Rocky Mountain National Park 2018

Rocky Mountain National Park 2018

I recently had a chance to spend a week camping in Estes Park, Colorado and exploring Rocky Mountain National Park (ROMO) for the second time. The park is known for its wildlife, scenic drives, and epic hiking. I was fortunate enough to experience all of these in my time there.

There are 106 photos of this trip on my Flickr page, but here’s some highlights of the week.

The Wildlife

ROMO is home to black bears, bald eagles, elk, and moose. There’s also a million other species of flora and fauna, but those are the big four everybody tries to see. I was able to see three of the four (never spotted a bald eagle) and photograph two of them (wasn’t fast enough to get a pic of the one black bear I saw).

It’s generally best to enjoy wildlife from a safe distance:


A moose on the loose! Let’s use our fancy camera to zoom in for a better look:


And that’s as close as I’ll ever want to be to a wild moose. Those things are pretty docile, but they can get up to seven feet tall and 2,000 pounds, and they can run up to 35 MPH. If they turn aggressive, you want to be far, far away.

Elk, on the other hand, are pretty chill.

Elk Encounter

In fact, you can get surprisingly close to them.


And if you’re really lucky, they’ll pose for pictures for you.




If you’re really unlucky, they’ll stop traffic just to scratch up your car.



Scenic Drives

There’s two great roads to drive in ROMO.

Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road is the newer, safer road, and the primary artery connecting the east and west sides of the park. It has many turnouts in which to pull off and park the car and get shots like these:

Many Parks Curve

Rainbow Curve

Trail Ridge Road

When you drive the Trail Ridge Road, you eventually end up over 12,000 feet in elevation and in a barren alpine wilderness. Herds of elk roam the landscape and you can see for miles in every direction. Keep going and you’ll find yourself at a visitors’ center and gift shop at the apex of the road, which is where most people turn around and head back the way they came. It’s also where the other scenic drive ends.

Old Fall River Road

The Old Fall River Road begins in a different location than the Trail Ridge Road, but they both end at the Alpine Visitors Center. This road is much older and does not have the modern safety features or the accessible turnouts of its big brother. This road was begun in the 1910s using prison labor; it doesn’t have a single guardrail anywhere along its route. It’s not paved, either. And it’s a total blast to drive.

The first few miles of the drive wind their way up a canyon.

Old Fall River Road

Old Fall River Road

Old Fall River Road

Along the way, you’ll drive right past Chasm Falls, which is worth a stop.

Old Fall River Road

Eventually the view starts to open up.

Old Fall River Road

Some impressive engineering has been used to keep the road open for close to 100 years.

Old Fall River Road

Old Fall River Road

I drove this road two days after it opened for the season — it usually isn’t plowed and open until the 4th of July, but opened early this year — and there were a few spots along the way where you could see snow melt resulting in spontaneous waterfalls:

Old Fall River Road

Keep winding upward and you’ll start to approach the Alpine Visitors Center again.

Old Fall River Road

And if you’re lucky, you’ll see elk herds roaming the open meadows.

Elk Herd

Elk Herd

Grab a cup of coffee at the gift shop (their cold brew is surprisingly good!) and head to any of the park’s many trailheads for some exercise.


The Bear Lake area is a very popular destination for day hikers like me. Bear Lake itself is very scenic and has a short and flat loop trail that follows its entire shoreline.

Bear Lake

Because of its accessibility to scenery ratio, the Bear Lake area is so popular that its parking lots often fill up early in the day, and the National Park Service will close the approaching road to all tourist vehicle traffic. When that happens, which is every day in summer, your only option is to park elsewhere and ride a park shuttle bus. It’s a minor inconvenience but one worth enduring; the Bear Lake area is home to my favorite hike of the ROMO trip.

(Camping just a two mile hike from a shuttle stop is also an excellent idea. If you hike into ROMO via this trail, you can ride the shuttle anywhere you want and you don’t have to pay the $25-per-vehicle entrance fee!)

From Bear Lake to Emerald Lake

The hike to Emerald Lake is a gentle but persistent upward slope that takes you past a total of four alpine lakes over the course of ~4 miles (one way) and 1,500′ in elevation gain.

It begins with a sign to set you on edge:

Elk Warning

Bold scary colors and the promise of elk nearby. And it turns out they’re not kidding. About 500 yards past that sign, I saw this:

Elk on Trail

An elk just feet from the trail. Is it female? Well, no antlers, so probably? I dunno. This is the point where I regret not doing more research. Is it aggressive? Hopefully not. So what to do? Let someone else go first and see if they get attacked/mauled/bit/trampled by it:

Elk on Trail

Seems pretty docile. Carrying on. Make sure to snap a picture on the way past.

Elk on Trail

After climbing out of the Bear Lake area (and leaving behind 90% of the tourists) you encounter Nymph Lake.

Nymph Lake

Nymph Lake

A beautiful lake, but the mosquitos here are so thick you can see clouds of them, and I didn’t bring my bug spray on this hike, so I’m not gonna linger here very long. Onward to Dream Lake! On the way, take a picture of a friendly chipmunk:

Chipmunk Posing

Only to have it turn around and leave, giving you a rather rude but well-composed photo of a chipmunk’s butt:

Chipmunk Butt

And while you’re still laughing about how stupid that photo is, keep hiking past views like these:

Trail to Emerald Lake

Trail to Emerald Lake

The trail starts to close in on you as it moves away from the edge and into the forest. This is a good place to spot wildlife, like this majestic elk that’s nice enough to strike a pose:

Elk on Trail

Be careful to give it plenty of space, and keep hiking. The trail will open up again shortly.

Trail to Emerald Lake

And then turn inward to an alpine meadow that’s straight out of a painting.

Trail to Emerald Lake

Trail to Emerald Lake

And that takes you to lake #3 on the hike, Dream Lake.

Dream Lake

Less mosquitos than Nymph Lake, which is good, cause you have to hike along the shore of this one for its entire length. You’re high enough at this point to start encountering snow in late June.

Trail to Emerald Lake

Messy, muddy snow, but snow nonetheless! Snow is fun. Take a moment to throw a snowball at nothing in particular before beginning another short climb to take you to Emerald Lake. One look at it, and you’ll realize how it got its name.

Emerald Lake

I did this hike as a spur-of-the-moment decision born out of restlessness, which means I just grabbed my daypack and hit the trail. It was late in the afternoon, and I didn’t bring any snacks or a flashlight. Had I been thinking, I would have brought those with me, which would have allowed me to stay longer to catch the sunset at Emerald Lake and hike back to camp in the dark. The Emerald Lake photo above was taken while facing almost due west, and the sun was about an hour away from dropping behind that ridge. I bet it’s beautiful at dusk. Won’t be able to find out for sure until the next time I go back there!

Also in the area, and regrettably not hiked, is the trail to Flattop Mountain. It’s about 1,500′ above Emerald Lake and looks down along this whole route as well as Tyndall Glacier. Something else for the next trip.

Adams Falls

There’s another hike in the park, this one on the west side, that takes you up past a series of lakes. It’s a 90 minute drive each way across the park, and I blocked a whole day for it: the plan was to drive over there, hike as much as I could, then drive back. I arrived at the trailhead under gloomy skies, which is generally a bad sign in the mountains. I decided to hike to the first significant point of interest, which is Adams Falls, barely a half mile from the trailhead. Turned out to be a good decision, because Adams Falls is beautiful.

Adams Falls

You can already get a sense of how overcast it was from lack of sunlight in the photo, but it was about this point that thunder started to rumble. The other folks at this overlook and I all looked at each other, then turned around and headed back to our cars. When we emerged from the woods, we saw this:

Ominous Sky

Definitely not the time to begin a long hike up a mountain valley. So the remainder of the hike was scrubbed and will have to wait for another trip. The first half of the drive back to camp was during a pretty incredible thunderstorm. Very windy at some of those mountain passes!

A Note About the 14ers

There’s one “14er” in ROMO — that is, a mountain higher than 14,000′ elevation. It’s been a goal for awhile now to summit a 14er, but Longs Peak is not something I wanted to attempt as a solo hiker. It’s a long hike, and a bit more technical than I’m comfortable with, and there’s still plenty of snow at those altitudes in late June. Maybe if I had my hiking buddies with me, but definitely not solo. I’ll bag my first 14er on another trip sometime.

Wrapping This Up

Besides exploring ROMO, this trip featured plenty of downtime at camp relaxing and enjoying the fresh mountain air, lots of time swinging lazily in a hammock, and a trip to sample one of the largest whiskey collections in North America. I even had a visit from some of my close friends who live in the area and got to give their kids their first taste of camping. We made s’mores, took a short hike, and had a great time catching up. All in all, a week well spent and a wonderful way to recharge the mental and physical batteries.

When I packed up the campsite, I was sad to leave, but excited for the next leg of my journey: another week of camping, this time in Yellowstone National Park. That post is due up next.

Reading: Hackers stole $80 million from a central bank because it had $10 routers and no firewall

From the “network security is kinda important” department:

Bangladesh’s central bank was vulnerable to hackers because it did not have a firewall and used second-hand, $10 switches to network computers connected to the SWIFT global payment network, an investigator into one of the world’s biggest cyber heists said.


Reboot Your Airplane or Everybody Dies*

Reboot Your Airplane or Everybody Dies*

*Not really. Nevertheless, some eyebrow-raising news this week:

A software vulnerability in Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner jet has the potential to cause pilots to lose control of the aircraft, possibly in mid-flight, Federal Aviation Administration officials warned airlines recently.

Beep boop. I'm here to kill you.
Beep boop.

Emphasis mine. A “software vulnerability” is a computer bug. A programming mistake. When you fly, drive, ride a train, or wait at a crosswalk for the light to change, your safety is largely in the hands of computers. And that’s just transportation! You know that little machine that controls the IV drip in most hospitals? It’s just a computer: one designed to accurately control the rate and timing at which your life-saving medicines are administered. Unless, of course, it has a bug that causes it to dispense too much (or too little) medicine too often (or not often enough). Apart from transportation and medicine, computers run the economy, the power grid, the military… there is no part of your life they do not directly touch.

I’ve been reading a lot about this lately, focused mostly on the security implications of all this integrated technology, but what we’re talking about today is only indirectly related to security. Today’s problem is neatly summed up in what might be the Understatement of the Year:

“The inevitable creep of software into engineering brings with it the problem of bugs.”

We’ve integrated computers into engineering so tightly that bugs are not just a nuisance, but a given. Which brings us back again to the Dreamliner: It has four generator control units (GCUs) that create the electrical power the airplane needs when it’s not plugged in on the ground. According to the FAA directive:

“…after 248 days of continuous power, all four GCUs will go into failsafe mode at the same time, resulting in a loss of all AC electrical power regardless of flight phase.”

To repeat: if the computer inside a GCU isn’t rebooted before 248 days of uptime, it crashes so hard it effectively turns off. If all four of them were turned on at the same time — a very likely occurrence when powering up an airplane — then they’ll all crash at the same time “regardless of flight phase.” Yikes.

The good news is there are at least two backup systems on the aircraft, so this particular bug probably won’t kill anybody. According to a more technical article:

Until there is a patch for the problem all Dreamliners have to be rebooted before the 248 day period is up. Apparently if the worse does happen and the GCUs overflow and switch off the power then the plane should have enough backup power from a lithium-ion battery for about 6 seconds while a ram air turbine deploys for emergency power generation. So, with luck, this isn’t a bug that could cause planes to fall out of the sky.

We now live in a world of computers. Computers run software. Software has bugs. Did you ever think you’d see the day when this sentence brought you comfort?

So, with luck, this isn’t a bug that could cause planes to fall out of the sky.

“With luck,” you’ll get some sleep tonight.


Park Here for Security

This is creative problem solving at its best:

Throughout 2014, Kyoto Prefectural Police began an initiative having taxi drivers and late-night convenience stores work together to reduce incidents of armed robbery. Although still early, the program has so far been rousing success, leading to a 48 percent decrease in convenience store robberies compared to the previous year. They also get extra points for giving it the cool name of “Midnight Defender Strategy”.

In Kyoto about half of the convenience stores had signed on for the Midnight Defender Strategy. These 500 or so shops hung posters with slogans such as “vigilance strengthening” written on them in their windows. These signs are indicators to taxi drivers that they are allowed to park there as long as they like during breaks. The stores lose a few parking spaces in the process but gain some extra eyes which may be enough to deter a would-be bandit from making their move.

Take note that this is an instance of a social problem (crime) being solved by a social solution (vigilance). Nobody — not even in the high-tech fantasyland of Japan — tried to solve this problem with some fancy technology solution that likely would have been much more expensive and much less effective.

This is better for the store owners, better for the cabbies, and better for the citizens just looking for a place to shop. The only people who don’t come out ahead are those looking to make trouble, and that’s about as good as you can possibly hope for.

Yosemite Day 5: Mt. Hoffmann

Yosemite Day 5: Mt. Hoffmann

Friday finds us waking up — after a rough night punctuated by repeated bear visits — in the Backpacker’s Campground in Yosemite Valley. We quickly ate our now-familiar backcountry breakfasts before heading over to the Housekeeping Camp Shower House to clean off the last four days’ worth of dirt and grime. Good thing, too, as that tent was getting a bit ripe. After that, we drove out of Yosemite Valley for the last time this trip and headed to the White Wolf  Campground, which is off Tioga Road about halfway between the Valley and Tuolumne Meadows. We established camp at White Wolf — after figuring out how their first-come-first-served system works — and packed our day packs for a climb up Mt. Hoffmann.

Half Dome as seen from the Mt. Hoffmann trail. Photo by Matt.
Half Dome as seen from the Mt. Hoffmann trail. Photo by Matt.

The trail up Hoffmann starts with a quick climb to May Lake, which is an easy hike and provides a gorgeous view of the lake. The May Lake High Sierra Camp looked fantastic, and is definitely something to check out for a later trip. Tent cabins, flush toilets, and they cook all your meals for you!

The always-excellent, which we use extensively when planning all our Yosemite trips, says this under “Trail Notes & Hazards” for the Mt. Hoffmann hike:

The trail up Mt. Hoffmann is steep and rocky, and some of the steepest parts are covered with decomposed granite (“DG”), one of the most insidiously slippery substances nature has devised in its campaign to add slapstick to the world. Between this and oxygen’s inexplicable fear of heights, plan on a slow pace going up.

And they ain’t kidding. That trail was steep, rocky, and slippery. It’s mostly exposed to the sun, too, which made it rather hot at times. Fortunately the elevation meant it was cooler here than in the Valley, but we still took the opportunity to stop in the shade whenever possible and cool down a bit.

There's a trail in here somewhere. Photo by Mark.
There’s a trail in here somewhere. “Where are we going?” “Up.” Photo by Mark.

The trail turns from dirt to rock and gets both slippery — thanks to that pesky DG — and harder to follow. This is another one of those times I was glad to be hiking with friends more experienced than I. Mark took care of most of the route finding for us. The climb was easier than Mt. Dana, but about as steep as I could handle at this point in the week. It topped out into a beautiful wide open flat area at the top, with the summit of Mt. Hoffmann marked by a craggly pile of boulders.

Photo by Mark.
That’s the trail going from lower left to upper right. You then climb up the boulders going right to left. The actual summit is the high point here with the antenna on top. Photo by Mark.

The final push to the summit of Mt. Hoffmann goes off trail a bit. Or, to be more precise, there’s an infinite number of trails. After coming up a large flat area just below the summit, you’re greeted by a boulder pile about 75 feet high. This is no longer hiking; this is climbing.

Photo by Mark.
The boulder scramble up close. We’re aiming for the antenna in the top of the photo left of center. Photo by Mark.

I had never done anything like this before — save for maybe a spot or two on Mt. Dana and Clouds Rest earlier in the week — but once again, Mark and Matt came through for me with patience and guidance. They helped me get myself up to the top, and more importantly, back down safely. And I’m glad they did, because hot damn, what a view from the summit:

14507076392_c020de5500_k (1)
Mt. Hoffmann summit panorama. Photo by me.
May Lake (left) and Tenaya Lake (far right). Photo by Mark.
May Lake (left), Tenaya Lake (center), and Clouds Rest (right). Photo by Mark.

Something else special about this hike: it was Matt’s birthday! Nothing like climbing a mountain to celebrate your 33rd birthday.

Matt on his 33rd birthday. Clouds Rest and Half Dome behind. Taken on the summit of Mt. Hoffmann.
Matt on his 33rd birthday. Clouds Rest and Half Dome behind. Taken on the summit of Mt. Hoffmann.

Hiking back from the summit to the car, I felt as good as I’ve felt in a long time. I was consciously trying to use my hiking poles less, and I had a little bit of an adrenaline high from the summit still. It was a fun hike back to the car once we got out of the slippery DG and rocky trail and back onto nice solid dirt.

May Lake. What a view! Photo by Matt.
May Lake. What a view! Photo by Matt.

Hiking all the way to the summit of Mt. Hoffmann is ambitious for casual hikers like me, but the whole trail is just jam-packed with spectacular scenery, and the altitude isn’t too bad. It’s definitely worth putting on your itinerary for your next visit to Yosemite. Go as far as you can up the trail and just enjoy the experience. I know I’ll be doing it again.

Total distance: 5.8 mi
Max elevation: 10745 ft
Min elevation: 8760 ft
Total climbing: 2123 ft
Total descent: -2136 ft
Total Time: 04:47:58

After returning to the car, we drove to Olmsted Point for a quick photo op. We had driven past here a couple times, but hadn’t yet explored the big granite dome to the east of the parking lot. I’m pretty sure the actual Olmsted Point itself is right next to the parking lot, but the trail to the dome is a short 100 yards, and the view is much better from over there. We hung out there for a couple minutes, took some pictures, and headed off to dinner.

The view from the slabs by Olmsted Point. That's Clouds Rest (left) and Half Dome (right). Photo by Mark.
The view from the slabs by Olmsted Point. That’s Clouds Rest (left) and Half Dome (right). Photo by Mark.

Dinner was at our favorite — and the only — high country restaurant around: The Tuolumne Meadows Grill. We had no idea it closed at 5pm, but got there about 4:15 with plenty of time to spare. Everything in Tuolumne closes early, apparently. This is another one of those things I’ve filed away for the next trip: nothing open past 5pm; do your shopping early. We once again dined on overpriced but tasty burgers and then stocked up on beer at the general store. Not a bad selection, either. Plenty of local stuff, mostly from Mammoth Brewing, and all of it delicious.

We drove back to White Wolf and settled into camp. A fire was quickly started, and we once again toasted Matt’s birthday while relaxing around the fire. A good portion of this evening was spent repacking the gear for the next day’s flights home, which wasn’t something any of us really wanted to do. I think we all could have stayed there for a few more days without much trouble.

Yosemite Day 4: Hiking Out of the Backcountry

Yosemite Day 4: Hiking Out of the Backcountry

This was the day where we would deviate from our plans more than any other. The original plan was to hike out of the LYV Campground to the John Muir Trail and over to the Panorama Trail, which would take us all the way up to Glacier Point. From there, we’d hike down to Yosemite Valley via the 4 Mile Trail and catch a shuttle bus back to the car.

Well, it was a good plan, but I just couldn’t do it. Too much hiking over the last few days, and to hike that much while carrying my full pack just proved to be too ambitious for me. Matt and Mark — mountain goats that they are — carried on with the original plan, while I hiked out via the Mist Trail. Taking the John Muir would have been easier, but I wanted to do something a little more challenging to bump up the difficulty on my abbreviated hiking day.

Mark’s got a great recap on his blog about their hike on this day.

Hiking down the Mist Trail was slow going, but largely uneventful. Wet granite steps and a tired body are not a good combination. I got stopped a lot by dayhikers, most of asking if I had done Half Dome, but some also asking about trail beta for Clouds Rest. I was grateful for the interruptions and the short breaks, and an opportunity to share what knowledge and advice I could. Folks on the trails are always so friendly — it’s pretty hard to be in a bad mood when you’re surrounded by such beauty.

I was wearing my trusty St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap, and had a Giants fan come up to me to give me some friendly grief about my baseball allegiance. I reminded him of our 11 World Series championships, and he reminded me that the Giants beat the Cards in the 2012 NLCS. We had a good laugh, and he admitted that the entire Cardinals pitching rotation was on his fantasy baseball team. This sparked a conversation about the brilliance of longtime Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan that only baseball nerds could have.

Total distance: 4.44 mi
Max elevation: 6086 ft
Min elevation: 3848 ft
Total climbing: 499 ft
Total descent: -2690 ft
Total Time: 03:09:22

It took me three full hours to hike from LYV to Curry Village, but it sure was nice to return to civilization for awhile. Hiking out was definitely the right decision; I was completely out of gas when I got to Curry. I got a big cup of coffee and sat under a shady tree for a half hour, just people watching and staring at Half Dome. I made radio contact with Matt at a prearranged time to get an update on their hike — they had just made it to Glacier Point and were stopping for lunch — and agreed that I’d pick them up at the 4 Mile trailhead at 2pm.

This gave me several hours to kill. I returned our bear cans, did a little research on the first-come-first-served campsites along Hwy 120 that we were planning on staying in the next night, and bought a souvenir of my Clouds Rest hike. I drove around Yosemite Valley a little bit, stopping at some of my favorite out of the way places to gawk at the scenery. But I’m only just now realizing that this is the first time I’ve been to Yosemite without stopping at Tunnel View. Can’t believe I missed that one.

Matt and Mark emerged from the trails at almost exactly 2pm, and we headed over to Curry Village to demolish a pizza and enjoy some craft beer to celebrate our backcountry adventure. We rested and chatted for awhile while doing our best to fend off the squirrels that prowl Curry Village for food. After our second lunch of the day — hiking is hard work, you know — we headed off to run errands. Souvenir shopping for friends and family, grocery shopping for the next two days, and I couldn’t resist a quick stop into the Ansel Adams Gallery, where I saw something I never expected to see: the original photograph of one of my favorite Ansel Adams prints. The actual first print, printed by Ansel himself, from his own negative, nicely matted and framed and hanging right on the wall.

Priced at only $30,000. If it had been signed by Ansel Adams, it would have been at least double that.
“The Tetons and the Snake River”. Priced at only $30,000. If it had been signed by Ansel Adams, it would have been at least double that.

I have a special edition reproduction print of this photo — printed from the original negative — and it’s been on my wall for years. It took a great deal of willpower to not just mortgage my house right then and there, but somehow I walked out of the gallery without buying anything. Some day I’ll own an Ansel Adams original, but today is not that day.

After the guys tore me away from the gallery, we headed back to the Backpacker’s Campground for one last night in the Valley. We quickly encountered more rangers in the camp, who warned us that the bear they were concerned about earlier in the week had gotten more aggressive over the last few days, and was now “on the chopping block” if it couldn’t be scared out of the Valley permanently. We were advised to keep every loose item, including our packs, in the bear locker for the night. We were also told not to leave the bear locker doors open, even when standing next to it, as the bear would see the open doors and be bold enough to come right into camp. That’s a new one! Never heard of that before, but it fits the escalating pattern here: first the food, then the coolers, then the packs, and now the bear lockers. This one is smarter than the av-er-age bear!

This evening at camp was our first campfire, and boy, did it ever feel good. We had some really good conversation this night, and all enjoyed just staring at the fire and enjoying the cool evening. Matt had brought a flask of scotch for an occasion like this, but it had sprung a leak on the first day. Fortunately, it was stored inside a Ziploc bag, but now we had a plastic bag full of scotch and a busted flask. Matt had the bright idea to float the scotch bag in the Merced River right next to our campsite to chill the scotch, and we all took turns drinking out of the bag. Probably not recommended by master distillers or scotch snobs, but if you’ve never had river chilled scotch out of bag in the mountains, you’re missing out!

This also turned out to be the best night for stargazing of the whole trip. Thousands and thousands of tiny stars dotted the sky. There were enough trees surrounding our camp that we never really got a view of the full expanse, but it was still impressive. Didn’t quite get to a point where the Milky Way was visible, but we didn’t stay up late enough for that, and the campfire wasn’t letting our eyes fully adjust to the dark.

We did get visited by our overly-aggressive bear friend this night. We were woken up repeatedly throughout the night by rangers making noise to scare the bear out of camp, but it kept coming back. The rangers were moving people’s stuff into the bear lockers, and it sounds like they were patrolling the camp all night. I wasn’t brave enough to get out of the tent to find out. At one point, they chased the bear out of camp, and it ran right past our tent, just a few feet from me. I could hear its footsteps as it ran past. At that point, I decided I wasn’t leaving the tent until morning.

When we did finally get up for good, we woke up to find out campsite undisturbed. All our stuff had been properly secured the night before, and it was a pleasure to find out that the food storage requirements and bear protection rules had worked as intended. Nice to know they’re not having us jump through hoops for fun, and that it actually makes a difference.