Tag Archives: September

A Mid-September Backpacking Trip to the Flat Tops Wilderness: Day 2 Staying on Trail

Opening and closing a tent has a certain familiar look, smell and sound. Over time, our brains come to associate what our senses observe with types of experiences and often the emotions that go along with them.


While my summer was active, it was active in a way that involved somewhat less outdoor activity than the past several year, and not much camping. It felt good to using the tent again, and having the experiences associated with it. The smell of the nylon tent and the sounds of the zipper going back and forth brought back associations with things that I love.


East Lost Lake was perhaps even more beautiful the next morning, which was not as cold as the previous day, yet, still cold.

A lot of people fantasize about living in the mountains. I have even thought about it from time to time. Experiencing cold mornings in mid-September gave me a glimpse into one of the downsides of living at these higher elevations. Those of us that live at lower elevations come up to the mountains during the best and exciting times of year: ski season and summer. Skiing is, of course, fun and exciting. Summer days at these elevations are pleasant.

However, mornings, even in the middle of the summer are quite chilly. Morning temperatures at these elevations are 35°F to 45°F (2-7°C) in the middle of summer! At this point in time, while some towns were looking forwards towards fall festivals and the changing of the leaves, after that will be a period of time that is not so exciting, with mornings that would be cold enough to prevent me from biking to work.

We stopped at the last in the series of alpine lakes, West Lost Lake to fill up with water.


Then we began to climb again.


Like Friday, Saturday would feature a significant late morning climb. This one would take us up out of the woods and on top of one of a broad mesas.

We would spend most of the afternoon along the mesa, periodically gazing at the features below. At one point, we were actually able to see where we had just camped the night before.


That afternoon, we would encounter a different issue. While in the woods, the trail was well marked the entire way. On the mesa, the trail all but completely vanished in places. We were just walking across a large grassy field hoping we were going the right way.


That’s the advantage, as well as disadvantage of selecting a trail that isn’t widely used. We would actually go the entire day without encountering any other people. However, that also means that there isn’t regular foot traffic to maintain the trail.


Sometimes the most frustrating experiences are also the most rewarding. We spent the afternoon looking for the trail, often getting excited to find the sections of it where the grass had not fully regrown. We also occasionally found ourselves in some tough places like this section of shrubbery near the edge of the mesa.

At one point, we actually did make a wrong turn and went out of our way. However, it ended up adding less than a mile to our overall trip, and gave us one of the best overlooks of the day!


By the end of the day, we had covered another 10 miles (16 km). I was exhausted.


We camped above treeline, which was an interesting experience. I’d never thought of that possibility as we’d typically want to find campsites where we’d be able to find firewood. However, with gas stoves, it is possible to cook dinner without a fire, and we were able to find an unexpected water source.

Camping above treeline reminded me that life is not about following rules and procedures. It is about taking care of needs and solving problems. Rules and procedures can serve as a good general guide, but there are always going to be situations that require different solutions.

At this point, we were too exhausted to want to continue on to get back down below treeline. Going off trail to get into the trees would have involved carrying our heavy packs down a fairly steep area. The solution ended up working out.


However, without a fire, it did feel cold. Perhaps the coldest hour of the day was the hour after we got everything set up, when my body was exhausted and didn’t want to move or expend the energy needed to keep itself warm. This may be the coldest hour of the day as physical exhaustion can have an impact on the temperature regulation system in our bodies.

With clear skies and no fire, it was the perfect evening to watch the mid-september full moon, or “harvest moon”, come up from behind the mountains.


With respect to both going the wrong direction for a short amount of time and being cold without a fire, both frustrating experiences lead to something magical in the end. It was an incredible day that reminded me of several important life lessons.

  1. We are often capable of far more than we give ourselves credit for.
  2. Some of the most frustrating experiences turn out to be the most rewarding ones.
  3. It’s not about rules and procedures, it’s about results.
  4. Some years we partake in some activities more than others. That is fine, just how it goes. It doesn’t make anything less enjoyable.

Mohawk Lakes, A Moderate Hike in Central Colorado


Sometimes recreation in Central Colorado can be just plain overwhelming.  I remember when I was preparing to move to Colorado, and took a look at a Colorado DeLorme atlas I had just purchased.  DeLorme makes an atlas for every state in the country.  These atlases are great for those who love outdoor recreation.  Not only are features such as campgrounds, hiking trails, waterfalls, and parks labeled on the maps themselves, but each map contains a dozen or so pages in which hot spots are listed.  These include key places to camp, fish, hunt, hike, bike, and such, as well as a list of “unique natural features”.  When I looked through my Colorado DeLorme atlas, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of options available to me for many of the activities I enjoy.  I kept wondering, though, how the heck I would go about something like picking a place to hike when there are so many options.  I was actually worried that some days I would end up going nowhere due to analysis paralysis.

The most effective networks, whether they be all of the trail networks in parts of Colorado, or New York City’s network of subways, are overwhelming, and sometimes take awhile to learn.  However, the same way any New Yorker can get by without owning a car, due to all of the train lines in the city, a Coloradan can find the right hike for many different situations and many different desired experiences.

Last Friday I had a friend in town from Chicago who does not get to experience mountains on a regular basis.  On previous trips I had taken him to Rocky Mountain National Park.  This time, I wanted to take him somewhere different to see some different scenery in a different part of the state.


The most talked about hikes in this part of the State tend to be the “14ers” to the South.  These hikes tend to be challenging, and, sometimes are just as much about accomplishing something (particularly to some people) as it is about the experience of hiking.

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By contrast, the Spruce Creek Trail certainly fits into the “moderate” category for difficulty.  The first part of the trail is kind of a mixture of flatter and steeper areas.

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Roughly two miles into the hike we encountered this random cabin that still seemed partially functional.  With a stove and a ladder that leads to an upstairs area it is reminiscent of the cabins that people purchase as second homes.  However, it was kind of in disrepair and there were several holes in the floor.  Still, I wonder what this cabin is used for.  Do people actually stay here at night from time to time?  Did people originally stay here when this place was built?  Is it used for some other purpose, like filleting fish, or fleeing storms from time to time?  After all, this cabin is fairly close to the first major lake one encounters on this hike- Mayflower Lake.

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It is around here that the trail reaches somewhat of a point of inflection.  Above this elevation, the trail becomes steeper.  I honestly should have expected this type of experience.  One thing I note every time I ski at Breckenridge ski resort is the fact that the steeper terrain tends to be on the higher parts of the mountain.  If I ski on Peaks 7, 8, or 9, which is the part of the mountain closest to town and the lower part, I notice that any run I chose becomes progressively flatter as I descend.  The Mohawk Lakes, and the Spruce Creek Trail are seriously no more than 3 or 4 miles from the boundary of the ski resort.  Therefore, it makes perfect sense that one would experience the same kind of terrain.

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The trail encounters Continental Falls several times as it switches back and forth across the mountain.  The last several hundred feet of climbing up to Lower Mohawk Lake is somewhat of a scramble making it quite different from the smooth and well marked trails that we started out on.

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It was already nearly 1 P.M. when we arrived at Lower Mohawk Lake.  We stopped to eat lunch and decided to forgo hiking all the way to Upper Mohawk Lake, a decision I eventually came to regret after learning that we would only have had to hike an additional 0.4 miles, and only climb another 250 feet or so.

I have really come to appreciate this time of year; September, early fall.  There is a lot of pleasant weather, and many people have even told me this is the best time of year for hiking in Colorado.  In the summertime, particularly in August, there is a daily thunderstorm threat associated with the North American Monsoon.  This year that threat ended right after Labor Day when the prevailing weather patterns changed ushering in a drier period for Colorado.  On Labor Day I got caught in a brief afternoon thunderstorm.  There has not been one since.  It is almost as if Mother Nature was aware of, and chose to abide by, our society’s labeling of Labor Day as the “end of summer”.  In August mid-afternoon would typically bring at least some major cloud formations reminding hikers of the thunderstorm threat.  Last Friday the sky remained clear throughout the day.


I actually think I could not have picked a more ideal time for this particular hike.  One thing I hear about the Spruce Creek Trail is that it is prone to becoming muddy during periods of heavier precipitation.  These types of trails can be problematic in early summer when there is heavier stream flow.  The later part of this summer, and now September, has been much drier across Colorado.

The hike ended up being exactly what we had wanted; a moderately challenging hike that brought us to some unique scenery.  There are many places, both geographic, and in life, where one cannot just go about finding a trail that matches the desired experience exactly.  Whether it be picking a place to hike, chosing a neighborhood to purchase a home, or picking a place of employment, sometimes the option that matches exactly what we want simply is not available at the right time.  So, we end up finding something that is pretty good, a decent match, but not exactly 100% the experience we had been looking for.  It’s just a part of life.  But, here outside of Breckenridge, I found the trail that matched exactly what we wanted, and am thankful for it.