Tag Archives: Guanella Pass

The Calm Before the Storm


This is Guanella Pass, 11,700 feet (3570 m) above sea level on Wednesday October 9, 2019. It was a warm day, one that almost felt like mid-summer. As can be seen from the photograph, the region had yet to receive a significant snow. On that day, Denver International Airport would reach a high temperature of 83ºF (28ºC). Temperatures were quite pleasant at higher elevations.

However, change was on its way. These photos were taken only several hours before autumn’s fist meaningful push of cold air would arrive in Central Colorado. The next day would see temperatures across the entire region dip below freezing, and snow fall all the way down in Denver.


Friday morning’s low would reach 9°F (-12°C) in Denver, representing a near record breaking temperature drop.

Thanks to weather models, forecasters saw this dramatic change coming. Most Coloradans were prepared.


Yet, even without computer models to foresee the exact day and exact nature of these changes, it is pretty well understood, especially up in the Rockies, that at this time of year, sooner or later an event like this is bound to happen. This is why many high elevation animals gather food in the second half of the summer and why the tree leaves change colors in the autumn.

Luckily, it was a Wednesday. So, the roads people usually take to go “leaf peeping” weren’t nearly as crowded as they are on weekends.


Guanella Pass is amazing in autumn. Being only 50 miles from Denver, it is typically far more crowded on weekends at this time of year.


I often get carried away with getting to that perfect location, many miles out of the way where the image, the sounds, smells and conditions are perfect!


However, that day I noticed that it is quite possible to see some spectacular fall colors without even leaving the main roads. I saw bright gold trees along both Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 285!


Few places captured the essence of life in the mountains in Autumn better than Georgetown, which is right along I-70.


It was strange to gaze upon the Aspen trees knowing that in less than 12 hours, due to wind and snow, most of the leaves would be gone, and the landscape was about to fundamentally be changed.

Storms are part of the nature of life, not just with respect to weather and seasons. It is the first time we have a crush, and soon after the first time we get our hearts broken. It is the conflicts we have with our family, close friends and significant others. It is that person we just don’t get along with. It is losing a job, getting in an unexpected accident, or even just having a week’s worth of bad luck.

It’s facing our fears, which is what Halloween is really all about.


In October, the days get darker and chillier, foreshadowing winter, often the most dreaded of the seasons. It is no coincidence that this is the time of year we celebrate all that is spooky; carving spooky designs into pumpkins, dressing in scary costumes and watching scary movies.

Some of life’s “storms” come unexpectedly. However, some are at least somewhat predictable, like the changing of the seasons or a coming breakup. How we respond differs quite a bit from person to person. There are those that prepare, those that embrace, those that deny and those that simply try to weather it as best as possible.

Maybe the same is true of these Aspen trees up in the mountains.


It was hard for me to imagine why some trees at 9,000 feet (2750m) in elevation would still have green leaves on October 9th. They seemed less prepared. However, maybe they are just enjoying this calm before the storm a bit longer. I can’t say I had not done the same at various points in my life.

The key to facing the storms of our lives is to build up resiliency and self-confidence. This is part of what facing our fears is all about. Once our fears have been faced, we are prepared to have that awkward conversation where we must tell people what they don’t want to hear. We are ready to assert ourselves to obtain what we really want out of life. And, we are ready to deal with setbacks without falling apart.

The confidence not to panic gives us the capacity to enjoy “the calm before the storm” to its fullest extent.


An Eerie Feeling on Guanella Pass


Those that love to travel, whether they be the rare few, the people who get to travel for a living, or those who find a way to travel as much as possible, understand that Planet Earth is full of amazing places!  One of the things that makes traveling interesting is the wide variety of types of places to visit, all of which will produce different scenery, and different experiences.  It is nearly impossible to describe or capture the true range of experiences one could theoretically attain through travel, but the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth Series does a pretty good job.

When people come to visit me here in Denver, I typically take them, in some capacity, into the mountains.  I will particularly ensure that a trip to the mountains gets on the agenda if I get visitors from places like Chicago, which couldn’t be further from any kind of mountain range.  After all, one of the reasons we travel is to see things we do not typically see.  From Denver, it doesn’t typically take too long to get somewhere spectacular.  About half an hour west of downtown, there is a segment of I-70 where the full prominence of the Central Rocky Mountains suddenly appears in quite spectacular fashion.  I remember being amazed by the view that pops out in front of me the first time I traveled up I-70.  Many photographs have been taken from this location, and it was even noted as a point of interest at the History Colorado Center.


Now that I have lived in Denver for over three years, a short excursion into the mountains typically takes me to a place I have already been, sometimes even a place I have been numerous times.  However, as is noted by the Planet Earth video series, these places often look quite different during different seasons.  Those that visit Colorado in the winter or spring will see mountains covered with snow.  This view, from I-70 near Genesee, will look significantly different, likely in just a few weeks.

October is sometimes a tricky time of year to determine activities in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.  It is that transition season where often times conditions are no longer favorable for summer activities (and many of the seasonal roads have already closed for the season), but a significant snowpack has yet to develop.  This fall has been anomalously warm here in Colorado, and the extent of the snowpack that has developed in the mountains appears in this picture below.


However, according to the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center (NOHRSC), by mid-late October, the typical snowpack over the high terrain of the Central Rocky Mountains is still less than a foot (and not consistent year to year).


This map displays snow depth anomalies for Sunday, October 18th according to the NOHRSC.  The actual snow depth, across the entire region, was zero.  The anomalies show just how far below normal this is, which, in the highest terrain on this map, falls into the 4 to 8 inch range, indicating that even at locations above 14,000 feet, there is typically not too much snowpack by mid-October.

Knowing that most seasonal roads would still be open due to the lack of snow, but with somewhat limited time for an excursion into the mountains, we opted to take a trip over Guanella Pass, which is still less than an hour’s drive from Denver.  Despite having been there several times, the experience for me was already new, as a new paved road had just been built, connecting the town of Grant, along highway 285, with Georgetown, along I-70.  This new road is likely to get mixed reactions, as traveling along it is now much easier (and now possible without AWD).  However, there are sections of this pass that are popular among campers, particularly people looking for a quiet camping experience.  On Sunday’s excursion, I encountered several groups of motorcycles.  The prevalence of motorcycles, and the noise they make, could possibly make some of the Guanella Pass campers seek a more remote experience elsewhere.

Without having to focus on driving over rocks and bumps, I noticed places I simply did not notice on previous drives up Guanella Pass, like this waterfall.


However, that was not the full extent of the new experience I had on Sunday.  The final approach to the summit took me above the tree line, where I suddenly got an eerie feeling from what was around me.

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It’s hard to describe.  It felt almost like I was on another planet.  It was isolated.  Most of the time that we stopped at the summit, we were the only ones there, and my car was the only one on the road.  The sagebrush of the alpine tundra had taken on brown color that I am not accustomed to seeing.  Some combination of the sun angle, unusual ground color, and isolation definitely gave me a really strange feeling.  It was eerie, creepy, out of this world, I really did not know what to make of it.  It was just, well, strange.

However, I came back feeling glad that different seasons can create different experiences out of the same places.  Typically, when I make the trek up to elevations just above the tree line, there is one of two experiences.

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The alpine tundra is white in winter (and often still white well into the springtime), and green and lush in the summer.  In October, though, it took on a whole new color, one I had not seen before.

This planet has plenty of places that are unique, unlike any other place on earth.  Some of them even feel out of this world.  Sunday’s experience at Guanella Pass reminded me of two things.  A lot of these unique experiences that we plan trips to get to are seasonally dependent.  And, sometimes these experiences can happen unexpectedly.

A Whole Different Kind of Camping

For me, at least, this is a whole different kind of camping than what I am used to.  I am not a very experienced camper.  In the entire course of my life I think I have camped maybe a couple of dozen nights.  All of these nights took place at a campground, typically reserving a site ahead of time.  Last night, I took part in a style of camping that is fairly common in the State of Colorado, but seemed quite strange to me when I first heard of it.

There are no specified campsites or reservations.  There is no park office to check you in, collect a fee, and sell you firewood.  There are no restrooms or showers, and there are certainly no vending machines.  This type of camping simply involves finding a spot in the forest to lay down tents.  It is so basic, and so obvious.  Just go and camp.  Yet, in the context of the modern world that we live in, it sounds so strange.


In fact, I did not even know how to prepare for this trip.  When we all went to the store to get supplies, I was the only idiot grabbing burgers, buns and cheese, as if I was preparing for a barbecue, until I was instructed otherwise by those who have actually camped in such places before.  There are no grills here.  You can only prepare food supported by the equipment that you bring.

We camped high up in the Rocky Mountains, around 60 miles west of Denver, just south of a place called Guanella Pass.  This wilderness region is particularly significant, as trailheads leading to the top of two major mountains, Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans, can be found throughout the area.  So, although there is no specific campsite, it is still a common place to camp, as many heading up one or both of these mountains set up camp in the area.

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We set up camp in the area along Geneva Creek, where a significant number of campfire setups like this one are left behind by previous campers.  So, while I can count this among the most remote places I have spent an evening, I realized that there are places that are even more rustic, more primitive, and farther “away from it all” than here.

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We did not intend to climb a major mountain, nor did we have the time to do so.  This trip was actually planned last minute by people more knowledgeable than me about such things.  We ended up hiking a more moderate, and shorter trail called the Burning Bear Trail, which follows a creek by the same name.

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The trail starts off pretty flat, and looking more like a dirt trail than a typical hiking trail.

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As the trail picked up, I saw a significant amount of chopped down tree branches, many of which were chopped down in some sort of regular pattern.  In one section, the tree branches appeared to have been arranged to form some sort of tepee.  I took a gander inside, but it did not feel too useful.  Also pictured above is the columbine, which is Colorado’s State Flower.

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While there were no major waterfalls, there were a lot of small waterfalls along the trail, and plenty of places where my dog could cool off in the creek.

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After hiking roughly 2.5 miles, and climbing probably about 900 feet, we reached some kind of old cabin, which made for a good stopping point, where we could turn around and get back to the campground with plenty of time to prepare fire and dinner and such.


Returning to the trailhead around 6:15 P.M., we encountered what I thought was the most amazing view of the entire wilderness area of the day.  By that hour, the sun had reached a lower angle, accentuating the mountain’s higher peaks.


In some ways camping that evening was similar to a typical camping experience.  We cooked some food, set up a campfire, told some ridiculous stories, and went to bed around 11.  There was marshmallow roasting, and people throwing all kinds of random items into the fire to see how they would interact with the heat and flames.  Mosquitoes came out in gradually greater and greater numbers as the evening progressed, and went away around sundown.

However, in some other ways it was different.  As previously mentioned, we were not grilling.  Instead, we were cooking food on small stoves.  Although we did use some previously purchased bundles of firewood, we also used a significant amount of firewood that we gathered from random tree branches.  In fact, we even tried to lite branches that were retrieved from the creek.  They turned out to be a bit too wet.


There were a couple of other firsts for me on this journey.  Aside from being my first time camping at a place other than a designated campsite, it was my first time camping with a dog.  This presented some other challenges, but, my dog definitely seemed to enjoy it.  Also, at an elevation close to 10,000 feet, it was by far the highest elevation I had ever camped at.

In the end, one of my favorite parts of the evening was when I arrived back at the campsite at roughly 6:30, went back to the tent, and threw all of my stuff down, including my wallet, phone, and keys.  I had previously not thought about this, but these three things represent the basic necessities of our connected 21st century world.  Most days when I wake up, I reflexively pack those three things into my pants pockets.  Even when I am going for a bike ride, I have them in my camelback.  In a way, setting these three items aside is symbolic of having truly escaped to somewhere different.  It is truly having left everything behind and actually haven taken a break from whatever your day-to-day life typically entails, including it’s stress, anxiety, and uncertainty.  Once those three items are put away, the here and now is all that needs to be considered, and there is something inherently amazing about that, which I had previously failed to appreciate.