“OVER THE HILL”
“Where Flowers bloom,
So does hope.”
Lady Bird Johnson
Tradition is central in our mountain life. Hiking or biking on Trail Ridge Road before it opens to vehicles, finding the first calypso orchids of the season, driving up Old Fall River Road the first day, and visiting Brownfield’s store for their kickoff sale are a few of my summer traditions. Another ritual of summer is to hike over “the hill”—aka the Continental Divide. There are couple trails and cross-country routes in the park to accomplish this mission. This year my husband, Walt, and I decide to hike the re-opened North Inlet Trail. It had been closed due to potential hazards in the wake of the 2020 East Troublesome fire. The North Inlet headwaters begin over 12,000 feet atop the Continental Divide in a rugged and robust landscape. The trail here is a major segment of the Continental Divide Trail.
We begin early on a July morning at Bear Lake heading up the four miles to Flattop Mountain, 12,324 feet. I usually catch sight of dusky grouse in the subalpine forest on my way to Flattop Mountain, but not this trip. Dusky grouse are large chicken-like birds that are mountain residents. The summit of Flattop makes a perfect setting for a second breakfast as well as photographing marmots, pikas, ptarmigan, and wildflowers. Every time we hike this trail it is different. Today, instead of dusky grouses I find a pika that can yodel!
After a short break we head northwest to the signage for the North Inlet and Tonahutu trails. We take the trail south that is well marked by a series of tall upright cairns. We affectionally refer to these cairns as “Ewoks.” They remind us of the friendly, helpful creatures in the Star War movies.
The tundra explodes with many species of wildflowers but dominating the scene are western yellow paintbrushes. Parry’s primroses brush the landscape with shades of magenta along a seasonal stream. This wildflower season has been abundant and extraordinary so far and the North Inlet is no exception. Taking a quick look in the distance to the west, I notice extensive burn scars from the East Troublesome fire. We will see more of the remnants of this fire further on in our hike down to Grand Lake.
Over the years I have learned not to hike this trail before July 4th due to snow/ice that remains on steep switch backs above the July campsite. There have been years I felt an ice ax and/or spikes would be very handy crossing these switchbacks. Since it is late July, the switchbacks are completely melted and bursting with flora. Alpine meadows are filled with tall chiming bells, arrowleaf ragworts, heartleaf bittercress, and columbines. Coming in sight of the July campsite I hear the rumbling of fast-moving water of Hallett Creek which drains into the North Inlet. Crossing the footbridge over Hallett Creek we head into an old forest thick with large conifers and shades of green mosses. We soon approach the junction to Nanita and Nokoni Lakes. However, the trail to these lakes is closed due to the bridge over the North Inlet being rebuilt. This junction marks halfway to our destination, Grand Lake.
Boisterous War Dance Falls can be heard roaring down the slope to the north. In past years War Dance Falls could only be heard, not seen from the trail due to the thick forest. But today we can see the series of waterfalls spilling down as the forest canopy has been opened by the fire.
The trail to Cascade Falls is 3.6 miles from the North Inlet trailhead. For a good vantage point of the falls, we scramble off the trail a bit and are amazed by the fast-whooshing water. The Pool is a granite carved churning pool at the bottom of a small waterfall. As we keep heading down the trail the remnants of the fire become more evident with the forest completely denuded; a scorched landscape lies before us—miles and miles of deeply burned forest. A huge boulder stands out telling its tale of fiery destruction. Evidently this boulder became so hot the rock peeled away and now lays at the bottom.
As we continue, I begin seeing a bit of green in between the black charred trees. Then I spy flowering plants sprinkled among the ashes. Soon fireweed is abundant on the trail amidst the debris. Fireweed is known to be the first plant to fill in disturbed fire-wounded areas. The plant is sure living up to its name! The sharp pick,pick,pick rattle noise causing me to look up seeing, a male hairy woodpecker boring into a blackened tree for tasty insects.
Summerland Park comes into view at 8,610 feet. I look forward to hiking into Summerland Park as it signals only 1.2 miles to Grand Lake. A privately owned cabin sat there for many years. No more, it too was taken by the East Troublesome fire. What lays now are ghostly remains of a bare foundation and a water pump.
Hiking over the divide offers a heap of diversity in eco-systems, wildlife, and flora as you travel eco-systems. This year the hike over the divide via the North Inlet reminds us how quickly nature heals, hope after devastation."
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