Alone in Death Valley

Campsite on the playa

Campsite on the playa

The Confidence Hills represent a type of topography known as badlands—a dry terrain of brittle sedimentary rock and clay-like soil that is torturously eroded into a myriad of steep ruts and gullies. Light gray and salt encrusted, they rise about 400 feet straight from the middle of Death Valley.  They stood in my way between my car, parked off the Harry Wade Road on the bottom of Death Valley 100 feet below sea level, and the rocky Owlshead Mountains flanking Death Valley a few miles to the west.  I had to cross them.

The little slot gully was like an inviting hallway, flat bottomed and twisting along, care-free, turn-after-turn, until suddenly the sandy pathway disappeared into a small tunnel straight into the badlands tuff. I was in a mini box canyon.  I considered climbing out from here, but being solo in a very remote area, my risk threshold was low.  I retreated back through the winding hallway and back out onto the bright floor of Death Valley proper.

Slot gully in the Confidence Hills

Slot gully in the Confidence Hills

My next attempt to cross the Confidence Hills was to take the high road. I climbed to the crest of the ridge adjacent to the slot gully.  The turf was like crème brule—a thin brittle crust over an inch of soft dirt.  There was no vegetative cover except for one miraculous purple flower I nearly stepped on.

Solitary flower

Solitary flower

It was hard work lugging my 4.5 gallons of water up the steep, loose, slope. But, I soon gained the 400-foot summit.  Then I followed the ridge down the other side, dropped into another slot gully, and wound my way out of the labyrinth.  I dropped my pack on a nice flat table of land, the Confidence Hills just behind me to my east and the higher, rockier, Owlshead Mountains beckoning across the playa to the west.

This would be camp for the night, but before I could rest, I would have to retrace the three miles all the way back to the car to get the rest of my gear and then return again, for I had decided to haul the 70 pounds of gear and water in two trips rather than one. By dusk I had completed the back and forth, and after 9 good miles of walking, I was only 3 miles from the car.  With satisfaction I watched the red glow of evening sunlight diminishing on the flanks of the Amorgosa Range across Death Valley to the east.  Darkness comes early and quickly here in late December.

The last rays of sun catch the Amorgosa Range.  The Confidence Hills in the foreground

The last rays of sun catch the Amorgosa Range. The Confidence Hills in the foreground

There were smoke trees at the mouth of Through Canyon, which may not seem remarkable if you haven’t been to the lower elevations of Death Valley, for trees just don’t grow here. But, there they were, maybe ten or twenty of them in total.  They stood defiantly claiming this lonely place as theirs.  Oddly, they made me think of the Death Valley miners of a hundred years or more ago, trying to establish a living in one of the most unlivable places on earth.

Venturing up Through Canyon into the Owlshead Mountains felt like real exploration. There was no trail, only the wide dry wash to follow.  To my left, the south edge of the canyon was flanked by dark volcanic rock.  To my right, the north rim consisted of bright sunlit granite.  Sage and creosote bushes lined the sandy-gravelly bottom.

The broad middle part of Through Canyon

The broad middle part of Through Canyon

The air was a cool but very pleasant 55 degrees, warmed in desert sunshine through a cloudless sky. It is easy to imagine how unbearably hot this place is for much of the year.  In 1913 at Furnace Creek, not far from where I stood in Through Canyon, a man darted out into the white heat with a soaked towel wrapped around his head to check a temperature gauge.  It was 134 degrees Fahrenheit, a reading that still stands to this day as the hottest recorded natural air temperature in the entire Western Hemisphere.  The man’s wet towel was dry within a minute.  Ground temperatures of 200 degrees have been recorded in Death Valley, and not even over highway pavement.  Park Service literature warns understatedly that hiking or backpacking in summer in the lower elevations of the park is “not advised.” On a recent hot June Day a French man walked away from a tour bus at the Mesquite Dunes.  He was asked to return in 10 minutes due to the heat.  When he didn’t return after one hour, the bus driver called search and rescue.  The man was found dead only 400 yards from the bus.

Canyon country can be deceiving. As I ventured farther into Through Canyon, I followed what seemed to be the most probable route that would take me over the head of the canyon.  But the wide, sandy wash quickly narrowed and steepened, and then I was confronted with an insurmountable cleft.  I retreated, climbed a ridge, dropped down into another promising wash, reached another dead-end, retreated again, climbed another ridge, found another wash… With each dead-end I knew I was a little closer to the crest of the range.  Finally, I changed tactics.  I dropped my pack on a promontory and climbed straight up to the top of the nearest peak to get a bearing.

Tight gullies near the head of Through Canyon

Tight gullies near the head of Through Canyon

Standing on that minor, nameless peak, it occurred to me that I was probably one of only a handful of humans to ever stand here. The Owlshead Mountains, in the remote southern section of Death Valley National Park, are seldom visited.  At the ranger station in Furnace Creek, while getting my voluntary backcountry permit, only one of a dozen or so rangers there had ever been to the Owlsheads, and he only twice.  They asked me to take pictures of any flowers I found because they simply didn’t know for sure what flowers actually grew there.

There is no water to be found in the area. The scenery is beautiful, but there are other places in this park that are more visually stunning.  The Owlsheads are not one of the higher ranges in the park.  There is, in fact, little here to attract the interest of anyone who wants to see something amazing, except, of course, for those of us who find true solitude and remoteness to be the most amazing of destinations.  For us, a place like the Owlsheads can be exhilarating.  Beauty here is defined mostly by simple remoteness—the beauty of being in a place rarely trod upon by others.

The Owlshead Mountains form an almost complete circle several miles in diameter. From the nameless peak I stood upon, I followed the curving arc of the range with my eyes until I was looking at the opposite edge of the circle of mountains to the west.  In the foreground was the inner basin, a huge tilted playa dotted with a million creosote bushes.  On the south side of the playa, the low point of the basin melted into to a shining disc of silver that looked exactly like the surface of a sparkling lake.  It was, in fact, the dry lake bed of Owl Lake, the remnant of a real freshwater lake that shimmered here just a few thousand years ago.

From the head of Through Canyon, dry Owl Lake in the distance

From the head of Through Canyon, dry Owl Lake in the distance

After retrieving my pack and entering the playa, I was now in the inner basin of the Owlsheads. I set up camp that night among the creosote bushes.  Two one-gallon jugs of water were my life line.  I was certain that I was the only human for miles around in any direction.  Later, with moonlight glowing from just beyond the mountains to the east, I heard an owl in the distance.  I thought of time—the eons that pass here in silence, as seasons, centuries and civilizations come and go.

My lonely tent lantern on the vast playa

My lonely tent lantern on the vast playa

In the morning I walked three miles south across the playa to Owl Lake. Then I walked out to the middle of the old lake and looked around.  There was no vegetation at all.  The lake bed was hard cracked dirt speckled with black volcanic rocks.  It looked like Mars.  Many may wonder what one would find so interesting or beautiful about a desolate landscape like this.  Why in the world would one want to haul gallons of water on one’s back, through canyons, over mountains, across monotonous desert expanses, only to reach the middle of a dry, cracked lake bed?  Am I crazy?  I don’t know, I can’t explain it.  But, I do know that the wild is either in your soul or it isn’t.  If you have it in you, you just understand.  You can’t explain it, but you get it.  And, that is enough.

The cracked earth of Owl Lake

The cracked earth of Owl Lake

In the afternoon, I walked back to my tent, a tiny orange speck in the middle of this grand expanse encircled by rocky, treeless mountains. I packed up and walked north, towards the head of Through Canyon, where I should have emerged the day before.  I walked down a broad ramp back down into the canyon.  I found a secret side canyon with vertical granite rocks on each side, and again wondered if any other human had ever set foot here, for I was looking for Granite Canyon, the next canyon to the north, and was off course again.

A beautiful secret side canyon

A beautiful secret side canyon

I never found the access to Granite Canyon. Just as well, I found my third campsite nestled among outcroppings of rock in the middle of Through Canyon.  Next to my tent, five boulders, each the size of a small car, rested side-by-side, each having broken loose from the side of the canyon over the last few hundred or thousand years.  I thought of them as “The Guardsman.” On the other side of my tent was a small castle of solid rock rising 100 feet or so from the floor of the canyon.  I’ll remember it as one of my most glorious backcountry campsites.

A great desert campsite

A great desert campsite

Late that night, before the moonrise, I peeked out of the tent to see the stars. Orion was standing on the top of the rock castle.  From rim to rim, millions of points of light dusted the cloudless winter sky.

I walked out of Through Canyon the next morning back to my first campsite where I had stashed two gallons of water just in case. I poured the water on a very lucky creosote bush and strapped now four empty gallon jugs to the outside of my pack.  Taking the long way around the south end of the Confidence Hills I followed a super highway-like dry wash.

Something shiny caught my eye, tangled in a creosote bush. I walked over to investigate, finding a deflated helium party balloon—one of those aluminum types.  The illustration on the balloon looked like an old type Disney cartoon, maybe from the 1950’s.  It was a relic of some celebration for a child who long ago grew up and perhaps had already passed on from this world.  And yet, here was this deflated balloon, like it drifted into this valley just yesterday.

As I balled up the balloon and put it in my pocket, I looked back at the Owlshead Mountains and pondered for a bit about how those mountains will still be there when the human race is no more. We are just a blip on the wavelength of time, and while we may, for a time, litter the land with our bizarre creations, strip it of its clothes, and bore into it looking for its treasures, the Earth will endure beyond us.  Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in the desert.


The Wilderness of Manhattan

Queensboro Bridge Sunset

The sun sets behind the Queensboro Bridge and Manhattan, the East River in the foreground, taken from Queens


The white glow of Times Square after midnight draws me forward like a moth, straight down Broadway.  I have this terrible feeling of being unmoored.  Where am I going?  What the Hell am I doing?  These are metaphorical questions, for life has changed drastically.

As I walk the pavement I remember a day in July, just a few short months ago, sitting on my backyard deck in Colorado. It was a perfect summer evening.  The sunset was particularly interesting over Longs Peak—lots of greenish-blue mixed in with the fiery oranges and reds and pinks.  I was content if not happy as I watched my daughter splash in her little water table while my wife sipped a drink.  She seemed relaxed and thoughtful, but I knew there was something simmering.

Now, in December, I’m a man heading for divorce, and a new project at work takes me weekly to Manhattan.  My home in Colorado?  For now it’s my Mom’s basement.  I shudder at the thought.  I am that guy.  I am 41 years old and living in my Mom’s basement while my soon-to-be ex-wife rattles around in our 3,700 square foot home.  I see my daughter, the sweetest little girl in the World, Friday afternoons through Monday mornings.

New York has been a blessing and a curse, and my life is like the opener in A Tale of Two Cities. At first it was an elixir.  It was the antidote to the grief and pain of divorce.  I met a nice, attractive woman to hang out with, and we stayed out late into the nights.  It was worth it, then, to be miserably tired at work during the day.  After work, I was freed from the chains of commitment, in the middle of a sea of women and possibilities.  There were no limits.  This was New York!

But, it was a temporary distraction. When you divorce, you grieve.   You can’t avoid it.  You have to go through the process.  And so, when the distraction ran its course, the extreme sadness, guilt, confusion, and, at times, even despair, set in.

Now, I walk the streets of New York City alone at night feeling a bone-numbing isolation. The people are all around, day and night–a crushing mass of human activity.  They are all in a hurry in their stylish black coats and severe hair.  They mean business.  Car horns blare impatiently for no reason.   Sirens pierce the air.  People yell and laugh and curse loudly.  Mostly people hurry, from one place to the next and to the next.  They hop on and off cold steel subway cars, run up and down dirty concrete, dodge taxis, take elevators, glance into glass storefronts and corner delis.  And here I am, just one soul of millions.  Alone.  Searching for my new trail; a new dock on the waterfront; my new rock in the sun.  I don’t belong here.

And, yet, I’ve come to appreciate this megacity and all the humanity.  In that buzzing hive of impersonal industry and commerce, there is the longing glance in my direction from a beautiful woman.  There is the mother laughing with her toddler.  There are men bantering jovially at the food stand.  I see a man just strolling, arms held out wide and a great big smile on his face, just taking it all in.  There is another man whom I see helping a random stranger pull a bunch of luggage up a flight of subway stairs.

I walked Central Park, amazed at the contrast between urban bustle and green oasis.  As soon as you cross the street into The Park you see the change in the people.  Those same severe professionals who lacked the patience to wait for the walk sign to cross the road now sit on the rocks of Central Park with their shoes off basking in the sun and filtered shade of nature.  Those same miserable, stressed-out looking women clacking their high heels down West 58th street now stroll in the grass in Sheep’s Meadow, or sit and meditate over The Lake on a park bench.

I believe, when this seismic life change is passed, and I’ve found my mooring again, I will look back at my time in New York as a transformational wilderness-like experience. They say wilderness can be a state of mind.  I believe that more than ever, now.  Here in New York, where millions of people bear down on each other, where steel and concrete and glass dominate the scenery, one’s mind can feel as isolated as if in the Alaskan tundra.  And, sometimes that isolation is just what is needed to heal.

Midway Lake 1

As my quest to hike in every wilderness area in Colorado continues my sights were set on an overnighter in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness.  It is one of the few remaining wilderness areas within a three-hour drive from home that I had yet to visit, and a fairly significant one at that.  It is 82,729 acres (slightly larger than the Indian Peaks Wilderness).  It’s eastern boundary is the Continental Divide and then there is another 30,540 acres designated as the Mount Massive Wilderness.  The Mount Massive Wilderness, apparently, was never intended to be designated as a separate wilderness from the Hunter Fryingpan.  According to The Complete Guide to Colorado’s Wilderness Areas by John Fielder and Mark Pearson, the Mount Massive designation was intended to be added on to the Hunter Fryingpan in 1980, but a technical error resulted in the designation of a separately named wilderness unit.  Nevertheless, only the high and wild Continental Divide separates the two, so the combined area is really one contiguous wilderness of over 112,000 acres.

A little creative map reading can go a long way in finding opportunities for solitude even in well used areas.  With snow flying outside my window in the middle of winter I had my topo map of the Hunter Fryingpan sprawled across a table.  I tapped a finger on a small lake with an uninteresting name – Midway Lake.  What caught my attention is that it was about a mile or so off of a designated trail and the contour lines of my map indicated a possible gentle cross-country traverse from Midway Pass to the lake.  I had my hike.

Many months later I roll into the Lost Man Trailhead parking area at 10,500 feet on the west side of Independence Pass.  It’s a popular trailhead but most hikers take the short walk to Lost Man Reservoir.  I head the other way up a couple dozen steep switchbacks towards Midway Pass and soon reach the high point of the trail at nearly 12,200 feet for a 1,700 foot climb in about two miles.  As the highway noise from the pass recedes, views of the rugged Elk Mountains come into view to the west – the Maroon Bells, Castle Peak, Snowmass Mountain.  It looks pretty wild and I’ll be headed to that area in a few weeks, but for now I’m on my way to Midway Lake.

Nearing the pass I merge with a pack of day hikers:  A young couple from France, an older foursome, and a couple of ladies hiking with an older woman who I’m impressed made it up the 1,700 foot climb.  Suddenly I realize that I don’t think I locked my car!  I rationalize that it’s probably perfectly fine. But, since I happen to be near some hikers who will be headed back tonight, I ask the two ladies ahead of me if they wouldn’t mind checking my car when they get back.  Of course they are happy to do so, and my mind is at ease again.

All the day hikers stop at a beautiful little tarn just above timberline with views of the Elks in one direction and the Collegiate Peaks in the other.  Ah, Colorado!  I continue, alone.  The trail traverses above timberline, then descends gently to Midway Pass before dropping gradually into the head of a valley.  Here I get that wonderful sense of transitioning from the edge of the wilderness into the heart of it.  I look around and everything is so clear–the bright green grass, the dark green forest, the gray boulders.  All of it is so vivid and fantastic.

There’s a rainbow cloud in the sky!  Scientifically known as an iridescent cloud, it is a wisp of purple, green, yellow and orange.  It complements the landscape nicely.

Rainbow Cloud in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

Rainbow Cloud in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

My view of the distant Elk Range is now blocked by a pointy peak across the valley.  This peak is about 13,000 feet and appears to be unnamed.  Looking at my map there seems to be quite a few unnamed peaks in this wilderness area.  I like that.  Not every significant landmark needs a label in the wilderness.

Unnamed 13,000 foot peak in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

Unnamed 13,000 foot peak in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

The trail disappears, but I find the usual cairns and a wooden post to mark the way as I head into the head of a valley.  I’m nearing the point where I need to break from the trail to traverse to Midway Lake, which I cannot see, but know it is a mile to the northwest over a slight rise and then down a slope.

I step off trail.  Cross country route finding, when deliberate, is exhilarating, especially when solo.  Senses heightened, my course is carefully considered with every step.  Extra caution is taken to avoid a trip or a slip or a fall into a hole.  I skirt a rock outcropping and crest the slight rise onto a broad bench.  A new world opens up as the surface of the bench holds a series of tarns and marshes unseen from the trail.  I pick my way between reflective pools of water and begin to drop down a forested slope on the other side.  Negotiating some deadfall and some rocky ledges, I drop a couple hundred feet and emerge into an expansive rock-studded green meadow.  Finally, the lake is revealed across the meadow, shimmering in the sunshine.

And, what a beautiful lake it is!  The unnamed peak, from a new vantage point, is now accompanied by a companion nameless peak, gracing this little basin and lake with perfect, pleasant guardianship.

Midway Lake 3

I brought a light fishing rod not knowing if there were any trout in Midway Lake.  I quickly realized that this lake does not hold any trout, the outlet being a marsh, providing too little oxygenation for high country trout.  But, I don’t care one bit.  There’s a nice flat rock at water’s edge and I intend to lounge on that rock and enjoy a rare blue sky afternoon in the Rockies in late July.  What a treat!

While Midway Lake holds no fish, it does hold what I assume to be leeches!  I watch several of these jet black two or three-inch long creatures flutter around in the water.  They seem to feed off some algae so I figure if I put my feet in the cool clear water, they will ignore them.  So I recline on my rock with my feet blissfully dipped in the water.  Moments later something tickles the bottom of my foot and I shoot up like a rocket and see one of those leeches fluttering in the water where my feet were.  I pull up a thick stalk of grass and use it to flip the creature out of the water onto my rock.  It coils up like a pill bug, but I force it to uncoil and see the tiny suction mouth as it flaps helplessly before I flick it back in the water.  The things kind of creep me out.  Right now I see only a handful of them, but later at dusk I will look down in the water and see hundreds of them.

My campsite is glorious near the shores of Midway Lake and the weather is perfect.  This is what solitude in the Rocky Mountain Wilderness looks like when I dream of it during the winter.

Midway Lake Campsite

At night, a blue moon rises into the sky and it’s incredibly bright.  I keep the door of my tent open and look out across the meadow, washed in the grey light of the moon.  I could hike through the night with this moon without any need for my own light.  That moon!  I look over towards the Williams Mountains to the east.  dissipating cumulus clouds, white and fluffy and bright, hang over the next valley.  It’s like a fairy tale land.

In the morning I’m in no hurry to leave.  It’s only a four mile hike out, the way I came.  Finally, maybe ten o’clock, I reluctantly leave this paradise and dive back into the forest across the meadow.  Climbing through the trees I see the largest pile of bear poop ever.  It looks like someone dumped a five gallon bucket of poop there in the forest.  It was either a very large bear or it found a food jackpot and ate too much.  It was fairly recent, too–perhaps a day or two old.  A little farther up the hill there is a clear bear track in some semi-soft dirt (front paw), also fairly recent.

So long big bear.  I’m headed back home.




“Look, there’s the Amtrak Train!  It just came out of the tunnel.”

My daughter’s eyes widen as she strains to see out the car window to the train which is exiting the Moffat Tunnel heading east.  She likes trains.  We were here last year about this time and were lucky enough to see a freight train head into the tunnel westbound.  I held my daughter in my arms 30 feet from the tracks as the engine approached.  We waved at the engineer, and like any good train engineer, he waived back with a smile.

East portal of the 6-mile long Moffat train tunnel under the Great Divide

East portal of the 6-mile long Moffat train tunnel under the Great Divide

A year later, my daughter is now four, and we are back at the Moffat Tunnel Trailhead, portal to the James Peak Wilderness Area near Nederland, Colorado.

As we hit the trail there is a deafening sound coming from the tunnel.  It’s a bit like a continuous barge horn and seems to shake the leaves of the nearby aspen trees.  My daughter tries to cover her ears.  I think it’s not really a horn but some kind of huge exhaust fan.  Something like that.  The noise persists for about 20 minutes as we round the east tunnel portal and into the wilderness behind it, and then it abruptly goes silent and only the sweet music of the wilderness remains–bees and flies buzzing, birds chirping, South Boulder Creek rushing by.

In addition to trains my daughter also likes wooden bridges, and this trail does not disappoint in that category as bridge after wooden bridge crosses small streams, dry washes, and marshes.

Bridge walking in James Peak Wilderness

Bridge walking in James Peak Wilderness

The trail follows South Boulder Creek upstream and after about a mile we start to look for a good place to camp.  We reach a nice meadow at the first trail junction.  The Forrest Lakes trail heads off steeply to the right while the main trail continues through the meadow up valley.  We dive into the tall grass to our left which my daughter loves.  The grass is taller than she is, and to her this must seem like walking through a mysterious jungle.  Just as we approach a promising campsite I notice a tent.  It’s an LL Bean catalog type family with two young boys.  I briefly consider asking them if they would be willing to share their spot (and let the kids play together), but they don’t seem too inviting.  So, we move on.

It’s not always easy to find a decent campsite in the wilderness and it’s much more challenging with the snail pace of a four year old hiking companion.  The sun is sinking below the ridge to the west and I have to weigh our options.  I want to keep walking deeper into the wilderness until we find something.  But, I need to be careful here.  My daughter can’t yet hike very far, and I can’t afford to take the risk of pushing daylight to the brink with her.  My daughter is a trooper and does not complain, but I can tell she’s getting tired.

So, as the trail steepens above the creek just beyond the meadow, we turn around.  We get back to the west end of the meadow and make another attempt to scout towards the stream.  From a different angle than before, I spot a small flat clearing just inside the forest that I didn’t see before.  It’s a good forest campsite not far from the stream, about 75 yards above the other family and out of their sight.  This will work.

I leave off the rain fly of the tent knowing there is little chance of rain tonight.  With no breeze at all the pines are as still as statues.  The moon is a lantern glowing on the side of the tent.  It takes my daughter a while to settle down and then I finally drift off to sleep.

I awake in the night.  The moon is gone, below the western mountains, and there is an odd humming sound in the distance.  What is that?  Oh, yeah, that Moffat Tunnel exhaust.  The humming stops and then there is a distant train horn descending east towards the plains.  I find it fascinating and a bit bizarre that that train just passed almost directly below us.  For 90 years monstrous man-made machines have rumbled under these mountains, under the streams and lakes, under the trees and meadows, and under sleeping backpackers.  Under our tent tonight these machines pass silently through the earth below us, with their freight, passengers, train conductors and hobos along for the ride.  What a strange world?

We sleep until sun shafts reach the tent through the tight spaces between dense forest.  It is a dark campsite, where the day ends an hour earlier and begins an hour later than in the open meadows just a few feet away.  It’s a cold morning and we bundle up for a breakfast of hot oatmeal before packing up.  My daughter is a great camp helper.

Before long, we emerge from our dark forest into bright sunshine in the meadow, and suddenly there is a crowd.  People are everywhere!  I knew this was a popular trail, but I didn’t expect this many people, even on a late July Sunday morning.  I instruct my daughter to say “hello” and wave to the other hikers we pass and she takes this very literally.  In the just over one mile back to the trailhead we pass over 150 people, and she says hello to every last one of them.  It’s amazing, the instant joy and beaming smiles that a four year old can bring to hardened adults.  I watched as this amazing little girl instantly melted the hearts of burly tough men, women in deep concentration, college kids, and retired couples.

If only we all approached others with the innocence of a four-year old… I learn from her every single day.



"Our Little Home" as she called our campsite

“Our Little Home” as she called our campsite

To be clear my three-year-old daughter is almost four now. There is a pretty big difference in maturity and physical ability between “just turned three” and “almost four.” Still, I’m quite pleased with how well she has taken to her first backpacking adventures. She wants to carry her own pack and she isn’t scared at night in the tent. And, she’s delightfully amused when I explain to her that we will need to dig a “potty hole.”

About that potty hole: The first time I took her backpacking a few weeks ago we went to the Sawmill Hikers Campground in the Jefferson County White Ranch Open Space near Golden. It’s a wonderful place with beautiful well-spaced sites, and it has everything that a regular car campground has like pit toilets.  The only difference is you have to hike there (one mile).  Since she is already a veteran car camper, this was a good “test run” for backpacking and she passed the test.

So, “real backpacking” we go, to Lost Park in the Lost Creek Wilderness Area, where there are good secluded places to camp within a mile or so of the trailhead.  From the Lost Creek Campground and Trailhead on the western edge of the wilderness, a trail follows Lost Creek downstream through a brief meadow of willows and then through something like a mountain gateway where two mountain shoulders pinch the meadow as the stream flows through the gap.  You pass through the gateway in forest for a short distance and then the landscape opens up again on the other side into the open expanse of Lost Park, all within the first mile. Passing through this gateway you get a real sense of transition, of passing from civilization into the wild.

After locating a nice campsite in the trees on the edge of Lost Park she gives me a funny smile and says, “Are you going to dig me a potty hole?” Then she snickers a bit. She finds it funny, but I have no idea if this will be an issue.  To my knowledge she has never deliberately “done business” into a hole in the ground.  How do you teach something like this?

So, I make sure to engage her in the process.  I stand over our freshly dug potty hole and begin a professorial lesson: “When ya have to go in the woods, you dig a hole like this.” She stares wide-eyed at the hole. “Then stick your hind end out over the hole, take your best shot, and bury your business when you’re done!” She looks at the hole, then looks at me with what I think is a skeptical grin that seems to say, “are you freaking serious, Daddy?”

Turns out she has no problem using the potty hole. In about a half hour she just pops a squat over the hole and goes to town like it ain’t no thing. What was I worried about?

The rest of the evening we climb some (small) boulders, explore our surroundings, filter water from the stream, make a small campfire, eat dinner and go to bed.  I make it a point that she helps in some small way with all the camp chores and she seems to relish the shared responsibility.  She never cries to go home and doesn’t whine when night creeps in and makes the woods spooky.  She’s enjoying the adventure of it.



Later that evening in the tent I turn off the lantern.  Overcast skies make it a very dark night. “Um… It’s too dark,” she says with a little concern, drawing out the word “daaaarrk” in that cute way that 3/4 year olds do.  I explain how the clouds are blocking the moonlight and take her little hand in mine to reassure her that everything is fine and safe.  She’s wired but eventually goes to sleep.  As she sleeps peacefully I feel proud. My little girl is a backpacker.

The soft rush of the stream drifts through the calm darkness like a soothing blanket.

And everything is right with the world.

Pack on and ready to head home

Pack on and ready to head home

Like a Zen garden along Lost Creek

Like a Zen garden along Lost Creek

Soaring dramatically from the plains of Colorado, Greenhorn Mountain rises from 7,600 to 12,347 feet…  Its summit is the highest point in the Wilderness, and nowhere else in the state provides such a vivid and dramatic change from plains to mountains…Unusual for Colorado, Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness has no lakes and no towering alpine peaks–and, consequently, few human visitors.

Source:  Wilderness.net

A vivid and dramatic change from plains to mountains.  That is the unique characteristic of the 23,087 acres of Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness.  There are hundreds of higher peaks in Colorado, but few as prominent in their surroundings as Greenhorn, the apex of Southern Colorado’s Wet Mountains.  The summit is only about six linear miles from the edge of the Great Plains.

The East Bartlet Trailhead, just up the hill from the pretty down of Rye, borders private property to the east and national forest to the west.  A sign at the property reads “NO TRESPASSING.  SURVIVORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.” I decide not to take a picture of that sign as I pull into the dirt parking area to find only two other vehicles, one of them occupied by a woman reading a book.  It’s 3:00 pm on a Friday.

“You’re going to run into 40 girls pretty soon, just to let you know,” says the woman in the car. “They are hiking over from the other side of the range.”  When she says “girls” I’m not sure what that means–actual girls, like kids, or “girls” as in a bunch of grown women?  Either way I thank her for the “warning” and step onto the Bartlett Trail and into the San Isabel National Forest towards the Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness.

Sure enough, 100 yards up the trail, I hear and then see a long train of teenage girls.  As I step to the side the first few girls just look at me with some surprise and then one finally blurts out with hopeful anticipation: “Are we almost there?” I respond, “Yeah, you’re basically there, it’s just around that curve.” This immediately sets off a commotion of jubilation: “Yesssssss!  Woohooo!  Oh my God I have to pee sooooo bad!”  After the army of teenage girls pass I see no one else in this wilderness on the edge of the plains for the rest of the day.

As far as I can tell there are really only two distinct “destinations” for hikers in the Greenhorn Mountain wilderness.  The first is the summit of Greenhorn Mountain.  I’m not headed there.  I’m on my way to the other destination, Apache Falls, which is a little known waterfall at the end of a little used trail.

I ascend the lower east flank of Greenhorn Mountain on a rocky and sometimes steep trail, first through thickets of Gambel Oak, then into a beautiful mixed forest of Ponderosa Pine and Aspen, and eventually into Spruce and Fir.  I climb about 1,300 feet in a couple miles and every so often a view of the plains opens up to the east through the trees, each time a little higher than the last.

Vie of the Plains from the trail junction to Apache Falls

Vie of the Plains from the trail junction to Apache Falls


Big beautiful Aspen tree

Big beautiful Aspen tree

I cross several swollen branches of North Apache Creek and then come to a sign marking a trail to the left.  This trail takes me back down all of the vertical feet I just climbed and then some, steeply down into the South Apache Creek drainage, briefly exiting the wilderness area and taking me to within a couple miles of private lands on the edge of the plains.  I hear strange music down valley.  At the small stream, running clear and beautiful and graced by surprisingly lush greenery, the trail turns to follow the creek upstream, back into the hinterland of the wilderness.  The trail is faint and overgrown, but well marked with cairns where needed.  I suspect these cairns have been here for many decades, but guiding only a few lucky people each year.

The trail soon turns up a tributary stream and I know that I’m not far from the falls.  I come to a pair of great big Ponderosa Pines with a good tent site nearby and drop my pack.  Camp for the night.  Without my pack I continue up the trail in search of the waterfall.  I have no idea what to expect:  A ten foot tumbler?  A thirty foot plunge?  I see it before I hear it, a beautiful 100-foot classic plunge off of a cliff, framed by the bare trunks of big tall Pines.  The beauty of the sight is enhanced by its uniqueness – a hidden ribbon of falling water near the edge of the plains and yet fully in wilderness seclusion.

First view of Apache falls, framed by tall Ponderosa pine trees

First view of Apache falls, framed by tall Ponderosa pine trees

I continue to the falls, delighted to find that I can easily walk right up to its base on either side.  I stand on a flat rock at the edge of the large pool at the bottom and reach a hand out into the falls.  The light spray cools my face as I look straight up the falls to a deep blue sky.

Apache Falls

Apache Falls

With no threat of rain I sleep peacefully in my tent without the rain fly, stars speckling the sky between the tops of the still pines.  The soft rush of the creek helps bring on sleep.

Morning is brilliant.  Fresh.  Sun slanting through the trees.  Rocky crags in view to the south beneath brilliant blue.  I down some hot coffee and oatmeal and then head back up to the falls.  I spend a couple hours there feeling completely at home and at ease.  It’s an Eden.  A Sanctuary.  It could have been made a tourist attraction with a paved road cut into the valley and a paved “viewing platform” at the falls.  Thank goodness Apache Falls is simply a beautiful waterfall in the wilderness and not a “tourist attraction.”

Sawmill Backpack 1

She looks up to me and exclaims with delight: “This is a nice one!”

“It sure is,” I respond encouragingly.

My daughter is proudly holding up a big pine cone. We are picking them up off the trail and then throwing them together into the grass down the hill. Soon she sees a trickle of clear water tumbling out of the hillside and across the trail. “Look, Daddy, a stream!” She then prances around in the water, too shallow to get her feet wet, for a few minutes.

In this manner it takes us more than two hours to hike the one mile from the parking lot to the Sawmill hiker campground in Jefferson County’s White Ranch Open Space, near Golden. Rule number one for taking a three-year-old backpacking: Patience.

This is exactly the immersion into nature that I want for my daughter. Her developing brain is soaking these sights, smells, sounds and experiences in like a sponge. I want the pure joy and blissfulness of these outdoor experiences to become a part of the fabric of her soul.

She proudly carries her own backpack with a few items of her own clothes packed inside. She takes two or three minor tumbles and, with my gentle encouragement, picks herself back up and continues on.

We finally reach the campground, which is completely deserted on this Monday afternoon. As we approach our site I spot a beautiful black Aberts squirrel near the picnic table. I kneel down to my daughter’s level and point to the squirrel, explaining what it is and that it’s such a beautiful animal. It saunters away into the forest, but we will see it again later that evening, and I will be proud when she tells me, from recollection, “that’s an Aberts squirrel, Daddy.”

As we set up camp, she helps with the chores. I lug a big piece of firewood and she picks up a smaller stick. “Is this a good burning wood?” she asks.  She helps me set up the tent, and then dances around with delight inside when it’s up.

As the shadows get longer on this sunny day we cook dinner over the fire and then roast marshmallows together. She is mesmerized and calmed by the fire in the evening just as many adults are. There seems to be something primal and innately comforting to a human being about a campfire.

As dusk comes we walk back to the trail where there is a sweeping view of the city of Denver and all its lights. She says nothing while looking intensely over the city and the plains beyond, and I sense the wonder that she’s feeling. I tell her that our house is one of those lights (even though I know our house is just out of view to the northeast), and this brings a great big smile. “Is Mommy there?” She asks.

As we sit looking at the city lights over the tops of Ponderosa Pines my daughter gives me a kiss on the cheek and says “I love you Daddy.”  She takes a deep breath of contentment and then a few moments later asks to go back to the campsite. She’s tired.

She sleeps like a log in the tent. She’s been car camping several times before, but this was a new step, and I’m pleased with how well she’s handled it. My hope is that these immersions into nature will become part of who she is. I hope it will create a natural comfort with being in the wilderness, a desire to be outside, to explore, and to respect the natural world.  And, when she’s older there will be an innate wonder and excitement for the wild in her soul.

The hike back to the car the next morning is as slow as the one to the campsite.  She pretends the sand on the trail is bug spray and gets the idea that she needs to protect the grass on the side of the trail from bugs and repeatedly sprinkles “bug spray” sand into the grass.

Close to the trailhead I spot a deer in the meadow up the hill.

“Look up there. See the deer?” I ask.

“Uh-huh.” She acknowledges that she sees it and watches the animal bound through the tall grass and into the trees.  She seems thoughtful for a few moments and then gets back to her game of collecting “bug spray” sand. With patience I just smile and watch.