Bear Lake Blues

There’s a lake that straddles northern Utah and Idaho that boasts a turquoise-blue color that rivals any Caribbean beach, and it’s all due to the refraction of calcium carbonate (limestone) deposits suspended in the lake. The intensity of the color also shifts with the sun’s position, the wind direction and the current, to where it becomes dizzying, trying to frame and capture patterns of varying shades of blue through a camera viewfinder.

Leah and I camped in two of several neighboring Utah State Park campgrounds to round out our visit. When initially making reservations, the Rendezvous Campground only had openings for the last two of our three nights, so we took up residence at South Eden Campground on the east side for the first night, with an understanding that it was a primitive site.

To our surprise, the facility had been upgraded with water and electric service over the past year. Of course, we would have preferred to stay for the duration of our visit, but that’s not how reservations work at a busy summer resort.

Moving to a new site after one day was not a relaxing proposition, but with so much running around over the past two months, we owed ourselves some down time from traveling, and Bear Lake seemed like a good fit, despite the campground fuss.

Aside from the splendid color of the water, our beach was far from beach towel-friendly, with broken shards of shale, shell, and limestone liniing the shoreline

and beyond, making hard-sole, water-shoes essential footwear.

But what mattered most to me at the moment were the clouds that were moving in and out of view.

Would there be enough cloud cover to support a world class sunset?

Armed with a camera and a silent prayer, I waited anxiously on the beach as the sun kissed the sky goodbye.

And then came the explosion I’ve come to expect. I would have my sunset, after all!

The following day, we moved to Rendezvous Beach on the west side of the lake, where the accommodations were as advertised: modern facilities and tighter sites,

followed by uncrowded sandy beaches? Where were all the people?

I later learned that all the “missing” were running their boats up the lake from the Bear Lake State Park Marina. And I’d like to personally thank each of them for the onslaught of wake that made for an average time kayaking in open water.

The final evening of our stay, we drove into Laketown for ice cream and a sunset. We found a quiet side street that dead-ended at the waters edge, and we waited…

“Not as brilliant as the other night, but not terrible,” Leah assessed. “C’mon, we need to go before the town shuts down and we miss our chance at ice cream.”

“Don’t be in such a hurry. Wait for it. Otherwise, you’re gonna miss the best part. The sky is still developing,” I predicted.

I got the sunset I wanted, but not the ice cream, as most of the town had shut down by 9 PM. With only one late spot open, we opted for flavored milk shakes and called it a night.

The moral of the story: A Saturday Night Sunset beats an Ice Cream Sundae!

Rocky Reservations

Leah and I have been planning our current trip since January–looking at various routes, places of interest, and RV park availability. At times it seemed like a logistical nightmare–having to shift dates and locations to accommodate timing, anticipated weather and RV park amenities (service hook-ups).

By April, most all of our mapped destinations (44 in all over 20 weeks) were booked. That’s about the same time the National Park Service (NPS) announced that two of our anticipated stops (Rocky Mountain and Glacier) now require timed-entry permits to be eligible to visit.

Because NPS is grappling with record attendance and overrun facilities at many locations, this additional measure is intended to relieve congestion at the park gates at best, and eliminate park closures due to limited parking and staffing woes.

At Rocky Mountain National Park, two reservation options were available for visitors between May 28 and October 11: Bear Lake Road Corridor plus full park access, which includes Wild Basin, Long’s Peak, Trail Ridge Road, and Fall River Area from 5:00 AM – 6:00 PM; and all park roads except Bear Lake Road Corridor, with a reservation period from 9:00 AM – 3:00 PM.

When the reservations window opened on May 1 at 8 AM (MDT), passes became available on a first-come basis—up to 60 days in advance–with approximately 25% of day passes held for guests planning to arrive within 2 days. I logged on to recreation.gov bright and early, and was eager to claim my permit, but apparently the rest of the world had the same idea.

When the online dust settled, I had my coveted entry pass, albeit with a 2:00 PM start time. While it wasn’t the most ideal situation–losing half the day–it was better than making the trip, only to be turned away. Yes, it’s happening.

On the day of our permit, Leah and I meandered through Estes Park for a few hours, breezing through art, jewelry, sporting goods, and general stores, where Leah found an eyeglass lanyard for a buck. We passed a dress-up cowboy spieling in front of Bob and Tony’s Pizza on Elkhorn Ave. and laughed it off, but we returned for some of the worst pizza we’ve ever tasted, although comparable to spreading Ketchup over a cardboard circle, which I did as a child.

Once we passed through the Bear Lake ranger checkpoint, we stretched our legs with a walk around Sprague Lake, the site of a one-time mountain resort, and immediately, we were greeted by a curious teenager,

who looks as if he had a bad reaction from a slice of pizza from Bob and Tony’s…

and is returning to a healthier diet of tall grass.

Half way around Sprague Lake, we encountered his girlfriend romping through the water, courtesy of Leah’s iPhone…

Completing the lake loop, we stood in awe at the doorstep of the Continental Divide and admired the view…but not for as long as I would have liked, since we only had a narrow window of time to explore our immense surroundings.

Naturally, being inside the Bear Lake Corridor gave us an opportunity to circle Bear Lake,

and its neighbor, Nymph Lake.

But running short on time, I abandoned my goal of hiking the rest of the trail to Emerald Lake,

and opted for time in the higher elevations. Our drive took us through Moraine Park,

till we reached Horseshoe Park at the junction of Trail Ridge Road.

Once we rounded the bend from Hidden Valley…

it was one spectacular lookout…

after another…

and another…

and another…

until we reached the Gore Range, the highest elevation on the park road at 12,183 feet.

We drove as far as Medicine Bow Curve, when a herd of elk happened to wander across the tundra to graze, as if to remind us that we were approaching dinner-time. It was our cue to U-turn.

As we doubled back, our conversation turned to the timed-entry, reservation system. The time we were allotted was just a teaser, considering the 355 miles of hiking trails throughout the park.

While I would have preferred a whole day or two or three to satisfy my craving for mountains, I support more people having a chance to appreciate this country’s beauty without annoying crowds, and to capture a lasting memory…

Liquidscape

While hiking the Bear Lake Loop Trail at Rocky Mountain National Park, I was drawn to a cluster of lodgepole pines raked across the water, with Mt. Wuh peaking in the distance.

Mt. Wuh

Subsequently, the wind picked up, disturbing the mirrored reflection–a quiver of ripples now transforming my quiet reality into a impressionistic interpretation of my Nirvana.

Bear Lake

I was captivated by the shimmering shape of sky and treeline, and inclined to shift my focus to the water, with the notion of turning nature upside down…

Rocky Mountain reflection

…and anchoring the soft glow of a landscape into a liquidscape.

Rocky Road National Park

With so much attention being paid to the over-crowded conditions at National Parks this year, Leah and I were optimistic that Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) would allow us some breathing room—despite a doomsday article recently published by Denver Post that boasted a 21% increase in visitor attendance at RMNP over the same month last year (Denver Post). According to the NPS, more than 1 million people will make RMNP their vacation destination in the next six weeks and that does not bode well for the visitor who comes to enjoy the park.

Apparently, when Trump announced a federal hiring freeze one week after taking office, the park was unable to move forward with seasonal hires, leaving the Park Service unprepared to staff its most popular and profitable parks. Additionally, there was no budget allowance for background checks and bonding of future employees, which has translated into longer lines at Park Service admissions, and fewer transactions at Park Service Conservancy Nature Stores. Penny-wise, pound-foolish economics!

We arrived in line at 1pm on Monday. After half-an-hour, we crossed the threshold into RMNP. Signs were posted along the way announcing full occupancy at all campgrounds. I felt fortunate snagging a camp-site for three nights at Glacier Basin—a no-services facility—through the NPS reservations web-site over six months ago.

I produced my Senior Pass credentials to the ranger at the gatehouse, and received an obligatory park map, but not a newspaper, because the official newspaper of RMNP had run out before noon. The newspapers are a vital resource to the park’s success, given the hands-on information that visitors rely on when planning their stay, notwithstanding: safety protocols, hiking trails, shuttle bus schedules, ranger-led programs, road and trail conditions, and visitor center(s) hours of operation.

After unhitching the trailer, Leah and I elected to tour the north side of the park, following the Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center,

rainbow curve
Rainbow Curve

forest canyon panorama
Forest Canyon

Iceberg Pass Panorama
Iceberg Pass

and past the highest point of any NPS road (12183 ft.).

Gore Range 2
Gore Range

Gore Range
Medicine Bow Curve

Several look-outs along the way provided ample opportunities to be blown about by sustained winds of 50 mph, admire wide-open views of nearby mountain ranges in the blistering cold, and escape from the occasional driver who negotiates a hairpin turn while pointing a camera outside his window.

With such a high number of drivers who suffer from altitude stupidity, it’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents like the one we came across that closed the road for an hour until a tow-truck arrived to cart away the collision. It’s also a special breed of driver who comes to the park and thinks it okay to stop in the middle of the road to observe a crowd watching something off the side of the road.

3 elk

elk portrait (3)

Sadly, it’s probably the same driver who lollygags at 18 mph, when all the vehicles trailing behind are aching to achieve the 35 mph speed limit. It’s as if people have come to the park to practice their driving, turning the roads into a fright of passage.

While it was difficult to completely avoid the road toads, Leah and I managed to steer clear of much the traffic tie-ups by exploring more remote regions of the park during our three-day visit. One 7-mile hike on the edge of Grand Lake took us to the top of Cascade Falls,

Colorado River

where so much run-off from late snow had produced a torrent of moving water.

Cascade Falls1

moving water

Drainage from the Ptargiman Mountain was becoming an issue, so a crew was dispatched to redirect the spill over from the falls.

llama

The next day, a 5-mile hike off the Moraine Park spur led us to Cub Lake in the shadow of Steep Mountain.

cub lake

Considered an easy hike by the trail guide, Leah was unconvinced by the steep rocky incline to the gorge—narrow and muddy, and shared by horses—which led to lots of side-stepping.

trail horses cub lake

Not to be deterred, Leah would lobby for a label that was more suitable. After following the half-mile loop around Bear Lake, one of the park’s most popular subalpine locales–distinguished by its late thaw,

bear lake with mountains

and smooth-as-glass lake surface–

reflection

Leah stopped to ask a ranger’s opinion of the Cub Lake Trail. To Leah’s delight, the ranger agreed that the hike should be upgraded from easy to moderate, but only because of its duration.

The thin air and jaw-dropping views of mountain peaks, canyons, snowfields, lakes, meadows, falls and forests left us breathless. But we came for the animals as well. We waited patiently for nearly an hour at Sheep Lake with the hope that the park’s bighorn sheep and their lambs might descend from the mountain to graze and lick mud in the meadow below. The timing was right—no coyotes were spotted at the pond—but the sheep had other ideas, and stayed where they were.

But there was no shortage of chipmunks, squirrels and marmots.

RMNP is a delicate ecosystem that has been managed since 1915. With so many visitors eager to pilgrimage to the park, the importance of preservation and land stewardship along with proper funding will drive the next one hundred years, provided Sunday drivers stay off the roads.