Category Archives: Rivers

Greyrock Mountain- An Ideal Hike for May

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For the majority of people who like to hike on weekends, or in their spare time, hiking anywhere in the American West in the month of May requires two additional considerations.

  1.  There is typically still a residual snowpack at higher elevations.  While this can vary quite a bit from year to year and even day to day, even on a warm, sunny day, those that don’t want to encounter slippery conditions or deep snow covering the trails should generally stick to lower elevations.  In Colorado, that generally means below 9500 feet in elevation.
  2. Although everyone’s body behaves differently, most people still respect the seasonality of the activities they take part in, hiking less frequently in winter than in summer.  Therefore, most people still need to, in some way, work up to the most challenging hikes they will take on later in the summer.

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Tucked away in the Poudre Canyon 15 miles West of Fort Collins, Colorado (which is an hour north of Denver), the Greyrock Trailhead starts at an elevation of roughly 5600 feet.

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The hike to the top of Greyrock Mountain, on the most direct path is 3.1 miles, with an elevation gain right around 2000 feet.  For those who spent their winters either sedentary or on unrelated activities, and maybe have done two or three hikes thus far in the spring, it is strenuous enough to help get the body back into summer mode.  And, topping out at 7600 feet, it remains well below the elevations where residual snowpack and large amounts of mud would still be present on a sunny day in May.

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Of course, many people are aware of these seasonal considerations.  Therefore, the area does get busier than usual, particularly if it is a nice day and/or on the weekend.

Still, there is plenty of quiet to be found on this appropriately named mountain, just not the level of solitude one would expect on, say, a remote backpacking trip.

On the 13th of May 2017, a dry day in which Fort Collins reached a high temperature of 85F (and was preceded by two dry days) nearly all of the trail was dry.  It was only in certain sections, close to streams, where mud would appear.  These sections got interesting, as groups of butterflies, both red and blue, would loop around the sky, periodically congregating in and around areas of standing water.

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The blue butterflies are actually extremely well camouflaged, only showing their color when the wings are flapped open.

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A closer look at the muddy surface reveals dozens of these butterflies nearly completely blended into the muddy surface, something many hikers don’t even notice!

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Roughly 2/3 of the way up, the first real scenic overlook is reached.  This is the point just before the two trails merge back together, at an elevation of roughly 7000 feet.

The final 600 feet of ascent looks, well, far more daunting than a typical 600 foot climb.  And, well, it is.  After a short flat area, following the scenic overlook, the trail begins to climb up a series of rocky areas, often referred to as “scrambles” by hikers.

These parts require some strategizing, both on the way up and on the way down.

The final section of the trail is the one area where it is possible to get lost.

On top of rocks, the trail passes by several lakes, where the sound of frogs can be heard, and is marked only by periodic signs 2-3 feet tall and the occasional standard rock pile (referred to as a Cairn).

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The summit is also just kind of a series of rocks, that need to be climbed over to reach the best lookout point.  Being at the top of Greyrock Mountain is somewhat of an unique experience.  In some ways, it feels just like being on top of the world, as noting in the immediate vicinity is at a higher elevation.

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However, out on the horizon to the West and Southwest reveals mountains whose peaks dwarf this one by over 5,000 feet.

It feels like a metaphor for a certain life situation that nearly every human being will find themselves in at one point.  The mountain has been climbed, a goal has been achieved, and there is reason to celebrate… temporarily.  But, there is still a lot that must be done, and much higher aspirations.  It is finishing a degree and moving on to start a new job.  It is successfully navigating nine months of pregnancy now knowing that it is hard work to raise another human being.  It is knowing that one has achieved as much as is possible in a current endeavor, and that there is something more meaningful, a higher calling, awaiting that requires a pivot, a new strategy, and renewed effort.

 

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 Lifeblood of the West

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The Colorado River is often referred to as the “Lifeblood of the West“.  Recent estimates place the number of people dependent on water from the Colorado River at close to 30 million.  This is a number that is likely expanding, and expanding fairly rapidly, given that water diverted from the Colorado River supplies water to some rapidly growing metropolitan areas, including Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.  Most of the areas dependent on the Colorado River for water supply are deserts that receive precipitation irregularly.  These cities would not have been able to grow into the large cities they are today without this water source.  Without it, our country, and it’s population distribution would be quite different.  It made an entire region the powerhouse it is becoming today.  The importance of this particular river to the United States would be hard to over-estimate.

It is also one of the most iconic rivers in the United States.  Along it’s course, it carved out some of the most scenic canyons in the world.  This includes the Grand Canyon, a location iconic enough to make it into Arizona’s state motto and attract five million tourists a year.  The Colorado River not only conjures up images of all of these iconic canyons, but also images of rafters, kayakers, and other water sports enthusiasts.  And, of course, one of the most iconic images of the Colorado River is the Hoover Dam, over 700 feet tall, one of many dams that supplies both water and power to the Southwestern United States.

This gigantic cascading of water has it’s origins in Rocky Mountain National Park, near the Continental Divide.  The headwaters are not accessible by road.  A several mile hike is required in order to reach the headwaters of this iconic river.

This particular hike was not especially physically challenging.  Nearly every hiking guide rates this hike as “easy”, as opposed to “moderate”, “strenuous”, or Long’s Peak, which needs a category of it’s own.  Being a trail that follows a river valley, it is not surprising that the hike is easy, as steep grades are not common along river valleys.  This is why many trails follow rivers.  In the pre-automobile days following a river was often the safest and most direct route for fur traders, settlers, etc.  The automobile came along and made travel quite a bit easier, but many of today’s roads still follow these trails.

One interesting exception is Trail Ridge Road, the road I took to get to the Colorado River Trail.  This road traverses Rocky Mountain National Park, but it climbs to a peak elevation of over 12,000 ft. along a ridge in the north central part of the park, as opposed to following one of the river valleys like many other roads do.  It is also the route of U.S. highway 34, a route that proceeds eastward through Estes Park, and then towards Loveland, CO via the Big Thompson canyon.  The road follows a trail through a river valley east of Estes Park, but not west of town.  I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915, after the automobile had already been invented.  So, the people who planned the park could plan around visitors with cars.  Had it been established earlier, like Yellowstone, would the road follow one of the river valleys to the north or to the south, as opposed to it’s route up Trail Ridge?  Historical what-ifs are always fun to ponder, but never verifiable.  At least we know that as things actually are, visitors to the park can enjoy a scenic drive up Trail Ridge Road from mid-late May through the end of September.

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Whenever a trail follows a river, there is an enhanced risk that the particular trail will be muddy.  The last couple of weeks have been rainier in North Central Colorado, and therefore, it was no real surprise to me that there were many places along this trail where the entire trail was covered with standing water, requiring hikers to either wade through it, or walk around it.  Anytime hiking, or bicycling along a dirt trail next to a river, one should prepare for such conditions after rainy days or rainy periods.

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I was expecting humble beginnings, and even considering titling this blog entry as such, but that is simply not true.  A mile or two into the trail, which is only a couple of miles from the source of the river, it already looks quite a bit wider than many rivers in this region.  Although the Colorado River gets a lot of additional force, and water flow, farther downstream, when it is joined by large tributaries, particularly the Gunnison, Green, and San Juan Rivers, seeing the river here it almost seems like this particular river stands out against every other river, creek or stream that flows off of the continental divide in this region.  Like that one child in grade school already reading at high school levels with a curious mind and appetite for learning, it seems destined for greatness at this early stage.

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One interesting thing about this particular trail is that it passes through a ghost town.  3.5 miles from the trailhead, is a place called Lulu City.  In my DeLorme Colorado Atlas, it receives some fairly large lettering, so I was expecting the ruins of a town of sorts, similar to what you see on the Plains, or in the Rust Belt when you drive through a town that has been abandoned.  However, it was nothing like that.  All that is there is this sign, stating that a town of 200 people existed here for a total of five years.  Only five years!  I wonder what the story of this place is, and why it even warranted this major mention both in my atlas and on the Rocky Mountain National Park trail maps and signs.

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After another mile or so of not too strenuous hiking, I arrived at the headwaters of the Colorado River.  The hike took less than two hours, and that was after going out last night and getting about three hours of sleep, so I was not exactly in top condition today.  Anyone wanting to view the Colorado River’s headwaters should actually stress the drive there more than the hike.  From Estes Park it is at least a half hour drive as the road traverses the park up and down a windy road.  Usually, it will take longer, as travel through the park slows down at nearly every scenic overlook, as well as anytime wildlife is seen and people stop to take pictures.

And of course, I can now forever say that I have walked across the Colorado River.  And I really walked across it, as opposed to when I walked across it on the bridge at the top of the Hoover Dam seven years ago.  That does not count.  But, when I get to the Grand Canyon, Moab, or any other place where the Colorado River has carved out an iconic scene, I will know that I have actually traversed across this very river with the assistance of nothing other than two logs, probably placed in the river earlier this year by someone with the same wacky idea and reasoning that I had today.

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Oh yeah, and I cannot claim the higher ground with regards to everyone stopping to take pictures of wildlife and causing delays getting across the park.  This was only the second time I have ever seen moose, and this bighorn picture could not be passed up.  Five and a half hours of driving, and three and a half hours of hiking later, I can at least take solace that I rode my bike 39 miles yesterday and therefore did not really need a lot of exercise today.