I woke up at 4:15 AM today to get into the restricted Bear Lake section of Rocky Mountain before 5 so that I could get in without a reservation. I intended to climb Flattop Mountain.

Flattop Mountain is one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain. It's 4.4 miles each way, with about 2800 feet of elevation gain. The peak is right on the Continental Divideā€”a boundary across which no water crosses. A raindrop on the east stays east, west stays west. So when you stand on it you are looking at both sides on the continent. Or so the ranger told me. Sick, right?

I made it to the restricted zone with time to spare. On the way, I stopped at Sprague Lake to catch the sunrise. I was the only one there. As I ran along the trail, trying to find a vantage point, I saw the silhouette of a log. Or wait... a log with ears? An animal? But it wasn't moving...

I stopped and squinted at it for a while. Eventually the silhoutte put its head down and sneezed. It was something alive. I grabbed my camera and tried to photograph it. But I was not very familiar with my camera, and its interface is not optimized for the rapid adjustments which were necessary to get these super-low-light photos to work. I did not get any good photos of the creature. Maybe you can guess what it is from this photo:


The creature continued on, and I returned to photographing the sunrise.


Soon after, another guy came to where I was and we began talking. Mike. He was a stay-at-home dad who owned a condo in the nearby Estes Park and came to the park very frequently. He was a hobby wildlife photographer. So I told him I had seen a strange creature earlier, sort of like a large llama.

"Maybe it was a moose," he offered.

"Well, it had no antlers, so I don't think it was a moose," I answered.

"Oh, maybe it was a cow then."

"There are cows in this park!?"

"No no, a cow is the name for a female moose. They don't have antlers."


I showed him a photo of the creature (I actually have a slightly better one, but I thought the blurry one was funnier). He said it was probably a yearling, a year-old moose just kicked out by its newly pregnant mother.

He was very knowledgeable about the park and where to find wildlife. He told me where and when to find elk and moose. And that it is very rare to see a moose without anyone else gawking alongside you. Lucky me.

I told him I was planning on doing Flattop Mountain and I asked him if I was crazy to do it in gym clothes and a jacket. It was below freezing at the lake, so I was worried it may be too cold at the summit. He told me it warms up pretty nicely, but there is still lots of snow so I shouldn't do the hike without spikes on my shoes.

I considered his advice and decided to do the hike anyway. He was old anyway. And a guy on AllTrails said two days ago that he had done it with "no hiking gear."

I got about a mile in and hit this:


It looks like fairly nice snow, but it was frozen solid and slippery like ice. I got about 10 feet in and almost fell down the adjacent slope a couple times. I decided to turn back. Mission failed.

Fortunately, the trailhead for Flattop is also the trailhead for Bear Lake Trail, a popular short hike around the titular Bear Lake.

It was gorgeous. I stopped about every 100 feet to take a photo. In fact, between Sprague Lake, Bear Lake, and what's coming next, I took 214 photos. Lots of curating. I hope you enjoy.



Next, I decided to drive to Alpine Visitor Center. It's almost as high as Flattop Mountain, so I figured it would do as a replacement.

My God, it was the most beautiful drive I have ever done, bar none. I stopped at every pull out. Other people were doing the same, I kept seeing the same groups of people over and over. A Chinese family. An Indian man and White woman who seemed like they had just started dating. A group of four very enthusiastic young men in a Jeep.



As I came above the treeline to the snow, at the pull-outs, I took to stamping around through the snow and muttering to myself, "Christ," "No way," "This isn't real" while manically taking photos of everything around me. Whence ~150 of my 214 photos.



Further into the snowy peaks, I drove through some beautiful cut rock:


Then I came to a big pull-out, with bathrooms and a trail. The wind there was strong enough to blow your hat off, and the top was spectacular:



At the top of the trail I sat next to an older gentleman and we looked at a snowfield that dropped off sharply about a quarter mile out. I joked to him that it looked like a perfect place to ski. I thought it looked like a perfect place to die. He said that he had actually just seen a couple of guys put on skis and go down. I hope they are OK.

John, he was very amicable. The names of the peaks and cliffs around us were at his fingertips, as I learnt from him in his calm, eager voice. He was a retired schoolteacher who bought a home in Estes Park. Lucky guy. Like me, he had played piano for a while (actually he studied it in college), and only relatively recently discovered the joy of singing in choirs.

Later we saw someone hiking up the snowfield next to the drop. I wonder if he had skiied it earlier.


We parted ways and I finished up the drive. I got someone to take a photo of me at the end of the drive, perhaps you can see the exhaustion in my eyes at this point.


The sky at the end was split, snowstorm on one side, patched blue sky on the other:


Believe it or not, after all that, it was not even noon. It was 11:30. And I was pooped. I drove back to Estes Park and napped in my car in a Starbucks parking lot.

So, I had the whole afternoon to write this and curate my photos. I sit in a McDonalds doing just that now.

Thanks Owen for letting me know you read these. It helped motivate me to write this excessively long post.


I saw some wildlife too.




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