The campground at Wind Cave National Park, which is just as much about wildlife-rich rolling mixed-grass prairie as it is about the cave itself, hasn't filled up in 30 years. It's a special place at the foot of the Black Hills in South Dakota, certainly one of the most peaceful places I've been. See my entire photo album from Wind Cave and the rest of our Black Hills trip here.
Filtering by Category: Treks
Deep within the Black Elk Wilderness in Black Hills National Forest is the highest point east of the Rockies — Harney Peak. The mountain, which once served as a fire lookout over the South Dakota's most rugged terrain, is a massive rock promontory from which you can see the whole of the Black Hills.
Previously, I'd stood atop four other state high points: Wheeler Peak in New Mexico, Black Mesa in Oklahoma, Clingman's Dome in Tennessee and Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina. Next up: Panorama Point in Nebraska and, of course, Mt. Elbert in Colorado.
If you're curious about all the gateways into Colorado, Dale Sanderson over at USEnds.com emailed me today to let me know he has mapped all the "Welcome to Colorful Colorado" signs in the state, linking each point on the map to my project, "Welcome to Colorful Colorado: 41 Views from the Border."
Check it out here.
Dale's site along with Matthew Salek's Colorado Highways site are both excellent introductions to the highways and history of Colorado and Centennial State trivia. Be sure to check them both out.
The Colorado Plateau — redrock canyon country, that is — is replete with national parks and monuments: Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Cedar Breaks, Chaco Culture, Arches, Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge, Glen Canyon, and many more. Most are destinations unto themselves. But my experience is a bit different with Capitol Reef. Back in 2006, when a backpack into Dark Canyon looked like it would be rained out (don't get stuck in the rain at the Sundance Trailhead with a Toyota Corolla), my friends and I spent a night backpacking in Capitol Reef. In 2010, when the heat at the place we were camping beneath the Henry Mountains climbed to 103 degrees, Jacob and I moved to Capitol Reef where things were only slightly cooler. Last month, when my friends and I were annoyed that our chosen camping spots were either packed with people, full of blowing dust or were frenetic with screaming kids, we spent the next two days in Capitol Reef, the alternative we head to when our original plans fall through.
But Capitol Reef deserves more than that. One of the lesser visited national parks in Utah, it has all the accommodations people unprepared for backcountry travel need: easy trails, green grass, locally-made ice cream and root beer and other stuff tourists like, except that nearly the entire park, much to its credit, is out of Facebook and cell phone range. Most of Capitol Reef is far out of reach of casual tourists, and that's why the park rocks. "The Land of Tilted Rocks" is a slanted redrock badland riddled with slots and grottoes, arches and narrows, and, of course, Cathedral Vallley, a remote icon of the park I have yet to visit. It's a 100 mile-long spear-shaped park that encapsulates all the greatest things about canyon country. One of my favorite protected places in Utah, Capitol Reef is unique among the national parks: In the summer, visitors can pick fresh fruit from the peach, apricot, cherry, pear and apple trees planted by the Mormon settlers more than a century ago.
I'm still working out my technique on by-the-seat-of-the-pants astrophotography, as seen here from my attempt last week at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. My friends and I were camped at the Capitol Reef campground, which sits below the mouth of Cohab Canyon. Capitol Reef has one of the darkest night skies in southern Utah, and we had a new moon, which is the perfect combination for stargazing. The cliffs are lit only by the ambient light in the campground. This is what it looks like before the sun goes down:
I set up my tripod behind the picnic table, aimed above the park's scenic drive, which was just below the frame and over the fence from the campsite, and opened the shutter for 25 minutes, hoping the occasional breeze wasn't enough to blur the image. One problem with the camera I used here is that it takes longer to transfer data and write the image to the CF card than it does to take the image. So, a 25 minute shot becomes a 50 minute shot. I'm using a high-speed 16 GB card in my Canon 50D, and I'm a bit perplexed as to why the process takes so frustratingly long. Oftentimes, I'll shoot an image, and by the time the camera is done transferring the data, I'm either too tired or too frozen to spend another hour taking a single image.
On this trip, a friend of mine brought along an ancient Canon Rebel XT that he was borrowing from a friend. The camera used a cheap CF card, and when I took an image with a 30 minute exposure, I was shocked that the data transfer process was instantaneous despite the large RAW file size.
The next night, I decided to do an hour-long exposure on my camera and then go to bed after I closed the shutter so it could write to the card while I was sleeping. This is what I got:
It's a little blurrier, probably thanks to my low-end-ish Manfrotto tripod and a bit of a breeze. Look closely, though, and you'll see the image is full of dead pixels and grain despite shooting at the same ISO as the top image:
Incidentally, I discovered that nearly every image I took on this trip was marred by several "stuck" pixels, an errant bright red, white, green or black pixel. I think I found a fix for that, and I'm hoping I solved the above problem, too.
I also brought along my 35mm film camera on the trip, too, and the same evening I shot a similar night sky image using Fuji Provia 400X slide film. It'll probably take me a year to go through the roll, so we'll see how this shot turns out then.
Some look like aliens. Others look screaming phantoms. One, called the Holy Ghost, looks like a crowned king. Last weekend, my friends and I finally visited the Great Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon after many years of putting the trip on the calendar and either getting rained out (the road is impassible when extremely wet) or snowed out.
Perhaps 3,000 years old, the pictographs that compose the 200 foot wide Great Gallery embue Horseshoe Canyon with a sense of history nearly unparalelled anywhere north of the Mexican border. Visiting the canyon is an incredible experience as long as you bring an appreciation of history along with you on the hike.
Several things to know about Horseshoe Canyon: It's way the hell far from everywhere and 32 miles from the nearest asphalt. It has signs of possibly more than 11,000 years of human habitation (and visitation). It was once called Barrier Canyon, and its pictographs are some of the most extraordinary examples of their kind anywhere. It was Aaron Ralston's escape route after he cut off his arm in Blue John Canyon, which spills into Horseshoe. It's a satellite unit of Canyonlands National Park. And, its rim is inexplicably within cell phone and Facebook range, likely because it's within a long-distance view of Green River, Utah. Its position strategically within Facebook is much to the region's discredit, which means it's not nearly as remote as it seems. But that's another issue.
The hike is short, about seven miles round trip. It's sandy, so if you go, be prepared to hike uphill on sand on an old oil and gas exploration road and at the sandy bottom of a wash.
"crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. ... May your rivers flow without end, meandering through ... miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs across the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls."
Perhaps no place is that more possible than in Mee Canyon, an obscure sandstone gorge near Grand Junction where the wash at the bottom of the canyon inserts itself about 300 feet into the canyon wall, creating a cavern the size of a 747 hangar. I've been to the Mee Canyon Alcove before, but this time I came with better camera equipment.
The Mee Canyon Alcove is said to be the deepest canyon alcove anywhere on the Colorado Plateau, and it's not easy to get to. At the heart of the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, Mee Canyon is at the bottom of a sometimes-feint trail descending from the top of Black Ridge overlooking Fruita and Grand Junction. It's a nearly unbelievable sight, one that's well worth the scramble to the bottom of the canyon.
This is what awaits you at the bottom:
The Denver Post on Saturday did a story about unlocking the mysteries of the Hanging Flume, a 19th Century wooden structure clinging to the sandstone walls of the Dolores River Canyon in far-western Colorado along Colo. Highway 141. Colorado tourism boosters call the region "Hanging Flume Country," a historic mining district amid Colorado Plateau red rock canyon country nearly spitting distance from the Utah state line. It's one of my favorite parts of Colorado, and certainly one of the least-known regions of the state. Here's what the Hanging Flume looks like from above:
A closer view:
The Hanging Flume was built between 1888 and 1891 as a means to send water to a gold mine in the Mesa Creek Flats area. The mine went bust, and the flume was left derelict on the canyon walls, where it remains, in a somewhat tattered state, today.
Highway 141 runs from Grand Junction to U.S. 491 northwest of Dove Creek, about 165 of the most stunning highway mileage in Colorado. It's far from everywhere, threading through some of the most amazing geology in the state: Unaweep Canyon, Gateway, the Dolores River Gorge, Big Gypsum Valley, Disappointment Valley and much more. If you've never driven the highway, it's a highlight of any western Colorado road trip.
It's the end of September, and three days of mostly sunny, 85-degree weather in northern Colorado can easily give way to the season's first blizzard, so Jacob and I decided today could be our last chance to catch fall color above tree line before the snow flies.
The Emmaline Lake Trail, which leaves from Colorado State University's Pingree Park campus high in the foothills, is a fantastic fall hike because the first several miles of the trail pass through an old wildfire burn area now completely covered in densely packed aspen trees. And right now, all those aspens are bright gold and firehouse red.
The 5.5 mile Emmaline Lake Trail follows Fall Creek, a tributary of the South Fork of the Poudre River, and starts just off Pingree Park Road at about 8,600 feet. The trail passes into the Comanche Peak Wilderness in Roosevelt National Forest after about three miles, and ends at the lake at tree line just above 11,000 feet. The Rocky Mountain National Park boundary is at the top of the ridge above the large glacial cirque containing Emmaline Lake. Comanche Peak straddles the park boundary.
The Rocky Mountains become a bit less rugged the farther north you go. That's the case in Colorado's Medicine Bow Mountains, which are roughly split in half by Roosevelt National Forest and the Rawah Wilderness in Larimer County east of the Medicine Bows' crest, and Colorado State Forest State Park in Jackson County west of the crest.
Below the Clark Peak, the highest point in Colorado's share of the Medicine Bow range, is Jewel Lake, a rocky tarn nestled deep within a glacial cirque below several rounded peaks, all easy to climb. The lake is in State Forest State Park, which sprawls across the western flank of the Medicine Bows and borders Rocky Mountain National Park to the south.
If you're accustomed to hiking in a national forest or national park, visiting State Forest State Park is a wholly different experience. Full of ATV-riding off-roaders and pistol-toting fishermen (!), the people you'll find on the trails and four wheel-drive roads here aren't the folks you'll run into in the Comanche Peaks Wilderness or Rocky Mountain National Park. State Forest is really a local's affair, but the scenery (and the rental yurts) are well worth the trek over Cam Pass to get here.
Without a four wheel-drive high-clearance vehicle, you have to park 1.5 miles from the Ruby-Jewel trailhead, making the short hike to the lake a six mile roundtrip trek.
Jacob, some of our friends and I spent last weekend hiking in the Holy Cross Wilderness south of Vail, completing the 8.8 mile Missouri Pass-Fancy Pass loop via Treasure Vault Lake. I've seen crowds of people in the Colorado backcountry before, but nothing (except for Longs Peak) quite like the 50+ cars piled up at the Fancy Lake-Missouri Lakes trailhead:
Once we summited 12,400' Fancy Pass, we encountered a massive snowfield, which we had to descend to reach Fancy Lake about 900 vertical feet and a half mile below. A testament to having spent too much time in the city or in a car since the snow stopped flying, sliding down this snowfield was the most fun I've had sitting on my ass this summer.
No weekend in the woods is complete with out a dutch oven dinner, so I cooked up some chicken barbecue stew for Jacob and our friends Dave, Christian and Chad. I hope they learned a lesson this weekend: If you can't cook over a campfire, you don't belong in the woods!
The full photo gallery from the weekend is here.
I'm convinced that we Coloradans find it fun to rip on Wyoming. After all, Wyoming is the Cowboy State full of oil wells, coal mines and lots and lots of uncool empty space that doesn't rise above 14,000 feet. (Oh, wait... Colorado has all those things, too!) If you live in Fort Collins, the state line is as much an iron wall to many people as Interstate 25 — cross either (headed east across the interstate or north across the state line), and you're in the world of bland backwardness full of rednecks and a conspicuous lack of organic arugula. Kind of like Kansas.
Except, of course, southern Wyoming isn't the wasteland we uppity Colorado mountain people like to think it is. In fact, it has some amazing wild country outside of the Wind Rivers, Absarokas, Tetons and Bighorns. Some of the most accessible alpine backcountry close to Fort Collins is in Wyoming's Snowy Range, about 90 minutes away. The best part is: The throngs of elk-ogling tourists you'll find at Rocky Mountain National Park or the conga lines of pseudo-mountaineers threading up Longs Peak or the Indian Peaks are conspicuously absent north of the border. Yes, there are plenty of people in the Snowys, just a gazillion fewer than in Colorado's Front Range.
So, that's where we found ourselves today — in need of a change of scenery and a tremendous lack of crowds after baking on a short hike around the screaming-child infested Vedauwoo area of the Medicine Bow National Forest between Cheyenne and Laramie. After living in Fort Collins for three years, I'd never taken the time to check out Vedauwoo. If you're not a rock climber, Vedauwoo is well worth a visit — once. Then, your best bet is to head to higher climes where the view is better.
Once we arrived in the Snowy Range, I discovered that the lightweight backup DSLR camera I bring on hikes with me (previously drenched in a storm on a hike in Congaree National Park in South Carolina) had finally bit the dust. The backup's backup is my iPhone, which accompanied me on our short climb of Medicine Bow Peak.
Medicine Bow Peak, which at 12,013 feet is the highest point in the Snowy Range, is one of the easiest peaks above treeline to climb anywhere in the Rockies. The summit is only two miles from the trailhead, which sits at the crest of Snowy Range Road halfway between Saratoga and Laramie. The views at the top range from Longs Peak in Colorado to — on a very clear day — the Wind Rivers far into northwest Wyoming.
The Snowy Range Road is closed in winter, but in the summer, the area is a sublime diversion from Colorado's mountains and proof that southern Wyoming has much more to offer than Laramie, Cheyenne and the yawn-inducing I-80 corridor.
It was supposed to be a very windy but sunny day today in the foothills west of Fort Collins. But late this morning, we hiked the eight mile Greyrock Mountain loop, with dark clouds literally swirling overhead. It made for a very beautiful sky.
Anticipating possible rain on the short hike today, I resurrected my old Canon Digital Rebel XTi, which got soaked in a torrential downpour at Congaree National Park in South Carolina two years ago. It gathers dust on a shelf in my closet, only partly functional after being fried in the storm. It's functional enough to for the occasional hike, making for a great backup camera when hauling really good equipment into the woods doesn't make sense.
There are ghosts in Chaco Canyon.
Ghosts of the Puebloans who spent hundreds of years toiling and thriving in this canyon. Ghosts of the countless others who have passed by since the Chacoans dispersed and disappeared.
Last weekend, when Harold Camping and his followers were eagerly awaiting the Rapture, it was easy to imagine that the Chacoans vacated their canyon just as mysteriously, leaving only their ghosts behind.
If anything at all was rapturous on May 21, it was the experience of hiking high above the Chaco Canyon rim, desert primroses and a cornucopia of other flowers abloom, rustling in the wind below ancient walls of stone.
Visiting Yucca House National Monument has always been on my list of things to do in Colorado before I die. Yucca House, no doubt one of the most obscure of the 394 National Park Service sites in the country, is an unexcavated Ancestral Puebloan pueblo site in far southwestern Colorado. After a short visit to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, which was the hub of the region's Ancestral Puebloan activity about a millennium ago, a quick trip to Yucca House seemed ideal because Chaco armed me with a better understanding of what I might see there.
But getting to Yucca House isn't exactly as straightforward as getting to the Grand Canyon.
National Monuments, generally but not always created by presidential proclamation under the 1906 Antiquities Act, vary in size and stature and include the Statue of Liberty, Devil's Tower in Wyoming, the famous Muir Woods north of San Francisco, Fort Sumter in South Carolina and many dozens of others. In Colorado, more than 300,000 people visit the wild redrock canyons of Colorado National Monument and its spectacular 23-mile Rim Rock Drive each year. There's also the sprawling Dinosaur National Monument, the massive 210,000 acre wilderness where the Yampa and Green Rivers converge in one of Colorado's most rugged, remote and spectacular gorges.
Then there's tiny Yucca House National Monument, which sits quietly behind at least two "no trespassing" signs on an unsigned dirt road literally in the front yard of a farmhouse.
It's the "no trespassing" signs that threw me off. The atlas we were using showed the route clearly, but when we reached the end of one dirt road, the only option was to turn down what looked like a gravel driveway passing through a freshly-planted field. Visitors are warned not to trespass, and we were left scratching our heads. Out came the iPhone and the Gaia GPS app, showing that yes, we're right on track, something we couldn't verify because the National Park Service's website was down and Wikipedia's route description was incorrect. So, we kept going and ended up in somebody's front yard. Not something we expected when attempting to visit one of America's national parks.
Across a fenced cow pasture from the yard was a sagebrush-covered mound surrounded by fencing with government-issue boundary markers attached. So, we parked the car on the grass next to another "no trespassing" sign, startled some mooing cows, opened the pasture gate and slogged across cow pie-strewn mud until we came to the fence and found this:
National monument or not, the message here is clear: The National Park Service doesn't want many people visiting Yucca House. It's open to the public, but it's a fragile historic site protecting a more or less pristine pueblo unmarred by archaeologists' prying tools. Managed by nearby Mesa Verde National Park, Yucca House is undeveloped with little more than a brochure available for interpretation. If the place were easy to find and on the beaten path, Yucca House would be looted and vandalized beyond recognition. It's fate would be similar, I imagine, to many of the petroglyphs at Chaco Canyon that have been vandalized and defaced so badly, it's sometimes difficult for a casual visitor to distinguish between a 1,000 year old petroglyph and a six month-old etching of some ignorant idiot's name.
So, I won't spoil the adventure. Part of the fun of visiting Yucca House for the first time is just getting there. The NPS provides directions to the monument on its website. Once you get there though, here's what you'll find:
Late May is a sublime season to visit Yucca House and the Four Corners region. Cactus flowers are blooming everywhere: