Plans change, memories don't

Duncan MacLean • Sep 30, 2017 at 6:00 PM

The shores of Lake Michigan and banks of our rivers provide a world-class backdrop for outdoor activities, particularly camping.

Michigan’s state parks have their own beautiful scenery, but Noordhouse Dunes National Lakeshore is no backcountry. In a country with so much natural beauty and awe-inspiring landscapes, it is important to enjoy as many as possible.

In an effort to really leave society behind, a friend and I traveled West the first week of August, headed for our country’s largest mountain range and its premiere nature preserve: Rocky Mountain National Park.

The plan was a four-day thru hike of the park, beginning in the easter portal city, Estes Park, and ending in the west portal city of Grand Lake. Along the way we would camp in three backcountry campsites, and would be exposed to mountains, high-altitude alpine lakes, meadows and dense forest, even crossing over the tree line and the Continental Divide.

Plans are one thing, realities are another. Our trip would feature a few plot twists, driving home lessons at every turn. If you are young and planning a vacation, or an experienced traveler ready to give backpacking a shot, learn from our shortcomings.

Car complications would halt our progress before we really got started. Just 350 miles into the 1,200-mile trip to Estes Park, our vehicle died on the outskirts of Minooka, Illinois. There, the fantastic people of the small-town Midwest fixed us up as quickly as they could and had us back on the road the next day. While their impeccable service and desire to keep us on the road were inspiring and greatly appreciated, it still was not an ideal beginning to our trip.

There we learned our first lesson: Get your car checked out before you embark on a cross country road trip.

Now down a day, we had to re-plan our hike, trying to squeeze our high-altitude mileage into three days and two nights. Luckily, according to the information we found on the Internet, backcountry camping in RMNP is reservation-free. No need to book ahead of time, just hike out and make sure to camp in designated areas.

Lesson two: National Parks are operated and maintained by our government, they use .gov domains, not .coms. Go-figure.

We arrived in Estes Park in the middle of the night, claiming a tent spot at the Estes Park Campground at St. Mary’s Lake, a lovely spot in town, with easy access to dozens of day hikes into the Rockies — the longest unbroken drive above the tree line in the continental U.S and all the shops and eats of a beautiful Alpine town.

Our one-night crash cost us 30 bucks, in one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. If you enjoy camping and scenery while being two blocks from a brew pub and 100 yards from a shower, look no further than St. Mary’s.

Before heading into RMNP, a stop at a visitor’s center is necessary. Rangers there are teeming with helpful tips and information to keep you safe and entertained in the wilderness. We paid our visit in order to purchase our backcountry camping pass and secure our right to utilize our two selected campsites along one of the most beautiful routes in the park.

Upon sharing our plan, we were informed of the rogue rockymountainnationallpark.com website, which is known to publish false information concerning regulations and practices in the park. The sites we had picked out had been booked since Mar. 1, the day registration opens online. The good news? I mapped out a phenomenal hike. The bad news? Someone else was enjoying it.

Continuing the streak of helpful people, our ranger pointed out the sites that were still available with features similar to our dream hike. We chose to hike out to a campsite near an alpine lake and the divide for a two-night stay on the west side of the park, bringing us to lesson/tip No. 3: Drive the Trail Ridge Road.

The mountain road is unlike anything I had ever seen. For those wishing to experience the altitude and breathtaking beauty of the Rockies without being fully subjected to nature, the road is magnificent. Nervous drivers should stay away — 11 of the 48-mile drive are above the tree line, topping out at 12,183 feet. Shoulder room is minimal.

Trail Ridge Road took us to the Timber Lake trailhead, where we set off on our 4.8 mile out-and-back hike to the Rockslide backcountry campsite, ready and reserved for our two-night stay.

Our original plan had us hiking 6 miles on day one, 8 on Day 2 and 4 miles on Day 3, with significant elevation change and even some off-trail work, making our sprint up to Timber Lake seem juvenile.

It wasn’t. Lesson No. 4, don’t underestimate altitude.

Now, this hike is one of the more difficult ones in the park. The 4.8 miles features nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain, a difficult bypass around an active landslide area (which was awesome), meadows, mountains, lakes and cliffs. Being a pair of then-22-year-old former athletes, we figured we would sprint up the trail like the packs of deer we saw roaming the trails. It wasn’t so easy.

Despite setbacks, reroutes and rain, we made it to our campsite. No campfires are allowed in the Alpine, so we fired up our propane-less camp stove, made some ramen noodles and ravioli and set up camp. It was late in the afternoon by the time we arrived, so the rest of our day was consumed setting up and drying out our things.

Lesson No. 6, dress in layers. Even if forecasts are in the 70s, it gets cold at night at 11,000 feet, and rain doesn't help.

We discovered a two-night out and back was a phenomenal way to experience the alpine, especially on a first try. Able to leave our heavy packs behind, we stuffed a lunch and a few emergency essentials into a fanny pack and set off to explore Timber Lake and its surrounding peaks. We waded in crystal-clear water, had a snowball fight, climbed over the Continental Divide and frolicked in a fully-bloomed wildflower meadow. It was wild.

Lunch on an overhang, dangling our tired feet high above Timber Lake was surreal. We watched the turbulent high-altitude weather swirl around peaks, remixing a perfectly sunny day with random spells of hail, lightning and screaming wind.

We observed a moose grazing in a meadow from afar, discovered three deer enjoying our campsite, and even came across some other humans, enjoying the out-and-back to Timber Lake as a one-off, day hike.

Our day concluded with a sunset over the Long Meadow before our full day of activity made short work of falling asleep.

The descent back to the parking lot on Day 3 proved easier than the climb, for obvious reasons. We then drove back over Trail Ridge Road to Estes Park and enjoyed the best beer and pizza I have ever eaten at Poppy’s Pizza and Grill, as recommended by a fellow customer at Integrity Automotive in Minooka days before.

Finally, we concluded our trip with some whiplash, driving south to Denver to see the musical act ‘Pretty Lights’ perform at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. If there is an act you can even tolerate during your stay in Denver, go to Red Rocks. We watched a blood moon rise over the back of the stage, with Denver’s lights and highways twinkling in the distance as us and 9,500 of our closest friends jammed the night away.

With the right attitude, and a beautiful enough destination, even the most sidetracked and sabotaged vacations can be life changing. I love Michigan and wouldn’t trade it for the world, but nothing will ever compare to aiming a snowball at a tree precariously growing at its natural elevation limit on a 77-degree day in August.

Always remember to be respectful when enjoying our beautiful planet, the uncompromised creation we got to experience this summer came in stark contrast to even our beaches in Grand Haven. There are seven “leave no trace” backcountry rules that should not just protect majestic moose in the alpine. They would do a lot of good in our parking lots, parks and lakeshores.

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