Colorado Vacation: Part 3 – Tonahutu Meadows, and Back

This is a multi-part trip report. If you haven’t already, you should start with Part 1. Remember that you can click on any of the photos to see larger versions of them.

The sites were full when we arrived at Timber Creek campground, and it seemed likely that we’d have to drive all the way back to Grand Lake and search for a place to stay. But the campground hosts said there was someone who’d share a site, and so we met Sarah, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher from Ft. Collins. It turned out that she’d grown up in Mayflower, Arkansas. As we set up our camp next to hers, we had a nice talk about her hometown, and about climbing and hiking. The campfire program, about women important to the history of the Park, was interesting.

Poking our heads out of our tent, first thing the next morning, we saw a whole herd of mama elk and babies grazing through the campground.

They nosed through our campfires, oblivious to our interest. Our neighbors awakened their kids and held them, still sleepy-eyed and wrapped in blankets, to watch the visitors. The elk slowly wandered away, into the woods they came from, and the people went about their morning things feeling a little more a part of the park.

We’d intended to spend the early morning at our campsite, setting up our bags for the first backpacking trip of the week. But the rain from the night before still hung around the edges of the morning, and as soon as we’d spread our things out on the picnic table, it would start to rain again. It was drippy and wet, so we put everything in the car and headed to Grand Lake, where we knew we’d find a picnic pavilion out of the rain.

After picking up our backcountry permit, we arrived in Grand Lake to find a craft fair in full swing. We ate breakfast and then spread out our things in the picnic pavilion. We took up four tables, getting our backpacks ready for the trip.

Starting to hike before noon would have been unsportsmanlike, of course, so we waited. Or we just weren’t ready before then. We had about ten miles to hike on our first day, nearly all of it uphill.

The first part of the hike went well. We all felt good, fueled by a good breakfast and the excitement of finally getting on the trail. Big Meadow (so named because it’s the biggest meadow in the park) was prettier than we’d expected, all flatness and thick grass in the wind, ringed with trees.

Just after stopping at Big Meadow, Bryan began to feel tired. We thought it was just an ‘out of shape’ tired, a ‘we’ve been driving a lot’ tired. But as we climbed higher, farther up into the mountains, he felt worse and worse, needing to stop and rest every few minutes. By the time we reached Granite Falls, he was feeling nauseated and we realized that the altitude was a problem. Too much, too high, too soon.

Mandy did well on the hike. She walked up to see the falls and I joined her, while Bryan rested on a fallen log. Our destination for the night, Tonahutu Meadows, was only another mile or two ahead, only a couple of hundred feet of additional elevation. Despite Bryan’s troubles, we decided to hike on toward that goal, since going back down would be an eight-mile hike.

We arrived at Tonahutu Meadows with about an hour of daylight left. We’d made good time for our first day in the park, hiking nearly ten miles, uphill and loaded, in just over seven hours. Arriving before dark was a big relief since Bryan felt terrible and Mandy and I needed to set up camp while he rested, leaning back against a tree. We gathered up our supper-cooking gear and walked to the creek to eat and to watch night fall.

Bryan was able to eat and began to feel a little better. We packed the bear can under a bowl of stars, talking about the rest of our hike. We’d planned a great loop, and we’d been looking forward to it for months. Early on day two, we’d break treeline and hike above the trees on the the Continental Divide for most of the day, going down to camp. Day three would be a ‘rest day’, with the option of a five-mile dayhike to see a really remote alpine lake. And on day four we’d hike out for a cheeseburger.

It didn’t happen, though. Despite only being around ten thousand feet high, Bryan woke up in the night with a monstrous headache. About three, it began to rain, a slow determined drizzle. He was willing to hike out alone and hole up somewhere in town, letting Mandy and I finish the loop as planned.

Every once in awhile, I get a glimpse of grownup Mandy. When her hair’s a certain way, or there’s a certain expression on her face, or the light hits her eyes at a certain angle, I see the future, and it gives me this funny sad-proud feeling. Mandy’s been looking forward to this hike above treeline. She was disappointed– “VERY disappointed” she said. But as we discussed our plans for the next few days, she told me that didn’t feel safe letting poor sick Bryan hike nearly ten miles alone in the rain, besides which splitting up a family vacation for several days wouldn’t be right. After breakfast, she and I packed our gear and clothes and her tent, letting Bryan stay warm and dry until the last minute. Then we helped him get his backpack ready for the trip down.

The rain stopped before too long, and we got to see Granite Falls again. Bryan began to feel better pretty quickly (Altitude is a bitch!–Bryan), and by the time we reached the impossibly broad, impossibly green Big Meadow again he felt okay, though tired. Mandy’s new boots had started rubbing a hotspot on her heel, which he patched up with moleskin at the edge of the meadow. And we all finished together – not the hike we’d planned, but a good hike anyway.