Tag Archives: Hiking

Columbine Lake- Grand County, Colorado

Many of Colorado’s outdoor activities involve putting the body through some kind of major challenge. There are no 14er climbs with less than 2,000 feet in vertical gain. Most 14er routes exceed 4,00 feet! Rock climbing, whitewater rafting and pretty much all of the State’s most talked about bike rides are quite physically challenging. There is a reason Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the country.

While these experiences improve physical health, there are spiritual benefits to being in nature and taking it at a slower pace. At a slower pace, one can fully observe, reflect, immerse and use that space to reduce stress and process thoughts. It’s a different kind of experience. After the extreme physical challenge that was Ride the Rockies, it was the kind of experience I was craving.

It may be challenging to develop the patience to just sit or walk slowly, especially after such a personal accomplishment. So, I found something in between the two extremes. I found a hike that would most certainly still be considered exercise, but not intense enough to distract from the experience of being in nature. That is Grand County’s Columbine Lake (there are two lakes in the state with this name so the distinction is necessary) via the Junco Lake Trail.

In addition to being a truly moderate trail, this particular hike is also both quiet and scenic. The catch is, getting there can be a little tough.

After driving through Winter Park along highway 40…

Getting there involves following an unpaved county road for about 12 miles, the final three of which can be quite rough.

The trail also starts out rocky, in a manner that almost felt indistinguishable from the final few miles of driving to get to the trailhead.

This part was also pretty intense. At least it was intense enough to feel a lot more like a challenging hike than some kind of a walk in nature.

After this initial section, it felt exactly like the balance between active exercise and the spiritual experience I was looking for.

The trail also kind of switches back and forth between sections of dense pine forests and open meadows .

Finally, it follows a narrow creek with periodic mini waterfalls.

As it approaches the lake.

With open meadows and few other people, taken slowly enough, much of this hike could be the ideal setting for a spiritual experience. However, it requires some effort. It is almost reminiscent of Yoga, where the clearing of the mind comes only after pushing the body a little bit.

People are often searching for balance in life. This is frequently interpreted as finding some middle ground between two extremes. Could true balance also require a balance between moderation and that which is radical, extreme or intense? Likely, we all need some aspect of both in our lives. It ebbs and flows with different experiences taking a more prominent role in different seasons. In the end, it becomes all about getting the experiences we need to be complete human beings.

Do We Have Too Many Updates?

Elk Falls, in Stauton State Park, is a fairly lengthy hike. The round trip from the main parking lot (called the Meadow Parking Lot) is about 11 miles, depending on where you park. It begins with a mostly flat, 3.1 mile section called the Staunton Ranch Trail.

The trail passes by areas of interesting rocks where people climb.

And even crosses a county line.

As is the case with most State Parks, this trail is part of a network of trails that connect several important features. Elk Falls just happens to be the most commonly discussed feature, as it is the tallest waterfall within an hour drive of Denver.

Staunton State Park is one of the easiest trail networks to navigate. At each trail junction, there is a sign that not only identifies the trails, but also serves as a mile marker.

At this point, I had hiked 2.6 miles and had 1.6 miles to the Elk Falls Pond.

With an additional 1.2 miles from the pond to the waterfall, this sign was quite close to the halfway point of the hike.

The hike from the parking lot to the falls would take just over two hours (the return trip would be about the same length). Over the course of the trip, the signage would provide me with a total of about five mileage updates. I actually found this to be quite close to the frequency I desired.

However, I wondered, how many updates we really need and what impact it is having on our experience. I thought about the explorers of centuries past, who would travel great distances using maps that, while state of the art for the time, would be considered woefully insufficient today. Lewis and Clark, for example, famously underestimated the length of their journey by many months. Yet, today we demand mapping software that estimates our time of arrival to the minute. These software packages, available to anyone who has a smart phone, even adjusts expectations for the one aspect of travel that still lead to uncertainty at the turn of the century- traffic. Now, at any moment in time, we can say exactly how much distance and how much time we have left.

Has this detracted from the experience? Are we bombarding ourselves with too many updates? Does checking the map on our phone for updates too frequently cause us to focus too much on the destination, preventing us from enjoying the journey? Could it even be causing anxiety? Elk Falls is the destination and the highlight of the trip, but while still over an hour away from the Falls, it is certainly better to enjoy what is in front of me than to spend the entire time anxiously awaiting the Falls. The same can be said for the trip back to the parking lot.

It makes me think of everything else in life we excessively look for updates on. How much is too much? How often do we check…

  • The number of likes our photo received?
  • The current status of our investments?
  • Whatever device is tracking our fitness goals?
  • The news?

And, what impact does it have on…

  • The experience we have in the places where we took those photos
  • How we think about the investments we chose to make
  • Our feelings about our bodies
  • How we feel about the state of the world

It feels like we’ve reached a point where we are updating ourselves too frequently on too many things. Maybe it’s time to back off all of it and try to be more present in the moment. Maybe this will require some degree of acceptance, of things how they are as opposed to how we wish them to be.

At the End

It is perhaps one of the most pleasant feelings in existence. The crowds and the activity of summer have passed. The air is quite comfortable. A gentle breeze blows light yellow and orange tree leaves across the horizon, sprinkling the ground. Without the breeze, hiking would be a bit uncomfortable, with temperatures around 72°F (23°C). Yet, subtly embedded into this harmless wind is hint at what is to come. Perhaps it is only in the mind, but it feels like the breeze is making a statement. It is as if the minor fluctuations in the wind speed are simultaneously saying that this is the nicest, most colorful experience of the year and that the time for these summertime activities will soon come to an end.

October in Central Colorado is magical. It combines the natural beauty that is always around.

With periodic yellow and orange colors dotting the landscape in what would appear like randomly selected spots.

Over the years, people have said that the fall colors in Colorado’s mountains are not nearly as spectacular as they are in the East. In a way, they are both right and wrong. It’s impossible to find a more colorful landscape than the mountains of New England in early October. But, it would be an exaggeration to say, as some Colorado transplants do, “it’s just one color”. Look closely enough and those vivid shades of Orange appear.

That must be an interesting place to live!

Like all of life’s transitions, it is a bit uneven, with a different experiences in different places. On the Ruedi Trail, there were sections of trees that appeared to all be having the same, kind of group experience, all seemingly undergoing the transition together.

There were others where this transition seemed to be much further along. This section felt almost as if winter had already descended upon the area.

And, in some places, multiple experiences appeared before the eye at once. Those that have already moved on standing in front of those still in the process and alongside those that simply don’t care about the seasonal cycles of life, or, at least don’t show it.

Some hikes are about achieving, others about covering a lot of distance or getting exercise. Some are more about experiencing nature. With a short amount of time, this Reudi Trail, situated along the Frying Pan River somewhere in the middle of nowhere between Basalt and Leadville is the perfect nature experience.

A moderate two mile hike to the Frying Pan overlook is all it takes to get to a splendid panoramic.

Life is full of cycles and transitions. Transitions are naturally going to be associated with some endings. Often times, for the new to be created, what currently is must come to an end. Whenever anything like this happens, there will naturally a wide range of responses, and a variety of experiences. Our world, currently in a state of upheaval, seems to be following the same pattern as the trees in this forest, with groups and individuals responding differently. If only humanity’s response to this period of transition could find a way to be as beautiful as the natural response to autumn. Maybe, in a way many just don’t understand, it is.

Mount of the Holy Cross

I did not understand why I heard so many cars going by at 3 A.M. We were camping in a really good spot, along Notch Mountain Road only five miles from the trailhead. Wasn’t the purpose of camping near the trailhead of a 14er (Mountain with a peak 14,000 ft. or higher in elevation, a popular activity in Colorado, particularly in late summer) to be able to sleep a little later? In our spot, we were able to wake up shortly after 5 A.M. and still arrive at the trailhead by sunrise.

The strange thing was, the trailhead was already so packed we had to park half a mile away!

Over the course of the day, we would find out the reason why. The most obvious reason is that The Mt. of the Holy Cross is not just a “14er”. It is a 14er with a warmup hike, a climb of roughly 1200 feet in elevation, followed by a descent into a river valley before the primary 3500 foot steep ascent.

Hiking several days after a full moon has two advantages. First, the moon does not rise in the night sky until an hour or two before midnight, making it possible to see the stars before going to sleep. Then, in the morning, the moon is still out past sunrise.

The opening ascent, which summits right around the tree line is a significant hike of its own. There are probably plenty of people who live more sedentary lives who would not even be able to make it to this summit, which was spectacular at this early hour.

Right after getting to the summit, the trail turned in another direction and suddenly, the mountain the we were going to climb appeared before us while the moon was still prevalent in the morning sky.

It was an image of power, challenge and intimidation in front of us. We had just completed what many would consider a satisfactory hike of its own, a climb of a little over 1000 feet to a scenic panoramic view. Here, it was just a warm up. The moon, still mostly full and bright highlighted the challenge that laid ahead. It may as well have been screaming LEVEL UP.

After seeing the mountain, there can be nothing more disconcerting than descending, giving back the elevation gain we had worked for at the beginning of the day. We descended from near tree line (11,600′) back down into a river valley with Aspen trees nearly 1000 feet lower.

Long distance cycling taught me how to manage situations like these, psychologically speaking. Terrain, on trips like these, are kind of like a metaphor for life. Parts of it are naturally going to be harder. Parts of it are going to be easier. Sometimes you can anticipate it. Sometimes, it is unexpected. When climbing, during the more challenging parts of life, all you can do is toughen up – grind it out. When on a descent, or during times when life takes it a bit easier on you, it is seriously best to just enjoy it, and not worry about paying the price later. We can’t change the terrain, the wind speed or the trail conditions. All we can do is get the full enjoyment out of the experiences that work in our favor.

Around the river valley, there were a serious of campsites, another reason that the trailhead parking lot was so full. Apparently, many people who hike this mountain pack into one of these campsites and then tackle the main ascent in the morning.

After the campgrounds, the climb got intense quite rapidly. It wouldn’t be long before we reached treeline and encountered typical conditions associated with 14ers; A rocky, steep trail with full exposure.

Instantly the full beauty of the heart of the Rocky Moutains was visible in all directions.

I knew I would soon reach the point where I felt exhausted and delirious.

The step scramble up the rocks seemed to go on and on forever. Every time I reached what appeared to be some kind of crest, the trail would just turn in a slightly different direction and the rocky climb would continue.

This very intense section of the mountain, at high elevation, also felt like a metaphor for life. Sometimes, we work really hard at something, complete a task and feel like we have “made it”, only to determine that another, equally challenging task lies ahead of us. It is like working hard to get an advanced degree, then working hard to land a job, then working hard to prove ourselves and get a promotion, or having to work our way into a different, more appropriate position. If anything, the downhill part of this hike was part of that metaphor. Many of us take part in endeavors that we later realize were counterproductive.

The final scramble to the top was so steep it proved ideal conditions for mountain goats.

There was one adverse condition, common to 14ers, that I did not experience that day. That was bad weather of any kind. In the mountains, it is common to encounter chilly winds, even in the middle of summer and afternoon thunderstorms. Consistent with the hot, dry summer of 2020, I relaxed on top of the mountain in a t-shirt, without having to crawl behind rocks to shield from the wind.

I was still almost too exhausted to enjoy being at the top of the mountain. It always feels amazing to be at the top, but I felt quite delirious. I was almost feeling too delirious to make sense of everything. I ceased thinking about every aspect of the experience being some kind of metaphor for life and just gazed around, with no energy for any thought beyond feeling on top of the world and gazing out at the rugged terrain in all directions.

The descent turned out to be almost as exhausting because I keep my dog on leash, she pulls, making a steep descent even scarier, and she spent most of the descent trying to capture small chipmunks.

Luckily, she finally succeeded, and once that adrenaline rush wore off, even an energetic 2-year-old Siberian Husky had to acknowledge that this hike was indeed exhausting.

With a round trip total of around 5500 feet of climbing, this was the most challenging hike I had ever undertaken. It was challenging enough to make me stop thinking of metaphors for life and start seeing just what is. When I reached the crest of the final climb on the return trip, I simply enjoyed one of my favorite foods and gazed back upon the mountain I had just finished climbing.

Suddenly my exhaustion made sense. I mean, come on, look at that thing!

Lessons Relearned on The West Elk Loop

It is quite easy to drive around the State of Colorado without even noticing the numerous scenic byways throughout the State. The signs are kind of easy to ignore. How certain roads get labelled scenic byways is somewhat of a mystery. There are plenty of extremely scenic places that are not designated a “scenic byway”, while there are some ares on the Plains, like highway 50 from Lamar to La Junta which are frankly not that scenic.

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I’ve never made a point to follow one of these routes. However, the weekend I camped in the Gunnison National Forest, I just happened to mostly follow the West Elk Loop.

The West Elk Loop is kind of a loop around the Gunnison National Forest, but there is also spur north along the Crystal River. This happens to be where my journey began.

We were not too far from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I had never gone too deep into the park, nor have I visited the North Rim. I wanted to go and hike the North Vista Trail to overlook the canyon. Unfortunately, like most National Parks, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is not very dog friendly.

But that wasn’t enough to deter me. I thought it would be possible to hike up to an overlook of the canyon from outside the park. The drive was two hours, through an area that would eventually become a hot desert.

I figured there would be someone in the tiny town of Paonia that could help me figure out a way to overlook the canyon with a dog.

 

All I heard was a story about a dog that was left at the bottom of the canyon four years ago, who, luckily was able to eventually find a home.

The road I had identified to hopefully find an overlook of the canyon was hot and way too bumpy for my car.

We eventually got to a place where we could overlook part of the canyon.

But it hardly felt worth it. The round about drive took up nearly the entire day, and defeated one of the key purposes of this trip- to escape the heat.

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The next day, we’d visit a much less well known part of the West Elk Loop, along a county road that connects Paonia State Park to Crested Butte, that happens to be closed in the winter.

The drive was beautiful from the very beginning. It was quiet and the road was nowhere near as bumpy I had feared based on the previous day’s drive and that little dashed line on the map.

Instead, it lead us to one of the most beautiful hikes we had ever been on, in the Lost Lake area.

The first place we encountered along the hike was Lost Lake, a picture perfect lake with mountains in the backdrop.

When I see this place, it feels like where I would want to have a little cabin in the woods. Having just driven down into 100 degree heat on a wild goose chase the day before, I was suddenly thinking a lot about weather and climate. Although I was escaping the heat this particular mid-July weekend, I still wondered how often people get to really enjoy the lakes that are this high in elevation (closer to 10000 ft.). How often is it really warm enough? Maybe, if I were to get a lake house, I’d actually want to be a little bit lower, at an elevation more like 7000 ft., where there are more warm days to enjoy it.

We continued on to Beckwith Pass, which was actually not too much of a climb. However, even at this elevation, it felt hot! The scene got more amazing as we followed the trail.

We could see the West Elk Mountains.

The Maroon Bells.

And, Mount Crested Butte.

The least well known part of the West Elk Loop turned out to be the most magnificent!

I could not believe I had wasted an entire day looking for this elusive trail to overlook the Black Canyon. I could not believe that I had fallen for the trap that so many fall for, being relentless about going to the most high profile destination despite all the other obstacle, including the National Park’s dog policy, and the relatively low elevations in the middle of a heat wave!

The strange thing is that this is a lesson I had already learned. Despite living in Denver, I rarely go to Rocky Mountain National Park, instead opting for the less busy areas around it that are often just as scenic. This Beckwith Pass hike was probably even better than the North Vista Trail would have been.

The lessons I (re)learned, on this hot July weekend in the mountains are

  • Don’t get too hung up on the most obvious, high profile things in life
  • Be curious, open minded and keep exploring
  • Work with what is in front of me

The Slow Return to Normal

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There I was, standing in the Cherry Creek reservoir, feet in the water, wearing a bicycle helmet and a mask. It was quite the interesting way to spend what was likely the first 80 degree day in parts of Denver (there are no observations downtown and the airport reached a high of 79), and the first day of Colorado’s slow return to normal.

That morning, Colorado’s statewide stay-at-home order transitioned to a safer-at-home order. For me, little had changed. The City of Denver still has a stay-at-home order which was extended nearly two weeks beyond the state’s. The businesses I frequent are all still closed, the guidelines still strongly suggest minimal travel. There is also evidence suggesting that the danger related to contracting and spreading the virus, in Colorado and in Denver, has yet to dissipate. Essentially, Monday’s slight change in policy, like a non-binding resolution or loose talk among friends about big things, felt mostly just symbolic.

Still, like many Americans, I am quite antsy to get back to doing a lot of the things that bring me joy; specifically travel and social activity. My mind is a bit all over the place as I try to reconcile the hopefulness of hearing news about states planning to reopen their economies with the very real threat that still exists. It feels like a classic heart vs. head issue, with many different dimensions and complications. My response is to start small.

Sunday, the last day of the full stay-at-home order, it was a short hike, at a place not too far away, called Steven’s Gulch, with only three other people.

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It’s not the kind of hike that leads to the most spectacular views.

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In fact, after a 500 foot ascent, there is a 1500 foot descent into the gulch, where the trail was quite muddy, and, in places, there was standing water to contend with.

The hike itself, wasn’t about reaching some summit. The largest climb was the 1000 foot climb back to the trailhead (which was surprisingly crowded for a not too well known trail on a day with clouds and rain chances).

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The hike was about being outside, being in nature, being in the woods.

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After weeks of spending far too much time at home, in front of screens, just being in a place that looks like this, putting one foot in front of the other for a few hours is an amazingly calming experience. Having lived without some modern luxuries for the past six weeks, it almost felt somewhat reminiscent of a backpacking trip.

Meanwhile back in Denver, the anxiety was still there and the tensions were still mounting.

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There are so many different factions of people feeling and saying different things about the virus and our response to it. There is so much fear, depression, loneliness and the post-traumatic stress. All data on the true extent and potency of COVID-19 is so unreliable. It has become nearly impossible to know who to believe.

One of the few bright spots of this whole pandemic is workplace flexibility in many sectors where working from home is an option. Without the commute, the need to get dressed up and be physically in an office for a certain time period, it becomes far easier to do things like go on an extended lunchtime bike ride.

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The ride to the Cherry Creek reservoir from anywhere near downtown Denver is about 13 miles, mostly on a trail. Throughout this pandemic, bike trails have been quite busy. Perhaps this is because the bars and restaurants are closed and more people are enjoying schedule flexibility related to their employment. The sun was bright that day, and there were many more people enjoying the day, on their sail boats or with their friends and family at the beach.

There is no way to tell how the history books will look back upon the Spring of 2020. Each and every person has their own unique way of coping with this major life event. Personally, I hold on to the hope that, in the long run, something good will come out of all of this. I’ve long held the belief that the expectation that people spend 40 to 50 daylight hours at their office is limiting, and something we are now capable of moving beyond due to new technology. With many people putting all this technology to use out of necessity, maybe our work culture will change for the better, opening up many daylight hours for experiences like this.

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A Mid-September Backpacking Trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness: Day 3 Sunrise on Devil’s Causeway

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“It’s gonna be so cold leaving the tent before sunrise.”

“The sunrise will look just as nice from the comfort of my tent.”

“We already saw the Devil’s Causeway on Friday.”

“Look at all the distance we’ve already covered.”

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These are all the things my inner dialogue told myself, to stop me from going the extra mile Sunday morning. And, it literally was an extra mile (two round trip).

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We all experience this from time to time. That voice in our heads is most often referred to as the inner dialogue or inner chatterbox. Its goal is to protect us from discomfort, failure, embarrassment and the like. It is the voice that once told an 11-year-old version of me that nobody wanted to talk to the new kid in town and subsequently told a 15-year-old version of me to avoid the embarrassment of asking anyone out. In both situations, that voice was dead wrong. Yet, it continues to plead its case in situations like these, pushing for its own version of comfortable stagnant mediocrity.

Perhaps the best decision I made on this trip was to ignore that voice, which actually took some mental energy given how exhausting Saturday was. That extra hour of rest in the morning was quite enticing.

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These photos don’t do justice to the gradual turning of the sky in anticipation of a new day, or the still lit full moon on the other horizon at dawn.

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Unlike in previous days where we were camping at lower elevations, when the sun kissed the sky, we were among the first to be struck by its golden rays.

It was a feeling that is hard to describe. I felt like I was receiving some kind of gift. I was recieving an infusion of energy, spirit and liveliness from some kind of abstract source. It felt almost spiritual. Regardless of what was actually behind this wonderful feeling, I was certainly glad to have ignored that inner dialogue.

The final day was the shortest of the three. We only had 6.2 miles to go to get back to the trailhead. It started out with a bit more traversing across open grassland.

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We got a couple more great overlooks before the main descent.

It was perhaps the fastest day of the three. The miles went by quickly for backpacking standards.

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We made only one significant stop, for a mid-morning snack.

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A little before 11 A.M., we saw the Summit Reservoir, the place where the journey had begun, indicating that we were already approaching the trailhead!

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There was an advantage to getting back to the car just before noon, as we all had to work in some capacity the next day. The amazing thing about this trip is that nobody involved had to take more than one day off of work.

However, to achieve this, we had to set up camp in the dark the Thursday night and felt somewhat hurried at times.  Before we even got back to Kremmling to have our first regular meal after the trip, we were all already checking our phones, checking back in with work and our day-to-day lives.

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We truly got the most out of the 74 hour period we were away. However, we didn’t really escape for too long. From the standpoint of making the most of our time it was ideal.

From another standpoint, it was less than ideal. It is not too uncommon for Americans to plan trips like this, possibly because we do not value time away as much as we should. Although there are many pointing out the follies of these too many people not taking time off, the prominent culture in this country still seems to value work over all else and expects others to as well.

Whenever I find myself shifting my priorities to match the ones of our current culture, my inner dialogue is behind it. That inner dialogue tells me to be concerned about how I will be perceived, and what negative consequences I might face if I were to act in accordance with what I value as opposed to what is expected of me.

Ignoring my inner dialogue’s demands that I stay in my sleeping bag an extra hour on a cold morning is good practice for what I know I must do in the coming years to create a life that is truly authentic and fulfilling. I need to ignore my inner dialogue’s demands that, in order to be safe, I sacrifice the individual autonomy that comes with adhering to my own set of values in favor of what is often referred to as “herd mentality“.

The Highest Point in New Mexico

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Not too many hikes begin at a ski resort. In fact, many ski resorts have begun to incorporate summer activities; mountain biking, festivals and other attractions. However, that is exactly where the journey to New Mexico’s highest point, Wheeler Peak, begins, at Taos Ski Resort.

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Wheeler Peak is not nearly as high as Mount Elbert, or many of Colorado’s other high points. It is a strange accident of geography that Colorado is home to 58 peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation (referred to as “14ers”), while the highest point in neighboring New Mexico is only 13,167 ft.

As was the case with many State borers set at the time, a line of latitude (37ºN) was selected to form the border between Colorado and New Mexico. The same line is used for the borders between Arizona and Utah, and Kansas and Oklahoma.

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All of Colorado’s peaks >14,000 feet in elevation

Yet, all the tallest peaks are contained within Colorado’s borders. Colorado’s Southernmost “14er”, Culbera Peak, is less than 10 miles north of the New Mexico border! Was it sheer luck, or did some sort of force will all the highest peaks be in Colorado?

Despite it not being a “14er”, the hike to the top of Wheeler Peak is actually quite similar. The vertical gain from the trailhead is just shy of 3,000 feet, and the threat of afternoon storms makes it advantageous to start the hike early in the morning.

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Much of the ascent felt like chasing the sun. We were hiking up the mountain, while the alpenglow would slide further and further down.

It’s a 2.2 mile hike to Williams Lake, the destination for most hiking the first part of this trail.

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This lake was not that crowded at 7:30 in the morning. Later in the day, it would become packed. Also, for those looking to hike to Wheeler Peak, the turn off is before the lake.

The marking for the Wheeler Peak turnoff at 7:30 A.M. and Noon

It is marked by a carving in a wooden stick, which is clearly labelled but easy to miss first thing in the morning.

For those who miss the turnoff, or decide to head to the lake, there is an alternate route. Good luck locating it.

I spent much of the second hour of the hike wondering both where the treeline is, and when I had reached it.

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The term “tree line” makes it seem like hikers will reach a certain elevation and suddenly leave a dense forest for wide open alpine tundra. However, there are elevations where the trees thin out a bit but do not completely disappear. So, the elevation of the “treeline” is more of a guideline, or an approximation. The Alpine Visitor’s Center at Rocky Mountain National Park indicates that the treeline there is about 11,500 feet in elevation. In Northern New Mexico, that elevation is likely closer to 12,000 feet.

Just above the treeline, we had multiple close encounters with wildlife. First, the marmots chirped at us, as if to say “get off my lawn”.

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Then, a surprisingly close encounter with bighorn sheep.

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At first I wondered whether these animals were staying away from the busiest trails. However, someone who hikes this trail quite a bit indicated that wildlife encounters this close is actually quite rare on this trail. On any of these trails, encountering wildlife is likely just a matter of luck; whether or not certain creatures happened to be roaming the area at a certain time. After all, last summer I saw mountain goats up close on a very busy “14er” near Denver.

After this, there was a section that is quite challenging. Steep rocky switchbacks quickly ascend the final 1000 feet of elevation gain.

This challenging section ends suddenly with a view over the ridge, overlooking the rugged terrain of the Carson National Forest. The exhaustion that had lead to this point made it even more breathtaking.

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A quick turn to the right, and the final ascent is made to the highest point in the State of New Mexico.

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A plaque at the top reveals that the mountain is named after the surveyor who identified this point as the highest in the State.

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I only imagined what it must have been like to be Major George Wheeler, charged with this task, especially at the very beginning. One look around the area, in most directions, revealed dozens of candidates for which peak could indeed be the tallest one in the State. He likely had to scale all of them to determine the true highest point. It reminded me of a situation we all find ourselves in at one point in our lives,. We agree to take on a project or endeavor. Getting started, me suddenly come to the realization that it is going to be significantly more work than anticipated.

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Having many other peaks in the area that are nearly as tall gives it a pretty unique feel at the top. The plethora of similar peaks may have also contributed to the pleasant conditions at the top. There was surprisingly little wind at the top of Wheeler Peak that day (August 31, 2019).

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The descent is also an interesting experience. Some of the steepest parts of the trail can be downright scary, and just as challenging as it was on the way up. It is also interesting to encounter the people that are still trying to reach the peak.

This aspect of the hike is a strange and somewhat depressing transition. At the start of the descent, still only a couple of hundred feet from the summit, it feels great to give hikers, often exhausted, encouragement and reassurance that they are “almost there”. Continuing downward, this transitions to having “a little bit to go”, to either no comment or vague encouragement.

If there is a depressing time of day on an amazing hike like this, it is 11:15 A.M. This is the time of when I start to realize that those that those still trying to get to the summit are probably not going to make it.

There is a safety concern behind this. Lightning is quite dangerous, even more so above treeline. Lightning is always looking for the fastest path to the ground. Regardless of where you are, if you’re outside, there is always a chance this can be you! Above treeline, without tall trees to theoretically provide that path, hikers are even more likely to be struck.

Surely enough, at 11:45, I heard thunder, and saw the convective clouds starting to build.

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I just hope that everyone in danger got off the mountain and stayed safe! While policies, attitudes and even the height of the peaks may be different on either side of the 37th parallel, some things are the same. This includes how mountainous topography creates thunderstorms, how lightning behaves and how our bodies react to being struck. Danger aside, it is refreshing to know that regardless of boundaries created by humankind, there are things we can always count on being true.

 

The Highest Point in Colorado

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I hiked Mount Elbert last Friday for a few reasons…

I wanted to reach Colorado’s highest point.

Also, it has been a hot summer in the Denver area, with August’s daytime high temperatures running about 4ºF above average.

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At Denver International Airport, the average high temperature for the month of August (through the 23rd) was over 91ºF (33°C). Getting up in elevation, where temperatures would be far cooler sounded refreshing.

Despite the heat, I could feel summer’s end approaching, with sunset getting earlier and earlier.

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I was starting to feel as if I was allowing my Colorado summer to pass by without that many mountain adventures to show for it.

Finally, as recently as a six months ago, the idea of needing a day away from people would have seemed inconceivable to me. Things changed, and last week I was seriously feeling the desire to spend a day alone (well, with my dog). I guess it is true that even the most extreme introverts need human interaction and even the most extreme extroverts need some time alone.

So, I did the only logical thing. I left Denver at 3:45 A.M. so I could arrive at the Mount Elbert Trailhead at sunrise- in time to get the last parking spot in the lot.

It certainly was cooler. At the start of the day, the temperature had dropped into the mid 30s (≈2ºC).

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The Northeast Ridge is the most popular, and most easily navigable route up Mount Elbert. The first mile of this hike follows both the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide trail.

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This first half of this mile is fairly steep, with switchbacks, followed by a flat section.

One of the greatest things about starting a hike this early is being there the moment the sun first hits the top of the trees.

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I reached the tree line an hour into the hike.

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The Arkansas Valley and the town of Leadville gradually disappeared from behind the trail, as if I was on an airplane taking off.

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Due to the time of day, and sun exposure, it began to feel warmer. The trail also got even more intense.

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One of the reasons people hike 14ers is to get that feeling of being on top of the world! Because the Mount Elbert Trail is pretty steep right near the tree line, that feeling comes sooner on Mount Elbert than it does on other 14ers. I looked back only about 15 minutes after reaching the tree line, and already felt as if I was looking down on all else.

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The other common 14er experience that comes a bit earlier on Mount Elbert (compared to other 14ers) is the “scramble”. This is a really steep and rocky section where there is often not one specific route. On most 14ers, the “scramble” comes right at the top. However, on Mount Elbert it comes a bit earlier.

After a couple more miles of alternating steeper and flatter sections…

An intense “scramble” presents itself.

The top of the scramble, however, is not the summit.

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Exhausted from the scramble, the trail seems to drag on forever (although in reality it is about 30 minutes). It is the kind of hike that forces a lot of hikers to reach, deep inside themselves, and find the energy and stamina they did not think they had.

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I was able to summit right around 10 A.M., a safe time to summit given the thunderstorm threat is primarily in the afternoon.

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Shasta (pictured with me here) was far from the only dog to hike Mount Elbert that day. However, I was surprised to see a mountain bike at the top of the mountain.

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A hiker carried this bike up the mountain on his back, and then rode it down the East Ridge- WOW!

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The man who carried the mountain bike to the top of the mountain was far from the only person I talked to on this hike. I talked to dozens of people, many others with dogs and even one of the trail volunteers who was helping build an erosion preventing wall along the trail just above tree line. It was not nearly as solitary as I had thought.

I really didn’t mind. In fact, I enjoyed talking to all of the people I met on the trail and felt it made it a better experience. Maybe what I really needed was not a break from all people, just the ones I felt were being demanding.

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Downhill was also an adventure. The views are commonly different, as it is much closer to the middle of the day. Some places feel like they took on a somewhat different color.

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It also presented a challenge of its own, as parts of the trail were slippery.

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And, as was the case with the trip up the hill, it also felt like it dragged on longer than anticipated.

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While I had grown tired of all things “demanding”, this hike made me realize that some of the best experiences in life are the demanding ones. The ones that force you to give more than what you were prepared to give. The ones that force you to reach deep inside yourself, both physically and mentally, and find what you did not know you had in you.

There are different kinds of demanding experiences. Some build something in us, such as hikes like these, the basketball coach that wants their players to reach their full potential, or a great boss or mentor that knows going soft on someone with real talent will shortchange them.

Then there are other ones, that do nothing but feed someone else’s ego, or squeeze every last hour of work or bit of energy out of you to line pocketbooks. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, especially when tired. I know there were sections of this hike where I was barely able to hold a thought. Somewhere deep inside, we all understand what is going on. All we need to do is trust our instincts and ask ourselves this simple question…

Am I Being Built or Harvested?

Be thankful for the experiences that build us, no matter how frustrating or exhausting they are. Run as fast as you can from those where we are being harvested.

Hogback Ridge Trail Before Work

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Things may change in the future, but living a balanced lifestyle in 2019 requires planning and creativity. We have a culture that is out of balance. Most jobs now involve sitting in front of a computer, sometimes for more than the standard 40 hours a week. Some of them involve spending nearly all of that time alone. Technology has increased the amount of time we spend alone outside of work, and our mainstream culture still places a relatively low value on social life and connecting with one another. This has taken its toll on our physical and mental health.

Many are starting to re-think our values and priorities, particularly those younger than me. However, our culture is not going to change overnight. To cope with our culture in its current state, I believe we must take every opportunity we can to participate in activities where we are not alone, indoors and seated. This includes rearranging schedules, additional thought and planning, and even doing things that make us uncomfortable and activities that don’t make logical sense. It is worth it.

Luckily for those that live in Colorado, it is easy to squeeze in a quick hike before or after work. During the hottest part of the year, a pre-work hike is very much preferable.

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High Temperatures Thursday July 18th

On Wednesday, July 17th, the official morning low temperature at Denver International Airport was 72ºF (22ºC). Later that day, the high would reach 97ºF (36ºC).

Finding a hike that would take roughly 90 minutes close to Boulder is not too much of a challenge. The Hogback Ridge Trail can be accessed from the Foothills Trailhead right off of highway 36 at the far north end of town.

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The 2.8 mile loop begins with a tunnel under the highway. The difficulty level of the hike is quite moderate most of the way.

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The first thing I noticed was an interesting perspective of the Flatirons to the South with the morning sun shining directly on them in the distance.

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The trail winds around a bit, offering several great places to overlook town.

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I have alway loved overlooking towns from above in places like this. Whenever I encounter a view like this one, I feel like I am backing up, getting out of the nitty gritty of day-to-day life and looking at humanity from a broader perspective. It feels clarifying to overlook the rhythm of life, especially at a time like this when many are on their morning commutes.

Getting to the top of the trail is somewhat of a mini-scramble, which is always fun.

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This trail is supposed to offer interesting views of the mountains to the West, but for some reason I was fixated on looking back into town, and to other nearby features.

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It’s almost like the focus of this hike was less about exploration and more about getting better balance and perspective on my day-to-day life, which involves looking East into town rather than West into the rugged mountains.

We would all benefit from spending a bit of time outdoors, moving and socializing in the middle of the week, regardless of our situations.

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Going for a hike in the morning in Boulder is relatively easy. The only way it could make anyone uncomfortable would be if either of us were worried about being a few minutes late into the office.

Two days later, I would take part in an activity that actually did cause discomfort and made no logical sense: Tube to Work Day.

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On this day, something like 1000 people all grabbed tubes and rode them on a 3/4 mile stretch of Boulder Creek. Many, like myself, neither live nor work along the creek. There were even people there who did not technically have a job taking part in the event. Riding in this tube required going quite a distance out of my way, getting rides to and from the creek and having a change of clothing with me. Seriously, there was nothing logical or convenient about any of this. It was pure absurdity!

My tube slid out from underneath me, causing me some physical pain. I hit a rock hard with my knee, which lead to a major bruise that disrupted my weekend. Six years from now, I will remember having taken part in Tube to Work Day. Those that didn’t will probably not remember the fact that they got to work on time for the 12th day in a row or didn’t unnecessarily lose sleep in the morning.

I feel it is inevitable that our culture will shift in a manner that places greater emphasis on sharing experiences with others and having time to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Until then, I plan to continue to find ways to rearrange my schedule, factoring weather patterns as well as other people’s schedules, to get as balanced of a life as I can.