Tag Archives: july

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

Escaping the Heat

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This year in Denver, it got hot and it got hot quickly. The first 90 degree temperature occurred on May 19th. This would be followed by the third hottest June on record, featuring 17 days where temperatures exceeded 90ºF.

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The heat continued into July with no end in sight.

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Forecast for July 10-12 issued July 9

Having spent over a dozen winters in the Midwest, I generally welcome the heat. However, having to always get outdoor activities in first thing in the morning or just before sundown can get tiring after a while.

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A heat wave is also an opportunity! In Colorado, we can always escape the heat by going up to the mountains. Many ski resorts in the Central Rockies display their comfotable average summertime temperatures when promoting their summertime activities. However, it is always cold at night! It has actually been five years since I’ve been camping somewhere with pleasant nighttime temperatures. A mid summer heat wave provides the opportunity to camp at high elevations without feeling too cold.

With the recent hot and dry weather, the one thing that would not be available is fire. We arrived at a campsite in the Gunnison National Forest at 9 P.M., three hours before a fire ban would take effect.

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I sometimes enjoy arriving at a Campsite right around dusk.

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Sure, it is not as fun to set up camp with limited light. But, there is something interesting about not knowing what your surroundings really look like until waking up the next morning. The sun rises from behind the mountains gradually revealing to you where you are.

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In some ways, it felt like I failed to escape the heat. Despite being in at higher elevation, daytime temperatures reached the 90s at the campsite. In some of the places we drove to, they were even a bit hotter.

However, perhaps because of how dry it was, overnight the temperatures would drop down into the 40s. Not uncomfortably cold, but cool enough to actually desire some hot tea in the morning, something I hadn’t done in Denver in a month.

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Our campsite, on a mostly empty dirt road in the Gunnison National Forest was surrounded by natural beauty. The angle of the river valley provided for beautiful sunsets.

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However, my favorite part of the experience was definitely the river.

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Each day, we’d hike in the heat, arrive back at the campground in the afternoon, and cool off in the river. The movement of the shallow flow of water over rocks was something I found fascinating.

I would stare at it, both while in the water and while at the campsite overlooking the river.

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The evenings seems to go on forever. Due to the north-south orientation of this particular river, the sun would cease to hit the river just after 6 P.M. However, daylight would go on until about 9. Endless evenings brought back memories of childhood. I thought of playing in the park, the neighborhood or the backyard until the very last bit of light faded from the horizon. I thought back to teenage years, doing things like playing mini-golf, hanging out at a park, or cruising around in our cars. Everything felt so playful and peaceful despite the fact that all these memories were not without frustration, conflict and setbacks. There is something about children and young adults playing outside in the evening that just feels more basically human than much of what we do in adulthood.

After a day or so away from work and screens, I started to feel my creativity surge back into my brain, as if the constant bombardment of information had been suppressing it for weeks. I looked across the river at the trees on the other side and thought…

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This would make the most frustrating puzzle of all time!

The flood of ideas and realizations about life flying into my mind made me want to de-clutter my life.

However, in the city I hardly ever allow myself to be bored or unproductive. I wondered if I’d ever be okay with just doing nothing. After half an hour, I determined that the world would have to be a much different place for me to be okay with taking a day, or even half of a day, without doing anything “productive”. There would need to be much less pressure, much less work, and much less other things to track and take care of.

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But that’s okay because my definition of “productive” is broad. Sharing experiences with people, cultivating relationships and reading and writing about interesting topics is productive. It’s not just work and achievement.

I came out of this experience feeling better about my life. Most of what I am doing is fine, I just need to relax a little bit more. I feel like had I spent the entire evening focused on staying warm while also staying out of the smoke that comes off a campfire, it would have been a much different experience. The continuing threat of COVID limiting travel and the fire bans were both disruptive events. This experience and the realizations I came to from it was the result of working with what life handed to me, rather than just wishing the disruptive events had not happened.