WYOMING & COLORADO                   October 2015

Bear Country
We were greeted by bear-readiness signs on the first hike of our 2015/16 road trip, which was in Idaho about 70 miles west of the Grand Teton National Park (NP). Bill had already outfitted himself for the hike with his bear spray, big knife, and a new Bluetooth speaker. The warning sign didn’t mention including a knife or speaker in your kit but it did assume you had bear spray and urged hikers to make noise while they walked.

Immediately on alert for bears.
We quickly learned a year ago when hiking in nearby Yellowstone NP that clapping and talking were not sustainable ways to alert bears to our presence—just try to continuously talk loudly while hiking uphill at 8,000’ for hours. Then we tumbled to a very un-PC trick to announce ourselves, which was playing music on our cell phones that we already carried in mesh belt bags. 

Being concerned that the phones weren’t loud enough to deter bears, Bill picked up a small outdoor speaker on the way to Teton to hang from his pack. It’s first outing was this first hike in Idaho. We mixed in Italian language audio lessons with rousting tunes, like Bach’s Fugue in D Minor, to provide continuous noise to alert the bears that we too were lurking nearby.

At Yellowstone and in the Teton region, we were conflicted about being safe from the bears by creating noise pollution. On our first hike this year, Bill quickly silenced the music as soon as we saw other people in the distance. On the hike the next day, we were alone for the 6 hour outing, which made the music all the more reassuring. 

Knowing that an employee was killed for food, not defense, by a bear in Yellowstone this summer comforted our conflict a bit about disturbing the peace. But it was after seeing a fellow hiker on this Idaho trail packing an almost 2’ long pistol instead of bear spray that the last of my concerns for the sensitivities of others dissipated. 

In 2011, a man shot and killed a hiker just outside of a popular Oregon State Park because he heard rustling in the bushes and thought it was a bear. I immediately bought a bear bell to fend off the guys with guns, not the bears. With further thought this fall, I decided that our music would both reduce our odds of being attacked by a bear and being shot.

Once in Teton, we learned that bear bells were considered ineffective because, unless the particular bear had already had encounters with the bells, they didn’t associate the sound with people. With that reasoning in mind, we switched from playing some instrumentals to all vocals for our auditory bear repellent system. 

Our Italian skills skyrocketed from intermixing our long Italian language teaching tracks with music during our almost 2 weeks of hiking in bear country. The story-songs from the Charlie Daniels Band nicely distracted our minds during the difficult climbs uphill in Grand Teton and the strong beat of Chuck Berry set a brisk pace for our launching our steep descents. And Pink Martini was great when we could no longer concentrate on the Italian lessons towards the end of our ascents and descents.

The indistinct toe prints & claw marks almost double the length of the paw print.
Close Enough
About 3 hours into our finale hike in Grand Teton NP to a 10,800’ saddle, Bill spotted a  large bear print that seemed fresh, though we weren’t sure how to gauge its age. Momentarily immobilized, we then looked for others. A fainter print showed the bear going the opposite direction. We reluctantly decided to continue on, not knowing which was his current course but being even more alert. 

Hours later on our descent, I noticed that the bear print had dried in the afternoon sun and was now much less distinct. The dramatic change in its appearance suggested that indeed the print had been quite fresh when we saw it as it surely was far less than 24 hours old at that time. Bill surmised that we had been on a collision course with the bear: that the bear had heard our music and turned around where we spotted the prints. Of course, there was no way to know, but we had to wonder.

On the drive back to our trailer near sunset, we used Park Service outdoor signage to identify the print as that of a black bear, not the more aggressive and larger grizzly bears we had assumed had been on our trail. More likely to flee than stand their ground like grizzlies, our story fit with us nearly having had an encounter with a black bear that day. 

Regardless of the real story, we will continue playing vocal music a little loud for our primary bear repellent and carry our bear spray and knife should we have a confrontation during our brief, annual visits to bear country.

Beyond Bears
The Park
Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is as beautiful as you expect a National Park to be. The main road, which continues on to nearby Yellowstone NP, cuts across a broad valley floor carved by the Snake River. At 13,770’, the readily seen Grand Teton Peak is the centerpiece of the small Teton Range that quickly gets the dwindles.

Lunch stop: The bear spray is handy while the speaker, iPhone, & new Apple watch charge.
Grand Teton NP has more moderate to strenuous hikes of significant elevation gain than any other National Park we’ve visited, which was great for us. Their list included 27 non-easy hikes, compared to the usual 2-3 challenging trails in other parks. The trails must be mobbed in high season based on the large amount of trailhead parking and comments in the park newspaper about the benefits of being an early bird.

A rare gem in a national park was the 20 mile long bike path between downtown Jackson, WY and Jenny Lake, a hub within the park. We delighted in taking a round-trip ride for a relative-rest day activity. The 1000’ of elevation gain beginning at 6,200’ and the strong afternoon head winds made it less than a restful day but what a treasure to ride on a sequestered, paved, multi-use path the entire way in such a stunning settling. (We and at least 1 other person carried bear spray on the route.)

Jackson, WY (Near the Jackson Hole ski area.)
The town of Jackson is the gateway to the Park and where we stayed in our new trailer for 8 nights because the convenient park campgrounds were closed for the winter. Paying over $70 a night for a very basic RV park in the off-season tells the story of Jackson: that was more than double our usual cost per night and that was the cheap one in the area.

A clearing spell on a cold day in Grand Teton: Static Peak Divide at 10,790’.
Downtown Jackson exudes being an annex for high-end vacation homes. The slightly contrived but cute old town has well-done, Disneyland-like western-themed store fronts. The many clothing stores featured the late-summer/fall versions of pricey apres ski wear.  Stores with larger-than-life bronzes, $8,000 rustic bed frames, paintings, stuffed heads and whole-bodies of wildlife, and other artwork were bountiful.

The half-dozen late middle-aged men we spotted in leg and arm casts in downtown Jackson on one Saturday morning made us clutch and had us wondering if we’d be leaving town splinted as well. We learned by experience that Grand Teton wasn’t inherently dangerous but that there were a plethora of new adventures available to vacationing week-end warriors. Float trips, guided fishing outings, climbing, hiking, horseback rides, and pack-trips for first-timers were all prominently marketed on the main roads outside of the old town core.

In addition to the well-heeled seasonal residents, Jackson’ s full-timers were clearly a sporting crowd. America’s worsening obesity epidemic wasn’t evident in Jackson where lean, tanned, hard-bodies of all ages abounded. Private wooden, white water boats were curiously parked on many of the residential streets and the abundant  bike routes were heavily used.  Four-wheel drive vehicles were the norm and most were covered with dust and mud instead of sporting freshly buffed chrome like we usually see.

I overhead one shopper saying to a clerk “We’re trying to figure out how to afford to move here,” which received no reply. We didn’t make an effort to price homes in Jackson but like many gentrified sporting hubs, we assumed it was out-of-sight by our standards.

It had taken 2 attempts to navigate around early snow storms so as to enjoy a fall visit to Yellowstone NP last year but we were thrilled to make it to the Grand Teton on the first try. Our spirits were buoyed by forecasts of summer-like daytime highs and overnight lows above freezing, so we pressed eastward to Rocky Mountain National Park. We hoped to hike there a week or so, then let the approaching winter weather push us south.

Black Lake was in a dramatic setting but it wasn’t our destination lake.
Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking From Bear Lake To Frozen Lake 
Finally back in our trailer and eating our late dinner at about our usual bedtime, Bill mentioned that the upper reaches of our trail that day hadn’t appeared on any Park Service map, it was instead an extension he had found described online. I was startled, but it made sense. I had been acutely aware at the time that the entire upper trail had seemed totally disconnected from the rest of the route and now I knew why. 

After more than an hour’s drive, we had begun the day’s hike at Bear Lake, a popular destination because the small, scenic lake’s edge is literally a couple of minutes walk from the asphalt parking lot. There we had left behind the sippy-cup crowd and then walked for an hour or so with the “finger water” hikers, the pack-less hikers dangling a water bottle by the cap loop. A bit beyond where they started turning around, a descending, early-bird, ultra-fit, local climber engaged us. 

Unusually friendly and chatty, especially for a climber, he apparently was doing his community service work by inquiring about our turn-around point for the day. He mentioned that we’d be hiking in falling snow but that “You’ll be fine.” We had apparently passed the competency test we didn’t know we were taking and were blessed to proceed. Later, it was at Mills Lake where we saw the last of the groups of 2 and 4 hikers and only saw a few more people after that until we were almost back to Bear Lake at sunset. 

The trail had become a single-file route in the dense, mixed conifer-deciduous forest when a shy, descending woman commented without slowing that “The rain is heavy at the top” even though she hadn’t asked where we were headed. Equipped with a Personal Locator Beacon, she assumed we were doing the route she had done.

The report of snow was actually more welcome than the update of heavy rain. The light but steady drizzle had prompted us to put on almost all of our rain gear already but even fully outfitted, hiking in heavy rain was a glum prospect.

A bit after hearing our last unsolicited weather report, the easy-to-follow trail degraded, which in hindsight, was when we left the official park trail system. Suddenly we were continuously on the look-out for a trail to follow. Simultaneously, the route abruptly became a steep, uphill pitch in loose rock. I remembered feeling that we were really on our own at that point and indeed, we never saw another trail sign.

Disconcerting, even looking back at our route during our late descent.
Almost immediately after leaving the official trail, it felt like we’d entered another world. A sharp, glacial-chilled wind found every gap in our armor against the cold and wet. Instead of walking along an alternating series of wetland areas and rises, we were now threading our way up a steep, narrow gorge flanked on one side by a wet,  sheer granite face. We kept looking up, wondering where in the increasingly hostile terrain our destination lake might be.

The towering jagged peaks drew nearer and an eerie-looking black mountain face came into view as we went higher and slowly carved a course to the right around a giant granite mound. The thin air was taxing; it was well past lunch time; but we pressed on. Several plateaus came and went as we looked for Black Lake and then Frozen Lake. Plateaus that surely supported a lake had none.

Bill’s altitude intolerance was getting the better of him that day so I went ahead: we were both eager for good news, to know that we we almost there. Too damp and cold to slow, we didn’t stop to track the time or check his app map, we just kept going as fast at we could.

In Grand Teton, we were never more than 10’ apart because of the grizzly bear threat. But with only 30 black bears in all of RMNP and now being in open tundra terrain, it was safe to widen the gap. However, even separating just a little bit immediately intensified the sense of foreboding at the 11,000’ base of these gray and black pinnacles. The confined, peak-encircled area felt like the wellspring of legends, myths, and ancient initiation rites. Threatening and yet beckoning, we were pulled higher and deeper into this primeval-feeling space.

“We’ll go up one more pitch…..OK, one more”. The destination lakes were farther out of reach than expected. I finally removed my damp gloves to dig through my layers to find my watch. It was almost 3 pm; we still weren’t there; we hadn’t eaten since breakfast; it was time to turn around. 

After scrambling up one more tantalizingly-close pitch that delivered yet another disappointing result, Bill extracted his app map and said “It’s only a thousand feet more, over there.” I’m the self-appointed time keeper who declares when to turn-around when it’s time for a hard decision but with only 1000’ to go, I yielded. I agreed to go on for the sake of the sense of accomplishment, for having reached the destination.

The look of Mills Lake reminded us that it would soon be dark.
Already chilled and with scant shelter from the relentless, menacing wind, we sat out of sight of our trophy, Frozen Lake, to eat after taking a quick look at it. Fortunately the official forecast of improving afternoon weather had prevailed and by the time we declared “Arrivo!” the drizzle had stopped and there were moments of sun breaks. No heavy rain, no snow: that had been the good news of the day.

Too cold and too concerned about the fast approaching sundown, we began our return through the threatening-feeling high country without taking a single photo.

On strenuous, unfamiliar trails, we always allow equal time for the ascent and descent. On many trails, we don’t go much faster on the downhill but we’d learned a few days earlier at Grand Teton that it’s different for us at these altitudes. The low oxygen concentration is a substantial impediment only on the uphills and on the descent, our nimble footwork prevails, allowing us to descend 25-30% faster than we climb. 

Indeed, even though we were deeply chilled from sitting, we charged down the trail. At one point early on, I missed the trail we’d taken up but happily, it was a wind-sheltered short-cut that also dodged a tricky bit of scrambling on slickened rocks. No longer struggling to breath, Bill then flew ahead, spotting the rock cairns we needed to eventually reconnect with the official park trail far below.

After 20 minutes of pushing our descent speed to the limit, we both relaxed a bit. Our headlamps that we’d fetched from the bottoms of our packs at lunch probably wouldn’t be needed to guide us in. A little farther down, we’d warmed enough to pause for a few photos. Then we began to celebrate our conquest. We’d made it to 11,630’; we’d made it to our destination; we’d performed well despite the challenges of the elevation and the cold. We were feeling confident again: we’d escaped the no man’s land of the upper plateaus and had taken-in stunning views along the way.

Safely back to our truck in the last bit of daylight, we hoped to do this hike again some day with the benefit of an even earlier start and better weather. Perhaps the unusual space at the base of the tight cluster of high peaks would feel magical instead of forbidding on a warmer day.

Logistically, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a bit of a challenge, like our big hike had been. Being about 25 miles from Loveland where we camped, 35 miles from Boulder, and 50 from Denver, out-of-state tourists are outnumbered, especially on the weekends. 

The autumn look of the mixed forests at the lower elevations (9000’) were delightful.
It looked like the Sunday Brunch crowd was out in full force at Estes Park on our first day at RMNP. Estes Park is the primary entry point into the park and even with a bypass, it is slow going to actually get to the park entrance. With our trailer, we had our own lodging, but noticed that a number of the motels were full, even in the middle of October. We’d been warned to wait until Monday to avoid the crowds of more local people, but given that heavy rains were due on Wednesday, we needed to make every day count.

The elevation is another challenge if planning an active visit to RMNP. The main park entrance is about 8200’ and our trailheads were 8840’ and 9450’. Given that the incidence of acute mountain sickness skyrockets at 8250’, the altitude is an issue for everyone. We were by far the oldest people more than a half mile out on the trails and no doubt the physiological stresses of the elevation were a big factor. We had about 10 days of acclimation to around 6,000’ under our belts, which was a huge help, but we still were acutely aware of our shortness of breath every time we hit a grade on our trails.

We’d love to return to RMNP for hiking, but it will be a planning nightmare as long as we choose to spend our summers in the  Alps. Almost all park service campgrounds and RV parks both here and at Grand Teton close for the winter on October 1 or 15, leaving us a small window since we are doing well to shove-off from home by October first. A week of altitude acclimation time helps, but 3 weeks would make hiking more comfortable. And then there is the fall weather—this had been an exceptionally good fall, not one to be expected as the norm. All in all, a visit to RMNP is a tough package for us to put together.

The centerpiece of Devils Tower National Monument.
Other Park Attractions
I found the mix of deciduous and conifers on the major, boulder-lined trails enchanting, especially with the white bark of the leafless aspens being so prominent though other visitors were clearly more taken with the roadside attractions of the occasional roaming the elk, deer, and big horn sheep. And higher up in the park, no one seemed to miss the drama of leaving the mixed forest behind and entering the tundra on the upper road that summits at about 12,000’. Rocky Mountain didn’t disappoint, whether you saw it from the road or the trails.

WYOMING AGAIN, BRIEFLY: Devils Tower National Monument
"Take the good news about global warming when you can” spurred us to drive further east on the rain days to hike the Black Hills in South Dakota when the weather cleared. The unusually warm, mostly dry, fall weather allowed us to make a planned visit to Grand Teton NP and an unplanned stop in Rocky Mtn NP, both of which emboldened us to press on to the Black Hills.

Rain was always in about half of the 10 day forecast but we turned as many of those days as possible into driving days and reconciled ourselves to scouting the new venues on the few better days rather than having the week-long stays we craved. Adding to the sightseeing challenges that the weather presented as we headed east was that less than 10% of the campgrounds and RV parks on our route were open.

On our way to the Black Hills, we made a detour for a day visit to the Devil’s Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming. Not a big to-do but it was impressive to see the 865’ high remnants of a massive igneous (magma) intrusion into sedimentary rock that was exposed by millions of years of erosion. The short, higher-elevation path gave us a 360 degree view of the tower from its base and the lower, longer path added some welcome miles to our outing and fine panoramas of the local geology. Hardly a ‘bucket-list’ item for us, but a ‘nice to do’ destination on an icy-cold but sunny fall day.

Grand Teton NP was the only planned destination on our northern tier itinerary but still in disbelief about our unseasonably good weather, we pressed on further east to the Black Hills to see what the buzz was about.