done in here, mmmkay?) There were a couple of vehicles parked paralell in the 90 degree parking places, taking way too many up. But we found a free one. It was some cyclists' accompanying vehicles. A couple of them were sitting on the rock rail overlooking part of Horseshoe park, talking. From the conversation I could tell they knew they were parked wrong. "Other people park that way." In my head I said "that doesn't mean you should."

Took a couple of tourist moment pictures and moved on. The trees got shorter and shorter and more tortured looking, and we were in the tundra. Before long we were at the Forest Canyon overlook.

We knew before we left the plains that there was construction on Trail Ridge Road, and that it was closed from 10pm to 6am daily, with 1 hour delays possible during the day. We shot some more pictures and enjoyed the veiws from the overlook, and we could see the traffic backed up and the road construction from there.

Mark wanted to reach the summit of some decently high mountain, and I had suggested Sundance (~12,200 feet) since it's about a half mile walk to the top from Trail Ridge Road. I could see a trail leading up from the east side, but it was a bit of a hike from here to the trail head and Mark's blisters were still healing and I was taking it easy on my knee today. I knew there was another trailhead at the Rock Cut area by those restrooms.

We waited until traffic started to move, hopped in the car, and got at the end of the line. We were at Rock Cut in no time.

We hiked to the top of the mountain. It was quite a bit different from the last time I'd done this. There was still snow, it was windy, and a storm was blowing in two years ago. Today it was sunny with relatively light wind (for Trail Ridge Road, that is), and more crowded. We took pictures from the top and I tried to figure out if I could see the point in old Fall River Road where I ended my FRR hike two years ago (well, where I turned around, actually). I thought I could pick out the spot. There was a family there with kids about 8-12 years old. The girl was wearing a spaghetti strap top and had very fair skin. They'd hiked up there and were climbing on the rocks. They were taking trip photos of their stuffed animal. And I noticed she was starting to get pink. We mentioned to the mother that there's quite a bit more UV radiation up here. We're almost halfway up in the atmosphere, going by mass (there's that meteorology degree talking again).

Mark had grabbed sunscreen before he left home and thrown it in his back, but later found out it was baby sunscreen. Strong. But it made you smell like... well -- a fresh baby. He offered it to the mother, but the daughter nixed the idea when she found out about the baby smell.

There was another construction backup further down the road, and we used the same strategy. We soaked in the sights until the traffic started to move, and hopped in the car. We wanted to go to the visitor's center and gift shop -- plus Mark had seen the Lava Cliffs from a distance and asked what they were. We were going to drive pretty much right up to them.

Mark was impressed with the cliffs, read the informational sign, and we took pictures of a snowmelt pond at its base with some snow left in it and around it. And on to the gift shop.

There's a nice area in the visitor's center that tells you about the alpine plants and wildlife and why they do what they do and when they do it. I made note of a quote from a book "The Land Above the Trees" that I liked so I could buy it later. (Hey, I said I'm a tundra junkie.)

Oh, the quote was:

"... where the sky is the size of forever and the flowers are the size of a millisecond."
Just in case you haven't yet picked up on how I feel about this land above the trees. ;-)

We took some Brits' photograph and they took ours in front of the gift shop. They were kind of funny. I remember the lady who was voted by the rest to use the camera to take our picture was all "ready.... steady..... wait... did it take the picture?"

I said of course not, you never said "Go!". It's "Ready, Steady, Go!" -- I was teasing of course. She ended up taking two.

We also saw the mother and kids from Sundance Mountain's summit. They were now duely doused in sunscreen. And didn't smell like babies.

Mark bought Cassie & Q some ranger hats and a shot glass for Cami. I got us a gold-plated aspen leaf Christmas ornament, and back at the visitors' center I bought my pewter Longs Peak USGS marker replica, my trophy for reaching the top yesterday.

I thought about heading down to the Colorado Valley where the headwaters of the Colorado River lie and maybe check out the Timber Creek campground for a possible future visit. It's a first come, first serve camp ground. I'd seen pictures... it looks mostly wooded. My attitude is that I can camp in pine trees in Missouri. I'm a fan of the Moraine Park campground and its views. Unfortunately for me, I'm far from being alone on that.

We decided against that and started heading back the way we came, but we quickly ran into an "Elk Jam". And I don't mean when a bunch of people get together with their musical instruments at your local Elks Club. Of course, Elk Jams are common in our national parks, but people should really watch themselves on Trail Ridge Road. There's no shoulder, and they just stop. There were construction vehicles and sections of one-way traffic on the road. About 50 elk dotted the tundra beneath the road. Finally enough people moved that we could get a few hundred yards ahead to the Forest Canyon overlook parking area, where we parked -- and get this -- walked back to the area where the Elk were. See, park in the parking lot (since there's no shoulder) and walk. Then you're not blocking anyone's progress.

I really needed my tripod or monopod for this since I put my teleconverter on my big lens to transform it into a 600mm equivalent. It was getting cloudy, so my options for high shutter speed and low film speed were getting limited. Plus without the sunshine the colors and contrast just weren't that good. But you know, you see that much wildlife and you want to give it a try. Well you do if you're me, anyway.

After the Elk we decided it was time to head back. Mark loves the camping part of camping, and we really hadn't done much of that yet. It'd be nice to sit around a fire, pick a few tunes, cook some meat, roast a few marshmallows, toss back a drink or two, and relax.

We went into Estes Park and picked up a few things at the grocery store (this time I picked up the right bottle and actually got ibuprofen) and headed back to the campsite.

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