The Rockies

Rocky Mountains Cover Photo

One morning, while meditating, a thought crept in. What if I had one week to do what I wanted? Initially, I ignored it—like I do with most thoughts while meditating. I let thoughts come and go. I observe them but I don’t ponder on them. I see them as ripples on a lake and know that when the wind stops there will be stillness. So, I let them be. One thought is replaced by another … then another … then another… until there is no more thought left. They come … I observe … they go. But this thought came back again and again—the same ripple came back again and again. Then I thought Krishna was trying to tell me something.

Yes, you got that right—I said Krishna. Most people who know me know that I’m not the religious type. I don’t visit temples (other than taking photos that is), pray in front of idols, or perform any religious ceremonies. But I’ve chosen Krishna as my personal God as I’m able to identify with him and his teachings. His teachings shape and form the way I look at life and the way I look at myself. It helps me to do the right thing, the right way, and leave the worrying to him. You may not know who Krishna is and may not care but I’ll talk about him anyway since he was always with me in this journey and has always been with me through life. You may find it easier to simply mentally replace Krishna with Jesus, Allah, or whoever your personal God is (may be your own soul) and you’ll see that everything starts to make sense … everything seems to come together.

My first response was to head for the Himalayas. There has been nothing more awe-inspiring to me than the Himalayas. And as I thought more about it I realized I really haven’t seen much of it. However, better sense prevailed, and I knew it wasn’t prudent to shirk my current worldly responsibilities and head to the Himalayas … even if it’s for a week (and I don’t think the Himalayas can be seen in a week—it may take months or may be even years). But it had to be the mountains … it had to be where I’ll find Krishna … it had to be where I’ll find myself.

So it had to be the Rockies. That’s the only mountain adventure I could do in a week within the constraints of time and budget. That too seemed a stretch at times. Moreover, an important decision had to be made of whether to go alone or have my family tag along with me. After long conversations with my wife we both agreed that though it was a journey of discovery for me, it would be a journey of torture for my family. Over forty-one hundred miles on car through seven states and about forty-one miles of hiking in just seven days looked daunting. Most people I talked to about the journey—including my friends, the guy at the rental car agency, and the owner of the ranch I stayed in Wyoming was apprehensive. But my wife trusted me and I trusted Krishna and that’s all that mattered.

So, I got on with it. The first step was to have a plan, take leave from work, select places to visit, book places to stay, buy stuff that I’ll need during the journey, and to have a backup plan if anything goes awry. While all that planning was underway, I had to make sure that I was in top physical and mental shape to be able to drive over seven hundred miles a day and hike ten miles a day for seven days. I had to make sure I did not miss my daily meditation and yoga routine and set a target for myself to run ten miles a week. I had to do what I had to do and leave the rest to Krishna.

Fri, Aug 23 2013

Finally, the day came. The sky was turning from purple to red and orange. I hugged and kissed my family and drove out into the unknown in the wee hours of the morning. It was a long and monotonous drive through Missouri and Kansas—roads I was intimately familiar with from my earlier journeys. It was quiet inside my car. I was contemplating on my journey ahead. I was listening to silence.

After almost ten hours of driving I noticed the sign “Welcome to Colorful Colorado.” The sun had started its descent over the western horizon, dark clouds had gathered across the sky, and lightning bolts were threatening to split the sky in half. And then magic happened. At a distance I saw the layers of the Rocky Mountains, reflecting a golden glow from the setting sun.

In the evening, I met my friend Rishi, who lives in Denver. I was meeting him after nine years and it was great. Had dinner with him and his wonderful family and caught up with each others lives. It was well past midnight by the time we decided to call it a day and promised to meet again after a few hours for some local sightseeing.

Sat, Aug 24 2013

The day started with Rishi and I driving to the Garden of the Gods. Bright red and motionless rocks seemed to pierce through the sky above with the Rockies near the horizon. It was a great place to be with a friend.

Garden of the Gods

Once we have had enough of the red rocks we decided to hit the Rockies—the reason I came to Colorado for. We decided to drive up Pikes Peak—one of fourteeners (in local mountaineering parlance in United States, a fourteener is a mountain peak that exceeds 14,000 feet). The Ranger told us to return before the storm hits, but I was ready to take my chances. And with the dark clouds gathering on the northern front, the view was incredible.

View from Pikes Peak

By the time we drove back to Rishi’s residence it was well past 9:00 p.m. and I wasn’t so sure whether I’ll be able to check-in to my hotel at Grand Lake. I called the hotel and there was no response. Rishi, the good friend that he is, offered me to stay back at his place for the night and carry on with my journey the day after. He was even ready to sacrifice an invitation he had at a friend’s place that night to give me company. I didn’t quite feel right about keeping him away from socializing until his friend invited me as well. It was an excellent evening hosted by a wonderful couple with many other wonderful people to give me company before my onward journey.

Sun, Aug 25 2013

It was a wonderful sunny morning. The party last night had taken its toll and the golden hour was gone. But I had no regrets. There would be many more golden hours and extended periods of isolation in the coming days. I lapped up all the company I could get. I said my goodbyes to Rishi and his wife and drove out of their parking lot. My destination was Rocky Mountain National Park.

When I reached the gates of the park I was pleasantly surprised to hear that it was a “Fee Free Day” since it was the ninety-seventh birthday of National Park Service. What a great day it was to visit, I thought … and I didn’t have to pay a dime.

As I drove past the gates the beauty of the park began to unfold. I parked my car near the Bear Lake trailhead and went on to take the first of the several trails I had planned in the cool comfort of my room in Arkansas.

The Bear Lake was less than a thousand feet away from the trailhead and had the most gorgeous views. As I moved around the lake the beauty started to engulf me. I saw the Hallett Peak from a quiet corner of the lake.

Hallett Peak

The U-shaped valley between the Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain on the right was formed by the action of ancient glaciers. Today, Tyndall Glacier is one of the five active glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park.

As I continued to circle around the Bear Lake a certain view stopped me on my tracks. However, as I looked through the viewfinder of my camera I felt I could use a bit of an elevation. So, I climbed up a nearby rock with all my gear, set up my tripod and camera and took multiple exposures of the photo that you see below. When I had packed up and was about to descend, I noticed a crowd had gathered around me at the base. They clapped and cheered as I came back down safely.

Bear Lake

As I continued my journey and hiked further up towards Emerald Lake, I saw Nymph Lake … and for a moment I felt I was in heaven.

Nymph Lake

I sat there for a while sipping water and thinking how grateful I was for this life. Then I moved on and reached a place from where I could see the Nymph Lake from the top.

Nymph Lake and the Rockies

The trail from this point on was steeper and the hiking boots helped. The trail led me to Emerald Lake that fills a deep bowl carved by Tyndall Glacier from the eastern flank of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. As I was setting up my tripod and camera I heard a huge splash. It seemed to come from my right and down the lake. A girl had jumped in the lake! It took me a while to gather my thoughts as I wasn’t sure whether the girl willingly jumped or fell on the lake—the water was ice-cold and I would never dare to jump in. However, when I saw three other girls stripping down to their bikinis and challenging each other on how long they can stay in water I realized that these girls were living their lives to the fullest. Their joie de vivre was so contagious that it made me feel young and light again. However, I had to wait for the girls to get out of the water as I needed the water to be perfectly still. Soon enough they were out of the water giggling and being elated at the successful fruition of their college pact. The water was still enough when I pressed the shutter. Just at the very moment it started raining and the stillness of the water was gone once again. That slice of stillness … that slice of time … was a gift from God.

Emerald Lake

After many years, I was getting wet in the rain again without a care in the world. I felt I was reliving my youth … I was reliving the most beautiful moments of my life … I felt alive … I was filled with joy.

A few more hikes later, as it was getting dark, I decided to drive through Trail Ridge Road and to Grand Lake where I’ll be stopping for the night. A slight drizzle kept me company as I drove past Moraine Park. It was too pretty to ignore. I stopped there for a while and took a snapshot.

Moraine Park

As I drove on the Trail Ridge Road there was so much beauty around that I thought I would go blind. It seemed pointless to drive as I stopped at around every bend. The rain stopped after a while and parts of the sky cleared up letting the sun light up the valley. It seemed almost magical as the constantly shifting clouds lighted up different parts of the valley at different times. It was almost as if a painter was at work experimenting with his shades and was unable to make up his mind.

View from Trail Ridge Road

And then there was this amazing sunset. My first golden hour photo of the Rockies. Magic happens.

Sunset from Trail Ridge Road

Mon, Aug 26 2013

I was up at 4:30 a.m. I felt light. There was no tiredness from all the travel I’d been doing for the last three days. I was so ready to capture the first light on Grand Lake. But I got much more than the first light. I felt Krishna’s presence—the color of the sky and the color of the lake was painted with the color of his skin. The mist was his tune and I felt my body sway to the tune of the Lord.

Grand Lake

As the sun rose and the mist vanished with the fleeting presence of the “dark one,” it was time for me to step on the gas and head to Wyoming—the home of Yellowstone National Park.

After a nine-hour drive, I reached the ranch where I was supposed to stay for the night. It was close to the Buffalo Bill Dam (it seemed everything around there was named after Buffalo Bill) and to get there I had to go through the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway (here we go again), which Teddy Roosevelt once called “the most scenic 50 miles in the world.” And he was so right!

I was tired and hit the sack early. There wasn’t much to do either expect for taking photos of the horses around. But before I could get my camera out it started raining and the horses retired to their stable. The sounds of rain hitting the window panes put me to bed.

Tue, Aug 27 2013

I was up at 4:30 a.m.—yet again! After yoga, meditation, and a refreshing bath I peeked out of the window and realized the sky was beginning to unwrap its gifts. It had started turning purple and soon it would bring out the reds and oranges as well. There was no time to waste. I loaded my bags in the car, drove out of the ranch, and onto a spot where I was expecting to get a better view. In a few minutes the sky lit up behind the Absaroka Mountains (a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains). It warmed up the sky and warmed my heart.

Buffalo Bill State Park

As I entered the Yellowstone National Park from the East Entrance the first thing that caught my eye was Sylvan Lake. The crystal clear waters and the early morning mist almost seemed magical.

Sylvan Lake

I drove and hiked around the park all morning and saw an amazing array of hot springs and geysers. But the one that stood out was the Grand Prismatic Spring—the largest hot spring in United States and the third largest in the world. But it’s not its size but its colors that make it such an amazing sight. The colors begin with a deep blue center followed by pale blue. Green algae forms beyond the shallow edge. Outside the scalloped rim a band of yellow fades into orange. Red then marks the outer border. I climbed up the hill along the Fairy Falls trail and got this view.

Grand Prismatic Spring

After my whirlwind tour of Yellowstone Park it was time to head over to Glacier National Park, Montana—often referred to as the “Crown of the Continent.” Something in me was saying that the crown had the most precious gems that United States had to offer.

It took me about seven hours to reach my hotel near Glacier National Park. I could have made it a lot earlier but several road construction projects slowed me down. A few miles of dusty unpaved roads reminded me of country roads in India. I felt totally at home. As I was approaching the hotel the sun was beginning to set behind the mountains. I was too tired to get my camera out and setup for the shot. But I still stopped my car and saw the sun set behind the mountains. The conversations between my soul and the mountains had begun and Krishna was the only witness.

Wed, Aug 28 2013

I was up before my alarm buzzed … yes you guessed it right … 4:30 a.m. I was ready to take that one shot I had come all the way for—Mount Grinnell at sunrise. I drove to the Swiftcurrent Lake, while it was still dark, and setup my tripod and camera waiting for the sun to rise. Though I didn’t see anyone around there I had a feeling someone or something was watching me. I touched my bear spray dispenser for reassurance.

The first rays of the sun burned my fears and gave way to a sense of joy. The water was still and Mount Grinnell was turning red. It was a gift from god. Though my wife and son was with me in spirit through the entire journey, at that very moment I wished they were physically present. I wished I could hold their hands while the sun bathed Mount Grinnell.

Mount Grinnell Day 1

Though the sight was incredible, somehow I felt I had to come back again the next morning. The best moment was yet to be captured.

To the right of Mount Grinnell was Mount Wilbur which looked equally fascinating as the sun lighted its peak.

Mount Wilbur

Once my early morning session was over I decided to go to the other end of the park and drive through the Going-to-the-Sun road. The views from the Going-to-the-Sun road was equally awe-inspiring. As clouds gathered, the light levels were shifting fast, and I had to constantly change my camera exposure level.

View from Going to the Sun Road

After a bit of driving and taking photos on Going-to-the-Sun road I soon reached the highest point reachable by car in the park—Logan Pass. It was time for me to go for the first hike of the day—the Hidden Lake trail.

The trail begins behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center. The entire length of this hike is completely open and exposed as you proceed through the alpine meadows. After walking for about an hour or less I reached an overlook from where I could see outstanding views of the lake and surrounding mountains. The Bearhat Mountain above the Hidden Lake was the dominating feature from this vantage point.

Bearhat Mountain

Though the view was incredible from the overlook, there was one major cause of concern—the forest that has grown around Hidden Lake, especially at the foot of Bearhat Mountain. This growth may apparently seem good, but it can have a devastating effect on the fragile alpine environment. As the tree line moves up, alpine meadows are lost. Species that depend on these meadows for food or protection from predators are increasingly threatened. Some animals, like the ptarmigan, have already migrated farther up the mountains. As the tree line continues to rise, where can they go when even these areas become inhospitable? Moreover, as the forest gets denser and predators occupy the territory, the lake true to its name, may forever get hidden from us. Photo comparisons from the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center’s (NOROCK) Repeat Photography project illustrates this alarming growth of vegetation even better.

As I continued to ponder on the growth of vegetation on my way down towards the lake, I became more aware of the devastating impact the melting glaciers may have on our ecosystem. I was becoming more aware of the fact that our fate now hangs in a fine balance. Nature is beginning to show the subtle changes that are happening. It’s time that we become passionate about protecting our resources to avoid catastrophic impacts on the environment and the existence of the human race. As my thoughts followed me, I followed a mountain goat along the trail down to the lake. Along the way the trail drops almost seven hundred seventy feet on a rough and steep decline and hence only a few hikers go beyond the overlook. However, I was determined to finish the trail and get a closer look at how dense the forest was.

When I got to the end of the trail, after passing through the dense forest, the calmness and stillness engulfed me. There was no one around and my soul had started its conversation with the mountains.

Hidden Lake

However, the moment of bliss was short-lived as other hikers arrived and it started to drizzle. However, as you can see from the photo above, I had already picked up my gift and the moment of bliss was mine forever.

It rained heavily on my way back. Though the climb back up was steep and treacherous, the rain had a soothing effect on my body and soul. My gear was heavy but my body was light. I felt bliss around me. Couple of hours later, when I had almost completed my hike, the rain was gone—as suddenly as it had come. Krishna was the rain … the rain was Krishna.

After the hike all morning, I was desperately hungry. I drove to Apgar village at the other end of the Going-to-the-Sun road and had a Lake Trout for a late lunch. It was delicious and put all my hunger pangs to rest. I was ready for another hike.

This time I took the Trail of the Cedars. It was a short and beautiful hike through the woods. After walking for a few minutes down the trail I reached the Avalanche Lake trail junction. The trail was over two miles each way and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it on time as the park gate closes at 9:00 p.m. and I was more than an hour drive away from the gate. The last thing I wanted was to spend the night with the grizzlies. However, the magical sunset at the Avalanche Lake was too tempting and I trudged along leaving the worrying to Krishna. It was quiet in the woods and with no hikers around I felt a need to make use of the bear avoidance techniques I had learnt before the trip. I disengaged the Bear Bell silencer so that it makes enough noise while I walk and started chanting “Hey Bear” with every few steps I took—making enough noise usually deter bears from approaching humans. I also ensured that I had my bear spray securely placed in my belt holster and free from any obstruction.

After walking for about an hour I caught up with a young couple who were also on their way to Avalanche Lake. They seemed quite happy and relieved to see me. We made some small talk for the rest of the trail.

The sunset at the Avalanche Lake was gorgeous. The mountains partly lit up by the setting sun looked magical.

Avalanche Lake

As it was getting dark, I put on my LED headlamp. Thankfully, I did not encounter a grizzly on my way back. When I completed the hike and got back to my car it was 8:00 p.m. I had one hour to reach the gate before it closed for the day. Driving on the mountains at twilight is not an easy thing to do. The light changes quickly and it gets dark sooner than you think. Yet again, I left the worrying to Krishna and he took care of it. I managed to get out of the park in the nick of time. Needless to say, I was the last car to leave the park and the only car following me was that of a Ranger who made sure I exited before the gate closes.

Thu, Aug 29 2013

Today was my last chance to capture Mount Grinnell at its glorious best. I prayed before I left my hotel room that there be no clouds and the sun would shower its blessings on the peak.

Swiftcurrent Lake was not as still as it was yesterday, but when the sun shone on the peak I knew I had Krishna’s blessings.

Mount Grinnell Day 2

After a few hours of hiking and trying to delay the inevitable, I knew it was time … I knew it was time to head home. However, I was no more the same person. My core was transformed. Everything seemed possible. A promise of a new life was emerging. Krishna was smiling.

  • Jake Margalies

    These photos have no words to describe how amazing they are!

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