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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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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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  • Points Earned:  1
  • Trip Date:  July 5, 2010
  • Wilderness Area:  Lost Creek
  • Wilderness Size:  119,790 acres
  • Wilderness Location:  Central Colorado
  • Total Miles:  13
  • Elevation Gain:  1,800 out, approx 800 on return (approx 2,600 total)
  • Destination:  Lost Creek Tunnel near Refrigerator Gulch
  • Hike Duration:  Day Hike

Beautiful aspen grove with the rocks of the Lost Creek in the background

Every person has a different image of paradise.  For many it is a tropical white-sand beach.  For others, maybe it’s a clear blue lake surrounded by hills green with grass.  For me, paradise always seems to involve a deep pool in a cold clear mountain stream bathed in sunshine and framed by the colors and solitude of a mountain wilderness.  This is the type of paradise I always imagined might be found in the back corners of the Lost Creek Wilderness, and specifically along Lost Creek itself.

Ever since I learned of the mysteries of Lost Creek as a kid I wanted to find it.  I wanted to find the places where the stream dips in and out of the earth–under and out-from giant granite boulders.  I’ve had a vision in my mind of a perfectly clear stream emerging from the rocks into a blissful deep sun-drenchedwhirlpool.

I know reality almost never measures up to the perfection of fantasy.  Still, the mystery of the Lost Creek and the splendors to be found there weighed in my mind over the years.  On July 5th, 2010 I set out to put the mystery to bed and see the Lost Creek for myself.

Lost Creek is so named because it literally dissappears into the earth no less than nine times.  Each time it re-emerges anywhere from a couple hundred feet up to a quarter mile downstream.  Once the creek emerges for the last time, it’s name changes to Goose Creek.  There are no maintained trails that follow along the stream as it dips in and out of the granite earth.  For me, the difficulty in access only added to the mystery and challenge in finding it.

From my research, I found a place on the map called Refrigerator Gulch which is traversed by the McCurdy Park Trail, itself accessed from the popular Goose Creek Trail.  About a quarter-mile south of Refrigerator Gulch, as the crow flies, is Lost Creek and one of the first of its nine dives into the earth.  I figured if I could make it to Refrigerator Gulch, there must be a bushwhack or unnoficial hikers’ trail leading from there to the stream.  It would be a long dayhike – about 13 miles to be exact.  But, for a chance to find my paradise, it was worth a shot.

Access to the Goose Creek Trailhead requires a drive through the middle of the Hayman burn.  This arson-caused 2002 wildfire destroyed 138,000 acres of prime forest.  Although the beginnings of natural restoration are evident now, eight years later, the scale of the destruction must be acknowledged:

The immense Hayman Burn from the side of the road on the way to the Goose Creek Trailhead

Thanks to the Hayman Fire, the Goose Creek Trailhead is hot, dry, and not very pretty:

The start of the trail, still in the Hayman burn area

But, thankfully, the Hayman fire only grazed the beautiful flesh of the Lost Creek Wilderness.  Within a half-mile of the trailhead, the path enters a healthy, unburned, ponderosa forest, following along the refreshingly clear and cool waters of Goose Creek:

Looking down on a sun-drenched Goose Creek from the trail

A little more than a mile in, the trail breaks from its brief visit with the creek and begins a gradual climb along the slopes north of the stream.  Before long, both the sound and the sight of Goose Creek are nothing but a memories.  The attraction now becomes the increasingly dramatic geology.  Every few steps, it seemed, brought new geologic formations into view:  polished domes, teetering mansion-sized boulders, stabbing granite columns and more.  This is the essense of the Lost Creek Wilderness:

One of the many huge rock structures encountered. After a while, sights like this become commonplace in the Lost Creek Wilderness

The long trail continues on a generally upward path with some rolling ups-and-downs mixed in.  After about 5 miles and a final climb up to a ridge-top, the trail junction of Goose Creek and McCurdy Park trails are reached at about 9,450 feet in elevation:

The deep wilderness trail junction of Goose Creek and McCurdy Park trails

To get to Refrigerator Gulch and the dissappearing Lost Creek, you leave the Goose Creek Trail here and turn left onto the McCurdy Park Trail.

From the trail junction, the McCurdy Park Trail immediately begins a sizeable descent, and you can’t help but dread the knowledge of a significant climb out on the way back about eight miles into the hike.  But, nevermind that.  There’s a dissappearing river to find.

After a 500+ foot descent, Refrigerator Gulch is identified by a very nice aspen grove campsite:

A good campsite at Refrigerator Gulch six miles deep from the Goose Creek Trailhead

A sense of disappointment accompanied my arrival at Refrigerator Gulch.  I expected to hear the roars and echoes of a dissappearing river nearby.  But, there was nothing but the sound of a lazy woodpecker high up in an Aspen tree. 

But, I knew the creek was close, so I began to bushwhack to the south.  After a difficult couple hundred yards, I stumbled upon an unofficial hikers trail!  This must be it, I thought.  I followed as the trail climbed steeply up a small hill and then began to drop sharply down the other side.

As I came around a turn in the trail… There it was!  The cold clear waters of Lost Creek flowed gently out of a cave of giant piled boulders!  At the exit to the cave was what looked like a nice deep pool of gently flowing water.  And, on the edge of the stream was what appeared to be a gravel beach.  It wasn’t quite the image of perfection–nothing is.  But, it was close enough:

The first view of Lost Creek's emergence from the earth from the top of the hill

A closer view now of Lost Creek's exit from the mountain

As I walked closer still, I began to realize that I might be able to actuall walk into the tunnel!

To my complete elation, as I approached the stream’s exit from the mountain, I began to realize that the flow of the water was gentle enough, and the entrance large enough, that I could actually walk into the cave itself!  I walked into the darkness and into a huge underground room with a ceiling at least 50 feet high.  A shaft of light about 200 feet upstream indicated the tunnel entrance.  There was also a small opening straight up above:

From inside the passage, the shaft of light coming in from the entrence on the other end.

The small opening at the top of the "cave" letting in just a little light

Looking back to where I entered the cave from the inside

Re-emerging into the "surface world" after exploring the "underworld"

After exploring the tunnel, I decided to strip down and take a dip in the deep pool that was a few feet in front of the stream’s exit.  The water was icy, icy cold, but it was exceptionally refreshing.  After the swim, the warm sun was a quick dry and I felt invigorated.

It was close to 5:30 after my cave exploration and swim, and I had a 6.5 mile return to the trailhead, so I laced back up and started hucking back along the trail.  The 500-foot plus climb back out of Refrigerator Gulch was every bit as draining as I expected it to be, but it felt great to get back up to the Goose Creek-McCurdy Trail junction at the top of the ridge.  From the trail junction, it would be a relatively easy, but weary, 5 mile trek back to the car. 

Along the way back I stopped here and there to admire the incredible geology of the area in the low evening light.  About half way back I looked out into the rock outcroppings and noticed a single “small” round boulder, about the size of a dump truck, that was delicately perched on the top of a large granite dome.  I thought to myself, “how in the heck does that happen?” I tend to believe in the scientific explanations of nature:  weather and erosion combined with the turmoil of plate techtonics and the slow passage of time itself createsthe fantastic features of our mountains.  But, sights like that round boulder just sitting on top of that dome rock get me to thinking about what it is that is really behind those forces of nature.  The boulder appeared to have been carefully placed there between the thumb and forefinger of a huge devine hand:

Look at the round boulder right in the center of this picture, perched right atop the dome rocke structure

I had not hiked this far in a single day since I was a sophmore in college 15 years ago.  While I was quite pleased that I handled it easily, the last couple miles on the return seemed to drag on forever.  I was ready for this phenomenal day hike to be over.  I finally arrived back at the trailhead at dusk in the eerie burned out part of the forest:

A sky ablaze looms over a charred landscape of burned out trees near the trailhead on the return, making for quite a contrast with the sights encountered on this great 13 mile day hike

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Trip Report 29

  • Points:  1
  • Trip Dates:  July, 2006
  • Wilderness Area:  Lost Creek
  • Wilderness Size:  119,790 acres
  • Location:  Central Colorado
  • Destination:  Lost Park
  • Total Miles:  6
  • Duration:  Day hike

Lost Park in Lost Creek Wilderness

Lost Creek Wilderness is like a cartoon.  There are dissappearing creeks and teetering boulders and secret passages through columns of granite.  It is one of the most unique wilderness areas in the west and certainly in Colorado–all within a 1-2 hour drive of the Denver metro area.

In July, 2006 my wife, three dogs, and I hiked from the west side of the wilderness east three miles into Lost Park.  The trail starts in forest along the banks of Lost Creek, but soon passes through a gateway of two granitic shoulders before entering the kingdom of Lost Park.  Here the scenery opens up into an expanse of meadow fringed by forest and outcroppings of rock.

It’s an easy hike, just enough to wet the appetite for more.  This is one wilderness area I will return to for sure.

The picture above was found on the internet.

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