Category Archives: Unique Natural Features

Death Valley: The Largest National Park

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It is hard to truly describe what makes Death Valley such a wonderful and unique place. It is probably best known as the location of the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, located 282 feet below sea level.

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Land below sea level generally only exists in places with hot, dry climates, as otherwise, the low lying terrain would fill up with water. Death Valley certainly is dry! It receives less than 2 inches of rainfall per year. By contrast, Minneapolis, a city that would be considered neither dry nor wet, averages around 30 inches per year (including winter snowfall).

Badwater Basin, like much of Death Valley National Park, is a large scale version of everything one would imagine dryness to be.

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The entire basin, which stretches out longer than expected, is covered with salt, deposited in a honeycomb-like structure, creating a scene that appears to be out of some kind of documentary about deforestation or climate change.

Of course, not the entire park is below sea level.

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In fact, its highest point, Telescope Peak, is over 11,000 feet above sea level, and despite the dry and hot climate of the valley below it, is covered in snow, and impassible without ice gear towards the end of March. Interestingly enough, while March may be an ideal time of year to visit Badwater Basin, Furnace Creek and some of the low elevations of the park, the higher terrain makes the park actually worth visiting in the summer too (with the right hydration precautions taken of course).

At the park’s lower elevations, near and even a little bit below sea level, the hikes are a bit milder, and significantly different from a typical hike in the mountains. Shorter hikes (1 to 3 miles each way) to places like Sidewinder Canyon…

and Mosaic Canyon…

have trails that cut through the rocks, through little “slots”, and along wide flat trails that appear to have been carved out by runoff from the flash floods that occasionally occur in the park.

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Death Valley is certainly a place with some unique weather patterns, and some unique weather hazards. When most outdoor activities are planning, the weather hazards most likely to be considered are related to temperature and precipitation. Extremely hot weather is Death Valley’s most obvious weather hazard. Visiting in March, or at some other point during the cooler part of the year, definitely helps visitors avoid these extremes.

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With wide open spaces, no trees, and complicated terrain, some crazy winds can occur in Death Valley, whipping up and and dust from the dry ground below it, covering any and all things!

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Storms will pass through the complicated terrain, often first producing some interesting looking clouds.

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Then, often times, while producing decent amounts of precipitation in the higher mountains terrain, in the valley below they will mostly just manifest as strong and gusty winds.

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These winds can even be hazardous to campers, breaking tents, bending poles, and complicating campfires.

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Other than the extremes, in elevation, temperature and dryness, the rest of the park feels kind of a bit like a National Park sampler pack.

There are hikes that take visitors to amazing views of the park, but the park is not all about hiking (like Rocky Mountain National Park).

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The natural bridge is most certainly an “arch”, but Death Valley does not have the concentration of arches found at Arches National Park.

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There are a few fantastic sand dunes here, but not as many as there are at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

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The park has some other unique natural features, such as the “Devil’s Golf Course”, but isn’t the constant barrage of unique features that is Yellowstone.

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One can even spot the occasional desert wildlife here.

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Those that are into numbers already know what makes Death Valley unique; elevation, temperature, dryness. Those who are more into experiences find themselves also loving the park, but in a manner that becomes harder to articulate. Often, it is just said that the place is “beautiful”, or “amazing”.

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Maybe nothing more needs to be said. After all, sometimes these commonly used descriptor words, although light on specifics, along with photographs, really do tell the story. Nature, like artwork, is open to interpretation, at the behest of the beholder.

However, when covering mile after endless mile across the park, it is hard not to observe how expansive and wide open the park feels, as a result of how dry the air is.

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Maybe that is the reason Death Valley is also the largest U.S. national park in outside of Alaska.

The History of the Rocky Mountains

IMG_1691 (1)Many travelers are motivated to visit a variety of destinations by intellectual curiosity; Curiosity about culture, people and history. Curiosity about nature, science, and how our planet works. Unique natural features, such as Arches National Park and the Badlands, always make me wonder. How did this these distinct features come to be? Why can this be seen on this little section of our planet and seemingly not everywhere else? Is there anything similar, anywhere else?

This leads us back to history; history that pre-dates human beings. The geological processes that produced the colors, shapes and terrain we admire often occur over multiple millions of years. Some even pre-date any of our mammalian ancestors. Over the course of any one person’s lifespan, it is highly unlikely that any changes in our natural world resulting from geological processes will be noticeable. Nonetheless, geological processes can manifest themselves in some rather explosive ways, including earthquakes, volcanoes and sinkholes.

All this is true of unique natural features like Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, as well as the ring of volcanoes in places like Iceland and Hawaii. This is also true of the larger natural feature that in many ways defines life in Western North America; The Rocky Mountains.

As it turns out, the Rocky Mountains, as far as mountain ranges go, are quite unique.

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This past weekend, Drs. Robert Anderson and Lon Abbott of the University of Colorado-Boulder, lead a group of people up Sugarloaf Mountain to examine the geological history of the Rocky Mountains. This event was put on by the TEDxMileHigh organization as one of their adventures.

Sugarloaf Mountain is a relatively easy hike 15 minutes West of Boulder, along the Boulder Canyon. The distance from the trailhead to the top of the mountain is only about 1.4 miles, and the vertical gain is less than 600 feet. However, it is said to have one of the best views of Boulder Canyon in the area.

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This particular hike was chosen to as a backdrop for presenting Colorado’s geological history based on the specific terrain features that appear along the trail. For example, 1.7 Billion Years ago, Colorado was a shallow Ocean with tall mountains sticking up out of the ground, much the way present-day New Zealand is. Some of the mountains in the distance resemble the mountains that one would see had they been floating (or canoeing) across this area at the time.

300 Million years ago, it was a tropical seashore. The Rocky Mountains themselves formed from a period of time roughly 70 Million years ago to about 40 Million years ago. More recently (over the past 8 million years), the Great Plains, which the trail periodically overlooks, began to subside, creating the sharp contrast between the flat terrain east of the mountains and the high peaks of the Central Rockies that we see in our present day world.

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At this exact elevation threshold, roughly 8500 feet, the type of rock observed changes, also a result of some of the long-term processes that created the Rocky Mountains.

The same combination of processes and events created some of the most celebrated unique rock formations of the region, including Red Rocks and Garden of the Gods. Thanks to the University of Colorado Department of Geology, this short hike became a trip through time.

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The view at the top didn’t disappoint. It was interesting to see the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains on an October day with some sun, but also plentiful cloudiness. It felt quite different from many of my hiking days Colorado, where there is often near total sunshine. I had previously forgotten about how much I enjoy seeing mountainous terrain like this, with sections of it lit by the sun, and other sections shadowed by the clouds, creating unique color contrasts that gradually shift over time.

The geological history of the Rocky Mountains is somewhat unique, and has yet to be fully explained. Geographically speaking, looking at a present day map of the world, the Rocky Mountains are fairly unique due to how far away from any major fault line they are.

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Many mountain ranges like the Andes and the Himalayans are right on a fault line and associated with geological activity; earthquakes and volcanoes. Colorado is not a hotbed for either, making for a somewhat unique mountain experience.

Geologists are still trying to explain why the mountains formed here the way they did. The Rockies continue to puzzle the scientific community. Why the mountains are as tall as they are when other properties of the Earth’s crust would indicate otherwise? Why did the Great Plains subside and become “disconnected” from the Front Range? Nevertheless, since geological processes are so slow, the mountains, as we see them today, are unlikely to change too much within any of our lifetimes.

Regardless of whether we are intellectually curious about why they are the way they are, or simply want to ski, hike, raft and climb, there are there and will continue to be there for us. They are confusing but consistent, much like life itself.

An After Work Hike to Royal Arch

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June is a month with tons of opportunities, if for no other reason than the amount of daylight many places in the Northern Hemisphere receive. The long days and late sunsets make a lot of activities possible for people who work traditional hours. It is only in and around this time of year that those working “normal working hours” (I want to make clear that I in no way advocate traditional working hours), have enough daylight for hikes, as we’ll as many other outdoor activities, on weekdays after work.

 

Royal Arch is a fairly strenuous three and a half mile (round trip) hike that originates at Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colorado. Located at the Southwest edge of town, these trails are very popular, and Chautauqua Park can be quite busy at certain times of year. Although a high number of people reach this trailhead by bike or on foot (this is Boulder after all), parking is quite limited. One should not expect to find a parking spot in the lot by the trailhead any time conditions are ideal for hiking. This includes both weekend days, as well as on weeknights like this one.

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For a unique experience, I arrived at the trailhead at roughly 6:45 P.M. This is later than I would recommend arriving for anyone that desires to hike this trail at a moderate pace and finish before it gets dark, even at this time of year.

At this time of the evening, shortly after starting the hike, the sun had already descended behind the mountains to the west. Alpenglow could still be seen, hitting the top of the long flat diagonal rocks that are often referred to as the “Flatirons”.

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Hiking mainly after 7 P.M. also put most of the hike in the shade, as the sun was already behind the mountain peaks to the west. This made the hike more comfortable, as the temperature was in the upper 80s, a normal level for this time of year, before the hike.

Most of the trail is fairly strenuous, with a consistent climb. This changes at Sentinel Pass, which is within about a half a mile of the end of the trail.

Many hikes are said to have “false summits”; places where the trail appears to be reaching a summit, which is usually the final destination of a hike. Sentinel Pass, in a way, is both a false summit and a real summit.

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It is actually a summit! However, it is not the end of the trail. The trail continues. There is a short but steep descent right after Sentinel Pass. The descent is followed by another steep uphill section, where, after another 15 minutes or so of hiking, Royal Arch is reached.

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It ended up taking me just under an hour to reach Royal Arch. For a hike of 1.7 miles with 1600’ of net vertical, and some areas that are quite strenuous, this is a relatively quick pace.

After resting and enjoying the view for a mere 10 minutes at the top, I was still barely able to make it back down to the trailhead before darkness fell upon the area.

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This is why I would recommend for most people to either arrive earlier (which shouldn’t be an issue for most work schedules), or bring a headlamp. Even in the week following the summer solstice, with some of the latest sunsets of the year, there are limitations to what can be done after working a typical 9-to-5-ish day.

One of life’s major challenges is making the most of whatever opportunities come our way. June, and its lengthy days, represents an opportunity to simply get outside more and get more exposure to sunshine.

For a variety of reasons it appears that the modern digital, sedentary lifestyle is taking its toll on us. It feels as if every five to ten years, some new set of dietary recommendations come out. Either a new set of foods become the secret, magic ticket to a healthier life. Or, some different type of food suddenly becomes the new “boogeyman”, and is suddenly to blame for all these widespread health problems.

I am not a health expert. However, based on my observations and reasoning, it appears that many of our health problems are related to two things; many people being way too sedentary, and, primarily in the United States, some ridiculous portion sizes. There also appears to be some merit behind staying hydrated and getting enough sleep.

Our bodies were meant to move. It’s been shown that sitting for even a couple of hours at a time can actually lead to negative health impacts, including the supply of oxygen being cut off from our brains. The predominant form of employment in 2017 is still 7-10 hours per day sitting in front of a computer. This cannot possibly be good for our minds or our bodies.

There has also been countless articles published recently regarding the connection between happiness and exposure to sunshine. Not only were we not meant to spend well over half of our waking hours seated, we also were not meant to spend nearly as much time indoors.

In our current culture, it is really hard to avoid having to perform a lot of work that requires being seated in front of a computer. Heck, writing this, I am, in fact, seated in front of a computer. This does not mean we cannot seek out and take advantage of opportunities, whenever we can, to be outdoors, be in motion,  and/ or be social (separate topic), as much as we can.

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On the descent, I spent half the time talking to random people. The other half, I was lost in my own thoughts. I imagined myself in various scenarios, settings I could see myself in, places I would be, people I would talk to, etc. All the scenarios I imagined involved me encouraging others. I encouraged others to believe in themselves, to have confidence, to stand up to naysayers, and to make the most of their lives. Part of that involves taking part in activities that enrich our lives. So, I encourage everyone to take advantage of summer, particularly this first part of summer, and the opportunities it affords us by checking out places like Royal Arch for evening hikes.

 

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.

 

 

A Mental Health Day

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I feel like I have over 100 things on my mind, all vying for space, all wearing me out.  All the changes I see around me.  The shocks, the craziness, the idiocy.  The selfishness.  My personal shortcomings, recent mistakes, how my life’s path ended up where it is and what to do about it.  How do we find a balance between order and chaos?  All the ways in which the people around me have let me down.  All the ways I let the people around me down.  How do I keep the benefits of having a smart phone (like being able to take pictures like this, after 28 miles of bicycling, which would have been tough carrying a heavier device) but avoid the pitfalls of mindless scrolling on weekdays when bored?  What is my future,  and how do I find my niche?   What is the future of our society?  The mindless violence followed by the sometimes equally idiotic responses to it.  Globalization.  Trump, Brexit, and the backlash to globalization.  But, most of all, the disappointments when experiences do not match expectations.

Simply put, I needed a mental health day.  I think we all do from time to time.  A day where we get away from jobs, computers, social media, day-to-day responsibilities, pretty much everything that causes us stress, and do something that we enjoy.  This, of course is something different for everybody, and it is not up to me to judge what any one person does for their mental health days.  Well, unless of course it is something morally reprehensible like murder or theft.

I have a firm belief in, and also a unique take on, the connection between mind, body, and spirit.  Over the course of my life, and in observing others, it is almost impossible not to observe the connection between the three.  I remember winters in Chicago, and other times when lack of exercise would in turn weigh on my mind and spirit.  Overall, improvements in one of the three realms often force improvements in the other two.  Likewise, a deterioration in one of the three realms can negatively impact the other two, like the person who develops an eating disorder after a rough breakup.

So, I decided to make my mental health day also a physical health day, with a bike ride to Roxborough State Park.  This is a ride I did two years ago.  The basic gist is that it is 28 miles each way, goes by Chattfield Reservoir, and is a significant climb over the last five or six miles.

Wednesday’s ride was even more exhausting, as temperatures soared into the 90s and a Southerly wind developed making the last several miles of climbing in harder.  Needless to say, I arrived at Roxborough exhausted.  In fact, I had to sit inside for about 15 minutes to cool off when I got there.

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Still, I decided to do some hiking.  Knowing that my legs were exhausted, I decided to stick to moderate trails, but ones where I can still view the essence of the park and what makes it geologically unique.

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It was after roughly 1.5 miles of hiking that the ideas suddenly started popping into my head.  Ideas about things I could be doing with my life just entered my mind.  I could do this, and present it to these people, and achieve fulfillment in this manner.  They just kept pouring in, and, for some reason, felt so simplistic to me.  Like, the only thing I need to do is just go out and do these things.

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These are all things that frustrate the hell out of me day and night.  Maybe it is because all of the physical exertion caused my mind to slow down enough for my brain to stop over-thinking things.  Maybe it is the freedom from all of the distractions of daily life.  It’s strange what I was contemplating.  Whenever I am in front of a computer, at an office, in a cube, or in some kind of work-like setting all of the ideas I have seem almost impossible, like a daunting challenge that would take years to attempt and would likely not result in any meaningful success.  In a way, there, I feel stuck.  Here, not so much.  Here, the same exact ideas seem quite possible.

It is here that the conspiracy theorist in me gets activated, so please bare with me, as I am the kind of person that just likes to entertain theories, even if I am not necessarily going to conclude that they are true.  I wonder if cubicles, offices, sedentary days and the like are the way “the system” maintains itself.  By “the system” I mean what I am observing around me.  A whole generation of highly educated people going to work at jobs that are well beneath the skill level they develop through college, and increasingly, post-granulate, education.  A whole generation of people submitting to rules, such as a strict 9-5 schedules and dress codes, that are no longer relevant for the kind of work that now predominates in a service sector economy.  Is the reason people continue down this path the manner in which a whole day of sitting at a computer connected to the internet and all of its distractions make them feel?

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People visit Roxborough State Park, and the geologically similar and more well-known Garden of the Gods, because they are unique.  If this place looked like every other place on Earth, people would not make a specific point of coming here.  So, maybe the key to being the kind of person people seek after, is to be unique.  After all, the person you meet at the party that is exactly like everyone else, is the person you don’t remember.  Sorry to be harsh.  But, it’s when someone does something unique, or interesting, that you remember that person.  Strangely, though, the world of school, and subsequently work, encourages conformity.  It encourages people to follow the worn out path and do things the way they are always done.  Maybe overcoming that conditioning and doing things our own way is the key to life, both in terms of success and happiness.

Exploring New Mexico

IMG_5660 (1).jpgThe northbound journey out of Santa Fe, along highway 84 towards Pojoaque, and Espanola could not possibly feel any more Southwestern.  Rolling hills are covered with bushes and sagebrush.  There are some trees here, but unlike in the East, their impact on the wide open landscape is minimal.  They are but mere dots, small points in a panoramic image that shows off the entirety of the landscape of the region, stretching for miles and miles.  As a consequence, mountain ranges can be seen in the distance in multiple directions.

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Artwork depicting the culture of the American Southwest can be seen quite frequently along this entire stretch of highway, on roadside decorations, bridges, and even buildings in the distance.  There is something about sculptures and murals like these that invariantly make me think of the Southwest, even when I am in a completely different region.  The use of colors in particular are reminiscent of this region, warm and dry but still American.  The colors are warm, reds, oranges, browns.  Even when they use “cool” colors, like green and blue, these murals somehow find a way to make these colors feel warmer than they typically do in other drawings and signage.

I wonder, as much of the artwork of the region originated with the Native tribes that thrived in the area roughly a millennium ago, if the styles that came to be predominant in this region are a mere reflection of the manner in which the landscape, and climate, impact the human psyche.  And, is this an aspect of human nature that transcends culture?  Did the Spanish, and White and Hispanic people who would later inhabit the region adopt similar artistic styles because they were responding to the same conditions around them and reflecting them in a similar manner?

The reason I was headed in this direction out of Santa Fe, other than just merely to explore, which I do believe is a reasonable pursuit in of itself, was the desire to see one of the most significant, but also confusing places in the United States; Los Alamos.  Los Alamos is a place where some of the top scientists in the world came together during World War 2 in order to build the nuclear weapons that eventually ended the war.

Of course, at the time, it wasn’t the Japanese, but the Germans who were the main subject of concern. It was rumored that the Nazis were building this capability, which could have significantly altered the course of the war.  The Manhattan Project was both highly secretive (Americans were largely unaware this was going on at the time), and quite controversial, as it still is today.

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The entire area has a feel that continues to reflect how Los Alamos came about.  Headed towards town, on highway 502 West from Pojoaque, road signs indicate that the stretch of highway is a “safety corridor”.  What does that even mean?  I have never seen this before.  Anywhere else, this road would have a higher speed limit, less fines, and would likely not have three lanes in each direction.  Something must be going on here.  But, is it still going on?  If so, what?  And, how much of a secret is it?

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The truth is, Los Alamos is a place like no other place on earth, and like the rest of New Mexico, cannot be placed in a specific category.  It is, indeed, a place where discoveries are made.  But, unlike many other towns with major labs, and I am particularly thinking of Boulder, Colorado, which is near my home, it does not appear laid back at all.  After parking, I had an intense experience crossing the street to get to the Bradbury Science Museum.  This crosswalk had a walk/ don’t walk voice command that spoke words with a level of urgency that appeared to highlight the National Security and wartime origins of this town.  It felt as if 70 years later, the mindset had never really changed from its wartime heritage.  Or, in the very least, the town had kept its infrastructure, which was built specifically for time of extremely heightened security.

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The Bradbury Museum is quite well done, and for those traveling on a budget, is free.

I’d say slightly over half of the museums exhibits focus on the Manhattan Project, the A-Bomb and the original history of the laboratory.  However, the laboratory is operational, and has been involved in some high caliber research over the last 70 years, in areas such as cancer detection, energy conservation, and wildfire prevention.  It is amazing to think, the same place, the same people, the same lab, and the same knowledge base was used both to create the most destructive item on the face of the earth, nuclear weapons, but also to advance humanity and help countless people better their lives!

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One of the reasons Los Alamos was selected as the location for this top secret lab, was that it had to attract top scientists, many of the young at the time, to a project that likely meant years in seclusion.  While these young scientists would not have the benefits of urban nightlife, for Los Alamos, and the laboratory, they found an area with plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities.  The volume of hiking trails throughout Los Alamos County (a relatively small county) reflects this history.

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Just West of town, and the lab, is a large area known as the Santa Fe National Forest.  This National Forest, in many ways resembles the National Forests that can be found throughout Colorado.  In fact, I can picture many of the same activities, backpacking, camping, and with the Jemez River, water activities such as fishing and boating.

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The main difference I felt, between here and many of the forested areas of Colorado I regularly frequent for hikes and such, is that this area seemed significantly less crowded- emptier.

Along highway 4, the main road through the forest, there is one area hot spot, a unique natural feature known as the Soda Dam, a waterfall the flows between a rock along the Jemez River.

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Not only does this area feature a waterfall unlike any other place on earth, but there are geothermal features that make this river a popular pseudo hot spring.  I say pseudo- hot spring, as the water is not really hot, as it is in some areas where water temperatures resemble that of a hot tub.  It is just simply warmer than you would expect it to be given its high altitude origins.  It was warm enough that people were able to comfortably swim in it.

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It is an area that is just simply peaceful and panoramic, the kind of place where one can simply turn off the wheels that churn in their heads as a result of everyday life, and just sit, swim, float, or fish, gazing in the distance at the majesty of the region.  Two weeks later, I still gaze at this very photograph and feel as if I am entering a much more peaceful state of mind.  I almost need to place it in front of my desk, as a stress reliever.

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The entire west is full of areas like this, where, due to unique geological history, the rocks take on a reddish color.  This is the color that many associated with the American Southwest.  Although most of Central New Mexico is much browner, especially in April, a section of bright red suddenly appears at the South end of Santa Fe National Forest, along highway 4, at the border of Jemez Pueblo, yet another Native American village.

The day ended with a final drive down highway 550 towards Albuquerque, where the Sandia Mountains, largely to the City’s Northeast, drew gradually closer as the drive progressed.

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Thinking about all of the beautiful places I saw over the course of the day, my main regret is spending too much of the day in the car, and not being able to stop, hike, float, walk around, and just get immerced in area.  As a travel enthusiast who unfortunately has responsibilities at home, it is all too easy to get into the trap of planning too many activities for too short of a period of time.  This often makes travel feel rushed, like there is too little time to experience some of the places we see.  Luckily, I live in Colorado, and therefore can get similar experiences, National Forest recreation areas and such, closer to home.  But, there are some subtle differences, and things that make this area unique.  I would very much like to come back here at a much more relaxed pace, and experience another side of New Mexico life.