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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.

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South Boulder Creek near the lower crossing on the Walker Ranch Loop Trail

It was near 90 degrees the last two days, but now it was a cool 60 outside my house.  Looking out to the Front Range from my living room windows, the Indian Peaks were already shrouded behind rain and the weather didn’t look promising.  What the hell?  I went anyway.

On a warm early March day I hiked just the first mile or so of the Walker Ranch Loop trail until the way was blocked by feet of snow just on the far side of South Boulder Creek.  Now, two months later, I went back to complete the 7.6 mile route.  This time there was a lot less snow, a few more people, and ironically, it was about 20 degrees cooler.

I stepped out of the car at the trailhead at Boulder County’s Walker Ranch Open Space into a cool breeze and looked up to the canopy of white-gray clouds draped over the landscape.  Would the rain hold out?  Doubtful.  I double-checked that I packed my blue raincoat and off I went.

The Walker Ranch Loop Trailhead starts at a high point.  If you take it counter-clockwise like I did, the first mile drops a few hundred feet down to South Boulder Creek.  In March the water in the creek was low and quiet, but it was much higher and noisier now during our early spring runoff.

The footbridge across South Boulder Creek in early March

The same footbridge in early May with a swollen S. Boulder Creek flowing underneath

Past the bridge, the trail immediately begins the first of two significant climbs on the route.  A few hundred feet higher and a mile and a half farther in, you reach the edge of the Gross Dam Road.  A few hundred feet beyond that, the trail emerges into an open area at the Eldorado Canyon State Park access to the loop (about a mile of the trail is in Eldorado Canyon State Park.  The rest is in the Walker Ranch Boulder County Open Space).

Still no rain, the cool weather made for pleasant hiking along a stretch of high open range.

Looking out over the green hills near the Eldorado Canyon access point.

Soon the trail begins the second descent back towards South Boulder Creek as it gradually curves towards the east.  At about 4 miles in the trail navigates a short but extremely steep section that takes the hiker down to the river.  Some very expertly constructed steps have been put in place here.

Looking down the stair steps just above the lower crossing point of South Boulder Creek

By now the silence of the upper trail has been replaced by the rush of South Boulder Creek.  At this lower crossing in high water, South Boulder Creek is a riot of white water and white noise echoeing throughout the canyon.

The churning waters of South Boulder Creek from the trail at the lower crossing point.

A very large and sturdy wooden footbridge crosses the rapids of the creek.  Here the second ascent begins.  Also here, the rain finally arrived in earnest.  It had been a pleasent sprinkle for the previous two miles.  But, it finally intensified to the point where I needed to break out the raincoat.

The route briefly follows a graded road here before branching off to the left at near the six-mile point and commencing on a fairly strenuous climb up to the ridge south of the trailhead.  Also near this point are some of the remains of the old Walker Ranch Homestead.

Walking through the rain I saw a sullen-looking solitary turkey waddle across the trail and disappear into the brush.

Before too long the ridge was reached and misty views of the surrounding foothills emerged from the wet darkness of the forest.

The nice ridge over the final mile or so.

I always prefer nice sunny days for hiking and backpacking.  But, I find a certain different kind of enjoyment hiking in the rain.  The moisture and restricted visibility tend to bring nature closer in to the senses.  The enhanced feeling of “being in the elements” increases a sense of wildness.

I strolled happily along on the final mile, over the gentle ups and downs of the ridge back to the trailhead.  As I approached the trailhead, a happy pair of mountain bluebirds skimmed just over the grass and wildflowers of the meadow.

By the time my hike ended the rain intensified and the air felt quite cool–cool enough to see my breath.  A couple miles up the road on the drive home, near the top of Flagstaff Hill, the rain turned to a thick snowfall.  My car told me it was 36 degrees outside.  It was almost 90 at my house the day before…

Springtime in Colorado, I guess.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

* The Walker Ranch is a 3,500 acre parcel of the extensive Boulder County Open Space System located in, near and around the city of Boulder, Colorado.  Access is just a few miles up the hill from Boulder. *

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A Ponderosa Moon on the Rabbit Mountain Ridge

Footbridge over South Boulder Creek in Walker Ranch

The area in and around Boulder, Colorado offers one of the more extensive oportunities for urban and near-urban hiking in the nation.  Boulder County owns and oversees 99,000 acres of open space.  The City of Boulder owns and oversees an additional 45,000 acres.  All of this wonderful natural land surrounds the city of Boulder and straddles the transition zone between the High Plains and the Rocky Mountains, intermingling with the urban core of the beautiful city of Boulder, Colorado.

These long-standing efforts have resulted in the opportunity for a wilderness-like experience accessible literally from our backdoors and local businesses.  An etraordinary nework of maintained trails provides access throughout the area to the foothills and high plains natural environments.  There are flat, easy walks along streamsides, like the Boulder Creek path or the Bobolink trail.  There are multitutes of potential short loop hikes that dip in and out of the ponderosa forests that drape the hills above Boulder.  There are rigorous hikes to the summits of local peaks like South Boulder, Bear Peak and Mount Sanitas.  There are trails that access world class climbing routes on the Flatirons or in Eldorado Canyon State Park.  There are trails that follow meandering clear streams full of trout.  There are even extensive long-distance opportunities covering dozens of miles at a time.

I like to explore these areas when I can on those nice days we get in early spring or even winter, when the higher mountains and foothills are still blanketed in snow.  Following are some short descriptions of a few local walks/hikes I’ve done this year:

1.)  Dry Creek Trail – City of Boulder Open Space – 1.5 Miles

This short lollipop loop trail (about 1.5 miles) is accessed on the south side of Baseline Road just west of 76th.  This is flatland with views of the nearby foothills and the trail stays below the dam for Baseline Reservoir and partially along the Dry Creek streambed.  Not a highly exciting or spectacular hike by any means, what this trail offers is local access to a nice trail for someone who has an hour or so to get out and get some excercise and fresh air right in the urben environment of East Boulder.

2.)  Bobolink Trail – City of Boulder Open Space – 1.5 Miles

The 1.5 miles here represents just the round-trip distance from the trailhead to the bridge over S. Boulder Creek.  The trail system here, which consists of a combination of hiking, multi-use, and paved paths, offers the possibility of much longer hikes, walks, or rides.  The Bobolink trailhead is accessed on the south side of Baseline road just west of Baseline Reservoir in East Boulder.  This is high planes semi-urban territory, but the hiking-only trail follows closely along the banks of the riparian environment of South Boulder Creek.  It makes for a unique and pleasant little hike right in the heart of the East Boulder area and perfect for those nice mild winter days.

3.) Walker Ranch -Boulder County Open Space – 2 miles

Walker Ranch may be the gem of the Boulder County Open Space system.  James Walker arrived to Colorado in 1869 in poor health with $12 in his pocket, and in 1882 he and his wife filed a homestead claim to 160 acres of land in the hills above Boulder.  They made a self-sufficient living off the land, expanding their property until the Walker family finally sold 6,000 acres in 1959.  Ultimately, ownership of about 3,500 acres of the land was acquired by the County of Boulder in 1976 and designated the Walker Ranch Open Space.  The Walker Ranch is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Source:  Boulder County Open Space Website.

Now, Walker Ranch offers a superb environment for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, sightseeing, wildlife viewing and trout fishing.  Miles of South Boulder Creek flow through the  middle of the ranch, it’s clear waters home to hard fighting rainbow trout sought by many fly-fishermen.  The ponderosa forest of this area offers a natural escape from the city just a few miles up the road.

There are three main access points to Walker Ranch:  The Walker Ranch Loop Trailhead and the Meyers Homestead Trailhead are both off of Flagstaff road.  The Ranch can also be accessed from Eldorado Canyon State Park on the south.  The Walker Ranch Loop Trailhead is only about seven winding miles above Boulder on Flagstaff Road and the usual starting point for the 7.8 mile Walker Ranch Loop Trail.  I had intended to hike the entire loop, but the nice March weather had me fooled.  I was reminded that it was still late winter when the open and sunny trail from the TH down to the river was soon covered in a couple feet of snow as it entered the north facing slope opposite the stream.

Instead, I spent some time ambling along the streamside of S. Boulder Creek, watching some trout swim around in the clear water and admiring the tall ponderosa trees and rocky granite outcrops gracing the streambanks.  Because the access points to this area are well away from the stream, once you reach the stream, you can really immerse yourself into the wildness of this environment – sun, trees, mountains, rocks and water in a quiet setting.  A combination that is a rare treat so close to the city.

4.)  Rabbit Mountain Loop – Boulder County Open Space – 4 miles

Rabbit Mountain is an oddity.  The foothills of the Front Range are typically very uniformly a north-south oriented uplift from the flat plains to the east.  Because of a fault, the hills of Rabbit mountain were thrust eastward along the faultline, creating an east-west ridge that juts out into the plains.  The result is a foothills environment that is cast off a bit to the east, east of the town of Lyons.  This oddity provided a winter home for Arapaho Indians who used the ridge to shelter them from the winter winds.  They looked to the twin summits of Mount Meeker and Longs Peak from here as navigational guides.  Mountain species such as elk and mountain lions also follow this ridge to the east using the cover of the ponderosa forest.

Over 2,700 acres comprises Rabbit Mountain.  I hiked a nice 4-mile loop that took me up through grasslands to the ponderosa-graced ridge and back.  From this ridge are some of the best Front Range views you will find anywhere.  The sights of the twin summits of Mount Meeker and Longs Peak are fantastic from here.  And, from this easterly vantage point, you can see down the length of the Front Range foothills for many miles to the south and north.

Rabbit Mountain Open Space is accessed off of Higway 66 just east of Lyons.

5.)  Betasso Preserve Canyon Loop Trail – Boulder County Open Space – 3 miles

Betasso Preserve has perhaps the most pleasant of trailheads I have yet seen in the Boulder County and City Open Space systems.  The TH is up on a plateau, graced with a fine “ponderosa park” setting.  From the trailhead, the Canyon Loop Trail sweeps down into the ponderosas in a carefree meandering way, gradually curving its full circle through trees here and open meadows there.

When I hiked this trail in late March, the sunny parts of the trail were dry, but the sheltered parts were full of mud, snow and ice.  We’ve had a dry warm spring, so I imaging this trail is often covered in feet of snow well into April some years.

This area has an odd regulation, allowing mountain bikes on some days and designating it as hiking only on other days.  When mountain bikes are allowed, they are required to take the loop counter-clockwise.  The reasoning for this rule becomes clear as parts of this trail are narrow with some steep slopes off the sides.  It’s easier for hikers and mountain bikders to pass when they are heading in opposite directions.

The Betasso Preserve is accessed by taking Highway 119 a few miles west of Boulder, turning right on Sugarloaf Road, and then another right on Betasso Road.

6.) Walden Ponds – Boulder County Open Space – 2 miles

The iconic name “Walden Ponds” invokes imagery of a pleasant Vermont lake surrounded by verdent forest… Not so much.

These ponds were old stone quarry pits that, in the 1970’s, were filled with water and transformed into an attraction for birds, fish and fishermen.  Stocked primarily with warm water species like bass, these ponds are popular with fishermen as well as joggers and walkers who enjoy the pathways that wind around the several ponds.

The scenery outward from the ponds is not inspiring–office buildings, piles of rocks, suburban neighborhoods.  But, inward is a pleasant environment of water, various trees and plants, and numerous birds.

I walked in a figure-eight pattern from the main access point around three of the ponds.  If you have an hour or so for a quick hike or jog, this is an easily accessed oasis in Northeast Boulder.  Walden Ponds is right off of 75th street north of Valmont Road.

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  • Points earned:  0 (non-wilderness hike)
  • Trip Date:  December 21, 2010
  • Wilderness Area:  N/A
  • Duration:  Day hike
  • Destination:  N/A
  • Length:  4 miles
  • Elevation gain:  Approx 300 feet

“WARNING:  HIKE AT OWN RISK.  AREA BEHIND THIS SIGN BORDERS SHOOTING RANGE.  STRAY BULLETS HAVE BEEN REPORTED.”

This was what the sign said at the OTHER end of the open space area from where I started my hike.  Funny, there was no such sign at the trailhead I started from.  Come to think of it, I was hearing some distant gunfire on the trail.

I wasn’t too worried, though.  I reasoned that, if the danger was significant, the trail would not be open.  Still, I might have walked a little quicker back the other direction to get back behind the hill between the ranch and the gun range.

The Boulder  Valley Ranch Open Space is a great area for winter-time hikes.  It is just off the north end of Boulder, sandwiched between Hwy 36 to the west and Boulder Reservoir to the east.  The main access trailhead is a couple miles down a dirt road, giving it a somewhat hidden feel.

I had no planned route, just a one-hour window.  I ended up doing about a 4-mile semi-loop that took me up and around a low mesa.  There are no trees in this area, so the views west towards the foothills were constant, and there were occasional peeks south to the flatirons and the Denver metro area.  A great choice if you have a small window of time in the winter to get a quick hike in.

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  • Points earned:  0 (non-wilderness hike)
  • Trip Date:  December 16, 2010
  • Wilderness Area:  N/A
  • Destination:  Mesa Trail above NCAR
  • Hike Length:  5 miles
  • Elevation:  Approx 500 feet

After a much too long hiatus from hiking, and the onset of winter temperatures and shorter days, I finally got off my butt on an unseasonably warm December day.

You can access the huge network of Boulder Open Space trails from the parking lot of NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research).  A short NCAR-maintained trail links up with the  winding Mesa Trail behind the research center.

I took the Mesa Trail south from there over some ups and downs and through some of the great ponderosa forest that hugs the edge of the foothills above Boulder.

With so many trails in the Boulder County Open Space system it can be difficult to keep track of your route–there’s a trail junction at least every half-mile.  Indeed, I made a wrong turn at one point, which extended my planned hike by one mile.

No worries.  Dozer and I just retraced our steps and got back on the route, which was a short lollipop loop through the trees with flatiron and eastern plains views.  Back by dark after a good 5 mile workout.

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  • Points:  0 (non-wilderness hike)
  • Trip Date:  Late September (can’t remember exact date)
  • Wilderness Area:  N/A (Boulder Open Space)
  • Destination:  N/A
  • Hike Length:  4.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain:  Approx 400 feet
  • Duration:  Day Hike

“There’s a bear up the trail!”

This is what the lady said near the trailhead just as I started my hike.  Apparently, she looked up and saw a black bear ambling along near the trail about 200 yards back.

“Okay, thanks, I’ll keep my eyes open,” I said.

I did, indeed, look all over for the bear, but I never saw it.  I’m sure it was there.  Signs in the area did, in fact, indicate that the area was prone to bear visitors for the berries that grow in the dry stream bottoms.

Sounds like this was some deep wilderness hike.  It wasn’t.  This was just on part of the Boulder County Open Space system right at the edge of the foothills just east of Eldorado Canyon.  It is part of a large system of inter-connected open space areas and an expansive network of trails.

I had intended to park on the north side of the road, but having been there before, I changed my mind at the last minute and parked at the south-side trailhead.  I quickly found out that the south side is the mountain biking side.  Me and the lady at the beginning of the trail were the only hikers contending with dozens of mountain bikers.

No big deal, it was still a nice hike up to a broad mesa and then into a ponderosa forest.  I had taken a couple weeks to “recover” from my big Wind River backpacking trip and this little afternoon 4.5 miler was perfect to get me re-acquainted with hiking.

Oh, some details:  Trailhead is along the Eldorado Canyon road west of Hwy 93 but east of the town of Eldorado Springs and the canyon itself.  The south-side trailhead leads to a small network of multi-use trails that climb a gentle mesa which opens up to some pretty good views northwest towards the flatirons, and east out across the plains.  The main trail I hiked (with Dozer) was the Doudy Draw trail, out and back.

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  • Points Earned:  0 (non-wilderness hike)
  • Trailhead:  Guanella Pass
  • Location:  Colorado Front Range
  • Total Miles:  4.6
  • Elevation Gain:  750 feet
  • Hike Destination:  Upper Squaretop Lake
  • Wildlife Spotted:  Several marmots, couple pikas, snowshoe hare, cutthroat trout

Dozer looking down on a glassy Lower Squaretop Lake from the upper lake

My friend Nick invited me to hike to one of his favorite day-hike destinations, the two Squaretop Lakes near the summit of Guanella Pass.  It is a relatively easy 2.3 mile hike from the Guanella Pass summit to the upper lake.

Given the fact that we were in the middle of a monsoon weather pattern and this hike is entirely above timberline, we left Denver at an early 6:45 so that we could hit the trail by 9:30 and, hopefully, get back down before the storms moved in.

As we hit the trail, the sky was overcast and the wind was unusually calm for the area making for quite a pleasant hike.  I quickly noticed that this hike is a little different than most high alpine lake and summit hikes in that, while it is generally uphill (about 750 feet in elevation gain), the trail is a series of ups and downs rather than just a steep uphill slog.  This adds variety to the hike and to the scenery along the way.

The two lakes are well-concealed within their basins on the slopes of Squaretop Mountain (which doesn’t look very square from this angle).  In no time we reached the upper lake which is the larger and prettier of the two:

The wildflowers were impressive on the slopes above the upper lake:

Indian Paintbrush cloaks the alpine slope of Squaretop Mountain near the Upper Squaretop Lake

With an almost calm wind and an overcast sky, the water in the lake was clear enough to spot the occasional cutthroat trout swimming peacefully by:

The thin yellowish “rock” in the middle of this picture is actually a swimming 14-inch cutthroat trout. We could spot several of them in the lake.

After about 45 minutes at the upper lake, the clouds began to build in thicker and we decided to head down:

Ominous clouds looming behind Squaretop Mountain on the return hike

Perhaps my least favorite experience when hiking in the backcountry is getting caught above timberline in a thunderstorm, and that is exactly what happened.  Although it wasn’t a particularly violent storm, it did bring a good soaking rain, some small hail, and, yes, a bit lf close-proximity lightning just as we had to climb up and over the final ridge to get back to the trailhead.  But, we made it back safely, and it was a nice little hike to a couple of very pretty alpine lakes just outside the boundary of the Mount Evans Wilderness Area:

The storm builds and moves in front of Bierstadt (right), Sawtooth Ridge (center) and Mt. Spalding (left) with still almost a mile of trail above timberline. The rain and hail intensified and the lighting started in shortly after this picture was taken.

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