ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK — My friend Darwin Escoto, 50, smiled as he steadied himself with a walking stick we’d found at the trailhead, shuffling his sneakers sideways up a rather treacherous patch of ice.
Having grown up in Nicaragua and having only traveled in the southern United States, Darwin had never seen snow before. My other friend, Moisés Gadea, 37, was a bit farther on, and a bit more sure of himself, having lived in Norway the last few years.
Now, from all those faraway places, my friends and I were together again. Hosting Darwin and Moisés was a long-awaited reunion. After only being able to visit them in Nicaragua multiple times over the last 20 years, this was my first chance to show them my home, my family, and today, the Continental Divide in my backyard.
My friends are professional musicians who’d come to Colorado to perform in a fundraiser concert for Empowerment International, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization that runs a crucial youth program and tutoring center in Granada, Nicaragua. But today, at about 10,000 feet above sea level, they were struggling to breath, laugh, crack jokes, and stay on their feet all at the same time.
We were enjoying ourselves so much that I took a wrong turn, leading us to Nymph Lake, instead of the much flatter, closer and more accessible Bear Lake. However, I hadn’t been there in years, and at one point, I turned to my friends and said, “It’s weird, I remember the trail being shorter than this.”
Bear Lake, I thought, would have been more appropriate for two flatlander Central America boys. But there we were, struggling and laughing and climbing through the forest. Although the trip to Nymph Lake was only 1-mile round trip, the challenging conditions gave it the perfect edge for our memory.
Smarter, better-equipped hikers flashed by, Yaktrax on their boots and fancy trekking poles in their hands. My friends and I wore jeans and sneakers, but Darwin and Moisés could care less that I’d gotten us lost — especially when the trail flattened at the little gem of a lake and we caught our breath. The water was beginning to freeze in the late fall and a few squirrels darted around. My mistake had made the day more of a mountain experience than a mere touristy drive-by.
We took our selfies with the lake, and with a trailside snowman, to post for friends back in Managua — the capital of Nicaragua — then made our way down, driving back through the park and landing at Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ and Brew.
“Comida típica de Colorado!” I bragged. Typical Coloradan food. After a multi-meat platter and a pint, we had time for one more stop. On the way out of town, we pulled into Elkins Distilling for a tour and a taster of Estes Park’s only whiskey producer.
There, we sipped coffee-infused cordials and walked through the echoing facility behind a warm, wood-paneled tasting room and shop. We peered into giant steel vats and stepped through rows of wooden barrels.
Our footing was surer here than it had been on the snowy trail, but the experience was just as rich and I soaked it in — the time with friends that would soon end, the taste of the liqueur, the sweet smell of fermenting mash. We toasted each other one last time, then headed back down the hill.
IF YOU GO:
Start at visitestespark.com — you’ll find practical info and a calendar of upcoming events: Estes Park Winter Festival (Jan. 19-20) for ice skating, beer and food samples, live music and kids activities. Also, look for the Wine and Chocolate Festival (noon-5 p.m. Feb. 9), the Whiskey Warm Up (1-4 p.m. March 2) and the first Bigfoot Days (April 12-13).
Rocky Mountain National Park: 1000 U.S. Highway 36, Estes Park, 970-586-1206, nps.gov/romo. Bear Lake is accessed at the Bear Lake Trailhead; it is an easy, flat hike around the lake, less than 1 mile. The Nymph Lake Trail also leaves from Bear Lake Trailhead and is about a 1-mile out-and-back hike with moderate steepness.
Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ and Brew: 820 Moraine Ave., Estes Park, open 11 a.m.-9 p.m., 970-577-7427, smokindavesbbq.com. Be sure to try a slab of St. Louis ribs in whatever “smokin’ platter” you choose.
Elkins Distilling: 1825 N. Lake Ave., Estes Park, tasting room and shop are open noon-9 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and noon-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 970-480-1848, elkinsdistilling.store.