Alan and I are wrapping up our 4th summer at our home in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. Riding our own horses in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is an indescribable pleasure. We have become spoiled. We moved to Colorado from Kansas. We spent considerable time riding in Kansas, Missouri, and the surrounding states. However, riding in the flatlands is much less appealing to us these days. Sometimes, however, the mountain trails can significantly raise our adrenalin levels… something that never happened in the flatlands!
Alan is responsible for hooking up the trailer and doing the necessary things to get us headed towards a trailhead. My job is to figure out where we’re going to ride, how long the ride will be, and how much elevation change we will encounter. I used to use AllTrails to plan our rides. I still do whenever I am not in Colorado. However, I incidentally learned about a better option from a park ranger.
In this post, I talked about how Alan and I ended up on a local trail that was not approved for horses. A Larimer County ranger told me about COTREX, Colorado Trail Explorer. The ranger indicated that COTREX would have the most accurate and up-to-date information about Colorado trails. I had been riding in Colorado off and on for years, yet I had never heard about this app. To this day, I encounter hikers on a regular basis, both local and out-of-state, who have never heard of COTREX. Colorado needs to do a much better job of marketing this wonderful application!
Who determined that the RMNP Mill Creek Trail is horse friendly?
Nevertheless, even a wonderful app has the potential to lead you astray. Recently, Alan and I followed a route that I had created using COTREX. I was expecting it to be 10-11 miles with modest elevation change and fairly straightforward trails. That’s not what we got…
If you look at this image, you can see our actual route (red line) overlayed on top of the COTREX map of horse-friendly RMNP trails (green lines.) We walked along the road briefly at the very end.
My watch logged our total distance as 11.73 miles with a total ascent of 1719 feet. At one point, I should have checked COTREX to confirm which way to turn, but I didn’t. I intended to turn right at Cub Lake. We actually turned right, but Alan and I decided that wasn’t correct, so we turned around and headed left at the junction. We have ridden this trail in the reverse direction several times, which is why we decided we weren’t going the correct way when in actuality, we would have knocked off about 3/4 of a mile if we had gone the way I had mapped out.
As you can see from the overlayed map, we did follow what COTREX deemed a horse-friendly trail. Perhaps someone was smoking the local weed when they determined that Parts A and B were horse-friendly… When I refer to Part A, it is just the north section of that loop. The ride from Hollowell Park to where the trail splits is quite easy. When we reached the point where we took the northern section of the loop, we never saw an option to take the southern route.
The image below shows the section after leaving Hollowell Park and before getting to where the loop splits. We walked along a well-defined, easy trail, part of which followed a creek. At some point, the creek ended and we were on a much less defined trail. We were relatively close to Fern Lake which was badly damaged by the Cameron Peak fire of 2020. The lower left photo shows some of the fire damage.
Part A was more like a washed out creek gulley than a trail. There was one area where the horses had to drop down about 18 inches into a gulley and climb out the other side. The problem was that the gulley was only about 2 feet wide… no room for all of the horse, only their front feet! That was the beginning of our adrenalin-producing adventure. Photos are almost non-existent for Part B, as I was totally attentive to surviving the experience!
A narrow, rocky, steep, and poorly-defined trail
COTREX shows Part A, the northern section of the loop, is .6 miles. It shows Part B as 1.4 miles. Part B was the longest 1.4 miles Alan and I have ever ridden. We have deemed it the most technical ride we have completed, even more challenging than our ride in the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona, or Odessa Lake in RMNP.
By no means had we planned on such a difficult trail. However, we were committed to getting to Cub Lake once we were headed north on this section. There was absolutely no place to turn around. We were very thankful that we were wearing helmets, hit-air vests, and medical alert tags. Alan shared with me, after we were safely back at home, that he had wondered to himself what on earth he would do if one of the horses or one of us were injured.
At one point, he and Sadie nearly tested that scenario. I was in front, and suddenly I heard scrambling going on behind me, followed by a huge sigh of relief from Alan. Sadie had slipped on a large boulder and, as she was scrambling to recover her footing, had come within inches of the edge of the trail.
As I mentioned previously, I wasn’t taking lots of photographs on this treacherous stretch of trail. We did stop at one relatively stable point and I took one photo, and that is the feature photo. It shows the trail dropping off ahead, and that is not an optical illusion!
Cub Lake was finally in sight
As we were carefully traversing our way down the mountain, winding around switchbacks and clamoring over inumerable rocks, we finally spotted Cub Lake down below us. Our route on that final stretch shows a slight variation from the COTREX route, but there were no other options that we saw other than the way we went! As we neared the junction of the Cub Lake trail, we encountered a lone hiker going up. He asked us which way we were going, to which I replied, “Right.” That was the way we were supposed to go… His response was, “That’s good, because there is a large bull moose about 6 feet off the trail if you turn left!”
Around the same area where we encountered the hiker, I had to dismount to remove a tree that had fallen across the trail. I simply couldn’t expect poor Kadeen to manage the steep, narrow, rocky, slippery trail while simultaneously stepping 18 inches over a fallen log. I heaved it about three times before I finally cleared the path so that we could pass.
Massive Mr. Moose
We breathed a collective sigh of relief when we finally reached the junction of the Cub Lake trail. As mentioned before, we turned right first and then thought better of our decision. We turned around and headed to the left… in the direction of the moose. We passed another couple of hikers and inquired if they had seen the moose. They had, and they told us we would pass through a thick area of vegetation right before we encountered the moose.
Their directions were incredibly helpful. When we did, indeed, pass through some thick vegetation, I was paying very close attention to my surroundings. Kadeen is very wildlife-aware, which is why he and I were in front. We had just emerged from the thick vegetation when I spotted the massive beast lying down a half dozen feet off the trail. I took the photo above at that first encounter.
He spotted us at the same time and he slowly lumbered to his feet. We put the horses in reverse and went back up the trail a dozen feet or so! By this time, we were joined by several hikers who were climbing rocks a safe distance away to get some photos. We waited for about ten minutes, waiting to see if Mr. Moose would find greener grass elsewhere. He didn’t… He didn’t seem the least bit bothered by our presence, but he didn’t seem too motivated to go elsewhere either!
Again, if I had consulted COTREX at this point instead of relying on my memory, we could have simply gone the other way and made it back to our trailer. But we didn’t realize we had that option. After waiting for a short period of time, we decided we needed to get by the moose. That meant bushwacking off the trail at what we perceived was a safe distance.
Alan went first to scope it out. He was doing great until Sadie stepped on the heel of his boot which caused him to fall forward into the rocks and underbrush. I followed without incident. We skirted the moose and made it back to the trail without further unplanned challenges. You can see our slight deviation on the trail map. I took this photo of the standing, calmly grazing moose from my vantage point when we were back on the trail.
Thankfully, the rest of our ride was fairly routine. What I hadn’t mentioned previously is the fact that Sadie had experienced a swollen hock after a ride a few weeks ago. We rested her and administered Bute, and we had our local vet check her out. He found no abnormalities when he examined her and concluded that it had been a one-and-done acute soft tissue injury.
Nevertheless, we were worried that the insane trail we had just completed was going to create a problem again. We had not planned on such a challenging ride. She never showed any lameness during the ride. I’m happy to report that she remained sound and our worries were for naught… thank heavens!
An easy beginning and Mr. Elk
Unless you are an adrenaline junkie, I’m hoping you will heed my advice and not ride this trail should you be fortunate enough to ride your own horse in RMNP. However, the first part of this route is easy and beautiful, and there are numerous other options. I have written about Hollowell Park and Moraine Park before.
We were a few miles into our ride as we traversed the perimeter of Moraine Park. We encountered a large herd of elk in the distance. We also passed a stately gentlemen taking a break from the ladies as he rested a dozen feet from the trail. Unless it is calving season, elk are less formidable than moose. I’m not saying that you should run over and pet them, as some tourists attempt to do… but usually if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.
Between Moraine Park and Hollowell Park, the trail takes you along Bear Lake Road. The collage below shows Bear Lake Road on the lower right. Some hikers complained in AllTrails that the Bear Lake section was boring, but I enjoy riding my horse above the road. It reminds me how awesome it is to be on my own horse in a beautiful park, rather than counting on a shuttlebus to show me nature’s wonder.
Still catching up with life
For several years, I blogged weekly. I am still taking a sabbatical while I catch up with some other aspects of Alan’s and my life. Recently, I had a cardiac ablation for a tachycardia that has plagued me for 40 years. While we have done some riding this summer, lame and recovering horses and lots of travel plans have limited our adventures. I am happy to report that Kadeen is sound after his surgery last fall. However, we still struggled with foot issues because finding decent farriers in rural Arizona or on top of a mountain has been challenging. We have finally resolved that problem.
If anyone is looking for a Border collie or Border collie mix, check out Arizona Border Collie Rescue. You would have to travel to Arizona to get the dog, but we have some amazing dogs available. I say “we” because I have become the Vet Resource Coordinator for this incredible rescue group. I am responsible for managing the veterinary care for any dog fostered or recently adopted in the greater Phoenix area. AZBCR just rescued its 4000th dog after 25 years of helping Border collies. Alan and I personally just added one more to our pack. Jake makes five canines in our household.
Jake was badly treated before he came into care. We have had him about 6 weeks. He is slowly relaxing around Alan, but it is clear that some man really abused him. He’s velcroed to me. Jake was found abandoned in the desert, heavily parasitized and nearly dead from starvation.
We are preparing to make our semi-annual trek back to Arizona at the end of this month. We are like the Beverly Hillbillies, traveling with a motorhome pulling the Honda, truck and horse trailer, 5 dogs, and 2 horses. I’m not sure when I will blog again, but I will “see” you then!