We didn’t have any firm plans when we were in Grand Lake, but between canoeing and moose, my dad insisted we go on a tundra hike. This is a unique type of hike, because you’re above treeline, and the surroundings are very different from those we’re used to at lower elevations.
We wisely decided against scaling a mountain on our first day there, as it really does take some time for us lowlanders to adjust to the high altitude. However, we still found ourselves a bit out of breath and had to rest periodically, despite our general fitness.
My parents’ cabin at Columbine Lake literally backs onto Rocky Mountain National Park, so we had an entire wilderness of hikes to choose from. We selected the trail from Milner Pass that runs right along the Continental Divide to Mount Ida, a hike that promised stunning vistas of valley lakes and expansive, hilly landscapes.
Without the protection of trees, the wind is brutal, buffeting hikers relentlessly. Rocks are the predominant residents, though tundra grass and low shrubs can also be found in ample supply. And at the higher elevation, it’s cold – even in late summer. It’s odd to think we were wearing coats up there while we were in shorts and tank tops a few days later.
But the views were absolutely spectacular. The air was crisp. And that sky was amazingly blue.
I thought perhaps it had something to do with the higher elevation – less atmosphere between us and space, so the color would be darker, right? Well, I learned something today. Apparently it has more to do with the lack of moisture in the atmosphere that would otherwise cause Mie scattering of other light wavelengths. Without this dilution, all that’s left is a pure blue. We don’t really get skies like these in the Northwest.
In total, the trail is a little over 9.5 miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of 2465 feet to the summit at 12880′, almost continuously up. And without taller objects, hikers need to be very aware of incoming thunderstorms, a daily occurrence in Colorado summers. Needless to say, this is a serious hike. So for a couple who live at 50′, it is understandable that we didn’t make it all the way.
I have a personal policy of having my longest break at some point past the halfway mark, very much like a theatre production’s first act is almost always longer than the second. When one is fatigued, time seems longer, so this helps to better balance the strain. This is why I eat lunch around 1pm at work, why I’ll drive farther on the first day of a two-day trek, and why I’ll wait until I’ve reached the peak before stopping for lunch on a hike.
Therefore, when we were only 2/3 of the way toward Mount Ida and Dad urged us to stop for some food, I knew we had gotten as far as we were going to go. Part of me was disappointed we wouldn’t make it all the way (I’m a completist, after all), but the other part was happy to not have the steepest ascent still ahead. I was tired and ready for more of that “vacation” thing folks talk about.
We found the closest thing that could be considered shelter from the wind, chilled (literally) with our packed sandwiches, and took in the views. We had at least reached the point of being able to see a collection of small lakes in the valley below, and upon further inspection, we discovered a herd of elk. A couple of bulls were duking it out for their territory, one ultimately outcast.
We started to feel a few rain droplets, so we knew it was time to get off the mountain. We crossed some fascinating boulder fields and made our way back toward the Never Summer Mountains and onto the trail. We passed several little glaciers that would eventually become part of the grand Colorado River. And of course the gentlemen of our troupe felt it necessary to see that their bodily fluids simultaneously made their way to both Pacific and Atlantic oceans, because what else do you do on the Continental Divide, right?
The wind was picking up, and it was downright cold, so we hurried down as quickly as we could. However, we did stop in for a quick visit with the trail marmot along our way. It was a relief to get back into the trees, and we were getting wetter by the minute, so it was none too soon.
Dad absolutely loves hikes (as do we!), and he was happy to have some hiking buddies in RMNP. I look forward to having them closer to home so we can show him all the Northwest has to offer. I miss the Colorado hikes sometimes, but I do like being able to breathe at the lower elevations!