July 11, 2015
I parked the car in the dark, cool air of 4:30 AM at what I perceived to be the trailhead. Having only a vague idea of where the trail began, I was winging it. I put my pack on, and closed the trunk with a thump that seemed to echo through the dark forest surrounding the road. Why does dark air carry sound so much better than sunlit air? I poked around a few moments along the side of the road. The stars overhead provided only a ghost of a light, insufficient to find a trail. I pulled out my phone, and by the light of the welcome screen, found a path that headed northwest.
I cruised along this wide path through the quiet woods. Large ponderosa pine loomed along the trail, visible only as vague outlines in the starlight. The stars? Magnificent! From 9,000 ft, the Milky Way has that much less of Earth’s atmosphere to obscure it. By starlight, I navigated uphill along the wide trail in a northwest direction until I arrived at a trail junction. I chose the right fork and continued hiking. In only twenty yards or so, the trail switchbacked to the left, and sent me in the same direction as the original trail. The farther I walked, the more I felt the urge to break off from the trail and hike north towards the summit of the peak, which was becoming more defined in the pre-dawn glow growing in the east. The urge could not be tamed, and I abruptly turned right and began walking uphill through sagebrush and dodging low-hanging Ponderosa limbs. I huffed and puffed like a steam engine up the hill, wanting to ensure I arrived at the summit before the sun, churning my legs through the brush and finding them scratched with blood from sagebrush encounters later in the day. Fifteen heart-pounding minutes later I was at a ridgeline that afforded an overlook into the Glacier View campground below, but there was still some distance to the top. I tied in with a crude foot trail that took me up through a gap in the rocks and up to the summit of Emerald Mt. From the top, I could look down on the glittering lights of the YMCA, and farther afield to Estes Park, and in the other direction on to the Glacier View campground, and of course, to the spine of the continent and its associated peaks far to the west. Longs Peak rose above all to the south.
My primary goal was to capture interesting sunrise shots, so I scouted around for good vantage points. I found it hard to find a location that would capture the mountains of interest (Flattop, Hallet, Otis) without also including the rather unsightly campground below, which, because of mountain pine beetle, is denuded of trees and so leaves nothing to the imagination in regards to tents, campers, buildings, etc. I never saw the campground before the trees were removed, but I’ll bet it was a nice spot to stay. I eventually found a rock outcropping with a shrub that served as a campground screen, and with the camera placed, I sat back with hands in jacket pockets and waited for the sun, inhaling the sweet smell of damp mountain air.
Around 5:45, the first glimmer of red light touched Longs Peak, and seconds later, the veil of alpenglow descended on the series of mountains above Bear Lake. I snapped pictures and watched the sunlight intensify and pull down the mountainside like warm wax. I moved around a bit to get new angles and see alternative views. I walked north over rough granite that gripped my shoes like fly paper to see the Mummy Range, but in summer the sunlight comes in at too north of an angle to light up those peaks from this vantage point. The low angle of light emphasized the vastness of the forested slope that lay between me and Longs Peak to the south, stretching the 3rd dimension with shadows and dim light. All was covered in red brilliance. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have considered the unique gravity of such a spectacular moment of beauty, believing at the time that similar events would be endlessly upcoming, on par for every weekend. But these days, the gray hair that has crept into my beard whispers that all good things must end, that I won’t always be able to scramble up a 1000-foot slope by starlight in under 30 minutes, that one day I’ll hike up a mountain peak to watch a sunrise for the last time. Today will not be the last time, I am sure, but knowing that there will be such a time causes me to savor this one even more.
By 7:00, the show was largely over. The sun had risen far above the horizon and the light had turned from reddish-bronze to brilliant, clean white. I packed my gear and headed down. I checked out the false summit on the way down, a spot that provides a great vantage point for Longs Peak, despite being shorter than the main summit. I caught the trail, and descended. This trail is not a good one, and I’m sure it is in no way official or maintained. I slipped on the steep, gravelly surface once and punctured the skin of my palm on a sharp rock while falling. After that, I eschewed the “trail” and simply went down via my own route through the sagebrush, just as I had ascended.
I hopped on the trail that runs to the Glacier View campground, and marched back to the car, enjoying the sounds of hummingbirds trilling through the still morning air.