Rattlesnake Arches (April 20, 2019)

Several years ago, while visiting Colorado National Monument, our curiosity was piqued when we learned about a place in nearby McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area containing the second largest concentration of arches after Arches National Park in Utah.

As much as we love America’s Greatest Idea, the National Park System, finding solitude exploring out of the way places has become an increasing priority in our adventures. But until we got more serious about off-roading last year, Rattlesnake Arches, which is within the BLM's Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness, was a bit out of our (and especially my) hiking range, at over 14 miles from the trailhead near Fruita.

Overlooking the Rattlesnake Arches area near Fruita, Colorado

Enter "Moby", our 2017 Toyota 4Runner. Purchased last spring very lightly used with only 7,500 miles, 3" lift, rock sliders, off-road truck tires, Mike has since wisely added a beefier skid plate and brighter headlights, and has collected an impressive assortment of off-road emergency and recovery gear.


Rattlesnake Arches was at the top of our off-road adventures list but it took us almost a year to get there due to planned seasonal road closures, impassable conditions and summer heat. But this year we marked the calendar to go out shortly after the Upper Road opened and had a Goldilocks day April 20, just 5 days after the road opened for the season. 

Starting the 4WD part of the road to the trailhead

Past the Upper Road is the high clearance 4WD Road that would take us right to the trailhead, cutting over 5 miles off the hike. The the road was easier than expected, always a relief for me, but perhaps a bit of a disappointment for Mike who enjoys the off-roading challenges. Still it was a fun ride with vistas across the Colorado River and Fruita and the mountains beyond. It took about and hour and a half to get to the trailhead from Grand Junction.

Our hike took us first on the upper trail where after about a mile we had a steep view down to First Arch and far across the canyon to a number of red rock alcoves.

Opting not to try the steep scramble down through First Arch, we instead backtracked to access the lower loop trail which started with a number of steep and rocky switchbacks leading to the canyon floor.

I started the descent alone while Mike hiked back to the car to get more water. At the bottom, the U-shaped trail hugged canyon wall, with magnificent views up at the massive rock walls and arches all the way.

Lots of little wildflowers along the trail

The trail ends looking up at First Arch, unless you feel comfortable with the class 3/4 scrambling required to climb up First Arch. I didn’t, so we traced our steps back, adding 2.2 miles to the hike and getting a second look at all the beauty on the canyon floor.

Looking up at First Arch before heading back

Looking back down on the trail we just ascended

On the way out we stopped at the Glade Park Store, which was quite a blast from the past, and had a nice visit with the proprietor.

Glad Park Store

Here's the GPS map/track with statistics on this hike.

As you can see, we enjoy a leisurely pace :-) 

Hike to Black Lake and Beyond

In the mid-nineties, when I first began hiking, one of my first "big" ones in Rocky Mountain National Park was the ten mile hike up to Black Lake, in Glacier Gorge.

Click this map or any picture to see a larger image

I did the hike in June, 1996 which is still pretty early to be above 9,000 ft, as there was plenty of snow on the trail. I call hikes like this "wet hikes" as there is much in the way of water along the way: Glacier Creek, Alberta Falls, Mills Lake, Jewel Lake, Glacier Creek, and of course Black Lake.

The first time I did the hike I was blown away by the views about 4 miles in -- The view of Stone Man Pass, McHenrys Peak, and Arrowhead were very dramatic. I snapped a pretty decent photo in about 1996 with my last film camera. The picture came out so well that I used it on my business card for Mountain Data Systems. Later that year, I met my friend Ernie and when I handed him the card, he immediately knew where it was taken. And we've since hiked up into Glacier Gorge together, both in the summer and winter.

Just below Black Lake in Glacier Gorge, June 1996

Glacier Gorge continues to be my favorite hiking area in Rocky, and I never tire of its beauty. So when I had the chance this month, I left my house for the trailhead about 6:30am. When I rounded the curve near Moraine Park I was greeted with ground fog with morning light on Longs Peak. 

Longs Peak, above Moraine Park

The Glacier Gorge trailhead

Alberta Falls

On the trail past Alberta Falls. Thatchtop Mountain at left

Along the trail before Mills Lake

Mills Lake, with Longs Peak and the spires called Keyboard of the Winds (taken on the way down)

Along Glacier Creek near the Shelf Creek drainage

iPhone shot similar to my business card image from 1996

Stone Pass upper left, Ribbon Falls, McHenrys Peak and Arrowhead

I lingered here at Ribbon Falls, taking various shots of the falls with McHenrys in the background. 

Ribbon Falls with McHenrys and Arrowhead

While I was shooting here, another hiker showed up, so we stopped to chat. He introduced himself as Hiroki, from Japan, and we took each others pictures here. 

Me, just below Black Lake. Thanks, Hiroki! :-)

Hiroki in my panorama shot after arriving at Black Lake
After a short snack break at Black Lake, I started up the drainage climbing up above the lake to a rock we have affectionately named "Mike's Rock" because I've taken so many people up to it. 

Looking back down to Black Lake on the way up the drainage

"Mike's Rock" at left, straddling the drainage and overlooking Black Lake

Enjoying my lunch
After a break, and more photography, I wandered around near Blue Lake, but due to time, I didn't visit it this hike.

Above the drainage to Black Lake; Longs Peak and Keyboard of the Winds 

The view to the North, back up Glacier Gorge
Pano from just below Blue Lake
On the way down: some of the last blooms of Fireweed
A mini-waterfall in the drainage
Reluctantly, I left Black Lake and headed down, stopping once to filter some water out of Glacier Creek. 

I took a slight detour to take in all of Jewel Lake. 

Jewel Lake, just above Mills Lake
I took one last break to shoot this small waterfall not far from Alberta Falls. 

This hike never fails to amaze and recharge me, but I was tired and happy to get back to my car. 

Here's the elevation/speed profile for the hike.

As you can see, I can easily turn a 6 hr hike into an 9 hr hike :-)

Perseids in Rocky Mountain National Park

It's really fun to be outside at night under the stars, especially when skies are dark, and the Perseids come out to play!

This year's Perseids meteor show was hyped up to be unusually good, with a closer approach of comet Swift-Tuttle's tail debris passing through Earth's orbit.

We went to Walden, Colorado in 2013 to observe and photograph the Perseids, but this year stayed close to home. The sky in Rocky Mountain National Park isn't as dark as Walden, but once the moon set, it was dark enough to get a good show.

At about 11:30pm on Aug 11, I drove up Trail Ridge Road, stopping at Many Parks Curve, Rainbow Curve, Forest Canyon Overlook, and Milner Pass before turning around to head home and get some sleep.

As always, click on an image for a larger version.

View from Many Parks Curve, looking east towards Estes Park and the plains. Deer Mountain center, YMCA far right

Here are some of the night shots I got during my outing.

Looking northwest from Many Parks Curve

Even with the bright moonlight, you could still see Andromeda (top center in above photo).

From Many Parks Curve. YMCA of the Rockies at lower left

The moon was illuminating the clouds as the passed overhead going east. I went west from here. Rainbow Curve was very crowded, so I drove on up the road, climbing higher and deeper into the park.

At the Forest Canyon Overlook, I found several cars in the parking lot, with a couple sitting in lawn chairs near their car. I decided to stop and walk out to the overlook. The moon was almost bright enough that I didn't need my headlamp. When I got to the end of the paved path, I found I had it all to myself!

Me and my moonlight shadow (bottom right) near the Forest Canyon Overlook

A meteor streaks by at far right center of frame

Looking east from Forest Canyon; Longs Peak with moon shadows, too!

After I bit I went on down the road, finding Rock Cut to be too busy, so I drove on to the Lava Cliffs overlook. It was busy too, but I want to be here as the moon set.

Another meteor at left

Finally, the moon went down and began to get a lot darker, making the Milky "pop" quite a bit more.

My car with the Milky Way over it

Meteor at left; Ypsilon, Chiquita, Chapin peaks at far right
Some of the people at the Lava Cliffs parking were walking around with their headlamps, so I decided to move on. I skipped the Alpine Visitors Center which had about 20 cars in the lot, and also drove on past Medicine Bow Curve.

The Milky Way over the parking lot at Milner Pass

I stopped at Milner Pass, where I had the whole place to myself. It was very dark here, now, with only starlight illuminating my path. I used my red headlamp to preserve my night vision.

I decided to setup to shoot some pictures with Poudre Lake in the foreground and was soon rewarded with a meteor reflecting on the lake.

Meteor over Poudre Lake

At one point, just as I had finished re-adjusting the framing of the camera on the tripod, I saw an incredible bright meteor flash by, but I didn't have an exposure going. I tripped the shutter release, and was still able to capture the "smoke" that still hung in the atmosphere!

Meteor "smoke" at top center; it hung there for over 4 minutes!

Soon, I realized that the moisture evaporating off Poudre Lake was fogging my lens, so I packed up at about 1:30am and headed east. Again, I skipped Medicine Bow Curve and the AVC, and didn't stop again until Rainbow Curve, where I joined the still active party of observers and photographers.

Looking east from Rainbow Curve; light curves are cars on Trail Ridge Road at 2am!

As I had done earlier, I setup my gear to shoot continuously, hoping to catch a big meteor, and it wasn't long before I was rewarded with this shot, the best one I captured of the night.

This huge meteor streak left it's own little smoke cloud for several seconds

I was getting pretty tired, so at about 3:30am I packed up and drove back home, but couldn't resist taking a shot of our house before I went inside to hit the sack!

It was a very fun night!