Easter Sunday at Pawnee National Grasslands

Pawnee Buttes Trail
Location: Pawnee National Grasslands
Fees: None
Website: Pawnee National Grasslands
Elevation: 5,230 feet
Distance: 4-5 miles roundtrip
Hours: Always open

For Easter, we had a three day weekend and lots of snow in the mountains…up to four feet in four days. This snowy event was very exciting to skiers and snowboarders who have suffered through a rather warm March (which I loved). So, for two of three days, David took advantage of the fresh powder, while I locked myself in the house and waited for sun.

Staying home on a three day weekend is almost unheard of in this family, so on Easter with a sunny day on hand, we opted for a short road trip. Tired of the snow, I picked Pawnee National Grassland in Northeast, Colorado. It is about a 2 hour drive from Denver. Within about one hour, we were out of civilization. The Google Maps route took by ranches, dairy farms, and several oil and gas wells. We passed one small town, Briggsdale with a post office and gas station (the only one to be found in the next 60 miles), but otherwise we were surrounded by fields. The last 30 minutes of our drive were on dirt roads which we shared with several speeding gas tankers.

Given the flatlands, we thought we would have seen the two buttes that rise 300 feet above the ground, but they didn’t come into view until we reached the parking lot. We were the only car in the lot with the nice covered picnic tables and bathroom facilities nearby, when within minutes two other cars arrived. Given how far we drove, we found it funny that the only other people at the Pawnee Buttes Trail the entire time we were there arrived at the same time we did!

We actually drove for longer than we hiked, so I can’t say this hike would be for everyone, but it was a bit unique and rather peaceful. From the trailhead, the buttes don’t look that far away and they looked relatively close together. The hike, however, was two miles to the westerly butte and another half mile to the butte to the east.

We followed the trail along the highlands and then down into some badlands around Lips Bluff where raptors nest. From March-June visitors are not allowed to hike into this bluff as to protect the birds. I had hope to see some of the hawks, eagles and falcons for which the grasslands are known, but I suppose they were all protecting their young. We did spot one pronghorn and a few prairie dogs along our drive. It’s always a treat to see wildlife. The grasslands are also known for its fossils, but we didn’t find any (not that we were looking too hard). We were more entertained by Molli who is a very well-minded dog we have been caring for over Spring Break.

After two miles, we reached the first butte. Its base of crumbling sandstone is capped with limestone. It is what is left of the eroded, windswept plains. We followed the footpath another half mile to the second butte. This path had a little snow remaining from our big storm a few days and Molli loved it. She ran back and forth on the snow while trying to eat it at the same time!

Somewhat high on the second butte, is a small narrow path which circles it. We climbed up and enjoyed a lovely view as we strolled around the butte before heading back to the car. It was a nice leisurely day beneath sunny skies with a cool breeze. I don’t think we hiked enough to keep the pounds off from our Easter dinner feast at Linger with some friends that came in town from Canada, but we loved it. It was a perfect way to cap off the evening. ETB

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A Lovely Snowshoe at Lost Lake Trail

Lost Lake Trail
Location: Near Eldora
Fees: None
Website: http://www.backpacker.com/trips/colorado/denver/boulder-co-lost-lake-winter-route/
Elevation: 9,009-9,786 feet
Distance: 5 miles roundtrip
Hours: Sunrise to Sunset daily

Today we snowshoed Lost Lake Trail.  I have to say, this may have been the best snowshoe I have ever completed.  For starters, the snow was perfect!  At the beginning of the hike where we followed Hessie Road, there was a nice snowpack. Many times when we start a trail, there isn’t enough snow for snowshoes and spikes are hardly warranted.  Today, we probably could have just donned spikes, but the snow was soft and deep enough to where snowshoes worked as well, and we didn’t have to take them off and on throughout the hike!

Sometimes, without a GPS, it has been quite hard to determine which ski tracks follow the trail.  Not so today.  We followed the signs on the well-marked trail and trekked along the well-used path right to Lost Lake.  It was nice to reach our final destination as at times, we have had to turn around.

The path led us through a snow-covered evergreens on a low-grade climb.  The five-mile roundtrip which was both easy and fun provided fantastic views of the valley below as well as the Eldora Ski Mountain.

Even better, was the blue-bird sky.  We couldn’t have asked for a nicer day.  ETB

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Loved Eldorado Canyon State Park

Rattlesnake Gulch Trail
Location: Eldorado Canyon State Park
Fees: Day Use = $8, Annual = $70
Website: http://cpw.state.co.us/placestogo/Parks/eldoradocanyon
Elevation: 6,000-7,200 feet
Distance: 4 miles roundtrip
Hours: Sunrise to Sunset daily

Today I joined a meetup group for a hike in Eldorado Canyon State Park. I just had to get out as I don’t think I have enjoyed such glorious weather on an early March day in Colorado. The temperature was nearing 70 degrees beneath bluebird skies!

What added to the lovely weather was this spectacular park. I was pleasantly surprised by the landscape surrounding Rattlesnake Gulch Trail. We followed the 1.4 mile trail up to the ruins of Crags Hotel which burned in 1912 after operating for only four years. It’s hard to imagine this park used to be a resort, but in the early 1900’s visitors arrived by train from Denver to enjoy the hotel which even had an incline railway to transport guests in and out of the canyon.

From the hotel ruins, we turned toward the left and continued our climb along the loop that leads up to the railroad tracks. The tracks pass through two tunnels on the ridge owned by Union Pacific Railroad and continues through the Moffat Tunnel beneath the Continental Divide. Technically, we were not supposed to hike all the way to the tracks, but they were easy to reach. We were just mindful of train traffic…none to speak of while we were there.

We circled the loop and detoured off the path in a few places to admire the snow-covered continental divide before we headed back down to the parking lot. The creek that ran along the road to the parking area was also lovely. I really liked this park…so much so, that two days later, David and I took Toby for hike in another area nearby the park. ETB

http://cpw.state.co.us/placestogo/parks/EldoradoCanyon/Documents/EldoradoAreaBrochure.pdf

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Wigwam Trail in Lost Creek Wilderness

Wigwam Trail
Location: Lost Creek Wilderness
Fees: Free
Website: http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/psicc/recarea/?recid=13004, http://www.fomelc.org/lost-creek-trails
Elevation: 8,160-10,170 feet
Distance: 22.6 miles roundtrip
Hours: Best for Spring, Summer, Fall

We were caring for a young German Short-hair Pointer this weekend, so to help him expend some of his energy, we decided to go to a trail that seemed a little less traveled than others in the area. Originally used to drive cattle from Webster Park to Lost Park, the Wigwam Trail heads northwest along Wigwam Creek.

The trail isn’t terribly accessible in the winter months without a high-clearance vehicle. We followed the dirt road sporadically covered in snow in my 4-wheel drive sedan, but it was a little dicey, and we were thankful that it hadn’t snowed for a while. My bumper didn’t fare too well.

Our hike on the trail turned out to be shorter than we had hoped. The granite path crossed the frozen creek a few times before we reached deep snow which was just too hard to maneuver with Dante in hand. He needed some additional leash training and off-leash, he would have long gone!

We made the most of our venture, however, and headed to the Buck Snort Saloon for an interesting atmosphere and quick lunch.

I think we will come back to this trail in the summer as it connect to three other trails (Rolling Creek, Brookside-McCurdy, and Goose Creek) and climbs to granite domes. ETB

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Snowshoeing Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Fern Lake Trail

Location: Rocky Mountain National Park
Fees: Day Use = $20, Weekly = $30, Annual = $50
Elevation: 8,165-9,503 feet
Distance: 8-9 miles roundtrip

My friend Jim organized another snowshoe in Rocky Mountain National Park. He does so about every other week, and it is nice to be able to tag along. Our group of five met at the visitor’s center before entering the park around 8:30am. We were in the parking area and walking down the road to the trailhead around 9am.

To start our trek, we only needed our micro-spikes as the snow was somewhat packed down, but as we gained elevation the snow thickened. The last mile, from the falls to the lake, was somewhat steep as we switch-backed up the mountain. David led the way and toward the end had to break trail. Continue reading “Snowshoeing Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park”

Snowshoe Jim Creek Trail

Jim Creek Trail

Location: Bonfils Station Outdoor Center in Winter Park
Fees: Free
Elevation: 9,220-10,383 feet
Distance: 5.3 miles roundtrip

On a snowy Saturday morning, I headed up to Winter Park. The 1.5 hour drive took 2.5 hours due to heavy ski traffic given the forecast of good snow.  I met some friends at the Bonfils Station Outdoor Center. Our group of eight started out on the Challenger trail that led to Jim Creek Trail. Continue reading “Snowshoe Jim Creek Trail”

Snowshoeing Sandbeach Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Sandbeach Lake Trail

Location: Rocky Mountain National Park
Fees: Day Use = $20, Weekly = $30, Annual = $50
Elevation: 8,312-10,283 feet
Distance: 8.8 miles roundtrip

The forecast called for a cold day of snowshoeing and it was! I think the high may have been 20 degrees. At first we thought it might be slightly warmer as the sun peaked through the clouds, but it didn’t take long for a light snow to fall and the sun to disappear for the day. Continue reading “Snowshoeing Sandbeach Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park”

Great Fun at Great Sand Dunes National Park!

Great Sand Dunes National Park was a site listed in my Reader’s Digest 120 Scenic Drives Book that I used to make my drive around the USA four years ago. Unfortunately, I had to skip this National Park due to required maintenance on VANilla. I was very excited that I finally got to visit the park with David, Heather and Jaz this past weekend.

We made the estimated 4 hour drive in about 6 hours on Friday evening. Rush hour traffic held us up for about an hour, and we had to stop for gas and dinner. Without much light on the road it was difficult to see the turn for the Zapata Falls Campground. After one U-turn, we ventured up the 3 mile dirt road and found one of the last campsites around 10pm. None of us felt like setting up our tents, so the girls slept in the car while David and slept in sleeping bags under the stars. The clear night provided an amazing view of the Milky Way.

The next morning David and I awoke early and drove 24 miles to Mosca Pit-Stop for gas. For anyone who travels to this area, I recommend filling up at the last gas station passed on the way because the area near the park is desolate. Upon return to the campsite, we stopped to admire a small herd of elk along the roadside.

From the parking area by the campground, there is a short trail to Zapata Falls. The trail requires a creek crossing and a little rock scaling, but the jaunt isn’t that hard and the 25 foot falls that careens down the crevasse is certainly worth the visit! What an enjoyable first stop of the day!

Our next stop was deep in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and only accessible by small, high clearance four-wheel drive vehicles. Spots like these is why David keeps his truck around. We passed “The Point of No Return” and followed Medano Pass Primitive Road for 11 miles to Medano Pass. The 11 mile drive through deep sand, a shallow creek (which is deep in the spring and many times non-existent this time of year), and on a rocky road took about 1.5 hours.

Just before the trail to Medano Lake, we found a campsite. There are several campsites along the road which are free of charge and include a bear box for food. Most of the campsites were taken up by hunters, some who erected canvas tents and a small corral for their mules. Rifle season for deer and elk had just begun.

While I would have preferred to have hiked beneath the aspens adorned in golden leaves without gunshots in the distance, the leaf littered trail was still beautiful. We began the hike at 9,600 feet and gained about 1,900 feet over 3 to 4 miles in order to reach Medano Lake. Most of the first two miles followed a relatively easy grade which turned into a steep ascent toward the end. The calm afternoon offered a tranquil lake setting. For anyone with a small, four-wheel drive vehicle who enjoys fall colors, this is the place to visit in late September!

We arrived back at camp after our 7-8 mile hike just before sunset to set up our tents. The nice part about “car camping” is that dinner of ribs, veggie dogs, baked beans, and mashed potatoes is far more gourmet than the typical dehydrated meals we use for backpacking. We topped off our tasty meal with S’mores!

The quiet night turned violently windy around 11:15 am. We could hear the leaves shimmering in the distance a few seconds before the wind whipped through our camp. The fly on our tent shook while the straps held down by our stakes snapped back and forth. David did an excellent job staking the tent down in the hard ground because the corners remained secure. Our fly and mesh tent, however, didn’t keep dirt from raining on us! The sleeping bag was covered in a layer of fine grit! After 3 hours of crazy wind, we could scoop up dirt from the middle of the tent the next morning. But of course, the sand dunes were created by predominant winds and storm winds flowing against each other, so I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised.

After breakfast, we returned along the primitive road all the way back to Zapata Falls Campground to secure a site for our final night. This was certainly more driving that needed to take place if we were just visiting the park to slide down the dunes, but the park is very diverse with lots of options. Also, David had to leave us this evening, and I didn’t feel like I had the skills to take over the four-wheel driving. Zapata Falls Campground, though not as private as a camp site in the woods, is quite a good deal despite no water nearby. It’s only $11 a night and half price with a National Parks Card.

After securing our campsite, we stopped just outside the park at the Oasis to rent sandboards and sleds. The sandboards and sleds are $21 per person (more on this later). We returned to the park to attack the dunes. Some of the dunes are over 700 feet high. We inquired where to go with the ranger at the entrance station and he said with our truck, we should go back to Medano Pass Road to Castle Creek because a 300 foot dune stands just feet from the parking lot. It only required us to climb up. I can’t believe how long it takes to climb up 300 feet in sand. It was hard!

David, Heather and Jaz all rented sandboards which are wood with foot straps similar to a snowboard. The sandboard was smaller and narrower than a snowboard or the sled that I rented. The sandboard required going barefoot or in socks. On the sled, shoes were optional, but given I had to brake with my feet, I elected to wear shoes. All the boards we rented needed wax. My first recommendation is to climb the dunes without shoes no matter what…much easier! Second, hold the top of the board and shove the bottom of the board in the sand to use it as a post while climbing up…this was a big help.

After probably 40 minutes of climbing beneath a black sky, we finally reached the top for lovely views. The attempts at boarding and sledding down the dune was simply hysterical. I think we had more fun laughing at each other than actually sliding down. Being rookies, we made a variety of mistakes. First, we needed more wax on the boards. David, Jaz, and Heather had a hard time getting them to slide. Second, we probably should have all rented sleds. They go faster and are more fun. Third, we probably should have only rented two sleds and taken turns as after our one attempt, we were exhausted. No one wanted to climb up the dune again! Fourth, in order to get two runs in, we should have gone in the late morning, eaten a packed lunch, and then made another run as the afternoon was nice and cool. Regardless, we had a fun and finished just before sprinkles fell.

We relaxed at the campground in the late afternoon. Jaz built a fire. Heather played the guitar. David and I read. Soon dinner time came around and we made Frito Pie and S’mores! Time to work out again.

The wind overnight was relentless again. It continued through the morning. The girls and I planned to go to the northwest portion of the park to look for elk in the grasslands, but we didn’t realize we’d end up on another unpaved road for several miles. After seeing a Buddhist Retreat Center along the way which was interesting enough, we pulled the plug on driving further and headed home. ETB

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Salida, Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak

The girls went camping with their mom this weekend, so David and I took a quick jaunt down to Salida, about 2.5 to 3 hours southwest of Denver. Saturday we piddled around the town and followed Spiral Drive for a view of the city. Sunday we climbed two 14ers, Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak.

We learned the hard way to never try to tackle two 14ers, 11.25 miles, and 5,600 feet of elevation gain on three hours of sleep while not feeling up to par. We didn’t go out the prior evening. In fact, I think we were in bed by 9pm, so we could get up by 4:30am, make the 45 minute drive to the trailhead and start hiking by 6am. Unfortunately, we couldn’t fall asleep! Our best laid plans got us started at 6:30am just before sunrise.

The first mile of our hike which starts on the Colorado Trail through an aspen grove and soon turns left to begin the steep climb was simply lovely. We watched the sunrise creating a pink glow in distance while the aspens’ yellow leaves shimmered in the brightening sky. The climb took us over a rocky and root covered path until we reached the second mile.

The second mile, though the flattest and easiest with a few trailside campsites, was quite ugly. The pine forest has suffered much devastation from the beetle. Many fallen trees lined both sides of the path and even provided us a few obstacles to cross. With the record high temperatures of September and little rain of late, the creek was dry. Amazingly, there were still a few wildflowers clinging to life which may have been the only pretty part of the second mile with the exception of intermittent views of the golden valley below.

With every 14er, soon we ascended above treeline and entered the tundra. The treeless area offered spectacular views beneath the deep blue sky. While the views were nice, we contended with a strong headwind as we climbed toward a flat area before we had to boulder up to the peak of Mt. Shavano. Fellow hikers commented on the wind’s brutality.

Only three miles into the trail, I was already feeling weak and hungry, and we had eight miles to go. Now with a strong crosswind, we followed the trail to the right across a saddle. As I stepped, I lightly stubbed my toe on a rock. I reached my foot slightly farther than normal to the right to catch my balance and the wind blew clear off the trail! I landed very ungracefully in a patch of rocks. Pain shot through my bruised knee. My hip likely survived as it was protected by my shattered cell phone. David came to my aid and suggested that maybe we should turn around. That was probably an excellent suggestion, and I probably should have agreed, but those who know me know that is not part of my MO.

I told him that I was not going to quit, so he walked slightly ahead to my left while holding my left arm to block the wind. Upon reaching the boulder field, we found intermittent relief from the wind and opted to stop and eat in the cover of some rocks before we even reached the first peak! After refueling, I felt much better and we summited Mt. Shavano (14,229′) around noon. The panoramic views were stunning.

With it being October, there wasn’t any danger of inclement, summer thunderstorms, so we had plenty of time to maneuver across the boulder field, up and down 500 feet to Tabeguache Peak. Since I tend to get altitude sickness or a severe migraine (I haven’t figured out which since a headache and nausea are symptoms of both), I certainly wanted to knock out both peaks at once versus coming back to climb Tabeguache Peak on its own.

The one mile to Tabeguache Peak (14,155′) took us about an hour. The path came and went as climbed along the rocks. We hardly spent any time on Tabeguache Peak. We only signed the log and congratulated a few fellow hikers who had also made it to the small summit before we turned around. It felt easier on the return to Mt. Shavano, but by this time my headache was really kicking in, and we had a solid four plus miles to go.

Once we got below treeline, I just started crying. My head was pounding, and I was extremely tired and nauseated. I felt like I needed to eat for some energy, but I could hardly get a handful of nuts down. My Gatorade wasn’t much help either. I was burning up. I torched my lips as I failed to smear sunblock on them, and it was certainly too windy to wear a visor. All I wanted to do was lay down and rest. In the meantime, David’s knee locked up so while he was trying to help me, he was peg-legging down the mountain for the last mile and a half. We were so slow! It took us almost 12 hours to hike 11.25 miles.

While we had headlamps, fortunately we made it back to the aspen grove just before dark as the sun set. I’d like to say we stopped and admired the beauty, but a few quickly snapped photos is all I could muster as I was desperate to sit down. I’ve never been so excited to reach the car! These two peaks mark my 11th and 12th 14er since I started climbing them two years ago. While I don’t want to scare anyone since they were only Class 2, at the time it felt like the hardest thing I have ever done…harder than my marathon or triathlon. Personally, I believe it was simply the circumstance of starting the task on an empty tank, and that they probably weren’t that much harder than the other ten I have completed. I never felt in danger, but I sure felt exhausted and learned my lesson to ditch hiking a 14er unless I’ve gotten a full night’s sleep. As that is what my body needs! Despite the beating, I think we both feel accomplished and happy we finished. ETB

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Closing Weekend at Estabrook

What a nice weather we got for closing weekend at Estabrook. We were so lucky! The forecast called for rain, but we enjoyed a weekend of sun. A thunder shower rolled in one night and it looked like things might turn ugly as we were leaving today.

Heather and I went for a hike Saturday morning while David fished and Jaz read. The afternoon took David four-wheeling along the logging roads while we chilled out. We tried out the new Italian place that was packed. I thought it was fair, though we may not have ordered appropriately as the pizza looked pretty tasty. We finished out the night with family games.

On Sunday, while the girls played chess, we tried fishing once more. Not too much luck. I caught some bait…a tiny rainbow in the Platte that was the size of a minnow! Sad we have to wait until next summer to enjoy the place again. ETB

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