ESTES PARK - A fresh coat of wet snow made the coyote easy to spot as it trotted through the grass and boulders of the moraine.
It winced as blowing snow pelted its face and coated its thick, reddish-tan fur. It stopped abruptly, crouched and stared intently at the snow-covered ground, its ears straight up and slightly twitching as it hunted in Saturday's storm.
Instinctively, I pulled my Jeep to the shoulder of the road, and my wife, Cary, pulled out her binoculars. Soon she spotted a second coyote hunting on a parallel course a few yards away.
It's a well-rehearsed routine for us . cruising Rocky Mountain National Park, spotting wild animals and pulling off to watch and photograph them.
This is where we go whenever we get a chance to escape and recharge. Spring break often has provided us the excuse to get away, as it did this year, and explore the park's 415 square miles of wilderness located just 140 or so miles north of Colorado Springs on the western edge of Estes Park.
Since we met nearly 20 years ago, Cary and I have been all over the park on foot and by Jeep. We've hiked to the keyhole on Longs Peak (a hot spot on my ankle forced us to turn back) and driven to the Continental Divide via Fall River Road. And we've covered just about every place in between.
I first came to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park as a boy stuffed in the back of my family's Plymouth Belvedere station wagon, pulling a pop-up camper to a campground along the Big Thompson River.
After I started dating Cary, this was the first place I took her for a romantic getaway. I wanted her to know this magical place and fall in love with it the way I had.
The setting is spectacular with Estes, its small shops and restaurants clustered where the Big Thompson and Fall rivers converge, filling a valley surrounded by soaring, jagged peaks including Longs Peak.
Like most of the national park's 3 million-plus annual tourists, we have visited in summer with our kids, when Estes Park is wall to wall with people and the roads are choked with RVs, minivans pulling campers, cars, motorcycles and bicycles. We've ridden horseback, driven go-karts, roasted marshmallows over a campfire and waded in the streams.
But more often Cary and I have come in the fall and spring when snow is flying, roads are mostly empty and, in town, many shops and restaurants are closed for the season.
We've chuckled at the chipmunks that beg for scraps. We've marveled at the hearty marmots living in the harsh climate among the rocks high along Trail Ridge Road. And we've admired the Steller's jays that swoop among the ponderosa pines, the bighorn sheep that nimbly dance along rocky hillsides and the massive elk fighting for dominance. We've also spent time searching for elusive moose.
We like the solitude of the park in winter when it seems like it's just us and the sheep, coyotes and the ubiquitous elk.
Sitting by the road in snowstorms, we've seen deer and elk spar. We've spent hours listening to the bull elk bugle during the fall rut. We've hiked to waterfalls in the cold. And we've driven high in the park to see its meadows far below draped in white.
It's one of those places we find so special that we've brought many of our friends with us over the years. (I even brought my in-laws a couple of times!)
One evening, we drove slowly along as a coyote trotted nearby. Suddenly, it stopped, threw back its head and let out a chilling howl. Shortly, a haunting howl answered from across the meadow, and the coyote took off in that direction. We were all in awe in our Jeep, and Mike, my father-in-law, said you could live your entire life and never be lucky enough to see that happen.
On another evening, I was lucky enough to see two elk rear up on their hind legs and thrash each other with their hooves. I called the photo "dancing elk" and still cherish it.
Hiking the morning after a hard freeze and snow, we looked down at a stream feeding Sprague Lake and were surprised to see trout frozen in ice. Another time, in the same water, we watched trout spawning.
We've marveled at the enormity of natural disasters that have occurred there, like the Lawn Lake dam break in 1982 that hurled boulders the size of small houses down into the national park, tossing tall trees like toothpicks and changing the course of Fall River.
But mostly, Cary and I have just loved being there.
In fact, we fell in love there. We were married there in a meadow where the Big Thompson River meanders through willows and around boulders and trout gather in riffles and pools. It's named Moraine Park, but ever since, we've called it Cary's Meadow. For that one day, the snow-capped mountains, the aspen and elk were a mere backdrop to my bride in her wedding dress.
We bought our wedding rings from a local jeweler, the Golden Ghost. We had our wedding brunch at the historic Stanley Hotel. And we started our marriage with a celebratory hike to Fern Falls, holding hands and talking about the future, our children, our careers, our dreams.
This weekend, we again held hands as we cruised the park and talked. Now we talk about getting our youngest through high school and college, about paying off the house and how we want to spend our retirement years perhaps by living in Estes and volunteering in the park.
As we sat in the snow Saturday watching the coyote, I considered how much has happened since Cary and I first discovered our love of Estes and Rocky Mountain National Park and hiking and wildlife-watching and each other.
I thought about how much this magical place has given me in my life. How lucky I've been.
And I wondered how many more trips we'll make here together. I'm hoping many more.
Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets.