When hiking to Gem Lake this summer, I noticed that there is a designated spot for horse trailers at the Lumpy Ridge trailhead just out of Estes Park. This inspired me to come back on horseback. Looking at the map, it looked like there is an 8 mile loop that we could do on horseback as a day ride. Two of us and our horses were dropped off at the McGraw Ranch trailhead, and we planned to meet our driver and trailer back at Gem Lake.
It’s pretty tight turning a gooseneck horse trailer around at McGraw Ranch, but fortunately I wasn’t driving! Then it’s a lovely ride up the valley from McGraw Ranch, and we followed the trail toward Bridal Veil Falls. After that trail branches off, the track is narrower and less used, and climbs fairly steeply to a saddle where we joined the Black Canyon Trail out of McGregor Ranch. There are spectacular old growth aspens along the creek, and we both noted that this would be a beautiful fall ride!
From the saddle, the trail was downhill to the beautiful mountain park that is McGregor Ranch. We passed McGregor Mountain, then great views of Lumpy Ridge above us opened up. We couldn’t resist a canter as the trail wound along the side of the meadow, with Longs Peak in the background.
The hardest part of the ride was when the horses thought they were done for the day, and we still needed to climb out of the valley, join the Gem Lake trail, and navigate down steps to the Gem Lake trailhead.
Passing through two historic ranches, we couldn’t help but think of the many “dudes” who rode those trails before us, and were grateful to be able to experience the Park on horseback, just as it was in the “old days”.
Last week my friend Devon and I found ourselves on an unexpected rookie backcountry adventure. Having both been described as "reckless and stubborn" she is my ideal exploring buddy, however this time I can truly say we did not know what we were getting ourselves into. After hiking to Lake Ypsilon, we began to follow a steep battered trail up past a waterfall.
Driven by curiosity we perservered through the near-vertical forest lanscape, over logs perhaps meant to block off the trail and worn down bridges until we reached a change in the terrain. All of a sudden we were surrounded by boulders and wildflowers, wobbling as we stepped across them and bursting out around us.
Ahead we faced the same waterfall we had been tracing all along, heading ever upwards. Devon shot me a steely glance and declared "I know there's a lake up there." Both of us were itching to reach it, but how far was it? Mount Ypsilon, Mount Chiquita, and their saddle towered over 2,000 vertical above us.
"It doesn't look that far." I assured Devon and myself, all the while realizing that we sounded borderline delusional. There was simply no choice but to continue on. This went fine for a while; we boulder hopped and cheered along with the pikas, but then Devon took a sudden unexplained turn to the right. I halted and looked to my left. There was a cairn and a way across the limestone that my mind made perfect sense of.
"Devon, the trail goes this way," I reported.
"No, it doesn't," she retorted.
"I see a cairn over here,"
"I see a cairn over here," There was an intense faceoff between us before we both blurted "Fine you go that way!" and headed off in opposite directions. As usual, Devon's route was slightly more logical than mine. I ended up facing vertical limestone with no grips or footholds, while Devon stood 20 feet above me after an easy stroll besides the waterfall and questioned whether I was okay. I was, I made it eventually with no injuries besides a cut to my pinky. Devon gave me a bandaid and went on her smug way. We walked probably another ten feet before losing the trail again. This time there were no cairns and it became evident that if we wanted to keep going we were going to have to transform into serious mountaineers and start free-climbing without ropes.
Obviously, we started climbing. It was thrilling, exciting, and as Devon and I later put it, "probably life risking." I've always been a huge believer that human beings are capable of so much more than they can fathom, so I laughed off my doubts about how we were going to get down and kept climbing. Devon and I probably split up three more times over route disputes, each paying the price of having to turn back once or twice.
Then, the glorious moment, "I see a lake!!!!!"
Devon shouted to me from across a steep boulder field. I sped up and soon it was in my sights too! Another ten feet up or so and there was another. "There's two!!!!!!" We both yelled, totally blissed out.
Finally, there we stood on the saddle of Mount Ypsilon and Mount Chiquita, where we could see six alpine lakes, countless mountain ranges, and - Devon was quite sure of this - the far off town of Fort Collins. It was all there, basically the whole world, and we felt like Sacagawea and Christopher Columbus. Remarkably, we also had the best cell service we'd yet experienced in all of Rocky Mountain National Park. Seeing as it was only about noon, I called my friend to say "Hi, hello, what have you done this morning?" and Devon called hers to say "Thanks for teaching me all those climbing moves I'm pretty sure you saved my life." I basked in the view stretched out before me, as a cloud shaped like an inverted mountain formed over Longs Peak and Lake Chiquita's waterfall trickled all the way down to Ypsilon.
Sometimes you have to go off trail, behave a bit irrationally, delusionally, following the wind or some crazy desire to reach the top of a waterfall, because sometimes that's the only way to see the view. Devon and I hugged and explored a little longer, dancing and dilly-dallying away from asking the big question on both our minds.
"Sooo... how do we get down?"