As we’ve made our way into February and are inching ever so slightly closer to warmer weather, I’m finding myself feeling my first waves of spring fever. Of course, I’m realistic about the fact that we’re still very much in winter here in Wyoming, especially as there’s a light snow falling outside as I type this. But a girl’s allowed to dream about warmer days ahead…or behind, I suppose. Because today I’m sharing about another one of our summer hikes from last year. This one ended up being a doozy, mainly because it didn’t go quite as we anticipated, but we still enjoyed our time in the fresh air and mountains, and I certainly learned a few good lessons along the way.
Back in July I was eager to get back into Rocky Mountain National Park for some outdoor adventures. We live about an hour and a half from the Estes Park entrance, so we’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring different areas of the park while we’ve lived in Cheyenne, and it has become one of my favorite places, with still so much left for us to see. My end goal for the season was to hike up to Sky Pond (which spoiler alert, we did do, and Iim excited to share more about it), but I wanted to work our way up to it since it was a bit of a longer hike, and I was still willing to admit that we’re novices in this hobby, so on this particular day I planned for something more moderate.
At the time, I had just discovered AllTrails, so I picked out a couple options for us, knowing that parking would probably determine our fate. The initial trail I had in mind was actually a portion of the Sky Pond hike, but with the trailhead being in one of the most popular areas of the park and it being peak season, our 7:30am arrival time was too late to get parking – even in the shuttle lot. Thankfully I had another hike in a different area of the park saved in my AllTrails app, so we headed towards Trail Ridge Road for Ute Trail, but considering the starting point was along the side of this heavily traveled highway, we knew that parking was going to be minimal. We crossed our fingers, enjoyed the always spectacular views as we made our way up the winding road, and thankfully found some side road parking a short walk away from the trailhead.
Based on my AllTrails app and the reviews I saw, this would be a 5.6 mile in-and-out hike. We started at 11,430 ft elevation, with the expectation that we’d decline for a bit in the middle of the hike before reaching the end point where we’d turn around and work our way back up. The down, then up format was different than what we were used to, but we were willing to give it a go for the sake of a fun experience.
Since we started the hike so high up and it was still early in the day, the weather was chillier and windier than we had planned for, but we thankfully had enough layers to manage. The weather stayed pretty clear throughout our time though, and it warmed up significantly the lower in elevation we went.
We made our way across Tombstone Ridge for about 2 miles. There was a handful of people along the trail with us, but it wasn’t too crowded. It was a different experience for us to be hiking so high up in the alpine tundra surrounded by seemingly endless mountains, so I was soaking in the views. We reached the point where the descent began (Timberline Pass) and started making our way down the rocky trail. I became slightly concerned that no one else seemed to be following along this path, but I assumed they didn’t plan on going as far as we did, and chose to trust the map as we continued down a steep decline, with no switchbacks in sight.
Along the way, I continued to check the map and the GPS on my phone, and as we appeared to be approaching the end point of the trail we expected to reach some sort of view point or an obvious sign that it was time to turn around. But as we hit the mile marker, that point never arrived. We chose to keep going a bit further, because surely we had to be close to some sort of destination, but the further we made our way down the mountain, the more we thought about how we had to climb our way back up it. We probably ended up going an extra half mile, and then finally stopped for lunch and to rest for a bit. From previous hikes we’ve learned that while descending can be faster and easier on the lungs, it takes a toll on our knees. Considering we just descended about 2,000 ft in the span of a mile, both of us were hurting. We considered our options as we ate, and acknowledged that the Ute Trail as a whole actually continues down into Beaver Meadows, and that perhaps the trail we were following in AllTrails was meant to be just a portion of it. While we loved the idea of finishing the trail out and not having to go back up the mountain, we only had one car, and it was parked up at the top. Our only way out was back up, so going any further seemed a bit illogical, despite not having reached any particular destination.
We slowly scrambled our way back up the trail, now feeling the struggle in our lungs, on top of our already aching knees. I definitely had a harder time than Adam (I’ll credit his marathon training for helping his lung capacity…& of course he’s just naturally stronger than me too), so I frequently stopped to rest. It got to the point where I’d step up a few rocks and have to stop. Then I’d take another few steps, and have to stop again. It was a big slice of humble pie. I mean, I worked at a gym for goodness sake and I was in the best shape of my life – this shouldn’t have been so hard. But the nice thing about hiking is that we spend a lot of time in silence, and I had plenty of time to consider that to get better at anything it takes practice – even hiking. So I kept trudging along, taking my time and listening to my body, stopping when I needed to. And when I stopped, I took the moment to look out at the mountains surrounding us and be reminded of why I enjoy hiking in the first place: to be humbled by God’s creation. I was definitely humbled on this day – just differently than I normally am. But as we finally reached the edge of Timberline Pass and our path leveled out as we started back across Tombstone Ridge, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Plus those alpine views sure didn’t lose their splendor.
By the time we reached our car, we were exhausted and agreed that this was a tough one, but it was still a good one. It was a learning experience on many counts. I learned that AllTrails is a helpful tool, but since anyone can contribute information to it, everyone’s input doesn’t always match up accurately, so do some extra research when going somewhere new. I was reminded that the only way to get better at hiking is to just go out and hike. I learned that going up, then down is much more preferable than going down, then up. And lastly, don’t forget to pack some toilet paper 😉
If we were to do this hike again, I’d either keep it shorter and simpler, and just hike the 2 miles along Tombstone Ridge and then head back to the trailhead (the views along the way are plenty worth it). OR I’d take two cars, parking one down in Beaver Meadows and one at the top of the trailhead, so we could experience the full Ute Trail. I’d also probably start at the bottom, but that might just be preference. Regardless, I stand behind my mantra that any day I spend in the mountains is a good day.
Have you ever gone for a hike that didn’t go quite as you planned? Join me in sharing and tell me about it in the comments below!
Until next time,