An “Easy” 14er

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Shortly after summiting our sixth 14er together as a family, following the requisite celebration and pictures, an obnoxious middle schooler arrived to rain on our parade, proclaiming that Mount Sherman is easy and doesn’t even really count as a 14er, since the hike doesn’t gain more than 2,500 feet in elevation.  While he was right about the elevation and the fact that Mount Sherman is considered one of the easiest 14ers, it was all we could do to maintain a friendly demeanor with heart rates still elevated from huffing and puffing up the steep final ridge to the summit.  His mother made us question why they bothered to climb the mountain in the first place with her complaining about how crowded with tourists “Mount Sherm” usually is and “they’ll probably build a Starbucks up here some day” and her oh-so-casual mention of having climbed Capitol Peak with famed “Knife’s Edge,” one of the hardest 14ers.  Fortunately, a mature couple had just then arrived to divert our attention and trumped the dismissive woman and her child with stories of trekking in the Andes and Himalayas at a higher elevation than where we were standing and looking up at 20,000 feet peaks.  And yet, despite those exotic experiences, this couple marveled at the view right along with us, asked questions about landmarks, and quickly made friends as fellow climbers on this day.

The classic guidebook by the Colorado Mountain Club, The Colorado 14ers: Standard Routes, states “The climbers who have shared their knowledge of the Colorado Fourteeners and suggested ratings in the book maintain that there are really no “easy” mountains.  Slippery cliffs, falling rock, crumbling ledges, heaving talus slopes, and abrupt changes in the weather can change a pleasant hike into a difficult climb.  Thus, none of the mountains is rated “easy” to climb.”  So what if climbing Mount Sherman involves less than 2,500 feet of elevation gain; it still gains that elevation in less than three miles and at 14,036 feet, the air is just as thin as it is on Capitol Peak.  And who cares anyway?  Any day in the mountains is a good day.  We climbed another 14er together and no know-it-all pre-teen or pretentious woman could ruin this good day.

It started a bit ominously though, with gray clouds overhead and a fierce west wind as we started up the trail past the abandoned Dauntless mine.  Our new rescue dog Luna led the way as we worked our way past mine debris.  She enjoyed playing in the snow that persisted along the old mining road trail.  After zig-zagging up past the Hilltop mine, we arrived at the foot of Mount Sherman’s southwest ridge.  Here is where the “not easy” part starts, with a steep climb over loose rock and some traverses over the narrow ridge.  It’s no “Knife’s Edge” but neither is it a walk in the park.  The weather continued to cooperate, although we added and removed layers of clothing several times as we moved in and out of the wind.

We did have an advantage that made the hike easier: taking turns letting sure-footed Luna pull us up the incline.  She did great on her first 14er and added additional joy to the day.  Despite the winds on the way up, the top was relatively calm and we enjoyed eating lunch with our new friends, the world-hikers.  We discovered that they were from Arlington, Texas, my hometown, which led to further conversation.  They expressed appreciation that we were welcoming to them, unlike some other people from Colorado they had encountered.  I suppose our living somewhere else for many years and experiencing the state as tourists ourselves has something to do with that.  Aside from some mining claims and one notable exception in southern Colorado, nobody “owns” the 14ers and we always feel like we are just visiting ourselves, even though we’re on a day trip and not a week long vacation.  The only true Colorado natives are Native Americans and even they migrated here at some point in the past.  Only the animals live year-round on top of these mountains and I often wonder what they think about the strange creatures who visit in summer.  So a little humility is in order for all of us.

Although we run into disagreeable people from time to time, we find that most people in the mountains are courteous and friendly, bound by shared experiences and the beautiful scenery.  Oh, and on the way up, we happened to pass some girls who went to the same high school with our daughters.  The hike down was uneventful and the weather continued to hold.   The sun even came out briefly as we arrived back at our vehicle.  All part of the wonder of this day.  Within seconds of jumping into the back of our SUV, Luna was fast asleep, so even with all her energy the hike was challenging.  We weren’t as exhausted as we have been on other mountains, but it always feels good to take the hiking boots off after a strenuous outing.  Easy or not, Mount Sherman counts as a great hike in our book.

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“The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.”  Psalm 104:18

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Our Go-to Denver/Front Range Itinerary for Out of Town Guests, Part III

Two destinations an hour south of the Denver metro area are on our list of must-see attractions, one natural and one man-made, both inspirational American icons.

The Cadet Chapel at the United States Air Force Academy is the number one man-made tourist attraction in Colorado.  Its unique modernist architecture consisting of 17 wing-like aluminum spires pointing skyward in a mountainous setting perfectly combines the aspirations of flight and spirituality.  The contrast with the surrounding utilitarian buildings of the academy, the geometric patterns of the Terrazzo where cadets line up for noon meal formations, and the honor court where the fallen are memorialized strikingly illustrate the tension between higher aspirations and the practical realities of our nation’s defense.  The chapel is the focal point of visits to the academy, along with a large visitor’s center and aircraft displays.  However, the 55-year-old chapel will be closed for renovations starting in 2018.

Another impressive site to visit on the academy campus is Falcon Stadium.  Our family loves football, but attending Broncos games is usually out of our price range.  We found that all four of us can attend an Air Force football game for under $100, and after a year or two we ended up with season tickets.  The team is consistently competitive and the atmosphere is like no other in college football, with the fly-overs, the parachute team, the cadet march-on, the drum & bugle corps, and the performing falcons, all at the foot of Pikes Peak.  We like the family-friendly, patriotic feel of the games, and the fact that since these players are heading to active-duty instead of the NFL, they are truly student-athletes.  We find it a refreshing change from the overpaid, arrogant, spoiled cheaters and criminals who are all too prevalent in the NFL (and some college teams).  In my opinion Air Force provides the best bang for the buck in college or pro football.  If guests visit on a football Saturday, we always enjoy taking them to a game, especially against the other service academies.

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The aptly-named Garden of the Gods is a Colorado Springs city park open to the public with amazing rock formations and stunning views of Pikes Peak.  A visitor’s center explains the geological and geographical history of the area with a snack bar and a deck that makes for an excellent viewing platform overlooking the park and peak.  Driving through the park takes you to formations such as the Gateway Rocks, the Kissing Camels, Cathedral Rock, the Flying Dutchman, Balanced Rock, and Steamboat Rock.  We like to add a mile-long round-trip hike to see the Siamese Twins formation that provides a window perfectly framing Pikes Peak, but there are other hikes and formations available for those who wish to get off the beaten path.  Of course, Pikes Peak or “America’s Mountain” is an attraction all its own, with a road and even a cog railway to the top.  We have driven it before but the road is more exposed than the Mount Evans Road, so it’s not for the faint at heart and it also costs more ($50 per car), so we are usually content to see the peak in all its glory from the Garden of the Gods park.

Regardless of whether you view Pikes Peak from the foot or from the top, you more fully appreciate the words it inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea! 

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And a visit to the Air Force Academy makes these lines equally poignant:

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine! 

What a privilege to live within an hour’s driving distance from these great American landmarks; even more, what a privilege to live in this great country!  We do not take it lightly.

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Our Go-To Denver/Front Range Itinerary for Out of Town Guests, Part II

An hour’s drive northwest of Denver takes you to a region called the “Rooftop of America” and the “Jewel of the Rockies,” 415 square miles of high alpine landscape, about 1/3 of it above treeline, with 78 peaks surpassing 12,000 feet in elevation.  Rocky Mountain National Park attracts over 4 million visitors per year, with good reason; among its mountains, valleys, forests, meadows, lakes, streams, and animals are some of the most majestic sights in all the Rocky Mountains.

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If our guests have time, a day in Rocky Mountain National Park is always a good choice for a visit.  Starting early is a must, to make the most of the weather and beat the crowds.  It helps that we have occasional access to a summer cabin that belonged to my wife’s grandfather in nearby Allenspark.  If our guests are first-time visitors, a driving trip over Trail Ridge Road (open late May to late October) is unforgettable, along with short hikes around Bear Lake and the nearby Alberta Falls.  However, during the peak summer weekends, these areas will be very crowded.  A less-crowded alternative includes Fall River Road (one-way only, usually not open until July) with stops at the Alluvial Fan and Chasm Falls, and a return on Trail Ridge Road.  Or, avoiding the east side of the park altogether, Grand Lake has a much more laid-back-mountain-lake-small-town feel, along with greener scenery west of the Continental Divide and frequent moose sightings along the Colorado River.

But our favorite activity in Rocky and elsewhere, is to get off the beaten path on a hike.  The popular scenes accessible by car in the park are great, but there is nothing like the solitude and refreshment that are available simply by walking a couple of miles into the wilderness.  Here are a few of our family favorites:

Gem Lake, located just north of Estes Park, offers dramatic views of the town and high peaks of the park, on its way to a quiet, secluded lake surrounded by huge rocks.

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Lily Lake and Lily Mountain, south of Estes Park on Highway 7, provide an easy walk around the lake and a relatively easy mountain-climbing experience with impressive views of Longs Peak.

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Wild Basin, a less-visited area of the park further south on Highway 7, has three impressive waterfalls within three miles, as well as other lakes and views of the “back side” of Longs Peak, Mt. Meeker, Pagoda, Chiefs Head, and other high peaks.

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The Brainard Lakes area, on Highway 72 north of Nederland, includes hikes to marvelous alpine lakes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, adjacent to the park.

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Gem Lake and Wild Basin are both in the national park, which understandably prohibits dogs on the trails.  The Lily Mountain and Brainard Lake trails allow dogs, so we head there when we have canine companions along.

Whatever the destination and guests who accompany us, we have never regretted time spent in and around Rocky Mountain National Park.  As often as we have been there, we always find something new to discover.  Familiar scenes look different because of changing weather and light.  Animals are unpredictable and fascinating when we are fortunate enough to observe them up close.  In our minds, this is Colorado and we are always happy to share the experience with others.  We always leave refreshed and renewed in spirit, thankful for this national treasure that was set aside for refuge and recreation.

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“Go into the Parks and get their encouragement. Among the serene and steadfast scenes you will find the paths of peace and a repose that is sweeter than sleep. If you are dulled and dazed with the fever and the fret, or weary and worn,–tottering under burdens too heavy to bear,–go back to the old outdoor home. Here Nature will care for you as a mother for a child. In the mellow-lighted forest aisles, beneath the beautiful airy arches of limbs and leaves, with the lichen-tinted columns of gray and brown, with the tongueless eloquence of the bearded, veteran trees, amid the silence of centuries, you will come into your own.”  — Enos Mills 

 

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Our Go-To Denver/Front Range Itinerary for Out-of-Town Guests, Part I

My wife and I have lived in six different cities in Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Colorado.  Although they are all in the middle part of the country, each city and surrounding area is unique, with its own landmarks, attractions, and local culture.  In each city, there were go-to places to take people from out of town for a sampling of the local flavor.  But the Denver area, situated as it is along the Front Range of the Rockies, presents a challenge: there are so many landmarks, attractions, and different blends of culture, how do you narrow it down for just a short visit?

After exploring the area ourselves and hosting a number of guests, this is the basic framework we have settled on.  Depending on other activities and guest preferences, we may not follow this exactly, but for convenience I have separated them into three days.  Even if a guest has only one or two days, this is where we would start.

Day 1 – Denver

Although its roots are in the Old West, Denver is an urban, cosmopolitan city, offering pretty much everything you could want in a major metropolitan area, from arts, to sports, to history, to cuisine, to museums, to parks.  It would be easy to spend three days just exploring the city itself.  But in our minds what defines Denver is its proximity to the mountains.  Consistently visible from most parts of the city, the mountains seem to draw you in, as if to say, “What are you doing down there?  Come on up higher!”  It may seem strange, but we suggest starting a tour of Denver not in the city itself, but in the mountains above Denver.

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So we start with Red Rocks Park, owned by the City of Denver as part of the Denver Mountain Parks system and located in the foothills overlooking the city.  Its natural amphitheater has hosted countless acts from all musical genres since it was built in 1941.  Red Rocks combines dramatic rock formations, impressive panoramas of the city, and a small, but unique museum combining the geology of the area and a history of the performers whose music has echoed off the rock walls.  If we could coordinate a visit with a concert that would be great, but the park is a great place to visit anytime, especially in the morning with the sun bringing out the colors of the rocks.  When not in use for concerts, the amphitheater generally buzzes with fitness buffs working out on the steps at 6,450 feet elevation, and its a good time to remind guests to stay hydrated and use sunscreen at this altitude.  If time permits and guests are up for it, there are many hiking trails to get off the beaten path and explore the rocks surrounding the amphitheater.

If guests visit in the summer and are ready for higher altitude, we head up to another Denver Mountain Park:  Echo Lake and the Mount Evans Scenic Byway.  At over 10,000 feet in elevation, Echo Lake is a great place for a picnic, weather permitting.  The nearby Echo Lake Lodge also has a restaurant (open in summer only).  A number of hiking trails also branch off from Echo Lake, including to the top of the 14,264 foot Mount Evans, but why walk when you can drive?  The Mount Evans Scenic Byway passes through the Arapaho National Forest, so the Forest Service charges a $10 vehicle fee (well worth it).  Typically open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the road climbs quickly above the treeline where temperatures can drop by as much as 40 degrees from the temperature in Denver and snow is possible even in summer.  In fact, Summit Lake may still be partially frozen in early summer and is a great place to stop and walk over to the Chicago Lakes overlook.  Finally, twisting and turning up to the parking lot by the ruins of the old Crest House (destroyed by fire in 1979), we park and climb the final 1/4 mile trail to the summit.  Again, this is a time to monitor your guests from the flat-lands for altitude sickness.  But there is nothing like standing on the top of a 14,000 foot mountain, and none easier to get to, at least in the continental U.S.

A lower altitude alternative to Mount Evans is Lookout Mountain Park, part of the Jefferson County park system.  We like to take the curvy Lookout Mountain Road from Golden, which is popular with bicyclists, but the park is also accessible from I-70.  Be sure to walk across the road for an excellent view of Golden and Denver to the east and the Continental Divide to the west.  The nature center and trails here have that mountain forest feel literally minutes away from the city.  Nearby is Buffalo Bill’s Grave and Museum.  But we also have a personal reason to bring family and friends here.  In 1989, we were married in the historic Boettcher Mansion.

As far as the city itself, the interests of our guests would dictate additional activities.  The state capitol, the Mint, and the history, art, and botanical museums are all worth a visit.  In my opinion Coors Field is one of the best places to watch a baseball game in the country, and the surrounding LoDo area offers plenty of choices for dining.  For families, Casa Bonita is a must; even though many Denverites avoid it, it’s still one of the most unique restaurants anywhere.  Another family favorite is BeauJo’s Pizza, with locations in Denver, as well as Idaho Springs, Evergreen, Arvada, and Boulder.

Yes, Denver is a great city to visit and there are many more attractions that could be mentioned, but it’s the mountains that set it apart.  We look for any excuse we can find to get away to the mountains, so we naturally look in that direction when guests come.  Sorry, Denver, that’s just how it is.  Days 2 and 3 venture farther up and down the Front Range.

“Standing on the high ground a mile east of Denver, two hundred miles of the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains can be seen.  On the left Pike’s Peak, and on the right, Long’s Peak tower above the surrounding mountains.  these peaks are not so high as some others of the main range, but being at the extremity of spurs jutting out from it, they are more prominent.  The view represents but a small section of what can be seen of the eastern side of the mountains from this point.”  — Alfred Edward Mathews, 1866

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Lake Isabelle

A special guest from out of town gave us an excuse to return to the beautiful Brainard Lakes area in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.  The weather kept us from a Lake Isabelle hike last year, instead settling for a loop around Long Lake.  On this July morning the weather was fantastic.  Within a few minutes of setting out from Brainard Lake, we spotted a moose.  Then we were able to see Long Lake in the sunshine this time.  Taking the spur up to Lake Isabelle, we soon could hear the sound of a massive snowfield melting and running down from her outlet.  And the steep final climb rewarded us with spectacular views.  The placid lake surrounded by green trees and bushes giving way to snowfields rising up massive granite walls was truly a sight to behold.  After a leisurely lunch, we returned on the Jean Lunning trail, completing the loop of Long Lake as we did last summer.  Only this time, deep snow still covered the trail in several places with mud left behind where it melted.  We arrived back at the car, muddy but happy, just as the rain began to fall.  We enjoy all of our hikes, but Lake Isabelle ranks as one of our favorites, for the scenery, the lakes, the moose, and for other more personal reasons.

 

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Risk and Reward

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”  — Theodore Roosevelt

“Our best successes often come after our greatest disappointments.”  — Henry Ward Beecher

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”  — Henry David Thoreau

Another birthday with a zero at the end came and went, this time without a lot of self-reflection.  This is largely because it coincided with the high school graduation of our twin daughters, an epic family trip together, and preparation for them to go to different colleges fifteen hours away from home.  Then adjustment to an instant empty nest and the ongoing struggle to pay the bills with two in college took over.  In fact the past five years since we moved to Colorado have been too busy for a lot of self-reflection and that is a good thing.  An introverted thinker by nature, I have a tendency toward rumination and over-analysis.  A number of journals I have kept and some of the posts in this blog attest to that, along with my wife’s long-suffering patience.  I write for myself, not for others, to record my memories and thoughts, and if no-one ever reads them, that’s fine with me.  If by chance, what I write resonates and encourages someone, that’s a gratifying bonus, but mostly it helps to make sense of things in my own mind.

The above quotes describe my past five years very well.  They began with our move to Colorado, leaving behind the corporate job I had held for fifteen years to start my own business as an insurance agent.  Although I had some initial success and enjoyed helping people in the process, after a year it was clear that endeavor would end in defeat.  True to form, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the reasons why, both self-focused and externally-focused, but in the end it just wasn’t meant to be.  I had to find another job and fast!  An opportunity arose in higher education related to risk management and insurance, so that seemed like a good fit, albeit low-paying, and I thought it might also open the door to teaching.  I had been warned by the incumbent in that role that the director was impossible to work with, but I needed a job, so….

Well, the director was impossible to work with.  Within months I was looking for still another job.  Despite all my earlier frustrations with the corporate world, the stability and relatively good pay started to seem appealing again.  I looked for another financial analyst position, the one I had thrived in before all the corporate reorganization.  What I found combined some of the best aspects of all my previous experience.

The one common thread to all of my previous roles is that they were all non-profit organizations.  From substitute teaching in public schools, to youth ministry, to universities; even the corporate role and the agent role were for mutual insurance companies (owned by policyholders so if there are adequate profits they are returned to policyholders in the form of dividends).  I like working for organizations that emphasize helping people and having common values more than making profits.

So when I landed a job as a financial analyst in a small non-profit health insurance company, I felt right at home.  The job was challenging and had a heavy workload during budget season, but my boss was flexible and supportive, and I was again doing work I enjoyed.  Within three years I received a significant salary increase and took on increasing responsibilities and a leadership role.  The company did experience some layoffs related to the volatile health insurance market, but that volatility only increased my job security, since someone has to do all the projections related to changes on the horizon.  I don’t know what the future holds but I am content for now, something that has been elusive to me over my working career.  My job is not without frustrations, but the positives outweigh the negatives.  I am using my skills and abilities making a difference in an organization that helps people, which is all I’ve ever really wanted to do (short of becoming a professional baseball player, guitar player, or forest ranger).

By the way, that corporate job I left five years ago?  It doesn’t exist now and neither does the office where I worked.  As I suspected at the time, the reorganizations continued.  So we don’t look back, because nothing stays the same.  The best we can do is pray for wisdom and guidance to make informed decisions based on the information we have, realizing that each choice has its consequences.  Even not making a choice has consequences.  But I believe that Providence has a way of working things out and it’s often better than we could imagine for ourselves.

Five years ago, we took a risk to leave the corporate world and move to Colorado, where my wife grew up and we all loved to be.  I took a risk to become self-employed and we knew it would be hard, but we felt like we would never know unless we tried.  It was even harder than we thought and self-employment was a failure, followed by a disappointing job.  But something better was just around the corner.  Financially we struggled, but we were finally living where we wanted to be, and other aspects of our lives (church, school, friends) were working out better than we could have imagined.  In a fortunate turn of events we were able to buy the house we had been renting at a low point in the otherwise hot Denver housing market.  So we are here to stay, barring some clear direction from the Lord directing otherwise.  All we have to do is look to the mountains to remember what drew us here.  We are still too busy making a living to venture out into them as often as we would like, but when we do we are thankful.  Thankful that we took a risk, thankful even for the disappointments and setbacks because they led to something better, and thankful that by His grace we are able to enjoy some of the rewards we imagined.

“Whoever watches the wind will not plant;
whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.
As you do not know the path of the wind,
or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb,

so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.
Sow your seed in the morning,
and at evening let your hands not be idle,

for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well.” 
— Ecclesiastes 11:4-6

“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”
–Proverbs 16:9

 

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Heaven’s Hole

What would a hiking trail to Hell’s Hole be like?  The name brings to the imagination something similar to the Badlands of South Dakota, the other-worldly Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the bubbling cauldrons of Yellowstone, or the desolation of Death Valley.  But the Hell’s Hole trail near Idaho Springs, Colorado is nothing like these places.  Perhaps some old recluse miner named it incongruously to keep people away from his claim, because this trail In the Mount Evans Wilderness is more like a stairway to heaven than a path to the underworld.

The trail begins in a dense Aspen grove that was full of mid-June wildflowers, making for a very pleasant leisurely start.  After a couple of creek crossings, the trail begins to steepen and the pines take over as you gain elevation.  After about three miles, the trees begin to give way to views of a craggy snow-lined ridge.  From here the trail winds for another mile or mile and a half through twisted bristlecone pines to a glacial cirque, surrounded on three sides by steep mountains.  This is the so-called “Hell’s Hole.”

It’s easy to imagine that this place would feel like Hell if you were caught in a thunderstorm or maybe a cold day in Hell if you were snowbound here in the winter, but on this beautiful June day, it was Heaven.  A relaxing lunch was enjoyed by all, with the weather allowing time for exploring.  Unlike many of our hikes where afternoon thunderstorms threaten, this day was perfect from start to finish.

The only evidence of a fallen world were the numerous other hikers with dogs off leash, which is against regulations in the national forest.  This made it difficult for our young dog still in training, but overall she did remarkably well.  Nine miles round-trip and nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain were no problem for her.

Like the dialogue from one of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams, I imagine someone being magically transported to the endpoint of this hike, looking in awe at the beauty around them and asking, “Is this heaven?”  “No, it’s Hell’s Hole.”  “Hmm…I could have sworn it was heaven.”

IMG_5165“My own hand laid the foundations of the earth,
and my right hand spread out the heavens;
when I summon them,
they all stand up together.” — Isaiah 48:13

 

 

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A New Hiking Companion

Luna’s file at the animal shelter was marked “Behavioral Issues.”  A Labrador/Shepherd mix, apparently she had torn up some carpet in her previous owner’s apartment and ended up at the shelter available for adoption.  We showed up at the shelter looking to adopt another dog.  We already have one great dog but at 10 years old, Scruffy isn’t up to longer, steeper hikes.  Our nine mile hike last weekend convinced us that a new hiking dog might be in our future.

We looked at several other dogs at the shelter but none seemed like the right fit.  When the staff person brought Luna out she strained at the leash and appeared to be a handful.  At 10 months old, she’s still a puppy, despite her 50 pounds.  But once she was in the room with us, she calmed down and if she had any behavioral issues they weren’t apparent to us.  She already knew commands to sit, lay down, and wait.  She was extremely lovable and her sweet eyes and soft fur quickly won us over.

One obstacle remained:  introducing her to Scruffy.  When we came back with Scruffy we slowly introduced the two dogs in a pen.  Luna wanted to play and Scruffy quickly gave her a growl to tell her to keep her distance, which she did.  After that they got along splendidly.

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And so, we took Luna home where she has been a model citizen.  Her only “behavioral issue” is that she constantly wants to be around people and loves activity, but she is also remarkably calm and willingly goes in her crate with the door open when she’s tired.  In fact, she’s one of the most well-behaved dogs we’ve ever been around.  Of course, it helps that we have a big backyard and we like to take daily walks and runs in the green space near our house.  She loves riding in the car with us.  And on Saturday we took her out for her first real hike.

With my wife’s niece in town for a visit, we planned a hike to Butler Gulch, a trail we’ve done before with Scruffy and our sweet, late dog Belle.  A quarter mile through slushy snow and spring run-off convinced us we would have two wet dogs on our hands.  It was still a bit early for the high country hikes.  So we returned to a lower elevation at Alderfer/Three Sisters Park near Evergreen.

Apparently everyone and their dog (literally) had the same idea as we arrived at a full parking lot.  And by 10:00 AM it was already fairly hot.  But we persevered, determined to introduce Luna to hiking.  As it turned out, this trail was a great opportunity for training her to be around other people and animals in the outdoors.

Alderfer/Three Sisters Park offers a number of different trails that can be combined into a three mile loop around the “Three Sisters” rock formations, with some excellent views of Mount Evans from another formation called “The Brother.”  Although we passed a fair number of other hikers and mountain bikers, the hike was still open enough to be enjoyable, perhaps because of the number of trails available to spread out the crowds.  Even on the popular overlook on The Brother, we were able to find a quiet place to sit and eat lunch.

Luna was fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells of the trail, like everything is new to her, but she did great for her first time out.  By the end of the hike she was tracking straight ahead beside Scruffy like an old pro.  As a bonus, when we returned to the parking lot, two women who had just unloaded their horses struck up a conversation with us.  They admired Luna and invited her to check out their very gentle horses, which she did.  So Luna was exposed to people, dogs, mountain bikes, and horses, all sharing the trail.  All-in-all, a great introduction to hiking for Luna, hopefully the first of many outings.

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Mason Creek Trail Two Weeks Later

We so enjoyed our outing on the Mason Creek Trail in Staunton State Park two weeks ago (the one where we went snowshoeing due to a late Spring snowstorm), we decided to return and do the whole loop.  Only this time we left the snowshoes at home and had all four of us plus one.

Here are some comparison photos taken in roughly the same places:

Beyond where we turned around two weeks ago, the views just kept getting better, including a great perspective of the park’s signature Lions Head formation.  Then on the way down, the remains of an old sawmill among aspen groves that sprouted up where the pines were harvested.

About nine miles round trip and 1,000 feet of elevation gain made this a bit long for our canine companion but we were glad to be able to complete the loop and experience two different seasons two weeks apart on the same trail.

“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”  –Ecclesiastes 3:1

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St. Mary’s Falls

Starting a hike early in the morning is always a good idea in Colorado due to the frequent summer afternoon thunderstorms.  When you’re hiking to a popular destination near a large city on Memorial Day with rain definitely in the forecast, starting early is imperative.  The trailhead for St. Mary’s Falls is located near Colorado Springs in North Cheyenne Canyon, a couple of miles past the popular Helen Hunt Falls.  We’ve been to Helen Hunt Falls before, but never had a chance to photograph it without any people in the picture and at just the right light, as we did arriving just before 8:00 AM.

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The parking area for the St. Mary’s trail as well as a number of other trails is located a couple of miles past Helen Hunt Falls at the point where upper Gold Camp Road is closed.  In contrast to Helen Hunt Falls, this parking lot was already almost full.  Heading east up the closed road, we crossed Cheyenne Creek and circled back to the west for about a mile.  Gold Camp Road previously went through a now collapsed and gated tunnel, but the trail climbs to the left up over the tunnel.  Shortly after this, a sign points to St. Mary’s Falls and the trail becomes a single track through the trees along Buffalo Canyon Creek.

A number of small waterfalls punctuate the hike and anticipate things to come.  We were passed by a few trail-runners, but otherwise were surprisingly alone most of the way.  The first part of the trail gradually gains elevation, but the latter part steepens and begins to offer views back down the canyon to the city below.  Including the part along the road, the trail gains approximately 1,500 feet of elevation in less than three miles, so it’s a good workout.  When Stove Mountain looms into view, the trail switchbacks up the side of the canyon away from the creek and back around to the falls which cascade broadly down a series of steps for over 100 feet.

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For a brief moment upon arrival, we had the falls to ourselves, taking a couple of quick shots and sitting down to eat our lunch.  Then we were reminded why we left so early as several groups of people joined us, including a large group of young Mormon missionaries who were soon climbing all over the falls and even standing and screaming under the cold spray.  Just kids being kids and I would have done the same thing at their age, but we were thankful to have a few moments of solitude on a busy Memorial Day before they arrived.

Starting back down the trail, dark clouds began to form and we felt a few sprinkles as we made way for even more people headed up to the falls.  Making good time on the downhill leg, we missed a turn and ended up on the wrong side of the gated Gold Camp Road tunnel.  A somewhat precarious scramble up the rocks on the cliff side of the tunnel brought us back to the trail and the road back to the parking area shortly after 11:00 AM, as more dark clouds brought lightning and thunder with them.  Still, a large number of people were just beginning their hikes up the road.  The two pictures below demonstrate the difference in the skies between the beginning of our hike and the end, as well as the additional cars lining the road.

Thankful to be ending our hike at that time instead of beginning it, I inadvertently started down Gold Camp Road, rather than heading back down North Cheyenne Canyon Road the way we came.  This became apparent as we went through a tunnel we didn’t remember and the road narrowed considerably.  Passing approaching cars was harrowing with the drop-offs on our side and no guard rails.  But the views of Colorado Springs were fabulous so we continued on cautiously.  I mostly kept my eyes on the road, although we did stop once for a quick picture.  Combined with North Cheyenne Canyon Road, it made for an excellent looping tour of the Pikes Peak foothills above Colorado Springs.

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After making our way back through the city and joining the throngs of holiday traffic headed north on I-25, the rain finally came with a vengeance, including small hail.  But we celebrated the freedom purchased for us at so great a price with some great family time on a very nice hike along with a nice mountain drive, all before noon.  God bless America.

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