Monday, August 09, 2010

Alberta Falls & Mills Lake, Plus Elk

Monday morning came early, as it usually does when you're camping.  Our neighbors this morning appeared to be a pair of grandparents and a couple of grandsons. Nice enough people. We still weren't sure whether we'd do Trail Ridge Road and hit a mountaintop or two, or go to the Bear Lake area.

The weather decided for us.  The clouds had the high mountains socked in, and it was raining up there ... pretty much anywhere we wanted to go.  Back in '05, when I was there by myself I asked a park ranger what a good rainy day activity would be.  She said "Waterfalls".

Cassie had seen a postcard of Alberta Falls and said she'd like to see it.

Done.  Decided.  After breakfast, it was off to Bear Lake.

If you don't get to the Bear Lake Parking Lot by 9:00am during tourist season, you probably won't be parking there.  You'll probably have to go back and do "Park and Ride".  We were pushing that time, but the rain was keeping the hikers down.

It wasn't exactly raining in our campsite, but along the high mountains from Longs to Hallett and on northward there were some persistent dark clouds that were obviously precipitating in the high country.  We packed our ponchos, got our backpacks full of granola and trail mix and water and protein bars and jerky and apples .... hey, gotta be prepared for a 5 mile round trip hike!  

Alberta falls is only about a mile from Bear Lake.  We actually didn't even stop at Bear Lake ... figured we'd do it on the way back.  It's right at the trailhead.  This time I knew that the first encounter with the river wasn't the falls itself, though if you didn't know you could mistake it for your destination.  It looks "fall-ey" enough.  

We stopped and oohed and ahhed and took some photos.  And then Mark asked the kids if they'd like to travel on to Mills Lake, another mile and a half.   Cassie wasn't feeling well and said she was done with hiking.  But the majority won, and off we hiked through the woods.

Literally, at first.  It turns out that the trail brushes the falls on kind of a switchback, so if you climbed up to the top of the falls, you aren't really on the trail anymore.  You're maybe 50 yards down a forest slope from it.   But the GPS told the story, and we went and found it and hiked on.

There is some very pretty hiking in here.  You cross the stream several times, and there is some relatively dense forest all around.  It was a wetter summer than the past two times we'd been there, and mushrooms were everywhere.  These big ones that grow around pines that I believe are edible (but don't take my word for it!) and lots of pretty red ones with white spots and several other kinds pushing up out of the forest floor.

Mills lake is only about 500 or 600 feet above the trailhead, but you drop at least 200 feet on the trail before you start going up.  So for kids who aren't used to mountain hiking and they're on their second day above 1,000 feet back in Kansas City, it's not the proverbial walk in the park.  (Well, I guess technically it is.)  But we were in no real hurry.

I'm sure by the time we actually got to the lake, they no longer believed that we were "almost there".  But when we got there, of course, you get an impressive view of Glacier Gorge and a nice lake with large granite slabs sticking out into it to sit on, and, say ... have lunch.  Always a hit with kids :-)  

The gorge itself is impessive with giant granite walls ground down by, as the name suggests, glacier activity.  You can see The Trough and the top of Longs Peak if you know where to look, and the Indian Head at the end of the canyon.  We hung out for a little over an hour before heading back. After lunch both kids were in much better spirits.  By the time we left, a thick cloudy, foggy bank poured over the far lip of Glacier Gorge, hiding the ridges.  The return hike was steadily downhill until about the last 3/4 mile.   I called Vicki from a spot I'd called her from back in '05 that I still had marked on my GPS where we got a couple of T-Mobile bars and said hello and updated her on our trip and what we were doing.  I think the GPS actually had the round trip at a little over 6 miles, including our meanders.  But by the end of the hike both were tired and I think Q's blood sugar was getting low.   They were both "done".We drove down to the camp and took hour long naps.  The campground was completely dry.

We fired up some dinner, and about the time we were cleaning up, the lady half of the C loop campground hosts came by and said "have you ever seen a herd of Elk?  There are like 50 of them down in Moraine Park."  Well Mark and I certainly had, but the kids hadn't.  Mark and the kids were at the service sink by the bathrooms washing dishes.  I went and got them.  Mark took over the dishwashing to get it done as quickly as possible, and we piled in the car down to Moraine Park.  They were still there, and docile.  You could get up pretty close and personal without agitating them.  It was pretty cool.   The lighting wasn't great for photos unless you went up the valley and came back like Mark and I did a few years ago, but we contented ourselves to trying a few shots from the down-sun side and monitoring the kids.  They really enjoyed the encounter.

Back to the site for a fire, s'mores, a Mark Ghost Story, couple beers.  Cassie went to bed early, but Mark, Nathanial, and I stayed up and watched the stars come out.  I pointed out the arc of the planets.  We found the Big Dipper and a few other constellations.  Nathanial spotted a couple of man-made sattelites.  And finally, the Milky Way popped out when it got dark enough.

And we turned in for the night.

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