Archive for the ‘Trip Reports’ Category

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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We shared many trails, Dozer and me.

We shared many trails, Dozer and me.

To the east a thin group of clouds just above the Indian Peaks turn from pale gray to soft pastel shades of pink and orange. The sunrise is subtle for the moment with no direct sunshine, just colors. To the west a nearly full moon is sinking down towards the ridgeline of the Gore Range—a sharply serrated outline of dark rock against an indigo western sky. I stand in the middle, right on the crest of the Continental Divide in the Vasquez Peaks.

Alone, I walk north along the Divide, high above the trees, as the sky lightens. A burst of sunshine finally washes over the east facing slopes to my right. The light at this hour and at this elevation is magic. Colors seem to glow and textures take on extraordinary dimension. Everything is crisp. Each blade of grass, flower pedal and grain of earth seem to have their own sunbeams dedicated to their individual illumination.

It is indeed an exhilarating place on Earth to stand at this moment in time. From the apex of the continent and at the very moment when the day bursts through, all becomes light and beauty and brilliance. I feel privileged to be here.

The thrill of this moment is subdued by an element of sadness. Dozer is not here with me this morning. I was here yesterday with him at almost the same hour. As I was just about to take the final few steps to reach the Divide, I turned to check on him, to make sure he was right there at my heels as always. When I saw him far down slope I knew immediately, he had finally explored his last trail. At sixteen years, ancient for a dog of his size, he could do it no more. He was just sitting there, facing away from me, staring back east toward home. He held his head low and still.

I didn’t try to coax him on. I scrambled my way back down the steep slope, and when I reached my friend I took a seat next to him and we watched the sunrise together. After a few minutes he told me he was ready to go with one gentle lick on the back of my hand. His eyes said, “Take me home now.” “Yeah,” I said aloud. “Let’s go home now.”

The very next morning I’m back again, on the Divide. Something is on the trail—a big gleaming pile of scat. A very big cat has been here this morning, is perhaps still here just around some rock or just out of my view a bit down the hill, crouching, watching.  Somehow I feel very much at ease.

Soon I spot some movement down the steep west slope. It’s not the lion but a small group of large brown animals. Bighorns, I think, but they are too distant to be sure. I take a picture on full zoom and then zoom in on the digital image. Deer! Four of them high above the trees. Perhaps the lion was stalking this group. Perhaps hours ago there were five of them and one sacrificed to the lion.

I’m walking a section of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and it is one of the most delightful walks imaginable. The gentle, rounded ridgeline guides me on a two mile pathway through a paradise of color, sunshine and mountain vistas. Wildflowers of pink, white, blue, red, purple, and yellow shine in the early morning sun on a background of green grass. Speckled white granite rocks poke through here and there. The whole scene is framed by brilliant snowfields corniced on the east slope just off the crest of the ridge, all beneath a pale blue sky getting bluer as the day brightens.

Vasquez Peak Wilderness 1

I soon reach an unnamed high point I decide to call “rocky knob” for the cluster of boulders at the top. Here, the Continental Divide sweeps 90-degrees to the east towards Berthoud Pass. Another ridge runs from here towards the Northwest into the Vasquez Peak Wilderness and on to the summit of Mount Nystrom, just another mile or so away. I find this spot to be a sort of focal point for the wilderness complex I’m standing in. The three wilderness areas of Vasquez Peak, Byers Peak and Ptarmigan Peak are, individually, all small slices of mountains, ridges and forests. But, they form the outside edges of a much larger wild land. In the middle of the three wilderness areas the roadless basin of the Williams Fork Headwaters and the Frazer Experimental Forest form the core of the area. Taken all together, this is a 100,000 acre expanse all managed as wilderness if not all officially designated. It represents a beautiful “void” between much more well-known wild lands like the Indian Peaks to the east and the Eagles Nest to the west. Not as classically rugged as those areas, one gets a sweeping view of them from these gentle alpine ridges and peaks. It’s all two hours or so from the Denver area, and by the end of the day on this Saturday in July I will have only seen one other person on these high ridge trails.

I break from the Continental Divide Trail and head northwest on the ridge to Mount Nystrom. The name “Mount Nystrom” can evoke imagined images of a pinnacled and sinister peak, perpetually swirled by black storms and inhabited by horrible spirits–the tortured souls of many a lost climber. That it is not. Mount Nystrom, like most of the peaks of this area, is but another rounded summit graced by gentle grassy slopes.

The trail to Nystrom is intermittent, but no matter, the route is obvious. I soon traverse through a delightful grotto garden. Low rock walls border a passageway paved in green grass and wildflowers. A little bunch of alpine forget-me-nots is tucked next to a protective rock. Each tiny petal is so blue as to almost glow, so perfectly shaped as to seem unreal.

A pika chirps and then I see it. Elusive creatures of extreme cuteness, they are often heard and much less often actually seen. This one stays in view, perched on a rock, and I take the time to enjoy its company. I move on along the ridge. Over 1,500 feet down the steep slope to the south lay the dark surface of a small lake at the head of a trailless valley. Above the lake in alpine meadow is a scattershot of brown boulders that look out of place in the greens and grays and blues of this environment. One of the boulders moves and I realize I’m looking at a herd of elk, at least 60 of them, just at tree line far below.



Vasquez Peak Wilderness 4

There is a wooden post but no register at the 12,600 foot summit of Mount Nystrum. From here I spot notable peaks in all directions: Longs, Holy Cross, Torreys. Full mountain ranges unfold. Way in the distance is the Park Range and the northern Sawatch. Closer are the rugged peaks of the Gore Range, the Never Summers, and the Indian Peaks. And in the foreground are the summits of Vasquez, Byers and Bills Peaks.

In the basin to the north there sits a small pond, Vasquez Lake. I plan to hike down to it, so I continue down the north slope of Mount Nystrum to a high saddle then drop down a very steep hundred feet onto a flat basin at timberline. I cross a small creek, slalom through some krumholz trees and reach the serene shallow water of the lake, fringed by a forest of stunted evergreens. Mount Nystrum now stands stately 1,000 feet above. It’s a peaceful spot, but I have the strange feeling of being in the presence of a grouchy bear. It’s funny how, when I knew a mountain lion was close, I was unworried, but here I feel uneasy about a bear of which there is no actual sign of.

Vasquez Lake, Mt. Nystrom behind

Vasquez Lake, Mt. Nystrom behind

I don’t stay too long, not because of the imagined angry bear, but because the cumulous clouds are building. I must climb back to the ridge and then return the way I came, exposed above timberline for several more hours. I get going, hucking across the basin and then up a very steep flank. I take 50 steps then rest, 50 steps then rest, until finally climbing the 800 feet back to the crest of the ridge just on the Mt. Nystrum side of “rocky knob.” Back through the grotto and then on the Continental Divide Trail again, I watch the weather closely, hoping it holds out just long enough for me to get down off the Divide.

The weather does hold as I make my final steps below a snow-blocked Jones Pass to my car. The Henderson mine hums below in the valley and beyond that is Highway 40, Interstate-70 and then the 3 million or so residents of the Denver metropolis. This dichotomy is always striking to me. As I rumble down the highway into the city, surrounded by humanity, cars, houses and people, I remember how just hours ago I had the Continental Divide and a whole glistening wilderness to myself.


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Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 051

Fear and Contemplation

Trillions of vapor droplets drift across Colorado’s great southern valley.  They meet the uplift of the Blood of  Christ Mountains.  Heat rises.  Energy builds.  Light dances across the sky.  The Heavens roar.  The life force of Earth falls to the ground and the Wilderness rejoices.

I’m in my tent high in Southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains counting the seconds between the flashes and the booms.  At least ten wicked bolts strike within a mile.  I fear the lightning.  I haven’t always, but a few high country electrical storms have heightened my sense to the danger. “When I hear anyone say he does not fear lightning, I still remark inwardly:  he has never ridden The Mountain in July,” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.

Awareness of my own mortality is further enhanced by the passing of my Father not three months ago.  As the rain pecks at the tent I think back to two days before he left this world, with his family there by his side.  He looked pleasantly amused about something, and with bright eyes and a clear voice he said, “I can see everything from the top side now and I’m okay with it.” It was a profound thing to say in my Dad’s typically understated way.  He was okay with it… It gives me great comfort to know that he was “okay” with dying.  We all are dying.  The question is:  how are we living?  But, I still fear the lightning.

My Dad taught me how to live much the same way he taught me how to build a proper campfire when I was little.  There are many methods to building a campfire, he said.  The method chosen matters little as long as the fundamentals are adhered to.  The first thing a campfire needs to thrive is good fuel.  Education is our fuel and my Dad taught me by example the value of a lifelong commitment to learning.  A campfire will quickly extinguish itself unless given plenty of space to breathe–too little oxygen and the fire is smothered.  This is personal freedom.  My Dad taught me the importance of being my own person and charting my own course in life.  To keep a campfire burning brightly it needs tending.  Not too much or too little.  A campfire needs a patient and watchful tender who knows when to help it along and when to just sit back and enjoy its beauty and warmth.  My Dad showed me how genuinely receiving and giving guidance with our loved ones provides our lives with greater meaning and purpose, making us brighter, warmer people.

My Dad also instilled in me my love for simple, unpretentious, travel.  By the time I was fourteen I had visited 40 U.S. states but had yet to fly in an airplane.  Our way of travel was the open road by day and sleeping under the stars by night.  It was bologna sandwiches, chips and a Coke for lunch.  It was searching for the best campsite and burning marshmallows over the fire.  I loved it all.  My Dad never ventured from the road or the campground.  That my Mom did.  She brought me my love for the wilderness–casting lines in creeks and climbing peaks.

This is all reflection and contemplation which one tends to do much of after losing a family member.  One of the many reasons we need wilderness is because it is a place for contemplation.  Contemplation without noise.  We go to the wild to get back to basics.  To reflect.  To contemplate.  It makes many of us better people.  It helps many of us heal.

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A Valley High

My campsite in wilderness solitude is on the edge of a high little valley a few hundred vertical feet below North Crestone Lake.  It is a wonderful place bordered on each side by rugged peaks.  Open meadows are perfectly complimented with stands of spruce.  A little stream flows quietly through the middle, clothed in yellowing willow.  At the head of this little valley a two hundred foot waterfall provides its calming melodies.  The falls commence with a straight drop over a rock ledge.  Then braids of white dance among boulders and shoot over slabs.  At bottom the falls is swallowed up by the green valley floor.  I sit here in this valley after the storm with the soft rush of the falls to my right and the retreating rumbles of thunder down valley to my left.

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A Wise Old Fish

A big trout cruises the lakeshore casting distance from the rock on which I sit.  The water is so clear and still that it almost looks as if the fish is suspended in air, gliding along like a colorful miniature blimp.  It’s a cutthroat–I can see the crimson cheeks and heavily spotted tail.  It’s about sixteen inches and shaped like a football.  I cast to a point about six feet in front of it, couching to stay below the trout’s line of vision.  It seems to turn its head ever so slightly in acknowledgement of the enticing meal ahead.  But, it continues along, slowly, wisely.  I try again and again until I nearly drop my lure right onto its head.  The cumulous clouds are building and it’s time to head back to camp a mile down valley.  I decide to give it one more go, but by this time I’m rooting for the fish to win.  He’s earned my respect.  Once again the wise one passes on my offering.  I give my friend a salute and silently wish him well.  I can still see him swimming peacefully along as I look back down to the lake from 100 feet above.

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A School of Foolish Fish

Back from my walk to beautiful North Crestone Lake, I still have my heart set on trout for dinner.  The little stream in the valley is filled with multitudes of brookies.  But, it’s difficult to fish because of the willows.  On the trail to the lake I noticed a very large pool near the bottom of the falls about a quarter mile up from my campsite.  Dozer and I make our way over.  As I creep up behind some willows Dozer tromps to the tail end of the pool for a drink and spooks a half-dozen trout.  I follow the fish with my eyes as they dart to the head of the pool seemingly in military formation.  More fish come into view.  As my eyes adjust I see no fewer than 30 trout.  I figure this pool must be the last good spot for a trout before the 200 foot barrier of the falls. It’s the end of the line for them so they just congregate and vie with each other for food.  With every cast I catch an eight or ten inch brookie.  I let them all go until one finally swallows the hook.  Dinner.

My Wild Neighbors

My campsite seems to be a crossroads for many of the valley’s residents.  Turning from my gaze upon alpenglow on the high peaks, I see a snowshoe hare, still clothed in brown, sitting and staring at me ten feet way.  It stares for a few more seconds and then bounds away daintily under the boughs of a small spruce tree near the campsite.  There is an unusually dark colored marmot who makes its home under a rock slab near camp.  It suns itself on the rock most of the day, occasionally sending its shrill whistle sound across the valley.  Under my “kitchen table” rock where I choose to eat lives a chipmunk who likes to poke its tiny head up over the edge of the rock to see what I’m up to before scurrying away.  A family of six grouse pay us a visit each afternoon.  I discover them when Dozer unknowingly wanders into their personal space.  Grouse will let you (or your dog) get very close to them before erupting into a racket of beating wings and chirps.  Dozer, startled, jumps straight up like a spring then gives a huff (the poor dog is mostly deaf and half blind with a broken sniffer… but his joints and muscles still work like a puppy).  The next afternoon I see the grouse again on the ground.  Six of them, silently blending in to the grass before they finally take flight to roost in the nearby pines.

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My Dad was always curious about trees and he was particularly fond of the aspen which makes its most glorious displays in the state of Colorado.  Every fall photographers and sightseers head to the Colorado high country to see the brilliant gold of the turning aspen.  The Elk Mountains, Northern San Juans, and parts of the Front Range are particularly well known for aspen viewing.  The Sangre de Cristos are not.  So, I was surprised to be hiking through one of the biggest and densest aspen forests I’ve ever seen on the western flank of the Sangres.  From the trailhead near the “new age hippy” town of Crestone all the way up to about 10,000 feet was almost entirely aspen.  It was still a green forest in late August with just a few leaves here and there on the higher trees just beginning to turn.  Hiking back down through this forest of aspen I looked for the appreciation that my Dad saw in these trees.  Perhaps it is because they are an anomaly–a high country deciduous tree in a world of dark green conifer.  The leaves are light green (or bright gold in fall), the bark is a delicate and smooth white.  They grow faster and live shorter than pines.  They grow from root, not seed.  They are an anomaly and yet what would Colorado be without its aspen?  They are an anomaly, a bit like my own Dad… And, what would I be without my Dad.

Thank you Dad.  I love you. 

Sangre de Cristo Backpacking and Summer 2013 021

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It is four in the morning and Interstate 25 is deserted northbound out of Denver.  I chug down one of those disgusting 5-hour energy things for my 5-hour drive to Lander, Wyoming.  Dozer is sleeping in the back seat.

Five in the morning, I’m now on Highway 287 heading northwest into the blackness away from Fort Collins.  Yellow dashed lines in the middle of the highway fire by like evenly spaced bullets.  They curve, dip and straighten as I glide through the foothills towards Wyoming.

Six in the morning on Interstate 80, I’m in Southern Wyoming just outside of Laramie heading west.  The cruise control is set to 81 and it almost doesn’t seem fast enough.  The highway is all mine except for the occasional big rig which I pass on the left every few minutes.  Up ahead the faint early dawn light reveals the shape of the second fastest animal on earth.  The big male pronghorn stares, like a statue, into my high beams as I pass.

Seven, I’m approaching Rawlins, Wyoming.  My car is casting a very long shadow straight ahead from the sunrise directly behind me.  Many more pronghorns are seen now, some solitary, some in groups as large as a dozen.  Rawlins is a sleepy Sunday morning town with the roar and whine of eighteen-wheelers passing by every few seconds now on the interstate.

Eight, I’m heading up Highway 287 towards Lander, an open road again.  The morning is bright, cloudless and windless.  The vivid open West stretches forever.  I take a rest stop on a dirt road turnout.  I am reminded of what silence is again.  The silence is broken by the sound of a car approaching on the highway.  A full minute later, the car passes.  The sound trails off for another full minute.  Silence again.

It’s almost nine as I crest a hill and enter the town of Lander, Wyoming.  In Lander, it seems, one drives a big truck (Chevy or Ford) or an old beater car.  My little 2011 Mazda 3 betrays my non-local identity even if it wasn’t for the Colorado plates.  I stop at a convenience station for gas and a fishing license.  A very friendly older woman with a most spectacular gray spiked mullet hairdo directs me to another convenience store for my fishing license.   An old cowboy in a giant Chevy truck motions for me to go first around the corner and tips his big hat as I wave thanks.

The trailhead at Worthen Meadows campground is surprisingly crowded for a Sunday morning during the last week in August.  Cars from many different states share the lot with several local horse and llama trailers.  Several groups seem to be arriving around the same time:  Two llama parties, myself, and a hiking party of four, all getting set to venture into the Popo Agie.

“Where ya headed?” I call out to the party-of-four-with-guy-in-red-shirt-and-cute-dog.

“Stough Creek Basin,” says the younger woman of the group.

Trying to conceal a bit of disappointment (I like my solitude) I say, “great, I may see you up there.”

As if sensing my slight combativeness, Dozer takes a crap by the trailhead signage while I register just as party-of-four-with-guy-in-red-shirt-and-cute-dog walks up behind me.  I don’t have a dog poop bag so I sheepishly kick some dirt over his creation and move on.

And so, after months of anticipation, I’m off with a smile into the Popo Agie Wilderness, into the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, into a rough and beautiful land of white granite and blue lakes.  My route will take Dozer and me on a five mile 1,700-foot climb over a hump of Roaring Fork Mountain, then down a bit, then up into the Stough Creek Lakes Basin.  We’ll stay in the basin, about nine miles in, for two nights before dropping into the long wilderness valley of the Middle Popo Agie River for the third and final night.

The first part of the trail is one of those long ascents that is never especially steep, but seems to go on forever.  It’s a long five miles to the top as we gradually transition from the lodgepole pines of the mid-elevation to the whitebark pines higher up.  Typical of the relatively dry Southern Winds, the understory is sparse and speckled with many light-colored granite boulders.  The similarity with parts of Colorado is unmistakable in the lodgepoles, but the whitebarks higher up create a different environment.  Most pines are conical in shape, but the whitebarks, with their gnarled trunks, seem to prefer the look of a squared-up top.  I decide that I like these trees—they have character.

We continue to plod along in the beautiful summer weather until, finally, the wind picks up, the trail begins to level out, and I know I’m nearing the top of the “pass” over a shoulder of Roaring Fork Mountain.  We are near timberline at 10,550 feet.   As we reach the crest, a grand view of Wind River Peak is revealed to the west.  At over 13,100 feet Wind River Peak is the highest mountain in the Southern Winds and highest in the Popo Agie Wilderness.  It is indeed a formidable massif with its rounded shoulders gouged away by glaciers of the past to leave a jagged cirque on its eastern flank.  Farther north is something transplanted from Yosemite.  I don’t know the name of this mountain, but it has an east face wall that must be 1,500 feet of vertical granite.  This is grand scenery and rugged country.

The first view of Wind River Peak

Rugged Wind River Mountain country

Party-of-four is having lunch at the pass.  They must have passed me undetected during my lunch stop on the way up.  The dogs greet each other, we exchange pleasantries, and then I move ahead while they continue to munch on fruit and nuts.

Dozer and I head downhill now over rocky terrain.  Many chipmunks, squirrels and one pika give us good company along the way.  About four or five hundred feet down we reach a trail junction at the bank of Stough Creek.  This is where we make a turn south and head back uphill for our final two mile push into the Stough Creek Lakes Basin.

One of many chipmunks encountered on the trail

Clouds build now as we trudge up into the basin and before long it begins to sprinkle.  But, it never materializes into a significant rain and finally peters out.  Dry again, this will be the only rainfall we will have for the entire trip.

At last we reach the lowest of Stough Basin’s forty some-odd lakes.  I don’t want to camp at the lowest lake so we continue farther into the basin.  The Stough Creek Lakes Basin is enveloped on three sides by Roaring Fork Mountain.  Roaring Fork Mountain is not your typical mountain with a single peak and sloping sides.  This mountain is more like a colossal letter “U” with the opening of the “U” facing north.  In the cradle of the “U” lies over 40 separate lakes and ponds, at least 15 of which are of fairly substantial size.  All of these lakes are graced by the ever-present granite ramparts of the Roaring Fork Mountain.  It is iconic scenery, grand in every respect.

The first of many lakes in Stough Creek Lakes Basin

Past the second lake now, I make a decision to break from the fading trail to find a secluded place to camp at some lake I stumble upon.  Before long, I narrow down my search to a certain area between the inlet of the third lake that I see and the outlet of a fourth.  I stash my pack at the edge of a clearing.  I take my time and evaluate the area carefully.  I want a great site since I will be here for two nights.  Finally, I find a secluded site in the trees across the outlet of the fourth lake.  It has everything I want:  seclusion; views of the lake and of Roaring Fork Mountain; easy access to both lake and stream.  Perfect.

Secluded campsite

The lake and campsite from up high. The tiny orange speck in the trees is the tent.

I return the quarter-mile to retrieve my pack when I see “Jesse” from party-of-four again, looking for a campsite.  They are interested in staying by the third lake, well away from me, and I’m happy to assist in this endeavor by attempting to help her locate a very nice campsite that I passed over.  I like these people, they’re nice.  But, I don’t really want to keep hanging out with them in the Popo Agie Wilderness.  I find my pack and shoulder it back up to my secret spot.

With several hours of daylight left in the day and the weather holding, I take my time arranging my camp situation.  I love not being rushed to do anything when in the wilderness.  For the rest of the afternoon I leisurely set up my tent, hang my food bag and just wander around my beautiful lake.  I see no other people.  Trout dart around in the shallows of the outlet.  In calm periods when the whispering of the pines dissipates, I hear the faint rush of the creek farther downstream.  A waxing Gibbous moon appears in full daylight over one of the granite shoulders of Roaring Fork Mountain, straight across the rippling blue waters of my lake.

Moon over mountains

After dinner I while away the time much the same way.  Just unwinding and uncluttering my mind.  Just taking in the grandeur.  No responsibilities, no obligations, no worries.  A squirrel scolds me from a nearby whitebark pine, and as I smile back it seems to look somewhat confused.  It dances around on a gnarled branch, twitches its bushy tail and scurries off.  Dozer watches it go, too tired, lazy or old to bother with chasing squirrels anymore, I guess.  I give him a good scratch under his grayed snout.  Two chipmunks then emerge and chase each other over and under the white granite boulders of their mountain domain.  A camp robber alights on the very top of a pine staring and squawking down at us.  Fluffy white clouds drift by between the treetops and over water blue and shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight.

These grey squirrels are everywhere in the Popo Agie, chattering loudly at anything that comes near

A look across “my” lake from the shore near the campsite

Later, in the tent, I’m reading Ishi in Two Worlds, a true story about the last “wild” Indian to come stumbling out of the Northern California wilderness in 1911.  When Ishi finally relented his peoples’ way of life and wandered aimlessly away from his homeland in the wild to be found by a white Sherriff, he was starving, lonely and desperate.  A stone-age man of the wilderness, he was transported into the alien world of the civilized 20th Century—a walking, breathing laboratory for North American anthropological study.  Ishi embraced his new reality even as he mourned the loss of his people and culture.  I reflect that to love the wilderness is not to despise civilization.  Rather, the pressures of civilization engender the love for wilderness.  Ishi did not love the wilderness in any way other than the way one loves his home.

The convenience of being able to choose our time and place in the wilderness, knowing what comforts of home await, removes the terror and leaves the pleasures of the wild.  Our typical experience in the wilderness isn’t, therefore, really “wild.” But, it is a temporary re-connection to land “untrammeled by man.”  To some people, like me, it has become a necessity of happiness itself.  How lost we would be without those remaining protected wilderness lands?

I’m startled awake in the morning by a crafty squirrel who crept along the pine branches over my tent while I slept until he was as close as possible before erupting into a chattering tirade and then dropping a pine cone on the tent.  Point taken.  It’s a clear mountain morning and sun shafts reach my tent through the whitebarks.  The blustery gusts of the remarkably warm night are gone and the lake is a smooth reflection of a baby blue sky and the bright granite of Roaring Fork Mountain.

Sparkling Stough Creek just below my lake

The Winds are a great area for backcountry cooking simply because of the abundance of granite boulders.  In the times I’ve been in the Winds I’ve always been able to spot a nice rock, waist high and flat on top, perfect for cooking.  On my kitchen counter I fix up Dozer’s breakfast and then my own:  two packs of instant oatmeal and an instant coffee.  Few things in life are more satisfying than hot oatmeal and coffee on a clear mountain morning somewhere in the Rockies.

At my backcountry kitchen

I’m above my lake now releasing a ten-inch Yellowstone Cutthroat caught from the inlet.  I have no real plan other than to get higher, drop a line or two in the lakes I “discover” and fish Stough Creek between those lakes.  I’m on the creek now standing below a most unique little waterfall.  Two boulders have rested against each other over the creek, creating a tunnel of sorts.  At the head of this tunnel a small drop-fall plunges into a dark pool under the rocks.  I cast my line into the cavern and immediately reel in another beautiful cutthroat.  I wonder:  What is paradise?  This is pretty close.

Natural bridge over trout pool in Stough Creek

I now come upon a group of three small, shallow and remarkably clear lakes.  I doubt there are fish here, but I try my luck anyway, and of course… I catch another cutthroat and see many others in the water.  Timberline now and there are still fish in the creek.  Roaring Fork Mountain stands tall above and all around us now as we move into a crook in the mountain’s profile, between two rock walls.  I come to a large, deep pool in the creek just below another large lake.  I see more beautiful fish here, swimming passively around in their pool.  I almost envy their environment.  There is something about wild trout in places like this that makes them look… “happy” as they rise gently for insects and glide here and there around underwater rocks.  Why cannot a trout be happy?

A large high lake is reached.  This lake is somewhat long and narrow with a 90-degree curve around one of the ramparts of Roaring Fork Mountain.  As I round the inside of the curve I’m hit by a stiff breeze, and I notice for the first time some cumulus clouds building over the mountain.  I know there is yet another large lake even farther up within the embrace of the mountain, and perhaps even another beyond that one, nestled just so up against that most recessed granite bowl.  I decide I’ve gone far enough and leave those highest lakes to the imagination.  I can’t walk the shoreline of all 40-plus lakes in the basin in one day.  Something about that thought fills me with contentment and appreciation for this wonderful place.

We make a loop on our way back to camp and pass by another large lake, this one deep and dark blue.  More trout caught and released.  Sitting on the shore I hear rock-fall high above in the cliffs of the mountain.  I surmise there are some bighorns or mountain goats up there that kicked something loose.  Or maybe something just simply gave in a brisk gust of wind–just one miniscule natural event over one micro-tick on the geologic clock.  As with all things, even this colossal massif of granite will one day be mere dust beneath new ocean waiting to rise once again to some new mountain pinnacle far in the distant future of planet Earth.

More lakes closer into the embrace of the rock walls of Roaring Fork Mountain

A large pool full of happy trout

It is dusk now back at my lake and the blustery breezes are lessening.  The clouds of earlier have dissipated.  Dozer and I are sitting in the mountain grass on the lakeshore gazing over the water back up-valley to where we were earlier in the day, in the cradle of the mountain.  The Gibbous Moon is back again, rising high above the ridge.  As the sky darkens and the moon brightens, a slight breeze ruffles the glassy lake just so, and suddenly the surface of the lake is ablaze in millions of moon sparkles.  Like fireflies they flicker a bright white spark on the surface of the water, across the entire lake.  The euphoria of the wilderness captures me just at this moment.  As I sit entranced, the thought of my one-year-old daughter envelopes my soul.  And, I understand completely.  I understand the connection although I could never hope to explain it.  It is a moment of absolute clarity and explicit beauty.  A transcendent experience.


The slight breeze picks up a bit and the moon sparkles turn to broader reflections off of larger waves.  Then, the breeze settles, the lake is still again, and only a smooth column of moonlight is reflected out across the lake surface.  Dozer and I use the moonlight to make our way back up our little hill to camp.  I sleep well.

It’s another clear mountain morning as I pack up and prepare for the trip down to the Middle Popo Agie River.  Some hikers disregard wilderness rivers as destinations in their own right.  Not me.  I love flowing mountain water and I can’t wait to get down to that river valley for our third and final night in this wilderness.  The trail takes us down and down some more.  It goes down a lot farther than I figured and I recognize that I will need to climb back up this steep trail on my way out of the wilderness tomorrow.

Finally, I reach the bottom of the valley, and through the last trees I see the open expanse of Bills Park.  The river is hidden, but I know it is there.  I spot an island of a few pines in the middle of the park and presume that this will be an ideal campsite.  I step into the open and begin, with elation, to walk across the huge meadow towards the tree island.  Expectations rise in my mind of a pristine wilderness meadow with a secluded campsite not far from a meandering trout-filled mountain river.

Nearing the tree island, the meandering river, silent and calm in the broad meadow, comes into view.  I think I smell the scent of elk nearby.  But, as I reach the tree island, the smell grows stronger, and the ground around us reveals that it is not from elk.  At the tree island many flat areas otherwise perfect for tent sites are defiled with cow pies.  Some are old, gray and dry.  Others are recent wet piles of brown cow shit.  I recall the trail sign as I reached Bills Park indicating the two nearest trailheads from this location: nine and fourteen miles distant.  Disappointment boils up as I take a closer look at the big meadow.  Few willows grow here, I now notice.  In the grass, there are numerous ruts—cow highways.  I swat away a couple of pesky blackflies.

I give up on my tree island camp paradise and decide to find a place at the head of the big park on the other side of the river.  Finding a shallow place to cross I notice a dark green gelatinous mass at the edge of the water.  What is it?  I poke at it with my hiking pole and it erupts into a million green fibers, disbursing into the water.  It’s a saturated cow pie.  I notice, also, as I ford the river, that all the river rocks are coated in a green slime.  I’m saddened when I also think of just how many miles we are into this wilderness area.

On the other side of the river, in the trees, I find a large campsite apparently used by horse packers.  But, still, cow pies cover the ground.  I can’t find a spot for a tent where I would not have to clear away cow dung.  Highly discouraged now, I sit on a log and break out lunch.  Black flies swarm around us as I munch on some cheese and trail mix.  The ever-present stench of cow hangs in the air.  I’m in a sour mood.  A fly the size of a nickel lands on the back of my hand, and as I wave it away, another one perches on my nose.  It seems cow pies are a great breeding environment for flies.  Funny how there were none of these flies at Stough Creek Lakes.  Dozer sits and whines.

I can understand and even appreciate the necessity of the livestock grazing compromise in the 1964 Wilderness Bill.  But, we are approaching the 50-year anniversary of that historic legislation.  How much longer should we accept cows and all their effects in the wilderness—their contamination of the land and water, their overgrazing of the meadows, their black fly breeding excrement, their decomposing carcasses?

I reluctantly decide not to stay in Bills Park.  I hoist my pack and begin the uphill slog back up to the crossing at Stough Creek.  My spirits lift a little as I regain a rhythm.  At least I will be cutting a couple miles and maybe 700 feet of climbing out of our final day, tomorrow.

The open cow-pie filled expanse of Bills Park with the Middle Popo Agie River flowing through it.

Reaching Stough Creek it does not take long to find a nice secluded campsite about a hundred yards downstream of the trail crossing.  The creek here runs clear and beautiful over slabs of polished rock not covered in green slime.  The air is once again fresh and clean with the scent of nearby willows.

After setting up camp, Dozer and I return to the creek to soak up the sun and water.  I sit down on a flat rock and dangle my bare feet into the cold water.  Dozer, to my left, places his two front paws on a slightly submerged rock slab and manages to slide straight into a deep pool in the stream.  For a dog that hates to swim Dozer finds a way to fall into a lake or stream all too often.  He’s completely in the water now being turned in circles by the whirlpool-like churning water of the pool.  I grab his collar and manage to help him up onto my rock where he, of course, proceeds to shake the cold water off of him and right onto me.  Thanks Dozer!

We spend the rest of the afternoon sitting on these rocks, soaking up the sun and the cool clear water of the creek.  I drift off to sleep on a flat rock and awaken to the sound of what I think is a man’s voice, but I can’t be sure.  Sometimes the splash of creek water can sound like quiet voices.  But, this time it is a voice.  I turn to look upstream and catch a glimpse of a llama head and the top of a man’s hat.  They’re on the trail where it crosses the creek.  I don’t think they see me and after a few moments they are gone.

Dozer drying off on a nice sun-warmed rock after falling into the creek

Sparkling Stough Creek

It’s surprisingly warm at night and I decide to unzip the door of the tent and tie it open.  The moon is out again, and I lie awake in the tent with a clear view to the sky above through the open door.  The moonlight is extraordinarily bright and I can only see two or three of the brightest stars in the sky.  The pine tops, unmoving in the still air, are black against the dark blue night sky.  Fluffy clouds build, dissipate and drift across the sky, seemingly just over the tree tops.  The moon illuminates the clouds to a glorious white, a white as white as the freshest of new snow… I lay there, staring up into that sky, that peaceful moonlit sky.  The rush of the creek helps me to gradually drift off to sleep.

A brush against the face awakens me.  The tent door has come loose in a new breeze.  The sky is darker now.  Many stars are out in the spaces between the drifting clouds.  The pine tops are swaying a bit as the breeze picks up now and then.  I go home tomorrow.  Back to my family.  As I drift back to sleep I feel contentment.  And, I feel… clarity.

Next morning, homeward bound, Dozer and I are approaching the pass over Roaring Fork Mountain again.  Again, we see party-of-four, having lunch in the exact same spot we saw them having lunch on the first day.  Bemused, we chat a little about the coincidence.  I sense a relaxation in their demeanor, a calm contentment.  This is part of the kinship that wilderness lovers all know without having to say a word.

Heading back down the long hill, my pace quickens as I note the landmarks indicating our distance from the trailhead.  There’s that huge dead tree, just be about four miles to go now.  Here’s the grove of Aspens, noticeably more yellow than they were just three days ago—three miles left.  Finally, Roaring Fork Lake—only one more mile.

At the trailhead, an older couple is strolling by just as we emerge into the parking lot.  The lady smiles at us with a twinkle in her eye.  She’s been in the wild before, I can tell.

As I said before, to love the wilderness, is not to despise civilization.  I now look forward to the comforts of home… and maybe I’ll pick up a burger and fries on the way… Balance.

Wilderness Area Overview

The Popo Agie Wilderness (pronounced Po PO zha) is located in west-central Wyoming and covers the southeastern portion of the Wind River Mountains.  The wilderness, designated in 1984, covers 101,870 acres, but it forms a part of a nearly million-acre contiguous wilderness expanse.  Only the Continental Divide separates the Popo Agie from the beloved nearly half-million acre Bridger Wilderness, which covers the majority of the western slope of the Winds.  Bordering the Popo Agie to the north is the Wind River Indian Reservation Roadless Area.  Established in the 1930s, the Wind River Tribal Roadless Area is one of our nation’s oldest designated wilderness areas (and least known), covering over 180,000 acres.  Bordering the Wind River Tribal Roadless Area to the North is the Fitzpatrick Wilderness Area, adding it’s 198,000 acres.  Altogether, the Wind River wilderness complex, at nearly 1 million acres of un-interrupted protected backcountry, is one of the most important and beloved blocks of wildland in the country.

The Wind River Mountains represent the southern extremity of the Central Rocky Mountains.  the Popo Agie represents the southern tip of this southern extremity.  South of the Popo Agie, the landscape smooths out into the vast high desert region of South Pass.

The Winds are one of America’s most dramatic and beautiful ranges.  Highly glaciated and composed of granitic rock, they are a wonderland of lakes (approximately 4,000 of them), rivers and streams (hundreds of miles of them) in a matrix of cliffs, peaks and glaciers.  The Winds, in fact, hold the largest current glacial system in the Rockies south of Canada.

All of these wilderness areas, except the Wind River Tribal Area, are fairly heavily used (a steep fee is required to use the tribal area).  Many of these users come from all over the country.  But, due to the thousands of lakes, and the million acre size, the usage is well distributed rather than concentrated around a few areas.  When traveling in the backcountry of the Winds, one rarely encounters crowds except at the more popular trailheads, and total solitude is easily obtained with a little creative planning.

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Dozer on the snowy slopes just below the summit of Fancy Pass

Dozer is a great trail dog.  Fourteen years old and he can still cover many miles over all kinds of terrain.  He is nice to all other people and dogs.  And, he never strays far when off-leash.  But, sometimes he’s a big dummy.

I was standing on the edge of Fancy Lake in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area enjoying the view of a snowmelt waterfall across the lake which was still covered in thin ice, when I heard a giant splash at my feet.  Dozer had tried to jump from the bank onto the thin melting ice and immediately crashed through it.

Dozer is, I think, part Border Collie and part Lab, but he doesn’t exhibit the characteristics of either breed.  He doesn’t have the smarts or hearding instinct of the Border Collie.  And, unlike most Labs, he hates to swim.  In fact, he doesn’t know how to swim like a proper dog.

When I heard the splash, I looked down to see a gaping hole in the thin ice, and Dozer, completely submerged, flailing wildly under the water.  He bobbed up to the surface with a look of absolute bewilderment and shock.  I watched as he somehow managed to crawl up on to a slab of floating ice that was now broken free from the larger icy mass of the lake surface.

For a moment he was completely out of the water, balancing on the iceberg.  But, the ice was thin, and Dozer began to slowly sink straight down as his weight pushed the ice towards the lake bottom.  Dozer held steady, though, balancing on that ice as he was slowly, cruelly, lowered back into the icy water.

As the water reached his shoulders, his look of bewilderment turned to defeat and he let his body slowly slide back into the glacially cold lake.  He splashed and thrashed over to the bank and pulled himself back onto dry land.  Once on land he did a funny little dance, turned in two circles, then found the closest sun-drenched patch of greenery to roll around in.

Dozer in his icy ordeal making his way back to the bank

Oddly, this was my first time visiting Colorado’s revered Holy Cross Wilderness Area.  My plan was to hike the Fancy Pass – Missouri Lakes Loop, which is a very popular 8-mile hike in the southern part of the wilderness.

Most years in early June I would fully expect this high alpine area to still be buried in snow.  But, 2012 was a very low-snowpack year in Colorado and we’d had an unusually warm spring.  I thought the snow might be melted out much earlier this year.

I was wrong.  Although I’m sure there was much less snowcover on June 3rd this year than in most, the terrain above about 11,000 feet was still largely covered in snow, and the lakes still mostly iced over.

After a pleasant early morning hike up Fancy Creek, we negotiated our way over, through and around snowbanks the last half-mile or so to Fancy Lake.  Fancy Lake is in a beautiful setting and the spring thaw had created numerous waterfalls over the rock legdes above the lake.  There were some small melted out areas around the edge of the lake where many small brookies basked in their new world of light after many months of total darkness under the ice.  I caught and released a couple before continuing towards Fancy Pass above the lake.

Beautiful Fancy Lake still mostly covered with ice

Fancy Lake is at about 11,500 feet, so we quickly achieved the timberline as we departed the pleasant lake and climbed towards Fancy Pass.  The “gully” leading to the top of Fancy Pass was still buried under a huge snowfield.  I had my removable snow treads, but no ice ax, so I decided to avoid the snow and scramble up to the pass to the left of the snowfield.

The going was treacherous as the mountainside was a mixture of loose talus, loose dirt, ledges and slippery grass.  At one point, Dozer began to slide backwards, his claws slowly losing their grip.  For a moment I thought it might get ugly, but Dozer, moutain dog rock-hopper that he is, deftly shifted his position, faced down hill, and bolted down the steep slope, over rocks, shot down to level ground, and turned to wait for me to inch my way down to firmer ground.

We reached the beautiful pass and looked west into a snow-filled basin and a completely frozen-over Treasure Vault Lake.  The loop route drops into this basin, turns south, then crosses Missouri Pass before dropping down into the Missouri Lakes Basin.  I knew we could make it back down Fancy Pass, but given the still substantial amount of snow, I had no way of knowing whether Missouri Pass could be safely descended.  So, I decided to return the way we came, back down Fancy Pass.

The rugged view to the west from the top of Fancy Pass at about 12,500 feet.

Although a bit nervous about safety, a short traverse of some of the snow on the way up convinced me that the decent could be safely made down the middle of the snow gully.  So, I strapped my Kako ICEtrekkers Diamond Grips over my boots and Dozer and I stepped onto the snowfield.

The snow was pretty soft and I quickly gained confidence that this was the right decision.  I carefully verified the stability of each step as I switchbacked my way down the snowfield.  Dozer, at one point, began to slide face first.  He instinctively flattened out on his belly, splayed out his legs, and let his claws go to work.  As he came to a gradual stop in just a few feet he lingered on his belly and looked back at me as if to say, “ahh, this snow feells really good on my belly!”

Looking back up at Fancy Pass from partway down the snowfield

It wasn’t long before we made our way back down to Fancy Lake where I did a little more fishing and caught and released a couple more brookies.  Then, after Dozer’s unexpected dip in the icy lake, we found a nice place in the sun to just sit and take in the wild country.

As we sat by the lake, I watched a couple of marmots waddle back and forth across a snow patch on the other side of the lake.  A human couple with their dog also reached the lake.  It’s important, I think, when in the wild to take some time to just let it soak in.

I took my time on the hike back down the hill, through the forest, back and forth across a swollen Fancy Creek and then eventually to the trailhead in the Homestake Creek valley.

I was impressed with the ruggedness and classic alpine character of the Holy Cross Wilderness and will certainly return to explore more of it.

A unique waterfall along Fancy Creek below the lake

Hike Overview:

Wilderness Area:  Holy Cross Wilderness in Central Colorado south of Vail, about 122,000 acres.

Hike distance:  About 7 miles total

Lowpoint elevation:  10,000 feet at trailhead

Highpoint elevation:  12,450 feet at Fancy Pass

Total elevation climb:  2,450

The Holy Cross Wilderness is one of Colorado’s most popular and heavily visited wilderness areas.  It is also one of the most controversial.  This wilderness contains an abundance of water, and that makes it attactive for urban water development for Front Range cities.  The Homestake project in the 1960s created Homestake Reservoir as well as water diversion tunnels near the boundaries of the area.  Further water development projects were planned for the area before it was, thankfully, preserved as a protected wilderness in 1980.  Conflicting interpretations of water development and wilderness laws continue to put the Holy Cross Wilderness at risk.  The area contains some of the most sublime alpine wilderness in the state of Colorado, indeed in America.

The wilderness is named after one of Colorado’s most revered “14’ers”, the Mount of the Holy Cross.  This mountain, 14,003 feet, displays a unique cross-shaped pair of couloirs, 1,000 feet tall and several hundred feet wide.  Photographs of the peak in the 1870’s resulted in the peak becomming the object of religious pilgrimages.

Although Holy Cross Mountain is the centerpiece and most famous landmark of the wlderness, the entire area is a wonderland of rugged peaks, clear-flowing streams and high lakes.


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Redwood Purisima Open Space – California – 6 miles

A recent business trip took me to Silicone Valley and I was able to get a nice 6-mile evening hike in after work one day.  Just up the winding roads from my hotel was the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains where numerous open space preserves offer many wonderful trails.

Of all the open space areas in the area I chose the one with the name “redwoods” in it.  Sometimes I miss the big tree country of the Northwest (used to live in Seattle).  So, I was excited about a hike among giants again.

The Bay Area is a land of micro-climates.  If it’s foggy where you are, chances are you can find bright sunshine just a few miles down the road.  This unique climate is a big part of what makes it such a stunningly beautiful area at times.

About that fog, a collegue told me something I didn’t know about the great Redwood Tree.  The flat needles of the Redwood are specifically adapted for foggy environments, soaking up moisture from the fog.  The moisture condenses and then drips down through the canopy eventually to the forest floor for the shallow roots of the Redwood to drink up.  The ingenuity of nature can be surprising.

The Redwood Purisima open space is just over 4,000 acres and covers a chunk of the west slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Through the middle, runs little Purisima Creek and it’s lush rugged little canyon.  Throughout the preserve are those Redwoods–not quite the behemoths, but some are in the range of 5 or 6 feet in diameter.

The lush canyon floor of Purisima Creek

My hike started on the high side and took me on a wide trail down, down and down some more, until I finally reached the creek.  The descent was 1,400 feet which was a bit more than I was figuring.  The trail then followed the creek for another 1.5 miles or so, crossing back and forth.  The environment was lush and cool, whith the Redwoods standing over a forest floor of ferns and wildflowers.

I turned around about 3 miles in and my workout began as I climbed back up that 1,400 feet back to the trailhead.  I stopped frequently to look up to the high branches of those redwoods standing over me.  Reaching the trailhead I felt invigorated by my nature reboot.

Below are some pictures of the unique wildlife I encountered here.

A friendly salamander let me take its picture

The infamous banana slug–one of many encountered on the trail. Watch your step!

A wierd two-inch long millipede thing

An elegant solitary blue flower

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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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