Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: The 150 minute mile
There is a nervousness settling in my stomach as we pack up our backpacking bags in the visitor center parking lot. Why am I nervous? I have hundreds of miles of backpacking excursions under my belt. But not this season. I realize that backpacking is a hard hobby to get sick of because it feels kind of new at the beginning of each season. Having 8 or 9 months a year away from a hobby can make a person feel a bit rusty at confidence and outdoors skills. Needless to say, in travelling around Africa for the past 2 months, I have become more comfortable with my pack on my back than without it. It’s the beginning of June and my pack is dirty and worn. It’s been used; it’s not empty. Most years, the beginning of June is the time for digging out backpacks and the things that fill them and remembering how they all fit together. I sling the thing on my back with ease and we set out on our first backpacking trip of 2012. It’s one mile and 1,800 feet to the bottom. Other than walking around Africa, we really haven’t done any physical activity since, ohhh, maybe March 15. So, this hike is really hard! Maybe in August, the month I when I tend to be in the best shape, it would be easier. It doesn’t take long for my thighs to start trembling as I hold the weight of myself and my backpack back on the descent. About a third of the way down, there is an 80 foot long chain to hold on to as you do a slow repel through the eroding gulley of trail. The combination of my Jell-O legs and the constantly moving dirt and scree under my boots causes a few slips and falls. It’s the first hike of the season and I’m feeling battered already. Admittedly, I am slightly distressed when we reach the bottom of the canyon, sweaty and shaking and feeling pathetically weak. I stumble like a drunk over to the tent site, unable to control the strange ways that my knees are wobbling. On average, I hike a 25 to 30 minute mile with a full pack on; this mile took us 150 minutes. It’s beautiful here: looming, craggy walls and the flowing river. We are alone, just the two of us, and it’s easy enough to settle in and enjoy this place with sitting and fishing and reading and eating. The hike back up starts the next day, before it’s too hot. It is sweaty and shaky just the same, and I don’t hesitate in mentioning that I’m glad we did this, but will never do this again. We camp at the East Portal campsite that night and drive the rim road through the park. The treat in being at the top of the Black Canyon is an orange and pink sunset to the west and the cool, blue rise of the full moon to the east.
Telluride: Mountains and millionaires
This is a place that overwhelms me over the course of our two-day stay. This is the place where culture shock sneaks up on me. By the time we reach Telluride, we have been back from Africa for a week and a half. As we walk and drive through town, contrasts are running through my mind. And they won’t leave me alone. Sights, sounds, smells, people, houses, dogs, safety, money, money, money; my senses are overloaded here. Telluride is a gorgeous mountain town in a gorgeous mountain valley full of gorgeous mountain homes. I appreciate it for this, but something about it makes me squeamish right now. Despite my reeling mind, I can still enjoy it. We walk through town park, the site of most of Telluride’s summer festivals (there is a festival every weekend but one, at which time there is the ‘Nothing Festival’). We take a drive up toward Bridal Veil Falls, where Alternating Current Electricity was first generated and is still used to power all of the town’s streetlights. We go with Alex’s brother, who has just moved to Telluride, to a wooden swing hanging on a tree overlooking town. These things bring on that mountain feeling that you just cannot get anywhere else: peacefulness, contentedness, okay-ness with a life that is really not figured out, happiness at good company and great scenery. Our two days here are sort of strange for me with good mountain feelings and creeping culture shock running through me.
Mesa Verde National Park
We spend only half a day in Mesa Verde, doing what we could to get the most out of it in such a short time. We go to the Cliff Palace Overlook, where we see Mesa Verde’s famed multi-story cliff dwellings that were inhabited by Native Americans in 1200 AD. To go down into Cliff Palace requires waiting in a long line to purchase tickets beforehand. We skip this, and instead do a ticket-free walk through the Spruce House. If you have more time to spend in Mesa Verde you can visit their extensive museum displays and go on a guided hike into the cliff dwellings.
Pagosa Springs: Desitnation deepest geothermal hot springs in the world!
Alex and I developed a hot springs hobby without meaning to, so we often end up in Colorado’s mountain towns soaking up healthy minerals and relaxing. So far we’ve been to Glenwood Springs, Cottonwood Hot Springs in Buena Vista, Strawberry Hot Springs in Steamboat (still our number one pick), Hot Sulphur Springs in Hot Sulphur Springs, Indian Hot Springs in Idaho Springs, Sol Duc Hot Springs in Olympic National Park, Washington, and, now The Springs in Pagosa Springs. The Springs are the world’s deepest geothermal hot springs and were first discovered by white men more than 150 years ago. Native Americans had been using them long before this. Now, there are 18 pools ranging from about 86 degrees to 112 degrees, with names like “Clouds in my Coffee,” “The Lobster Pot,” and “Columbine Pool.” When things get a little too hot, it’s easy to step into the San Juan River; The Springs are right on the eastern bank. Kayakers, rafters, and tubers pass by and there are some warm pools along the edge where hot springs water is bubbling up from the sand. This hot springs doesn’t have the ‘spa rules’ of some of the others we’ve been to so there are kids splashing and milling about. Nonetheless we spend 9 hours relaxing here, moving from pool to pool to warm up and cool off as we feel the need. Next on the list for hot springs this summer is Conundrum Hot Springs, the highest hot springs in North America and only reached after about 10 miles on foot!
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Like Mesa Verde, we only spend about half a day in the Great Sand Dunes. We wander through the visitor’s center, learning that the sand making up the dunes was brought here by creeks and winds. As we go hiking up into the dunes, this fact becomes pretty unbelievable. Each dune in itself is large; from on top of them the people below look like they are inches tall. And there are a lot of them. 14ers tower to the east and smaller mountains are seen to the north. It takes us under an hour to trek up to a pretty vantage point. From here we can go running and jumping and sliding down the steep sides of the dunes, listening to the odd, suctioning thump that hills of sand make under impact. There are people hiking up with their kids, sleds in tow for a quick ride down. At the almost-dry creek below the dunes muddy kids are digging, dogs are splashing, and people are sitting in camp chairs soaking up the sun.
This trip was a perfect way to kick of the summer hiking/spending-time-in-the mountains season, and allowed us to hit three of Colorado’s four national parks, one hot springs, and one funky mountain town. If I had more time to spend in Southern Colorado, I would go the Ouray Hot Springs pool, backpack in the San Juan mountains, take a train ride in Durango, and make a quick jaunt down to Taos, New Mexico.