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Rocky Mountain National Park
August 5-9Dear Diary and Friends and Family,
Written August 7+
On Monday, we left our Colorado family and headed up into the mountains. We passed through flat roads with right-angle intersections and entered the twisty climb of a mountain highway. Our goal was Estes Park, at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. We would spend almost three days there.
Our first day was limited to shopping, mostly, and eating, starting with treats from the Donut Haus, a German-origin purveyor of calories. Every one was worthwhile.
After that we walked for hours along Estes' main streets to see what there was and almost all of it was touristy goods. I have a new view that any town that emphasizes taffy and t-shirts is not a place we need to visit often.
After that hard work, we stopped at Mama Rose's for a glass of wine and dinner. It was here that we first noticed that most bar and restaurant staff people in Estes Park speak with Eastern European accents. It turns out that there are not enough locals to staff all the seasonal jobs, but there is a "J-1 Visa" program that allows foreign college kids to work a few months a year. Seems to work for everyone.
After a nap, we headed up into Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). We had no particular plan, just a scouting visit, a first for Marianne and a refresh for me. (See May 2017)
We were still on the lower elevations when we learned the secret to spotting animals - look for tourists staring off into the fields or forests. In this case there were at least ten cars and a couple dozen people, some very close to the object of attention, a good-sized male elk. Nice picture since he lifted his head and was looking into the light.
Shortly after that, we came up behind a pickup truck stopped in the road. Just stopped. We cautiously passed, but the driver caught our attention to look up the hill at a pair of bears harvesting berries. Pictures were hard, but the bears were fascinating to just watch.
Farther up the mountain we stopped at the overlook at Rainbow Curve. These are the sort of pictures that may not be great photography, but they serve as reminders of the moment for us and this view is always worth the stop, something we did again the next day.
In my May visit, the Trail Ridge Road was still closed by snow at this point. The traditional opening is the Friday before Labor Day and closing sometime in mid-October. Now, we could continue up into the tundra proper, ending up at the Forest Canyon overlook, surrounded by the treeless, rocky, tundra fields. We hung around long enough for sunset, but my photography was less than spectacular. Later, when we came back for sunrise with Yellow Wood Guiding, we learned a whole lot more about photography and the tundra.
On Tuesday, shooting pictures of elk started easy enough. We just looked out the hotel window. There were a dozen or more elk doing their best to eat everything tasty in sight. I would think that, for locals, these roaming herds are part pest and part tourist attraction, and hence key to business.
There are no longer any elk predators in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), so the herds have grown and now overgraze the land. However, over the past ten years or so, the park and others have started fencing in sections to allow reestablishment of native vegetation and animals lower on the food chain. Just across from the Maxwell Inn, the local water company had closed off a part of the river bottom and the river banks were covered with purple flowers. Farther up into the park we would see fenced-off acres where aspen and other native trees have been kept safe from marauders. It's all a balance, I suppose.
After this easy shooting, including hummingbird pictures from convenient feeders, we planned our day. Breakfast first, but no Estes Park shopping. Really, the only attraction is RMNP (the required shorthand for the national park) and, since we are not really hikers, the options are limited to road sightseeing. Good enough.
Our first stop, just outside the park proper, was the Falls River Visitors Center. Inside, the volunteer docents answered any park questions visitors might have. We had no questions, but I hung around listening to whatever dialog others prompted. Good enough. Marianne did her required shopping for post cards and trinkets for folks back home, while I was outside testing my wildlife photography. OK, it's just a pigeon, but it's wild.
We would end up driving from the flatlands all the way up to the top of Trail Ridge Road.
Our first stop was at Sheep Lakes where Kirby, a ranger intern, explained everything we were seeing. He said that mountain sheep do indeed regularly come down to these muddy ponds to drink the mineral-laden water. Somehow they know exactly what minerals they need and where to find them. On our visit, the only wildlife visible was a Wyoming Ground Squirrel. Cute little guy and my third animal-type for the day. I count them all, easy or not!
Farther up the Ridge Road, we stopped again at the Rainbow Valley overlook and I had to repeat the panorama I had done a year before. That's the way it is, I think, one sees the same places as interesting, time and time again. (Reminds me of our Fresno-local national park where, every visit, I take pictures from Yosemite Tunnel View.)
Farther up, on the tundra above the tree line, we stopped at the Forest Canyon overview. We had been here at sunset just the day before, but I suppose this is another stop-every-time spot. For those willing to take a little walk, the view out at the end is even better and, sometimes, it comes with a ranger explanation.
We did not bother with the walk, but just looked out from near the parking lot. Good enough, both for the longer vista and a close-up of rugged rocks across the valley.
I also took pictures of the ground near our feet, being careful to not actually step ON anything. These tundra plants have a hard enough life, with eight months of burial in snow, to not also get trampled by the three million visitors RMNP gets each year.
Higher yet, we stopped at Lava Cliffs. This cliff face marks the end of a 28 million year old lava flow from the Never Summer Mountains, 12 miles to the west. Below the cliffs was a "tarn", a pond that forms in the depression of long-gone glaciers that have also covered the area. It is easy to see how a geologist could get distracted almost anywhere in the RMNP complex geology.
Just past the 12,183 foot high point on Trail Ridge, we came to the Gore Range outlook. We would return the next morning at sunrise with our guide Jared, but even at mid day, without professional guidance, the view was worth a shot or two.
Driving back, we could have stopped at every spot we had seen on the way up. That's the way it is but I limited myself to just a single stop to grab a picture of Big Horn Mountain (I think). So many mountains, so little time.
Back on the edge of Estes Park, we stopped at a little museum at the Fall River Hydroplant. I like these kinds of stops, but Marianne can barely stifle the yawns. Oh well, we do have different interests. Water came through an 18-inch pipe, dropping 400 feet from a dam a mile away. Power went several miles away to the Stanley Hotel which, in 1909, was the country's first all-electric hotel. Mr. Stanley, of Stanley Steamer fame, insisted on no coal or wood burning for his mountain resort, so heating, cooking, and lighting were all powered from this generator.
We finished the day with take-out pizza from Antonio's across the street. A recommended place for "New York style" pizza.
Properly fed, I settled in the breakfast room to work on diaries, before we hit the hay early, in anticipation of and early start Wednesday. Nice end to an unplanned day.
Wednesday (8/8) -- Photography Excursion by Yellow Wood Guiding
This was the reason we were up in Estes Park, a photo excursion lead by Jared Gricoskie, aka: Yellow Wood Guiding. I had gone with Jared a year ago and learned so much that we were definitely looking forward to the morning.
Of course, "morning" for a photographer means getting to the desired location BEFORE sunrise and this meant Marianne and I needed to be out of bed at 4:15 Mountain Time for Jared's pick-up at 5:15. His instructions had made it clear that being late would not be a good idea, since the sun would rise whether or not we were there!
He showed up at the appointed hour. We stuffed the camera equipment and the two of us into his green Subaru and headed into RMNP. The goal was to be up at the 12,000 foot Gore Range outlook and then wait for sun. Sunrise was nominally about 6 am and the drive would take about 40 minutes. On the drive, Jared explained everything. Really, everything, from the physics of sunrise light through the geology and ecology of the tundra. I will try to include some of what he tried to teach us, but as much as I note, believe me, there was more.
We had two photography goals: landscapes and animals. I will divide this diary that way too.
So, that was our Rocky Mountain National Park excursion for 2018. Fun on our own and another excellent experience with Yellow Wood Guiding. Thanks, Jared. We will be back.
John and Marianne
ps: The flight from Denver to Fresno goes over some of the most dramatic parts of the American West. In clear weather, it is fun photography. With the smoke we had, I resorted to Photoshop's magic "dehaze" command to simulate clear weather. I was using the small SONY point-and-shoot, but good enough. Click the picture to see everything from a starting selfie, the Flatirons and other mountains, past the Tonapah solar plant, and into the smoky San Joaquin Valley. Home.
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