Category Archives: Waterfalls

The Rio Grande Trail: Basalt to Aspen

The name of this trail is puzzling. According the the trail’s website, this 42 mile trail, which connects Glenwood Springs to Aspen, was named after the Rio Grande Western Railroad, which ran along these tracks until it was decommissioned in the 1990s.

Most visitors to the area are not aware of this history. We just see that the trail is named the Rio Grande Trail despite the fact that the river it follows is the Roaring Fork. The Rio Grande is not only well known for marking the U.S./ Mexico border in Texas, but it also has its origins in Colorado, not too far away.

That being said, on the first of October, it still made for one of the most breathtaking bike rides one could ever hope for.

I absolutely love the town of Basalt!

Every visit I have ever had to this town has been incredible! It never feels crowded like a major tourist destination, but there is also never a shortage of things to do or basic resources. I have never had a bad meal in this town, and the two rivers that come together, the Frying Pan and the Roaring Fork are your quintessential free spirited mountain rivers!

The ride from Basalt to Aspen is beautiful right from the start, especially on the first of October, with the fall colors at their peak.

It is the kind of trail that has something for everyone. In the middle part of the ride, you’ll encounter a restaurant built in one of the old train cars used when this trail was a railroad.

It overlooks several small villages.

The trail is mostly straight, but it makes a timely curve to give cyclists a direct view of Snowmass Village, one of the highest rated ski resorts in the state.

I also absolutely love the fact that the trail does not follow right beside the highway, usually traversing on the other side of the river from highway 82. There are many bike trails that travel right alongside a major highway. Here, cyclists enjoy the trail without the sounds of the busy highway. Additionally, those that have already driven the road see the area from a different perspective.

The mile markers are consistent, with one every half mile.

And, there are even parts of the trail where riders can chose a hard surface or a soft surface option.

Closer to Aspen there is an unpaved section that lasts about three miles.

Since it is hard packed and this section is flat, any kind of bike should be able to pass through with little problem. Oddly enough, my favorite experience of the ride was in this unpaved section.

This mini waterfall reminded me of a scene in the movie Cars, where the main character is taken to a similar feature. He is told that before the interstates were built all travelers would pass by this waterfall, but travelers now miss out on this beautiful experience in order to save 10 minutes. The scene, and in some ways the entire movie, was making a statement to us about our busy lives, and what we miss out on when we are always in a hurry, focused solely on our destination.

I was having an experience much like the scene in the movie. It would have been much faster to get from Basalt to Aspen on the highway, but not the same experience. I would not have encountered this feature. Leading up to the ride, I was feeling a bit stressed, like I was trying to cram too many activities into too little time. With work, I may have even been focusing on the destination rather than enjoying a key learning experience. Watching the water trickle down the rocks in stunning autumn gold reminded me how rich our lives can be when we don’t always take the most efficient route to a destination, both in physical space and in personal development.

The trail pretty much ends at the John Denver Sanctuary on the North side of Aspen.

That day the city of aspen was colorful. Yellow colored trees could be seen in every direction, from Aspen Mountain, the ski resort adjacent to town, to the pedestrian mall that is often far more crowded (when there is not a global pandemic).

Aspen is known to be active and wealthy. But, I wonder if the people who live here live hectic lives, always focused on their destinations. Or, do many residents of Aspen, and the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley, frequently take the extra time to immerse themselves in the experience of the natural beauty that surrounds them?

Backpacking the Holy Cross Wilderness: Day 3 Nature and Spirit

I became fascinated with weather as a fairly young child. While looking into weather, I would often find old books, written long before people could look up a weather forecast on the computer or even turn on The Weather Channel. These books would describe how sky and wind conditions indicate likely changes in weather. This knowledge seems generally obsolete. However, the combination of knowing how weather patterns typically shape up in late August in the Rocky Mountains and observing the morning sky lead us to expect to be able hike the final 6.2 miles back to the trailhead before encountering rain.

One thing that did get somewhat frustrating on this and other recent camping trips, is the equipment. It is common for people to buy equipment for activities such as camping or hiking and feel as if they are done making purchases. However, on this trip, it became apparent that this tent was going to soon need repair or replacement.

The same can be said for my hiking pants and spork.

It’s taken me a while to realize how warped most people’s view of money and finance is. It seems common to focus only on expenses we can psychically see and on the short-term. When it comes to outdoor and sporting equipment, the line between renting and owning feels quite blurry. The more one uses an item, the sooner it needs to be replaced. So, with certain variance for the quality of the item and how well we take care of our things, even when we buy our own equipment, we are still sort of paying per use. The first dozen or so times anyone uses something like a tent, they rarely think about the cost of eventually replacing it and how those trips are taking them closer to that inevitable expense.

Throughout the trip, we continued to encounter deer up close. We must have chosen to set up camp in their territory or something. Once, when I left the tent to go to the bathroom before going to sleep, I encountered a deer and got startled. By Sunday morning, with clear weather, it almost felt as if we were hanging out with them!

Looking at us, I was wondering if the deer were having their own “Low Key F2020” type of experience. I can imagine them thinking….

Ugh! First there is all this smoke, then this hailstorm comes through, and now these humans are in our way! Can we do like the bears, hibernate and skip to 2021?

Heading back across the valley, the sky continued to point to a more typical late August scenario and the expectation that rain and storms would come, as is more typical, in mid-afternoon.

Heading across the rocky area, we encountered some more furry creatures.

Then headed up fancy pass, a slightly higher pass than the one we had trekked in on Friday.

Heading up the pass, it got kind of windy. I wonder how the people who set up camp closer to the pass, in an exposed area, had fared that morning.

This was the challenging and exhausting part. First there was the nearly 1000 foot climb up Fancy Pass, where we could clearly see that Missouri Pass was lower.

Then, the other side was a steep, rocky downhill, which can be just as tiring as the uphill.

The Fancy Pass Trail experience was a bit more pleasant than the Missouri Lakes Trail experience two days prior. There was no crazy avalanche area where the trail was covered with downed trees and difficult to pass. Also, all of the trail’s features were quite exquisite in the morning sun.

First, Fancy Lake (okay, maybe the names of these things need more variety)

Then, just below the lake, the water funnels into an amazing tall, skinny waterfall.

The final three miles trail is pretty homogenous: a gentle downward slope through a pine forest.

It was in this section that I had a spiritual experience!

As I walked through the woods for what was the final hour and a half of this journey, I suddenly felt as if I was getting some deeply profound messages about my life. They were the kinds of messages that gave me clarity about what I am meant to be doing, confidence in who I am supposed to be and context around some of my more unpleasant past experiences. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

It felt like the result of a confluence of several circumstances.

  • I was tired enough to slow down my mind typically very active thought process. Yet, I was not so exhausted that it was all I could focus on.
  • There were not too many distractions in that section of the trail (i.e. fantastic panoramic views, wildlife, waterfalls, etc.)
  • My mind was somewhat de-cluttered from having done no-news August and having spent three days without access to Wi-Fi

While people believe different things, I genuinely believe that I received messages from either God or some kind of guiding spirit and came away from it with an unexpected boost.

It also gave me that answer to a question that had been looming on my mind for years. There is no question that our modern technology and conveniences have made our lives better. People live longer, are healthier and have more free time and other fun experiences than they did before we had all of our modern technologies. Yet, some chose to forgo conveniences like running water, electricity and computers for periods of time to take part in activities like this one. Regardless of whether or not one believes God speaks to us through nature, taking a break from the modern world gives us the opportunity to connect with something we don’t typically connect to.

The Great Ocean Road Day 1: Great Otway National Park

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The Great Ocean Road is an iconic drive along the south coast of Australia. Accessing the road is relatively easy. It starts about an hour west of Melbourne. For travelers, especially international ones, I’d recommend a stop at the travel information center along highway 1 just outside of Geelong. The people there were quite friendly. They provided plenty of maps and other information about attractions, which ended up being quite useful. They told me that many visitors try to do the entire drive all in one day, particularly in summer. However, with so much to do here, I am glad we chose a three day excursion in a camper van.

Our first spotting of the ocean shore in the distance, occurred less than 2km after we passed a sign welcoming us to the Great Ocean Road. A lot of travel involves a destination that is one specific location; a museum, campground, event or city. In these cases, it is easy to know when you have “arrived” at your destination. On trips like this one, the lines can be blurred. Seeing the ocean after passing this sign gave us a clearer indication that we were now at our intended destination- The Great Ocean Road.

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A bit further West, after having already hugged the coastline for about 20 km, an even fancier welcome awaits motorists just before entering one of the larger towns along the road, Lorne.

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Passing under this arch felt reminiscent of cycling under the original gateway into Yellowstone National Park, several summers ago.

The eastern half of this scenic drive passes in and out of coastal towns like Lorne and Torquay, which are primarily known for their surfing.

It also jets in and out of Great Otway National Park, a pretty dense feeling forest with plethora of utterly amazing waterfalls. Visiting all the waterfalls in this park would likely take several days, so it’s probably good to just pick a few specific ones to visit.

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As is the case with most of the other waterfalls in the park, getting to Erskine Falls required venturing a bit off the Great Ocean Road. The trailhead is about 10 km off the road in Lorne, and the walk was about 1.5 km round trip.

Despite the raw power of a this waterfall, the place felt quite tranquil. The trees calm the air while also creating a feeling of seclusion. Below the falls, the water seemed oddly calm despite having just descended 38 m (125 ft.). There is nothing like a gentile flowing creek when it comes to feeling balanced, happy, and connected to nature. The water cycle ties our planet together, and the manner in which it retains its tranquil feeling after going over the falls is uniquely reassuring.

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Each of the waterfalls in Great Otway National Park has a pattern that is unique from one another. Yet, they are uniform in their ability to create a feeling of seclusion from the outside world which made me feel refreshingly carefree and mindful.

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We saw the sun gradually begin to descend upon the Great Ocean Road, as we approached our campsite for the first evening, in a smaller town called Wye River where it appeared as if most people live on a hill.

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We set up a table and chairs along another tranquil creek, and opened up the top, or “penthouse” of our Jucy camper van.

It was my first time traveling in a camper van, but the experience felt quite similar to the kinds of camping trips I take part in back home in Colorado (with the exception of the sunset at 5:15 creating a long night).

Trips like this, away from much of our most recent technology always make me wonder whether or not it is worth it. Sure, when we ditch some of this technology, at places like this, there are more chores to be done, and some entertainment options are not available. However, making a comparison between an evening camping and an evening in the city, it feels like much of what our newest technologies have created are only minor conveniences, like a computer algorithm to help us select music to listen to, or a way to not have to physically buy a ticket to an event in person.

In exchange, we have created hundreds of new procedures to remember, hundreds of additional hours annually in front of screens, hundreds more things to keep track of and maintain and hundreds of log-ins and passwords to various sites and apps. Maybe it all is worth it, as I am comparing a holiday to normal days where we often have to work, do some form of home maintenance or run errands. Regardless, I am glad to have had some time away from these countless complications we have recently added to our lives.

The Time I Hiked Two Miles Past My Destination

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It took a mere 15 minutes to actually find Sand Creek Falls at Osage Hills State Park. I walked by these falls, which have a vertical drop of only around two feet, and thought “this cannot be the actual falls.” We would spend another two hours looking for waterfalls we had already found.

We would walk by some fishing cabins.

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Birds circled the warm and humid late April Oklahoma sky.

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And, we continued to look, at different places further up the river, for the waterfalls that we had actually already found.

It was not until we had gotten back to the car and searched for images of Sand Creek Falls that we realized what we had seen were indeed the falls that this trail was named for.

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We just had the wrong expectation. Sure, Osage Hills State Park is in Oklahoma, but this part of Northern Oklahoma is hillier than the stereotypical images brought up by movies like Twister.

Just last year, I had visited another waterfall on the Great Plains, Smith Falls in Northern Nebraska.

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I thought the waterfall would be more like this one. As a result, I wouldn’t appreciate the falls until I looked back at the photos hours later. I was too focused on expectations. Rather than taking in Sand Creek Falls for what it actually was, I spent hours looking for something else.

This is a common struggle with respect to all kinds of events. It’s the party where not as many people show up as expected and the music being played is not what you wanted. It’s the time your friend cancels on you last minute, or when you didn’t get to watch the movie you had hoped for at a family gathering.

I struggle with this a lot. I often find myself down, or even hurt, when my life doesn’t meet the expectations I set for myself and the world around me.

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Experiences like a string of bad luck at a casino, a friendship or relationship not turning out as one hoped, or a bad turn of events at a job are somewhat out of our immediate control. However, sometimes when something does not match an expectation, it is not necessarily for the worse. It just requires an adjustment, and sometimes can open people up to new experiences altogether.

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Being part of something truly awe-inspiring is not as hard as most people make it. It’s just about finding the right balance; between planing and spontaneity, and between being determined to get what we are after and being able to adjust to changes in life’s circumstances. It is also about being open enough to new opportunities as they present themselves and noticing what is around us for what it is and not what it could or should be.

 

 

Nebraska Out of the Way Attractions

Smith Falls

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Smith Falls is pretty well hidden from most travelers. It is located in a very sparsely populated section of North Central Nebraska, far away from any heavily traveled interstate highway. It is also in a section of the country where few would expect to see a magnificent waterfall like this one.

Unless you are one of Valentine, Nebraska’s 2,820 residents, getting there is a long drive on empty roads, that even requires four miles on a gravel road off of State Highway 12.

Being so far out of the way of where people live and travel, the Niobrara Canyon, where Smith Falls is located, is quite secluded. The river itself looks nothing like the surrounding areas. The dense tree coverage feels reminiscent of places further East. It feels like the perfect destination for a private group experience; a float trip, family reunion, or some other group bonding experience.

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There does tend to be a few more people at the Falls themselves, as it is the main attraction at the State Park.

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Unlike some trails, visitors can freely walk right into Smith Falls without breaking any kind of rule. Many visitors bring swimsuits, and wear water shoes, as the trail to get from the parking to the falls is not vigorous at all, although it is about half a mile.

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Carhenge

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Carhenge, just north of Alliance, Nebraska, several hours west of Smith Falls is also quite far from any metropolitan area or heavily traveled highway. This image of an open two-lane highway with nobody else on it, wide open skies and small subtle sand hills in the background sums up the entire three hour drive between Smith Falls and Carhenge.

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While both attractions are out of the way, a few miles outside a small town (Alliance has a population closer to 8,000), in a way they could not be any more different. Smith Falls and the Niobrara Canyon is all about natural beauty, an attraction carved out of a glaciation event that occurred about 17,000 years ago. Carhenge is a homage to all things manmade, a recreation of Stonehenge, a mysterious pre-historic manmade structure, using a more modern human invention, cars.

Whereas Smith Falls is serious, Carhenge is has a goofy vibe. There is also more to Carhenge than just rusty old cars arranged like Stonehenge. This one vehicle apparently has a time capsule in it. In the year 2053, someone will open up memories of 2003, the last year before social media. That should be an interesting experience, especially for someone not old enough to remember such a world.

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There is also a car where people can write on.

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A few of these random structures that are made out of car parts, whose relation to the rest of the exhibit is not aparent.

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And, a car hood with a vaguely political sounding message on it.

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Chimney Rock

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Not too far from Carhenge is an attraction of both natural beauty and historical significance: Chimney Rock.

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Although this structure served as a landmark for Native Americans and fur trappers, its significance was heightened when South Pass (in Western Wyoming) was discovered to be the easiest passage across the Rocky Mountains. This lead to most major trails, including the famed Oregon Trail, being routed along the North Platte River, passing by Chimney Rock.

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Chimney Rock is a National Historical Site with a museum containing artifacts, primarily about the pioneers who traveled this route, including journals and letters written by those who made the journey.

It is hard to appreciate in the current era, where anyone with means can get on a plane and fly to some of the most beautiful places on Earth, but when pioneers in the mid-19th Century came across Chimney Rock, they were often in awe of its beauty. Many accounts went to great lengths to describe the structure that is Chimney Rock.

It was also recognized by those making the journey at the time as the point where the flat portion of the journey ended and the uphill part began. The journey ahead would become more rigorous, but also more beautiful.

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Nebraska is not always known as a place with a lot of natural beauty. However, it is not without its places to be appreciated. The truth is that beauty can be found pretty much anywhere, because, it is often not a specific place or a specific person. It is often an experience. A major part of the travel experience is driving. Nebraska offers open roads that pass by subtle features like the sand hills or the rock features further west. The key is to go a little bit out of the way, and to notice, be looking for what is around you. Then, with the right music on in the right vehicle (I personally found both classic rock and EDM to match this situation, you may find something different), the experience becomes a thing of beauty itself.

Sioux Falls: Not What its Supposed to Be

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I could stare at this for hours, looking at every detail about how the water pours over the rocks, creating a continuous splash, swirls in a pattern that is both chaotic and controlled at the same time, and a fine mist that sprays outward from the surface it lands on.

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No matter how many times I see waterfalls like these, it always fascinates me that some of the water that cascades downward takes on the appearance of foam, as if it was not water at all, but had taken on another form. Watching the water rapidly descend and subsequently take on this different form feels reminiscent of a human being that undergoes an experience that is both traumatic and transformative. The water, traumatized by unexpectedly falling rapidly, suddenly exudes a sudsy and bubbly appearance.

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The amount of raw power that is created when large amount of water steadily pour over a rock. The variance in colors that appear as a result of every small scale detail about how the rocks are arranged. The changes in the manner in which the atmosphere feels in proximity to this phenomenon.

All of this creates a level of curiosity and fascination in me reminiscent of an 8-year-old at a science museum, in awe by dinosaur bones and that electricity ball that makes people’s hair stand up any time they put their hands on it. How did the rocks come to be formed in this manner? Why did the water chose this path on its way to the ocean to complete the water cycle? And, in this case in particular, how did this happen in a place so unexpected?

Falls Park is not only in a section of the country that is quite flat (Eastern South Dakota), but it is also right in the middle of a city (Sioux Falls). Everything about its location is contrary to what most people think of when they imagine encountering waterfalls. Yet, it is there, powerful and beautiful.

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It is also not just one waterfall, but a series of waterfalls that cover a surprisingly long section of the Big Sioux River. The park itself spans 123 acres, includes a restaurant, permanent sculptures, and gets lit up for the holidays in December. It does for Sioux Falls what Central Park does for New York, and Golden Gate does for San Francisco. It is the place in the heart of town that is natural and scenic, providing a kind of convenient short-term escape from day-to-day urban concerns.

However, given its location, surrounded in all directions by flat lightly forested grassland and corn fields, a waterfall like this feels like it is not supposed to be here. Sioux Falls is a city in the Great Plains. The other cities in the region are bisected by rivers that gently flow towards the Mississippi in some capacity, not cascading waterfalls that are typically found in mountainous terrain.

Sioux Falls captures the imagination much in the same way light switches captivate a 9 month old, or magnets a 4 year old. It is not what is expected. It is not what it is supposed to be. Places like this, people like this, and ideas like this are what makes life interesting. Sure, we are all comforted when what is around us, including the people we interact with, follow some sort of pattern, behaving as expected. However, without the mavericks out there, the teacher with a strange method of reaching students, those that quit stable jobs to start a business, and that one person in your social circle who always has a story from last weekend about something the rest of us could never even imagine doing, things can get quite stale. Therefore, for the same reason I salute the first person to decide to travel the world by bicycle, I salute Sioux Falls for not being what it is supposed to be!

Chasing Records- Spearfish, SD

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At 7:30 A.M. on January 22, 1943, the temperature in Spearfish, South Dakota was -4ºF. A mere two minutes later, the temperature had suddenly jumped to +45ºF, a swing of nearly 50 degrees in a manner of two minutes. The Great Plains is known to be a region with extremely volatile weather. However, with respect to volatility on this short of a time scale, this one event is still in the record books.

75 years later, locals, as well as those interested in weather, still talk about the event. In fact, the event is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Spearfish.

But, why so much volatility? Why here? The answer to that question lays in the geography of the region.

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Spearfish sits just north of the region known as the Black Hills. The Black Hills, although detached from the Rocky Mountains, are actually quite mountainous, with peaks rising several thousand feet above the river valleys. The manner in which peaks rise up in either direction while rock formations are carved out by small creeks is quite reminiscent of the Rockies.

Just over the border, in Northeastern Wyoming, Buttes of varying colors pop out of the more open, but still hilly landscape.

Only ten miles south of Spearfish is one of what feels like 500 different waterfalls that goes by the name “Bridal Veil Falls“.

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It is, nonetheless, breathtaking, but, what is it about this name? Did the wedding industry  somehow collaborate with the outdoor industry to try to convince tourists looking at waterfalls to be thinking about fancy weddings through this common nomenclature? Was there an early 20th Century conversation that went something like this…

“Okay, we’ll name every other waterfall ‘Bridal Veil Falls’. In exchange, you will encourage every newlywed couple to take something referred to as a ‘honeymoon’.”
“A honeymoon.. what is that?”
“A vacation that everyone is expected to take right after getting married. Think about it, both of our industries can make a ton of money off of this. We’ll get people thinking about getting married and specifically doing so with a fancy dress, likely to cost a lot of money, and then you make sure that when they wed, they are spending money on another vacation.”
“Sounds like a win-win.”

Okay, maybe it was not exactly like that, but it does seem pecular.

As far as Spearfish is concerned, traveling in the other direction, North, from town, could not be a more opposite experience.

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It is the Great Plains, and specifically the Dakotas, the way most people picture it.

It is this contrast, and specifically the North-South orientation of this contrast, in Spearfish that created this record breaking temperature change. When air travels from high elevation to low elevation, it warms. It is this exact reason that Denver, Colorado, just east of the Rocky Mountains, has frequent warm spells in the middle of the winter. In fact, January 16th is the only calendar date in which Denver’s record high is lower than 65ºF (it’s 64).

With the flat, wide-open, treeless land to the North, it could not be easier for bitter cold air straight from the North Pole to reach Spearfish. However, when warmer air does come from the South, it is further warmed by its trip over the Black Hills.

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But, why all the fuss about setting records? Specifically, why do people care so much about bizarre records? In 1943, the news about the wild temperature swings in Spearfish provided a war-weary American public with some lighter news. And while the impact was only a bunch of broken windows, people can learn from these records.

The wild temperature ride in Spearfish demonstrates how the atmosphere works. Is there something similar to be learned by the man who broke 46 toilet seats with his head in one minute? Do people who have watched that video avoid breaking their own toilet seat at home?

Or, is there something other than intellectual curiosity at work? Records like this one are interesting to people regardless of whether or not they care about the ins-and-outs of how the atmosphere works. They are just entertaining. They also provide people with one of the main things we are all searching for in the modern world; significance.

The people of Spearfish can always bring up this wild temperature swing as something that makes their town stand out among all of the towns of roughly 10,000 people out there. It is the same for the man who bloodied his head breaking toilet seats, or that one person in everyone’s social circle that did something bizarre, like stop at every Arby’s between Chicago and Saint Louis (there are 13). They have this way of making the world just a bit more interesting.

 

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.

 

 

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 3

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The Weminuche Wildreness appeared to be particularly devastated by the recent Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic.  While a portion of the second day was spent above the tree line and in storms for much of the journey, we wound our way in and out of the forest, alternating between hiking through the forest itself, and hiking across an open meadow where we could gaze upon the forest to both our left and our right.

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Throughout the State of Colorado, and throughout the West, I observe areas where the Pine Beetles have decimated the forest, changing the ecosystem forever.  Nowhere, though, have I seen a higher concentration of dead trees.  I would estimate that, over the course of the trip, some 70-75% of all the pine trees I saw, were, in fact, dead.

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But I did notice some signs of life, particularly at the campground Sunday (Day 3) morning.  Tucked away amongst the densely pack forests of decimated trees, little signs of life seemed to appear.  It reminded me of many American cities, circa 1982, decay being the overarching theme but, signs of life and pockets of hope beginning to appear here and there for those willing to observe.  Maybe indeed, the worst has now passed for this particular forest.  As was the case for many of our cities, it is possible that in a decade or so, we will revisit areas like this, and see once again a thriving forest, albeit, as was the case with our cities, with a different character?

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As is typically the case on a three day excursion like this one, the last day was primarily a descent.  As we descended, we quickly reached elevations where Aspens, rather than Pine trees made up a significant proportion of the forest.

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Maybe it is different at this latitude, farther South than the Denver area, where I live and spend most of my time.  But, it feels as if in this wilderness, Aspen trees are able to grow at some pretty high elevations.

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We figured out the tree line here to be somewhere close to 12,000 feet in elevation.  When looking upon sections of forest from afar like this, it is easy to picture some of these Aspen trees living at elevations close to 11,00 feet.  Over the course of my four years in the Denver area, I had grown accustomed to them disappearing between 9,000 and 10,000 feet.

Sunday’s hike was a 7.3 mile trek along the Ute Creek trail (the East Ute Creek trail we had followed the previous day merged with the main Ute Creek trail).  The trail alternated a bit, climbing up and out of the valley formed by the creek for some sections, and descending back toward the creek for others.  Due to the previous night’s onslaught of rain, which likely impacted the entire valley, the trails on this, the final day, were at times even muddier than the were the prior two days.  At the end of three days, our total distance came out around 25 miles.  I speculated as to whether the extra distance we traveled stepping around puddles, and veering left and right to avoid some of the muddiest sections of trail, over the course of three days made this a mile or so longer than it would have been had the trails been completely dry.

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I personally added some distance on top of that.  I love side excursions, whether hiking/backpacking, cycling, or on a road trip.  And, in addition to the side excursion to the feature known as “the window” the previous day, I took one completely on my own the final day.  Roughly halfway through the hike, I saw a place where I could cut down to the creek, and see a mini-waterfall.

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The final part of the day consisted of a small climb out of the Ute Creek valley, followed by a descent back towards the Rio Grande Reserviour.

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It is inevitable that, on the last day of any trip, we all begin to ponder our return home, and a return to our “normal lives”, whatever they may be.  This return, though, is somewhat unique, as a trip into the woods is not just a journey away from our jobs, or certain responsibilities, it feels more like a complete separation from the modern world, or as some people refer to it, the “real world”.  All of us were separated, not just from work, but from TV, from the news, from Twitter, and even the manner in which society is structured in the 21st Century.

Since my return to Denver was a return to, after being completely separated from, the “real world”, I started to contemplate the “real world” as one big entity, which, even for a big-picture abstract curious minded thinker like me, turned out to be strange.  I feel like we often compartmentalize the “real world” into buckets; the working world, the relationship world, the school world, etc.  We will write blogs, have conversations, confide in others about our hardships, or celebrate our successes, with respect to one specific bucket of the “real world” at a time.  Some people will even chose to accept or rebel against the modern world on a bucket-by-bucket basis.  “I’m a freelancer, happily married with two kids and a picket fences house.”  “I work 9-to-5 for a large corporation, but I only eat organically certified food.”

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of the partially-rebellious lifestyles I am describing here.  We often try to oversimplify the actions and lifestyles of others as being either “conformist” or “rebellious”.  When I thought about life in the woods, and the few people that actually do it, live off the grid, and off the land, I think of those people as “rebellious”.  But, then I thought of human beings as part of the animal kingdom, and thought about what all non-domesticated animals do.  They live in the woods.  They hunt their food, many wandering around nomadically.  When thought of in that manner, it is us human beings, and our domesticated cats and dogs, that are rebelling against the way the rest of the animal kingdom works by farming our food and setting up permanent shelters.

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At the conclusion of our journey, we had to actually wade across the Rio Grand River to get to the car, as the trail ended abruptly at the river.  This likely explained why we did not see any other people the entire time we were on the East Ute Creek and Ute Creek trails yesterday and today.

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Shortly after leaving the trailhead, I saw what looked like baby mule deer living along the steepest part of the hill.

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Like the journey to the Wilderness, the journey home took us by some of Colorado’s highest peaks and most stunning mountainous features.  I thought of the “real world” I was gradually re-entering, the life I live and the journey I just took.  It is not important whether we are “conforming” or “rebelling”, because, like life in the woods, it can be thought of as conformist or rebellious depending on perspective.

Those of us that are honest with ourselves, and with those around us, will undoubtedly find ourselves in both situations.  We’ll find ourselves in a place where our choices are the same as those around us, and be suseptable to being labelled “conformists”.  We’ll also, at some point, find ourselves in a place where our choices are not those of the majority, and be met with skepticism, hostility, and possibly even pressure to change.  What matters most, is not fitting into an image we may have of ourselves, whether it be the upstanding citizen, rebel, outcast, or whatever, it is that we have the courage to be all things, depending on our setting, in order to be true to ourselves.