Rocky Mountain High, Colorado
After 46 hours of travel, two weeks gone and a whirlwind of significant life events, I came home needing to get away. We can call it running, because maybe it was. Away, I’d felt a yoke slip across my shoulders, felt the weight of it start to crush the best parts of me. I’d heard a voice from before that rattled me, that took me down a misery-wrecked road I never, ever wanted to visit again.
I woke up that first day back with a thump in my chest pushing me to get a-way, a-way, a-way. I needed space to work it all out, to process the past, to contemplate the future. I needed wide open spaces to unpack it all and the mountains were calling, so, I figured, Colorado, let’s get away to Colorado.
So I did.
MOUNTAINS, I SEE YOU, is what I yelled out the window heading north out of Denver into the wild, open arms of Rocky Mountain National Park.
I keep running away to the desert, so often bogged down with work commitments that limit my ability to explore during the summer months when colder climes are ripe for scamper season. I want to say that the marrow in my bones craves the arid scorch of a desert landscape, but that marrow was made in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the mountains will always and forever hold a hunk of my heart.
I go often to the desert to lose my civility and find my ferality. It tests me. It pushes me. But the mountains – any of them, all of them – they’re home.
Seeing the mountains of Colorado, a lump formed in my throat, my eyes filled up and I let go of the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. I hadn’t been to Colorado in years, a decade, even. I wasn’t the same person the last time I was there, wasn’t even close to this version of me, didn’t have the freedom to go and do and explore back then, not like now, never like now.
I’ll be honest and tell you I cry almost every time I go to the wild. It is not a wracking sort of sob, it is just a misty haze that covers my eyes, a little chunk of emotion that wells up in my chest. It’s the magnitude of it, mostly. It’s the privilege of getting to explore another beautiful and wild place, of getting to embrace the most feral bits of me.
My first stop in the park was the alpine tundra. If I was going to go high, I figured, fuck it, might as well go real fucking high. My first hike in the park was four miles at 11,400+ feet above sea level, higher than I’d maybe ever been.
The thing about going up is that it’s always kind of hard. Tell me to pop upstairs after leg day and fuck you, I don’t want it, where is the elevator, fuck your up, fuck your stairs. Give me a trail at sea level with an immediate and steep ascent and I will curse the day you were born, your mother, your good uncle and your shitty cousin. The up is hard and altitude just makes it harder. The hike could have been longer, but I found myself gazing up the devilish descent I was scrambling down and realized pushing my luck on day one was probably a real bad idea. I’d only scrambled down a quarter mile when I decided to turn around and found myself counting steps just 10 at a time before stopping to gasp at the thin air.
But. It was ok. The up was hard, because it was up. But the mountains. Oh, the mountains.
My super power when I go west is that I am forever on east coast time. An early riser on my own coast, I wake up ultra early in any other time zone. I get to trailheads early enough to snag parking, early enough to brew coffee in the parking lot.
For two days, I started walking as the sun splashed color across the mountains. Mostly, I hiked to alpine lakes.
None of it looked like anything I’d ever seen before, not really. I’d get to a lake, find a rock and sit. The reflection of the mountains in the water seemed unreal, like if I reached out far enough, maybe I’d be able to pull down the screen printed with this magical and maybe imagined place.
I sat a lot in this park. Headphones in sometimes, just letting music wash over and around me as I watched the wind blow ripples across the water’s surface. Sometimes, if there weren’t a lot of other people around, I’d just sit with my thoughts, without a soundtrack backing them up.
This is the thing I love most about going on these trips alone, is that I can just sit and have a great big think for as long as I need to think without concerning myself with anyone else’s timeline.
Sitting at these lakes, I thought about a lot of things. I thought about the choices I’d made and why I’d made them. I thought about expectations and how they so easily become such a burden. I thought about me and the parts of myself I hide away and the people who show up in my life and see those hidden bits without fanfare or dramatics. I thought about holding hands, about how intimate that act is, about how some hands fit together like puzzle pieces and some just fucking don’t.
The last night in the park, I lit a fire, like I had all the nights before. I thought about all the things I was running from, tried to process all the thoughts I’d thought on all those lakeside rocks. I went round and round and round again. I made decisions, firmed them up, dismantled everything I felt sure of and just sat and sat and sat, listening again to the same playlist that moved me over 1,200 miles of Utah earlier this year. I felt all my Big, Big Feels until it was time to go bed, time to wrap myself up in a carefully crafted nest of outdoor sleeping.
That’s when the screaming started.
At first, I thought it was human. It sounded like a woman, terrified. But, as the screams came to me scattered across the distance, I realized it was, in fact, an elk.
All night long, they screamed. In the morning, I caught one, screaming about his horny elk feelings on the side of the road.
After being screamed at by a horny elk, I headed out for one last hike. I found the western side of the park to be far less chaotic than the eastern side. In 2020, wildfires ravaged bits of Rocky Mountain National Park and, hiking through it, I found an odd sort of beauty. I was on a part of the Continental Divide Trail, one of the three trails that make up the Triple Crown of Hiking. I was there mostly for me, but also for someone I loved. I saw almost no one else, less than five other wanderers, but so many wild flowers, so many birds, a few moose, one epic waterfall. It wasn’t dead. It was burned, sure, but it wasn’t dead. There was so much life.
The thing I love about the wild is that it always gives me the space to work through a thing. I talked to rocks and lakes and trees and chipmunks about the heaviness of my heart, about the truths I’ve tucked away. It doesn’t judge, it doesn’t push, it just provides the space to lay out the messy things, the big things, the chaotic things. It lets you backtrack and rewind, change course, shake the snow globe around until you find some semblance of reasonability and sometimes, it opens up into the majestic sort of view that quiets all the chaos in your brain long enough for you to do the thing you most need to do, which is just fucking breathe.
Trails I Hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park:
- Ute Trail – Out and back, 5.7 mile roundtrip if you go all the way to Tombstone Ridge, which I did not. Turned around for a 4.4 mile total trek to avoid some super demanding elevation loss and gain. Great views, a relatively easy hike until you start the steep descent, great views of the alpine tundra and the Rockies.
- Nymph, Dream, Emerald, Haiyaha and Bear Lakes – 5.7 miles moderate hike with All The Lakes. The trek to Haiyaha is steep but so, so worth it. It’s the lake pictured above with the turquoise waters.
- Coyote Valley Trail – 2.1 mile easy trail along the Colorado River which is a very chill river here. A nice break from the tougher trails in the park and a great spot to sit by the river and contemplate life.
- Sky Pond via Glacier Gorge – 9.4 miles, out and back. Technically a hard hike, the ascents on this one are not unbearable. Yes, you gain elevation, but you’re by water for most of the trail, the views are worth the effort and the trail levels out regularly enough to not make you want to do murder. Getting up to Sky Pond requires a non-technical scramble over wet rock. Parking lot fills before the sun is up, but there is a shuttle available if you can’t snag a spot in the early a.m.
- Alpine Ridge Trail – .7 miles, out and back. Easy hike up to 12,005′ by the Alpine Visitor Center, which is the highest facility of its kind in the National Park Service. I went early in the morning, before the VC opened because the crowds there during open hours made me want to hurt many things.
- Cascade Falls – 7 miles, out and back. A relatively easy trail through the burned park of the park. If you’re looking for a lightly traveled trail, this is it. Waterfall at the end is a damn delight, saw 5 other humans over a handful of hours on the trail, plus two moose and a bunch of scat from a wide variety of critters. The burned out forest makes spotting wildlife extra easy. Parking lot is small and the trail crosses some private land, don’t be a dick.
- I camped at both Moraine Park and Glacier Basin Campgrounds inside Rocky Mountain National Park. The walk-in sites at Moraine Park are a delight, but if you go during the rut, be prepared for screaming elk to haunt your dreams. Glacier Basin was good too, and both are located close to the more popular trails around Bear Lake, so they make great start points if you plan to hike and explore in that area.
- During peak season, entering the park requires a timed entry ticket, but campers can use their reservations to get in. Some campground reservations provide access to more parts within the park than others, so be sure to check the park website for the latest details on park entry requirements.
- Altitude is real. Drink water. Be nice to yourself. Then drink some more water. Altitude affects different people in different ways. Know what altitude sickness looks like and be prepared to adjust your plans based on how you feel. I’ve been a distance runner for a decade, my heart and lungs are strong as fuck, and walking up a hill here made me want to lay in the street and wait for the vultures to come tear off my flesh.
- Afternoon thunderstorms are frequent in the mountains and can be real, real dangerous, especially if you’re above the tree line. You, a bag of flesh and bones, make a real cute target for a great big storm, so always be sure to check, recheck and confirm the weather forecast before you set out for your adventure.
- Don’t feed the wildlife. Even the chipmunks. I know they’re cute. I know you want to touch them. I want to touch them. But they will bite you. Or they’ll give you the plague. Or they’ll get habituated to eating human food which is real, real bad for them and might mean they don’t get all the nutrients they need to survive the harsh weather conditions so, come winter, they’ll die real sad chipmunk deaths cursing your name. So just don’t. Don’t pet the bears either. Or the elk. Or the moose. Just fucking don’t.
- Village Laundry in Estes Park is a great place to get a hot shower. No time limit, $7 and if you ask nice, they’ll even give you a towel.
- Rock Cut Brewing, also in Estes Park, is a great place to get a beer. Lots of outdoor seating, a solid beer menu and there’s usually a food truck on site, too.