Wednesday, July 3: Although it wasn't supposed to be quite as hot today, I decided that measures needed to be taken. In other words, I headed for the higher (10,000 ft) elevations of Grand Mesa and the Grand Mesa NF. The Chukar hunt could wait.
I added Gambel's Quail to the trip list soon after I started along Land's End Road, which leads up the side of the mesa. As the road gained elevation, I noticed another "quail" along the road. But it looked a little large, and I didn't see the topknot, so I stopped. I was surprised to find lifer #8, Chukar. So much for postponing the Chukar hunt!
Further up the road, I noticed a bird activity, and stopped. A number of birds were present along a stream. I walked up the trail a bit, and when I returned, a local birder had also stopped. The biggest highlight in this area was Fox Sparrow, but it's always nice to hear so many birds singing. I stopped again at Wild Rose Picnic Area, as recommended in the birders guide. I wasn't there long before a sheriff appeared, and told me that there was a fire on the next ridge, and that the road was being closed. He gave the choice of going up or down, and I took the up option.
I got up to the top of Grand Mesa and went to Land's End, where I watched the planes circling the fire. Due to haze (mostly from fires in Utah), it wasn't that easy to see them at times. While I was there, several voracious Chipmunks and Ground Squirrels keep begging me, and everyone else (even the sheriff) for food. A Clark's Nutcracker and Stellar's Jay also came by. From there I explored part of the top of Grand Mesa. This is the biggest mesa in the world (in area), and is absolutely lovely on top, with alpine meadows and spruce-fir forests. Plus, the temperature was in the 60's! Unfortunately, I couldn't stay as long as I would have liked (a common lament on this trip) because I needed the later part of the afternoon for clothes washing and repacking.
I spotted a Purple Martin on the way back to the motel, bringing the trip total to 212.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Thursday, July 4: Today was mostly spent at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The canyon is over 2000 feet deep, and is black because of both the darkness of the rock (which is dark, but not black), and because such a deep narrow canyon doesn't get a lot of direct sunlight. Needless to say, it involved more spectacular scenery. The canyon walls, where the rim drive is, are at about 7500-8000 feet altitude.
|Black Canyon of the Gunnison|
After I arrived, I started by doing the trails near the visitor's center (which is where most of the standard trails are...at least on the south rim...the north rim is 80 miles drive away, and I didn't get there). Evidently a Cooper's Hawk is nesting very near one trail as it complained mightily when I stopped on the trail. "Complained" is perhaps not the right word. It threatened me! I also finally caught up with Virginia's Warbler on the trails, although I guess I'd been hearing it before.
After doing this set of trails, one of which drops you about 500 feet into the canyon (you need a permit to go further), I drove along stopping at the overlooks. The last overlook has its own trail, which is a little less than a mile (with a lot of up and down). Rain was threatening, and I decided to skip it. Perhaps I would go to the north rim instead.
On the way back to the entrance, I spotted a grouse. This being mixed forest, favorite of Ruffed Grouse, it of course turned out to be a Blue Grouse! Lifer #9. (I think they don't have Ruffed Grouse at the Black Canyon.) The trip total ended the day at 215, with Sharp-shinned Hawk being the other new one.
|Black Canyon of the Gunnison|
I went back and did the trail at the end...to heck with the threatened rain (which didn't materialize until later anyway). The haze also started to clear out a bit, greatly enhancing the views from the trail. I ended up hiking 4-5 miles between all the trails.
Temperatures remained comfortable throughout the day. They were starting to get too warm, but the rain and clouds took care of that.
High Mountain Passes
Friday, July 5: Today was mountain road day. I took a back way from Gunnison to Buena Vista, involving a somewhat dubious forest road (Gunnison NF) over Cumberland Pass (a little over 12000 feet, at the time the highest I had ever been). The road was quite narrow up high, and rocky. Of course there were no guard-rails, in spite of the precipitous drop off the roadside. Fortunately, there was no traffic on the way up, and only one SUV on the way down.
The second pass (Cottonwood) was a bit higher, but the road up was considerably better. It also had a lot more traffic. The pass itself is the boundary between the Gunnison NF and the San Isabel NF. Although the way up was via a dirt road, the other side was paved. This explained where all the traffic was coming from and provided smooth sailing from there to Buena Vista.
|Cumberland Pass||Cottonwood Pass||Mt. Evans|
Although both passes were alpine, I couldn't find Ptarmigan or Rosy-finch at either.
I headed up to I-70. After going through the Eisenhower tunnel, I cut off to US-6, to backtrack on the old road over Loveland Pass. I'm not sure the tunnel was there the last time I was in Colorado. I know that we went to Loveland Pass. Loveland Pass is also alpine, and Ptarmigan is sometimes seen there. However, when it starts raining with a strong wind, the prudent birder retreats to his car to dry off. Well, I did have a rain jacket on, so it wasn't that much drying off.
Next stop was Mt. Evans. At over 14,200 feet, this may be the highest I ever get. There's a paved road, the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway that goes up the mountain. It goes to a parking lot at about 14,100. A path that goes up the rest of the way. Yes, I did walk up to the top. I stayed quite a while, and saw several birds whiz by that might have been Rosy-finches (they weren't Pipits...the most common bird up there). I also found a Ptarmigan Rock (not Rock Ptarmigan!) that gave a wonderful imitation of a White-tailed Ptarmigan.
Trip total remains at 215.
The Trail to Emerald Lake
Saturday, July 6: I ended up sleeping in today (translation: I didn't leave the motel until almost 7:30). I figured there wasn't any point in making a Ptarmigan search today. I birded some in the lower portions (7000+ ft.) of Rocky Mountain National Park, which is infested with Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. I then headed up the old Fall Creek Road (one way, dirt) to the Alpine Visitor's Center. It started raining soon after I arrived, but that passed (not before giving us a dose of sleet...or very small hail). I took the trail up to the 12,000 foot level. It's higher than Mt. Hood, according to the sign. At that point I got fed up with all the hordes of people around, and took a lightly traveled trail about a half-mile across the tundra.
Refreshed, I went to the next overlook, which is supposed to be good for Ptarmigan. I scanned the tundra, and walked part of a trail, but found no Ptarmigan. I'll be back up there early (before the crowds) either tomorrow or the next day.
|Nymph Lake||Hallett Peak|
I arrived at the Bear Lake trailhead at about 4:30pm. Just late enough in the day to get a parking space (rather than taking the shuttle). I hiked the trail to Emerald Lake, via Nymph and Dream Lakes. The trail to Nymph is paved (!) most of the way. There is a bit of paving on the Nymph-Dream section.
Things are different past Dream Lake. The trail becomes rocky and sometimes hard to follow. There's a total elevation gain of about 600 feet, and it's over 3 1/2 miles round trip. The scenery is great, and you are serenaded by Hermit Thrushes along the way. During the first part of the trail, I was wondering why I had boots on. Surely they were overkill for a paved trail. On the second part, I felt a bit better about the boots, but still thought them overkill. On the final portion, I began to wonder if I should have worn my heavy boots! I could feel some of the jagged rocks a bit too well though the soles of my light hiking boots.
The way out to Emerald Lake involved a lot of huffing and puffing (and I've found that at 10,000 feet it's good to start breathing hard before you think you need too). The way back was a different story, with me even running a couple of the downhill segments.
Each lake had its own virtues. The first two were typical of Hudsonian zone lakes. One could imagine them in the Adirondacks. Emerald Lake is surrounded by high ridges, and fed by a mountain waterfall.
|Dream Lake||Emerald Lake|
The bird highlight of the hike (besides the thrush songs) was a pair of Whisky Jacks.
I've decided to extend the trip by another day, since I would otherwise have only two days at Rocky Mountain. In spite of the crowds, I like this park. Projected return is now July 12.
Estes Park, CO
Rocky Mountain National Park
Sunday, July 7: Today started out with a Ptarmigan and Rosy-finch hunt. The Rosy-finch part was completely unsuccessful. Another birder was also out early searching for Ptarmigan, so we joined forces. We walked out the path from the Medicine Bow overlook, and then out onto the tundra, looking for Ptarmigan all the way. Finally, when we were about to search a krumholz area that had been recommended, we heard some clucking upslope. We spread out, planning to put the Ptarmigan between us. We were still some distance away when it took to the air (briefly), putting down on the edge of a cirque (as we found when we got there). That was our only look at Ptarmigan for the day. It was lifer #10 for the trip, but is on the BVD list.
|Trail Ridge Road||Valley View|
After we ended our search, I went to the Alpine visitor's center and joined a tundra nature walk, which lasted until about noon. Early afternoon was spent exploring the rest of the park. I walked a couple of nature trails, and called it a day.
My mention of a "cirque" reminds me of how familiar looking the mountain formations are here (and earlier). They show the same signs of glacial sculpting that I'm familiar with from the Adirondacks: cirques, aretes, U-shaped valleys, etc. (We even had the U-shaped valleys in the Finger Lakes, where they are sometimes called "hollows".) It contrasts with mountains like the Huachucas and Chiricahuas in Arizona that don't show these features.
After dinner, I decided to check out some birds I'd heard around the motel (including Mountain Chickadee and Broad-tailed Hummingbird), and found a group of Pygmy Nuthatches. Moreover, I even found their nest hole in a pine behind the motel.
The trip total is now 217.
Estes Park, CO
Monday, July 8: This morning I began by looking at lower elevations in RMNP to see if I could pad my trip list. A flyby male Williamson's Sapsucker was a new trip bird, as was a green-headed female Pine Grosbeak. A subsequent hunt for Rosy-finch or a better look at Ptarmigan was unsuccessful, so the trip list is at 219.
After some time spent on scenery, I reached the trailhead for my afternoon hike at about 1pm. Today's hike was 8 miles round trip with a 1500 foot elevation gain. It was threatening rain as I started. It had done this the last two days without any significant rain, so I ignored it. Everything was fine at Alberta Falls, the first scenic location on the hike. Rain started between the falls and Loch Vale, so I whipped out my rain jacket, and stuffed everything else in the pack where it should stay dry...at least that was the theory.
It rained for some time, with a little hail before it let up. By that time I was past the Loch, and headed for Timberline Falls. The rain came and went again and it was not raining when the falls came into view, so I whipped out my camera. A little water had gotten in the pack, but it shouldn't bother the water resistant EOS-3. Well, that was the theory. The reality is that it didn't work. I expect something has shorted out inside, or the computer chip is fried. I almost brought a second camera body, but left it out at the last minute. Now I'm regretting that.
I climbed up to the base of the upper portion of Timberline Falls and enjoyed the view a bit. After a while, I contemplated the route up to the rim, where I could find Lake of Glass and Sky Pond. I'd made about a third of the climb already, but given the slippery rocks, and the possibility of more rain (and ultimately missing the shuttle to my car), I decided to turn back. It didn't rain the rest of the way. Except for the camera problem (which may be under warranty), it was an enjoyable, long hike (with the expected terrific views).
Rocky Mountain gets overall good marks from me in spite of the crowds. Besides the great scenic beauty and nice trails, I found the park personnel particularly helpful.
Estes Park, CO