Rocky Mountain National Park for Dummies

The following is an excerpt from Rocky Mountain National Park for Dummies

Chief’s Head

As you take the long, scenic drive up Trail Ridge drive in the Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll no doubt have a chance to experience the splendor that is Chief’s Head, the park’s 3rd largest peak. After Long’s Peak and Mount Meeker, Chief’s Head cuts a rough and majestic profile against the front range. If you’re looking for a hike that is both challenging and challenging, then this is the hike for you.

hello! I hate you!

On your first attempt to complete the hike, while in high school, with your parents, you must almost make it to the top only to realize that storm clouds are rolling in and, as you’re above the tree line, you instantly become the three tastiest targets for lightning strike. Instead of heading down the mountain in an orderly manner, you scramble down the mountain and end up hopelessly lost, crawling over boulders and fallen trees. When your father starts to drink out of the stream and talk about building a shelter and your mother becomes

hysterical every time she is confronted with yet another log to crawl over, you know that things are getting dicey. Of course, as you follow the stream that you found down, you eventually end up back at the trail where you fall on the ground and weep with gratitude. When you come down the trail, with your legs and hands torn up from the sharp rocks, the other hikers, those who are hiking in jeans with a coke in their hands will admire your battle wounds and you will feel a little better.

Let that experience marinate for about six years before you decide you want to do it again. On the second go around, there are a few key things you need to know before you head out.

1)      It is absolutely imperative that everyone eat two healthy heapings of beans the day before. On the trail, you must abide by several rules relating to flatuation:

  1. By nature of their position, the first person gets the freshest air. Everyone else in line must submit to being crop dusted. Please remember to turn around and check the last person, as the air is already thinner in Colorado and methane from three people in front of you doesn’t make breathing any easier.
  2. If any snarky comments are made, the recipient of the snark may fart in the snarker’s general direction. There is not a limit to how many times this may happen.

2)      On the morning of, your father must trip on his feet in the kitchen of your cabin and throw his cup of coffee against the refrigerator, like a modern artist, only with java instead of acrylics.

Once those are out of the way, you are ready to wake up at 5:00am, pile in the car, and head to the trailhead. You wander around the park a bit because the trailhead was never really clear. You have to get out your topographic map and this guide book to check the position of the trail head. While wandering around on narrow, one lane dirt roads, you pass another car. Your father will slam on the breaks as if the man is having a seizure or possible two heads. When they roll down the windows to talk to each other, the man in the other car asks if you’ve seen any moose. You want to say, “Do we look like moosers, sir? Why don’t you go find some birders to bother with your questions?” But you don’t.

Finally, you make it to Sandbeach Lake trailhead. The Chief’s Head hike is a short hike up to Sandbeach Lake, and then a hop, skip, jump up Mount Orton, which is Chief’s Head younger, red-headed stepbrother. From there it’s a steep (of course, duh) hike up to the Chief’s Head summit. Seeing as you already have experience with this particular hike, you feel confident and happy. You’re climbing a mountain! In Colorado! With your family!

About two miles up the trail to the lake, your mother stops and proclaims loudly that the long sleeved shirt she is wearing is stifling her. Your husband quickly produces a knife and your father hacks the sleeves off of her shirt. When he is finished, she now has the essence of a character from Gilligan’s Island, which adds the trip up to Sandbeach Lake more of a beachy feel.  The rest of the hike up is nothing, if not uneventful.  The view from the lake is okay and you all sit and have a snack. While resting up, a shirtless, high school boy runs up behind you and asks you the time. It’s apparent that he just ran up the trail that took you two huffing and puffing hours to climb. You glare at him and tell him to scram.

Now the fun begins. It’s quite well known that there is no real trail to Chief’s Head. You basically get pointed in the general direction, put your head down, and GO. We suggest the following:

  1. Spin around with your eyes closed seven times.
  2. Do 27 bunny hops in whatever direction you landed.
  3. Turn in a north southeasterly direction.
  4. If you are still confused about where to go, get out your topo map and your compass. If they don’t match, split the difference and give it an old college try.
  5. After some unspecified amount of time, you are to cross a rivulet of unspecified size. If you’re unclear as to what a rivulet is, no fear. Any amount of running water could technically qualify as a rivulet.  In fact, you could spit and as long as it moves in a downward direction, you could call it a rivulet.
  6. At that point, move straight up and walk along a ridge (whatever that means) to Mount Orton, which is essentially a pimple on the side of Chief’s Head.
  7. You can frolic up the summit of Chief’s Head with your eyes closed, like Maria from the Sound of Music.

From the lake, once you choose a direction, stick with it, regardless of what you have to go through or around. You might have to crawl over and around several fallen logs, with long fingers that reach out and grab you. Say a little prayer that you won’t rip a hole in the crotch of your pants. That would not be cute.

Eventually you will find yourself in a trough full of large rocks (which is Coloradan for the space between two mountains; the rest of us would call it a shallow valley). When we say a trough of rocks, we of course mean an impenetrable ocean of loose boulders, waiting to crush your hands and cripple your ankles.  You slowly make your way across the boulders towards the direction of Chief’s Head, even though you haven’t actually seen Chief’s Head yet. You make it to what seems to be the edge of the boulder field, only to find that there’s a second equally large ocean of rocks just on the other side of the trees.  All of you make the executive decision to head towards the dead tree and then try to get up to the top of that pimple Mount Orton. You’ve now expended considerable energy making absolutely no progress moving towards Chief’s Head.  On the way across the boulder field, you realize that you’re crossing a small body of water, which you dub as the “rivulet”.

Once you make it to the dead tree, you work out a plan to make it to a seemingly wide open field so you can go up unencumbered by dead pine trees or large, head-shaped boulders. When you make it to the “field”, you realize that it is literally straight up. Even though your father is calling it a “meadow”, it’s basically a cliff with flowers growing on it. One misstep on a patch of shallow-rooted tundra grass could send you tumbling down the meadow into the pointy rocks below. You and your mother, who is now nicknamed The Deserted Woman on account of her sleeves, undertake the trudge up the meadow on all fours and about 12 steps at a time. When you finally make it to the “top”, you’re greeted by more rocks and pine trees.  It is at this point where you make the executive decision to throw in the towel. You’ve been wandering up and down the side of that pimple Mount Orton for about two hours now and you’re no closer to knowing where  Chief’s Head is.


I like to call it “Death Meadow”

Everyone is happy with the decision and so you cut across the side of Mount Orton to reach a real meadow that you spotted early to make your descent. Once you get to the real Meadow, however, you realize that it looks as if the summit of Mount Orton is just in reach. Just a quarter mile up the hill, you could finally get a glance of the elusive Chief’s Head. Your parents decide that they will wait for you, so you and your husband take off up the hill. While your husband could literally run up and down the side of the mountain to check on you, you end up taking the mountain in 20 step increments. Your heart is bursting out of your chest; your husband is taking cat naps between sets.

Once you reach the “top” of the hill, you are greeted with more hill and more pine trees. It is at this point that you give up all hope. Your husband charges ahead to see if he can find the summit and you make the walk of shame back down the slippery tundra. It’s much like that scene from the Sound of Music, except steeper and if you fell, you would roll down the large hill into your parents, giving a whole new meaning to the idea of “Family Bowling”.

While waiting for your valiant husband to come back, the three of you sit and eat lunch. Your mother decides that she is cold again and she pulls out the hacked-off sleeves of her shirt. She puts them on cuff first, which gives her the appearance of wearing bell bottom arm warmers. It’s not the best look.


Your husband rejoins you and you all set off down the mountain. Happy to be heading “home” or, at the very least, towards a place that doesn’t have thousands of boulders and trees, you trudge down the tundra meadow, bypassing snow fields because you’re too tired to care. After climbing down a precarious small cliff face, you will be surprised to see a cairn (a stack of rocks to mark a trail). It is pronounced Karen, but please do not think that it is a woman. Although, if you see a woman named Karen, feel free to ask her where the trail is. The National Park Service might be hiring Karens to stand by piles of rocks and tell weary hikers where to go. We need to create jobs, you know.

The irony of the situation will hit you that a cairn marks a trail and you’ve been explicitly told that there is no trail. So you follow the cairn and, lo and behold, you find a trail. Granted it’s steep, but it is a path that guides you and shows you where to go. A path that several hours prior, you had not known existed.

This is now a walk in the park for you, like a lovely stroll down a meandering pathway in a garden of roses. Sure, you’re still sweaty and exhausted. Sure, your mother is wearing what Robinson Crusoe would have worn in the 70s. But still, you’re on a path, headed in an actual direction towards an actual landmark.

The trail eventually leads you back to Sandbeach Lake, where your mom enjoins you to put your feet in the water with her. It is freezing and you worry about leeches. Also, at this point, there is only room in your brain for the question, “Where is the car?”

You begin the 4.5 mile trudge back down the trail to your car. There is no time for dilly-dallying. It is time to be off this monstrous trail. You eventually begin to feel the rhythmic pounding of your feet through the soles of your shoes. For a good while, the trail just seems to be going horizontally across the side of the mountain, which is depressing because your car is at the foot of the mountain and you know that you can’t be close if you’re still waltzing across the mid-section of this hunk of land. When the trail starts to descend, your primitive, tired-hiker brain says, “DOWN!” and you start running down the trail saying, “Down, down, down, down…” over and over again. When you reach a sign that tells you you’re only 1.2 miles from the car, you rejoice heartily. Unfortunately, that sign must be a mistake because every time you think you’re close to the car, you turn the corner and see more trail. You become despondent. You lose hope that you will ever see civilization again. Goodbye, cruel world. If you need me, I’ll be on the Sandbeach Lake trail, walking towards the car oasis that disappears when you approach it.

Finally, though, you do make it to the car. You did it. You’ve been walking/climbing/trudging for 7 hours and you’re finally there. You collapse in the backseat and begin your pre-nap routine of closing your eyes and turning off your ears.

Even though your hiking party did not make it to the top of any mountain, you are proud of yourselves for even trying. Maybe again in six years, you will finally make it to the top of Chief’s Head.

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