It was 75 degrees and sunny in Denver, but there were five feet of snow in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Choosing to skip the holiday traffic and crowds of the free parks day, we headed up to Estes Park Monday afternoon and were surprised to find green grass in and around town. That evening, we visited a local brewery, filled up on Mexican food, then spent the night in an historic lodge built over 100 years ago on the side of Prospect Mountain. The next morning we woke up early, ate some breakfast, packed up our gear, and put on our layers and boots, before heading into the national park for an adventure.
My parents gifted us an annual parks pass for Christmas and we were excited to put it to use. Our goal is to visit Rocky Mountain (RMNP) at least four times this year, as well as other national parks. The annual pass is only $80 and helps provide much needed support and funds to the parks system. In this one day alone we got nearly 5 hours worth of entertainment, adventure and physical exertion thanks to the pass. Not bad considering a single night out of dinner and a movie can cost just as much.
According to an official press release, RMNP received more than 4.5 million visitors in 2016, an 8.7% increase over the year before. While they attribute some of the increase to the centennial celebration of the national parks system, the population boom along the Front Range likely also played a role and will continue to do so in the future.
While I love that more people are enjoying our parks, breathing fresh air, and getting their heart rate up a bit, the surge in visitors has put a lot of stress on the parks. There's a shortage of rangers, maintenance costs have increased and there's a lot more wear and tear on the trails and other infrastructure in the parks. Passes and visitation fees can help, but as visitors we also need to make sure we're being respectful of the environment, leaving no trace, leaving wildlife alone, and speaking up when others aren't doing their part.
Okay.... back to Tuesday. After talking with a very helpful and energetic park ranger at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, we took his advice and headed to the Bear Lake trailhead parking lot. We saw only a few other cars driving through the park and there were only a handful at the trailhead when we arrived. In other words, it was perfect.
The route we took left from the Bear Lake trailhead and immediately started about a half mile descent (we did not realize this was going to be the case and instantly regretted the decision because it meant the last half mile of our trek would be uphill.) This connected into the trail to, and past, Alberta Falls near the Glacier Gorge trailhead. We hiked a good section of this trail back in 2015, but this time there was snow and we split off and went to The Loch instead of Mills Lake.
There are several solid climbs throughout the trek to get our heart rate up and lungs burning, but also a good number of easier segment to just enjoy the scenery. The wind was blowing pretty strong all morning, so we appreciated the cover from the trees when we had it.
Unfortunately the trails aren't marked for winter use like some trails are in Colorado, so we did get off track a few times and we never did find the winter trail bypass. At one point we followed a well worn path until it became windswept and turned into tracks from a single skier. This took us through more than one questionable section, but we (Matt, more than I) had faith that this crazy person knew where they were going and thankfully that turned out to be true when we connected back in to the main trail.
The ranger had warned us that the last section before The Loch would be a pretty steep climb but that it was "fairly short" in length, "fun," and well worth it. (please take note of the quotes) This section called for us to use the heel lifts on our snowshoes, which made it much easier than it would have been otherwise, but I still stopped a few times to catch my breath.
There was a bit of a leveling off at the top, around a bend and then The Loch was in front of us. We had checked with the ranger and knew the lake would be sufficiently frozen, so we walked out a bit onto the ice and Matt finally got to see it in person.
As we were leaving The Loch and heading back down, we ran into a couple who had camped out in the woods just below the last big ascent. They had hiked up to the lake around midnight, decided it was too windy (it was howling when we were there) and decided to make camp a little lower down in the trees. A good reminder that even though we though we were killing it on this snowshoe, there are so many people in this state who are hardcore to the point that I can't even imagine. Nevertheless, we were proud of our effort.
All in all, our snowshoe trek ended at 6 miles with a visit to Bear Lake at the end. The parking lot was much more full when we got back to the car, and while we did see a number of people out on the trails, most seemed to be hanging around Bear Lake which is just a few hundred feet in from the trailhead.
Snowshoeing is no joke. It's a really great workout and, at least for us, the miles go a bit slower than they do when we hike, so we were out on the trail for several hours. It was beautiful and fun, and we stayed pretty warm with several layers, thick socks, waterproof boots, and a thermos full of hot green tea.
Unfortunately my physical exertion didn't end when the snowshoes came off. It was day 99 of my run streak, so on our way out of the park I had Matt stop at a pull-off along the roadway and let me out. Thankfully there was another pull-off exactly a mile later where he waited for me. It was the hardest mile of all the miles I'd done over those 99 days, but I got it done and my 3 mile run the next day was much better.
What's your favorite winter sport? * Have you tried snowshoeing?