As Dale’s ancient Acura threads the rock-bulging, water-split canyon of Highway 7, Longs Peak and Mount Meeker command our attention. Together, they’re a two-headed, snow-wrinkled king who dwarfs his surrounding Rocky Mountain courtiers. Longs (14,255 feet) is the most climbed, and most deadly, 14er in Colorado. Beginning hikers are often unprepared for the long slog and steep spots, while expert climbers sometimes make lethal missteps – falling, getting caught in snowstorms, being struck by lightning. But we’re not hiking Longs Peak.
We plan to admire his majesty’s kingdom from a safe distance: atop the less storied Estes Cone.
We plan to admire Longs Peak from the less storied Estes Cone.
We turn toward the Longs Peak trailhead, which is also the Estes Cone trailhead. A trail report warned us to arrive early, or risk a full parking lot, but we thought, “How bad can it be on a Monday?” Answer: we have to walk past a quarter-mile line of cars to reach the start of our already 7-mile hike.
Setting out from 9405 feet, we head up a gentle incline, on a well-marked path through lodge pole pines. The day is warm and blue.
We haven’t gone far when Dale says, “Shit! I forgot my water.” At first I think he means, “in the car.” Then he says something about putting it in the freezer to chill it.
It’s at home?! “I guess you’ll have to share mine,” I say. It’s a good thing I always carry two liters, in case of emergency.
“Sucks, huh?” he says.
“Ye-ah!” I don’t hide my irritation. On a high-altitude hike, water isn’t just a convenience: it’s a serious safety supply.
His shoulders heave in frustrated embarrassment. “You go ahead. I’ll catch up.”
Normally I wouldn’t, but the trail is straightforward and well populated, we’re still near the ranger station where he’s sure to find water, and we both need a few minutes alone.
The trail report said the turnoff for Estes Cone would appear a quarter-mile from the trailhead. But I walk more than a quarter-mile without spotting it. I backtrack to find Dale. A plastic cup in the side-pocket of his fanny pack sloshes with coffee-and-cream colored water. I’m glad we stopped at Starbucks for his daily Americano. I avoid mentioning the water, and ask if he’s seen a turnoff. No.
A speed-hiking couple rushes past and we seek their input. Without slowing, they call over their shoulders that the first junction is a half-mile from the trailhead. Note to self: “don’t rely on trail reports… or expect hikers to stop for you.”
At the fork, a sign lists multiple destinations, including Longs. As we turn right, toward Estes Cone, I relish the defiant feeling of going the “wrong way.” We’ve found a beautiful, challenging, but less-populated, less ass-busting way to enjoy Colorado’s high country.
My pumping calves and lungs aren’t fooled by the gradual incline, or occasional downward roll – which only means we’ll have to go uphill both ways, like our fathers’ long ago walks to school. This may be easier than Longs, but it’s still work.
The Eugenia Mine ruins recall Dale’s long ago summer, staking gold claims.
We pass a couple of groups on horseback, as we approach the humble creek and the cabin ruins of the old Eugenia Mine. Dale rolls his eyes at the corny sign affixed to the cabin’s last, derelict logs: “Eugenia Mine, at the turn of the century, produced more dreams than gold.” As a teen, Dale spent a summer staking gold claims for a cousin in Alaska: bushwhacking through muskeg, eluding territorial beavers and running from an angry black bear. For him, it took the romance out of frontier living. His stories have the opposite effect on me, helping me connect with these Old West sites.
This is the only stream we’ll encounter, and it makes me want to linger.
Yet it’s the rushing creek, crisscrossed with matchsticks of deadfall and bordered by bouquets of yellow arnica, that makes me want to linger. This is the only stream we’ll encounter, and water is typically my favorite trail feature. Probably a primitive survival response, though I like to think it’s a spiritual urge.
Wildflowers assert themselves boldly among thinning trees.
Shortly after the creek, wildflowers assert themselves boldly among thinning trees. Suddenly, a gold and green meadow opens to reveal Estes Cone to our left. The steep trunk of rock rises brusquely from tree line. It looks like rock climber territory, and I can’t imagine how we’ll reach its rugged, lopped-off top. The sky above the cone remains pristine blue, dotted with whiffs of white cloud. It’s a different story over Longs Peak and Mount Meeker, who peer over a nearby hill to our right: increasing clouds are swirling around their heads.
A meadow opens to reveal Estes Cone.
As we hit the final ascent, a warning of distant thunder prompts me to turn my head toward Longs, where the clouds are growing darker. I anxiously consider whether we might reach our summit just in time to become lightning rods. But the sky above the cone is still blue. So we press on.
For three-quarters of a mile we stretch our legs to the snapping point.
For three-quarters of a mile, we stretch our legs to the snapping point, zigzagging up an uneven natural staircase. Cairns dot our path between stunted conifers clinging to bald rock. As we gain altitude, our oxygen-deprived lungs force short-term goals on us: 100 steps, breath, 100… no, 75… no, you can do it, 100… breath.
The near-vertical rock pile freaks me out, until I realize it’s only about 50 feet high.
Just as grey clouds close in, I arrive at a near-vertical rock pile. It freaks me out, until I realize it’s only about 50 feet high, full of easy grips and footholds, and the only obstacle between me and the summit. After a relatively easy scramble, I emerge onto a windswept shelf. Odd: from below, this looked like a sheer cliff. Was the scary tower an optical illusion?
Not exactly. We’ve simply approached the shelf from it’s lowest angle. Not for scaredy-cats, perhaps, but no heroics required, either.
To the north: the rising and falling crests of Rocky Mountain National Park.
At 11,000 feet, Estes Cone is far short of a 14er, but it doesn’t fall short as a viewpoint. From its bumpy tabletop, we have a 360-degree view of mountains, valleys and lakes. To the north, the mountain community of Estes Park nestles between Lake Estes and the rising and falling crests of Rocky Mountain National Park. To the east, another lake dominates the valley next door. To the west, Longs and Meeker dominate. To the south, a cascade of green hills strings the way back to Denver.
To the west, Longs Peak and Mount Meeker dominate.
We duck behind a rock, out of the icy wind, to eat sandwiches. A chipmunk sneaks up on us, hoping to swipe a bite, but my slightest move sends him skittering away.
When clouds erase the last trace of blue, I scramble to the high point for one last look. Just then, a bolt of lightning strikes a mountain behind Estes Park. Time to scoot.
On the way back, we risk a drink from the creek. The clear water is running fast, so giardia seems a minor risk. The drink tastes of sweet rain, cold snow and mountain air. Dale dips his Starbucks cup in the stream to save a sip for the noodle-legged, foot-sore, dog-tired end of our hike. He may have forgotten his water at the beginning, but he makes up for it at the end: as he shares with me one last chilly taste of the windswept Estes Cone.