It's a little dull sitting at home, though, so I decided to head out on another close-to-home backpacking trip. I'd had the idea for a while. A few years ago, on a previous hike in the area, I'd discovered a path that wasn't on my map. It went a ways into the woods. It seemed to peter out the further I went, but the country was so open, with little underbrush or deadfall, it seemed it might be very possible to bushwhack straight east to the next trail, thus allowing the completion of a loop where only a U existed on the map, the two trailheads marked by the serifs of the U being divided by several miles of highway.
Having bought a smartphone earlier this year, I finally had access to reliable GPS -- unlike that on the work phone I'd brought with me on a trip last year. As soon as I needed it, that phone stopped being able to find any GPS satellites, despite my being on a flat plateau without a single ridge or tree blocking any of the sky.
I typically don't like to hike off-trail, both for safety reasons -- if something were to happen, certainly no one would stumble on me anytime soon -- and for physical reasons. Uneven terrain is very hard on my foot that has a neuroma, and hiking off-trail also takes much more energy than hiking on a trail. It tends to be exhausting.
But this seemed like a not-so-bad option. I had GPS, I should have cell service for most of it, and the terrain seemed fairly easy going. So I set off. After I'd driven about ten minutes from the house, I realized I'd forgotten my ballcap. Shoot. I'd already delayed in leaving, though, and was going to get to the trailhead later than I wanted, so even though I know I hate hiking without a hat, I decided I'd survive.
The flowers along the trail were blooming, and I took a photo of this penstemon.
It's only once I get down low to take a macro shot -- or, sometimes, once I'm editing the photo at home -- that I realize the flowers that look so beautiful from above are actually crawling with bugs. Here is one little fellow who seems dwarfed by the flower he's scaling:
What must it be like to be a bug exploring a flower that's as big as a small house to you?
Once I traveled up my trail to the wilderness boundary, about where I had made my easterly excursion a few years before, I cut east into the woods.
I immediately found myself struggling down a steep-sided gully to cross a stream, then up the other side, grasping at prickly pine branches to try to keep my top-heavy body + pack from falling backwards. And then another gully. This wasn't what I remembered from the last time. It was completely exhausting work trying to get up and down the steep slopes littered with loose pine needles, but finally I came to flatter ground and somewhat open forest.
I walked east, detouring around thickets or simply pushing through them. Eventually I came across a sign marking the national forest boundary and kept within it, not wanting to tick off some suspicious landowner whom covid-19 might have left with nothing to do but sit at home looking out the windows, possibly with a shotgun. I did pass rather close by someone's house.
Even the lawn chair is bored to death
The country became more open and I came at last to a dirt road, which surprisingly turned out to be one of the most scenic parts of my trip.
Roads are sometimes necessary to connect sections of trail. Normally, road walks are the worst. Roads lack shade and, if dirt, can be very dusty, especially if car traffic is allowed on them. They lack the foot-saving cushioning of humus or pine needles. They also tend to have longer straight sections than trails. When you can see where you're going for a mile or more ahead, the dopamine-inducing quest of "what's around the next bend" disappears and a voyage of discovery can turn into a bit of a dull slog.
But this road was exceedingly pretty. It was gone to grass and I wondered if anyone at all had driven on it in the last two decades. I passed meadows filled with wildflowers, stands of aspen, and, incongruously, a gravesite fenced in by pine timbers.
I didn't hop the timbers to get a closer look at the grave, but the deceased appeared to be a civil war veteran who had died in 1909. It was nice to see that someone was still honoring his grave, but a little amusing to see that the price sticker had been left on the flag.
Here's another set of flowers that turned out to have its own attendant insect:
By the way, the flowers really are that blue. They're quite stunning in real life.
I was amused that this ditch warranted signage; apparently ditches are a big deal here. I wanted to do a little more bushwhacking because the road made a loop that I didn't feel like following all the way around, and I decided to simply follow this ditch. After a ways I had to leave it because it was turning south, but I crossed other seemingly unused ditches, and old roads through the forest with aspen growing up through them. It seemed like there used to be much more farming, ranching or mining in this area than there is now.
I had some confusion when I came out of the forest onto the road and turned right, as I should, only to have my GPS tell me I was walking southwest, not southeast. It took me ten minutes of going back and forth to figure out that there was a section of road that wasn't on my map, and that it, itself, was actually a cutoff of the loop I was trying to shortcut. That is, I could have just walked on this mysterious section of road, if I'd know it was there, instead of crashing through the woods.
As it was getting on towards dinner, the dirt road took me to another trail, which I expected to be faint as it didn't particularly go from anywhere or to anywhere, and I imagined few people used it. I was right. But it wasn't a bad trail; the first half, still trending east, was fairly easy walking, with a few partial views through the trees. By the time I got to the bend in the trail where it turned south and began climbing straight up the mountain, it was near dark. I was exhausted from the bushwhacking and realized how much energy it would take to get to my intended camping spot, still a mile or so uphill from here, and I didn't want to do it. I needed to find water and a place to camp.
The water was easy enough as I knew there was a stream up ahead, but finding a flat spot proved near impossible. The ground was steeply sloped here, which made me wish for a moment that I was a hammock camper instead of a tent user. But considering the low traffic this trail clearly received, I decided to just pitch my tent right on the trail, which was the only thing remotely approaching flat. (It was still pretty slanted.) It's the only time in nearly 25 years of backpacking that I've set up my tent right on a trail.
You can see just how faint the trail is in this picture. Or maybe you can't see any trail at all.
It's always hard for me to sleep on my first night in the backcountry. I also wasn't particularly comfortable that night as the ground made a bend downward right where my hips were, but that's not really something new... it can be very difficult to find a truly flat site in the backcountry, and when you do it's often somewhere that fills with water when it rains. The thing is that a poor night of sleep on a backpacking trip doesn't affect a person nearly as much as a poor night of sleep in everyday life, because when you're backpacking, you're (hopefully) free of stress, and the only decisions you have to make involve when to eat and where to camp.
So I lay awake for much of the night, looking at the nearly full moon and listening to an owl and some odd birds. I had left the fly off because it was initially clear, but then I felt a few raindrops. This happens a lot in Colorado. Individual clouds sometimes carry a bit of rain, and will sprinkle you for a minute or two and then move on. In the dry air here, the raindrops will evaporate from a sleeping bag within minutes once the rain stops. So far I've never had to get up in the middle of the night and put the fly on.
Well, that cloud passed, but the sky continued to become more overcast. And then I heard thunder. I decided I'd better haul myself out of bed and put the fly on after all. And just as I was putting the last stakes in, it began pouring. So, two streaks broken that night.
At some point I was finally able to sleep, and I slept in and it was sunny and hot when I woke. I was sweating by the time I was done with my oatmeal, and I set out up the steep trail, which stayed beside a pretty, musically trickling stream the whole time. Mostly there wasn't much to look at besides the stream, but I did see a couple curiosities:
Tangled tree roots
A tail of something -- perhaps a ground squirrel -- sitting all by its lonesome
Up, up, up I went, at times struggling to follow the faint path, until I reached a junction with another trail, which took me up further. Like yesterday, it was a hot day, and I was sweating like a dog. At one point I put one of my dirty fingers in my mouth without thinking, then kind of rubbed my tongue on my arm, hoping any bacteria would come off on my arm, and realized how extremely salty my skin was. It was astoundingly salty.
My fingers were "dirty" to begin with not because of dirt, but because I had filtered a little water to backflush the filter with, since it'd been getting slow. I had begun this process by disconnecting the filter from my hydration bladder then realized, duh, I need clean water to backflush with, and hooked up the filter again and began filtering. Then I realized that water was leaking from somewhere. It was leaking from the connection above the filter -- where the "dirty" water goes in -- and was trickling down the tube and getting all over my hands and some had possibly gone into my pot with the clean water. Ugh.
The actual risk that there was something like giardia in the water was small, but considering the extreme consequences giardia can have, I never drink impure water. I could have tossed it, wiped out my pot and filtered some more, but I was reluctant to toss any water because it would still be a while before I got to another stream. So I boiled it.
So there I was, sitting on a fallen tree at noon, boiling a pot of water, when another couple walked by. Thankfully, they didn't ask why I was making tea in 90-degree heat. After boiling, I had to wait 15 minutes for the water to cool off so I could load my plastic syringe with it and force backward it into the filter. The good news is that the filter unclogged nicely and I was able to sip unimpeded as I continued hiking.
Finally I crested a ridge and came down into an open, high-altitude valley. Thank God. From here on, the hiking would be much easier. The valley was just beautiful, with lots of little flowers and wide-open views. Mostly of rainclouds approaching.
I look less like I'm smiling here and more like I'm grimacing into the sun. I hate having to walk, hike, or drive with the sun directly in my eyes. It's one of my biggest pet peeves. And then, when it inevitably started to rain, I had to deal with the rain on my glasses. Oh, hat! Why didn't I go back for you?
The path was faint here too, and it seemed I had the valley all to myself. A clear stream wound its way along the valley floor, surrounded by willow bushes. I walked and walked for almost four hours. Toward dinner time, I passed a burn area, which was fascinating. Some of the trees were burnt to a crisp, like the gleaming black shell of a tree below, while others were untouched, with many in an in-between state.
By 5:30 I was very hungry and tired and wanted to stop, but I struggled to find a campsite again. There weren't any flat spaces. As I continued, the trail reached its highest elevation and was about to descend into the trees once more, and finally some flat places appeared. I found a lovely spot on granite gravel with a view of distant peaks.
Since I was starving I decided to eat dinner before setting up the tent; however, after a half hour the temperature had dropped steeply and a howling wind had come up. It no longer seemed like a good idea to sleep on bare rock out in the open. I found a tiny patch of flat ground blanketed in pine needles between some trees and bushes, and set the tent up there. The plant life cut the wind speed by half, and the ground insulation would help keep me warm.
Once again it took me a while to fall asleep, and I was just barely warm enough to get a good night's sleep, so I let myself sleep in in the morning. Here is the view I had while packing up my tent.
I had to do a little downhill hiking before the trail would turn upward again, toward the ridge of the mountain range and, I hoped, the best views. Soon I was climbing again, and then the trees were getting smaller and fewer. Some lovely alpine sunflowers greeted me for the first time on the trip.
And then there were my highly anticipated views. Here, I am looking out across South Park to the distant Sawatch Range.
It was very nice up on the ridge and I would have liked to spend a couple hours up there exploring and taking photos. Unfortunately, about ten minutes after I got there, the thunder started. Oh, well. It was my fault; I had chosen to sleep in. I descended quickly on the trail that would make up the last portion of the loop, while watching the storm come in from the west.
It was a pretty big one. Often our summer storms here in Colorado are just patchy, on-and-off rain, with maybe a 20-minute spell of harder rain or hail. But that day, it rained for about five hours. I'd been wondering where I'd find water on the way down this trail, but I needn't have been concerned. It was everywhere. In many places, it was the trail. The rain created abundant little waterfalls, including here beside these bluebells.
It was cold. I went down, down, down, my shoes and socks becoming soaked, glasses spattered with raindrops, gloves damp over my hands balled in my pockets. I still had a fun time, finding little things to investigate or photos to take.
And then I came to a place where some logs had been set up to allow crossing of the stream on my right. I crossed and found that path, the faint path I had discovered a few years before that had first made me think I could bushwhack through this area to turn the U of trails into a loop. Why hadn't I used this trail when I started, a couple days before, instead of having to scramble down and up a couple of steep gullies? I'd simply... forgotten about it, or minimized it, my brain focusing on the concept of bushwhacking.
Now I followed it, further than I had in the past. It was a nice trail, if little-used, and it did disappear at one point but I found it again. In some areas, fallen trees had been cut to allow free passage, which confused me. If this wasn't an official trail, who was doing the trail work? It was pleasant hiking and I followed it so far, I could tell that over the next ridge it would hit that pretty dirt road that had been part of my first day's hike.
Well, I'll be. I had done two hours of exhausting bushwhacking on the first day, for nothing. Taking the mystery trail brought me to the same place in twenty minutes -- which just goes to show you how inefficient off-trail hiking can be.
But you know which was more fun? The bushwhacking, by far. If there's one thing to be said about off-trail hiking, it's that it keeps your mind engaged. Trying to find the best way to get where you want to go is like a little game. And sometimes, you find cool stuff you never would have seen if you'd stuck to a trail. (I have, in the past, found such treasures as full elk or bison skulls with the horns attached; this trip, the finds were somewhat underwhelmingly limited to the national forest boundary sign and the forsaken lawn chair.)
I had so much fun on this trip, in fact, that it made me eager to try creating more routes where there were none before. I like the idea of making discoveries and maybe posting some trip guides that might siphon some traffic away from the overcrowded, popular loops near Denver and onto some of these under-appreciated trails. On the other hand, I also very much enjoyed feeling like the place was my own little secret -- I saw only two couples my entire time out there -- and it's nice to have a few of those places. So I may post a guide to this area and I may not.
When I got back to my car, I didn't drive straight home. Instead, I went to find where those pretty dirt roads met the highway. There, I found a confusing sign, and as I was puzzling over it a forest service truck pulled up. There were two FS employees in it and they asked if they could help me with anything. I was on my guard -- as usual around government employees, I immediately felt as though I must be doing something wrong and was about to get a dressing-down -- but they were extremely friendly and chatty and talked at length about the area.
I mentioned the mystery trail and the cut logs I'd seen along it, and the man's face lit up. He had done that trail work himself and was clearly pleased that someone had appreciated it. Yes, that was an official trail, he said, and seemed surprised it wasn't on my map. They had plans for it -- for the whole area -- but it could take years to put them into place, especially given the obstacles that covid-19 was creating. We talked for quite a while and I got to ask all the questions I wanted. Now I feel as though I have a bunch of delicious secrets.
After our chat, I made my way home and set about cleaning up. My shoes were a mess. They had already been getting a bit elderly in terms of trail runners, but the bushwhacking had clearly brought them to the end of their life; the soles were worn through and the inner fabric was torn up. The new insoles I had gotten for the trip, however, were even worse. I had picked these up at the grocery store because my old ones were starting to get torn, but they were clearly not made for anything other than walking around offices and sidewalks. It looked like a dog had been at them. They did no better than if they'd been two pieces of bread I'd shoved in my shoes.
Wrecked footwear or no, I feel blessed to have had such a wonderful time on my little trip, and it's got me excited to do more backpacking this summer. I'll have to see what else I can come up with!