Category Archives: Camping

Get Lost in the Rockies

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“Dispersed Camping” is a concept that is often foreign to those living in large metropolitan areas. It is camping without a campground. There are no numbered spots. There are no amenities such as outlets, washrooms, and an office that sells water and wood. It’s just people plopping their tents down wherever they can. It is the purest, and most rugged form of camping.

Colorado has an almost limitless supply of places where people can literally just find a spot and set up camp.

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Spots for dispersed camping are usually found in National Forests, which cover nearly half the state. Specific details about which spots allow dispersed camping can be hard to find online, as each section of the National Forest system maps out their area differently. However, every section of National Forest has a significant amount of area where one can just set up camp. Many of these spots even have fire pits already set up by previous campers!

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During periods of heightened fire danger, it is common to for counties to issue fire bans or fire restrictions to limit the risk of wildfires. With fire being a major component of the camping experience, the status of these fire restrictions should be considered when planning any summertime mountain adventure that involves camping.

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Colorado map of county fire restrictions as of July 14, 2017

There is, perhaps, no better place to start a Rocky Mountain adventure than Leadville, Colorado, which sits at an elevation of just over 10,000 feet in the central part of Lake County, a county where there happened to not be a fire ban in mid-July 2017.

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Spawned from the mid-19th Century Gold rush, and rich with old west history, the town, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, is tucked away between mountains that rise several thousand feet higher in every direction.

This includes the Sawatch Range to the immidiate West and South, where Colorado’s two tallest peaks; Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, sit.

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Only five miles to the west of town is Turquoise Lake.

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Expansive, beautiful, and protected by steep hills and dense forests, the lake stretches west, into the Mount Massive Wilderness, where densely packed trees and rugged terrain create a feeling of seclusion and wonder.

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Wandering through the wilderness, trees partially conceal the tall mountain peaks. Like a well made movie preview, they reveal some, but not all, of what lays ahead for anyone wandering through the woods, whether on trail or off.

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Around every curve, the wilderness reveals what had been hidden between the trees.

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Streams reveal the source of the water that drains into Turqouise Lake below.

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Flowers of all colors pop out, tickling multiple senses, making the experience more vivid, more full.

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After roughly 90 minutes of hiking on the Highline Trail, which starts only a few miles west of Turquoise Lake, the trail climbs above the forest.

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Just below 12,00 feet, the trees disappear. Mountain ranges, are once again seen in every direction. The ground is surprisingly green grass, making the scene reminiscent of The Sound of Music.

At these elevations, with an atmosphere roughly 30% less thick than it is at sea level, the sun commands somewhat of a decieving presence, particularly in the months of June and July.

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Less deterred by the atmosphere, direct sunlight at these elevations can create an almost tropical feeling of warmth at temperatures that barely top out above 60F (16C), temperatures where some at sea level, under cloudy skies, would still be wearing jackets.

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Wandering through the dense pine forests that make up the Mount Massive wilderness, especially as daytime gradually faded into evening, it is easy to imagine being truly lost in the Rocky Mountains.

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Away from day-to-day life, hustle, drama and the like, I could not help but worry about the future. As soon as I got to the west side of Turquoise Lake (away from town) all cell signals disappeared. How long will this be the case? Are they working on connecting the whole world with Wi-Fi? If so, where will people go, to escape? To not be tempted to check their work email? Or see what was posted on social media?

The way I see it, people give up the conveniences of modern life to go on trips like this one for three reasons:

  1. Despite the fact that there is more physical labor (setting up tents, cooking, etc.), it is less stressful. There are a ton of modern life concerns that disappear in the woods (social status, money, etc.).
  2. It feels much less structured. Sure, there are patterns, but there is no calendar with a list of meetings, tasks, things to do. There are no set eating hours and itineraries.
  3. It feels more human. This is quite possibly the most significant one of all. Work and the digital age has a somewhat robotic of feel to it. We are expected to perform. We are often asked to follow sets of procedures. Emotions are not supposed to be shown. There are even places where people are expected to refrain from laughing and too much “socializing”.

If we ever get to the point where there is no place on Earth without data, WiFi, or some kind of connection to our normal stresses and responsibilities, I sure hope we have found another way in which to periodically disconnect. Or, at the very least, that most people’s attitudes about things such as mental health days, and expectations regarding work availability and how we set our priorities in life, will have changed.

 

 

Moab- An Active Destination

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Some trips are restful, while others are more active.  There are some destinations that lend themselves to more restful trips; cottages in the woods near quaint towns, tropical beaches, and resorts.  Moab, is a place where it is nearly impossible to imagine anything other than an active itinerary, with a variety of activities, and a lot of places to see.  Situated in East Central Utah, several hours from the nearest major city, this popular tourist destination is surrounded by too much natural beauty to picture anyone coming here and spending large amounts of time sitting in one place.

First of all, Moab is surrounded by two National Parks, Arches and Canyonlands.

Both National Parks are, as National Parks tend to be, filled with tons of natural beauty and unique places.  At both National Parks, while it is possible to see a lot of interesting natural features without straying too far from the road, the best features at both parks require hiking.

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Getting to the signature feature of Arches National Park, Delicate Arch, requires a 1.5 mile hike from the Delicate Arch Trailhead.  Interestingly enough, this trail starts near the historic Wolfe Ranch, and traverses by some other unique features including some Ute Indian Rock art.

It is also quite difficult to imagine making a trip to Arches National Park and not viewing some of the other arches (Yes, it’s Arches National Park, not Arch National Park).  There is a section of the park known as Devil’s Garden, with somewhat of a network of trails taking visitors to all kinds of other arches.

The most famous of these arches is Landscape Arch, a long and wide arch whose name provides a clear recommendation as to how to orient any photograph of this particular feature (for those familiar with landscape vs. portrait  ).

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To get to most of the remaining arches requires a bit of a steep climb, which starts pretty much right after Landscape Arch.

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The hiking in the entire Moab area, not just at Arches National Park, is considerably different from the typical hiking experience.  Much of the hiking I’ve experienced, is on trails covered in dirt, gravel, and sometimes small to medium sized rocks at places such as the top of Quandry Peak.  All around Moab, I found myself on surfaces such as this one, on top of solid rock, sometimes for nearly the entire duration of the trail.  Traversing these trails required me to use my upper body more, and even do a little bit of jumping, from one rock to another.

At the top of this Mesa, there are arches with multiple partitions, arches people can hike under, and even one arch with an opening that lends itself to laying inside it to soak up the sun, the surroundings, and the experience!

The entire loop, including all the side trips in the trail network, is a total of 7.2 miles.  So, if a visitor desires to see all of these features, as well as Delicate Arch, a total of 10.2 miles of hiking is required.

And some people decide to add even more activities to their day.  In a shaded off-shoot of the Devil’s Garden Trail, I witnessed a sizable group of people playing a game of Frisbee, using the walls of this tiny canyon to make trick shots.

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Since immersing oneself in the here and now, and contributing to the local culture of a place creates a more enriching travel experience, I decided to play my part.

First, I decided to bring my own arches into the park..

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Disclaimer: I did properly dispose of that cup

Then, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided it was time that we started making our own arches, contributing to the park’s plethora of natural beauty.

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Canyonlands National Park is even bigger than Arches, broken up into three sections by the Colorado and Green rivers, whose confluence is right in the center of the park.  Without any bridges connecting over either river, and with the entrances to each section over an hour apart, it is all but impossible to visit more than one section in a day.

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The most common image of Canyonlands National Park is an almost Grand Canyon-like overlook into a deep river valley, sometimes with one of the two isolated mountain ranges in the background.  However, at the scenic overlooks in the parks’ Island In The Sky region, it is actually quite difficult to see the rivers themselves.  The canyons that make up Canyonlands National Park are quite expansive, with multiple tiers.  To see these canyons from the best vantage points requires a bit of hiking.  The hike to the Confluence Overlook (an overlook of the confluence between the Green and Colorado Rivers) is 10 miles round trip, something that could require the better part of a day!

Canyons are not the only interesting feature to Canyonlands National Park.  Being only roughly 20 miles away from Arches (as the crow flies), Canyonlands has some arches of its’ own.  The most interesting one is an arch called Mesa Arch, where one can see both the peaks of the nearby La Sal Mountain range, and actually another arch by looking through the arch at the right angle!

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And some features are random, like Upheaval Dome.

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Scientists still do not know whether or not this particular salt deposit is a remanat of a meteorite that would have theoretically collided with the earth roughly 20 million years ago.

The two National Parks are not even close to all that Moab has to offer, all of which is “active” in one way or another.  Dead Horse Point State Park, located between the two National Parks, is a place where one can hike to one of Moab’s most picturesque locations: Goose Neck.

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The entire region, regardless of what any spot is named, or whether it contains a state or federal distinction, is rich with abundant natural beauty, and places to hike, bike, jeep, climb, or even just explore.

Anyone driving into Moab from the East (from Colorado), would be well advised to take the additional time it takes to follow the windy State Highway 128 through Professor Valley, essentially following the Colorado River into town.

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We set up camp at a place called Hunter Canyon.

Twenty minutes from town, Hunter Canyon is a place where each part of the day, from sunrise to sunset, lights up a different rock formation.  It felt almost as if nature was putting on a show, with lighting, stage props, and characters coming on and off the stage for different scenes.

I also saw bike trails nearly everywhere I went.  Moab is known as a mecca for mountain biking, an activity we did not get around to (is is… really… impossible to do EVERYTHING in Moab without something like two weeks).  But, with trails like these, Moab is also a phenomenal place for road biking.

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And, everywhere I went red rock formations, each one distinct from the next, would pop up, in and out of view.

It was next to impossible not to imagine these rock formations as something else.  While driving around, I would often point out to the rest of the group what each individual rock formation looked like, or what I perceived it to look like.  Some, I said looked like specific animals, some looked like people, others, still, looked like various specific objects, such as hammers, cooking utensils, or even a turkey wishbone (by the way, the following image is an arch, residing in neither National Park, they really are everywhere)!

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And, what amazed me was how often others in my group would actually see the exact same thing when they look at a rock formation and say, yes, I also saw an octopus.  This means that either my imagination is quite accurate, or, I have managed to surround myself only with similar minded people.  Both are very much a possibility!

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But, the analogy I came to in my head most frequently, throughout the trip, is between the rock formations and the ruins of an ancient city.  Every time I saw a structure such as this one, I would imagine what is would be like if, for some unknown reason, there actually was a civilization here, many thousands of years ago.  And each one of these rock formation was actually the remnant of an ancient skyscraper, or even a larger building like Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, weathered down by thousands of years of natural erosion.  I imagined what this ancient city would have been like, in an Atlantis-like scene that would play through my mind.

Since Samantha Brown’s presentation at last month’s Travel and Adventure Show, I had been trying to live in the here and now, and experience the current culture of a place, as she had advised.

For me, this included another new activity (for me)- Jeeping!

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And, I got to experience some crazy roads and some crazy places.

But, as I find in many of my travels, there is no way to truly avoid thinking about the past, and imagining another setting.  A video at the Canyonlands Visitors Center explained the actual process in which these rocks came to be formed, which took place over the course of 200 million years, back to a time when much of Utah and Colorado were near sea level, with some sections underwater and others above.  In fact, that is part of the reason why there is so much small scale variance in the color of the rocks throughout this region.

Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, there were echoes of the past, both real and imaginary, and both ancient and more recent.

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The experience of visiting Moab for a long weekend is as jam-packed as I have made this aritcle.  Around every corner, something new, something exciting, and something unique.  While there are some travel destinations, like Miami, one can make as active or as restful as they would desire, Moab is one destination that requires one to be active, at least in some way, to truly experience.  To come to Moab, and not wander, not explore, not do a little bit of hiking, biking, or jeeping, one would miss out on so much of what is around every corner in this region.

 

 

 

The Longest Day Hike of My Life

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Conundrum Hot Springs

The hike from the Conundrum Trailhead to Conundrum Hot Springs is roughly 8.5 miles.  Round trip is at least 17 miles of hiking.  I say AT LEAST as I have been on plenty of hikes where side excursions, both planned and unplanned, lead to covering a total distance that exceeded the official distance of the hike.

Due to the distance, and the destination, nearly all the people we encountered on this hike were backpacking.  This is an attractive option, as the trail is pretty long but not terribly challenging, and the hot springs are the kind of destination one would want to spend a significant amount of time at.  However, Conundrum Hot Springs is a popular destination, and there are limited camping sites in the immediate vicinity of the springs.

Conundrum Hot Spring is close to Aspen, which is three and a half hours from Denver.  Some of the people in our group, myself included, were not able to leave early enough on Friday for us to be confident that we could secure a camping spot.  We ended up deciding to find a campground somewhat close to the trailhead, and hike to and from the springs as a day hike.  As an added bonus, we would not have to bring, or carry nearly as much equipment, as we would be “car camping”.  The hike would be both easier and harder.  We would not be carrying nearly as much weight, but we would be cramming 17 miles of hiking into one day.

Up in the mountains of Central Colorado, trees change color earlier in the Fall than they do in many other parts of the Country.  In general, the second half of September, and maybe the first few days of October, is the best time to see the Aspen trees here change colors.  I was partially surprised by how vibrant the colors were, by September 16th.  For the first two hours or so of the drive, before sunset, we saw a preview of the kind of colors we’d be seeing during the hike, certainly early season, but vibrantly colorful, with sections of bright yellows and oranges periodically appearing in front of us.

To be sure we would have enough time, we had to wake up, eat breakfast and leave the campground at Lincoln Creek (dispersed camping roughly 40 minutes from the trailhead) all before sunrise.  We arrived at the trailhead and started hiking at roughly 15 minutes after 7 A.M.

The morning chill was both an obstacle and a boost.  Overnight temperatures dropped to roughly 30F (-1C) at the campground.  For the first 90 minutes of the hike, the ground was covered in frost.  In fact, the frost even made our first river crossing a bit slippery.

This morning cold made me cary several layers, adding a little bit to the weight of my backpack (although it was still way, way, lighter than it would have been had we been backpacking).  However, the cold weather motivated us to begin our hike at a rapid pace.

We would cover over four miles before we even reached the sun!

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I would describe at least the first five miles of the hike as “easy” from the standpoint of evolution gain.

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Many sections of the trail are actually close to perfectly flat, giving me plenty of time to take in the natural beauty that is around me, and also connect with my friends who I was hiking with.  When hiking, it is challenging to have a conversation when hiking up steep terrain, but fairly easy to do so in largely flat sections.

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The appearance of small lakes precludes the transition to the more challenging part of the trail.

This occurs somewhere around six and a half miles into the hike.  First of all, there are sections that are more technically challenging, including a couple of tricky creek crossings, and a section where one must scramble over rocks.

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There last two miles of the trail also includes some fairly steep sections.  I wouldn’t say they are overly challenging, but in the context of a 17 mile day that included hiking at a rapid pace towards the beginning, they ended up being fairly exhausting.

We ended up spending roughly two hours at the hot springs (including changing and eating lunch).  There were a lot of people in the hot springs, but it was not as crowded as some of us had feared.

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For a variety of reasons, the fall colors appeared even more magnificent on the way back down!  The most significant reason had to be the manner in which the trees appeared in the mid-afternoon sun.

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I was also pleasantly surprised to see a significant amount of deep orange shades.  In prior experience with fall in the Rockies, I had almost exclusively seen the yellow shade that seems to be the most common fall color for Aspen trees.  While “autumn gold” is pretty, I had, in some ways, missed wide variety of shades that leaves on maple trees take on during fall.

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I would definitely describe the color we enountered as “early season”.  There were still many Aspen trees primarily shaded green, particularly at lower elevations.  This indicates that the next two weekends could be just, or perhaps even more, colorful!  The colorful trees, the yellows and the oranges, tended to be those higher up.  The several patches of deep shaded orange I saw were nearly exclusively up closer to the tree line.

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Both the hike up to the hot springs and the return trip took roughly four hours.

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We got back to the trailhead sometime just after 5 P.M., and, after the 40 minute drive back to Lincoln Creek, I finally got to see what the campground looked like.  And I got to do something I had not previously done.  I got to park my car with the rear left tire on top of a rock, showing off just how rugged my vehicle is.  Well, at least in an auto show pamphlet sort of way.

Capping off an exhausting day was a side excursion, to a waterfall, well, multiple waterfalls, that those of us in our group lucky enough to be able to leave early Friday had located roughly a quarter of a mile from the campground.  In fact, they hyped this place up over the course of the hike.  So, we had to go.  Additionally, this side excursion was enough for me to achieve something meaningless, but also something I am likely never again to achieve.  I recorded 50,000 steps on that step counter thing that comes with every iPhone6.  Yay me!

We would explore this likely unnamed waterfall area again Sunday morning before departing for Denver.

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If you count all the places where water squirts out of random places in the rock, there are probably close to a dozen “waterfalls” in this area.  What a great unexpected treat!

The return trip on Sunday was eventful as well, with some great stops at Independence Pass and Twin Lakes, both places I had driven by on Friday, but after the sun had already set.

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I titled this blog “The Longest Day Hike of My Life”, as, well, I can not picture a day where I hike more than 17 miles on a day trip.  However, I probably would have never imagined hiking 17 miles in one day a few years back, so there is no way to definitively say never.  I am prepared, though, for this to be my longest hike, and understand the significance of it. Like many of the adventures I had over the course of this summer, and in previous years, it was both exhausting and amazing.  But, most worthwhile experiences, from relationships to starting successful businesses and such, are.  Being exhausted after this experience should be a reminder to all of us that what is easiest is often the least rewarding, and that which is most challenging often comes with the greatest reward.

 

 

Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness: Day 1

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During the month of August I had fallen back into some bad habits.  In particular, I’d fallen into the very habit I often criticize my own generation for: scrolling.  I know the costs outweigh the benefits.  By gazing at the predictable content of our news feeds and customized social media echo chambers on our phones, we miss out on countless opportunities out there in the real world, all to avoid the discomfort of boredom, or a potentially awkward interaction with another human being.

It’s not just about scrolling.  Scrolling is what we all see.  It’s the same routine day in and day out.  It’s going to the same bars and restaurants over and over.  It’s watching movies and TV shows we have already seen multiple times instead of calling people up and organizing a social gathering.  It is all the things that we do because the alternative requires a greater amount of effort.  It’s low risk, low effort, and low reward.  Unfortunately, for me, it lacks stimulation, it lacks enthusiasm, and over time can even lead to depression.

I haven’t thought of a better word for it than “defaulting”.  I often feel as if there is some sort of invisible force always dragging us toward this kind of life, this “defaulting”.  There seems to be a constant struggle, to mix things up, to avoid the mundane, to avoid losing contact with people.  And, while I think my personal record is pretty good (i.e. all the things I write about in this blog), there are times when I get tired of the struggle, and times when I do feel as if this invisible force is indeed advancing on me.  At these times, it is good to have some sort of activity, or some sort of trip that helps us hit the “reset” button.

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For this purpose, there truly is nothing like going into the woods, away from it all, out of cell service, completely out of my comfort zone, and in a place where “defaulting” is not only no longer easier, but not an option at all!

Our three day backpacking trip began at ThirtyMile Campground, just a mile or so east of the Rio Grande Reservoir.

After passing by a weather station, that is near and dear to me, as it is one of the stations that helped me calibrate the mean impact cold air funneling, in valleys throughout Colorado, has on nighttime lows, we encountered the Rio Grande Reservoir within the first mile of our trip.

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Going into this trip, which had been planned for several weeks ahead of time, we knew there would be muddy trails, and a heightened chance of rain.  Not only is Southwestern Colorado the most active part of the state during the late summer monsoon season, but this past weekend featured an active pattern in the region.

Friday was supposed to be the most active day, with regards to chances for precipitation.  Yet, we lucked out.  Leaving at 10 AM, after enjoying a nice relaxing morning at the campground, we hiked 7.5 miles, up the Weminuche Trail, dealing with very little rain, only with muddy trails.  Mindful of the storm threat, we stopped shortly after 3:00 P.M., having found a good spot to set up camp, near a stream and some trees.  Despite the periodically ominous looking skies, the storms held off until after sundown, giving us plenty of time to set up camp, cook a nice meal, and take in the wilderness, now being officially away from civilization.

I felt exhausted at the end of the day, as I had not gotten a good night sleep the prior evening at the campground.  So, I ended up going to sleep shortly after sundown.  With two backpacking trips behind me, I am starting to think that sleeping even more than the normal 7.5 hours per night is pretty normal on trips like this.

I spent the last waking hour of the evening inside the tent, listening to the sound of gentile rain tapping on the fly.  Under normal circumstances, many of us drown out these sounds, with TV, music, or some other sound.   Hearing this sound, for nearly an hour before falling asleep made me imagine a completely different life.

I imagined myself, as I often do, as a completely different person, with a completely different personality, upbringing, circumstance, and desires.  I imagined myself living in the woods, in a cabin of sorts, not too unlike the kind many people in Michigan, Minnesota, or Wisconsin have today.  It would be a modest sized cabin, with one main room, a bunch of bedrooms, a kitchen, and a closet, to keep things like cross-country skis, wet suits, and all of the other necessary equipment.  But, I would not have too many high tech or expensive toys.  It would be a life in a small community of sorts, where people know one another, spend a lot of time over at each other’s houses for dinner and games.  It would be a life way closer to, and way more connected with nature.  It would be a life that would never satisfy the real me, as restless as I get for one adventure after the next, one major social interaction after another, and testing limits.  But, for this alternate person I imagine myself being, as I drift off to sleep on a rainy August evening high in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado, it is perfect, cozy, and quaint.

 

 

Glenwood Springs: Where Canyon Country Begins

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When people think of the American West, certain images often come to mind:  the unique natural features of Yellowstone.  Iconic mountains that tower over the nearby landscape, such Rainier and Hood.  The canyons that carve through the American Southwest, creating popular destinations such as the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is not the only canyon of the American West.  In fact, it is not the only canyon carved out by the Colorado River, the continent’s fifth longest running river.  The river, has its source at Rocky Mountain National Park and snakes through the west carving out  numerous canyons.  In fact, there are some that believe that the canyon in Southern Utah that was flooded when Glen Canyon Dam was built, a couple of hundred miles upstream of the Grand Canyon, was even more scenic than the Grand Canyon itself (some are even looking to remove the dam despite the Wests water needs).

An overly simplified model of Colorado’s geography, is that of the three flavored boxes Neapolitan Ice Cream.  Colorado’s three sections are the Plains, the Central Rockies, and a region generally referred to as the Western Slope.  While the Western Slope is officially defined as anywhere west of the Continental Divide, culturally, we tend to think of it as west of Ski Country, which also happens to coincide with where canyon country begins.

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On the above map, the two yellow stars are Denver, where the Plains end and the Central Rockies begin, and Glenwood Springs, where, traveling west the terrain transitions from tall peaks to canyons, mesas, and plateaus.

The official reason for the trip to Glenwood this year was whitewater rafting, a group trip that I organize every year, with a different destination each time.

This year, the trip was a little bit later in the season, early July, rather than mid-June.  The later date allowed more of the mountain snowpack to melt, particularly this year, as the period around the fourth of July was quite hot across the state.  As a result, the rapids were not nearly as intense as the previous two years.  However, the trip was not without its moments.  This time, everybody stayed in the raft!

As was the case last year and the year prior (this is the third year of my annual trip), we camped.  We selected a somewhat peculiar place to camp this year, on top of the White River Plateau north of town.

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To get to the Plateau, we had to follow a road called Coffee Pot Road, a bumpy road that rose up out of the Colorado River Valley below us and onto the plateau several thousand feet above it.

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Here is where I fully came to the realization that I was on the border of two of Colorado’s “stripes”.  Looking east from the campground, in clear view are the tallest peaks of the Central Rockies, the Sawatch Range, which includes Mount Evans, Colorado’s tallest peak.

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A mere mile to the west of our campsite sits Deep Creek Canyon.  I had no idea this canyon existed.  Deep Creek is a tiny creek, carrying very little water at the time we saw it.  Yet, it manages to carve a 2100 foot deep crevice in the landscape in a manner similar to Black Canyon and other Western Canyons.

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What really made this feel like a peculiar place to camp was the range of temperatures we would experience over the course of the weekend.  We spent the middle part of the day in the valley, first rafting in the Colorado River than in town, all at elevations below 6000 feet.  Daytime temperatures soared well into the 90s!  At night, we returned to our campground, above 10,000 feet in elevation, where nighttime temperatures fell into the upper 40s.  If one were looking to experience comfortable temperatures, it would make sense to do the exact opposite, spending the daytime hours at higher elevations where it is cooler and then returning to the valley at night.

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The town of Glenwood Springs is a touristy town.  Everyone around, from the rafting instructors to the bus drivers describe it as such.  However, it is touristy in a different way than some other places I’ve visited.  I didn’t see 50 ice cream shops like I do in South Haven, MI.  I did not see anything like Ripley’s Believe it Not or the other places I see at the Wisconsin Dells.  And, I certainly didn’t see 150 T-shirt shops as I do when I visit Cooperstown.  It seemed like more bars and restaurants than anything else here.  And, of course, one of Glenwood’s other main draws, the hot springs.

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Maybe Glenwood’s tourism industry is simply trying to accommodate a different mix of people than those other places, or maybe they are simply trying to stay true to their own unique identity.  After all, there are a lot of activities in the area, and a lot of reasons for people to visit.

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Just east of town, is the area known as Glenwood Canyon.  Due to the narrowness of this valley, there are sections of I-70 where the speed limit drops to 50 miles per hour, the westbound lanes are stacked on top of the eastbound lanes, and parts of the highway are tunneled underneath rock that goes right up to the River.

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It is in this canyon, several miles east of town, where Glenwood’s signature hike, Hanging Lake Trail draws so many tourists, that the parking lot is commonly full.  In fact, both Friday and Saturday, highway signage indicated that this lot was full anytime we drove by it.  We were able to get parking spots in the later part of the afternoon, around half past four, after the rafting trip, and lunch in town.

Hanging Lake is a short but challenging trail.  Only 1.2 miles long, it climbs 1200 feet in elevation.  This, both made sense and surprised me at the same time.  Being in a canyon, I knew that any hike in the area would be steep, and this one sure had its steep parts.  What surprised me was, how far up the canyon hanging lake is.

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I had seen pictures of this lake before, and knew the trail was short, I just pictured it being much shorter and much closer to the bottom of the canyon.

The trail was crowded, which should not be surprising, given that the parking lot was still almost completely full when we arrived.  What surprised me was the ethnic diversity of the crowd hiking this trail.  On the way up to hanging lake, which probably took a little over 30 minutes, I heard people speaking all sorts of different languages!  I enjoyed seeing so many different kinds of people enjoying scenery, nature, and, as I speculate, a weekend away from it all.

There is only one area attraction I did not get to, the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.  It’s hard to get to everything on a short weekend trip.  I guess there is still a lot more for me to see here in Glenwood, where Westbound travelers leave the high peaks of the Central Rockies and enter the land of deep canyons.

 

My First Long Day of Cycling

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I woke up in the morning with a good feeling.  It wasn’t a premonition regarding something specific, like when people set out to run a triathlon or take a key exam and get this feeling of confidence that they are going to achieve what they set out to do.  After all, this is a bike journey.  Accomplishment does not come at the end of this day.  It comes at the end of the last day, five days later, when I reach the coast of Maine after six days of riding.

The feeling I started the day with was just a general positive vibe, that I knew I was going to have a good day.  It is a Tuesday, a day where many people will simply be grinding out their daily lives.  For tragically many people, this means stressing out at jobs that do not fulfill them.  I get to ride my bicycle, spend the day outside, and see places I have never seen before.  I must be thankful for that.

On bike journeys there are plenty of things that can go wrong.  There’s always the possibility of unpleasant weather, unexpected storms, or an unexpected unfavorable shift in wind direction.  There are also the many possible mechanical issues that can occur to a bicycle, particularly one that was recently shipped across the country.  The feeling I got was that none of those things would happen, and that I would simply have an enjoyable day on my bicycle.

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Most Canadians will recognize my way of starting my day off right, with a nice breakfast at Tim Hortons.  Food is crucial on a bike trip.  It is so crucial that when I took the Adventure Cycling Association’s Leadership Training Course three years ago, it was the very first thing they talked about, before bike mechanics, camping/lodging, or even the basics of bike touring.  How to pack trailers, roof racks, panniers, etc. would not be covered until the next day!  I know one bad meal can really strain a bike trip, particularly if it’s breakfast, so I made it a good one before crossing the border back into the United States.

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Before leaving the Niagara area, I took one last view of the falls from a place called Goat Island.  Goat Island is between the two falls, and on the American side.  It offers a pretty good alternate view of Horseshoe Falls, which is directly across from a place called Terrapin Point.  It might be the best view on the American side of the falls, but, as I mentioned in my prior post, the Canadian side still offers better views overall.

I would spend most of my day cycling on one of the Nation’s longest bike paths, the Erie Canal trail.

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I knew that this was going to be a flat ride.  The Erie Canal is a waterway that was built in 1824 to provide a shipping route between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.  In order for the very concept to work, they had to find a route with very minimal elevation change.  When the canal was built, a series of locks were built to regulate the water flow.  The first town we encountered after picking up the trail was Lockport, New York, a small town with one of these locks at the center of town.

 

East of Lockport, the trail surface becomes crushed limestone.

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Staying right next to the Erie Canal, the scenery I encountered was quite constant.  Much of my day looked exactly like this.  This trail is flat, and largely straight, which is good for covering a large number of miles in one day.  I spent most of my time on this trail just thinking about the Erie Canal itself, the amount of work it must have taken to build it, and its role in transporting goods across the Union in the Civil War, which some consider to be a major factor in the eventual Union victory.

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On a day like today, covering a lot of miles on a trail with consistent scenery, it is easy to lose track of each individual town.  This is why one of my favorite features of the Erie Canal Trail, at least in Western New York, is these bridges.  Each of them have the name of the town labelled on top of the bridge, so as cyclists approach, they know which town they are, in fact, approaching.

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I generally liked Western New York for bicycling, and bicycle accommodations.  Obviously, there is the trail, but also many of the roads include wide enough shoulders to accommodate bicycling.  Additionally, New York is one of the states that has labelled state-wide bike routes, which add some level of legitimacy to cycling as a form of transportation.

The exception, at least for me and the route we followed, was Rochester.  We split off the Erie Canal trail in order to ride, and eventually camp, along Lake Ontario.  This involved getting off the trail and following State Highway 104 into town.  Like other Western New York roads, this road had a shoulder.  However, this shoulder had frequent obstacles, mainly sewers, that we needed to cut into traffic to avoid.  After that, we cut over to the lake in a suburb called Sea Breeze only to find out that the bridge we were hoping to take, over Irondequoit Bay, was closed for the summer.

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We were told that the bridge would re-open in November.  I am accustomed to roads being closed in wintertime, but not in summertime.  I never would have thought to even check to see if any bridge that I was hoping to take would be closed.  What was so frustrating about this was that the bridge itself, seen in the distance, and also on this map, is so short.

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It couldn’t cover more than fifty feet, and, as a result of that bridge being closed, we had to back track all the way around Irondequoit Bay, adding a significant number of miles to the trip.

I ended up having to invoke my backup plan.  I had already ridden more miles in one day, 112, than I had ever before in my life, smashing my previous record of 104.  Without the detour, I would already be close to my destination for the day.  But, I knew I needed to save some energy for five more days of riding.

So, I got a ride for the remainder of the day’s trip, which ended at Sodus Point, at a campground where I could watch a beautiful sunset along Lake Ontario.

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The obstacle I faced was not one of the ones I had anticipated.  Usually when I think of what can go wrong on a bike trip, wind, rain, and flat tires are the first things that come to mind.  A bridge closed for the summer is the last thing that would occur to me.  In fact, it took nearly three days for me to eventually realize the likely reason for a summer bridge closure; so boats can pass through from the bay into the lake.  Still, I consider this sunset along one of America’s Great Lakes a great end to a great day on my bicycle.

 

Backpacking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

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Lately it feels like nearly every article I read about personal growth mentions something about getting out of your comfort zone.  It makes sense, as getting out of our comfort zones forces us to learn new skills, see things in a different light, and keeps us in the habit of expanding our horizons.  One thing I had realized, though, is that many of us often equate leaving our comfort zone with trying something new.  While they often go hand and hand, they are not completely equivalent.  I would argue that, for someone who parties every weekend, trying out a different bar, while a new experience, is not really stepping outside their comfort zone.  Likewise, it takes significant courage, and takes one a significant distance outside their comfort zone, to stand up to a boss or an office bully, despite the fact that they are sitting in the same desk they have sat in every day for multiple years.

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My first backpacking trip would be my first time in the wilderness, completely away from any buildings or vehicles, with no amenities, and no access to supplies other than what has been packed.  Anything forgotten cannot be retrieved.  There is no going back to the car to escape inclement weather, and no town to purchase replacements for any camping gear that may malfunction.  We are completely on our own!

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Because this is my first time backpacking, we kept it simple, doing a loop of only 13-14 total miles up the Comanche Trail, over the ridge, and then back down the Venable trail.  I wish to try new things, expand my horizons, and step outside my comfort zone, but I want to do it in a manner that is smart.  I am accustomed to carrying little more than an extra layer or two, water, and some snacks when I hike.  Carrying a backpack, which probably weighed at least 30 pounds, is significantly more intense.  Not leaving some wiggle room in case something goes wrong, could be potentially dangerous.

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And, well, something did go wrong.  After an exhausting 2600 foot climb from the trailhead to Comanche Lake, where we set up camp for the night, the stove malfunctioned halfway through cooking dinner.

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We watched the sun gradually descend below the mountains, shinning only upon the higher terrain toward the end of the evening wondering what we were to do next.  Could we subsist the next couple of days, along our planned route, without any more cooked food, using only the cold food we had packed?  Would we have to cut any aspect of our trip short?  Was my first backpacking trip turning into a disaster?

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After reasoning out in our heads that we technically could make it on the remaining cold food we had brought, we luckily found this rusty old pot just sitting there by the lake.  This pot saved the day, as we had no qualms putting it directly into a campfire.

Trips like this definitely help us see our lives from a different point of view, and force us to re-evlauate what a “necessity” really is.  Case in point, Saturday morning (second day of the trip), we had Zatarains’ Red Beans and Rice, and very much appreciated it.   This is a dish I will periodically make at home when cooking something “simple”.  When I cook red beans and rice at home, I, by default, add some kind of meat to it, usually sausage.  I behave very much as if it were a necessity to “complete the dish”.  But, in many parts of the world, where people are poorer and life is simpler, rice and beans is a common dish.  Going on trips like this serves to me, as a periodic reminder that many of the things we consider “necessary” for life are not really necessary for life, they are only necessary for the lifestyle we have chosen.

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After a late start, we climbed, once again, from our campsite, at an elevation of roughly 11,600′, to the top of Comanche Pass, at roughly 12,800′.  Near the top, I suddenly realized that I was in an altered state of mind.  It felt almost surreal, and almost as if I had indeed taken some sort of mind-altering drug.  But, I hadn’t.  Some kind of combination of exhaustion, high altitude, and being outside my comfort zone had put my mind in a place where everything was both clear and blurry at the same time.  It’s hard to describe, but I am guessing that is why many yoga classes involve both an exhausting workout, and altered air conditions (heat, humidity), alongside its’ spiritual aspects.

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All this made the view at the top, of nearby Comanche Peak, looking Eastward toward the Wet Mountain Valley we hiked in from, and over the mountains toward the Upper San Louis Valley, even more spectacular!

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And, after a mile or so with little elevation change, we climbed back up onto the ridge at a place called Venable Pass, where we would complete our loop.  Here, we stopped to eat lunch before beginning our descent through an area known as Phantom Terrace.

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This descent was tricky enough that my exhaustion, and the altered state of mind associated with it, continued.  All sorts of crazy shit was on my mind as we descended towards the Venable Lakes.

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Of course, it was on this descent where I saw the highest concentration of my least favorite plant ever.  I really do not know what they are called, but they look vicious.  They remind me both of the flesh eating plant in the movie Little Shop of Horrors, as well as the plans that try to bite in Mario Brothers.  In fact, in my altered state of mind, I actually felt as if these plants were trying to bite me as I walked by.  It was freaky.  Maybe, despite the Red Beans and Rice, I still did not eat enough, or drink enough, I don’t know.

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We camped the second night just below Venable Lakes, as we had to get back down to the tree line for access to firewood.  We had become pretty well versed in the process of starting a fire and using it to cook our food using that rusty old pot we found (and kept after the trip).

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The next morning, we woke up early to view the sun rise.  We also saw some cool wildlife, deer, grouse, and marmots, which we had been viewing on and off for the duration of the trip.  However, particularly with deer, first thing in the morning is often the best time for wildlife viewing.  We also gazed upon the muddy puddle I had stupidly jumped into the prior afternoon, having wanted to cool off as it got quite warm for elevations in excess of 11,500′.

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Before leaving the last campsite of my first ever backpacking excursion, I paid homage to one of my favorite songs out right now Cool for the Summer, as, well, this summer has been awesome, and, is now coming to an end.  On the car ride back to Denver, we had a conversation about whether or not songs like this, geared towards high school and college students, apply to people who have graduated, joined the adult world, and no longer have summer break.  However, despite the fact that nothing about my job, or my role in life, automatically shifts for summer (to an internship or summer job), I do feel something magical about this season.  There are so many things one can do in summer that they cannot in other seasons.

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The final descent, back to the trailhead along the Venable Pass Trail, is highlighted by a series of waterfalls, as well as a large number of Aspen trees.  At the biggest water fall, Venable Falls, I actually dunked my head into the water to cool off.  The lower part of this trail would be an amazing day hike sometime around a month from now, when the leaves on the Aspen trees are changing colors.

In the end, my first backpacking experience was quite the trip, and a memory that will last a lifetime!  I came away from this trip confused.  Backpacking is a strange activity.  It is both simple and complex.  It is both exhausting and relaxing.  Never had I been farther away from civilization, having interacted with a total of three people prior to the final day of the trip.  Having experienced additional complications, I am glad to have chosen something modest, in both size and scope, for my first trip.  And, I am glad to have gone with a group large enough to make the experience both efficient and enjoyable, but not too large, as to add additional unnecessary complications.