Road Tripping Through the West, Part One: Rocky Mountain National Park

Last month, Max and I spent two weeks road tripping, camping, and hiking through Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. The first stop on our adventure was Rocky Mountain National Park. This was my second time being above 12,000 ft. elevation (the first time was while Backpacking the Wind River Range of Wyoming) and the first time I had spent an extended amount of time above 11,000 ft elevation. 

We camped in Estes Park, sharing a campsite with a small herd of deer and a bunny who joined us in the evenings.

Camping in Estes Park, Colorado

We explored Trail Ridge Road, the historic Old Fall River Road, and Bear Lake Road in the park, doing many short hikes along the way. Strong gusts of bitterly cold wind battered us above the treeline, making me thankful that I had brought a winter hat, gloves, and a bandanna to cover my face! 

Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Mountain views in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
The view from 12,000 ft elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Hiking up to 12,000 ft elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Mountains with a dusting of snow in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Elevation 12,005 feet above sea level in  Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Alpine tundra and mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Autumn in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Bear Lake,  Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Bear Lake,  Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Admiring the view in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Mountains and alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

We were surrounded by a vast silence with only the sound of the wind and the call of elk bugling in the distance as we took in the massive scale of our surroundings. 

Bull elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The next day we woke up to a frost-covered tent and clear blue skies. We decided to take a hike up to Twin Sisters Peaks, a steep but popular hike up to 11,413 ft elevation on the eastern side of the park, surrounded by Roosevelt National Forest. Along the way up, we picked our way across the wreckage left by a huge mudslide that wiped out parts of the trail during the floods of 2013.

Remains of the mud slide on the Twin Sisters hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Just below the summit, we came across the sad scene of a man who had collapsed and died on the trail. His friend and some other hikers were performing CPR as a rescue helicopter circled, looking for a place to land. Sadly, it was too late to save him. We sat awkwardly bunched up for a while with a growing group of other hikers who had been behind us on the trail, wishing that there was some way that we could help. 

Helicopter rescue on the Twin Sisters hike in   Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

As more paramedics started to arrive, the man's friend encouraged everyone to continue on. Feeling that it was best to get out of the way, we hiked the short remaining distance to the summit. From the summit we had panoramic views of the Estes Park valley and the Continental Divide, but it was a little bittersweet, and we didn't stay long. 

View from the summit of the  Twin Sisters hike in   Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

We had been considering staying a third day in Rocky Mountain National Park, but decided that this was a sign that it was time to hit the road again. The next day we set out for Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which will be Part Two in my next post.

Backpacking With Women

Just a few days after I returned from my seven-day backpacking trip through the Wind River Range of Wyoming, I was off on another adventure, this time in the wilderness of Montana. My adventure started with a six-hour road trip to Missoula (my longest solo road trip to date!). I was headed to Liz of Snowqueen and Scout's house, where I would meet her and three other women that I met though social media in person for the first time. All five of us would be participating in the first annual Wild Sage Summit, a gathering of influential women of the outdoor industry in the rugged Montana wilderness. We would spend three days backpacking together, and getting to know each other in person. It would be my first time backpacking in a group of all women, and I was excited for it. 

We all stayed up past midnight having a packing party, discussing the benefits of lightweight gear, and of carrying less stuff in general to lighten our loads. Alyx of Shoestring Adventures was able to lighten her usual load by ten pounds! Liz showed us a map of our proposed route through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Montana, and gave us a choice: a straightforward out and back trip, or a thru-hike ending at a different trailhead. The one-way trip would allow us to see a lot more scenery, but had a catch - a seemingly small cross-country section where we would need to use our route-finding skills a bit to link one trail to another trail. A guidebook assured us that there would be a reasonably clear trail to follow through the cross-country section, even though it wasn't on the map (we would later learn that this trail hadn't been maintained in over a decade). So we of course chose the more challenging trip.

We got off to a leisurely start the next morning, in stark contrast to my usual experience when backpacking with my husband. (He insists that we wake up at 5:00am to get our start bright and early.) I drove the shuttle car to the end trailhead with Jaymie of Mug Life and enjoyed getting to know her better during the drive. This was going to be fun!

Backpacking with women at the Wild Sage Summit

Our first day, we hiked about 10 miles with over 3,000 ft of elevation gain over steep, rocky terrain on an unusually warm late-summer day. 

Yes, we did plan the matching  Gossamer Gear backpacks !

Yes, we did plan the matching Gossamer Gear backpacks!

During our afternoon snack break, Liz checked our progress on the topo map, and proclaimed, "So we have a little bit of climbing coming up… and then more climbing." This was the first of many funny moments that made the trip memorable.

Liz checking the topo map during our  Epic  snack break

Liz checking the topo map during our Epic snack break

And climb we did! Up and up and up until the sun started getting low, and the colors of the landscape lit up with firey reds and yellows. 

Women backpacking through the Montana wilderness at the WIld Sage Summit

Finally, we reached our goal - beautiful Bass Lake. 

Bass Lake, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Montana

Bass Lake, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Montana

Jaymie capturing the beauty of Bass Lake while  catching some solar rays

Jaymie capturing the beauty of Bass Lake while catching some solar rays

Now we just needed to find a campsite and a place to cook dinner. Tired and hungry, we decided to make a tiny-but-flat campsite work, and cook dinner down on the lake's beach. The hot day quickly turned cold as the sun set, so we washed up and cooked some hot meals to share. Alyx put a packet of mushroom risotto inside her shirt to help speed up the cooking process and keep her warm, unaware that the ziplock seal hadn't been closed quite properly. Soon we would all see Alyx standing there bewildered as, to quote Liz, "her mushroom risotto water broke and she birthed our dinner into the world." Her shirt would have to join our bear hang bags that night.

Alyx prepping our  Good to Go  dinners, pre-explosion

Alyx prepping our Good to Go dinners, pre-explosion

Back at our tiny campsite, we determined that there was not enough room for our tents to fit. In fact, there was only just enough room for us to line our sleeping pads up side-by-side and "cowgirl camp" under the stars. It was my first time sleeping outdoors without a tent. Far out into the wilderness with no light pollution nearby, we were treated to a dark sky lit up with stars. Even the Milky Way was visible. A nearby colony of pikas called out "ehhh!" every so often, and all seemed otherwise quiet and serene. But I cannot lie - I barely slept that night. Korrin of Wild Wilderness Women was the only one of us lucky enough to sleep like a rock.

Our second day continued along the established trail around Bass Lake, and then turned off towards Bass Pass on a vague-but-discernible trail. With only minor route-finding required, we triumphantly reached Bass Pass.

Wild wilderness women, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Wyoming

From Bass Pass, we followed a few cairns down the mountain and into the creek bed below. Then the trail disappeared. But we pulled out the topo map, and pressed on.

Backpacking the Montana wilderness with women

At times bits and pieces of the trail would reappear again, assuring us that we were heading the right way. Everyone's mood remained positive and adventurous.

Backpacking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness at the Wild Sage Summit

We bushwhacked through underbrush and rocks, getting scratched and bruised up legs. We hopped across a giant field of boulders, cracking jokes when we found a very randomly placed cairn in this seemingly middle-of-nowhere place. (“Let me mark this! Yeah, I’d take this trail again.”)

But eventually, the trail disappeared, and a wall of seven-foot-tall underbrush stood before us. So we pushed through it.

Welcome to the jungle!

Welcome to the jungle!

Korrin always looking back to make sure I didn't get smacked in the face

Korrin always looking back to make sure I didn't get smacked in the face

Up, down, over and through mile after mile of jungle-like forest, five foot tall ferns, creeks and boulders.

Bushwhacking masters whut-wut!

Bushwhacking masters whut-wut!

We kept our smiles and positivity through some positively rugged terrain

We kept our smiles and positivity through some positively rugged terrain

Bushwhacking through a wilderness creek
Women backpacking

Along the way, I found an old, rusty bear spray in the "jungle." Had someone else really bushwhacked this same way before? And every once in a while, a trail would suddenly reappear, only to lead nowhere in particular, or disappear again. We amused ourselves by playing word games, telling stories, and yelling "HEY BEAR!" to keep the bears away. (Which worked! At one point a startled bear ran crashing through the forest away from us.) And then finally... we made our connection with the Kootenai Creek Trail, just before dark. All in all, we spent about 12 hours backpacking that day, ending the day's adventure hiking by the light of our headlamps up to a campsite by the  Kootenai Lakes. We set up camp (this time in tents), cooked and ate dinner and did our bear hang all by starlight. Alyx proclaimed, “Our motto should be: You can sleep when you’re dead.” And rather than going right to sleep after a long, tough day, we stayed up late talking and laughing about the day's adventures.

Finally, we all went to sleep. About six hours later, in the pitch darkness, we awoke to the sound of something big crashing through the forest. It was heading right for our camp, and it was making deep, guttural grunting noises. Having worked around bears before at a wildlife sanctuary, I knew that this wasn't a sound that a bear makes, but it was scary. And it was LOUD... and too close for comfort. I said, "Do you guys hear that?!" and pulled the safety off my bear spray, just in case something was about to attack. We made lots of noise to try to scare it away. It was largely unmoved. It continued to grunt near our camp for a while, and then finally went away. We would later learn that it was bull moose looking for a mate.

Camp sweet camp

Camp sweet camp

After the sun rose, we got to see just what a scenic spot we were camping in. It was nice to spend some time enjoying our beautiful surroundings before getting back on the trail.

kootenai-lakes.jpg

Our third and final day was spent on the Kootenai Creek Trail backpacking through beautiful wilderness forest and alongside the crystal clear  Kootenai Creek. Despite the blistering heat, some of us opted to wear yoga pants to keep our legs from getting battered any further by the underbrush that creeped into the trail here and here. With thoughts of the ice cold beer that awaited us back at Liz's house, we backpacked our final miles together. 

Keeping comfortable and protected in  Dear Kate  yoga pants and shorts!

Keeping comfortable and protected in Dear Kate yoga pants and shorts!

women-backpacking8.jpg

It was a trip I'll never forget. We entered the trail as nearly-strangers, and left as friends.

Backpacking the Wind River Range of Wyoming

In early September of this year, I spent a week backpacking 80 miles through the Wind River Range in the Bridger Wilderness of Wyoming with my husband Max. It was my longest and highest altitude backpacking trip to date. Because this was a wilderness trip, no camping permits were required. But because the Bridger Wilderness is bear country, we did need to plan in advance to bring gear for secure food storage both below and above the treeline, as many of our planned campsites were above 10,000 feet in elevation. Daytime high temperatures reached into the 70s, and nighttime lows dipped into the frosty 20s. 

On our first day, loaded down with enough food and all-weather gear for a week (you can never skimp on warm clothing or rain gear in the mountains, though I do wear a Mariposa lightweight backpack and pack as ultralight as possible), we began our adventure at the Green River Lakes trailhead on the Highline Trail. This trail began with stunning views of the Lower and Upper Green River Lakes, both aquamarine in color. The lakes were surrounded by massive mountains, including the iconic and aptly-named Squaretop Mountain to the south.

Squaretop Mountain and the Green River, Wind River Range, Wyoming

The trail then meandered next to the Green River, which is also colored a fascinating shade of aquamarine by glacial silt. After hiking about 14 miles on relatively flat terrain, we decided to camp for the night in a meadow called Three Forks Park. It turned out that the area was quite marshy, and the only flat and dry campsite that we could find in the area was already taken. In the wilderness, there are generally not clearly established campsites, in keeping with the Leave No Trace ethic, so finding a campsite involves some scouting. After a bit more hunting around with slightly soggy feet, we managed to find a flat, dry spot and finally lay our heavy packs to rest for the night. We had just enough time to cook dinner, get cleaned up, and pitch our tent before being treated to a beautiful view of the last light on the mountains surrounding the little canyon we were camping in.

Three Forks Park, Wind River Range, Wyoming

The next morning we set out ready to begin steadily climbing up to above 11,000 ft in elevation, with our end destination for the day to be above the treeline. We were treated to warm weather and perfect puffy clouds as we switchbacked higher and higher up, making a stop for lunch near an alpine lake surrounded by mountains. After this refreshing break, the trail began to descend for so long that we were worried that we had taken the wrong route -- but soon the trail began to climb once more, leading us up to Vista Pass at 10,150 ft elevation with a stunning view of the valley below.

Beyond Vista Pass, we were treated to dramatic views of shimmering blue-green alpine lake after alpine lake, each framed by 12,000 ft tall peaks, with puffy clouds dancing above. 

Backpacking the Wind River Range, Bridger Wilderness, Wyoming

Our highest elevation climb for the day was up to Shannon Pass at 11,245 ft--well above the 8,300 ft elevation we began our day at--which required scrambling over a vast field of boulders to get to the top.

Scrambling over boulders to reach Shannon Pass while backpacking the Wind River Range in Wyoming

Beautiful alpine tundra, tall peaks and emerald lakes surrounded us as we hiked breathlessly above the treeline. We camped between a pristine little unnamed lake and vast, deep Upper Jean Lake. This was my first time camping above the treeline in an exposed meadow, and I was thankful for the calm evening weather. I woke up in the middle of the night to look at the moon shining through the clouds and the night sky lit up with stars, and just marvel at this otherworldly scene all around me. All was quiet except for the delightful call of pikas in the rocks.

On day three we began our journey toward the destination that I had been most looking forward to, Titcomb Basin. We stopped for lunch at an overlook of the wildly scenic Island Lake, the tall spires of Titcomb Basin rising up behind it, and just soaked in the scenery for a while.

After hiking past Island Lake and rock-hopping over a creek, we arrived at Titcomb Basin in all its glory. Before exploring further, we hunted around for a suitable campsite to spend the next two nights in. The spot that we chose had an amazing view of the lakes and the 13,000 ft peaks surrounding the basin, but was quite exposed given the 10,600 ft elevation that we were camping at.

Titcomb Basin - seen backpacking the Wind River Range, Wyoming

After shedding some of the weight from our packs and spending the evening exploring the magnificent scenery of Titcomb Basin, we enjoyed the expansive views of the entire basin from back at our campsite.

Titcomb Basin, Wind River Range, Bridger Wilderness, Wyoming
The view from my tent in Titcomb Basin

Our fourth day took us through Indian Basin and up to Indian Pass, the highest elevation that I had hiked up to at the time: 12,200 ft. Indian Basin was filled with more of the striking alpine lakes surrounded by mountains that had delighted us throughout this trip, and the hike up to Indian Pass took us close with some small glaciers that had survived another summer. To our surprise, all of the large glaciers that our map seemed to show we would be looking out on from the other side of the pass were hidden from view. Every last one of them! But it was still quite an experience to have hiked up that high, and the endless view down into Indian Basin was a bit like looking into Mordor.

The view from the top of Indian Pass, above 12,000 ft elevation, Wind River Range, Wyoming

After descending to explore Indian Basin some more, we returned to our campsite to soak in some more views of Titcomb Basin, enjoy the sunset, and watch increasingly dark clouds roll in. They made for some dramatic late-day light, but it looked like we might be in for a rough night.

Sunset in Titcomb Basin, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Hoping for the best, we went to sleep in our Tarptent. Bright flashes of lightning striking all around us and the booming rumble of thunder would wake us up sometime in the middle of the night, terrified. With each strike of lightning, I wondered if this would be my last night on Earth. I clung to Max in fear with each boom and burst of light. Finally, the storm went away as suddenly as it had begun, and we drifted back to sleep again.

On our fifth day we said a reluctant goodbye to Titcomb Basin - I was sad to leave this beautiful place, lightning and all.

Backpacking the Winds, Wyoming

We hiked back past Island Lake, still awed by its size and beauty, and back to Upper Jean Lake. where we stopped for lunch.

Lunch spot across from Upper Jean Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming

Instead of feeling tired and sore as I had feared I might by this point in the trip, I felt strong. Max said that I was like a mountain goat as I climbed up the steep, rocky trail with what felt like ease. Eleven miles later, we chose a campsite near huge and scenic Elbow Lake. After the previous night's ordeal, we selected as sheltered a campsite as we could at 10,600 ft so that we wouldn't feel as exposed.

Camping near Elbow Lake while backpacking the Winds in Wyoming

This turned out to be a wise decision, as the night brought howling wind and pouring rain all night long, plus a little bit more thunder and lightning. It was hard to sleep much that night. A deep appreciation for the power of nature settled in me, similar to the first time I got knocked down by a wave and dragged by the current into the ocean. 

Thunderclouds rolling in near Elbow Lake in the Wind River Range, Wyoming

We woke up to a wet tent (on the outside only, thankfully), water in our camp shoes, and a very cold sixth morning. Shortly after we got started on looping back to the trailhead a higher-elevation way than we came in, we met two other backpackers on the trail who warned us that the forecast for that night called for three inches of snow above 9500 ft. Our planned campsite for the night was above 10,000 ft, so we took out our map and decided to alter our route back to avoid the possibility of waking up covered in snow, and then spending the day hiking through snow in our summer shoes. Dramatic clouds rolled in, and then spit some hail on us, as we made our way back down below the treeline again.

Backpacking the Wind River Range in Wyoming

We camped at a pleasant spot in Beaver Park back down around 8,000 ft, and the weather cleared enough for us to enjoy our dinner and the sunset before heading to sleep. 

In the morning we awoke to a tent covered completely in frost and frozen water bottles. I was thankful that I had brought gloves and a winter hat that final morning, and put my hiking pants on right over my fleece pajamas. It was too cold to take my pajama pants off until well after the sun rose! Our final day of backpacking took us back past the Green River, Green Lakes, and Squaretop Mountain.

Backpacking past the Green River Lakes, Wind River Range, Wyoming

A few other groups of backpackers warned us of a young grizzly bear near the trail ahead, but he was gone by the time we passed. We also missed an entire family of moose that a ranger told us he had seen earlier in the morning. There were plenty of stunning views to make up for the missed wildlife connections though, and I was sad to find myself at the end of the trail that afternoon. A victory dinner at the Wind River Brew Pub awaited us back in Pinedale, Wyoming, where I proceeded to eat the Best Meal Ever after a week of eating only backpacking food. I am already planning my next trip back to the enchanting, awe-inspiring Wind River Range.

Read more of my adventures here and see more photos on Instagram.

A Life Less Structured

For the second time in my life, I have taken the plunge and quit my day job. Something inside me was screaming that I am not meant to sit for eight hours straight per day. Sunlight and movement and open space were things that my soul was craving. Days free from clocks, structure, screens and boxes. 

The last time I quit my day job, a couple of side projects that I had been working on for years suddenly took off at just that moment. I had more time to focus on my art, and discovered that people actually wanted to buy it. I took a scary risk, and it somehow worked out... and here I am again, swimming upstream against the tide of "supposed to."

I'm usually quite the planner, but sometimes I decide to just wing it instead. This is one of those times. 

Here is some of what I've been soaking in lately.

Looking out over the Buffao Bill Reservoir and the Absaroka Mountains at Buffalo Bill State Park in Cody, Wyoming.

Looking out over the Buffao Bill Reservoir and the Absaroka Mountains at Buffalo Bill State Park in Cody, Wyoming.

Morning light on summer wildflowers on the hike up to Elk Mountain in the Wyoming Range - one of my new favorites.

Morning light on summer wildflowers on the hike up to Elk Mountain in the Wyoming Range - one of my new favorites.

Waking up to see the sunrise on Jackson Lake after a night of camping in  Grand Teton National Park .

Waking up to see the sunrise on Jackson Lake after a night of camping in Grand Teton National Park.

Watching the thunderclouds roll in as the sun shines moody light on the steamy Excelsior Geyser in Yellowstone National Park.

Watching the thunderclouds roll in as the sun shines moody light on the steamy Excelsior Geyser in Yellowstone National Park.

Lingering in this field of happiness in  Grand Teton National Park .

Lingering in this field of happiness in Grand Teton National Park.

The view of the "Idaho side" of the Tetons framed by wildflowers on the hike up to Peaked Peak at Grand Targhee.

The view of the "Idaho side" of the Tetons framed by wildflowers on the hike up to Peaked Peak at Grand Targhee.

Enjoying lunch after a hike up to Delta Lake in  Grand Teton National Park , the moment before a cold wind and a hailstorm drove everyone else away (while I put on my rain suit and backpack cover and waited a short time for it to blow over).

Enjoying lunch after a hike up to Delta Lake in Grand Teton National Park, the moment before a cold wind and a hailstorm drove everyone else away (while I put on my rain suit and backpack cover and waited a short time for it to blow over).

Hiking through fields of tall, trail-obscuring Nettle-leaf Horsemint, Lupine and Sticky Geranium on the long, strenuous route up to Liar's Pass in the Big Hole Mountains of eastern Idaho.

Hiking through fields of tall, trail-obscuring Nettle-leaf Horsemint, Lupine and Sticky Geranium on the long, strenuous route up to Liar's Pass in the Big Hole Mountains of eastern Idaho.

Getting lost in lupine.

Getting lost in lupine.

Craters of the Moon

I spent a long weekend with my husband Max in Craters of the Moon National Monument in March. The snow had just melted, and the campground and trails were mostly empty. We had this vast, otherworldly high desert landscape mostly to ourselves. Picking a campsite in a recessed area with plenty of windbreak saved our tent from getting overly brutalized from the high winds that picked up on our second day, although it didn't stop the inside of our tent from filling up with sand. Note to self: always place a heavy rock on top of each tent stake in the desert, even if it doesn't seem necessary.

Craters of the Moon campground

This mysterious land of lava fields and cinder cones was designated as a National Monument in 1924. Just 100 years ago, it was still largely unknown and unexplored by anyone except the Northern Shoshone. The sunsets and sunrises were particularly spectacular. Warm sunlight and cold air. I expected to have company at these beautiful spots, but we were the only ones there each time.

Golden hour in Craters of the Moon
Craters of the Moon at sunrise
Craters of the Moon landscape

Our hikes took us through volcanic moonscapes, and past enormous craters. When you get off the short road that travels through a small corner of the park, and out onto the trails or into the backcountry, it becomes readily apparent how this wonderland got its name.

The landscape at Craters of the Moon in Idaho
A crater and volcanic rocks in Craters of the Moon

I was fascinated by the geology of the area. Lava erupted from this crater thousands of years ago, and the cinders piled up around it as they erupted explosively. There were never any steep mountain style volcanoes herethe eruptions at Craters of the Moon were fissure eruptions, where lava came out of cracks in the ground. Craters of the Moon is located on a weak spot in the earth's crust called the Great Rift, where there have been eight eruptions in the past 15,000 years. The cinder rocks were formed when gases that were dissolved in the magma came out of solution during an eruption, creating bubbles in the molten rock which were frozen in place when the rock cooled and solidified. Some of the small cinders are light enough to float on water!

Volcanic cinder rocks in Craters of the Moon, Idaho

Craters of the Moon also includes 43, 243 acres of wildernessIn 1970 Congress recognized the exceptional qualities of the now-protected area by designating it as the first wilderness area in any national park. We hiked some of The Wilderness Trail before being blown about so much by gale-force gusts that we decided to come back and explore the wilderness some more on another, less windy, day. At over 1,100 square miles (more than 750,000 acres), this huge park has plenty of space to explore. It is almost as large as the state of Rhode Island!

The view along the Craters of the Moon Wilderness Trail

The view along the Craters of the Moon Wilderness Trail