Friday, August 10, 2012

A week in RMNP

After a fun weekend at my brother's place near Colorado Springs, I spent most of last week in Rocky Mountain National Park, based out of a small cabin just down the road from the main gate in Estes Park. For most of my life, RMNP has been the place that I've looked forward to visiting the most, with familiar trails to welcome me back and unexplored ground always around the corner.  It's the kind of place where I take comfort in knowing that I will never be able to do everything.  Even with the changing of the seasons, well-traveled places take on new forms, allowing fresh vantage points and a greater understanding of the area's natural rhythms.

Yes, Estes Park is visibly overrun with tourists, and those trips into town that seemed so exciting in my childhood have now become something I must mentally prepare myself for.  Aversion to crowds aside, a part of me still feels the need to make those trips, now perhaps more out of routine than anything else. And yet even with the main drag at its most overwhelming, I still find myself smiling when I see the families around me, and even hoping that some day it will be my own children walking down those streets.

Still, the high places have always been where I'm most comfortable, and even in six short days I found myself with more than enough time to revisit favorite places and discover new ones.  In the interest of maintaining coherent thought, I'll avoid a chronological narrative of my week and focus instead on some of the main highlights.  

The Hiking

I've said it before and I'll say it again... if I had to choose between only getting to hike or climb for the rest of my life, hiking would win every time.  There's something about hiking's rapid change of perspective that beats any feeling of exposure I get while climbing.  And with few exceptions, RMNP has been where almost every memorable hike of my life has taken place.

This trip my mom and I started out with a warmup hike up to Bridal Veil Falls, following the Cow Creek trail behind Lumpy Ridge.  A relatively flat hike, it passes through open meadows before entering a cool forest, eventually leading to a beautiful waterfall on granite slabs.  Having not been there for probably twenty years, I was glad we decided to include it this time.

The next day my mom was down in Boulder helping my sister Becca move, so my sister Sara and I decided to check out a hike that I had always wanted to do, but had never managed to fit in.  Driving up Old Fall River Road to the Chapin Pass trailhead, we followed a gentle trail across the tundra to Mt. Chapin, then across the saddle to Mt. Chiquita and from there to Ypsilon Mountain.  It's a gorgeous hike, with more pikas and marmots than I've ever seen, and with a relatively high trailhead allows fairly comfortable access to some of the higher peaks in the park.  Even if you only go as far as Mt. Chapin, the views are well worth it, but it also becomes easy to talk yourself into "just one more peak" when you get up there and see how close everything looks.  Just watch the storms... our descent was one of the most memorable I've ever had!

For Sara's last day in town, we went down to the Wild Basin section of the park to visit on her favorite places, Sandbeach Lake.  Although the trail has a couple steep sections, most of it is pretty moderate, and the lake is one of the most unique in the park.  With clear water surrounded by sandy beaches, and Mt. Meeker looming above, I have yet to find another place like it.

Friday was Emily's first hike of the trip, and we decided to check out another new place, Ypsilon Lake. Starting out on the trail for Lawn Lake, another of my favorite hikes, we eventually crossed the river and followed a forested ridge for a few miles until descending slightly to a large lake with another gorgeous waterfall a few hundred feet upstream.  It was interesting to be there after seeing the lake from above two days before, and I'd love to get back there again to check out the Spectacle Lakes sitting on the shelf higher up.

Saturday was our last morning in town, and despite ominous cloud cover when we woke up, things cleared enough to allow us one final hike.  While I generally don't do the same hike more than once per trip, I really wanted Emily and my mom to at least see Mt. Chapin, even if we didn't go any further from there.  It was nice to be up there without as much worry about thunderstorms, though the wind was far more intense this time, and I found myself regretting leaving my gloves in the car.  Despite cold fingers though, it was a perfect last hike, and no less beautiful for having been there a few days earlier.

The Climbing

RMNP has a ridiculous amount of rock, from high alpine spires and walls to the perfect slabs of Lumpy Ridge to the fun sport climbing areas like Jurassic Park.  The park has a good amount of bouldering too, and although the road leading to the more well known Chaos Canyon had construction closures, I did manage a couple fun sessions at the Suzuki boulders.  A relatively small area, it's easily one of the most convenient.  After coming in the main park entrance on 36 and following the road up a couple switchbacks, the boulders are easily seen from the road, and have a decent variety of problems.

After warming up on the large slab section, we played on the short crimpy lines of the slightly overhung east face, then got on the awesome overhanging southeast arete.  With fun compression moves on great incut holds, it was one of my favorites last year, and just as good this time around.  I also liked the tall arete at the other end of the boulder, and was especially excited to see the short roof crack just to the left that I had somehow missed last time.  Short, but so fun!

The Food

I'm including this only because I've heard a few people recently lamenting the poor food quality in Estes Park, which is completely understandable for people who have limited experience there.  Yes, there's a lot of bad food around.  But there are also a few places that I look forward to visiting year after year, which are easily as good as the options found in more gastronomically inclined places like Boulder.  To start, Ed's Cantina is always one of my top choices.  I've always been a huge fan of their fish burritos, which seem to no longer be on the menu, but the fish tacos are basically the same thing.  Deliciously battered, and served with crispy cabbage instead of lettuce, they're especially good when smothered in a side of green chili (which is actually red).  In fact, I'm now regretting even typing about them now that I'm 2000 miles away and unable to satisfy the craving I've just induced!

If pizza is what you want, Village Pizza is hard to beat.  Great crust, creative topping combinations, a decent salad bar, and a good beer list.  Add in a couple classic video games and pinball machines in the back room, and it's a perfect spot to wind down after a day on the trail or the rocks.

The Estes Park Brewery is also worth a visit.  Admittedly I've never been as impressed with their food as with their beer, but I always end up bringing home at least one pack of their raspberry wheat ale to ration throughout the year.

For bbq, go to Smokin' Dave's.  Dinner crowds are usually pretty big, but we've generally been able to find seats at the bar without too much trouble.  Everything I've had there has been fantastic, and I especially enjoyed being able to get any of the meats in salad form.  Even better, they have a respectable microbrew selection, with several costing only $5 for a 22 ounce serving.

If you're just looking for a cup of coffee and a place to check email, Kind Coffee has always been good, but recently we've been more drawn to Coffee on the Rocks.  With easy parking, good coffee and food, and peaceful outdoor seating next to the pond, it made a perfect office for Emily on Sara during their telecommuting sessions.

Another of our regular places isn't in Estes itself, but down to the south in Allenspark.  If you're looking for a great breakfast or lunch and are in the area, Meadow Mountain Cafe is the place.  It's a pretty old establishment, and as of my mom's first jobs was actually washing dishes there, it's been a family favorite for as long as I can remember.  Just be warned that seating is limited, cash is necessary for purchases under $20, and there's generally only one person taking far of all the tables.  But if you're willing to relax a bit, and be polite to the nice people who work there, the food is all delicious and more than enough to fill you up.  If I had to recommend one thing it would be the cobbler.  Doesn't matter which kind.  Just get it, cover it in cream, have some bacon on the side, and dig in.  Hmm, I should really stop talking about food that I have no chance of eating again anytime soon!

One more place to talk about though.  Unless you're coming into the park from the west, there's a good chance you'll be passing through Lyons.  About 20 minutes down the canyon from Estes, it's grown over the past several years from the tiny town where we get cheaper gas to the home of some of the best restaurants around.  It's also the home of the Oskar Blues Brewery, notable as one of the first craft breweries to preserve freshness by canning their beer instead of bottling it.  If you like good beer, you've probably had at least a couple of theirs, but as with other breweries they have more varieties available on site than they do for general distribution.  They also have plenty of good food, and the most impressive collection of 80s video games and pinball machines I've seen since... well, the 80s.  

And I think that about covers it!  Next up:  Another short stay in Boulder...

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