George BarnettComment

Field Essay: Tramping in the Tundra Part 2.

George BarnettComment
Field Essay: Tramping in the Tundra Part 2.

"Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well."

-Jack London

After getting some insight on the views & hike from a park ranger our first night at the Bear Lake trailhead, we decided our next mission was to summit Flat Top Mountain (12,324 feet). We got an early start on our day as usual & headed for the shuttle bus for another return to the trail head. It was an absolutely perfect morning with many hours of trekking ahead of us.

This hike proved to be a great choice, a solid 9 mile roundtrip hike filled with all the views a wilderness freak could ever ask for. The first couple miles were spent under the pines & spruce jumping up rocks & hiking switchbacks, then we came into contact with huge meadows of wildflowers & ancient timber. Stopped for a snack after reaching our second mile into the hike before breaking out of the shade system that is the treeline, then walked into the exposed landscape of scrub pines & panoramic views of Bierstadt Lake, Sprague Lake & the expanse of the Glacier Basin area.

Photo: Geraldine Chavez

Photo: Geraldine Chavez

It was such a privilege to hike up the beautiful eastern side of Flat Top mountain, giving off it's aerial views of the lakes & ridges we had just hiked the day before. From the many vantage points, Dream & Emerald lake were only the size of my thumb now. As we made it further up into the rough exposed Tundra, the scenery & inspiration within me grew intensely. We were gaining some serious elevation with this hike (2850 feet gained in total), my body was feeling good & my mind was absorbing as much of the experience as it could.

With every switchback & marmot encounter, we became higher & higher up the mountainside. The sun was bright & strong that day but I thought wearing my sunglasses would've taken away from the visual consumption. Nearing the summit we came across a horse hitch rack on the rough terrain where beyond we were treated to breathtaking views of my forever favorite Hallett Peak & Tyndall Glacier. We met up with the junction marker & decided that we shouldn't spend all day making the decent if we wanted any chance of making it back to the trailhead before the shuttle buses stopped running for the night. Once we began our hike back down the slope of the mountain, I was just taking in all the views again down the tundra as if I hadn't been immersed in it all day. I couldn't get enough of this landscape. We made it to the shuttle bus in time (good time really) & spent the night at camp enjoying some hot food & stargazing from our tent.

We broke down camp early the next morning & headed back into Estes Park, needed to resupply & get a quick breakfast. We stopped at the Donut Haus over on Moraine Ave for some amazing doughy creations (Cheesecake roll anyone?) & some fresh coffee. Shortly after inhaling our treats we made a run by the market (saw this beauty of a Jeep Wagoneer 4x4) then headed back to the Beaver Meadow visitor center to pick up our backcountry permits from the wilderness office.

We got onto Trail Ridge Road (U.S. HWY 34) with our still hot coffees & entered the scenic road paradise. The stretch going from Estes to Grand Lake is about 48 miles long, but it goes by with whimsical & magical features of the Rocky Mountain landscape. Roads wrapping around mountains & the open tundra, also passing by the many glaciers & cliff sides that the park possess. Bluish hues casted across the horizon of land kept me glued to the passenger window & as the elevation finally began to drop we were coming into contact with the Colorado River trailhead & then entering the small town Grand Lake.

The main strip was made up of restaurants, turquoise boutiques & hiking/camping shops. We stopped inside of Never Summer to pick up a bear canister rental, which is required for any backpacking itinerary in the RMNP. The shop had many backpacking necessities: boots, rain shelled clothing, wool socks, bug repellents, maps & even espresso sized enamel mugs (which I bought for my son). We got our canister & headed off to The Hub for some cold coffee. Got a quick feel of the town & enjoyed our caffeine before driving to the North Inlet trailhead just outside of the main strip.

Once we made it to the trailhead, we got our packs filled with the next two days worth of gear/food & then headed onto the trail for a three mile hike to the Twinberry campsite. An afternoon storm was approaching rather quickly as we neared our campsite for the night, I decided to act fast & setup the tent as soon as we stepped foot onto camp. Within four minutes the tent was up with it's rainfly on & the rain was ripping hard down on us in our shelter, can you say perfect timing? After ten minutes or so, the storm was past us & we crawled out of the tent to enjoy the rest of the day & checked out the North Inlet creek below camp. We ended up making dinner down on the beautiful creek side & we're soaking up the mid day sunrays & the cooling temperatures from the rapid waters while I heard a eye opening familiar sound. A sound that I honestly didn't want to hear while we we're camping in the backcountry, I heard a classic muffled bear groan just down the creek. I was confident with what I heard & subtlety informed Geraldine at the sound that only I had heard, she was spooked to say the least & was grateful that dinner was already finished. We decided to give camp a look & to check the parameters for any unwanted visitors, I gave the entire ridge a thorough examination & did notice some small-medium sized bear tracks in the wet soil. Without giving the campsite the same examination when we first arrived, I can't say with confidence that these tracks were indeed fresh. But with what I had just heard at the creek, I was convinced that we weren't alone momentarily. After some more examining, the ease rolled back over me as I realized that even if there had been any bear(s), they were now gone & we had nothing to worry about. We enjoyed the rest of our night & I read some of John's Muir's autobiography, edited by Stephen Brennan before dozing off in my mummy bag.

Once we headed out of Twinberry, we hiked just about a mile before reaching Cascade Falls. I hadn't had any form of bathing since Tuesday, it was now Sunday & I was ready for some cleansing & refreshment. I quickly dropped my pack, stripped down into my swimmers & tip toed into the unforgiving glacier fed waterfall. It took a handful of attempts to actually submerge myself past my crotch in the water cause of how ice cold it was, then once the "seal" was broken, I lost all pride & decided to use the natural made granite shower head on the side of the falls to rinse my head & body off. This was probably going to be the only form of a shower I'd have until I returned home. The sun was shining & I was feeling completely renewed at the falls, I scrambled back onto a large rock facing the sun & dried off while enjoying the sun's warmth on my shoulders & face. After our time at Cascade Falls, we got on our way to the North Inlet Falls, where we'd be camping tonight. The hike was filled of lush evergreens, tall spruce trees & open meadows. Once we reached the North Inlet Falls, we setup camp & stored our gear before heading up to Lake Nokoni for dinner, which was well worth the steep grade hike of endless rocky switchbacks. We had the entire lake to ourselves & the weather was perfect with a slight chill in the air. On our return to camp we came into contact with a moose on the high wildflower wall hovering above the trailside. We gave it some time before making the decision to casually walk past him once he was well turned from us & focused on getting his snack on with the many shrubs before him. A beautiful sighting to say the least, it was way closer than my experience last year at Sprague Lake. "Another beautiful day spent roaming in the Rockies" I whispered to myself, while I watched the sun setting over the mountain range surrounding us on our way back to camp. Our home.

All images shot with Kodak Portra 160 film.

George Barnett, a Kentucky native that spends the better part of his days in the remote wilderness backpacking & roaming to find the next mountainside of inspiration. He & his son Levi Barnett have a untouchable relationship that only the tree's & lakes can comprehend. George searches for truth in conservation, the purpose of nature & it's inhabitants.