My summer hiking plans were continually thwarted, largely due to sloth. I finally made it to Rocky Mountain National Park, though, at the end of a seemingly continuous season; the worst drought I can remember since moving to Colorado has kept the mountains largely clear of snow and open to hiking in December. But a stubborn patch of snow and ice I encountered three miles along the trail didn’t get the drought message and made me wonder if it was really worth continuing up the path.
I started along the Wild Basin trail in the southeast section of Rocky Mountain National Park with no particularly intention other than to see how far I could comfortably go. I had been lazy with my hiking all summer, so I didn’t want to push myself too far. But I also didn’t want to miss out on seeing something great. So I marked the Ouzel Falls on my map, about three miles from the trailhead, as my turnaround point; I would go no farther, understanding that the return trip would make the hike approximately six miles.
Now stop and add another mile and a half to that total.
The trailhead started on a dirt road well over a half mile from the true trailhead. For no seeming rhyme or reason, parking lots beyond that point, all of which were clear of snow and ice, were closed to traffic. So I backed off the idea of the Ouzel Falls, writing it off for another time. Nearly eight miles would be way too much for me to do on this hike. And then I stood at the Calypso Cascades, encouraging myself that an additional two miles roundtrip wasn’t that big of a deal, especially considering how far I had already come.
The trail through the sub-alpine forest was easy, a slight uphill the whole was as it followed the North Saint Vrain Creek as it tumbled down the mountains. I caught my first glimpse of it after reaching the true trailhead. It passed by the parking lot on its meandering path to some presumably far off point I know not. I didn’t give it much thought, either, remaining content to enjoy its babbling sounds through breaks in a sheet of ice nearly covering it all.
The nearby Copeland Falls – lower and upper – weren’t exactly aptly named. They would more appropriately be small little dumps of about five feet. Had it not been for the covering of ice, they would have been lovely. As it was, they were largely concealed and relatively uninteresting except for the continual running of the water which could be heard from under the ice.
I continued to climb the gentle incline, working my way higher and higher up in elevation, whilst surrounded by towering mountain peaks; Mountain Orton reached near 12,000 feet above sea level, St. Vrain Mountain topped it at 12,162, and Copeland Mountain at 13,176 feet. Occasionally they were visible through the towering lodge pole pines and birch trees that canopied the trail in shadow, rarely breaking to allow in wind or sunshine.
My hopes were too high for the Calypso Cascades. I yearned for the water to be free of ice, moving too fast to be trapped, yet it was encased. Barely a sound could be heard from Cony Creek, a tributary to the St. Vrain. I closed my eyes, though, and imagined it in a warm summer, wetting the bridge I stood on as it continued fiercely down the mountain. That image will have to wait to become reality for when I return.
Not completely deterred by the frozen river, holding out hope because of the dry trail, I thought of continuing onto Ouzel Falls. It would only be another two miles. Sure, I was already up to nearly six by the time I returned, but I could do that. No problem. But only a few steps away from the Cascades I encountered a thick coating of snow and ice which continued on around a bend and out of sight. I tentatively took a few steps, wondering if it was really worth it. Just as I began to give in and turn back, a middle aged couple rounded the corner and came into view.
“All the way to the falls,” the man answered.
“Is it worth it? I mean, is it all snow-covered like this with another frozen waterfall, or is it clear and running?”
“There’s a little snow, but not much past this. You’ll be fine.”
“And the falls are worth it,” the woman chimed in. “There’s a lot of ice, but they’re running. You can see the waterfall.”
I needed no other encouragement. I knew I had to go on. I had to see at least one true waterfall. So what if it was an extra two miles around trip from the nearly six I had already done? My big butt needed the exercise after being so lazy all summer and fall.
Baby-stepping along, fearful of slipping and falling on my ass or, worse yet, down the side of the mountain, I took my time on the snowpacked trail. But, just as the couple said, it gave way to dry rock and a shower of sunshine spilling down through openings in the trees. The intermittent views were incredible, although not what I had really longed for; in addition to the waterfalls, I wanted to have a nice, wide-open view of the Rockies.
The trail continued to climb, this time more steeply. I wound around an unnamed mountain, possible the base of St. Vrain. It’s hard to tell, though, with so many peaks in the park, not all of which are listed on the park’s map. The name didn’t really matter, though; I was too focused on breathing, putting one foot in front of the other, and continuing on, since my laziness had caught up to me, making me more and more short of breath the higher I climbed.
And then, there it was, after nearly a mile-long climb from the Calypso Cascades, I reached the Ouzel Falls. Frozen. Hard as a chunk of ice coming out of my freezer, the falls could only distantly be heard under the thick blanket of ice. Despite the exercise I so desperately needed, it had really not been worth it. I reminded myself of that as I returned to the parking lot after a roundtrip of nearly eight miles. But it didn’t end all bad.
The Ouzel Falls were a disappointment in the winter; likely stunning in the summer. But dry trail continued on beyond it, and so did I; an opening in the trees revealing my stunning view of the mountains greeted me. A small group of hikers were already gathered there, lounging with a snack, taking it all in when I arrived. My presence was announced to them with a loud sigh of contentment, one which I reiterated several times during my return journey; the falls were not worth the extra two miles, but the view more than made up for it.