Heartily Into the Tundra

Old Ute Trail
The tundra was calling

It's mid-September, time for our annual camping trip to Rocky Mountain National Park with the 'hood. I hadn't yet zeroed in on a hike so when my neighbor John suggested the Old Ute Trail, I was all ears. Starting at 11,440ft from Trail Ridge Road, this historic trail climbs about 200ft into the alpine tundra for about 2 miles, before descending 3000ft through subalpine forests and meandering through montane meadows, ending at the Upper Beaver Meadows Trailhead.

Unless you push yourself and move out of your comfort zone, you will never do or see anything new nor have any mind-blowing experiences. That's what I like to tell myself. Either that, or we are gluttons for punishment.

But what about the weather? Like that's ever a consideration!

It was windy and bitterly cold on the exposed tundra. The wind brought with it moisture: first in the form of rain and then stinging snow. But we were not about to give up and turn around. The views, even though mostly hidden by the clouds, were spectacular. It's an unbelievably thrilling experience to stand in a place where no trees grow and the shrubs are so tiny that they hug the ground even after years and years of growth.

On top of the world and into the wild
Ignore the ominous

In less than 20 minutes into the hike, my neighbor Alicia who is an extreme hiker, ran off into the tundra. And, run she did, all 7 miles and 3000ft down to the campgrounds in less than 3 hours. The rest of us were slowed down by the weakest of the lot — me. I am not nearly as fit as I was this time last year. Breathlessness has become an issue at the start of any hike, whether at 6,000ft or at 11,000ft. I am also known to slow the group down because I stop to take way too many pictures. Not so, this time though. The weather made me put my camera away, as did the treacherous trail. I did pull out my phone camera to take quick pictures of some flowers I had never seen before.

Alpine flowers
Teeny purple alpine flowers that have no name, for now called Fringed Gentian.

Alpine flowers
Some sort of really tiny alpine sedum

We came upon poop of different sizes and shapes. Before Alicia ran off, she was our source for identifying the animal that put the stuff out there. One particular pile of poop was rather well-formed and quite like that of a large cat, than elk or even a really fat marmot. Poop jokes became the order of the day. Alicia knows her poop. We don't know our shit. Maybe we need to study our shit so that we can know our poop like Alicia does. At over 11,000ft and slightly lightheaded, these jokes are darned funny.

Caterpillar at 11,400ft
What's a nice caterpillar like you doing in a place like this?

The 2 mile walk across the tundra on Tombstone Ridge is relatively flat. Most hikers walk these 2 miles to a "large rock," take in the breathtaking views and turn around. This is why many reports on the web list this trail as 4 miles.

John & Lisa
John & Lisa, before the steep descent

We continued beyond the "large rock" to the relentless steep descent through a dense forest of spruce, pine, and fir, that turned my quads into jelly and brought searing pain to my knees. I slowed the group down even more through this descent. I am told that the proper way to do such hikes is to run down—like Alicia did— hopping from one rock to another. It requires a fair amount of confidence and practice. And longer legs than mine, and a more nimble and fit body. Maybe one day, I will be able to do it.

We recharged and refueled by eating boiled eggs with generous sprinklings of salt. Best hiking food ever.

white daisies
Wildflower gardens

We walked through gently undulating and seemingly endless meadows in pouring rain with snow mixed in, where the trail was lined with all sorts of wildflowers, even as late as mid-September.

Blue berries, not blueberries.
Blue berries

I would have given anything for a horse or a llama at this point

Not once did my group complain or show any signs of irritation. Instead they were kind, supportive, and encouraging. John hugged me and said he had more time to enjoy the vistas. Lisa gave me the very pole that I knew she needed for herself. Karen boosted my confidence. Medha was proud of me, as I of her. D was by my side helping me down. I am very lucky.

It took us over 5 hours to get to the Upper Beaver Meadows Trailhead where we had parked John's van before heading up to the Old Ute Trailhead. When we drove into Moraine Campgrounds, there was a slightly worried crowd that greeted us at the camp sites. Oops!

After such a strenuous hike, it was only fitting that we ate hearty food. Luckily, the preparations for the potluck started almost immediately and we were able to nourish our bodies with delicious food, after having satiated our souls with the vistas on the hike. I quickly put together and heated the sarson ka saag I had carried and served it with warm buttered naan.

Sarson ka Saag

Sarson ka Saag
Sarson ka Saag

  • 2lbs mustard greens, chopped fine
  • 1lb baby spinach, chopped fine
  • 3 tbsp minced garlic
  • 7-8 hot green chiles, sliced vertically
  • 5-6 tbsp corn flour, Indian-style
  • 2 medium onions, chopped fine
  • 1.5in piece of ginger, julienned
  • 2 medium plum tomatoes, chopped fine
  • 2 tbsp ghee
  • salt to taste
  • 2-3 tbsp unsalted butter

Sarson ka Saag on the Stove
Heating the hearty

  1. Combine mustard greens, spinach, garlic, and green chiles in the pan of your pressure cooker. Add about 3 cups water and salt to taste.
  2. Cook on medium-high, under pressure for one pressure release, about 10 minutes or so. Turn down the heat and cook on low for another 20 minutes so that the mustard greens are completely soft and creamy.
  3. Allow the pressure cooker to cool.
  4. While it is cooling, heat ghee in a kadhai or a medium pan and add chopped onions. Sauté on medium-high until the onions turn golden-brown in color.
  5. Add julienned ginger and tomatoes and cook down until tomatoes are also slightly browned.
  6. Once you have opened your pressure cooker, keep the heat on simmer and add corn flour to the greens a little at a time, whisking briskly. If the greens remain watery, add more cornflour as required.
  7. Continue whisking the greens until they have a coarse but creamy texture.
  8. Add the onion mixture to the greens and stir until completely blended into the greens.
  9. Add the butter to the greens and mix well.
  10. Serve hot with makke di roti or naan.

Sarson ka Saag
garnished with crispy ginger and tomatoes

  • This is based on a recipe by Madhur Jaffrey.
  • This recipe makes a lot of sarson ka saag. It freezes well so it doesn't bother me. However, this recipe can be halved successfully, too.
  • I haven't had great luck with fresh mustard greens. They are in season from December through April but are available all year round. I prefer to use frozen mustard greens as they are a time saver, too. They come pre-washed and pre-chopped with no significant loss of flavor.
  • Indian style corn flour is different from regular corn flour. You could substitute with masa harina but keep in mind that Indian corn flour has not been nixtamalized.
  • You could use a hand blender to quickly mash the greens but don't allow the texture to become smooth. It must remain coarse. It is preferable to use a whisk or the Indian wooden greens masher.
  • If you don't have a pressure cooker, you could cook this in a pot on the stove. First bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cover. Cook for at least one hour or more, until mustard greens are soft and cooked thorooughly.
  • You can substitute mustard greens with other greens like collard greens, broccoli greens, kale or even a mix of these greens.
  • At home, I like to garnish this with crispy fried ginger and finely chopped tomatoes.
  • For the camping potluck, I carried the onion mixture and the greens separately. I heated the onion mixture, added the greens and simmered them together before serving with naan.

The saag was fairly popular with most adults. The children didn't care much for it, except for Medha, who came back for second and third helpings.

I have no idea how I continued standing for the next couple of hours through the potluck. It was also the first time ever that we were in bed before 9pm on a camping trip. We awoke to high winds but beautiful alpine glows on the mountains.

Alpine glow on Longs
Longs Peak glows

Morning Drama
More morning drama

It was truly a Rocky Mountain High.


Nandini Vishwanath said...

Next time ;)

And boiled eggs and salt? That's become my breakfast on the days I have a bad workout!

GB said...

Seriously impressed! :) Love love love sarson ka saag---haven't made it in ages, you've got me longing for some now!

Anjali said...

Lovely pictures and loved the description of the hike.

Anonymous said...

I love our beautiful Colorado.
Great pictures!

suvi said...

Manisha, I read this post with a mixture of admiration (at your grit and determination to keep climbing in not so favourable weather) - and envy ( the hike looks so breath-takingly beautiful).

Boiled eggs with salt? That's what we used to eat on our treks too. With a generous sprinkle of mirchi powder.

Panfusine said...

Making me crave Sarson ka saag... Heck I may just even crave a trek or two, its been ages!

Bong Mom said...

Whoa, whoa, whoa !!!

And browned ginger, whoa, impressed.

Saee Koranne-Khandekar said...

This is probably my fav green dish. I loved the scale on which you cooked this. The plating was beautifully rustic, too!

Desisoccermom said...

Another awesome hiking adventure! Now, I have to come down their.
I loved your line about how we are glutton for punishment. So very true.
Now, I am off to make some khichadi and add dollops of ghee to it. :-)

Desisoccermom said...


Anita said...

Love sarson ka saag, and our season should start soon.

Very impressed with you girl. What supportive friends and family you have there!

You ate the whole egg?? The yolk as well??

Indian Food Rocks said...

Nandu, it might have been a tad early to camp when you visited. I don't think there is running water until at least mid to late-June. But I think we did good!

GB, it's so easy! Go make some!

Anjali, I was walking backwards for days!

Kirsten, aren't we so very lucky?!

aqua, the weather played its part but it was really the terrain that was difficult. I would like to do it again. Fingers crossed!

Niv, I'm sure there are hiking groups in NJ that you could join. You should check them out!

BM, so deliciously crunchy!

Saee, thank you! I made a lot but then we had about 11 camp sites and there are several families that come up just for the potluck. It has to be on that scale.

Jaya, I'm hooked onto Punjabi khichadi - split chilkewali mung dal, jeera and ghee. Comfort food!

Anita, I am a lucky girl, aren't I? I do envy you your fresh mustard greens!