COLORADO ⇨ UTAH.
A true test of a new pair of Danner Mountain 600's hiking boots & myself, of course.
872 miles. 11 granola bars. A sleeping bag. Colorado to Utah. A pit stop at REI for bear spray. A whole sh*t ton of time in the wilderness; alone. Alllll the makings of an epic adventure.
I was pumped to try out the Danner Mountain 600's. I tore open the box like a kid on Christmas morning. They were just as beautiful in person as I hoped, and they fit like a glove; true to size, to boot (see what I did there?). Now to get these bad boys on the trail.
DENVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT ⇨ TWIN LAKES, CO 146 miles
M T. E L B E R T
9 miles RT Hike
Not so FUN FACT: Car camping in the backseat of a Toyota Corolla dubbed Travis (by yours truly), jet-lagged at a random creekside with intense thunderstorms the night before undertaking on the tallest peak in Colorado? NOT MY MOST BRILLIANT DECISION.
I was, however, rewarded with a glorious sunrise in exchange for a sleepless night.
Stupidity aside, this would be my boot's pioneer trek. Coming out of the gate hard, I decided to take on the highest summit in Colorado, naturally. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. At a strapping 14,400 feet high, Elbert is a savage beast. One that I'd be tackling sans ample altitude acclimation time, and boots I had yet to break in. But those red laces though. Swoon.
The weather prediction was not a favorable one. Elbert was known for being windy AF as most of the trail was exposed to the elements. But on this day? This day was expected to throw in an extra dose of wind exactly during the hours I'd be hiking. Wind schmind, I could handle it! Couldn't I?
A lot of my stories begin with: "I read somewhere..." and this one is no exception.
So, I had read somewhere that if you took a side road with a high clearance vehicle (which Travis was NOT) then you could cut off some beginning part of the trail that really just brought you to the actual trail, saving some time. This is how I ended up taking Travis off-roading on one of three possible off-road-roads it could've been to lead me to the correct trail. Yikes.
I reached a juncture that heartily promised Travis' demise so I called it and parked T-man in a little forest pocket that was just his size. I grabbed my pack and the bear spray, which, in that moment, I took notice of an unfortunate zip tie around it. Well this simply wouldn't do. No scissors, knives, or cutting tools in general.. I used the next best thing.
Shoving my fingernails under the zip tie, with a surge of sheer adrenaline, I ripped that sh*t straight off. HA! TAKE THAT ZIP TIE! Now if I could just keep that little confidence booster for the trail in case of bears, that'd be fantastic.
Trekking up to the trail, there were zero other vehicles or hikers. Just me, my boots, and my bear spray. Fingers crossed this was the proper way.
According to the maps, I had to take a piece of the Continental Divide Trail, bang a left on the Colorado Trail, until it intersected with the South Mount Elbert Trail.
And then- climb, climb, climb.
I skirted a pond that appeared to be a haven for every beaver in the area. Their house construction was impressive. (Just had to throw that in there.) The only sound was the crunch of my boots on the crisp leaves. Oh, and the howling wind; that too.
It was eerie, and the kind of cold that you feel in your bones. The trees creaked and I felt like I was in an unwelcome opening scene of a horror movie. My adrenaline surged with every new noise as I was positive I'd have to employ the bear spray at some point on this trip. I was a tiny bit a lot bit scared.
"Put on your big girl pants,"
I scolded myself.
Oddly enough, I was wearing two pairs of pants and felt a little like a stuffed sausage. So between the pairs, one could take on the role as my big girl pants, you'd think.
My breath came out in puffs as I worked my way through the short sections of both the C trails and landed in front of the sign for the South Mount Elbert Trail. So far, so good. I started the upward climb, taken aback by just how out of breath I was. This altitude stuff was no joke. Either that, or I had quickly become wildly out of shape. I cursed the cookies I'd housed the day before.
I felt as if I was stopping every 5 steps. At this rate, I'd never scale Elbert!
And then I heard something that was positively, most definitely, probably an animal of some sort. One that made more noise than a squirrel or a chipmunk should. My breath caught in my throat as I reached my left hand around to the trusty side pocket that held the bear spray. I was poised and ready as I surveyed the land around me.
Twin deer bounded about, revealing themselves as the culprit and I started breathing again. They were huuuuge, prancing to obscene heights in between the trees like toddlers on bouncy-bounce at a birthday party. I'd never seen such elated deer. Deer on pogo-sticks! Who would've thought! I tried to channel their apparent infinite energy. I needed it.
I plugged along, stopping more often than I'd like to admit to catch my breath, check my bear spray, and observe my surroundings for, well, bears. Also, the trees were copper. Put that in my book of things I've never seen. Copper trees.
Eventually I came out above the tree-line and the trail was indeed, very exposed. The wind slapped my face offensively. Random spurts of hail were happening.
But, the higher I got, the more stunning the view, obviously. A fair trade in my book.
Birds of prey the size of small dogs circled around cawing their heads off and I still had not seen another hiker. I took my 293847298347928734th break thus far.
Finally, I saw humans. Two women hiked down Elbert and we crossed paths as I fumbled for my gloves. The wind was really picking up, if at all possible. We chatted for a few and I learned that they had started at 3am. Damn. They warned me of the wind at the summit. Ah.
I kept on trucking on until I encountered a man on a bike. A BIKE. IN SHORTS no less. He informed me he had turned around before the summit due to gale force winds. Oh, this wind thing might start to become a real issue here. I looked up in the direction of the summit. The wind moved the clouds so briskly I mistook it for a live time-lapse video.
I had a lot of time to think. My thoughts veered to my fear of heights and although it's been a constant struggle, hiking was the perfect outlet to push myself past it. What I hadn't realized though, was that I could obtain confidence from good hiking boots. I truly felt safer, more secure, and could trust my ability more while hiking. A new level of freedom had been unlocked and I felt fairly unstoppable. Except for that whole biting wind thing.
I could see a few other hikers much further up towards the tippy top and decided to keep going. I had come this far and I was going to get to the summit, damnit.
The winds escalated as promised. One particular gust literally almost knocked me over, messing with my footing, causing me to stumble on part of the steeper section of the trail. Not cool, wind. A few times I had to crouch down low during a period of heavy gusts. This was insane. I knew now what the other hikers had been talking about. This wasn't a regular windy day. This was special-knock-you-over-take-your-breath-away-with-each-gust type of wind. And that, that is not the kind of wind you want to mess with.
But, I kept pushing. Even though at this point I was starting to question this decision, I still couldn't shake the determination to make it to the top. I had come this far- even further than the last time I thought that.
That's when I met 'Marshall with no gloves'. We yelled to each other on the trail over the wind even though we were mere feet apart. He too, was turning around. The wind was to blame, and now, a new development- musings of a snow storm. Which, I could see off in the distance if I was being honest with myself.
Yet, I thought I'd try and go just a touch more.
At 13,000 feet I called it. As cold as I was, my feet were toasty warm. Thanks, Danner. But the snow was coming in hot.
I met a group of 3 hikers who were the last ones up that high. They were turning back because they knew a storm was definitely coming, and rapidly. As hard as it is, sometimes you have to make a decision to be smart about your safety and turn around. I was supremely disappointed that I wouldn't make it to the summit of Elbert.
But as the other hikers and I rushed down Elbert, racing against the incoming snow storm, I took a peek back towards where I just was, and where I would've been headed further up to- the summit. And, well, I couldn't even see it anymore. It was a complete white-out. If I had decided to keep on, I would've been completely and utterly stuck. Phew, glad I didn't do that.
So, maybe I hadn't mounted Mt. Elbert like I had planned. But I did make it to 13,000 feet and I made it back down without getting stranded in a white-out snowstorm. That day, I felt as wild as my surroundings; savage even. Thanks, Elbert.
It was a hairy drive back on the off-road-road and I promised Travis I wouldn't take him off roading again if we could just get back to a regular road without breaking something.
Travis and I took a breather back in the tiny town of Twin Lakes for a few. What a day. I ate a granola bar in one bite and glanced up to Mt. Elbert. It was still snowing.
Once it started to clear up, it was time to head to my next stop: Aspen. I was particularly excited about this because I was staying in an actual hotel- not the backseat of a minuscule budget car.
I wound Travis along Independence Pass (aka highway 82, which winter weather will often close) and stopped at THE spot sensational sunsets.
I was exhausted. My legs were screaming at me. It was frigid, and my nose was running in highly attractive fashion.
A perfect end to a challenging day.
MT. ELBERT ⇨ ASPEN, CO 61.5 MILES
Maroon Bells & Crater Lake
3.9 miles RT Hike
I was a new woman. A hot shower, soft bed, and shoving one of every food item at the included breakfast did wonders. I was more than ready for day two and the infamous Maroon Bells.
From Maroon Lake I planned to take the trail to Crater Lake. I had a thing for Alpine Lakes, clearly.
Luckily I found a parking spot at the bustling Maroon Bells lot and bundled up quickly so I could feast my eyes on the scene I had viewed in so many photos. AND IT WAS. IT JUST WAS.
I set up my tripod for the onslaught of photos I was about to take. In doing so, I became a magnet for every couple over 50 in the immediate area. I was the old people photographer and they were so adorable I didn't even care. Once I finished up the Senior session of lake glamour shots, I took ALL THE PHOTOS.
I started on the trail to Crater Lake, and felt loads more comfortable than I had the previous day on Elbert. I was amongst plenty of other hikers and I was on a high from the beauty of the Bells.
My legs were a bit tired from the trek up Elbert, but I felt surprisingly good. My feet didn't hurt at all, and I couldn't help but think that perhaps these boots were coated in fairy dust.
The hike was no sweat in comparison to Elbert, and I was more than ready to reach the second half of my alpine lake sandwich. Then I did. And I was in love.
I was forced to make myself leave. I yearned to hunker down there and just take it all in for the foreseeable future. But, I didn't have my camping gear (aka Travis).
Side note: whoever changed this horse into a unicorn is my hero.
Top. Notch. Day.
MAROON BELLS ⇨ RIDGWAY, CO 172 MILES
Blue Lakes Trail
8.6 miles RT hike
I did the several hour drive towards Ridgway; the closest town to the Blue Lakes trailhead. Luckily the campgrounds down that way were open for business, and Travis and I shacked up for the night at the Pa-Co-Chu-Puk Campground for another sleepless night in the 20 degree backseat.
RIDGWAY, CO ⇨ BLUE LAKES TRAIL 13.4 MILES
I know I had made a deal with the rental car gods to avoid taking Travis off-roading again but alas, the next morning I found myself on yet again another off-road-road to the Blue Lakes trailhead. I was able to navigate T-money around the massive rocks and crater deep potholes, and arrived at the trailhead to find a few other cars. Slightly reassuring.
I signed in, reading people's comments from the days and weeks before. There were plenty of other solo hikers, and not one commented on an altercation with a bear. Although, I guess they wouldn't have, would they...
The allure of hiking to a pure dazzling turquoise-y-blue lake was all the incentive I needed. The previous night had been the most arctic night thus far, and the effects of the chill were holding strong. I shuddered in my boots shaking off the cold that I'd been enveloped in for the past 12 hours. My feet however, were warm and cozy. The boots were holding up their end of the deal.. my legs were questionable on their end.
I'm one of those people who says they don't put much stock into "signs" from beyond wherever, but in my head I definitely take note of the possibility on occasion. That day, within the first 20 minutes of my hike, I encountered a smattering of those said "signs." I'd be lying if I said I didn't question their weight and if they meant I should turn around.
1. Several fallen trees blocking the trail that I had to climb over.
2. A ginormous dead bird smack dab in the middle of the trail.
3. Creaky AF trees. Seriously though, the trees CREEPED ME OUT.
That bird though. That was the one that got me. Off all the places it could land and kick the bucket, it did so right in the middle of a skinny trail. A coincidence? Or a warning sign?
I wasn't going to give up though. I had to turn around on Elbert and I wouldn't let a colossal dead bird with the soundtrack of creepy creaky trees deter me from getting to the lake. I stepped over the bird and didn't look back.
Ominous bird aside, this hike was an everything bagel. It had a little bit of, well, everything: foresty areas, wide open spaces, uphills and downhills, rocks, streams and waterfalls, skirted by dramatic mountain backdrops at every turn that swept my breath away in an instant. And, a lake waiting for me at the end. I weaved through the Umcompahgre National Forest and into the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness-- Mr. Sneffel himself towering above in all his regal glory.
I was convinced that if I were to encounter a bear while hiking in Colorado, this was going to be the trail where it occured. If I were a bear, I'd live here. Every noise, every tree-creak, I stopped, checking to ensure the bear spray was in tact, surveying the land around me, and simultaneously holding my breath. And then I kept on.
At this point I both wanted to and didn't want to see a GD bear. It was confusing.
I felt like I had been going a good long while and was surprised I had yet to run into another hiker. Maybe those cars at the trailhead were campers? I had to be close to the lower Blue Lake and was still alone in the wilderness. I was starting to be accustomed to it, but even so, it was a touch unnerving.
Then I saw a small bear. Wait. Nope. Check yourself-- it's just a black dog. Classic mistake. Heart racing, I greeted the dog and it's owner.
"You're the first person I've seen on the trail!" I exclaimed. The combination of excitement at interaction with a real human and the relief of the 'bear' being a dog made me sound like an elementary school girl.
"Well, I'm honored." he nodded at me.
He informed me I was very close to the lower Blue Lake and that was the grandest of news.
The suspense of reaching lower Blue Lake was boiling over. I rounded the corner and there she was in all her glory. The sun bounced actual sparkles off the jolting blue water and the mountains cradled the lake like it's beautiful baby.
I don't know if you can wish on things like lakes. But, this one was just so magical, being electric spark blue and everything, so yes, I made a wish on a lake. It was just me, an alpine lake, and if my wish came true, an alpine unicorn would come prancing by any second now.
I backtracked the handful of steps that led to the juncture for the trail fork to the upper lakes. I decided not to hike all the way up to the middle or upper lakes, but wanted the vantage point of the lower lake from above. Just needed to cross a bustling stream riddled with slippery rocks first, cool.
I attempted two different routes, and was sizing up my third and final attempt when I realized I was being watched.
I turned to find a backpacker with a smirk painted on his face.
"Hi" I yelled worthlessly loud for some reason. I was quite used to being alone at this point and his presence took me off guard.
I explained my approach with the stream and my end goal hopefully not involving my DSLR (and myself) floating downstream. He offered to stone hop first and of course made it across in about 1.5 seconds. My turn.
As a self-proclaimed klutz I was impressed at the ease with which I bunny hopped my way across the stream without incident.
The smirking stranger was a Colorado firefighter, and I immediately felt safe. If we met a bear, I'd let him handle it. I informed him of the bear spray and he responded with a conclusive "Oh, yeah, they're out here. And mountain lions too- they'll stalk you."
"I'm sorry- WHAT." insert jaw drop here. I'd been so worried about bears while I was likely being stalked by many many mountain lions. Well, I'll be. Crap. That was a terrifying development.
"Yeah, there's a bunch of those too."
"Well do you have bear spray?"
He chuckled a laugh that pointedly exuded an "isn't she cute folks?" sort of vibe.
"I have a gun."
OH. That'd do it.
We climbed upward on the trail just a little ways until I felt I was far enough above the lake to sufficiently capture it. There was a rock ledge perfect for goats, or me to perch myself on; camera in hand.
After informing the firefighter of my plans, he continued his climb, which was to the summit- much further past all three lakes. It looked steep and I commended my earlier choice to stop where I was.
Glad to have the security of a sturdy boot, I took to the rock ledge carefully.
I was having a grand ole time shooting the Blue Lake from my goat perch when I heard the firefighter coming back down. He declared it too steep for his big pack, so camping was out.
As he rearranged his packs I crept a liiiiiitttle closer to the edge. I tested my weight on one of the rock slices and it slipped out, crashing and banging it's way to the ground below. I watched it go, yelling "Oops!" and seeing with relief that no one was down there.
"I thought you just fell but then I saw your green hat! You nearly gave me a heart attack!" the firefighter said.
Again, I said "Oops!"
We parted ways and all I could think about was getting to town and inhaling a burger. I needed all the meat. And a beer, please.
BLUE LAKES TRAIL ⇨ OURAY, CO 23.8 MILES
Despite my rush to find me some meat, I was deterred a few thousand times to pull over and take in the fall scenery. 'Twas spectacular.
Park Avenue + The Windows
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
2 miles + 1 mile RT Hike
It snowed overnight and the town of Ouray became impossibly charming, I thought, as I brushed Travis off with my gloves.
OURAY, CO ⇨ TELLURIDE, CO 49.6
En route to Arches National Park, I opted for a quick stop in Telluride. Getting to Telluride though, when you stop every 7 feet to gape at the beauty, proves quite difficult to complete in a timely manner. Just saying.
I posed on a fence, naturally.
I said "oh, hey" to some exceedingly unimpressed cows.
I held my pee so I could stop and take this in.
I arrived in Telluride and yep, it was adorbs; just checkin. 45 minutes of strolling the streets and I was headed to Utah.
TELLURIDE, CO ⇨ MOAB, UT 138 MILES
I felt sad. I was far from ready to leave Colorado. I had fallen hard- head over heels, the whole shebang. But, instead of ugly crying in the driver's seat of Travis, I rolled out. I needed to get groovin' if I wanted to make it to Arches National Park in time for a late afternoon hike and catch the sunset for Day 4 of my itinerary.
The ride to Moab was exactly these things:
It was all worth it once I found myself back in Arches Nat'l Park. I had been here only 3 months prior and I greeted the park like an old friend. I was psyched to do a couple of the trails I didn't have time for the last visit.
The first stop: Park Avenue. It was as late in the afternoon as you could get, and I was pretty much the only one on the trail. The sun peeked out from behind the giant red rock formations and the contrast was just as arresting as the first time I'd seen it.
Those gnarly trees though. I had a slight obsession.
I made it to the Windows just as the sun was starting to tuck itself in.
I settled into a nook of the North Window to watch the setting sun. It had been quite a day that started in another state, in the snow.
A wrap on Day 4.
Landscape Arch at Sunrise
1.6 Mile RT Hike
I'll be honest, by day 5 I was tired. Mileage traveled both via Travis and my legs had reached a limit, but there's just something about the sunrise.
It was a short hike. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes as I set on the trail to Landscape Arch.
What I did know:
It's the largest natural arch on. the. planet.
What I didn't know:
I was about to make some new friends.
I was alone on the trail and unintentionally found myself as part of a mama deer and her two babies' morning routine. And they were totally cool with it.
"What's for breakfast, guys?" I asked.
I was so taken with my time hanging out with the deer family that I forgot for a moment about getting to Landscape Arch. It was just around the corner, and it was in fact profound. Well done nature, well done.
I longed to climb up and stand atop it, but that wasn't allowed. So I took some photos and admired it, but my favorite part of the morning? Being adopted into the deer family. Oh, did I leave that part out before? They adopted me.
DAY 5: STICK A FORK IN ME, I'M DONE.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK ⇨ SLC AIRPORT 234 MILES
I was oddly somber in saying farewell to Travis. We had been through a lot jointly in the 5 day trek. We had good memories, and some not so great ones, but all in all, we got through it- together.
1 pair of Danner boots.
7 granola bars consumed.
3 new deer friends.
5 days. 5 hikes.
1 e p i c adventure.
My only regret?
That this place was closed.
So if you're ever in Moab, do me a solid, and have a Yeti.
**If you can't tell, I LOVE the Danner Mountain 600's. So, go ahead, TREAT YO SELF.