Something about mountains has always attracted me. The chance of finding a $112 round trip fare from Chicago to Denver could not be resisted, and so I’d booked myself, husband, and son to escape for four wonderful days of adventure. Our destination, Rocky Mountain National Park!
Thinking I was so clever to not book accommodations until our arrival at night in Denver, I’d calculated that every hotel would clamor for us to reduce their occupancy rate. Ugh! I miscalculated! Our arrival was technically in the wee hours of the next day, Wednesday, and all I wanted was a few hours of sleep in a motel before heading to the mountains. My smartphone apps wouldn’t let me schedule a booking and still leave the same day; and if I did, they were primed for my arrival after 3:00 p.m., not 3:00 a.m. My chivalrous husband wandered among five hotels inquiring about vacancies where we didn’t want to pay $230 for just a few hours of sleep. Another miscalculation.
While I thought that we’d take advantage of the fact that many schools were now in session and that there would be empty rooms, I forgot that University of Colorado was starting and Colorado State began the week before. Suffice it to say, we found a deal and slept soundly after grousing through something of a pre-dawn breakfast at Denny’s.
The next day had us barreling through from Aurora to head northwest toward Westminster and Boulder. I’d heard so much about Boulder and found basically a college-town annexed to something like Naperville, IL. But we did not linger; instead we thought to not take a chance at sleeping with the bears, we headed to the area by Estes Park, very close to Rocky Mountain National. As we rubbernecked with joyful squeals and pointing fingers at the terrain, I managed to find mention of $109 rates for cabins and lodge rooms at the YMCA of the Rockies. We set our GPS and headed there while noting other prospects for lodging if we came up short.
The YMCA of the Rockies was impressive! Several buildings dotted the huge property at the foothills to the national park. We found our way to the Administration Building with the tall flagpole and Old Glory looking impressive against an unusually dark cerulean blue sky. The doorway featured a sign stating that we were at about 8000 feet altitude. Its deck was timbered, and I saw some tall, wooden hiking poles leaning against the exterior wall. Inside, was a rather large fireplace and decor that I’d describe as upper crust rustic. Behind the registration counter was a very pert young lady whom I approached and made my case. “Hi! We’re from Chicago, don’t know a thing, don’t have reservations, but here we are. Help!” Apparently, she was a recent hire (from New Jersey) and summoned her supervisor, a woman similar to my age and curiously very much resembling a former neighbor.
She greeted us, and I repeated our circumstances. The woman was a godsend. She took us under her wing, told us all the options, and didn’t blink when we emphasized the word “cheap.” With that, I also told her that she looked, sounded, and had the same mannerisms of my neighbor Lisa. She laughed and said that other people have told her she has a doppelganger, but that in fact her name was Lisa. Only Lisa was from Oregon. To that I gushed, “Oh, I have another friend from Salem, Oregon who now lives by me!” Crazy how us chicks can do that, right?
Anyway, Lisa set us up in a lodge room away from the ruckus of youthful campers. Blissfully quiet was the setting for our room with one queen and two bunks. We each had our own bed to give relief to what would soon become sore feet, joints, and muscles. And the room had a 3/4 bathroom. And breakfast! It overlooked green forest and hills with residences lucky enough to live so close to this paradise. Bookworm that I am, I’d quickly scanned all the literature that outlined the variety of activities available to us, most at no additional charge! There was volleyball, guided hikes, archery, tennis, mini-golf, arts & crafts, and other programs for outdoor education enthusiasts. Quickly, we snarfed down some snacks we’d picked up at Walmart along the way from Denver, and then we headed to the national park.
Just antecedent to the park’s admission fee hut, was the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center where I did the same, “Hi! We don’t know nuthin'” script. A helpful ranger took us under her wing and outlined a few detail maps which would give us guidance to hike trails that were adequate to tire our son who was eager to try his luck at a pre-Himalayan experience, but that would not result in coronary collapse on our behalf. Back in Chicago, we had been pretty active in biking and golfing in recent years, but we just have not been able to carve out enough time this year due to work. She suggested the Bear Lake Trail as a warm up and then to approach the nearby route to Emerald Lake. Also, as luck was truly on our side, she mentioned that the usual $20 entrance fee was only enforced this day, but that the next days’ fees were waived as a celebration of 100 years of the National Park Service coincided with our visit. Yaaas!
We paid our fee and drove to the parking lot of the Bear Lake Trailhead, took a few pics, and then started to search for the trail’s start. But my husband halted, looked somewhat uncomfortable, and told us that his heart was racing. I took off my Fitbit and put it on his wrist. He was about 100 beats per minute. Then I noted that I felt strained, but not overly so. We took deep breaths, and proceeded with caution as we each monitored our physiology. The trailhead ranger station had a sign posting the elevation at 9400-something feet. Our wonderment and curiosity of this new environment was mixed with some reserve lest our naivety cost us our lives.
Bear Lake was an easy, almost lateral traverse. Then it was time to do the Emerald Lake route, which would take us past Nymph Lake and Dream Lake, over 10,000 feet. Knowing our youngest would want to venture at his quicker pace relative to our’s, we suggested that he go on ahead. After we walked and paused, and walked and paused to breathe, it started to rain. I’d packed three umbrellas, but our son was out of sight. Fortunately, although it was chilly, we did not think it was threatening. However, walking with umbrellas through the trails and hearing a bit of rumbling thunder afar was making it a bit more exciting.
Nymph Lake was a pleasant surprise, as it was covered in lily pads. It reminded me of my Uncle Ben’s place on Lake Osterhoot in Michigan. He’d had a summer place on the lake where we’d visit when I was a child. Dream Lake was long, narrow and, as is everything in the park, it was picturesque. We saw people of all ages, several well into their 70’s who were getting along just fine, as my husband and I tempted fate with our unconditioned, urban-dwelling, flatlander attempts at real mountain hiking. We were in surreal heaven, but it may have been oxygen deprivation. Finally, we saw our son approaching us on his descent; he’d seen Emerald Lake and encouraged us to continue the quest to witness the beauty of it. People along the way said it was worth it, so we persisted as three umbrella fortified pilgrims.
Just as we approached, the rain lightened up and we peered at the saddle between two crests where the sun was beaming white behind clouds and the rain could have been mistaken for snow. Emerald Lake was dark; but as the rain abated, we saw the hallmark color slowly reveal itself. Little gophers came scurrying out again to play by our feet, and other travelers posed for pictures to capture the memory of this beautiful sight. Once again, the rain picked up as the sun shone; and I craned my neck, pivoting to try to find a rainbow, but the mountain formed a screen which would not reveal one this day. We felt the chill of moisture plus altitude, and descended.
Later that night we explored nearby Estes Park and ravenously consumed whatever we could to re-energize our bodies. Back at the YMCA of the Rockies, I crawled into bed with a headache that persisted all night…altitude sickness had struck. The next morning, my husband went to breakfast and brought some back to our room. Upon his invitation to eat, nausea roiled my innards and I lost water and Propel, and even got the dry heaves. The guys went hiking and I went to bed. I just wanted to sleep and stop the misery I’d felt.
At peace with them on their merry way, I knew that my son wanted to attempt the summit of Flat Top Mountain (12,324 ft.), and before he left I rattled off all the mountaineering safety rules I could recall. After awhile, I startled when I heard thunder from my bed. I checked my weather app and saw a small thunderstorm with a red zone approaching where I thought he’d be then. Quickly, I’d texted my son and husband to take cover, get down out of the treeless alpine altitude, but there seemingly was no decent cell service from Sprint! I prayed, and I called my daughter who was on vacation with her husband at Mackinac Island to pray for his safety. I can’t tell you where my mind went…worry…intense worry. No contact with either guy.
I hobbled out of bed, dressed, tried to drink an ounce of water with some coffee powder, and the headache disappeared. Tried more, and I was feeling better about 3 p.m. Within minutes after that, the door flung open and there they were. My tears and emotion poured as they excitedly told me about their day. My son had taken numerous videos, even recording the whiteout that occurred on the summit. He did receive my text. That is when he also saw the little critters making a heck of a lot of noise and scampering toward safety. He took that as a sign and bounded out of there as fast as he could, and good thing he did. He conquered the mountain.
The next day, we headed out for more hiking, all of us. We did about twelve miles and ascended again to about 11,000 feet, but this time we had no problems. What beauty we found at Alberta Falls, and we explored a spur from the Flat Top Mountain trail toward Bierstadt Lake and beyond. Finally, we’d had enough and thought to exit toward Denver in order to catch our flight early the next day. But what a treat it was to find a deal at the Marriott in Broomsfield where we could enjoy the hot tub before our flight and the chance to reminisce about our adventure.
Next target: Glacier National Park!