Monthly Archives: May 2014

Two Ways Up Lookout Mountain

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The first time I heard about Lookout Mountain, the first thing I thought of was teenagers making out in their cars half an hour after sunset.  It just seemed like the kind of place a crazy new high school couple, with access to a vehicle along with the freedom that comes with it for the first time in their lives, would go.  It is that perfect middle ground for high schoolers starved for both attention and alone time.  They are far enough out of the “public eye” (i.e. social circle) to not feel too awkward, but not far enough out of the “public eye” to not get the recognition they crave.

To some, the fact that I automatically defaulted to this thought process is a demonstration of a disturbing level of immaturity.  But, I am strangely comforted by the fact that my mind occasionally defaults to such ideas and pursuits.  One of my goals as I get older is to never lose that youthful sense of wonder that makes everything seem so significant and magical early on in life.  Sure, if I were still trying to take high school girls “up to Lookout” at this age, it would be quite pathetic!  However, I take significant pride in the ability to still see places like this and imagine it’s possibilities from a perspective that is quite youthful, while still approaching it with the wisdom and maturity that I have gained over the years by being an astute observer of the world, humans, and human nature.

So, although my first thought of this mountain was one of 16 year olds making out in cars and possibly allowing themselves to go further, I came to understand it’s cultural significance to Colorado and the Rocky Mountains when it became the first major mountain I climbed on my bicycle after moving here from Illinois.  In a way, Lookout Mountain welcomes people like me to the world of cycling in the Rockies the same way I imagine it welcoming those 16 year olds to “adulthood”.

As the stormy weather that plagued Colorado the week leading up to Memorial Day came to a close, I decided to pursue this mountain in another unique manner.  I decided that on Monday, I would hike up the Mountain, using the Chimney Gulch and Lookout Mountain trails.  Then, on Tuesday, I would ride my bike up Lookout Mountain Road.

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Regardless of whether one decides to pursue this mountain on foot or by bicycle, it begins at a (relatively) light to moderate level of difficulty.  The trail heads up a gentile slope that would be considered “moderate” in terms of hiking.  The bike ride is up a slope that most with little or no climbing experience would consider quite difficult, but it is a bit over a mile into the ride before the climb picks up.

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While the bike ride does offer some amazing views, and I would argue better views of the Denver skyline, about a mile into the hike, some waterfalls form at this time of year, when rains are significant, giving me a whole new perspective of Lookout Mountain.

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It is at this point cyclists will encounter their first major set of switchbacks (along with some steeper terrain).  The hiking part also picks up in intensity.

Just after the halfway point comes a somewhat easier part of the climb.  It is at this point the road somewhat flattens out for cyclists, and most can shift up a gear or two and pick up a few miles per hour in speed.

Roughly 2/3 of the way up the mountain, the hiking trail meets up with Lookout Mountain road for the second and final time, at a place called Windy Saddle Park (near Windy Saddle Peak).

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Windy Saddle Park offers a great view of the Clear Creek Valley to the West.  The photo to the left was actually taken back in April on a previous bicycle trip up Lookout Mountain, while the one on the right was taken on Memorial Day.  Colorado is typically a very dry state, with a very brown or red look (depending where you are).  However, the week preceding Memorial Day was quite wet, with daily thunderstorms, and even four consecutive days of hail.  These photos, taken from the same place, demonstrate how different Colorado can look during different seasons and weather patterns.

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After Windy Saddle Park comes the most challenging part of the trip, regardless of whether one is hiking or cycling.  Cyclists will encounter a series of switchbacks with a higher grade and frequency than the switchbacks in the earlier part of the climb.  When I continued on the hiking trail, I had anticipated the same increase in intensity.  What surprised me was the sudden change in tree density.  It felt as if we had suddenly left the wide open and entered a forest.

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There are two trail junctions in this more challenging (although still not “14er” level) part of the trail.  First, the Beaver Brook Trail, which is a longer trail that winds through the rest of Jefferson County, breaks off to the right.  Luckily, these trail junctions are clearly marked so nobody spends hours wandering around wondering when they will finally get to the top.  The second junction is with the Buffalo Bill Trail, which goes to the part of the mountain where Buffalo Bill’s grave is.

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Lookout Mountain is not a single peak.  It is more of a mound.  One one end of the mound is the tower most commonly associated with Lookout Mountain.  On this other end is Buffalo Bill’s Grave.  Buffalo Bill’s Grave is a great destination point for cyclists.  There is a gift shop at the top offers water for free, nice bathrooms, and great snacks.  Being pretty much at the same elevation as the other side of Lookout Mountain, one can stop and turn around without feeling like they cheated themselves out of part of the climb.

While (excluding driving) there are two ways up the mountain, there are three ways down.  One other thing I discovered about Lookout Mountain is that it is a popular place for hang-gliding/ para-sailing.

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Depending on the day of the week and conditions, it is not too terribly uncommon to encounter around a dozen gliders taking off and landing at different points on the east side of the mountain.

Between the awkward adolescents in their cars just past sundown, cyclists like me achieving our first significant Rocky Mountain climbs, and hang-gliders soaring through the air over town, Lookout Mountain is truly a place where dreams come true.  It is a place where people feel a sense of achievement, a sense of advancement, and a sense of welcome into what’s ahead.  For cyclists like me, it is even more challenging bike rides, higher into the mountains.  For those adolescents, it is adulthood, and all of the challenges that will come.  Either way, it is both magnificent and scary, but best appreciated by looking upon it with the same sense of wonder that we begin our lives with.

A Bike Ride to Roxborough State Park

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The primary reason I love cycling as much as I do is that I am able to go places a significant distance away completely under my own power.  For many years I have enjoyed commuting to work (now only 1.5 miles but formerly 6 miles), running errands, visiting specific places, and getting myself to and from specific events by bicycle.  I feel the benefits are two-fold.  There is the obvious money savings on fuel (and/or parking/ transit).  In addition to the monetary savings, I find the exercise and time outdoors to have a been a great value to my health, both mentally and physically, over the years.

Roxborough State Park is about 30 miles South of central Denver.  It is a place I had never really thought about visiting up until a few weeks ago when I was looking for new interesting places to ride my bike to, and wanted a ride that would be roughly two hours each way.  In Denver, it is possible to cover a good amount of distance quite quickly using the metro area’s bike trails, which bypass traffic signals, as well as most terrain features that would normally slow a cyclist down.

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The Platte River trail can be followed from Denver southward to it’s terminus at the C-470 trail, about 16 miles south of downtown.  The Platte River trail is quite flat, as it tracks right along the river.  However, the C-470 trail, which roughly follows the highway (which is the Metro area’s outer loop), contains a lot more rolling hills.  After several miles on the C-470 trail, I arrived at Chattfield State Park, a reservoir, and popular boating destination on the southern fringe of the metro area.

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A couple of years ago, this was the destination of a couple of rides I had done.  Last year, I did a ride to Waterton Canyon, the starting point of the Colorado Trail, a place I also rode by on my way to Roxborough State Park.  It is somewhat encouraging to actually see my continued progress as a cyclist right in front of me.  However, it also made me realize that there is one disturbing parallel between cycling (or any activity of this nature) and drug addiction; as the more I ride my bicycle, the farther and more intense of a ride I need to do to feel “satisfied”.  This is beginning to feel eerily similar to the gradual increase in tolerance a regular drinker experiences, or the ever increasing doses many drug addicts demand over time.

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There was a fairly long line of cars at the entrance to this park.  Luckily, I was able to bypass this line, saving me both roughly 20 minutes of time, as well as the $7 entrance fee to the park.

The road from the entrance to the visitor center, basically the last two miles of the ride, was not all that fun.  It was gravel and bumpy for much of the way.  I felt uncomfortable going over 13 miles per hour.  However, the park rangers were quite pleased that I did not try to use my bicycle on any of the trails, as they do not permit bicycles on the trails.

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At the visitor center, I realized that one of the main attractions of this particular park is the wildlife.  Showing people the fur and bones of dead animals seems like a somewhat sick way of presenting what the park had to offer to it’s visitors, but it was really neat to actually feel the fur of a black bear for the first time in my life!

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The rock formations at Roxborough State Park were actually quite similar to what I saw at Garden of the Gods.  In fact, it is easy to see how the same geological processes created the rock formations that run up and down the edge of the front range, including the Garden of the Gods, the place, as well as places like Red Rocks.

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The park is also set up quite similar to Garden of the Gods.  Both places make it easy for the average non-outdoorsy tourist to attain a good view of the park.  Here, the Fountain Valley Overlook, a mere half mile from the parking lot with only a slight grade, provides views like the one at the top of this entry to those with no interest whatsoever of getting any exercise.  The park also offers somewhat more strenuous hiking.  Carpenter Peak is roughly 1000 feet higher in elevation than the visitor center.

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I meandered around the park a bit, but decided not to do the more strenuous hike as to preserve my energy for bicycling.  The only wildlife I encountered were these three deer, which is not particularly out of the ordinary.  However, I did encounter them at a much closer distance than I typically do.

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For much of my time at Roxborough State Park, I was intrigued by these relatively short trees I encountered all over the park.  These tress are quite different than the ones I typically see around Colorado.  I later read, on the way out of the park, that there are some unique species of trees, as well as insects and animals, that live here due to the micro-climates created by the wind patterns that these rock formations create.  In fact, Roxborough State Park is considered a destination not only for it’s rock formations, but also for it’s unique wildlife.

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While marveling at the beauty of the park, and considering how awesome it might be to live in one of those houses that overlooks the place, the weather caught me off guard.  Prior to this ride, I looked at the forecast for Denver, which called for a threat of rain after 3 P.M.  However, 30 miles farther south (and closer to the Palmer Divide), and roughly 1,000 feet higher in elevation, any threat of thunderstorms is naturally going to come earlier in the day.  Right around noon, I noticed a few raindrops, and suddenly noticed the clouds beginning to build overhead.

My bike ride home ended up being a race against mother nature, which I barely won, partially by blatantly ignoring the 15 mile per hour speed limits posted along the trail through South Suburban Littleton.  With a little bit of help from the wind at times, I was able to make the 28 mile ride from Roxborough State Park in 100 minutes, returning home by 1:45 P.M.  As someone who typically pays close attention to the weather, and understands weather patterns quite well, this was a somewhat embarrassing oversight on my part.  However, I do feel a sense of accomplishment in making the return ride so quickly.  And, once again, I was reminded of what I love most about cycling; being able to travel a good amount of distance, and even see my own progress on a map, all under my own power.

Maxwell Falls; The distance between reality and expectation

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Often times in life, the reality of a situation turns out significantly different than the expectation.  In fact, this has been one of the biggest challenges that I have had to deal with.  Like many in my generation, I grew up in a time of prosperity and high hopes for the future, and was told by parents, teachers, etc. about the rewarding life that awaits those that generally do the right thing.  While nearly every person who reaches adulthood has to come to terms with the fact that the world is unfair and that sometimes the wrong people get their way, those in our generation, particularly since the 2008 crash, have had to come to terms with a world where opportunities are fewer and harder to come by than what we had initially prepared for.

I went to Maxwell Falls, near Evergreen, CO, expecting two things that did not materialize.  Most hikes in Colorado are an uphill climb from a trail-head to a specific destination (a summit, lake, natural feature).  I had become so accustomed to this standard formula, that it had never occurred to me that this hike could be any different.

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The beginning part of the hike was rather uneventful.  The climb was fairly moderate, and the trail would occasionally descend slightly to cross over creeks.  This is kind of typical across Colorado, especially in places like Rocky Mountain National Park.  However, about a mile and a half, maybe two miles into the trail, we reached an unexpected junction.

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After a short section where the climb was more rigorous, I was surprised not only to find a spot where five separate trails seemed to merge together, but also find out (from talking to people) that none of these “forks” in the trail actually represented a part of the loop I had been expecting to encounter.  The sign pointed to which way to follow the trail, which also, shockingly took us on a fairly rapid descent.  This is not what I had become accustomed to, nor was it what I had expected.

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The descent was fairly lengthy too.  It almost felt like we had descended halfway back to the trailhead’s elevation!  It was there we finally encountered the loop we had anticipated.

Facing unexpected junctions, getting routing advice from strangers on the way, and anticipating landmarks that take longer to reach than anticipated made me think of Lewis and Clark.  On their expedition they would seek advice from many of the Native American tribes they encountered along the way.  They also encountered a few river junctions that made them pause and investigate which way to go.  They came into their journey with little information about features such as Great Falls, and the Rocky Mountains.  All they knew going into the mission was that these features existed, and they had a general idea of where they were.  Both of these featured proved more challenging to pass through than expected.  However, despite these unexpected challenges, they were still successful in their mission, and are still commemorated over 200 years later!

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The falls themselves also did not quite meet the expectations.  The expectations I had about a waterfall hike largely came from hiking Brandywyn Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, as well as viewing other falls in Rocky Mountain National Park, and Yellowstone National Park.  In all of those situations, the trail would either arrive right at a scenic view of the falls, or a spur coming off the main trail would take hikers right up the falls.  At Maxwell Falls, it was tough to find a really good view of the falls.  We ended up crossing the river and making a somewhat dangerous scramble to a remote rock to see the falls from a somewhat different vantage point.

It was still really neat to see the true power of water falling, even from a short distance, and to actually watch the residual spring ice melting right in front of our eyes.  But, it was still far from what I had been expecting from my previous waterfall hiking experience.

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Despite not getting the picturesque view of the waterfalls, this hike offered some other neat features that I had not necessarily anticipated.  After climbing up the Cliff Loop, we encountered views of the mountains that were much more splendid than I had imagined.  It actually reminded me what I had been missing.  Prior to this hike, I had not gone on a hike for several months.  A couple of months ago, I started a new job in Denver, and had been focusing on making that job, as well as my life in Denver in general, work.  I love to travel, have new experiences, and explore new places.  But, unfortunately, for a while, my life’s demands had taken me elsewhere.

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In addition to the splendid views at the higher points on the trail, which did turn out to be a series of ups and downs, we also encountered one of the most unique rock formations I have ever seen.  This rock, I refer to as “Troll Rock”, as it looks quite like a troll.  It was quite amazing, and was the subject of wonder for quite some time about what unique combination of all of the processes of nature could have lead to this particular rock shape.

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The end of the day saw the sun come out, and the temperature rise.  This was an unfortunate turn of event for my Husky, who is built for colder conditions.

One of the things that still amazes me quite a bit about life itself is how often the specific experiences we have at a specific time actually mirror what is going on in our lives, or in society, on a much larger scale.  Today I expected a hike where I would climb up to a waterfall, be taken right up to that waterfall, and then make the ascent back to my car.  Instead, I got periodic climbs and descents throughout the duration of the hike, and awkward scramble around strange rocks to largely overlook a waterfall, but also unexpectedly encountered wonderful views at the top and unique rock formations.

In life, I expected to do well at school, generally stay out of trouble, and find a fulfilling job in my field of study.  Instead, I found a world where the seemingly well deserving nice people end up reporting to control freaks that often find sinister ways to get ahead, opportunities do not always present themselves, and many of the specific jobs I had originally hoped for have some expected downsides to them.  So, now, I am trying to make something completely different work, and thus far it is largely working out!  It appears that sometimes the path to fulfillment is not the expected one, and the reasons we end up enjoying the things we enjoy are not things we had previously considered.  Maybe what our generation as a whole needs to do is let go of what we had hoped for out of this world and remain open to finding fulfillment in a completely new way.