Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Lake Irene, Jackstraw Mountain, Timber Lake, Julian Lake, and Gray Jay Mountain.

Summer is indisputably here, along with those long drives I've not been looking forward to.  In reality, they haven't been that bad, though even with leaving my house at 3 am, the earliest I can hit the trail is around 5.  Which of course means that when I start hitting the really big days in the fall, I won't get home until quite late in the evening.  But that's ok.
There was quite a bit of cloud cover as I drove up on this day.  Eventually I ran into it on Trail Ridge Road, and visibility dropped to maybe 20 feet.  That made for a bit of slow going.  But I got through it.
My first stop was at the Lake Irene TH just a little bit past Milner Pass.  To add some confusion, there is also a Irene Lake in RMNP, which is located on the east side near Sprague Mountain.  I was the only car in the parking lot and made the quick jog to the lake by headlamp.  It was still dark and I didn't take a photo.  It was a nice and peaceful start to the day, with the just lightning night sky reflected in the still water.  In a few more minutes I was back at the car and on my way to the Timber Creek TH.
There were a few other cars already there as I parked and got ready.  The low clouds remained in the area and were playing with the peaks of the Never Summer Mountains.  Quite a sight.
There was a warning posted at the trail head that there had been a landslide at around 2 miles in and going around it required experience in back country travel.  No big issue for me.
Gray Jay Mountain as seen from the Timber Creek Trail.  At 10965 feet, this is another of those ranked but unofficially named peaks in the park. 
I hit the landslide area and worked around it.  The bypass trail here is definitely steep and somewhat loose at times.  Use caution!  Unfortunately on the way up I didn't stay on the well defined trail and did a little bushwhacking.  At some point during this I realized I had dropped my sunglasses!  ARGH!  I went back down a little and looked but I had no idea if I was even on the same path I'd taken up and gave up on them.  I could look on the way back.
I got to Jackstraw Campsite 2 (the higher one) and took a quick break.
It was pretty cool to look up and see the ridge that we'd hiked fifty one weeks ago en route to Mt. Ida.  I remember looking down at Timber Lake and Julian Lake from there and how beautiful it was.
I basically went through the campsite and continued uphill.  There were a fair number of animal trails, and I stuck to them in places.  Eventually I topped out a plateau.
Jackstraw Mountain has three distinct summits, this being the southernmost.  While this one held a cairn, it is not the true highpoint. 
Looking from the south highpoint to the true summit on the middle plateau.  It was just a few minutes of easy travel between the two.
Low clouds continued to play with the Never Summer Range, adding interest to the day.
It was quite difficult to determine the exact highpoint of Jackstraw Mountain.  I walked around a bit, could not find a cairn, and eventually decided that this little patch of trees was about as close as I would get.
I headed back down via the beautiful and lush gorge between the two summits, following animal trails and a small creek in the general direction of Timber Lake.  I met back up with the trail and saw the first people of the day, who'd spent the night at one of the higher campgrounds.  Near Timber Lake I saw another couple, who must've camped as well.
I made my way around Timber Lake on a thin trail.  I love these high lakes.  So peaceful and pretty.  In some ways they can be more rewarding than a peak in my mind.
From here I could clearly see a good route up to the saddle between Timber and Julian Lakes. 
There was minimal bushwhacking, the talus was pretty stable and large, and things generally felt right.  Until I saw a head pop up about 20 feet uphill of me.  And then a second.  A female and young male moose!  I made a little noise, but they generally (and thankfully) seemed totally unconcerned with my presence, and went back to eating.  I traversed a few hundred feet west to give them a wide berth before continuing to head up.
Remember those low clouds I talked about?  I essentially climbed into one.  At the top of the saddle I could not see a clear way down to Julian Lake.  In fact, I couldn't see the lake at all!  I waited for a few minutes and looked around.  I found a way to stay on rock slightly west of the steep snowfield on the north side of the saddle. 
The clouds kind of opened up and I got a glimpse of the lake.
The route I took down was solidly in the third class, and a little bit exposed at times.  But it went, and I soon found myself in a large talus field with the lake at the end.
Again, the rock was very stable, with most of the pieces being large and immobile.  The movement definitely gets slower in conditions like this, and it felt like it took me a long time to get to the lake.
Almost there!
I finally made it to the lake and sat for a snack.  What a beauty!  This is a very special place in the park, and the clouds certainly added to it all.  I had to let it all sink in, try to memorize every line, how the trees and clouds looked.
This is the rock face I made my way down.  If I had been able to see, I may have made my way farther west and taken the grassy ramps down instead.
After taking some time to take it all in, I started back up directly west of the lake, keeping north of the sharp ridge of rock running down from above. 
Near the top of this ridge I captured this view.  Pretty awesome.
I topped out the high point west of Julian Lake and found a small cairn there.  This point does not seem to be named (at least as far as I can find) but it seems to offer a good view and is a cool little feature.  May I propose the name Julian Ridge?  My GPS had me at 11922, while it looks like the USGS topo has a closed loop at 11880.  So we can call it 11880+ feet, or give the height as halfway between this and the next loop, which would be 11900.
I looked west to Gray Jay Mountain.  Two words popped into my mind- "arduous" and "bushwhack".  But...
I could see a series of meadows working downwards to Long Meadows.  If you look at a topo map, you'll see a creek heading down that starts almost directly west of Julian Ridge.  The meadows essentially followed this creek.  When there weren't meadows, I was able to make use of animal trails.  In reality, it didn't take me too long at all to get down to Long Meadows.
A single tree in the meadow.
Though some maps show a distinct trail running through the meadow, I didn't cross one as I headed up to Gray Jay Mountain. 
This was what some of the terrain looked like on Gray Jay.  Fun, fun, fun!  Well, after bushwhacking down Spruce Canyon last year, and Forest Canyon the year before that, everything else has gotten easier.  Which is to say those two were so bad I can't imagine anything more difficult.  Here there was some dead fall to move over and around, but that was about it.  I was again able to follow animal trails at times.  Thankfully animals are lazy (or efficient) and don't create pointless switchbacks and generally go around any difficulties.  The trails are often quite easy to follow.
As I neared the summit, the terrain changed and became less treed and a little bit more open. 
I found the summit cairn about half an hour after leaving Long Meadows.  The mosquitoes had found me by now and I was wearing my rain jacket.  I had a quick snack and started down.  My original plan was to head NE and pick up the trail near the Longs Meadows intersection.  I didn't veer east enough and essentially climbed down the somewhat steep north face of Gray Jay.  At one point I could see the landslide area through the trees and decided to veer east of that since I would have to spend a little time exploring there to look for my sunglasses.
I crossed Timber Creek on a downed tree and made my way up.  In what felt like a short time, I hit the Timber Creek Trail.  Someone was coming down and I asked him if we were above the landslide.  He confirmed that we were.  I mentioned that I'd dropped sunglasses in the morning and asked him to pick them up if he found them.  He said he would and leave them at the sign at the trail head.  I ate some food and then headed down.
I got to the landslide area and tried to retrace my footsteps from the morning.  I had little luck and figured the glasses were gone forever.  I was angry with myself because I didn't stow them properly, and now I needed to buy new ones.
But farther down the trail I ran into the same guy who was taking a break.  He'd found them!  He handed them over to me.  That really made my day!
There was a ranger back at the trailhead.  I talked to her and the two guys with her for a little bit.  I ate a snack and ended up giving the guy who found my glasses a ride back to the Timber Creek Campground.  Sorry I don't remember your name now, but thank you again.
It took me about half an hour longer to drive home than it did to drive out.  It was mostly Elk related traffic in RMNP.
This was a great day in the park, and I am actually coming to like (as much as I can) bushwhacking.  At least that virtually guarantees you will have a summit to yourself.  Timber Lake is obviously the easiest of these destinations to get to, as the trail goes right to it.  The peaks probably see a few summits a year.  I'd guess Julian Lake sees maybe ten people a year at most.  Like some of the other lakes that are high up, the difficulty in getting there likely keeps most people away.  I did find this cool trip report from 1996 which is worth a look.
Though it might not be any easier, I could see starting from Milner Pass and descending from Mt. Ida to the saddle between Timber and Julian Lakes as a possible method to get to Julian Lake.  For some easier terrain, you could also stay on Julian Ridge until you end up south of Julian Lake and have a much easier hike down to the lake on grassy slopes.
Link to Caltopo map of hike.
Lake Irene, Jackstraw Mountain, Timber Lake, Julian Lake, and Gray Jay Mountain:
All distances given are as part of the hike.
Lake Irene, 10600 feet: .5 miles each way, -60 foot gain.  Easy.
Jackstraw Mountain, 11704 feet: 4.8 miles each way, 2644 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Timber Lake, 11060 feet: 6.2 miles each way, 2000 foot gain.  Moderate+.
Julian Lake, 11100 feet: 7.2 miles each way, 2040 foot gain.  Up to third class.  Strenuous.
Julian Ridge, 11880+ feet: 7.5 miles each way, 2820 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Long Meadows, 10330ish feet: 9.1 miles each way, 1270 foot gain.  Strenuous.*
Gray Jay Mountain, 10965 feet: 9.6 miles each way, 1905 foot gain.  Strenuous.*
As a whole, this hike covered approximately 13 miles with 5800 feet of elevation gain.  Strenuous.
*= it would obviously be somewhat shorter and easier to go directly for these from the trail head.  The elevation of Long Meadows could be anywhere between 10400 at the north upper side and 10200 at the south and lower side.   

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Five lake loop and Lake Haiyaya Knobs

Occasionally I will check Listsofjohn.com (truly a great reference) to make sure I have gotten to every named peak in a certain area, just to double check.  As I have said a few times in the past, while an incredible reference, Fosters book doesn't include every peak in the park.  There are several ranked but unofficially named peaks that didn't make the cut, and ranked but unnamed peaks were not included either.  
In this case, the 'knobs' around Lake Haiyaha were named in the book "Backcountry Skiing and Ski Mountaineering in Rocky Mountain National Park” by Mark Kelly, which came out in 2013, well after Fosters book was published, thus they are not in her book.
The Knobs near Lake Haiyaha.
Anyway, it was during one of my forays on LOJ that I noticed these high points pop up.  It would be a short day to get them, and certainly violate my unoffical "the total time of the drive each way must be shorter than the time of the activity rule".  When hiking, that is usually no concern!
So I decided to string together a series of lakes in a loop, and run it... well, as much as I could.  Thus I planned to start at Glacier Gorge, take the trail by Alberta Falls to Mills Lake, then hit the Loch, then Lake Haiyaya and the knobs, then Dream Lake, and finally Nymph Lake before taking the trail back down to Glacier Gorge.  Bear or Emerald Lakes could easily be added on for (slightly) more distance.
There were a few other cars in the parking lot when I arrived, but nothing like what was there when I got back.
Half Mountain from the trail.
Mills Lake was beautiful as always.  A quick moment here and I headed back down.
Longs Peak in clouds.  It was only hours before that Andrew Hamilton had finished off the 14ers here, and set a new record of 9 days, 21 hours, and 51 minutes to take almost a full day off the record that had been in place for 15 years!  Well done Andrew and my congrats!
I turned off to The Loch and started up.  Not too long after I was there.
I could see some people working their way around the lake en route to higher altitudes.
The trail from The Loch junction to Lake Haiyaha held some of the steepest terrain of the day, and I simply quickly hiked most of it.  This marks the first time I'd been on this trail in the summer.
Lake Haiyaha is pretty cool.  I think this would stand out in my mind as a nice family destination because it is just hard enough, has great views, and I can imagine kids having a ton of fun exploring the boulders in the area.
After the lake, I got back on the trail headed north and took off east shortly after to find Knob #4.  I didn't take a photo from it, but it was just a short walk over.
From that I headed down to Chaos Canyon Cascades, a series of falls that I had yet to visit. 
This was pretty cool.  Very peaceful to be so close to a very popular trail yet feel completely isolated.  Simply follow a thin trail down the south side of the creek when you cross the outlet.  It's maybe five minutes from the trail.
This small boulder marked the high point of Goblin Knob.  It's a short third class scramble to the top.
The view to points north. 
And a great view to Longs Peak, Thatchtop, and Knob #4 dead center.
Some clearing on Longs.
The Bulge is mere feet from the trail, but again I did not take a photo.  From there I headed uphill west over some rocky and bushwhacky terrain to arrive at Dream Knob.  Due to the off trail travel, this was definitely the most difficult of the high points to find. 
Dream Knob and twisted pines.
I went back down to the trail and then made a similar approach to Knob #1, again not pictured, and again just a short jaunt off the trail.
I got back on the trail and headed down.  It was a different experience.  I am usually used to seeing no one at all, but passed a ton of people as I headed down.  I arrived to a full parking lot about three hours after I'd left.
This was a fun shorter day.  Chaos Canyon Cascades is certainly worth the short side trip down from the trail, and is more impressive than some of the named waterfalls in the park.  Of the knobs, I'd suggest Goblin Knob and Knob #4 as being the best as both are relatively easy to get to, and both offer some pretty darn good views.
Five Lake Loop and the Knobs:
Mills Lake, 9940 feet: 2.7 miles one way, 760 foot gain.  Moderate.
The Loch, 10180 feet: 2.9 miles one way, 1000 foot gain.  Moderate.
Lake Haiyaha, 10220 feet: 3.3 miles one way, 1040 foot gain.  Moderate.*
Chaos Canyon Cascades, 9840 feet: 3ish miles one way, 660 foot gain.  Moderate.*
Knob #4, 10180 feet: 3ish miles one way, 1000 foot gain.  Moderate.*
Goblin Knob, 10220 feet: 3ish miles one way, 1040 foot gain.  Moderate.*
The Bulge, 10190 feet: 3.2ish miles one way, 1010 foot gain.  Moderate.*
Dream Knob, 10460 feet: 3.3ish miles one way, 1280 foot gain.  Moderate.*
Knob #1, 10260 feet: 3.3ish miles one way, 1080 foot gain.  Moderate.*
Dream Lake, 9900 feet: 1.1 miles one way, 450 foot gain.  Easy+.
Nymph Lake, 9700 feet: .6 miles one way, 250 foot gain.  Easy.
* = From Glacier Gorge TH, subtract about a mile if starting from Bear Lake TH.
As a whole, this hike covered approximately 8 miles with 2000 feet of elevation gain.  Moderate.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Trail Ridge Road high points and 300th named destination!

What to do what to do what to do?  With longer drives and even earlier wake ups needed this summer, my eyes are set firmly on the west side of the park.  I will find a way to get there every week unless the weather looks absolutely horrendous.  I just have to be able to put together a logical grouping of destinations, and try to get the most I can in a single day.
The alarm went off at 2am.  Not just a few years ago I was often just going to bed at 2am, now I'm getting up then.  Times have changed....
I got ready slowly and then left the house around 3.  I planned for the majority of the hike to take place from the Poudre River Trailhead, right across the street from Milner Pass.  But since I was driving by a few things I had yet to do....
I first parked at Lava Cliffs and made the short hike up to the 12355 foot ranked but unofficially named "Trail Ridge".  It was still dark and I was working by headlamp.  During the day I imagine this would offer a great view.  As it was, dawn was just breaking over the horizon.  Please keep on the trail if you venture to this high point.
Back at Lava Cliffs there was just enough light to grab a quick photo before driving farther along Fall River Road to the Alpine Visitor Center.  From here I followed the paved path up to the 12005 foot Fall River Pass Mountain, in this case a unranked and unofficially named high point.  Again, great views abound from here and you can see vast swaths of the park from one place.  But you can't see all of it, which is why this blog exists!
From here I headed directly down towards Marmot Point.  You could also take Old Fall River Road down from the visitor center to access the thin but distinct trail that heads this 11909 foot ranked and named peak. 
Alpine Sunflowers in early morning light.
Looking from Fall River Pass Mountain to Marmot Point.  Note Old Fall River Road wrapping around.  The terrain between the two is fine, steep but solid on Fall River Pass Mountain, and the trail up Marmot Point is easy going. 
Looking back at "Trail Ridge".
Marmot Point and CCY (or YCC L to R) in the background.  This was a spectacular place to be to witness sunrise.  I find these moments so calming and peaceful.
Looking back to Old Fall River Road, Fall River Pass Mountain, and the visitor center.  I descended the trail and hiked/jogged the road back up to the trailhead.  There was now a second car parked there, but no person.  Doing this small loop took me about fifty minutes.  Which meant I was doing great!  Back in the car I drove down to Milner Pass
Elk at Poudre Lake.  My goals here were Poudre Lake Spires and Sheep Rock.
Essentially if you have ever hiked from Milner Pass, you have passed Poudre Lake Spires.  I just hadn't stopped to check them out before.  Pretty neat little rock features.  Continue up the trail until the first hard switchback to the left (which has stone steps).  There is a sign on the right asking to stay off the recovery area.  Go a little bit past this and cut off trail right to pick up a well defined trail that heads to Sheep Rock.
A great view over Poudre Lake from Sheep Rock, 10940 feet. 
Back at Milner Pass you can see Sheep Rock- the lump left of center.  I got in the car one last time for a short jaunt back the way I'd come to the Poudre River TH.  In reality, this is just a small area of the road with parking for a few cars on each side, not an actual trailhead.  You could also walk over from Milner Pass.
I started down the trail.  A few things I noticed right away:
1.  On the map it looks like the trail stays in the basin and follows the river down in a gentle decline.  This is not entirely true, as it stays uphill from the river, often cutting into the forest.  This means there are some short and steep uphills even as you go downhill.
2.  I was trying to not step in water or mud to keep my feet dry, but this soon proved futile as the grass overhanging the trail was wet, and there was alot of runoff from Specimen Mountain.
3.  This means there were large and unavoidable areas of mud -the thick and sticky kind that your foot sinks into ankle deep and then almost pulls your shoe off when you pull up to take the next step.
4.  This, due to a lack of travel to clean it up, means the trail is not very well defined in places.  There were multiple times it just disappeared into knee high marshy grass for hundreds of yards at a time.  Of course, you know the way you are generally going, so it wasn't hard to refind it on the other side of these areas.
5.  There are a TON of Elk in this area.  As such, there is a ton of Elk poo, urine, and marking scent.  Things were quite aromatic!
6.  Obviously running this 'trail', or even hiking it in the traditional sense of the word, was going to be out. 
But it is a place of great natural beauty.  And if you want to see (and smell) a bunch of animals, this would be a good place to look.
I knew I would have to cut off the trail eventually to get to the first highpoint, the 10855 foot Nutcracker Peak.  This is another peak that is ranked but unofficially named.  Hence, it was not included in Fosters book.
I definitely left the trail too early, but I was getting sick of the condition of the Poudre River Trail.  Hiking it was not fun, which is disappointing.  The area has alot to offer, but the trail definitely needs some work to improve it.  I found the animal trails running up the slope to be in much better shape and very well defined.
But of course I left the trail too early, did some unnecessary elevation gain, and had to traverse over to the peak.  Eventually I found myself on a high point that looked like the summit, but I couldn't find a cairn.  The trees were so thick I couldn't see through them.  My gps told me I was about 100 feet too low.  I spent some time looking around before it occurred to me that I was likely on the small high point west of Nutcracker Peak, which was in the 10700's.  I headed east and hit a small clearing and was able to see a heavily forested slope ahead of me.  Right on.
A little map for you.
The bushwhacking was steady but not too intense.  It was mostly downfall, with the vegetation in the area growing pretty close to the ground.
But even as I went on and got closer to the summit I was making a huge mistake this day.  I kept telling myself I'd stop and eat when I got to the summit, thinking it would only take me two hours or so.  Then it started taking longer but I was sure I was close.  Then I realized I wasn't.  Then there were so many mosquitoes I put my rain jacket on because they can't bite me through that, and I didn't want to stop and eat.
Long story short, I ended up not eating anything for the first five hours of this hike.  Not good.  Of course by the time you really think it out and know what this means, it is too late.    
I finally made it to the summit of Nutcracker Peak.  It took me almost twice as long as planned.  This was my 300th named destination in RMNP.  I should have felt joy.  I felt hunger.  Actually, I was beyond hunger and starting to feel tired and hopeless.  I ate heavily, swatting away mosquitoes, and considered just going back.  But I convinced myself to go on.  I'd have to come all the way back here to climb Confluence Peak if not.  The weather looked ok but not great, but I'd be below treeline for the rest of the day.
I convinced myself to continue on.  I could just see Confluence Peak through the trees and used my GPS and compass to take a bearing on it.  I was not going to miss it.  The forest was heavily treed and you could not see much more than occasional glimpses of the surrounding peaks through it to tell where you were.
The food I ate kicked in for the time being and I actually felt fairly good as I hit the small creek between the two peaks and started to regain altitude.  Again I faced some bushwhacking, but again it was mostly in the deadfall category. 
The mosquitoes were still with me as I hit the summit of Confluence Peak at 11220 feet.  Crazy enough, but I am now nearly done the Mummy Range.  I think with one more day I'll be able to finish the peaks, and with another day the lakes.
The difficulty in getting to this peak and the fact that it offers little in the way of views means it is not climbed often.  According to the register, it saw zero summits in 2014, and only one in 2013.  But the register is a wealth of who's who in Colorado Mountaineering, bearing the signatures of such luminaries as Gerry and Jennifer Roach, John and Alyson Kirk (before they were married and signed with her maiden name which I can't remember), and Steve Knapp.  I feel so honored to add my name to a list bearing these names!
These two peaks are probably only climbed by those trying to finish lists- ranked peaks in RMNP, Larimer County, etc. as many of the signatures bore some sort of information along those lines.  I added my name and where I was on my list.  301!
I descended back toward the small creek and cut east to hit the trail again.  When I reached it, I was finally able to take my rain jacket off and move quickly enough to avoid the mosquitoes. 
The trail here was in very good shape and I was able to move fairly quickly for the first time.  Though it is definitely a longer drive for me, but maybe not for you, hiking these peaks from Corral Creek or Longdraw would likely be a good bit easier.
Going back was gently uphill.  I passed the split with the Chapin Pass Trail.  Again, I was astounded at the natural beauty of the area.  It is truly remarkable.  Now that Old Fall River Road has reopened after the 2013 flood, this might be a fun option to access the area.  Of course, I have no idea what the trail conditions there might look like, but I can't imagine it could be worse than the Poudre River Trail.
I found this.  I have never seen antlers out and about.  Pretty cool.  Maybe 3.5 feet tip to tip? 
Magnificent!
After the split with the Chapin Pass Trail, the conditions largely returned to what I saw earlier in the morning.  Which is to say bad.  Mud, water, marshy grass, no trail in places...  Not fun.
I was wondering if I'd see some afternoon Elk, and finally spied a what looked like a large brown one with rounder ears.  I kept an eye and made some noise and yelled at it and the next time I looked for it, it was gone.
Shortly after I saw another Elk.  A huge brown one, who turned to look at me.  It was no Elk.  "Holy sh!t, that's a Moose!"  A juvenile male, it was a hundred yards or so from me and I made some more noise as it watched me.  I was happy that I was scary enough to convince it to move away from me, and I kept an eye on it until it moved into the forest on the other side of the valley.
But it now became a game.  Though I'd tried to make up for it, I didn't eat for too long at the beginning of the day.  My mental condition continued to degrade despite what I ate, and I felt like I was going slower and slower.  I wanted to finish the day strong, but that was out of the question.  I'd have to settle for just finishing.
I started to feel nausea and stopped eating anything.  I stopped to reapply sunblock and decided to consume some Olive Oil.  I love it drizzled on bread or pasta or pretty much anything, but it is gross to straight up drink.  However, the 1.5 oz that I always carry with me contains nearly 400 calories.  Down it went chased with some water.
But I was collapsing.  I felt slower and slower, wondered when I'd pass the point that I left the trail in the morning (I finally recognized a tree stump), wondered when I'd see the trailhead.  Every little hill I went up was a fight and I was taking more frequent breaks.  I would get tears in my eyes each time I ascended these hills, hoping to see the trailhead on the other side, and then feel disappointed when I didn't.  I eventually told myself I couldn't look because I just couldn't take it anymore.  I'd only look down at the trail or sideways but not ahead.  I finally pulled all the apricots out of my trail mix and ate them alone.  The fruit sugar tasted good.
Eventually I hit a few water crossings that I remembered from the morning.  These were close to the car, right?  Then I could finally hear cars through the forest on the other side of the valley.  Trail Ridge Road was getting close to me, thus I was getting close to it.  I thought about crossing the river and getting to the road and hitching a ride back.  But I couldn't let myself do that, and it would take more energy.  I was counting my steps and trying not to cry.
And then I finally crested the last hill.  Despite telling myself not to look, I did.  I cannot describe the absolute joy I felt when I saw my 2003 Ford Focus with 152000 miles and a dent on the right rear panel.  Tears streamed down my cheeks, but I quickly pulled it together and made my way to the car, stopping to rinse my mud soaked shoes off in the river. 
This is what things looked like when I got back to the car.  So if you do plan to hike this trail, be prepared to get wet and dirty.
I took a few minutes to change into clean clothes and decompress.  I was feeling whole again and had a snack in the car.  The drive back took me about half an hour longer, most of which was in RMNP.  Lots of traffic there.
This was an interesting day, and my first real summer hike of 2015.  I started out feeling great and ready to go.  I ended up feeling like I had pushed myself to the absolute limit of what I could do and even beyond that.  The mental anguish is intense, and often imagined.  Which is to say upon arriving home and looking at my gps track, I was going almost exactly the same speed coming back up the trail as I was going down.  I just felt like I was absolutely destroyed and going slow.  I even managed to jog some of the flat sections on the way back.
I've written about my unpleasant experience to serve both as a lesson to you, and as a reminder to me.  You simply can't make up for hours of not eating.  I find for myself it is essential to eat at least once per hour when engaging in any activity that goes for much over 2.5 hours.  When I got home I discovered that I'd only eaten four Clif Kit's bars all day, which equals 760 calories (76 cal/hr).  If I'd eaten once per hour, I should have taken in 1900 calories over the day, solely in bar form.  Add trail mix to this plus breakfast plus a snack when back at the car and 3000 calories while hiking for ten hours (300 cal/hr) doesn't seem out of the question. 
In short, burning alot of energy requires alot of fuel.
The high points along trail ridge road should be accessible to mostly anyone.  If you are older or younger or coming from sea level, yes it might take you some time.  And as I have said above, the Poudre River valley is a place of great and raw natural beauty.  Expect to see and smell animals galore seasonally.  But the trail absolutely sucks and falls firmly into the "slog" category.  I could tell it doesn't get much usage, so the motivation for the NPS to fix it up is probably low.  But at the same time, I wonder if it would get more traffic if it were in better shape, as there is no real trailhead, and the trail doesn't really go anywhere...  Hard to say.
Trail Ridge Road High Points and Poudre River Peaks:
Trail Ridge, 12355 feet: .4 miles each way (Lava Cliffs parking), 280 foot gain.  Easy.
Fall River Pass Mountain, 12005 feet: .3 miles each way (Alpine Visitor Center Parking), 200 foot gain.  Easy-.
Marmot Point, 11909 feet: 1 mile each way (from Alpine Visitor Center), 360 foot gain.  Easy +.  Note you'll have around 260 feet of gain to get back to the Alpine Visitor Center.
Poudre Lake Spires, 10800 feet: .1 mile each way, 42 foot gain.  Easy-.
Sheep Rock, 10940 feet: .5 miles each way, 182 foot gain.  Second class.  Easy.  Note there is also a Sheep Mountain and a Sheep Mountain Rock within RMNP, which are both on the east side.
Nutcracker Peak, 10855 feet: 5.3 miles each way, 1350 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Confluence Peak, 11220 feet: 7.5 miles each way, 2358 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous-.
As a whole, the latter part of this hike covered around 15 miles with 3236 feet of elevation gain.  Strenuous-.