Friday, September 22, 2023

Rocky Mountain National Park - Day 5 - The Last Day

[Composed 7/27/2023]

It's a true testament to the beauty of Estes Park and Colorado in general that on our last day, where we did little more than pack up and drive to the airport, I still managed to catch some amazing landscape and animal photographs. Even from a speeding car, no matter where we looked, there was something gorgeous to see.

And speaking of speeding cars, a word needs to be said about our rental. Over the years, when needed, we've splurged on the extra-large SUV class from various rental car companies. With the massive interior, these are often a joy to be a passenger in (Shira drives & navigates; I cruise direct & code). However, this was the first time we were assigned a Grand Wagoneer. Any car with the name 'wagon' in it is going to conjur up images of the car of my childhood, a Ford Cown Victoria Station Wagon (man, she was beautiful). While practical, these cars were anything but luxury.

The Grand Wagoneer was obviously a high end car, however, it wasn't until I noticed something was a bit strange about the panel above the glove-box in front of my seat that I came to appreciate how high end a car this was. It wasn't just a panel, it was a screen. A bit of poking around, and I found an HDMI input that would let me plug my phone into this screen. Check it out, here's my phone displaying Samsung Dex on a screen directly in front of the front-row passenger, right above the glove box:

Impressive! But why? A few days into our trip, we discovered another hidden screen here:

Again, very impressive, but why?

The Grand Wagoneer also offered a massage feature on the front seats ('rock climber' mode for the win!) and Shira got a kick out of the dashboard indicator that showed how many degrees the car was leaning off center. It's hard to know exactly what model of Grand Wagoneer we were driving--was it the grandest? At a price tag hovering around, or maybe even above, $100,000, this is most likley the fanciest car we've ever driven. One mystery, is that the only indication that the Grand Wagoneer was a Jeep was the tiniest 'Jeep' wording that was printed on the plastic of the tail lights. Who makes the most luxurious vehicle possible and then neglects to paste their brand all over it?

The drive to Denver and flight to DC were uneventful, and our luggage and car was waiting for us at the airport as intended. I simply couldn't have asked for anything more from this adventure: the wildlife, the scenery, the weather, the huffing and puffing at altitude, the lux rental car and even High Beam who kept on messing with me by nibbling on my feet, was all next level. Sure, we gave up sleep and downtime to accomplish all this, but we've got those back in DC. Rocky Mountain National Park, you're a winner.

Rocky Mountain National Park - Day 4 - The Return

[Composed 7/26/2023]

After exploring Sky Pond, we started our descent back to our car. We quickly encountered the notorious waterfall section, and again, I found that only a single boulder gave us any pause. There just wasn't an obvious place for someone of Shira's stature to obviously place her hands and feet to get down. With some assistance from M though, Shira got through and before we knew it we were on the other side of the this tricky obstacle.

At this point, the stars fully aligned and a pika popped out from the rocks, and I was able to snap a number of clear pics. A pika is a small mouse like animal that lives in the harsh ecosystem that exists at high elevations.

Despite their cuddly appearance, American pikas—the smallest members of the lagomorph group—are among North America's toughest animals. Pikas are one of the few mammals in the lower 48 states that can survive their entire lives in alpine terrain, the windswept no-man's-land above tree line.

We made our way back to The Loch, encouraging hikers that we passed that they were just about to their goal. At The Loch, we found a piece of land that jut out into the lake and sat down for a rest and snack. The moutains were in the distance, while trout swam in crystal clear waters at our feet. The scene was perfection.

From The Loch, we continued our descent, eventually seeing some clouds in the distance and hearing some thunder, though the weather remained sunny for us. As we got closer to the parking lot, the crowds increased and we came across families with kids who apparently had skipped the 4am start for a more family friendly afternoon hike.

While the trail stretched on, but we had to be getting close to the and with it lunch and a proper bathroom. I was ready to get off the mountain.

We arrived back at our car at 12:35pm, nearly 8 hours after we started the day. While we were all pretty beat, spirits were high as we'd managed to pull off one of the most legendary hikes in the park. We had lunch at The Wayfinder, a restaurant just outside the park's enterance. The food was good, though the real highlight was the show we could see through the windows. The clouds and thunder we'd heard while hiking finally rolled in, and the afternoon thunderstorms that we'd started our day at 4am to avoid made an appearance. It sure was nice catching the storm indoors, rather than on the trail.

We spent the rest of the day chilling at the Airbnb, starting to pack up. At one point I tried to convince Shira to take a walk through our neighborhood. We made it exactly two minutes and 40 seconds before Shira was like, yeah, no. We're not doing this. We've walked enough for the day.

The hike to Sky Pond is definitely the winner reviews suggest it is. Take your time, and you'll crush it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Rocky Mountain National Park - Day 4 - The Lakes

[Composed 7/26/2023]

After two hours of hiking we found ourselves at the edge of The Loch. This alpine lake was out of a story book with crystal clear water surrounded by quaint forest, which was surrounded by towering mountains. But, with two more lakes ahead of us, including our destination of Sky Pond, we didn't stay long at The Loch.

As we hiked away from The Loch, I stepped into a nearby alpine field to capture the view. In the distance, I saw a larger waterfall pouring over a cliff.

After patting myself on the back for noticing such an interesting part of the landscape, I had two more thoughts: first, wow, how beautiful. Second, as hard as today was, at least we weren't going to have to deal with that landscape feature.

As we countined on our journey to Sky Pond, I realized that the distant waterfall was getting less and less distant by the minute. And then it hit me: the trail notes for the Sky Pond hike mention that the trickiest part of the hike was a hand-over-hand climb involving a waterfall. It then all clicked: we were in fact on a collision course for the very water feature I was hoping we'd avoid.

Completely winded from the elevation, we all arrived at the base of the notorious waterfall. We had some snacks and mentally prepared ourselves for the most technical challenge on today's hike. We found that the waterfall section contained two logical chunks. The first, if you were willing to get your feet wet, had a pretty clear path forward. For those who wanted to stay dry, there was a narrow strip of rock that you had to stick to. The second bit of the waterfall involved making your way up a large boulder, which involved one momentary placement of hands and feet that wasn't obvious. But, once you got over that boulder, you were in the clear. Ultimately, the guidance we were given was correct: expect to move slowly through the area, and it's not trivial hiking; but it's not real rock climbing either. Take your time, and like us, you'll be fine.

Shira and I had two different strategies for the waterfall, both of which helped. Shira brought a change of clothes in plastic, so she could get as wet as she wanted on the waterfall and knew she could change into dry clothes afterwards. I had a pair of nitrile work gloves with me that I like to bring on all our hikes. They were especially useful, as they kept my hands relatively dry and warm, and added a significant amount of stickiness to my grip.

Once we were through the waterfall section, we re-grouped by adding on as many layers as we had and having some snacks. We pushed on and took in our second alpine lake, the Lake of Glass. It was colder and windier at this new elevation, and we were within striking distance of our destination, Sky Pond.

A relatively short and easy hike later, we found ourselves at Sky Pond. There was much celebration as we made it to nearly 11,000 feet above sea level. I considered taking a dip in the water, but given that Sky Pond is a glacier fed lake, the water was absolutely frigid. I didn't think it was wise to risk hypothermia just to try to collect one more memory.

The scene was absolutely breathtaking, and was more than worth the 4am start.

After savoring the views, eating a meal and taking many, many pictures, we started our descent. While we still had hours of hiking ahead of us, we'd managed to reach our goal. Today was a good day.