Unexpected Danger on the Lulu City Trail

By Cecilia Travis

Avalanche! Even reading about avalanches spooks me. Now that my bone doctor has advised me not to downhill ski anymore, I get pretty desperate for winter-in-the-forest experiences, but I comb the guidebooks for information on avalanche danger before choosing an outing for the two of us.

Trobe on the Trail
Trobe on the Lulu City Trail © Cecilia Travis

My husband, Trobe, has never done cross-country skiing, but will gamely don snowshoes to accompany me, at least for a short while. He is fourteen years older than I and less eager to hit the snowy trails and certainly doesn’t care to go anywhere likely to have avalanches.

According to our guide books, the Lulu City Trail on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park would provide just the sort of level snowshoe hike we wanted. There is an avalanche-prone slope 1.8 miles in, but I knew we wouldn’t get that far.

I had hiked the trail some ten or more years before in the summer and remembered it as an easy trail that followed along a stream to some old buildings and to what was left of the abandoned mining town, Lulu City. One guidebook described it as “easiest.” Obviously, a good, safe choice.

To get to the trailhead, we drove over Berthoud Pass, through Granby, past Grand Lake and finally into the west entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a good snow year and high banks of snow cradled the road.

Snowy Lulu City Trail
Snowy start to Lulu City Trail © Cecilia Travis

The trailhead parking lot was surrounded by deep snow, but the trail was so packed down by multiple hikers, we decided to use our Stable-icers™ instead of the snowshoes. This made Trobe happy, because he doesn’t trust his balance on snowshoes, whereas hiking with rubber tread and studs fastened to our boots is just like regular hiking.

Once strapped into our Stable-icers™, we headed out through the trees. About fifteen minutes in, the trail slanted up sharply along one side of the valley and even with our spiked footgear, balance became a bit challenging. But the trail leveled and then descended gradually out into an open area dotted with trees. We could see the mountains on either side of the valley, and I was looking forward to photographing the guidebook-promised view of the Never Summer Range to the north.

As we trudged along this easy path, I noticed numerous “post holes” where other hikers had stepped off the narrow packed trail and sunk deeply into the snow. In one place, I could see signs that someone had gone off the trail for a bit and then returned to it, but I didn’t give that much attention. I was busy trying to compose photographs that would convey this peaceful winter experience.

After about half a mile, Trobe announced that he thought he should start back. Wanting a little time alone in the woods and still hoping for that view of the Never Summers, I said I would go a little farther to a spot I had noted on the topo map (well short of the avalanche area) and then turn back to join him. I continued north as the trail dropped down to the snow-banked stream.

Moose Trail
A Trail of Moose Tracks © Cecilia Travis

On the far side of the stream I noticed a deep trail of tracks going down to the water. A large animal had gone into the stream, walked the streambed for a while and then left it again. The snow was deep, the tracks were narrow and there is only one animal that could have left such a trail – a moose!

Much as I would love to photograph one, I am almost as afraid of moose as I am of avalanches. As I was growing up, my family made many visits to my Montana aunt and uncle, who regaled us with scary moose and bear stories. Have you heard the one about the moose that flattened a Volkswagen Beetle? However, this was winter, not the rutting season when moose just go nuts, or when they have babies and are even more dangerous. Maybe the tracks were old. Still, it seemed a good idea to forget the Never Summers and start back.

I love walking in the woods alone with stories of the wild things spread out before me in the snow. Heading back, I started paying attention to the animal sign I had missed on my way in. The fresh squirrel-chewed pine cones, little mouse trails, the flattened bedding site with broken branches and fresh (Whoa! Fresh!) moose droppings.

Not on the other side of the stream, but right by the trail. Right where I was standing.

Moose tract & ski pole
Moose Track with Ski Pole © Cecilia Travis

That was when I realized that the “post holes” were actually deep moose tracks where the heavy animal had sunk into the snow. The trail I had seen going off trail for a bit turned out to be moose as well. Even that extraordinarily tall animal had been more comfortable walking along the trail rather than wading almost belly deep in snow. As best I could, while looking over my shoulder for moose, I photographed the tracks and droppings. I had to step carefully because anywhere off the top of the narrow packed trail, the snow was soft and deep.

And that of course was the problem. Warnings about moose encounters advise one to get behind big rocks or trees. But since I was not wearing snowshoes I could not have left the trail. The moose and I would be sharing that narrow path and maybe the moose would not choose to change course. Had I met a moose, I would not have been able to evade it.

In spite of constantly scanning the valley, I never did see a moose (or an avalanche). I made it safely back to the car and Trobe, who had not noticed the moose sign. He had enjoyed a tranquil, worry-free stroll though the snowy woods, oblivious to possible dangers from moose or avalanches. But for me, what had been a short hike out was a long way back!