Homer's Travels: Camping RMNP: Days Zero And One

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Camping RMNP: Days Zero And One

Last week I went camping at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) near Estes Park, CO.  It would be my longest, and first, multi-day camping trip.  For now I will describe my experience as ... an interesting one with lots of lessons learned.

Here is how it went:

Day Zero or "How I got there."

I left home early, around 6:45AM and drove west.  The drive was about eight and a half hours.  It went without much of a hitch.  I stopped at the backcountry office and picked up my camping permit and we went over the regulations.  It was pretty straight forward and I was already familiar with most of the rules.  There were a couple things that were new to me on this day.

The first happened when I stopped for lunch in western Nebraska near Ogallala.  I told myself I would stop for lunch at 11:00AM but just before the clock turned I changed time zones and lunch jumped an hour away.  I said screw that and found a Subway at a truck stop and pulled in for an 'early' lunch.  As I was eating a pickup pulled in next to my car.  It was a beat up pickup with what looked like a homemade paint job.  In the back of the truck bed was a flagpole flying a full size confederate flag.  To top it all off, a small noose hung from the rear view mirror.  I knew then that I was in Western Nebraska.  I was going to take a picture but ... who needs trouble?

The second thing I saw was at my hotel that night.  I saw my first commercial for marijuana the Republican Party.  I think a commercial for weed would have been less unsettling.

After a good dinner at Penelope's and some dulce de leche/chocolate ice cream, I went to bed early as I would be getting up early on Day One.

Day One or "What have I gotten myself into?"

I arrived at the RMNP park & ride a half hour early.  I had orange juice and a muffin for breakfast as I waited for the first shuttle.  The free shuttle bus took me down the road to the Bear Lake trailhead where I would start my camping trip.

Sunrise over the Bear Lake trailhead.
I hoisted up my pack (it weighed 37 lbs - 16.8 kg) and it dawned on me that it was really heavy.  I headed for the trailhead, saw the sign pointing towards Flattop Mountain, and promptly went the wrong way.  I have no excuse.  The arrow was huge, obvious, and very clear.  In my excitement, I just temporarily lost my mind.  A half hour, and a very nice little lake (Nymph Lake) later, I realized I was no longer seeing signs for Flattop Mountain.  I checked a map and realized my error and booked it back to the trailhead.  In the end I ended up wasting an hour/two miles/400+ ft of elevation.  I wasted this on what I expected would be the toughest day of the five day camp.  Not a real good start.  Fortunately this would be my only navigational error.

On the right trail I headed up the side of Flattop Mountain.  There were quite a few people on the trail as this is a popular day hike.  I went up the mountain slowly.  Very slowly.  Two things were slowing me down.  First was the weight of the pack - I was just not used to it.  The second was the elevation.  I'd started at around 9,500 ft (2,896 m) in altitude and I was working my way up to 12,300 ft (3,749 m).  I live at around 1,000 ft so I was gasping for air at the trailhead.  Add some exertion and I was huffing and puffing something awful.

One of many beautiful views on the way to the top of Flattop Mountain.
My goal was to get to the top before the afternoon thunderstorms kicked off and I made it to the top at noon.  On the way up I saw deer, marmots, and pika (The cutest things that sound like squeaky toys).

At the top I sat down to rest before I started down the other side.  I pulled out a bag of turkey jerky I had in my pocket and found it moldy.  Turns out all the jerky I was carrying was moldy.  There went a large source of protein.  Fortunately I did have some extra food that I'd brought in case I couldn't cook hot meals (due to rain, say) so I wouldn't starve ... much.

The North Inlet trail marked by pairs of cairnes.  Not the two cairnes on the horizon.
I started down the other side catching the North Inlet trail to the south and west.  The trail was marked clearly by pairs of cairnes.  Another trail, the Tonohutu Creek trail, went north and west and was marked by single cairnes.  I would be returning to Flattop Mountain on the Tonahutu Creek trail on day four.

I was tired at this point ... very tired ... but I figured that downhill would require less energy and I would be fine.  Oh how wrong I was.  You see, I discovered why the Rocky Mountains are called the Rocky Mountains.  They are ROCKY!  Rocks of all sizes everywhere including on the trail.  You were constantly watching where you placed your feet and stepping over rocks and lowering yourself down large stone steps all the way down the side of the mountain.  On top of that, natural springs flowed across, and on, the trail in spots making foot placement a little more complicated.  It was a slow, tiring descent.

A bull elk giving me the eye.
The only plus was that I passed a bull elk on the way down.  He was only five feet from the trail and eyed my warily as I passed by taking his picture.

Before I got to the bottom the rain finally arrived.  I'd expected it for a while since I saw it in the distance from the top of Flattop Mountain.  It wasn't terrible and didn't last long.  More of a nuisance rain but i did have to put on my rain jacket briefly.

The canyon or valley I would be going into and across on the way to my campsite.
At the bottom you cross to the other side of a canyon/valley (not sure the difference) and turn west.  My campsite was about another mile or so from this point.  Also at this point exhaustion set in.  I could feel the energy drain out of me.  I emptied my water bottle (two liters) along this part of the trail.  When I stopped walking my legs would shake.  I think my body had used up all its reserves.  I was in pretty sad shape.  I was relieved when I saw the turn off for the side trail that would take me to my campsite.  When I arrived at the campsite, I'd been on the trail for eight hours and thirty-five minutes.  I was pooped.

The campsite was near a fairly large waterfall.  While the campsite was set a ways back from the water, you could still hear the roar of the waterfall from your tent.  I walked into the campsite and dropped my pack.  I put up the tent in a hurry since rain decided to start just as I arrived.  I rushed putting up my tent, got my gear undercover, and climbed into the tent in time for the rain to stop.  Like I had energy to spare.  The little rain that we did have just made it easier for the dust and pine needles to stick to everything.

I walked back to the falls, collected water and used a filter to fill my water bottles with three liters of water (one for the evening and two for the next day).  I have to say that the mountain spring water tasted mighty good.

After an hour nap, I ate a meal at 6:00PM and climbed into my tent soon afterwards.  I was asleep by 7:30PM.  I was exhausted and it didn't take long for me to be out.  I woke up a few times during the night, mainly to add another layer to stay warm ... which I did.

I can't say I enjoyed this first day.  I hiked longer than I expected due to my silly mistake and the pack weight and altitude just sapped my energy.  The moldy jerky was a disappointment.  The added protein would have been handy.  I'd hoped to do a side hike to a couple nearby lakes but my legs saids "no way pal" as I drifted off to sleep.

Pictures can be found in my 2015-08 Rocky Mountain National Park Camp Google Photos album.

Total Distance on Day One: 11.7 Miles (18.8 km)
Total Ascent: 3,539 ft (1,078.7 m)
Total Descent: 3,474 ft (1,058.9 m)

The map of the day.  The little hump on the left of the elevation plot is my mistake.

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