August 14-16, 2004
Even with a map, the route is sometimes hard to find. Especially when the map doesn’t show the numerous little dirt roads and forks that one encounters on the ground en route to the trailhead. Yet even that is part of the fun….part of exploration. If every route were perfectly marked, with no chance of getting lost, some of the adventure would be lost. As I pulled out of the little gas station in Walden, munching a nitrite-laden hot dog, I had a firm idea of where I was going, but not such a firm idea of how to get there. Under a perfect blue sky, I cruised my dusty green passenger vehicle past the three buildings that make up the town of Rand, and made the appropriate turn left off the pavement shortly thereafter. After that, I was a little lost for awhile. Dirt roads led in multiple directions, and many were not on my map. I drove a little up the road I believed to be the right one when a group of folks on ATVs came motoring down and told me that I wouldn’t be able to make it any further up the road. I asked them if it led to Jack’s Park. Emphatically, they replied, “No.”. Trust the locals? I won’t again. This time I did, backtracked several miles and replayed the drive again, paying very special attention to turns and topography. Ending up back at the same road, I determined it must be the right one. Before the wide graded surface gives way to steep rocky surface, there is a makeshift campground next to a stream. I decided to park here, even though it was miles from my intended trailhead, since the folks on ATVs had said my car wouldn’t make it up. Frank, my quiet canine hiking partner was with me, and itching to get out of the car and nose around. I could empathize with that feeling, after 4 hours in the car. I parked in the shade of spruces and popped the trunk to pack up my gear for transport up the valley. Several RV’s were parked nearby, and I waved casually to the lounging owners. As I shouldered my pack, we regarded each other with equal amazement at the others’ recreation preference. Frank and I walked about 300 yards up the road when I determined that my car could indeed make it up at least this far, and easily up further as far as I could see. So, I cached my pack behind a large pine bole, and jogged back to the car. Hopping in, I saw a white truck come around the corner and pass me, slowly churning on up the hill I had just walked down. I slowly followed him, steering carefully to avoid scraping the bottom of the car on jagged rocks. Having higher clearance, he soon crept ahead of me enough so that I could no longer see his bumper. I stopped and grabbed my pack and tossed it in the trunk. The road was narrow, and very much unimproved. Its jagged rocks and deep ruts might have seen a grader sometimes in the 60’s, but had seen many spring thaws and thunderstorms since. I went slow and steered with concentration and managed fine. About 2-3 miles up the road, however, I encountered a stretch that made sweat bead on my brow. The rocks were so sharp and jagged, and the grade so steep, I thought surely I would puncture a tire. I tried to stay away from the edge of the road that dropped off into the creek below to avoid skidding down incase of a flat. The road was so narrow that turning around was physically impossible, and the rocks so jagged and tall, reverse wouldn’t allow me to steer around them. Thus, I continued on up until the road leveled out again. A small turnout on the left side provided the perfect spot to park it. Thankful for having made it this far without incident, I determined not to press my luck any further. Frank and I once again got out and began hiking up the road. The sun was high in the sky, it being around 1PM, and the warm summer air was perfect. In 200 yards, I met the occupants of the white truck, which was now parked along the left side of the road. A man my age and his small son were sitting on a rock outcropping overlooking the creek far below. He asked me how far I made it up and mentioned that he didn’t think my car could make it very far. I told him as long as I go slow, I can make it almost anywhere. I wished them well, and continued on. I reached a fork in the road where the left fork continued on to terra incognita and the right fork up to Jack’s Park. The road to Jack’s Park is washed out shortly beyond this fork, but enough of the road remained for me to walk across the creek. The road meandered uphill at a comfortable slope for about ½ mile. Finally, after what seemed like an entire day spent trying to reach it, I stood before the Jack’s Park trailhead billboard. Wasting no time, Frank and I exited the road and began tromping down the trail toward Jack’s Park, a wide spongy meadow with deep gashes from irresponsible motorcyclists tearing up the fragile sod. From the open meadow, large green peaks sloped up to the west, and I tried to guess at the route but couldn’t quite discern it. Beyond the meadow, the trail entered a thick forest of spruce and fir with dry soil and brown undergrowth. My boots grew dusty from the powdery silt that sprung up with each footfall. Frank zoomed up and down the trail sniffing out critters. After a mile or two, the trail started cresting above treeline, and views of the surrounding peaks became more dramatic. Emerald green slopes of towering massifs blended with rusty-red boulder fields and deep blue sky. The trail grew quite steep in the last mile or so toward Bowen Pass. I stopped frequently to photograph the wildflowers and emerald peaks reflected in clear tarns of snowmelt. A single man passed me going in the opposite direction without even a daypack, and I wondered where in the hell he came from and where in the world he was going. Naturally, I didn’t ask. The final few yards up to Bowen Pass were very tiresome, and I took them very slowly, resting often. My legs burned after every 5th step, necessitating a brief stop. Cresting the pass was a nice reward, however, as Bowen Gulch gaped before me, with Bowen Mt on the left and Ruby Mt on the right, combining to form a giant U-shaped valley that sloped very steeply south for a mile, then sharply east and out of sight. I could see Ruby Lake sitting placidly above treeline, and the scattered pockets of spruce further down where I intended to camp. Having the advantage of gravity, Frank and I made it down to the spruce trees in very short order and selected a camp after scouting several areas. I set up the tent in a hidden pocket of shade deep within a spruce grove and then crossed a meadow to another spruce grove to hang my food and have dinner. I sat on a large boulder and cooked a package of Ramen noodles, which I quickly scarfed down along with a few crackers. No need for manners when your only camping buddy is a dog. Frank nibbled on his dog feed bag, but only as a courtesy: his mind was elsewhere. I packed up the food and hung it in the tree nearby. As I was doing so, I heard a loud band of folks nearby, heading uphill. That strange primal desire to remain hidden took over, and I sat down slowly in the deep shade of the trees to watch. I hoped they would pass over Bowen Pass and move on, but they seemed to be scouting a camp site on the shores of Ruby Lake, about ¼ mile uphill. I was a tad disappointed since I had planned on exploring the lake just after supper, and hated to do so now because of the human visitors. They would feel invaded if I walked through their camp, and I would feel uncomfortable doing so…thus, cancellation. I changed plans and scouted due west up a steep incline to a rocky outcropping that provided a nice view of sunset on some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s taller peaks. I examined the map to try to figure out which peaks I was looking at, but the jumble of shadow and dark forest stymied any meaningful interpretation and I gave up. I took lots of sunset photos, and I now believe I left a roll of film sitting on the rock where I changed film. That’s the first time I ever lost a roll of film. It was incredibly disappointing since that roll had lots of shots of falls in the Mt Zirkel wilderness just across North Park. Justification for a return trip next year, so no worries. After the sun had set, I picked my way down back to camp with Frank in tow. We went to sleep immediately.
Waking the next morning around dawn, I heard Frank growling softly enough to alert me, but not so loud that whatever was outside might hear him and come get him. I threw on my shirt and shoes and stepped cautiously outside the tent. Frank softly growled in the direction of the sun-drenched meadow of tall, green grass, and I followed the gaze of his black eyes. I saw a pack of coyotes sweeping the meadow, heading downhill. The closest one was about 50 yards away. If he noticed me, he gave no hint of it, as he didn’t break stride or look around. They were grey and perfectly silent. Several pups jumped through the tall grass on the far side of the meadow. I couldn’t tell how many, but at least 3. All of them were coming from the general area of my food cache, so I was mildly alarmed at having my food stolen, until I recalled how well I had hung the food high up in the tree. Fun to see wildlife. I watched them until they disappeared into the thick woods bordering the south side of the meadow.
I ate a quick snack breakfast in the warming morning sunlight by my food cache and packed up camp. Before 8 Frank and I were on the trail heading back over Bowen Pass. I looked for the tent that I expected to see around Ruby Lake and found it without trouble…the fuschia fabric formed a giant octagon about 10 feet from the lakeshore. At Bowen Pass I studied the map and decided to take a bit of a risk and leave the trail, which goes downhill from the pass and through a cirque before going back up over Parika Pass, in favor of the unofficial route of following the continental divide over to the same point. I struck off to the east of Bowen Pass up a shoulder of Bowen Peak. The going was very steep, and I cut acute switchbacks back and forth the entire way up, the edges of my boots gripping the carpeted hillside. Frank confounded me with his limitless energy and seeming ease with which he ascended 200 feet at a stretch. I stopped often to enjoy the scenery around me, and the beautiful summer sky. Reaching the top, I surveyed the route ahead of me and relaxed as I saw it would be relatively easy to complete. The trickiest part was next, where I had to clamor over sharp rocks and narrow ledges…not so easy with a 50-lb pack in strong wind. Nevertheless, in no time I was past it and walking casually and comfortably along the relatively flat crest, over a smooth carpet of tussock grass and alpine flowers, many of which were in bloom. To the west I could see the mountains of the Mt Zirkel wilderness area, and from certain spots I could see Trail Ridge Rd as it ran through Coyote Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park to the east.
I enjoyed the delicious feeling of loneliness. This always seems to have a bad connotation in popular press, but it can be very desirable in a world packed with humans. I sat on the crest of the ridge and watched the puffy clouds slide along their east-bound course like slugs in a limitless blue field. The gaping bowl of a cirque fell away both in the east and west, and the plains of North Park stretched all the way to Baker Peak in the Park Range. I had already decided to ask Andra to marry me, and had already talked to her Dad about it. I planned on asking her at Leg Lake in the Popo Agie Wilderness of Wyoming the following weekend. So I was conscious of the finality of decisions, and of the significance of loneliness. I harbored doubts marriage about as much as my doubts about the route I took…it might not work out well, but I wouldn’t have tried it if I thought it wouldn’t. Too much thinking at high altitudes can give one a headache, so I shouldered my pack again and continued on the last march of Sam the Bachelor.
We hiked on the ridge for a fairly long time, covering perhaps a mile, before we crested again at a high unnamed peak overlooking Parika Lake from the south. From so high up, Parika Lake appeared small and pitiful, but it was the only lake around, so I decided to go down to it. Clattering of hooves and falling rocks nearby alerted me to a startled herd of bighorn sheep, trotting away from me along the ridge that led down towards the park. I shot some photographs, then headed northwest along the ridge to Fairview Mt. Frank and I stopped and had some lunch. I watched two horses carrying riders down the long shallow trail to Parika Lake. I followed the ridge from Fairview Mt north, crossing the trail and heading on up to the summit of Parika Peak, the only named peak I summited the entire trip. The weather was starting to threaten thunderstorm as large puffy cumulous clouds converged into darker masses away to the west. Amidst a growing wind, Frank and I headed downhill. When I reached the trail, I could see the horses tethered by Parika Lake, their riders fishing in the water nearby. I followed the trail down towards the lake, but broke off just before it so as to avoid other humans. I walked across the grassy tundra to the east and found a great spot in a tiny spruce island about ¼ mile from the lake. My extended hike above treeline in heavy wind had dehydrated me, and I had a terrible headache by the time the tent was pitched in the shade of the spruces. I filtered water from a nearby creek, gulped it down and splashed water on my face and neck to rinse away the layer of crusted salt. The weather stayed nice and sunny, but I could see the clouds developing into thunderstorms off to the east. I took a short nap with Frank in the tent to try to get rid of my headache. As the sun sank lower on the western horizon, the light filled the tent and woke me up. Frank and I went over to Parika Lake to find it empty of humans. I explored the flower-covered inlet stream area, and Frank stalked moles in the tall grass. As light faded, we returned to the tent. For dinner I cooked ramen noodles again, and finished them just before sunset. To the south, just above me, was the rocky peak from where I had first seen Parika Lake. As darkness enveloped the camp, Frank treed a squirrel in a spruce tree separated from the rest, so that the squirrel could not jump to another tree and be gone. The squirrel chattered and chipped, but would not come down any closer to the ground. Frank sat down and basically camped out for the long haul, waiting for the squirrel to jump down into his mouth, I guess. I walked the 30 yards or so downhill to the creek and filtered water, and still he stayed with it. The camp grew dark, and the sun shone orange on the divide peaks of Howard, Cirrus, Nimbus and Cumulous, and still Frank waited it out. I was ready to go to bed when I had to tear him away from the tree and zip up the tent with him inside.
The next morning I woke up minutes after sunrise and quickly walked over to Parika Lake to enjoy the morning light on the still water. A part of me missed having a Colorado fishing license as the water began to boil with trout. I simply sat back on the northern shore taking photographs and enjoying Frank’s expression as he tried to discern from where the pika was chirping at him. Parika Lake empties to the east and sends a stream of water down Baker Gulch, past the ghost town of Gaskill, towards the fledgling North Fork of the Colorado River. Because of the meandering Continental Divide, Parika lake sits east of the divide, but drains to the west. You might have to look at a map to believe it. The channel that has rippled down Baker Gulch for thousands of years was partly diverted into the Grand Ditch in 1936, where it flowed northward, following the countour of the mountains to La Poudre Pass, where it dumped into the Cache La Poudre River and ran east to Fort Collins, rather than into the Colorado and west to Grand Junction. Started in 1904, the Grand Ditch ultimately extended 14 miles into the Colorado River watershed to steal snowmelt from the Never Summer Range in order to supplement the agricultural industry of the plains to the east. Baker Gulch was the last stop of the Grand Ditch. If I were so inclined, I could have walked there since it is not far from the shores of Parika Lake. Interestingly, at the time of the construction, the Colorado River was called the Grand River, which is why Grand Lake sits on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, and why there is a town at the junction of the Dolores River called Grand Junction (junction of the Grand and Dolores Rivers).
As the sun grew high in the sky, I returned to camp amid beautiful wildflower fields and packed up. We hiked out along the trail that ran by the lake shore, then uphill for a long way to Parika Pass. When I had started up the hill from the lake the sky looked blue and clear, but so long is the trail to top the pass that by the time I arrived, the sky had filled with a thick layer of low, grey clouds. I stopped just over the top for a short snack, and then lumbered on downhill. The first truly threatening clouds of the trip blocked out the blue sky utterly, and I was glad I was heading down. I met one person who was heading up, and didn’t envy their position. The trail back seemed longer, but perhaps that was because I was tired and it was cloudy. I intersected the trail I had wanted to intersect, but at a different point much further down the valley than I had wanted. Thus, it is possible that it was a longer route. The trail marking is a bit sketchy in places, so who knows how far off I really was.
pleased to find my car intact, and I loaded it and drove out carefully
under a gentle intermittent sprinkle.
created February 9, 2005