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Backpacker Magazine – August 2009

Insider's Guide Rocky Mountain National Park

From the top day hike to the key skills you'll need, we'll have you ready for the Rockies in no time.

by: Dougald MacDonald

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Sky Pond via Lake Haiyaha (Mike Amfahr)
Sky Pond via Lake Haiyaha (Mike Amfahr)
Moraine Park (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
Moraine Park (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
Continental Divide Loop II (Jesse Speer)
Continental Divide Loop II (Jesse Speer)

Key Skills
Wildlife Watching

See more megafauna with these tips from Estes Park guide Kaiyote Snow, who leads birding and wildlife safaris through the park.

Go early–or late The best times to see wildlife are from dawn to 8 a.m., and 7 p.m. to sunset, when predators like bobcats, foxes, badgers, and weasels begin to prowl.
Sit still "Hike very slowly or find a place to sit and wait," says Snow. Good spots: the verge of Big Meadows on the Tonahutu Creek Trail or Hollowell Park off Bear Lake Road.
Stay low Although you may spot bighorn sheep or elk above treeline, most animals dwell near lower-elevation meadows like the ones at the bottom of East Inlet Creek. "The farther into the backcountry you go, the less you tend to see," Snow says.
See it all The Cub Lake Trail, in Moraine Park (2.3 miles one-way), "probably has the highest diversity and concentration of wildlife and plants in the park," says Snow, "with elk, deer, coyotes, bear, bobcat, marmots, ground squirrels, long-tailed weasels, snowshoe hares, garter snakes, and birds."

Immortalize your Colorado adventure with these on-location pointers from nature photographer John Fielder, who spent two summers photographing every lake in the park for his book Rocky Mountain National Park: A 100-Year Perspective.

Big Meadows, Tonahutu Creek Trail
"Where the creek meanders through the grass, try composing the shores so they extend from the bottom left and right corners of your viewfinder," says Fielder. "This creates ‘lead-in' lines that draw the viewer's eye toward the upper middle of the scene. A polarizing filter will reveal the pretty red rocks at the bottom of the creek."

Boulder-Grand Pass
"Look west for a view of Fourth, Spirit, and Verna Lakes stacked one behind the other." Fielder suggests using a telephoto lens to compress the distance between the lakes. Trio Falls, between Lion Lake 1 and 2 "Wait for clouds to cover the sky, put on your polarizing filter to cut glare and reduce the amount of light entering the camera by two stops, set your camera to its smallest aperture, and use a tripod. This will pleasantly blur the water," says Fielder. Fielder's basic Rocky Mountain photo kit SLR digital or film camera body; lenses covering 20–200mm focal lengths (12–135mm for digital lenses); longer lens, such as 400mm, for shooting wildlife; tripod for low light and extreme depth of field; remote shutter release to eliminate shakes at slow speeds.

Handling High Altitude
Our loop climbs above 12,300 feet on day one–upping the potential for altitude sickness. Local guide Eli Helmuth says the simplest fix is the best: Dayhike your way to acclimatization. His favorite routes:

Longs Peak trailhead to Chasm Lake: 8.4 miles round-trip; 2,355-foot gain; 11,760-foot high point. From the lake, look across the Mills Glacier straight up Longs's east face.

Black Lake, Glacier Gorge:
9.8 miles round-trip; 1,450-foot gain; 10,630-foot high point. The polished granite walls of 12,575-foot Spearhead monolith loom over the lake.

The Loch, Loch Vale: 6 miles round-trip; 1,012-foot gain; 10,192-foot high point. See Alberta Falls and views of Andrews Glacier.

Best Campfire Legend
Eagle-trapping on Longs

John Wesley Powell is usually credited as the first person to ascend Longs Peak, the northernmost Fourteener in the Rockies (via the south face, in 1868). But Native Americans almost certainly climbed the peak earlier. In 1914, two elderly Arapaho toured the area, where they had lived 50 years earlier, and told researchers stories of the meadows and mountains in modern Rocky Mountain National Park. One of the men, named Gun Griswold, said his father and other Arapaho climbed Longs to trap eagles. The men would dig a trench on the summit where they'd hide, covered by brush, with a tasty-looking rabbit or marmot corpse for bait. When an eagle landed, they would leap up, grab the bird by the legs, kill it, and remove its feathers, which were used for ceremonial and ornamental purposes.

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