The Never Summer mountain range in northern Colorado contains seven named peaks. At 5:30am Saturday morning, my son-in-law Eric would run around and over many of them as part of a 100K (64 mile) trail ultra.
Brit and I served as Eric’s race crew, hiking a mile or so into four of the eight aid stations to change his socks and negotiate with him to consume calories. You might notice here that Brit is thirty-four weeks pregnant. She had some of the elite ultra runners calling her out for being such a badass.
Brit discovered at our first aid station, Diamond, that she would have to forcefully negotiate with Eric, to make him consume the needed calories. A runner burns about 100 calories per mile, meaning Eric would need to replace over 6000 calories in this race.
Eric eventually acquiesced and ate about 50 calories worth of watermelon. Not a win for Brit exactly, but watermelon contains a ton of potassium.
Above is a pic of Brit and me returning from the Ruby aid station, the near-halfway mark for Eric at thirty miles. He appeared to have recovered from his early calorie deficit, while Brit and I were gaining efficiencies at hauling gear and tending to his needs. We would hike eight to ten miles before the day was over. The western monsoonal weather was dramatic enough to reroute our drive up to the Never Summer range through Wyoming and trap us there for the weekend with all exits shut down once we’d arrived. The clouds in the photo above were a constant backdrop but Saturday was mostly dry for the ultra.
Brit made friends with Kiersten who crewed her husband Jack. Pictured here at the Canadian aid station where he was in third with fourteen miles to go, Jack ultimately finished second overall.
Finishing fourth overall was the first place woman, Addie Bracey, pictured above. Author of Mental Training for Ultrarunning, Addie is always a top contender in the Western States 100. She lives in Brit’s Denver neighborhood around Sloans Lake.
This was a typical aid station scene for me and Brit – sitting center in the orange puff jacket. The temperature dropped about thirty degrees during the time we waited for Eric at this Canadian aid station in the early afternoon.
After sitting for a good three hours, Brit launched from her chair to crew Eric. He told her that he nearly DNF’d at Clear Lake, but opted instead to replenish calories at an aid station. He felt better after a half hour of walking and arrived to the Canadian aid station full of confidence that he would finish. At this point, in 19th place, he had another fourteen miles to run.
Five miles later, Eric surprised us by arriving early to the Bockman aid station and in seventeenth place.
After Bockman, our job crewing at aid stations was over. We waited at the finish for Eric to complete his final eight and a half miles. If you’re curious why this Colorado mountain range is named “Never Summer”, consider how bundled up Brit is in her camping chair on July 31st.
We didn’t have long to wait as Eric finished strong after over 14 hours of running his first 100K ultra.
I spent the week backpacking from the ghost town of Winfield to the Hancock Pass Trailhead. Fifty, high-altitude miles along the Continental Divide Trail that broke me down to the basics and renewed my soul. I’m tempted to begin by saying that I was nowhere near fit enough for this trek, but I made it so apparently I was. The physical effort in hauling a forty-pound pack up and down thousands of alpine vertical feet was as purifying for my soul as were the unending views of heaven. Imagine walking through hell with a view of heaven that squelches the heat of the fires. That was my experience, backpacking southbound through the Collegiates on the CDT. As indicated by the trail signs, this section of the CDT is joined by the western loop of the Colorado Trail.
I set out with two buddies. George, pictured here, and Rob, who has through-hiked the PCT and AT and served as our uber-experienced trail guide. Outside of hiking, we belong to a writers’ group, submitting monthly short stories to a blog on the deep web. Much of our talk was on storylines. One of my goals was to refocus on my third novel. George, Rob and trail all contributed to advancing my novel’s outline.
From our Winfield campsite at 10,226 feet, we marched 6.5 miles to summit Lake Ann Pass, a two thousand foot climb to 12,590 feet. This was difficult for me and perhaps the hardest effort of our six days on the trail. I knew this climb would give me a sense of my ability to survive the full excursion. I was thinking of the physical stress of carrying a forty-pound pack at high-altitude though. I didn’t consider the technical challenges. There is still heavy snow on the north side of Lake Ann Pass. Rob determined through early scouting that we would not require ice axes, but trekking poles and perhaps micro-spikes were advisable.
The cornice in this photo above is the pass. The snow was soft enough that micro-spikes were not needed. My challenge was a stretch of quicksand-like sludge that I nearly drowned in. I tried to crawl through the gravel, full of snowmelt, and failed miserably. Each step induced a rock slide that threatened to carry me down the mountain. I was trying to reach some stable rocks but was so exhausted from trying to swim through this mix of rock and water that I didn’t have the strength to stand back up once reaching them. I then turned my head to find the trail and determined I could possibly make the snow patch on the far side of the quicksand with a strong, one-hop leap. That hop wouldn’t provide any traction on the flowing rock, but I’d have to trust my momentum. Learning to trust my momentum would become an important tool over the next several days of obstacles. My leap landed me on solid snow and I made it to the top of the pass, where Rob was patiently waiting. That’s Lake Ann below him and Mount Huron in the background.
I knew the rest of the day would be downhill and I now had some trail confidence. I didn’t know if my body could take a second day, but I knew the subsequent downhill was in my wheelhouse. As would become our pattern, we took a substantial break at the top of the pass to recover our strength. That’s Taylor Park Reservoir in the background below. Our path was to cross the valley toward the left of this photo, across the Illinois and Texas Creeks.
After eleven miles and ten hours, we ended the night camping on the Illinois Creek. There was no campfire and I’m not sure I made it to nightfall. I was happy with my PackitGourmet dehydrated camp dinner. Highly recommended.
I was concerned about my ability to recover for day two, but I woke up fresh and ready to continue our hike. Our pattern was to wake up at 5:30 am and hit the trail by 7. I think it helped my legs that we didn’t have any big climbs until later in the day when we finished on Cottonwood Pass.
I discovered on day two that since beginning this hike, I’d had zero thoughts on work. I wasn’t even counting the days, let alone thinking about returning back to a normal life. Vacation days are always good but this trail was the perfect remedy for a past year and a half of what I believe had been the most stressful of my life. I’m sure it was difficult for many people with Covid-19, but mine had other life events that had me at the bottom of the emotional scale.
The act of hiking a trail like this is so involved. My entire mind was focused 100% on my footfalls. It was hard to daydream. Planting each foot in front of the other was almost like playing a mindless video game. I put some thought into moving my Cyan story forward. It’s a mystery and I thought up how I’ll have my heroine interview suspects and add depth to the characters. But mostly I was just watching my footfalls for ten hours each day. The trail was like a mind eraser, like hitting the reset button on life. I’m ready now for what comes next.
The trail did take its toll on my legs. On my entire body. I was never fully confident the first two days that I could finish. I’d suggested we park one of our cars at the half way point on Cottonwood Pass. Doing so would allow us to carry less supplies, resulting in a lighter pack, but it would also mean more time shuffling cars between trailheads. I was voted down, so I was committed.
Ample rest after long stretches and big climbs is what saved me. We developed a pattern of taking a couple of long breaks during the day. Naptime essentially. Usually with awesome views.
I would see George often updating his trip notes, or reading.
I think Rob was often praying that we didn’t die on his watch.
We camped after our second day on the trail on Cottonwood Pass. George was too tired for dinner and missed this sunset that his tent was pitched perfectly to view.
I found day three to be the toughest. We were now hiking above tree line for most of the day. The trail was gorgeous, interweaving us from pass to saddle to pass, offering views of new basins that could only be viewed by backpacking into the remote forest of the Collegiates.
Trudging through snow fields was always exhausting. I suspect my biggest issue was that, even when in better shape, I don’t do well above 12,000 feet. And we were almost always above 12,000 feet. I get mild altitude sickness, light-headed and nauseated.
Rob was in his element though. Backpacking in these conditions is hard. The climbs at altitude for 10-hour days fatigue the body. Hiking food generally sucks. And the ground makes for a hard bed. But Rob was born to be on the trail.
I could also see how George found solace in the mountains. Sitting on the earth at a spot you could only backpack to and taking in the vistas brings peace to any soul who will venture.
George took on the responsibility of team map reader. He kept us to about ten miles per day, but more importantly, he targeted campsites that appeared to offer water and a flat spot for our tents. Early in the season yet, we found ample flowing water, even above tree line. In many cases, we drank directly from the headwaters, with snow melt bubbling up from the rocks like God’s water springs.
I don’t know that the fourth day ever dropped below tree line. We took generous breaks to rest and I turned my photo-taking to the views during those hiking intermissions.
Above, I laid among alpine flowers at 12,000 feet. And below, a bit closer to tree line, more of the same.
Sitting in high-mountain meadows was so amazing. I felt as if I could hear the wind blow through each tree. I would see the tree tops move first, then hear the wind, followed by feeling the cool breeze hit my dry, hot skin. I sensed how the mountain forests filtered the carbon from the planet’s air.
George found us another perfect camping site with comfortable ground and flowing water near Tincup Pass. We expected to reach our trailhead destination the next day.
George led us through the final mountain meadows and passes to Hancock Pass Trailhead.
Finishing the trail a day early, we spent yet another day climbing Mount Yale. I was too dizzy at 14,000 feet that I rested on the saddle while George and Rob scurried up the pile of rocks that formed the peak. A storm blew in with hard sleet, blinding us during our descent. Maybe the worst weather we had the entire week. We encountered several ladies running this trail, leaving me in awe with their form as they bounded the rocks like ballerinas. Just when you think you’ve accomplished something amazing, someone else comes by making it look easy.
But it wasn’t easy. It was so satisfyingly hard. Those mountains and the trail cleansed my soul unlike any vacation I’ve ever taken before. My button has been reset and I’m ready for what comes next.
I don’t sell enough books to brag about, but every now and then, I get something like this. Would have been nice as an Amazon review, but I received it via LinkedIn of all places.
I just finished your second book. Brilliant work, both of them. I am retiring from the Army this week, and have appreciated the motivation you’ve given me. I ran electronic warfare teams, among other things. And I really appreciated the references in your second book.
I am transitioning from intelligence work to cyber. This fall I even start graduate work at Brown in cybersecurity. It’s been daunting changing fields when I didn’t plan for it. But my body can’t take kicking doors anymore. Your books gave me a feeling, especially from ‘Rob’, that my chances are good for landing on my feet. So thank you for the good books, and thank you for the confidence they instilled.
Keep writing, you are great at it.
That made me feel pretty good. It’s been a week of feeling good. I’m counting down to an epic backpacking trip along the Continental Divide Trail through the Collegiates in another week. My buddies and I have been exchanging emails on possible routes and gear choices all month. Each email gets me more excited. Seriously, we’ve been salivating over our dehydrated camp meal selections. Maybe its the Covid cabin fever but I was near manic as I inventoried my trail gear.
Wish I was in better shape for this trek but, assuming I survive it, I’ll be in better shape afterward. I’ll be struggling to keep up with my trail mates. Rob is a fitness coach at Fort Lewis College in Durango. He even teaches a course on hiking. He hikes over one hundred days each year. Rob tends to get naked and swim in alpine lakes. This pic of him wading into the waters above tree line on Snow Mesa near Lake City gives you a sense of just how fit he is.
I might be able to hang closer to George, since he’s coming up from Austin and won’t be acclimated to the altitude. This photo of his dying carcass from the last time I hiked with him, on top of Greys Peak, is what gives me confidence. Still, I know he’s as fit today as he was forty years ago in the Marines. These sexagenarian beefcakes might find themselves having to wait for the young 59 year old.
Ellie and I spent Memorial weekend moving her out of her apartment, cleaning said apartment, and moving her into her sorority house as she attends summer school at Mines. Sounds like work but it was nice quality time with my daughter. Her front porch has a nice view of the intramural fields and campus. This photo looks north up the valley toward Boulder.
This weekend, Todd and I returned to our trails behind the Flat Irons that overlook Boulder Valley. We got lucky with cloud cover shielding us from this weekend’s intense heat.
You should know that you need a Colorado StateParkpass, day pass or annual pass, to park at the Eldorado Canyon TH and to hike the area trails.
My buddy Todd told me he’d just moved into a new place and that these were the first two books in his bookshelf. So I said, let’s go for a hike Saturday. Todd helps me write legal docs at work. Or I help him. I don’t know. The process is not unlike working with an editor or critique team for my novels. I craft some words and Todd improves them before presenting to Legal.
I’ve lived in Boulder County for over thirty years and never hiked Walker Ranch Loop. Unbelievable. To get there, you drive west on Baseline to where it turns into Flagstaff. You drive past the Flagstaff Restaurant and just keep going, maybe fifteen minutes, until you reach the trailhead.
I met a guy, Rob Decker, at the Jagger’s post-vax, house party last night. We were talking publishing and he mentioned he spent over a million dollars advertising on Facebook last year. Because he makes art posters out of national park photos that he shoots, styled after the 30s and 40s Works Progress Administration efforts, we eventually began a discussion on hiking. Rob told me to hike this loop clockwise, because these steps induce most of the mountain bikers to ride counter-clockwise. This photo only shows a fraction of the steps. Trust me, this is the original stairway to heaven.
Todd and I stopped occasionally to smell the roses, or in this case, one of the many star lilies that adorned the trail. The weather could not have been better with the air 59° and strong sunshine. Boulder Valley was under a Gulf Coast cloud cover all morning, wisps of which breached Walker Ranch via Eldorado Canyon. It reminded Todd of fog rolling into San Fransisco Bay, and it was like that in spots.
The loop starts out near the top of the trail and drops down to the South Boulder Creek. It then rises to the turn-around and drops back down to the creek on the return. The east-side four miles has a V-shape elevation profile and coming back on the western loop gives it a W-shape end-to-end.
We lunched on the creek on the return side, putting five miles behind us. The entire route is eight miles. We finished in about three and a half hours.
The trail is rated hard but I thought it was in our wheelhouse. Awesome training for my upcoming fifty-mile backpacking trek along the CDT in the Collegiates next month.
There were more runners on the trail than mountain bikers. If you can see well enough in this photo, there’s a lady behind the runners with four dogs on leashes. She said it was mostly an arm and upper body workout.
The 4 Nose Brewing Company just happened to be along our route on the drive home, so we stopped in for a tasty beverage and to replace calories lost on the trail. The irony of hiking past a woman walking four dogs on the trail was not lost on us.
To celebrate thirty-three years, Karen and I hit the trails in Ouray. What could be better than taking in air from the top of the world? We spent day one exploring the Perimeter Trail that rings the box canyon.
We drove up to Molas Pass on day two and hiked between the lakes. The weather could not have been more perfect with the cooler temps I’d been dreaming about in Texas.
We discovered our favorite trail on day three when we hiked the Blue Lakes Trail. The forest road is a bit long, about eight miles, but drivable with a low clearance car. The trail runs mostly through gorgeous pine and aspen. It breaks just around tree line for the first lake, catching snow melt in the basin.
We stopped by Khristopher’s Culinaire one day to say hi to Khris and Janet. They said the crowds have been great this summer. I agree, the trails had a healthy number of hikers. People were pretty good about either wearing a mask, or stepping off the trail if they didn’t.
I had time one day to hike around Molas Pass with my buddy Rob, who drove up from Durango. We began on the Colorado Trail and bushwhacked our way up to a high point offering tremendous views of the San Juans. I also ran into a work colleague in Silverton eating lunch with his family. We work together almost daily, and had never met one another before.
After my Keurig run, Karen told me to enjoy the Keurig one more time, then pack up. The Covid’s comin’. Gear up to hit the trail. We got as far as Estes Park where we thought we could get some grub. We were greeted with signs like this, reminding us of just the other week when it was that way at home too. We were happy with the takeout from Bird & Jim. And they had a better sign.
The girls took our flight in stride. One more road trip for old times, I heard one of them say. Ellie Rose will go off to the Colorado School of Mines this fall, leaving Karen and me to discover our new normal as empty nesters. Ellie Rose should be safe in the mines.
Estes Park did have good food, but we found ourselves surrounded by the Colorado Mountain elk herd that’s been ranging these slopes for eons, or at least since 1913 when the then extinct herd was reintroduced from Wyoming.
We waited for the elk to fall asleep and made our escape under the cover of darkness. With the next morning’s sunlight, we found ourselves on the Lily Mountain Trail.
Karen told us this trail would lead to a new world. A place free from the horrors of 2020. She told us we would be happy in this new place.
When we got there, we saw this. We knew this hike was the right choice for the Memorial Day weekend. Karen was right.
New generations will blaze new trails up here in Karen’s woods. Summer is coming, calling all of us outdoors, hopefully not like sirens to the rocks. Wear a buff on the trail.
The word Argentina is derived from the word silver, which in Latin is Argentum. This is also why Ag references silver on the periodic table. Argentina was initially called Terra Argentea for the land of silver. But the Argentine Trail that rises out of Silver Plume was a trail of gold today, buried under the golden aspen trees that grace the forest along I-70. If not for the history of silver mining in the area, I’d recommend renaming it Aurum Trail – gold is Au on the periodic table.
Jen, one of my running mates, joined me on the trail today, along with her husband and kids. We ran this, mostly to see the aspens, but also because it’s a fairly gentle grade, rising 900 feet over three miles. Of course, it starts at close to 9200 feet. And Jen shot off from the trailhead like a rocket, so I had to beg her to walk a few times on the way up. My cardio is not up to Jen’s level.
We made it to the top, which is called Pavilion Point, where a fireplace is all that remains of an old miner’s home. Despite the elevation, this trail is very runnable. The grade is so gentle because it used to support a narrow-gauge railroad that hauled the silver down into Silver Plume.
I’d be remiss not to add a senior photo of Ellie Rose, that her good friend Chase took of her in the fall colors. I would argue it’s Ellie Rose who makes the fall colors look good, but it’s just a great time to get outside.
We woke early and hit the trail at 6:30 am, when there was enough sunlight to hike without headlamps. We first drank coffee under the moon and stars, unfiltered from the light pollution of cities in the clear 35° air.
Saturday’s objective was to summit Mount of the Holy Cross, a fourteener south of Vail. The twelve mile, roundtrip trail started at the Half Moon Trailhead. It consisted of two hills, the first was a thousand foot climb, the second was a three thousand foot ascent. The aspen were just turning bright yellow.
We passed by two tired women descending almost as slowly as we were climbing. This section of trail resembled a steep staircase. One of them called out, “It’s easier in the rocks.” Most everything above tree line was a boulder field. I can’t explain why she said it, or what she meant by it. When is hiking through the rocks ever easier?
Near the end of the hike, we saw a couple of hikers stopped on the trail ahead of us, apparently talking. As they saw us approach, they departed, going separate directions. The one hiking toward us turned back around and shouted to the other, “You should also look into the Ten Commandments.”
As he neared us, I saw that much of his outfit, including hat, sunglasses, scarf and shirt, were all sporting a red, white and blue striped pattern. And he might have been wearing make-up. Very eye-catching. He looked as if the clown in Stephen King’s It made babies with Uncle Sam. There was something off with this guy. He was either going to start preaching the Bible to us, or shred us with an AK-47, but he passed without incident.
Hikers, in their trail reports, generally describe this as an exhausting hike. It was. It was six miles of vertical in each direction, with about 5500 feet of elevation gain, and took us close to nine hours. There’s camping at the trailhead, but an even better camping spot along a creek after the first hill. That would make reaching the peak before sunrise more doable. Incredibly beautiful views and a memorable hike.
Estes Park was an ideal wedding venue for out-of-state guests who enjoy the outdoors, because the town is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Eric’s father Doug, and my niece Jessy’s husband Bryan, went fly fishing. No doubt, some of the most gorgeous fly fishing in the world is in RMNP. I took four Texans on a massive nine mile hike to the summit of Flattop Mountain.
You can see how well-groomed the trail is here at the start. The Bear Lake trailhead was packed with over 100 cars, but very few hikers took our trail up to Flattop Mountain. With 3000 feet of elevation gain in the 4.4 mile distance, it’s one of the park’s more challenging adventures.
I extended invites to the two dozen or so friends on our private wedding FB group, and I had four takers – all from Austin, Texas. I was confident these four could do it. My brother Steve, pictured above, was the oldest in his low 60s, but he’s a Mahoney so I knew he was up for it.
Karen’s brother Steve, pictured here above tree line, still rocks Austin with his band the Rite Flyers. He lives for epic stuff like this.
An avid athlete, Laura doesn’t shy away from adventure. She is so fit, I don’t think she noticed the altitude rise from 9400 feet at the trailhead to 12,200 at the summit. She did comment on the cold winds up top, but then she had just left 105° in Austin.
Laura’s seventeen-year-old son Zac is so fit, he appeared to climb this hill sitting down. I’ve been on trails with him before and he’s an experienced hiker.
With Longs Peak as a backdrop, Laura clearly won an August snowball fight with her son.
Laura and her son were naturally the first to summit Flattop Mountain. The two Steves and I maintained a more gentlemanly pace. Other wedding guests still enjoyed the outdoors by wandering around Estes Park and some of the nearby trails. The five of us will remember Brittany and Eric’s wedding for this epic hike.
Don’t you think this is an easy enough route? On paper, it’s fairly straight-forward. Park at Bear Lake Trailhead, as big and well-groomed a thrailhead as you will ever find. This trailhead presents numerous options for more pedestrian hikes to various lakes. I took the less-pedestrian trail that runs above treeline to merge into the Continental Divide Trail in a photopunk moonscape of alpine flowers.
I drove through the ranger gate at 6:15am, and it was open for free. Rangers have told me before that parking fills up by 7am. There are other trailheads along the drive, but this trailhead is a great place to start so many hikes. The difficulty of the hike depends on which direction you go onto the Bear Lake Loop Trail.
You take the left trail—the epic hike ends, you see pretty new lakes every mile or so after cresting shallow hills. You take the right trail—you climb this hill, and I show you Colorado from the top. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth.
The trail hits treeline about half way up, time and distance-wise. Treeline is also about two-thirds up the 3000 feet of vertical. The rocks are covered in alpine flowers here that should still be around in late August.
This section of trail, just before cresting Flattop Mountain, is convered by snowpack still. I suspect some of this will remain in late August too, but it’s passable. I’ll have a few pairs of trekking poles for those who want them.
The top is surreal, like Mars with grass and flowers.
The views were great the entire hike. At the top here, you can see Longs Peak behind me. There is an awesome view of the Keyhole and the Ledges on the northwest side of Longs Peak.
I know Nancy, Steve, my brother Steve, and really, most of you could make this hike. It took me a little under four hours. Expect five. Like this post if you’re interested Sunday morning.
La Plata and I rejoined for a second hike this summer along the Continental Divide Trail. We met at the Bowen Gulch trailhead off Hwy 34, inside the Rocky Mountain National Park. We left my car there for our finish and drove through Granby for Hwy 125, which took us up to Willow Creek Pass.
The yellow and burnt orange aspen were much thicker here than in RMNP. La Plata said the colors were incredible between Durango and this valley. Their color was echoed by the sun setting under plumes of smoke from the Kremmling fire as we drove up the pass. The smoke filtered blues on top of hot pinks, mirroring the inferno below, telling the story of our summer with the sky on fire.
We set off at 6:30am and tracked forty-five minutes of fast-paced progress before I discovered I’d left the keys to my car back in La-Plata’s car at Willow Creek Pass. This added ninety minutes to our twenty-two mile trek, and a good four more miles. Today would be a marathon.
I discovered a new 200 calorie snack bar that I highly recommend – Bulletproof. I ate their lemon cookie for breakfast. Yum. I doubt there is anything else on the health food market anywhere close to this tasty. The Kremmling fire smoke is in the picture below – those aren’t clouds.
Hiking with La Plata is like trail running with anyone else. Fortunately, the section of the Continental Divide Trail between the Willow Creek trailhead and Bowen Gulch near Grand Lake is mostly below tree line. My breathing seemed good despite the altitude and La Plata’s torrid pace. He schooled me with this unyielding pace for the earlier blunder with the keys, not slowing down until we crossed Bowen Pass, our high point a little above treeline.
Can’t thank him enough. Always the coach, and actually a personal fitness instructor, this training will serve me well for the three days of trail half marathons in Utah and Arizona next month. I did have to run at times to catch up with La Plata in the early going. I took advantage of downhill sections of trail. We maintained a strong two mile per hour pace. That’s good for high altitude mountain trails. Standard walking pace is about three miles per hour. I don’t expect the Trailfest to be nearly this challenging, except that it’s three days in a row for a total of thirty seven miles. Recovery will be paramount.
I missed the photo-taking for Ellie’s homecoming dance. The kids looked good. The first photo is with Ellie and her boyfriend Will at Chautauqua. The second is the group shot.
The best hikes begin with camping. I’m pictured here at dusk beside my one-man, Big Agnes tent, perched about a hundred yards from the upper parking lot on Guanella Pass. Signs posted in the parking lot say “no camping”, but the guidelines aren’t clear. A reasonable person would believe that to mean within fifty yards. We weren’t alone.
It’s been about a year since I’ve been camping and I will tell you that I enjoy it as much as the next day’s hike. It’s mostly the stars that I find so special. Absent the ambient city lights of the Denver metro, the night sky is absolutely stunning. The first stars to become visible are actually planets, first Venus, the evening star, followed closely by Jupiter and then Mars appears as a red twinkle. I have thoughts watching their light emerge from the darkness of early man viewing the same night horizon thirty thousand years earlier and maybe learning to count to three. Soon after the arrival of Mars, too many stars flood the night sky to count.
We woke at 4:30 and hit the trail an hour later, after packing up and enjoying trailhead coffee. The upper parking lot was filling up and the lower parking lot was completely full, with fifty or more cars parked along the road. If you’ve hiked Mount Beirstadt, then you know how crowded that trail is. With the pass sitting above tree line at 11,669 feet, Mt. Bierstadt is one of the most attainable 14ers in Colorado. But Rob and I didn’t take the trail up to Bierstadt.
Still in the willows, we turned left at the creek crossing. There’s a faint, unmarked trail that follows the banks, until it disappears in the willows. The trail existed on some map Rob studied before our hike. A map he left at home. Having a map would seem wise when entering the forest and mountains of Colorado, but we knew where we were and about where we wanted to go. We shuffle parked our other car at Echo Lake, on the other side of the mountains that lie in front of us, roughly thirteen miles easterly from Guanella Pass.
I can tell you the trail didn’t exist on the map I studied before hand. It’s safe to say, there is no trail, so we bushwhacked our way through the cold, wet mud and willows in a pointed direction to the saddle that sits north of Mount Bierstadt. Trails did emerge at times, animal trails no doubt. Rob’s general tactic when having lost the trail is to proceed upwardly toward higher ground. There was no debate, up was where we wanted to go.
We encountered climbers at the top of the saddle. Rather than presenting a trail down the far side, turned out the other side of the saddle is what climbers call the black wall, a sheer cliff with a thousand foot drop. Our trail was another quarter mile uphill and to the right. It’s actually a loop and we continued up Mount Spalding, and eventually to Mount Evans itself. It’s not an easy trail, at times more of merely a route marked by cairns. The climb was exhausting.
Of course, you don’t have to hike for miles to reach Mount Evans, there’s a paved road that allows visitors to park a hundred or so feet below the massive pile of rocks that form the peak. As far as we know, we were the only hikers atop Mount Evans who arrived via the unmarked trail from the Guanella Pass direction. This is a rare mountaintop that is reachable by paved road. I very much recommend it. Visitors were taking pictures of mountain goats as they stood in line for the restrooms by the observatory. Where else would you find that experience?
Our descent was just as brutal as the climb up. The first thousand foot drop from the peak contained switchbacks as tight as a staircase, and the steepness continued for several thousand more feet, hammering my thighs and quads to where I still can’t descend the stairs in my house today without holding onto the railing. We reached the Echo Lake Trailhead after thirteen miles and nine hours. Another epic hike in the books. Can’t wait to get back out there.
I continued my hiking with Rob on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) near Steamboat Springs this past weekend. We’ve been hiking northbound generally but the most efficient car shuffle for this outing suggested a southbound route. We hiked two sections southbound, first 15 miles from Buffalo Pass to Rabbit Ears Pass on Saturday, then 24 miles from the Three Island Lake Trailhead to Buffalo Pass on Sunday. For Rob, this leaves the section of trail between Grand Lake and Rabbit Ears, and the 50 miles of trail south of Wyoming, for him to complete all the CDT within Colorado. He also he completed the northern half of New Mexico.
Saturday’s adventure began at the Moose Watch Cafe for a breakfast burrito and a few donuts. I ate one of these maple bacon delights, along with something cream filled.
It might be hard to read this sign but it says the Wyoming Trail. Whenever we were in doubt, and the CDT is nothing if not poorly marked, we followed signs for the Wyoming Trail. Apparently the section of CDT between Rabbit Ears Pass and Wyoming, is also known as the Wyoming Trail.
Early in our hike, as we stopped to adjust our gear, this cow and her calf sprinted up behind us. They stopped and acted a bit startled after spotting us, before continuing their trot deep into the woods. Moose are really just super large deer. They’re somewhat spectacular to see up close in the wild.
This section of trail consisted mostly of alpine meadows and lakes. Everything, even the tundra above tree line on day two, was lush and green, like these high mountain daisies I’m standing in here.
I’m not totally certain what these flowers are. My best guess is Parry Primrose. Could be fireweed.
Saturday’s hike ended at Rabbit Ears Pass, just south of Steamboat Springs. We saw a decent number of other hikers, and even more mountain bikers. Even a few fishermen headed up to those alpine lakes.
To heal our sore muscles after the 15 mile trek, we dined in Steamboat and quaffed a few of the local Butcherknife Amputator IPAs.
Despite the very wet ground, we got ourselves a camp fire for the night.
We started out the next day at the Three Island Lake Trailhead, 50 miles south of the Wyoming border. Sunday’s hike was mostly above treeline, but the ground was still more soggy marsh.
The melt off these snow fields accounted for some of the sogginess, constant afternoon rains for the rest.
The photo above captures what much of the top of the CDT looks like, fields of alpine flora with very little signs of an actual trail. You just walk between the drop offs.
Other times, you look for the next cairn to guide the path, when the trail is under near permanent slow fields, or like below when there’s not enough foot traffic to carve out a path through the fast-growing grass.
This sign points to a spur trail, Grag’s Trail, that runs behind me. You can’t make out a discernible trail in the grass, but you can spot the cairn over my shoulder pointing the way. Our trail in this photo, is the Wyoming trail running horizontal, also without any visible path.
There were so many photo perfect moments on the trail but for the most part, I simply experienced them without taking pictures. Like when the team of elite mountain pixies came running past us. Spaced over a 20 second spread, four unbelievably attractive runners ran by us at maybe a 7 minute pace. Clearly under 8 minutes per mile. At extreme altitude. While they were wearing different racing outfits, you could see they were a team by how uniformly they maintained form, like a peloton in bike racing.
Either Rob and I really were passed by a quad of beautiful elite trail racers, or we took a bite out of this hallucinogenic Fly Agaric mushroom growing alongside the trail and imagined it. After 8 hours, we completed Sunday’s 24 mile trek, this time entering Buffalo Pass from the north, satiated for that moment, hungry now for the next opportunity.