And Then, There Were These Killer Elk…

After a nice, restful day on Wednesday we were ready to get back in action on Thursday! No trail too moderate, no walk too long. Ha!

We got up, ate breakfast and headed back into RMNP to the Bierstadt Lake trailhead. Now this particular trail can be accessed one of two ways – going up from our trailhead or going down from Bear Lake. We had chosen our trail head because it amounted to a shorter hike overall. It started out easy enough – walking through a nicely wooded area with well-spaced steps. Captain Chaos was so over walking by now though that Mom was carrying him. I don’t think he was quite all the way over his little bout with the stomach bug, either because he kept falling asleep.

Then the woods ended. And we started up a trail that was about 18 inches wide and cut into the side of a mountain with nothing on the edge. One wrong step and you were sliding down the mountain. Yikes! It was just switchback after switchback, with no end in sight. We ran into a nice couple coming down that had started at Bear Lake. They said we had quite a ways to go yet. And then the trail just kept getting steeper and narrower. I finally turned around and decided that I would take Captain Chaos down to the parking lot and we would hang down there. I had a book and he was asleep (or going to be) anyway, so it was no big deal. Dad obviously didn’t like the trail either, so we all decided to cut our losses and head back to the trailhead. It was disappointing, but that trail was scary…

I did get one neat picture – that’s Sprague Lake in the distance. Otherwise, this trail wasn’t all that impressive in terms of scenery…

Sprague Lake from the Bierstadt Trail

Sprague Lake from the Bierstadt Trail

We did some driving around and decided to visit the Moraine Pass Visitor Center. That was cool – they had some pretty neat interactive exhibits that told all about the formation of the Moraine and the glaciers that were instrumental in the landscape. AFter leaving there we decided to go ahead and visit the Gateway Visitor Center at the main entrance. That was where I got my RMNP charm for my charm bracelet. Every trip I go on I try to find a charm that specially symbolizes the trip. This one is an elk – I just didn’t know yet, how appropriate that particular choice would be!

There was lunch and some time at the camper in there before we decided to make the hike up to Cub Lake. This was the longest (2.7 miles one way) hike of the week and also would turn out to be the favorite, hands down! We had carefully researched this one by browsing the gift shop hiking books and reading up on this hike. Didn’t want another Bierstadt! It was described as a largely flat trail until the last .5 miles or so which is a rather steep climb.

It was exactly that. The trailhead begins in the middle of the Moraine and winds back into the wilderness and eventually the forest. It is mostly flat, with a few boulder piles that need to be climbed. We started the trail at about 3:30, which is pretty late, but we weren’t too worried about it getting dark while we were on the trail since it doesn’t get dark there until 9:30ish. After about a half mile we came around a turn and overlooking the Moraine we could see a huge herd of elk! And then we noticed that closer, there were two elk does wearing tracking collars. Dad set up his camera with the telephoto lens so the girls could look at the elk. There was much oooooohing and aaaaaaahing over this.

As we were making ready to continue our hike the does suddenly jumped up and started trotting towards a little aspen grove nearby. We wondered what had startled them until we saw the tiny elk calf that had just emerged. Ah-ha! So now we also knew why these two had been apart from the rest of the group!

The rest of the trail was very pretty and mostly flat, winding through some marshy areas and a forested area. And, just as described the last half mile was a doozy of a climb. We finally came out of some brush into a clearing and there it was. Cub Lake.

Cub Lake

Cub Lake

Truthfully, it was one of the least spectacular endings to hike we had experienced the entire time we were there. I think we were just too early in the season for all of the wildflowers to get going or the water lilies to get blooming, so the lake didn’t live up to its hype. Not to mention that it was infested with mosquitoes! Yuck!

By now, it was 6:00 and we were in kind of a hurry to get out of the wooded part of the hike as we knew that part would get dark pretty fast. We hustled out of there and headed on back down the trail. I was walking fairly quickly and was a little bit ahead of the rest of the group. We were probably a quarter way into the falt part of the trail when I hear MOTS on the radio asking “Mommy, are you to the elk yet?” Now, I was only 100 yards or so ahead of them on the trail so obviously not… but I turned and hollered back, “No, I am not at the elk yet!”  We all got a pretty good laugh at that!

We passed another family that was heading in and gave them the rundown on the trail. Finally, we came around a bend and there was the Moraine! Hooray! We were almost back to the car! Then – what’s that? Are those elk? On the trail?

Now, I want to take this opportunity to remind everyone that in the National Parks the animals have the right of way. They are, after all, wild animals. You give them their space and you can’t approach them – it’s illegal! So we stopped. We sat, and we waited for the elk to decide to move on. And we waited.

Dad caught up. He stopped and waited with us. While we were waiting we caught some movement on some rocks up ahead of us. Mom whipped out her trusty binoculars (or nasaloculars as they came to be called – Captain Chaos liked to hold them up to his nose!) and we took turns trying to identify the creature on the boulders. It was gold in color and was whipping its tail back and forth in a rather cat-like manner. “Uh, it kinda looks like a mountain lion.”

WHAT!?!?

Then it got up and moved. It wasn’t a mountain lion. Turned out it was a weasel. MOTS identified it as one of the animals from her Junior Ranger booklet. Whew! A weasel…

Finally the elk moved off of the trail and we were able to get going again. By now it was getting darker – into dusk – and we were eager (especially MOTS, who needed a bathroom) to get to the car. We rounded what was the last bend in the trail and…..more elk. <sigh>

This time there were four of them on the trail, all young males. They were quietly and patiently grazing on the plants along the trail. We would make a little noise, they would freeze, and we would freeze, but they weren’t budging. So we stopped. By this time we had been joined by the family that we had met as they were going in and we all stood helplessly on the trail waiting for the elk to move on.

Finally, one of the other family decided that he would move ahead very slowly in the hopes that his approach would encourage the elk to at least give us room to pass. He had taken, maybe, two steps when two of the elk up and bolted away from the other two and in the direction opposite of where they had been facing. Weird. But they were of f the trail, so we inched forward hoping not to spook the two just off the trail to our left.

About that time we noticed that the remaining two elk were frozen and tensed to spring. We all froze as a unit. It was a kind of primal body language communication, I think – DANGER!

All week, we had been reading signs alerting us to the potential presence of mountain lions in the park and it was getting dark – prime hunting hours.

We looked in the direction of the elks attention and coming over the rise was a stalking…..coyote! He (or she) was skulking along quietly towards the elk (and us!) along a ridge not 50 feet from us. When he got too close for the comfort of the elk they reared and stomped and began to chase the coyote away from the rest of the herd (and us!).

It was probably the coolest thing we saw all week. Killer guardian elk chasing a coyote away and up the side of a hill.

We headed off to our car simply in awe at what we had just witnessed, in person. I mean you can turn on the National Geographic channel and see that on TV. But live and in person?!? It was quite a show!

We were charged up for the ride home, that’s for sure. We found a bathroom at the Beaver Pass visitor center and then headed back into town for a late dinner at Taco Bell/KFC. Then it was back to Jellystone for some sleep! Friday…we shop!

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