Thoughts On An Early Morning Hike in the Mountains

Dog and I went camping again yesterday in the mountains (where else?).  I am normally and early riser anyway, but especially when I am camping and haven’t slept too well anyway.  I am excited to see the morning after a long night in the tent.  I was much warmer on this trip (thanks to a better sleeping bag, kindly lent by my roommate), and extra blankets.  Dog was perfectly comfortable, sans blanket.  Still, when I woke up and saw sun creeping across the sky and heard the birds chirping away in the cheerful morning chatter I was glad.  The air outside the tent was coooooold and I regretted my decision to leave my blanket nest, but Dog was ready to go so I didn’t have much of a choice.  April in the city of Denver is much warmer than April in mountains, and the air had a special spring chill.  Refreshing and sweet, but cold.   Anyway, I layered up, and after a hasty breakfast Dog and I set off on the trail.  Here are some reflections on early morning hiking.

1) You will meet a whole different set of birds.  I WISH I WISH I WISH I hadn’t left my new Rocky Mountain Bird identification book at home, but I could tell even without it that the birds I was seeing and hearing in the morning were different from the ones I encountered in the day and evening.  For one thing, the woodpeckers- a species different from the kind I was used to in Wisco- were voracious, and their pecking echoed all around the forest.  Dog and I had a good time watching all the early morning birds swoop around and call to one another.

This woodpecker was attacking the phone poll.

2) If you prefer the trail to yourself, you’ll have it.  I did see two trail runners go past, but apart from that we had what felt like the whole mountain to ourselves.  Most of the other campers were still asleep, and the day trippers weren’t in the park yet.  The stunning views of Panorama Point were OURS, muahahaha.  I also felt less inhibited about sitting down in sunny patches to catch my breath or to snag a snack.

A blurry goofy picture of me playing around with the self timer on my camera near Panorama Point.

3) The freshness of the air and the sun coming up behind peaks and trees is unbeatable.  Yeah, I’m sure the air is always fresh up there, but something about the brisk temps and bird chatter just made the scent of the trees and chipper mountain streams fresher.  It was a joy just to breath.  Stopping to take great big lungfulls of air I was also in awe of the views of the sun rising from behind forested peaks.  It wasn’t dark when we set out from camp, but there was definitely a sharp contrast between the places on the trail where tendrils of sunlight had sneaked in and where it hadn’t.

The change of night to day.

4) The feeling of accomplishment when you saunter back into camp having completed a somewhat grueling hike while everyone else is just starting their day.  I took a one hour victory nap in my tent to celebrate.  So did Dog.


Solo Camping Is A Practice in Meditation

It’s gotta be about 30 degrees inside the tent and even though I’m swaddled inside blankets, a sleeping bag, sweatpants, a woolen shirt, a sweatshirt, thick socks, and a hat I’m too cold to sleep.  Dog is snuggled up by my feet and appears to be impervious to the cold.  I don’t know what time it is (there is no way I am reaching my arm out of my cocoon to check my phone) but outside the night is very very dark.  At this point I hear soft and deliberate footfalls outside my tent.  They stop near my head and I hear sniffing.  What the hell is that?  I locked all the food in a cooler in my car and was careful not to leave any wrappers in the tent with me.  Whatever it is it isn’t human, that’s for sure.  It is also sniffing around inches from my head, separated from me by just the thin wall of my tent.  Dog hasn’t noticed anything and is still asleep.  I can’t decide if this is good or bad.  The list of suspects for my visitor includes raccoon, squirrel, fox, deer, mountain lion, and bear.  The footsteps circle the tent and come back to sniff near my head again.  I am completely still and thinking irrationally what if it is trying to smell me?

Flash back to fourteen hours earlier and I am standing in the Denver flagship REI staring at a display labeled “Bear Protection”.  There are all kinds of air horns, sprays, bear-proof canisters, bells, and whistles.  Bears were never a big deal back in Wisconsin.  Out here though, I am knowingly camping in bear territory, and even though it’s still early spring I’m not sure if the bears are still hibernating or not.  What if one of them woke up early and is hungry?  I ended up leaving with just some small and necessary purchases (headlamp, camp soap, socks) but I was still thinking about wildlife as I drove away.

I borrowed a tent and a sleeping pad from my roommates and loaded up the car with gear, food, and the dog.  We were headed to Golden Gate Canyon which is not too far from Denver, but which feels remote due to it’s vastness.  There are a handful of year round tent sites up on Reverend’s Ridge which are available on a first come first served basis.  Since it was a Sunday I was hopeful that there would be a site available for us.  Up a 19% grade and through some dizzying switchbacks we drove before we got to Reverend’s Ridge.  We lucked out and got one of the last sites.  The whole area was in a forest of aspens with views of snowcapped mountain peaks visible between the trees.  The air was cool, crisp, and clean.  There was a fire ban in effect so most of the other campers were off hiking or taking in the sights instead of sitting around a campfire.  As soon as the tent was set up and the sleeping gear was inside Dog and I set off to find a trailhead.  Nearby was the Racoon Trail, which was deceptively listed as being only a little over two miles.  With the hike from the campsite, it was more than three and included grueling uphill climbs, stunning panoramic views, and tough rocky descents.  Since it was a looped trail it deposited us back at camp tired, exhilarated, and hungry.

Camp was a little busier as people got down to business eating dinner and cracking open beers.  Dog and I ate our dinner and then headed out to explore the area.  Most of the camping loops were closed for the season so the landscape was peaceful and populated mostly by noisy little birds.  The sun was beginning to set and Dog and I decided to do a little night time walking in the woods…mostly so that I could try out my new headlamp. The temperature was dropping, but I was feeling snug and smug in my warm clothes.  *Side note* I have felt plenty of disdain for girls who wear nothing but their identical outfits of Northface fleece, leggings, and Uggs/moccasins, but I wore my newly thrifted Northface pullover jacket and was nothing but impressed with the warmth and comfort.  I think I might live in it forever.

Camping alone is a kind of meditation.  When you are out there with friends, a partner, or family members you play games, you cook meals together, there is often beer; all in all it is a rambunctious social event.  When solo, you are silent and thoughtful.  You fall into rhythm with the daylight, the cold and the warmth, the wind, and the animal sounds.

With no campfires allowed (I probably couldn’t have made a decent one on my own anyway) the campsites were all fairly dark.  Here and there larger groups had multiple lanterns or kept their car lights on.  I had Dog decked out like a Christmas tree between her light up red collar and green harness light.  For myself, I wore my headlamp.  I got Dog and I packed us up cozily inside the tent and spent some time reading.  It was the last time until daylight that I would feel comfortable.

Back to where I began.  I lay awake listening to the animal outside my tent and tried to think rationally.  This was difficult because I was sleep deprived, cold, and afraid.  The foot steps were too delicate to be a waddling raccoon, and too heavy to be a squirrel.  I doubted a bear could walk with that much grace either (phew).  The only things that I could think of as being an attractant (besides my tasty human self) was the dog water dish, which I had left outside.  In that case, perhaps my visitor was only thirsty?  A thirsty little fox even?  This was a comforting thought.  My visitor returned to circle and sniff three more times.  Later, I would look for footprints and find none.

The rest of the night was sleepless, but uneventful.  I was glad to see the run come up and decided to get out and hike around a bit to get the blood flowing and thaw.  Dog and I found a place to watch the sun come up.  It was dazzling and made up for the cold night.  I tried and failed to take a nice photo with Dog, so it’s just a picture of me.

As the sun came up the morning began to warm up too.  Dog and I returned to camp for some breakfast and I re-cocooned myself in the tent to read and wait for the air to warm up even more.  Around the camp people were beginning to stir.  My neighbors had left sometime in the night, but everyone else was making breakfast and sleeping, or packing up their sites.  We played a game of fetch and then decided to go on one last hike before heading out.

The last hike was on Mule Deer Trail, which proved to be just the right combination of hot and dry and steep to be utterly exhausting.  Instead of hiking along forest trails and dodging patches of snow we were exposed to the wind and sun (not quite strong) in a huge open meadow.  The trail skirted small streams and wound down and then up, up, and away into the foothills.  It seemed like rattlesnake country.  I was constantly dry mouthed and Dog was panting.  The sites were beautiful, but we needed to make it back to camp in time before our parks pass expired.  At the snail paced we were going, it was going to take a long time.  That hike took a lot out of me.  It might have been rewarding under different circumstances, but I was just tired and thirsty.  I was so happy when we finally made it back to the car.  Leaving a good campsite is always bittersweet.  We waved goodbye to our little spot and began the descent back down.  The temperature rose and the cheese its ran out.  Finally back at home I was sore and tired and so was Dog.  We both took long naps.

That was our adventure.  Next time I will bring more blankets.

Kicking Off the New Year With A Mighty Mountain Adventure

New Year’s Eve was pretty quiet at my house.  We had a few people over and a few drinks, but it was a far cry from some of the NYE’s in years past, particularly the one’s spent in a cabin on Lake Michigan.  Thus when January 1st dawned we were reasonably up and alert.  We decided to drive to a nearby state park called Golden Gate Canyon (I previously wrote about a solo adventure I took there in early November) for a brisk hike.  The weather was positively warm and sunny in our neighborhood and- maybe because we were giddy with sunshine and holiday cheer- no one really bothered to think about what the weather in the mountains might be.  We packed snacks, baby gear, and hiking poles, and set off.  I threw on my denim jacket, which is comfy and full of pockets, but decidedly lacking in warmth unless it’s a balmy spring/autumn day.  

It took only half an hour to reach our destination, but a good half of that was spent on snakey, wending, twisty roads that went up and up.  So, for the second time in my life, I actually got car sick.  Not pleasant.  I sobered up, so to speak, when we got out of the car at the visitor center and felt the cold wind.  Yikes, I did not dress appropriately!  Luckily Ben was able to lend me his camo blanket, which I fashioned into a scarf.  That, along with his deer-hide mittens, kept me fairly toasty.  Oh yeah- and oh-so fashionable.  Inside the center Bekky and I found a list of wildlife sightings from other hikers, along with the trails they were spotted on.  “Bull moose!  Coyotes!  Foxes!  Mountain lions!”  They all listed the trail called Mountain Lion and so, with very little actual consideration for why that trail had so much wildlife (read: it was a remote and rarely hiked trail, due to it’s length and difficulty.  The ranger even politely pointed this out.  We missed the hint).

Out of the three adults on this hike, I was easily the most novice.  My roommates were better hikers than me even before they moved to odor ado five-going-on-six years ago, and by now they are even better.  It might be more accurate to describe my hiking style as “wandering around the woods, exploring aimlessly, and looking for animals”.  Thus while we were all having a good time, I was pretty sure I would not make the whole 8 mile loop and live to tell the tale.  The trail was gorgeous, alternating between views of the sit ant peaks and valleys, and winter woodland scenes, complete with little mouse trails in the snow.  Some parts of the trail were covered in a thick sheet of ice where snowmelt had frozen rather suddenly.  We did a lot of vertical hiking as the trail went up and and up towards Windy Peak.  A ways in I finally begged for mercy and we agreed to cut some mileage off our total hike.  It was getting later in the day and we began to o worry about losing the light.  In the mountains, once the sun goes behind a peak it gets dark much faster than on flat land.  It was also getting colder and *most* of us were tired (Ben seemed fine).  I have never used ski poles (if that’s the right word for these.  Like I said, novice) but was quite glad that Bena nod Bekky had brought them along.  When you are sore and exhausted and going up or down steep grades they are a lifesaver.

It was quiet, oh so quiet on our hike.  Apart from all the noise we made, of course.  There was light snow over on the ground, but also plenty of just dirt.  A few birds trilled warnings to each other as we went by.  The air smelled delightfully clean and crisp and of fir trees.  When we finally reached the top of Windy Peak the sun was setting, so the view was even more stunning than I would have guessed. The sky was a vivid pink and orange, and it threw the surrounding peaks into sharp relief.  As the name implied, it was pretty windy, so we didn’t spend too much time oohing and awwing over the view.  We did take turns climbing onto a rocky outcropping that dropped off steeply on all sides so that we could properly take in the view that we had hiked so far (it felt like) for.  However, since we were a the top of Windy Peak at sunset it meant that we really were in a race against time to get to the service road at the bottom before full darkness.  The way down went much faster, thanks to gravity, and a small amount of panic.  Well, urgency is probably a better word.  Again, those ski poles came in handy.  At this point the baby, who had been cheerful the whole way, began to get cold and hungry and generally fed up with the whole thing, so the trails were silent except for our huffing and puffing the thababy’s wails.  Bekky and Ben had headlamps which they broke out all too soon as the sun really and truly set and darkness set in.  I’m sure that all the wildlife for miles around was sitting tight and listening to us careening our way down the mountain.  We finally reached the bottom and…the sign, which should have pointed the way towards the parking lot where our car was, pointed back the way we had just come. SHIT.  It was dark, cold, and windy.  The baby was wailing and freezing.  We were exhausted and confused.  A decision had to be made and fast, so we decided to heed the signpost and had back up the trail.  It didn’t feel like the right way, but who were we to doubt the freakin’ signs?  Luckily we saw flashlights coming our way.  Two tired but friendly hunters (with enchanting Southern accents) appeared and told us that they were also heading to their car, which was parked in the same lot as outs.  Hallelujah!  Saved.  It turns out that the service road we had just been on had in fact been the correct way and that we did not need to head back up the mountain.  Another in saving grace.  It was a little disconcerting to me to be walking in the darkness with two people carrying rifles.  They told us that they heard the baby’s wails from way off and we afraid a panther had gotten someone.  If that statement doesn’t give you chills in the dark and cold I don’t know what will.  

We reached the car without incident and said goodbye to our deus ex machina friends.  We left the park, the baby fell asleep in the car almost immediately, and we rewarded ourselves with pizza on the way home.  In retrospect, in the warmth  and comfort of this coffee shop (aka my office) it was a might adventure and an excellent way to kick off 2017.  I’m not sure I want to do it again though.  Next time, I vow to plan ahead.

Golden Gate Canyon

While in between quitting one job and waiting for the next to start I had some time on my hands.  My housemates were out of town, so I was on my own.  I decided to check out a state park practically a stone’s throw from where I live.  It’s called Golden Gate Canyon and literally half of the driving time to get there is taken up by driving slowly along wending mountain roads.  It’s the battle of “check out that view!” Vs “Damn that turn was sharp!”  The park itself was very quiet on the weekday that I went there.  Almost too quiet.  Still, the sun was shining and a few birds were piping up.  I brought snacks and a water bottle, and dressed for light hiking.  I spent a few hours in quiet exploration.  Check out my photos from the day below.