My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Hike in the Land Above the Trees

Warning: Another long post - but it took me about six hours to experience it - I did edit it down a lot. 

My hostess, Carol, a volunteer at Rocky Mountain National Park, had a list of possible things I'd like to do in my rushed trip to visit her.  I chose a hike over a paddle because I wanted to get to see more of the landscape and unique plants and animals. Carol suggested that we hike the portion of the Ute Trail which runs from the Alpine Visitor Center down to the Continental Divide.  And we could do it as an easy, mostly downhill hike of only four miles, if we ran a shuttle.  We would be hiking across tundra, through an alpine meadow, then down into a conifer forest, another good thing, because we would at least be in the forest if we got an afternoon thunderstorm. Carole was being very careful since two visitors have recently died after being struck by lightning in two separate incidents. 

View from near the beginning of the trail across from the Alpine Visitor Center

The portion of the Ute trail we hiked starts at 11,796 feet drops down from tundra grasslands into alpine meadows and finally through a spruce forest to Milner Pass, which is at10,759 feet.  It gives long views to the Never Summer Mountain Range and, about a mile into the hike, down the glacier-gouged walls of Forest Canyon and the headwaters of the Big Thompson River.  The trail ends at the Milner Pass in the Continental Divide.  Poudre Lake is just north of Milner Pass and is the headwaters of Cache La Poudre which drains into the Missouri River and eventually the Mississippi, before reaching the Gulf of Mexico.  The waters draining from the south side of Milner form Beaver Creek which drains into the the Colorado River, then runs through the Grand Canyon and into the Gulf of California.

Carol carefully, unsuccessfully searching for white tailed ptarmigan.

We did find a few tundra willows with catkins still on them - a favorite food of ptarmigan.

From the trailhead, we had long views of the valley and the Never Summer Mountains.  The ground looked plain with a few rocks scattered about. But soon we were seeing many kinds of wildflowers. The alpine flowers survive harsh conditions to bloom a few weeks each summer. Most of them take two to seven or more years to get big enough to have the energy to bloom.  So even though we are allowed to walk on the tundra here, I was careful to not step on flowers. Carol patiently waited while I took all the pictures I wanted - over 200.

One of the three kinds of alpine clover
Pretty flowers - know them?

Moss campion - can take up to ten years to reach blooming size

 Carol knows a lot about the geology of the area because she helps babysit visitors on a geology tour as one of her volunteer jobs.  One of the things she showed me was how the soil is slumping in this area. The soils are on unstable rocks that start sliding downhill, causing cracks.  They often end up in piles, making dams. I think a rock layer under the soil is eroding, causing a more stable rock layer on top of it to slide down. 

An example of slumping along the trail
We saw some wildlife.  The most animals we saw were elk.  We passed a huge herd of resting female elk with their calves. We also spent a lot of time watching a few pikas along the trail. And we were amazed to see robins at such a high elevation - over 10,000 feet.  

Some of a huge herd of female elk and babies

Close up view of one of the elk

A young lark sparrow

Another really interesting thing about the alpine areas were krumholz.  This is what the stunted, twisted trees are called. I think we were seeing Engelmann spruce. At these high altitudes, they are buffeted by high winds and eventually get all bent over and stunted.  Any part of them that isn't under the snow cover gets frozen, leaving dead branches. They cannot make pine cones, and only reproduce by underground roots which sprout new growth. 

A krumholz 
The same species of tree further down the trail.  I think this is Engelmann spruce.

Carol looking down Forest Canyon
The day got cloudier and the clouds grew darker shortly after we broke for a snack. We started actually hiking to be sure and at least be down in the tall trees before any lightening arrived. But I had to stop and take another picture of the Never Summer Mountains in the beautiful light.

My favorite view of the Never Summer Range - taken at our lunch stop

Soon we were hiking though the forest and looking over a steep bluff to the valley below.

A  mule deer resting near the trail in the forest

Just before we arrived at Milner Pass, we came to a beautiful spire of rocks.  We enjoyed watching another pika haul off a huge piece of a plant to start it drying for its winter food.  Then we found an amazing Indian paintbrush plant that was blooming a beautiful shade of pink.

Fun almost done - by Carole

Some of the beautiful rock formations near the end of our hike

Tall bluebells in the rock spires

The first pink-blooming Indian paint brush either of us have ever seen

And the lagniappe of our hike occurred as we drove up to retrieve Carol's car.  We got to see a small heard of bull elk grazing near the road.  And as we came back down, she again pulled off at the parking lot for the Continental Divide.  There she showed me a big horned ewe and her kid, who were at the top of a rocky mountain there. 

A few of a small heard of bull elk

My only sighting of big horned sheep