A thunderstorm forced Elizabeth and me to abandon yesterday’s hike at three in the afternoon, and with more storms in the forecast, we resolved to start today’s hike as early as possible. We were going up Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, and we would be above treeline for three miles — not the place you want to be during a thunderstorm.
We started our hike at 7:30. We were at 9,500 feet under a sky of scattered, moisture-laden clouds. We hiked through a subalpine forest, where lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) were abundant. Joining them were Colorado white fir (Abies concolor), limber pine (Pinus flexilis), Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). Lodgepole pine was a standard tree, familiar from forests in California, Washington, and Idaho. Engelmann spruce I was happy to see; it is absent from the Sierra Nevada but has been following us from Washington through Idaho. The quaking aspen was not unusual, but as we walked through a nearly pure stand of them, they gave a pleasant, shimmering glow to the forest understory.
We enjoyed the overlooks of two lakes we’d hiked to yesterday: Dream and Emerald. As we approached 11,000 feet, the trees became short and stout. We were entering the alpine zone, where the trees grow no taller than the depth of winter snow.
The composition of the trees, interestingly, stayed mostly the same. Subalpine fir and limber pine became dominant, Engelmann spruce and white fir still lingered, but lodgepole pine was gone.
Above treeline, we were in an environment of boulders and scattered grass and wildflowers. This was a perfect place for pikas (Ochotona princeps), which scurried everywhere and squeaked from every corner. Their mouths were full of grass. They do not hibernate, and so must spend part of the summer caching all the hay they need for the winter. Predators took advantage of the pikas’ abundance, and several prairie falcons (Falco mexicanus) glided over the rocks hoping to turn one into a meal.
We reached Flattop Mountain on the Continental Divide at 9:30. Despite its 12,324-foot elevation, Flatttop’s broad summit didn’t provide much of a view. Well, other than the view of nearby Hallett Peak, a pyramidal mountain whose summit promised much better scenery.
We kept hiking. The trail was easy to follow, with short sections of hands-free rock-hopping, and we got from Flattop Mountain to 12,713-foot Hallett Peak in thirty minutes.
The views were excellent, as expected. We could see Long’s Peak, the highest mountain in the area, as well as the spine of the Continental Divide running north to south. The roaring wind kept us from lingering, so we started hiking back the way we came. We got down to the trailhead at 1:30, making for a six-hour round trip. We ate lunch in Estes Park, where we watched the afternoon storms from a safe distance.