About ten days ago, a shift in the jet stream delivered a thick layer of smoke to the Front Range, cutting the visibility (which normally exceeds 35 miles) to less than 10 miles at times. Since then, each evening, when I open the windows to let the cool night breezes fill the house, it smells as if a campfire is burning in my backyard.
It is not an overpowering smell; instead it is quite pleasant, evoking warm childhood memories of times spent camping in the wilds of Wisconsin. But there is, of course, no campfire in my backyard. Instead, the smell and the smoke have a more sinister origin: dozens of wildfires burning a thousand miles to the northwest, in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Alberta.
This morning was the first day in ten that it looked as if the smoke had finally dissipated. The skies were crystal clear and I could once again see details and textures in the distant mountain ranges. I gathered my hiking gear, hopped in the car, and drove up to Estes Park. Unfortunately, at some point during my journey the winds shifted. It took less than half an hour for the smoke to return. By the time I arrived in Rocky Mountain National Park, I had a sinus headache and my eyes were dry and itchy. At altitude, the smoke was much harsher than it was back at home. I stopped at the Moraine Park Visitors Center to assess the situation and decide what to do next.
After talking with the park ranger, I decided it was probably best to call it a day. Not only was the air thick with irritants, the ranger pointed out that he had just gotten word that the parking lots were already overflowing at many trailheads. I thought: did I really want to spend the day hiking in crowds and breathing in smoke? At altitude? With a sinus headache? Um, no. None of that sounded appealing. I decided to cut my losses and just take a short walk along the path near the visitors center. I then headed back home.