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Archive for the ‘Colorado’ Category

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.

 

 

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“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.

 

 

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"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.

Bouldering

Bouldering

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

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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.”

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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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Aspen

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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There were dozens of them.  Tall trees uprooted at the base or sheared off 30 feet up, resting prostrate across the trail and all around.  Big root balls and thickets of pine branches covered the earth.  The pine needles, still green, told of how recent the catastrophe was.

What a storm it must have been to cause this kind of mayhem in the forest of the Lost Creek Wilderness Area!

Dozer inspecting a couple of recently uprooted pines.

Dozer and I reached the blowdown after cresting the range.  We had come up Trail# 607 from the south side of the town of Bailey.  Our destination was Craig Meadows on the other side of the Platte River Mountains.  Our return would be the same way we came.

This was an up, down, up, down affair, and the ups and downs were pretty big for a day-hike.  2,000 feet up to the top of the Platte River Mountains then 1,500 feet down to Craig Meadows… then 1,500 feet up again and 2,000 feet down, over about 13 miles.  Not extraordinarily steep at any time, but in aggregate, this was a doozey of a day-hike.  At least it was for a normal non-uber hiker like myself and my old dog, Dozer.  An overnight in Craig Meadows might have been a better option, but family and work commitments only gave me the one day to be a beast in the forest.

The big, long ups and downs of this hike provide for the observation of two different Rocky Mountan climate zones.  You start in the ponderosa forest and climb into the spruces and the firs.  At the top of the ridge is a large aspen forest, then you see the show in reverse as you descend down to Craig Meadows.

On the hill down to Craig Meadows, past the blowdown, we walked through one of the finest mixed forests of ponderosa and aspen I’ve ever seen.  My two favorite trees, intermixed in a perfect harmony.

The rugged red, vanilla-scented bark of the ponderosa pine defines the West–tough, rough and beautiful.  The ponderosa graces the most pleasant of climate zones in the Rockies, that mid-elevation paradise above the hot dusty plains and deserts but below the “never-summer” harshness of the peaks.  Here they stand, sun beams filtering through their canopy, and here you stand in the essence of the American West.  When in the ponderosas, don’t long for the snowfields and spruces up high.  Look around, take it in, and love it.  I do.

My second favorite tree, the aspen, here adds her shimmering light green leaves and smooth white trunk–a perfect complement to the dark green needles and rough red bark of the ponderosas. Together, the blend of colors and textures is devine.  The tough with the delicate, the rough with the smooth, the red with the white, the needle with the soft leaf.

A match made in heaven–the Ponderosas and the Aspens.

At the foot of this wonderfully forested mountainside we reached Craig Meadows and looked for the stream.  The willows were concealing its clear cool waters, so we ambled down-valley, past a giant beaver pond, until finally there was a forest opening providing passage to the flowing waters of the tiny creek.

I sat against a Douglas Fir for a while, my eyes shut, listening to the gurgles of the creek and the rush of the wind through the aspens on the hillside.  I could feel the trunk of the tree moving, ever so slightly, as the gusts of wind swayed the tall tree’s top back and forth.  I dare say, I think I felt the big tree rejoicing in its subtle dance.

This is what I come here for.  This is my return, my salvation, my sanity.  This is the wilderness.

Homeward bound, we passed by the huge beaver pond again.  This time we saw it’s resident, a great big beaver, with a swim like the most pleasant of strolls.

Up the hill now, back up through the ponderosas and aspens, now into the spruce and fir, negotiating around the blowdown, into the high aspen forest atop the ridge.  Now down again, back through the spruces and firs.  To the wilderness area boundary and into the ponderosa once again, where a note posted to a sign told of a big bear here yesterday.  Through the ponderosas, Dozer, fourteen and mostly deaf now, begins to slow.  My feet ache as well.  We stop for a final rest as the day wanes and I look back to the ridge we came from–a dark drapery of conifer below a shrinking and rising band of sunshine from the western setting sun.  We’re out of the wilderness area now.  I smile back at it.  I’m glad it’s there.

Wilderness Area Info:

The Lost Creek Wilderness, in Central Colorado, was established in 1980 and now has a total of 119,790 acres.  It is one of the most unique wilderness areas in the country.  Not a land of 14ers and high mountain lakes, the Lost Creek instead offers an intimate wilderness of vast forests, spectacular granite rock formations, large mountain parks and disappearing streams.

The east edge of Lost Creek Wilderness is only 60 miles Southwest of Denver and about the same distance Northwest of Colorado Springs.  It is also crossed by the well-known and well-used Colorado Trail.  Due to these factors pressure is fairly high, but not as high as one might think.  Without the high vistas and lakes, many people bypass this area and leave it to those of us who appreciate what it has to offer.  To many of those who have embraced it, the Lost Creek Wilderness is revered as a truly special place for there really is nowhere else like it.

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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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