Day One: Wings Over Whiteman and Smoky Hill River Festival
So we scheduled a relatively short trip out to Estes Park this year...it was going to be part of a larger road trip to California, but work projects forced me to cancel the second half. Which may be a bit of a happy accident given how frenetic the longer trip may have been.
So we loaded the car in the morning, and given a full trunk, I took the dog on my lap on the way to the boarding place.
From there, we grabbed McDonalds and headed east, ironically, out to Whiteman AFB, for the biennial "Wings Over Whiteman" airshow. We got there early enough for "rope drop", waiting in line for the impossibly-young airmen to start operating the security checkpoint and shuttles. As we passed the B-2 hangars, a Spirit was idling its engines, perhaps warming up for a flight (that we never ended up seeing). I would love to see what the Tax-Dollars-Per-Second rate was for having that billion dollar behemoth sitting there idling.
Lots of cargo planes flown in for an open house...C-17 Globemaster I think here.
We toured a KC-135 tanker (in-air refuelling). Kind of harrowing having kids sitting down at an active, flying cockpit panel. DON'T TOUCH ANYTHING
The B-17, B-25, and P-51 on display were active, flying participants of the airshow.
We were surprised we were allowed to climb up into, and through, the B-17. Cockpit:
There was some trepidation passing through the bomb bay area.
My grandpa crewed this station....M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun in an open window on the waist of the fuselage.
The cavernous inside of the Globemaster.
We saw the MiG-17 getting pulled out for its demonstration.
Lots of static displays, including a UH-60 Blackhawk with its Army crew there (a bit outnumbered by the USAF folks).
I sure hope, after a day of kids and adults hopping into the pilot seat, that these pilots go over every panel, switch, and control with a fine-toothed comb!
"The Spirit of Hawaii", the B-2 on display.
Friendly passerby offering to take our collective picture.
We headed over to the other end and heard a USAF dance band, which had its good and bad moments, we'll say, but we applauded for them... We grabbed some snacks while we waited for things to get underway, some slushes for the kids and a plate of fried chicken and fries from a food truck. It was a day of bad eating to be sure.
When it did kick off, they had sky divers carry the flag in (being circled by a couple trainers) during the national anthem.
The MiG was nimble and blazing fast, and quite exciting to watch...the afterburner visible kicking in. Here he is taxiing back after his demo flight, passing behind the A-10s and the F-22 Raptor demo team.
B-17 that we just clambered through up and flying...the P-63, B-25, and P-51 were also flying.
We left fairly early and missed a lot of the demos, but we saw the B-29 on the way out. In the parking lot we watched acrobatic pilots from a distance which Debra did NOT enjoy. Planes are not meant to move in the air in that manner!
The line to get in stretched seemingly for miles and apparently parking was highly limited. Moral of the story, don't get here late. So then we headed west from there, our destination being Salina Kansas since, with our late start, it would be too late to drive straight to Estes. We coordinated things and picked Salina because they had the Smoky Hill River Festival that weekend, full of food trucks and a concert we wanted to catch. Debra actually liked the town, particularly the seemingly unique architecture of both larger buildings and residences. We ate lots more bad food, including but not limited to: stir fried pork noodle, funnel cake, fried pickles, Dippin' Dots, lemonade.
There was a blue-eyed soul group out of OKC that was on when we got there, Matt Stansberry and The Romance. Pretty solid musicianship and while I usually don't gravitate towards keyboard solos, Rick Wakeman excepted, their keyboardist was really good.
Larkin Poe, a roots rock / blues group of two sisters (Rebecca Lovell playing standard electric guitar and Megan Lovell playing a Rickenbacker bakelite B6 steel guitar in a unique harness), started setting up. They have built up a following but apparently not enough that the roadies do all the set up for them...
We picked them as convenient compromise of my interest in guitar, particularly steel guitar, and Gretchen and Debra's preference for pop music. We listened to them on the drive across Kansas (thus avoiding our usual struggle with Alfred Apaka and Richard Wagner on one side and Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran on the other) and Gretchen is a fan.
Definitely play a lot of blues (as Eric Idle in his mockumentary "The Rutles" defined it, that would be "black music sung mainly by whites")...I went through a big blues-rock phase in my teen years that I haven't sustained, but I can certainly appreciate a lot of raw talent, great voices and musicianship.
It was a nice enough evening, clear skies. The didn't play the song Gretchen wanted ("Mad as a Hatter") but put on a good set.
Then as is our usual practice, we snuck out before the end of the set so as to avoid the crush of (possibly intoxicated) festival-goer egress.
Then back to the lovely Salina La Quinta where we quickly got to sleep...it was a long day, but we had a good time.
Day Two: The Culinary Prowess of Casa Bonita
So this was mostly a travel day. We partook of the wonderful La Quinta breakfast and loaded up the car.
Once on the road, it was steady going across western Kansas and eastern Colorado (apologize for the redundancy). We listened to rather a lot of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was a whole lot of teenage angst and emotion. The mountains hove into view eventually as we closed in on Denver. "Hove" is an odd word. But our first stop was the Wings over the Rockies air museum:
It's not the largest air museum (nor the cheapest), but at least I got in free as it was Father's Day...
The kids, naturally, gravitated to the hands-on simulation exhibits, and they did a Mars rover simulation.
Eventually I was able to drag them away from the games and over to the exhibits.
Not sure why, but there were a LOT of nuclear bomb casings here. Probably dozens...much more than they have at the Strategic Air Command Museum, where I would have expected them. B-1 occupying a lot of the real estate in the background.
F-86 Sabre, the old nemesis of the MiG-15 from the Korean War.
A very old specimen, a B-18 Bolo.
O-2A Skymaster, a push-pull configuration Cessna that was used in Vietnam...outfitted with 2.75" FFAR rocket pods.
One of the reasons we added this to the stop...a reduced scale X-wing. Pete's reaction was somewhat underwhelming, but I think he was amused.
The F-111 Aardvark's hindquarters.
Fun little tailhook simulation where you try to land on a carrier successfully.
Lieutenant Commander Craig "MANBAG" Connor. I note with some amusement he does not include his callsign in his current Navy bio...
V-2 replica. First man-made object into space (briefly, before it descended onto Merry Old England).
On the way out I spotted this in the gift shop. Despite my offer to buy it for her Debra was not interested.
Then across town to Casa Bonita for a late lunch / early dinner:
The kids love it here.
Peter saw the sign saying "Please Use Both Lines", and endeavored to comply:
Taking it perhaps a trifle literally...
The food is slightly overpriced and of a quality that...well, if you didn't have to order a meal to get in, we wouldn't. Debra and I are always agonizing on what to order, sorting out the "least bad" of the options. That said, this time Debra tried the chile relleno plate and said it was strangely inoffensive and something she'll want to get next time.
The kids plowed through their food and watched the gorilla show unfold:
Given our aisle location I popped up in case I could get a pic of the gorilla with the kids as he ran by.
He (or she) did one better by sitting down in my spot to our kids' surprise and glee. I was thankfully done with my food, not sure what he touched, and who knows how often they get that suit laundered...
We did our usual wander-around.
Behind the falls:
Black Bart's Cave, a required penance for the children.
Pete was reluctant but made it through.
Walking back to the car, I saw this sign. Similar verbage to the "GUSTY WINDS MAY EXIST" sign that amused Douglas Adams so much in New Mexico to the point that I believe he was working it into his final unfinished novel, The Salmon of Doubt. Schroedinger's Cat and all that.
Then a relatively quick drive up to Boulder and then Estes Park, where we are staying at our same cabin as last time.
It's a nice spot outside of the bustle of Estes Park proper, quite close to the southern park entrance.
Day Three: Dream Lake and Trail Ridge Road
We got up nice and early as our intended hike (Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes, with the trailhead next to the Bear Lake) has a parking lot that is quite popular and fills up quickly. But this early in the season apparently we managed it quite well. Only a modest collection of cars there at the early hour. We also got into the park for free since the entrance station was not manned. Elk cow sauntering about...
We talked to the ranger about our plans...the intention of summitting Flattop Mountain and perhaps Hallett Peak the next day. He mentioned, as we had read, large quantities of snow. Probably worth disclosing now, this whole thing was a bit of a scheduling kerfuffle. Last year we went in mid-July and I summitted Mount Chapin and Mount Chiquita (missing Mount Ypsilon by a time zone based misdiagnosis of the time), and we wanted to return and take Debra up the same route to see pika, which were in abundance there. So a few weeks back I realized...the Old Fall River Road, which gives access to the Chapin trailhead, was unplowed and unpassable until at least July. I had not even considered the possibility, foolishly. So we altered our plans and Flattop became our alternative.
The ranger told us what we had already read about...lots of snow, snowshoes probably required unless you want to posthole your way up. But today we were just doing the valley hike, with the kids. Elk had the right idea, wait for the shuttle and get out of there.
Debra noted that the initial 1/2 mile of the hike ascending to Nymph was surprisingly tough, perhaps because our lungs were adjusting. Later on everything became a bit easier.
We had to move aside rather frequently for more zealous hikers. I should clarify, that in the morning, we told Peter that he should do one puff on his inhaler, and breathe ten times. He vastly misinterpreted this. While we were all getting ready we heard him say "SEVEN" and start breathing in...we quickly stopped him. Later on the hike, he was a bit "steroid enhanced". When we hiked up Debra said "Peter slow down!". Peter replied, "no, fast up! this is my hiking speed!"
Peter loved posing for the pictures...Nymph Lake, our first stop.
Some lovely views on the way up.
Hmmm...that is an awful lot of snow, still.
Crossing over a very strongly rushing stream...
We got to about the beginning of Dream Lake and this was the trail from here on. I had my crampons but the kids and Debra stayed back (kids only had sneakers). The crampons worked very well, but I just got within range of the lake and headed back.
Beautiful, and passable with the right equipment, but the kids would have made it a bit too treacherous. They probably would have loved it, but would have slipped a lot.
I rejoined them soon after. The shocking thing about the background is that Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain are higher than the protuberances in the background...our goals for the next day.
We headed back, got to our car, and in a cheapskate move decided to head up to the Trail Ridge Road while still in the park to double down on our attempt to avoid paying entrance fees. While on the way we hit an elk jam (see last year's bad pun about a bear's second favorite thing to spread on toast) (first is marmotlade). This bull's antlers in velvet:
We stopped at Rainbow Curve because the Boy had to relieve himself. Great view to the valley below.
I didn't take enough pictures up there but there was a great deal of snow still. We stopped at the Alpine visitor center area, bought some silly souvenirs (the kids got elk and marmot stuffed animals, Debra and I got practical things for our next day's hike...Debra an impressively expensive $40 knit hat, and me gloves since I hadn't packed them...only $10, but I found out later they were glove liners!). We had an early lunch of an elk sausage, hot dog, and pretzel, I chatted with another ranger who gave me some more advice on our mountain ascent, and we headed back down.
Back at the cabin, a magpie. My parents arrived that afternoon...staying at a cabin near ours.
I went and rented some snowshoes for the next day, and then we had a steak dinner courtesy of my parents who had brought some frozen steaks in a cooler. The kids spent the night with my parents on a sofabed so that we could get out very early for our mountain ascent!
Day Four: Attempting Flattop Mountain
We woke around 4 the next morning and were en-route to the trailhead by 5. I should say, not the actual trailhead, as by another wonderful coincidence, the Bear Lake parking lot was shut down for maintenance starting the previous night. So in order to still make our attempt, we had to park at Glacier Gorge and hike another 0.7 miles in to the trail head. Not too much but like always, the first bit of hiking seems the most challenging in the thinner air, til your lungs adjust. Here is Debra in her more optimistic state.
We arrived at the (completely empty) trailhead by Bear Lake. Bear Lake is one of the more popular destinations in RMNP and it was slightly surreal to see that we were the only ones visible on the trail around it.
We took the trail to the north from the lake, and began the ascent through the lower birch forests.
We warmed up quite quickly and the heavy jackets had to come off. Debra was either trying to revise my expectations downward upon seeing the mileage estimates here or was instructing me, apparently to negligible effect, not to take her picture. I can't recall which.
Some great views as we clambered up bit by bit.
Then.....this. The first giant drift of snow we had to deal with. It was on a fairly steep slope to the side, so not particularly pleasant to negotiate. I put on my crampons and it worked just fine. Debra rummaged in her pack and could not find hers! We agonized a bit about what to do. She tried it with plain hiking boots but was not comfortable given the length of the snow bank and the narrow ridge on top you had to walk on (with a sharp dropoff to the right in places). There was an implicit "well we have to turn back I guess" hanging in the air.
But credit to her, she through on the snowshoes and we started across it. Snowshoes weren't ideal for this terrain...it was hard-packed, no post-holing, and the narrow ridge required careful, slow going with the clumsy large snowshoes. But she did it, we got across, and went back to mostly wet trails with occasional snow drifts, so she removed the snowshoes.
A beautiful view of the valley below.
The next couple of hours, taking pictures was not a high priority of mine. It was a rough uphill slog with patches of trail mingled with large snow drifts you had to climb over. I post-holed a few times while still wearing crampons. Debra wanted to get a picture of me sunk in to my waist, nearly, but I clambered out too quick.
Eventually the snow became more or less continuous. Still in large drifts, so getting across the trail meant climbing over the drift and carefully climbing down, every 10 yards or so. Slow, laborious going, and assessing our relative position via GPS in comparison to our goal was not encouraging. I sorted out the best spots to stand on to avoid post-holing as I was still using crampons at this point. The crampons kept slipping off my heel which was a bit frustrating.
At around 2 miles we met our first fellow hikers on the trail. Well, that's not true, a muley doe was close by us earlier and seemed to lead us on the trail exactly, never really deviating from it by my tracking of her prints. But the second hikers we ran into after that happened when I turned to look back at Debra, maybe 20 feet behind me. I saw movement behind her, and was not exactly alarmed, but was trying to sort out what it was. I said "Debra..." and then was quietly ascertaining what I thought I saw, but I must have said it with a particularly concerned look and voice as Debra saw me pause, staring past her, and did basically a sprint in snowshoes towards me. It was just another pair of hikers I had determined within seconds, but that didn't prevent an understandable freakout…I was the one with the bear spray, anyway.
We met up with the hikers again shortly thereafter at the Dream Lake Overlook. They were experienced mountaineers who had recently hiked Elbert and Massive (and were flying to California to climb Mount Whitney the next week).
We chatted with them for a bit. They had rented microspikes/crampons after attempting the hike yesterday without them (and being surprised by the quantity of snow), but didn't have snowshoes. They moved on past us into the next leg which was significantly more challenging, the trail completely obscured and buried under many feet of snow. They came back after 5 minutes to head back, complaining of trail vagueness. We were unsure of whether to go on or not, since we did have snowshoes, and they jokingly asked our names in case they needed to identify bodies. Ha ha!
Debra was justifiably convinced at this point we had gone as far as was reasonable...we rested a bit, and Debra suggested I could try going a bit further by myself, which I did. Snowshoes were absolutely required at this point...some very deep post-holes left by other hikers.
Via GPS I had confirmed that the established trail (used by deer and by hikers) had veered off the mapped trail which had a more gradual ascent with large switchbacks, and cut straight across, and up. Resulting in a serious workout and a relentless, exhausting climb across huge hills of snow. I got another 300 feet of vertical ascent (maybe a quarter mile or less) and realized, well, I've gone pretty far (at a sadly slow rate) and should probably get back to Debra. Never made it beyond the tree line, which was my hope. So I called this "My Personal Summit".
Back down to where Debra was at, which took a tremendous amount of time it seemed, I rested a bit and drank some water (had left my pack with Debra). Then we put the snowshoes back on and headed down.
A large woodpecker tearing chunks out of the base of a tree, undisturbed by our presence.
Debra, our geology expert (who is finishing up her masters in geology education currently), noted this was mass wasting. Huge boulder field from an ancient rockslide?
For a long stretch we went back to just hiking boots given large sections of uncovered trail. But back at the long, snake-like ridge of snow that we first encountered, they went back on again, briefly.
We got down to Bear Lake and the "regular folks" were there merrily walking around the trail with children and sneakers. We came down from the Flattop trail, sweaty, exhausted, hauling our snowshoes, and probably not looking and smelling fresh, and saw a nice family of four casually looking at the sign to Flattop Mountain trail as if considering whether to try that on a whim, sans any kind of appropriate hiking gear, water, boots, etc. We politely encouraged them not to! As I mentioned we encountered only two other people on the trail, and none on the way back down until we hit Bear Lake.
The last 0.7 mi leg was a breeze to get back to the Glacier Gorge trailhead. Tremendous power in the streams and rivers with so much snow melting rapidly.
All told we went about 4.5 miles, me slightly more, with 1300 feet of elevation gain (mine calculated at 1600 due to the last extra leg we did) and it took us almost 6 hours...less than a mile an hour. Well, we learned our lesson. You can't (or WE can't) hike in the snow and expect to go as fast as you can on a dry trail. Debra wants to go back though, to see Tyndall Glacier, and I want to clamber up to Hallett Peak. But in later summer, definitely.
We were elated to get back to our car and began the slow drive back. A can of Aldi-brand grapefruit sparkling water had been sitting for some weeks in our car for some reason, and after the lukewarm, plastic-flavored water in my hiking bladder, this chilled (due to ambient overnight temps) beverage was about as delightful as anything.
We took it mostly easy the rest of the day...I went into town and picked up a wide variety of Korean food which we had with my parents. Korean fried chicken wings, noodles, fried rice, spicy pork, bulgogi, spring rolls, crab rangoon, and mandu dumplings. We ended up eating on that for another few days...
Day Five: Lily Lake
We took it easy the next day, still a bit sore, but not too bad. The snowshoes work muscles you didn't know you have. Around midday we drove down to Lily Lake.
In a surprise to them, we forced the children to do the intermediate hike of Lily Ridge...an offshoot of the easy, flat Lily Lake hike, but nothing as bad as Lily Mountain.
Meeker, Longs, and Estes Cone visible to the southwest, from the ridge.
Kids were pretty good.
It was more impressive in person, but the summit of Lily Mountain itself...which the kids were only about 50 feet down from when they climbed it...was an impressive spectacle from here.
Several great overlooks of the lake and the mountains.
Longs still mostly wreathed in clouds but a good view of Meeker.
We came down and rounded the south edge of the lake. Friendly (obviously well fed) chipmunks, which, as Gretchen corrected anyone eagerly, are actually ground squirrels, not true chipmunks.
The Twin Sisters, another hike I considered with Debra, probably should have done instead as apparently a lot less snow at these lower elevations.
Another view of Lily Mountain. I didn't get any of them on film, but the swallows here were beautiful, skimming over the lake at great speed, with iridescent blue or green plumage on the fuselage.
Ducks taking it easy.
We had just started to leave when we saw my parents had arrived, so we found parking again and spent some time with them:
We headed back and did more foosball and tetherball. I noted one of the baby rabbits Gretchen was slightly obsessed with...with its seeming lack of fear of large things, it will likely fulfill a very important role in its short life to sustain a nice respectable family of raptors.
Longs Peak visible through the trees from our deck...hadn't noticed it before, or at least been able to identify it.
Later that day my parents invited us to dinner at a diner in town. On our way out of the resort driveway we spotted this rather large chap:
It was a nice dinner, at a place with a motto of "YOU NEED PIE". Very forceful, I thought. I do? But food was great, and I sat transfixed when their overhead music (obviously catered to 50s diner / oldies) started playing Santo and Johnny's Sleep Walk. I wanted to run around like the kids in "That Thing You Do", they're playing our song! Err, they're playing...a very popular song my band happens to cover! So not the same thing at all! Sorry to have bothered you! Carry on with your dinners! Why am I shouting!
Driving back we were struck by the skyline, looming up larger than this picture can hope to convey. I confirmed, the (naturally) flatter peak above the right side of the road is Flattop, and the higher peak directly above the road is Hallett. These things we intended...and still do intend!...to climb. Crazy people.
Day Six: Driving Home
Kind of the usual boring story...there's not a lot to do from Colorado to Kansas, and what little there is one rarely takes the time to do when on a return trip where getting back home soon is desired.
We took our leave fairly early (my parents were leaving a bit later) and bade farewell to the local lagomorphs.
We listened to more of Harry Potter and the Order of the Angsty Moody Teenagers. The kids did great and we rewarded them with surreal and unhealthy quantities of gas station junk food. There was a mild moment of panic when a FedEx triple-trailer truck we had to pass was obviously out of balance, undulating back and forth wildly, but we got past him. That's about it, it was a lovely trip, we made the most of our ill-advised scheduling and added the sport of snowshoeing to our list of skills we have attained yet would prefer not to utilize again! We'll be back someday for warmer climes in which to conquer Hallett, Flattop, Chapin, Chiquita (yes, the tallest mountain I have climbed so far is named Little Girl), and Ypsilon, and Debra will get to see pika as we had hoped.