The Origins of an Apogee Trip: Trip Scouting in Colorado

By: Jack Messerly

If you’ve ever wondered how Apogee trips go from a twinkle in a Director’s eye to a fully-fledged Apogee Adventure, read on!

When Apogee’s Directors (Chevin, as Chad and Kevin are less-formally known) give you a chance to fly to Colorado for a week, photograph bugling elk, and hike to beautiful mountain lakes in Rocky Mountains National Park, you probably shouldn’t say no. After all, it’s an essential element to properly planning Apogee’s newest hiking trip, Colorado’s Rocky Mountains (CRM): an epic, 10-day adventure for 12-14 year-olds.

To be totally honest, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, hiking and hanging out with elk. Planning a new Apogee trip requires months of hard work, discussion, research, phone calls, and emails – and that’s all before we get to scout the terrain first-hand. The first seedling of an idea for CRM was planted a few years ago; in recent years, Colorado has been one of the most consistent and frequent “new trip destinations” that families wrote in their post-trip evaluations. Finally, a number of moving parts fell into place, and, after extensive trip-name-brainstorming, CRM was born.

After lengthy planning and research into all things Rocky Mountain National Park, I worked with Chad to put together an itinerary proposal. From there, a few weeks of calling whitewater rafting and rock climbing outfitters, reading hiking websites, and researching campsites ensued. We eventually settled on an amazing trip outline, and it was finally time to “put eyes” on the famous Rocky Mountain National Park.


I discovered over the last week that there’s a whole lot more that goes into scouting a trip than I had originally thought. To me, scouting was 90% hiking and 10% checking out some campsites. After all, what else did we need to know that we couldn’t learn online? Especially nowadays, when I can Google Earth my house in Minnesota, live stream a speaker at my alma mater, Hamilton College (Go, Continentals!), or watch up-to-the-minute webcams of Rocky Mountains National Park’s Visitor Centers.

Instead, I discovered that scouting a trip is about 50% driving, 20% meeting prospective outfitters, 20% hiking & taking pictures, 9% working in coffee shops, and 1% selfies. Now, that’s not to say scouting isn’t lots of fun. After all, how bad can a week in the mountains really be? My point is, the majority of scouting isn’t exactly photo-worthy. To illustrate my point, I’ll describe in some detail Day 1 of my travels, but I’ll forgo the nitty-gritty details for the other four days (and include more pictures).

I discovered that hiking to beautiful mountain lakes, though important, is only a small portion of what scouting really entails.

After a 4:00 AM wake-up here in Maine for a 6:30 AM flight, I landed in Denver, grabbed my rental car, and sped off down I-70 toward Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously-paved road in the United States. I stopped to snap a few pictures of Berthoud Pass (11,306′) before grabbing lunch in the famous ski town of Winter Park. I arrived at my first destination, Grand Lake, in about three and a half hours, and it was right to work. First, I visited the Kawuneeche Visitor Center to meet the Park Rangers, stock up on maps, ask for hiking advice, check the cell service, and ask about bears and other wildlife, etc. Next, I drove through the four nearby campsites to look for the best group camping options and picnic spots. Then, I stopped at the local grocery store to get an idea of what our groups could expect to find. Afterwards, I drove to five trail heads in the area to get an idea of whether or not a 15-passenger van with a 12-foot trailer could navigate to, park, and successfully exit the parking lots of various sizes (fortunately 4 out of 5 get the green light). I enjoyed my first wildlife siting right about now – two red fox! – and found many signs of moose (i.e, lots of moose poop…). At this point, it was nearly 6:00 PM Mountain Time, but there was still enough light to stretch my legs for a 1-mile stroll to a beautiful waterfall overlooking both Grand and Shadow Mountain Lake. From there, I grabbed a cup of coffee (it was a long day) at a local coffee shop and wrote and organized my notes (how were the road conditions on the drive; was it easy to navigate from my plane to baggage claim; nearest gas stations; etc). And after a quesadilla dinner and a few minutes of Monday Night Football, I was out cold by 10 PM.

Okay, enough of that – hopefully you get the idea that there’s a whole lot more to accomplish than just hiking. Things get more exciting from here, I promise!

Day Two: I had tremendous timing this week (he says sarcastically…) – the Park had just received their first serious snowfall of the season, so my original 1.5 hour drive through RMNP to Estes Park was closed, and was instead replaced with a lovely 4.5 hour trek all the way around RMNP. Fortunately, I’m in the midst of listening to a phenomenal novel on CD, thanks to the recommendation of fellow Assistant Director, Shem Dixon.

Upon arriving in Estes Park, it didn’t take long to spot my first herd of elk. In addition to dozen of elk, today was filled with more Visitor Centers, campgrounds, maps, trail heads, and friendly Park Rangers.


I got another short – but gorgeous – hike in today, this time at Sprague Lake, highlighted by dozens of trout!


My kingdom for a fly rod!

Despite bringing my tent and camping things, it ended up being too cold (in the low 20’s) for me to camp with my summer gear, so instead I found a cozy hotel in Estes Park, complete with another herd of elk literally right in my backyard. *It should also be noted that my hotel showed the Minnesota Wild game on TV, so to make a great day even better, the Wild routed the LA Kings, 6-3. Go, Wild.*

On Day Three, I drove to Fort Collins to meet with a few different prospective whitewater rafting companies. Again, thanks to a different road closure, my one-hour drive became a two-hour drive. (My book was getting excellent at this point.) Meeting with our outfitters face-to-face is an important policy of ours. We aim to establish a personal connection with the professionals we work with, and we are insistent that our outfitters’ safety practices are held to the highest standard, and that their goals align with Apogee’s. We ask about guide certifications, speak with other youth groups that they have worked with as reference, and learn as much as we can about them before we work with anyone. I also met with our rock climbing outfitter for the same purposes later this afternoon.

More elk today, and though this week wasn’t good timing for road conditions, it was prime elk mating and bugling season, which meant that there were elk everywhere; not just in the park, but right in Estes Park, too. I was lucky enough to catch a few males sparring, too. Most nights, I was serenaded to sleep by bugling elk right outside my window…


Finally, on Day 4, with a forecast of nothing but blue skies (and 20 mph winds…), I hit the hiking trails. I was able to fit in a full day of hiking, which included meeting four other Minnesota natives and a sister of a 2012 Apogee leader – small world. And now, the moment you’ve all (Mom) been waiting for… selfies!







[Ed. Note: Given the number of selfies here, we quibble with the “1%” of time given over to selfies, above…]

And on my last day in Colorado, I spent the morning exploring a few final trip-specific trail heads and campgrounds, and then I made my way to Boulder, CO, where our CRM group will spend its final day together. I explored downtown and got some work done over a cappuccino (#treatyoself) before rendezvouz-ing with two wonderful former Apogee leaders, Jeanne and Annika. Naturally, no good Apogee get-together is complete without the “Snapogee” captioned Snapchat sent to Apogee leaders around the world.

 screenshot_2016-10-21-18-41-26So although it wasn’t exactly as I had expected, I learned so much and had an amazing time working on the newest Apogee trip, from the initial research to the hours spent on the road in Rocky Mountains National Park. My week in Colorado, though exhausting, was a smashing success, and we can’t wait to see CRM in action this summer.