Category Archives: Trails

Leeland Creek to Mt. Nystrom Trailhead Cross-Country Ski

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The view from the Mt. Nystrom trailhead.

The view from the Mt. Nystrom trailhead.

Ski Information:

Mileage:  Approximately 14.6 miles roundtrip

Elevation Gain: About 2,000 feet

Altitude: 11,367 feet at the top

How to Get There: Coming from Winter Park, turn left off of Highway 40 onto the Fraser Valley Parkway. Stay right at the fork in the road. At the stop sign, turn left onto St. Louis Creek Road/ County Road 73, and follow this toward the Fraser Experimental Forest. Leeland Creek trailhead is a large pullout on the left side of the road.


Starting at 8:30am, we are the first car at the Leeland Creek trailhead. We begin climbing steadily almost immediately on Leeland Creek Road. About a half mile into the ski, we turn right onto Fool Creek Road and follow this 0.9 miles to the gate marking the start of the Mt. Nystrom trail. In the summertime, you can park here and bike the first 5.8 miles toward Mt. Nystrom. Today, we are planning to ski this portion of the trail, hoping to get above tree line and be rewarded with views of our Fraser Valley.

This trail gains elevation steady over the course of the 5.8 miles. As we climb, we cross 11 switchbacks that get shorter and steeper as we near our destination. The trail is wide and lined with a healthy pine forest; because of the devastating beetle kill in Grand County some forests here are no longer healthy, with dead and downed trees dominating certain areas. It’s a hot sunny day, and we appreciate the shade of these tall trees. As we gain elevation, we can see glimpses of the Fraser Valley to the east of us. The corner of one switchback gives us a view of Byer’s Peak, looking fairly close and large from where we are.

The portion of the Mt. Nystrom trail that we are on is a service road, and we come to a point where the service road appears to end. It’s a little bit hard to tell in winter, but the wide, clear trail we were on seems to peter out. From here, we are on our own to find the best spot for lunch with a view. We headed right, up a wide path between trees. As we climbed, we could see that the knoll we were on was gradually sloping down in our direction, so we continued to head up and to the left.

We marveled for a moment in the trees when we came across the wing prints of a bird that had clearly swooped to pick up some prey from the snow. We looked around at the trees dotting the knoll, and wished we had our hammock to hang out. Finally, as we climbed up the side of the knoll, we began to notice the 360 degree view: the Fraser Valley and Continental Divide to the south and east, the reaching mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park to the northeast, the continuation of ridge trail to Mt. Nystrom to the southwest, and, most dramatically of all, jagged Byer’s and Bill’s, and St. Louis Peaks, and the St. Louis Lake basin staring right at us from the northwest.

Although we look at Byer’s, Bill’s, and St. Louis Peaks from our deck each day, we had never seen them from that exact angle. Alex spied the fence marking the end of the bike trail, and we chose to perch there- with views of these awesome peaks- for lunch.

Lingering in the sun for a while, we had to mention at least once what a pretty place we live in before enjoying the steady cruise back to the car.

Enjoying the sunshine and views at Mt. Nystrom trailhead!

Enjoying the sunshine and views at Mt. Nystrom trailhead!

My 3 Favorite Cross-Country Ski Spots in Grand County

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More and more recently I find myself wanting to escape the hoards of people that flock to Winter Park Resort- my ‘home resort, at just 10 minutes from my home- and enjoy the quiet, snowy woods that encompass the Fraser Valley.

‘I didn’t move to the mountains to be around a whole bunch of people,’ I find myself thinking.

…Wow….that sounds a little bit curmudgeon-y….

But really.

It’s kind of true.

I love the peace and quiet and solitude that can be found way back in the woods, in winter or summer.

There are tons of places to cross-country ski and snowshoe in Grand County. At the more popular nordic centers, you will encounter problems similar to that at Winter Park Resort: crowds, people, and high prices.

Here are my three favorite places to leave the crowds behind in Grand County during winter:

Monarch Lake: This is a popular area in summer, but the lack of winter maintenance keeps people away for 6-7 months a year. With the backdrop of dramatic Indian Peaks Wilderness, this spot is scenic and serene. The trailhead is located off of highway 40, between Granby and Grand Lake, at the Arapahoe Bay National Forest turnoff. Parking in the winter is about one mile from Monarch lake. Once you reach the lake, you will complete a loop around it that is about 3 miles, and then take the same road back down to the car. Overall, this is a 5-6 mile ski.

Cross-country ski to Meadow Creek Reservoir.

Cross-country ski to Meadow Creek Reservoir.

Meadow Creek Reservoir: A ski to this reservoir affords you a different set of incredible views of Indian Peaks Wilderness. When you reach the reservoir, you will stare across the wide-open expanse of white at the jagged peaks on the far side. Like Monarch, this is a popular spot for fishing, hiking, and picnics in the summer, but is left deserted in the winter months when the road closes miles from the reservoir. To get to Meadow Creek, take County Road 8 out of Fraser until you read the ‘End of Winter Maintenance’ sign. You will park here, and trek up the long road to the reservoir. Unlike Monarch, Meadow Creek does not offer a loop option; the destination is the reservoir. This ski is approximately 9 miles.

The Fraser Experimental Forest: This is probably the most popular cross-country ski area of the three in this post, but there

Alex and Cece on top of Bottle Pass!

Alex and Cece on top of Bottle Pass!

are so many miles of trail in this area that it is very likely to see nobody else while you are out here. The routes are seemingly endless here: you can trek as far up the Byer’s Peak road as you want; spend about an hour completing the DeadHorse loop; make up your own loop on St. Louis Creek and King’s Creek roads; head toward St. Louis Lake; climb to the saddle between Bottle and Byer’s Peak (we call it Bottle Pass); head toward Mt. Nystrom. The options are almost endless! We’ve done nearly all of these listed. We are nearly always alone in our journeys, and, in this area, are awarded great views of Byer’s Peak, the Continental Divide, the ski resort, Indian Peaks, and the distant mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park. For more information about the great trail system in this area, contact the local National Forest Service Office and acquire a map, as it’s possible to get mixed up on some of the county roads that serve as winter trails.

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Tuesday Talk: Tundra Time, at last!

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Mountain Reflections

Mountain Reflections

The mountains look blue and purple now, as the frigid air of early winter touches their tips. Snow is dusted over them; their rock faces look right at you this time of year. Early morning clouds are pink and purple and white like opals.

So it was to this scene that I left Fraser early on Saturday morning for a day trip to Denver. On the tundra, winter is pushing in. Byer’s Peak seemed to call to me; I had yet to get any tundra time this season because of my silly summer ankle injury in Ecuador. It was only recently that the ankle stopped screaming at me every time I tried to walk a mile or two.

Sunday morning, Alex and I decided that it was finally time to trek to the tundra. Part of me wanted to climb Byer’s Peak, but I could tell by looking that it would be snowy and challenging for a still-healing ankle. So we decided on Bottle Peak instead.

Here we are on the saddle between Byer’s and Bottle Peaks this winter:

Alex and Cece on top of Bottle Pass!

Alex and Cece on top of Bottle Pass!

You can see Byer’s Peak in the background, looking rather majestic.

We set out Sunday from the Byer’s Peak trailhead, off of St. Louis Creek Road. Years ago, the National Forest Service moved the trailhead back a couple miles, to make the Byer’s Peak hike longer and preserve the overused trail for future generations. It’s a widely debated topic in Grand County.

‘The Forest Service made the trail less accessible for hikers,’ people say. ‘Isn’t keeping forests accessible part of their job?’

‘Yes,’ other people say. ‘But preserving those forests for future generations is also part of the job.’

Basically, they added 3 miles to the Byer’s Peak. So, on this 3-mile-long dirt road, we hiked 1.4 miles until turning off on the Bottle Peak trail after the 5th switchback in the road. Up and up we continued to climb. After turning off on to the Bottle Peak trail, we hiked about another 2.8 miles to the top. The trail ends right below Bottle Pass (pictured above!), but it’s easy to follow the cairns to the top of the peak.

We ascended from Bottle Pass under clear blue skies and a summery sun. I breathed in the damp smell of fall, and enjoyed the tawny tundra grasses as they soaked up what is surely their last bits of sun for many months. Despite being smack in the middle of the tundra, this scene reminded me of Thanksgiving in Denver, bright and beige in the last moments of fall. As we climbed steadily up the ridge I looked down, making sure not to step on a rock that would wreck my ankle.

At the top we signed a paper in a bottle and sat to enjoy the views. Far below, we could see Fraser, and the road that our house is on. To one side were the five familiar peaks that make up what we sometimes call Our Continental Divide. Maybe we consider it ours because we see it every day :). Beyond Our Continental Divide we could see nothing but peaks. Far to the other side of our house, we could see reaching Long’s Peak, undoubtedly tall. Behind us was the Gore Range. And closest to us was Byer’s Peak, looking so dramatic and quite tall compared to where were sitting.

Byer's Peak, as seen while climbing the ridge to Bottle Peak summit.

Byer’s Peak, as seen while climbing the ridge to Bottle Peak summit.

So, we got out our bottle of beer for Bottle Peak and I said, “Do we really live here?!” just like I’ve said it countless times over the last 2+ years, and I thought about how damn lucky we are to live here, and about how – if we end up going into the Peace Corps– this might be our last snowless trip to the tundra for quite a while. And so I soaked it in as I best as I could: the sights, the smells, the sounds, and the feeling of autumn sun.

All was calm and quiet on the tundra, and as I thought about how small I am up there, I was calm and quiet too. And thankful to have trekked to the tundra for one last high-up hoorah.

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Meadow Creek Reservoir Cross-Country Ski

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Cross-country ski to Meadow Creek Reservoir.

Cross-country ski to Meadow Creek Reservoir.

Ski Information:

Mileage: Approximately 6.5 miles

Elevation gain: Approximately 900 feet along the road

Altitude: Approximately 10,100 feet

To get there: Take US Hwy 40 to the turnoff for CR 83, which is between mile markers 224 and 225 between Fraser and Tabernash. Turn onto CR 83 and follow it for about .4 miles to a fork. Take the left fork for CR 84, which then turns into FSR 129. Follow FSR 129 until the end of winter maintenance and park there.

National Forest land has quickly become one of our favorite places to spend time in the winter. Sure we live 10 minutes from a ski resort, which is great. But, on the other hand, one of the reasons we love living in the mountains is because we are out of the way of the “city” crowds in our day to day life. It sure doesn’t feel that way on a Saturday at Winter Park Ski Resort. We still love snowboarding, but where we really get our fill of mountain quietude is on cross-country skis in the National Forest that surrounds us. Grand County has an extensive trail system in the National Forest, and it’s made bigger in the winter when maintenance stops on many dirt roads.

Meadow Creek Reservoir is a place we’ve visited a few times in the summer months and the views from its shores are stunning; The craggy mountains of Indian Peaks Wilderness back the reservoir, and it’s surrounded by thick pine forest, which isn’t always the case in Grand County with the Pine Beetle outbreak. In the summer, you can drive right up to the reservoir, picnic on the shore, fish, and camp nearby. It’s beautiful. It’s accessible. So….it’s crowded in the summer. But not so much in the winter.

It was on my winter ski list this list, and it didn’t disappoint for a Valentine’s Day outing. We drove up FSR 129 and parked about a quarter mile below the road sign indicating where the end of winter maintenance was. From there, we followed what is a in the summer all the way to the reservoir, chuckling a little at all the nearly-buried road signs along the way.

“Heavy truck traffic,” one said. Ha. Not in February. National Forest love

As with many of our cross-country skis in the area, we came across only one other person, who passed us early on on a snowmobile and took a different route than us. Snowmobiling is allowed on most of the backroads in winter, but it’s not very often that we come across them. It was quiet here, silent but for the occasional gust of wind and the swish of our skis through sand-like snow. Usually, bird chirps are one of my favorite things about a forest ski, but they didn’t seem to be out today. In the dead of winter, it’s refreshing to be reminded that some things are still alive and singing.

The road up to the reservoir climbs gradually, with no large bumps or hills P1130122to surmount. This is great for me, because I can go a good distance on skis but haven’t quite mastered the skills of going up or down steep stuff smoothly. I’ll admit it, I look like a drunk duck on skis when I try to go up a steep hill. Some of the areas of the road are exposed and windswept. We encountered some strong gusts, but it was never long before we were back in the shelter of the thick pine forest. When we got to the reservoir we skied toward the summer picnic area, finding ourselves slightly disoriented and off-balance in the low light and incredibly vast whiteness of a winter lake shore. We wiped the snow off the top of a fence and sat for a short picnic in the trees, out of the way of the wind. When we were almost too cold to keep sitting, we got up and skied down to the lake shore. From here, white stretched out before me, clean and bright and utterly undisturbed. Pine forest cover the hills that horseshoe the reservoir, and the gray clouds that hid Indian Peaks today made the sky itself feel like a looming presence.

Immediately, I had one of those ‘I live here?!’ moments. It’s ridiculously void of human noise. It’s simply beautiful. And it’s big. Way bigger than me. The same thing happens every time I realize the vastness of the mountains: I realize my tiny-ness. My problems, the mountains make me think, are so small in the scheme of things. Temporary. Minute. And, when I think about it that way, pretty much nonexistent. Mountains are way bigger. Mountains have been around way longer. Mountains are way more permanent. Life is good. Life is simple. And the reverie rolls on.

Hiking information from Hiking Grand County, Colorado, Third Edition by Deborah Carr and Lou Ladrigan.

Castle and Conundrum Peaks

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Castle Peak as seen from Conundrum Peak.

Castle Peak as seen from Conundrum Peak.

Hiking Info:

Altitude: Castle Peak: 14, 265. Conundrum Peak: 14,060

For detailed information on driving directions, hiking distances, and routes, visit : http://www.14ers.com/photos/peakmain.php?peak=Castle+Peak

It’s cool and quiet and dark when we wake up at 5:20 a.m. to get ready for our first (and probably last) 14er hike of the summer. Without too much conversation, our group of six starts the drive up the rough road toward the peaks. We drive a couple miles up the road and find a spot to park; jeeps and dirt bikes have the freedom for a further journey on the bumpy road, but we can only go so far. By the time we start hiking the sky has lightened, and the higher the climb the more we can see the sun bringing pink light to tops of the Elk Range. The skies are crisp and blue, just what we want as we climb toward the treeline.

The first part of the hike is spent getting to the end of the road. The trail begins in a scree field, which is, I’ve learned, a clumsy gal’s enemy. Carefully and quite slowly I choose my footing on each rock, moving quickly away from those found to be unstable. I love to scamper on big rocks, but little rocks that slip and slide beneath me… not my favorite. But little did I know that this was sturdy ground compared to the scree still to come. So up and up the scree field we went until we reached the backside of a ridge that climbs to the summit of Castle Peak. Here we went along on small, tight, steep switchbacks that led to a relentless, steady, climb to finish off the stable trail section of the ridge. At the top of this ridge we stopped for a moment to enjoy views of the Elks all around us, the sun still settling into the lower valleys.  Then began the little bit of climbing, at which time we realized how crumbly this mountain is! The rock climbing was fairly easy, more of a mental challenge than a physical one as the path began to narrow. In times like this, I am always ultra-aware of my big, clumsy feet and hands! And after a bit of narrow traversing and climbing over jagged rocks, it was a 15 foot scramble on loose gravel to the top. I suppose if your body is moving faster than the gravel underfoot, you’re going to be just fine.

Of the few 14ers I’ve climbed Castle, and the upcoming Conundrum, were

Cece and Alex on Castle Peak.

Cece and Alex on Castle Peak.

definitely the least crowded. Sometimes the thought of the 14er crowds are enough to keep Alex and I away; we’d rather go find quiet places in wilderness most of the time. There were only three other people on top of Castle Peak and we stopped briefly for a snack and pictures.

“Cece, do you want to go on to Conundrum?” Alex’s uncle asked as the group discussed our next step.

“Sure,” I shrugged. Then two in our group headed back down to the car and the rest of us went down the other side of Castle toward Conundrum Peak, at 14,060 feet.

Conundrum Peak, my fifth 14er!

Conundrum Peak, my fifth 14er!

The scree on this descent was much scarier than the first batch, and there’s also that thing called gravity that can be quite unfriendly when you’re going downhill on unstable trails. With caution, we made it to the saddle and began to cross toward Conundrum Peak. The comparative flatness of the saddle served as a bit of a break from the leg-shaking downhill, and on the other side of it we of course began to go up. Again, we climbed tight switchbacks and then crossed a flat boulder field on top of a peak. We then went down the other side of that peak and up the loose back of Conundrum. This journey was well worth the extra bit of effort to be on top of a second 14er before 10 a.m.

Now, for our final descent we had two choices: go back across the saddle, up Castle, and down the trail we came up on or descend from the Conundrum-side of the saddle. In the interest of not back-tracking, the choice was obvious. So, we reached the saddle and instead of going across we began to go down.

Behold, batch number three of scree!

We descended from this saddle on this scree field, and slid down the snowfield on our butts!

We descended from this saddle on this scree field, and slid down the snowfield on our butts!

This is where I employed my Yoga/Pilates breathing. Deep breathing is how I stay mentally calm in physically intimidating situations. If you’ve climbed harder 14ers than this (and there are many) you might think I’m a bit wimpy. Then again, I have employed my Yoga/Pilates breathing in situations that I now look back on and don’t find scary at all. This is great because I know I’ve grown a bit in my outdoor pursuits! But really, I had seen people on the saddle as we were heading Castle and I had wondered how in the hell they were going to get off the saddle; it was one of those bits of trail I had looked at and thought, ‘I would never want to do that,’ but then here I was about to do it. So, getting down off this saddle was like snowboarding on foot. I put my right side downhill, side-stepped when possible, and mostly slid with the ground below me and aimed for larger, stable rocks to wedge my foot onto and take breaks. And, of course, there was a lot deep breathing. When we reached the bottom of this we got to have a little fun and relief: my first glacade down a snow field!

After watching Alex to get an idea, I plopped down and went sledding down the 100 (ish) yard-long snow field on my butt. From there it was just more rock-hopping and scree-navigating and one more glacade until we were back on solid ground and cruising down the road to our car.

Besides getting our 14er hike in, this was the weekend of Alex’s family’s second annual family camping trip, so we got to come back and relax in a camp full of friendly faces and good food and booze!

Crater Lake Overnight

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Cece and Alex at Crater Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Cece and Alex at Crater Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Hiking Information:

Mileage: 14.4 miles roundtrip

Elevation Change: 2,000 feet

Altitude: 8,300 feet at trailhead, 10,300 feet at lake

To get there: Take Highway 40 through Winter Park, Fraser, Tabernash and Granby. Turn onto Highway 34 toward Grand Lake. Turn right onto the road for Arapahoe Bay and Monarch Lake, before the town of Grand Lake. Park at Monarch Lake. **Be sure to obtain an Indian Peaks permit at the National Forest office in Granby.

Some people say there’s nothing like fear to make you move quickly. In this case, there was nothing like fear to make me move slowly. Very slowly. What was I afraid of? A dry socket. We embarked on an overnight trip to Crater Lake 5 days after I’d gotten my wisdom teeth pulled.  And, according to the oral surgeon’s assistant, I’d been doing much wrong up to this point: icing too often and using the syringe too early. Not to mention breaking the ‘no heavy lifting for a week’ rule when I went to work and lifted toddlers all day 4 days after the surgery.

So, as we set out I was nervous about the strength of my blood clots and feared that the smallest bit of heart-thumping terrain would send a clot bursting out of the socket. I think this has to be on record as the slowest hike ever. Well, except for maybe descending into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison [LINK] last summer. When it was all said and done it took us about 6 hours to hike the 7.2 miles-and gain 2,000 feet elevation- up to the lake. Needless to say we really enjoyed the scenery.

The trail starts at Monarch Lake, which is a destination in itself. It is backed by craggy Indian Peaks Wilderness and is surrounded by thick forest, which is almost miraculous considering the rampant Pine Beetle kill in Grand County. Despite the popularity of the Monarch Lake Loop the trail was pretty quiet; the birds were chattering continuously, Cascade Creek was babbling in the distance, and soon we heard footsteps behind us. Hoof-steps, rather. Looking back we saw a female deer following close behind us. We’d take a few steps and she’d take a few steps. We’d stop and she’d stop. It went on like this, the deer following us like some friendly dog, until she got a little too close for comfort and Alex made just a little noise to scare her off.

On the backside of Monarch Lake we took the proper split in the trail toward Crater Lake and were soon hiking on one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever been on. The forest was green and lush, with big-leafed shade plants dominating the forest floor. Red, purple, white, and yellow wildflowers were starting to bloom. The Aspens and willows along the way had me aching already to come back here in September. And the higher up we went the better the cascade waterfalls got. The name ‘Cascade Creek’ is fitting; at points it seemed that the whole creek was just one waterfall after another.

The first three campsites in the area are below the lakes so we continued up and

Lone Eagle Peak, above Crater Lake.

Lone Eagle Peak, above Crater Lake.

soon reached Mirror Lake, where we had the choice to go left for sites 4 through 7 or right for sites 8 through 12. We went left in search of site 7 and, after a questionable stream crossing, reached this pristine site at the end of the trail. We were on the same side of the lake as the dramatically pointy Lone Eagle Peak (sites on the other side of the lake may have better views of the peak) and could crane our necks up at it or look across the lake at steep rock terraces that host countless waterfalls that flow into Crater Lake. Along this steep hill are areas of lush plant life, and at the top are more of Indian Peaks jagged and geometric rock formations.

We are in and out of the tent as the sky spits rain on and off. Our site is only a few steps from the lake, and we find a good, flat rock for sitting, reading, fishing off of, and cooking on. Without too much to do it’s easy to spend the evening and the next morning relaxing thoroughly next to the lake, enjoying the sounds of waterfalls and birds and taking in the backcountry stillness.

View from campsite 7 at Crater Lake.

View from campsite 7 at Crater Lake.

Hiking Info from Hiking Grand County, Colorado by Deborah Carr and Lou Ladrigan.

Second Creek to Broome Hut

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The Broome Hut.

The Broome Hut.

Hiking Info:

Distance: 2 miles round trip

Elevation Gain : 765 feet

Altitude: 10,585 feet at the trailhead, 11,350 feet at the Broome Hut

To get there: Take US Highway 40 to mile marker 240 on Berthoud Pass. Park at the pullout on the west side of the highway. There is no trailhead sign, but there is a large, orange, sticker-covered avalanche warning sign in the parking lot.

I am thankful to hear Second Creek babbling alongside the trail for the first few minutes; it’s just what I need to erase the sounds of my own whirling thoughts on this solo hike. There is easy creek access off of the trail for about the first 1/8 of a mile, then the trail veers away from the creek to the right. Dead pine trees- I assume it’s beetle kill- are interspersed with the tall, shading pines. For half an hour I climb steadily up the trail, with views of James Peak Wilderness behind me. The wildflowers are starting to make an appearance, and I make a mental note to come back here in a month when they will really color the forest. As I get closer to the tundra there is a faint smell of dust and pine, the perfect summer smell. I can still hear the traffic on Berthoud Pass, but as I round the corner to the Broome Hut that sound is gone.

The Broome Hut with Second Creek Cirque in the background.

The Broome Hut with Second Creek Cirque in the background.

The Broome Hut stands in front of a patch of trees with views of the Second Creek Cirque in one direction and James Peak wilderness in another. And I wouldn’t exactly call it hut. It would fit in perfectly in some of Winter Park’s nicer neighborhoods; the outside is coated in tan stucco and boasts a spacious raised deck and big windows. The inside is nothing too fancy, spacious but clean and simple and smelling of freshly cut wood. The hut was built in 2012, with one third of the space open to public day use and the other two thirds for overnight reservations. Day users can take advantage of the bathrooms, kitchen, and deck. Overnight reservations are $35 per person, and the Grand Huts Association, the folks who built the Broome Hut, are still looking for volunteers to work at the hut and it is said that hours worked can earn volunteers a free night at the hut.

For lunch, I sat at a lone table perched up on a little hill in front of the hut.

Lunch with a view.

Lunch with a view.

This gave me uninterrupted views of James Peak and its neighbors and I sat there wondering how long it would be before I could climb up these beautiful mountains. Every day I look at these same mountains from my front porch, from a different angle and a greater distance so, of course, I want to see the view from the top.

I left the table after a while and followed the trail behind the Broome Hut. I was actually trying to go left, toward a trail I could see cutting across the tundra, but I couldn’t find the right spur so I just kept heading straight back. The trail had many spurs and wildflowers and willows and swampy snowmelt patches. I squelched through, just to go see what I could find. Before too long I came to a snowfield, with Second Creek running out from below it. I assessed the direction of the creek, naively assuming that it was flowing in a straight line. I decided against crossing the snow and turned left into the willows to see what I could see there. I came to the bottom of a scree-covered slope and, being alone, decided against scrambling up it (safety first!). I returned the snowfield and took I couple steps on it, having decided to cross

Enjoying the day!

Enjoying the day!

after all. I listened to the sound of running water nearby and stopped crunching my feet on the snow to listen more closely. ‘That sounds really close,’ I thought as I looked around. It was quite close; it was right under me. Second Creek was not flowing from the direction that I thought it was. Imagining wet feet and pins-and-needles ankles I quickly scampered off the snow and settled on heading back down the trail. The quickening wind and the clouds building over the Divide affirmed my decision.

Hiking Info from Hiking Grand County, Colorado by Deborah Carr and Lou Ladrigan.

Big Meadows

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Big Meadows with Mt. Ida in the distance.

Hiking Information
Mileage: 3.6 roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 606 feet
Altitude: 9,400 feet at the meadow
To get there: From Grand Lake, follow signs to Rocky Mountain National Park. Follow the main park road to the Green Mountain Trailhead.
As we start into the shaded woods at the Green Mountain Trailhead, I am savoring the quintessential mountain-winter quiet. After just a few snowshoeing trips in Rocky Mountain National Park I am convinced that it’s one of the most peaceful places you can spend a day in the wintertime. I can hear the crunch of my own snowshoes and an occasional thump as snow falls off the trees and hits the ground. In a breeze that we can’t even feel, the snow is blowing off the pine trees and sparkling in the patches of sunlight. This bit of beauty alone is enough to make me glad that we chose to come here instead of heading for the hustle bustle of Winter Park Resort to snowboard.
After being cooped up inside with a cold for what felt like an eternity (it was about a week), a slow, quiet walk in the woods is just what I need. It is one of those days that Alex and I are together but each in our own zone as we go along, keeping whatever thoughts we have to ourselves. We have no obligations today, so we dawdle to the meadow. Once the woods open up into the big meadow, we have views of Mt. Ida, with its long, slanting ridgeline. The snow on the meadow is disturbed only by a single track made by Nordic skiers and snowshoers, and the dotted footprints of an animal much more delicate than humans. We pass a lone Nordic skier heading back toward the trailhead and we settle on a berm of frozen grass to have winter picnic: PB&J with coffee and Irish cream. I mention that we’ll have to come back here in the summer and sun soak in our own private patch of the sprawling meadow; it seems like the perfect place for such a thing. Even with all the winter recreation in Grand County I miss basking in the mountain summer sun for hours, and I get excited when I find a place I would love to come back to when the seasons change.

Hiking information from ‘Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park’ by Kent and Donna Danne

Chicago Lakes

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Proof that winter is approaching at Chicago Lakes!

Mileage: Approximately 9 miles round trip to the upper lake
Altitude: 11, 740 feet at upper lake
Elevation Gain: 1,750 feet
To Get There: Take I-70 to exit 240 at Idaho Springs. Head south on Highway 103 toward Mt. Evans and park at the Echo Lake Lodge.

It is an unbelievable October day in Colorado: short sleeves weather and not a single cloud threatening an afternoon storm. The Echo Lake trail is fairly crowded and even once we branch off onto the Chicago Lakes trail there are intermittent greetings from people like us who are clinging onto these last pre-snow days.

Starting out with a friend that I haven’t seen in months means there are seemingly endless things to discuss, and we fall into a rhythm of habitual hiking. The trail passes roadside Echo Lake and then begins to climb gradually. It then levels out briefly and then begins to drop steeply down the hillside. At the bottom- after a simple creek crossing- we reach an unrelentingly steep, straight road that goes to the Idaho Springs Reservoir. Once past the reservoir, the trail is to the right and continues to climb and then level out and then climb some more. I mention that it feels like a long three miles to the lower lake and my friend replies that distance is debatable according to all the different trail descriptions she read. Finally we see the lower lake from above: big and green below gray granite. We continue on and the trail reaches its steepest point on the way to the upper lake. The distance is short and it doesn’t feel like long before we are at the top, a little breathless in the tundra wind. The upper lake is at the bottom of a steep ridge that the wind seems to come sweeping off of. Here we can remember that it’s no longer summer. It’s about 3 o’ clock and the sun is starting to slide behind the ridge. The rocks around the edge of the lake are crusted in rippling ice patterns. We put our jackets back on as we take pictures and sit briefly in the wind to eat chocolate.

Sources: http://www.thecohiker.com/colorado-hiking-trails/colorado-mountains-central/chicago-lakes, http://www.trails.com/tcatalog_trail.aspx?trailid=HGR320-051, http://www.utahtrails.com/Colorado%20pages/ChicagoLakes.html

Devil’s Thumb

Standard

Hiking details
Mileage: 7.8 miles roundtrip
Altitude: 9,609 feet at trailhead, 12,236 feet at Devil’s Thumb
Elevation gain: 2,627 feet
To get there: On Hwy 40 out of Fraser, turn right onto County Road 8 and follow this for 6.4 miles. CR 8 turns into FSR 128 (Water Board Road). Turn left and continue for 1.1 miles. Turn right and continue for 0.3 miles where the road ends at a spillway. Park on the side of the road.

“I’ve never wanted to switch places with someone so badly,” a woman says to us as we come down the Devil’s Thumb trail. The trail is rocky and rooty, and without an abundance of switchbacks. She is huffing and puffing, just as we were on our way up.
We hiked uphill in the damp, cold shade for most of the fall morning; the dichotomy of cold air and a rise in body temperature always makes me uneasy, and I have to stop to adjust my layers multiple times. My appendages are stiff and lethargic once the sun is high enough to break up the monogamous shadow on the forest floor. Soon after, we leave the trees behind and our climb continues in the short grasses and squat willow bushes of the familiar tundra. The willow branches brush my bare calves as they threaten to take over the narrow trail. Cottony seed parachutes cling to the naked branches, something I’ve never seen before and had to ask for an explanation of.
Close to the Continental Divide the trail peters out. We can see the top of Devil’s Thumb to the left and we head towards it. The base of it, we realize, is on the other side of the Divide ridge we are alone on. From atop this ridge we yell just to hear our own echoes off the thumb and its inferior neighboring crags. We find a nook out of the wind and linger in the sun. I stare for so long at the lake below us that it begins to shimmer, as if the water is not water but a blanket of twinkling holiday lights instead.
Instead of leaving the tundra on the same path we came up on, Alex pulls me on an off-trail adventure across the ridge, over boulders, and down a steep slope back to the tree line trail. However begrudgingly I begin off-trail travel, I always enjoy having done it. Another windy day on the tundra. Another place that only our feet can take us too. Another rolling conversation. Another Saturday in Grand County!
Hiking details from ‘Hiking Grand County, Colorado: A Backcountry Guide to Winter Park, James Peak Area, Fraser Valley, Indian Peaks, Never Summer Range, Troublesome Valley, Williams Fork Mountains, Vasquez Mountains, and Beyond’ by Deborah Carr and Lou Ladrigan.