Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Camping at Mueller State Park, Colorado - Peak View Pond Hike

From August 18, 2014

After finishing my job interview in Colorado Springs, I rolled out of town and up into the Front Range to Mueller State Park for three more nights of state park camping. Mueller is located on the northwestern side of Pikes Peak. Most of the park is above 9,000 ft. above sea level so it's a fairly high, cool place to hang out. The park features pine and fir forest as well as some prairie with numerous ponds, mostly left over from old ranches that were acquired to form the park, and spectacular views of Pikes Peak. The facilities of the park are lined up along a ridge so that when you drive into the park you drive up, and most of the trails descend away from the ridge requiring a downhill outbound trip followed by an uphill return.

Pikes Peak from the "back side." Normally Pikes is seen from Colorado Springs, which is at a lower elevation, and consequently the mountain looks much larger. Mueller State Park is mostly above 9,000 ft. above sea level, so the vantage point is much closer to the treeline.

Pikes looks a bit different from the western side, so I didn't entirely recognize what I was seeing at first. Consulting with the maps clarified things and when I put on my glasses I was able to see bits of the road and traffic that ascend to the top of the mountain. The bald, rocky top of the mountain looked deceptively close due to the high elevation of the park compared to the view of Pikes from Colorado Springs, which is more of what I'm accustomed to.
Campsite at Mueller. It's a pretty nice campground but the very open forest made me wary that a large predator might sneak up me while I was reading a book by the campfire. Note the "bear box" on the left. Even though it latches, I was too nervous to store food in it for fear it would draw a bear.

Despite it being my third day in Colorado, I still found myself losing my breath while packing in my gear to my campsite and setting up. I have usually found that I do not acclimatize until at least the fourth day and the unusually high elevation of the campsite around 9,200 ft. probably did not help. The air was palpably thin. It's a peculiar sensation if you are not used to it. I got things setup in time to go find a short introductory hike to the park.

I chose to drive over and park my truck at the Elk Meadow trailhead and hike to the Peak View Pond. As promised by the layout of the park, this required a descent away from the parking lot through fir forest with a sparse understory. I started on a gravelly double track trail surrounded by sparse ponderosa pines and shortly took a side single track trail that was well marked downhill into the fir forest. The trail descended somewhat quickly with a series of switchbacks. It was a steep downhill hike that had me wondering how difficult the climb back out would be.

The view from the trailhead at Elk Meadow. It's a fairly promising start.

I recently read some sections of a book I picked up a decade or so back that discussed how biodiversity is related to precipitation. Although Mueller is on the western side of the Front Range and gets more rainfall than much of Colorado, it still receives much less than the mountain forests of the Southeast that I am used to, and the contrast in biodiversity could not have been more obvious. There were far fewer species of plants visible, with the trees being fairly uniform and consisting of only about three species that I could see and the forest floor dominated by just a handful of plants, mostly sparse grasses. It was still beautiful and provided superior visibility when compared to eastern forest.

Another view slightly further down the trail.

The short hike turned out to be a perfect choice because it is a beautiful little pond. I was wowed by the pond but did not realize just how beautiful it truly was until I continued past the pond on the trail and looked back to see how it got its name "Peak View Pond." From uphill of the pond, Pikes Peak could be seen looming over the pond and the forest. It was an amazing place! The difficulty of the hike out turned out to not be that bad due to the short length of the hike and the fact that I stopped to take several pictures. It might be the best short hike in Mueller and I recommend it.

The payoff. Peak View Pond, with a view of the peak, of course. Amazing scenery. I could sit in a lawn chair all day and look at this.
Bonus Photos:
This little dude acted suspiciously like he had been fed all summer by tourists. I did not give anything. There was another chipmunk there that was the fattest chipmunk I've ever seen but I didn't get a photo. It looked like a miniature ground hog. I guess they were prepping for winter.

I was amused by this sign in Woodland Park, where I stopped for lunch after my job interview on the way to Mueller. I guess this is now a double entendre since Colorado's liberalization of drug laws. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Flatwater Paddling the Lower Ocoee

From a trip Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Ocoee River in Tennessee is mostly known as one of the most frequently rafted whitewater rivers in the United States, but it's a long river, and there are multiple sections. Downstream of the whitewater there is a class I flatwater section from below Ocoee Dam #1 (Parksville Dam) to the confluence with the Hiwassee. There are good public access points at the dam and downstream next to the Nancy Ward grave site on old US Highway 411 just outside Benton, Tennessee. Locals know this as a section for floating on tubes or even swimming in a PFD, but usually look for an intermediate takeout. I was interested in paddling all the way from the dam to 411.

The view upstream from the launch below Ocoee Dam #1, a.k.a. Parksville Dam, right at the chokepoint where the Ocoee flows out of the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Ridge and Valley region. The flow here is 2 units.

I had proposed a flatwater run of this section with my friends-that-tolerate-flatwater in the past several times but usually if there was any whitewater at all running they would not do it. I got in a short but amusing run from the dam to OAR outfitters last year with some friends on stand up paddleboards (SUPs) and pool floats with beer coolers but had not actually completed the section all the way to 411. Finally the stars aligned and a small group came together consisting of my canoeist friend Lois, and Mark and Carolyn Rand. Lois and Mark were to paddle a tandem canoe, owing somewhat to the availability of watercraft. I no longer own a long boat suitable for flatwater so I took one of my whitewater kayaks that was the most comfortable option for a long day. Unfortunately the use of the boat pretty much guaranteed that it would, in fact, be a long day, but I decided comfort was more important than hull speed.

Sugarloaf Mountain from a short distance downstream of the put-in. It doesn't look much like a sugar loaf from this angle.

The first time I ran the Lower Ocoee, the release seemed swift, but it must have been a bit lower, because there were a couple of riffle type class I rapids. Some of the places I remember there being rapids were completely washed out on this trip though the current was quite obviously even swifter. On the other hand, the increased flow meant that there were long sections with class I wave trains. There were no discernible features that made these sections technical in any way, but it was a sign of lively current. Mark had a GPS along and determined after about an hour that we were actually making better than 4 miles per hour, which is ridiculous in my opinion. That said, my arms, shoulders, and back were tiring trying to keep up in the short kayak. I'm almost never in that much of a hurry unless I'm on my way to work. I eventually pushed back a bit on the pace and the crew allowed me to take the lead since I was in the slowest boat and could not keep up with the group. This worked out much better. I admit I threw a small tantrum to achieve that but we really were moving way too fast, as I knew the distance was easily runnable within 4 hours and could see no reason to be in that much of a hurry.

Lois Newton and Mark Rand in the tandem canoe, Carolyn Rand in the kayak.

After a while, we passed some large rock formations and small cliffs and I was reminded of my recent trip down South Chickamauga Creek in Catoosa County, Georgia. There were occasional views over cleared river banks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, mostly 2800 foot Chilhowee Mountain, and there were cows, cabins, and rope swings. We stopped for lunch on a nice rock formation and spied some medium sized fish in the water. The whitewater sections of the Ocoee are nearly dead due to extreme pollution from past mining and industrial activities and are just beginning to recover. The headwaters are still pristine and this lower section below Dam #1 is teaming with fish and waterfowl. I'm amazed that people whine about pollution controls and the Clean Water Act. Would you rather have a dead river or a live one? I for one, am grateful for the laws that have preserved the headwaters and helped to revive the Lower Ocoee, and are slowly reviving the Upper and Middle Ocoee. I do not understand people who are against that. May they all be forced to drink polluted water. It's basic law and order and basic common sense.

Moo. A stretch in the middle of the run is, uh, pastoral.
There are some nice cliffs and rock outcroppings on the run. Sorry about the bad lighting. It was not a good day for lousy photographers.

Eventually we reached a really long pool and I wondered if we were going to be pushing against true slackwater but eventually we reached the end of the pool and things picked up again in the form of a long section of waves to the right of a very long island. Finally we passed an important landmark bridge and knew we were within a mile or two of highway 411. I regretted our rapid descent but it was still a good day on the water with plenty of photo ops and good conversation.

Glassy water in one of the few long pools. For the most part, the river is pretty swift at 2 generators.

The takeout featured the best rapid up to that point. Carolyn had run the section before and had experienced difficulties making the eddy but when we got there it was apparent that the high flows had created a very large eddy in front of the boat ramp. Nonetheless Lois and Mark made their move a little too early, bounced the bow off a boulder, and missed the main eddy. They pulled into a flushy eddy on the downstream side of the boat ramp and paddled against the current. I scrambled and grabbed their bow line and pulled them back upstream. It was a pretty funny end to the day.

We recovered the vehicle from the launch and reconvened at Huddle House in Ocoee where everyone ordered breakfast for supper. I have paddled several sections of this river, almost everything runnable above Blue Ridge Lake (where it is called the Toccoa), the Upper Ocoee, the Middle Ocoee, and sections of Ocoee Lake #1 (Parksville Lake). I'm glad to have finally checked off this nice pastoral section. I think my remaining goals are to paddle the section from below Blue Ridge Dam to McCaysville, Georgia, explore Lake #3 above the Upper Ocoee, and the section from Old Highway 411 down to the Hiwassee on the Lower.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Return to Cheyenne Mountain State Park, Colorado

From a visit to the park August 16-18, 2014

I made another vacation to Colorado last month and returned to my usual stomping grounds at Cheyenne Mountain State Park on the fringe of Colorado Springs. It's a good point to stop if you are travelling from the east to Colorado and has the best camping facilities I've ever seen. In addition it has thousands of acres of prairie and mountain slopes on the beautiful Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Most of the trail is open to mountain biking and it is a good place to spend a few days getting acclimated to the thin air of high elevation. Upon arrival I made camp, took some photos, and then headed out for a short but fairly easy hike to test my fitness. I found that I was able to hike with a bit of heavy breathing. The park sits generally around 6,500 ft. above sea level depending on where you are in the park exactly. I'm not sure if the breathing was entirely due to the elevation or due to all the extra weight I'm carrying around.

Cheyenne Mountain from the southeast. In my book there is nothing like a view from the prairie to the Colorado Front Range. Photo taken from atop my bike helmet with a GoPro 3+.

Cheyenne Mountain is a 9,564 ft mountain (source: Wikipedia) on the Front Range and faces out onto the Great Plains. The mountain famously hosts an Air Force station within it's granite, the former NORAD command center. The NORAD center has been moved above ground nearby but the facility is still maintained in a ready state in case it is needed. In addition, at the foot of the mountain on the plains is Fort Carson Military Reservation, a U.S. Army facility and current post of the 4th Infantry Division. If you sleep in you will hear Reveille playing early. If you keep sleeping anyway, eventually you may wake to the sound of explosions and gunfire. It's actually not that bad but do not mistake Cheyenne Mountain for a wilderness park.

Barely visible is the road leading up to the arched green tunnel entrance to the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, a hardened nuclear shelter beneath the mountain, made famous by the 1983 movie WarGames starring Matthew Broderick and the Kurt Russell sci-fi Stargate and subsequent TV series Stargate SG-1. Photo taken on a previous trip in 2010.
My campsite. I have yet to find a better campground anywhere. The sites are awesome and the rest of the facilities match. All state and national parks campgrounds should be as beautiful and well equipped as Cheyenne Mountain.

The trails at Cheyenne Mountain are for the most part extremely smooth and provide easy walking or mountain biking. There is little shade since most of the park is on the lower slopes of the mountain and has only scrub oak forest with a few stands of short ponderosa or pinyon pine. In between are the prairie grasses. I normally have no allergies in Colorado but it had been raining, and rained virtually every day I was there, alternating with sunshine, so the prairie grasses were growing and making me sneeze for the first half of my vacation. This probably did not help with my breathing issues, especially since I was recently diagnosed with asthma and was told it was probably brought about by allergies.

Velvety smooth Colorado Front Range singletrack meandering through the prairie. The trails are graveled with natural pink granite pebbles. Photo created with iPhone 5s panorama.

There are 20 miles or so of trail at Cheyenne Mountain and I have not hiked or biked all of them yet so I made a point of riding my mountain bike out onto the southern part of the park to explore some new terrain. The trails took me past numerous prairie dog colonies and onto some ridges and small mesas with good views of the mountain and the Colorado Springs area. I had to get off and push a few times due to being short of breath or leg strength.

Unfortunately I had only two nights at CMSP and I had a job interview on the last day there. This somewhat messed up my visit since I had gotten the interview on very short notice and did not have time to go to the dry cleaners or anything before leaving. I ended up having to spend a good bit of time shopping to buy clothing for the job interview and generally worrying about things. Anyway I finally got that out of the way and managed to fit in a nice bike ride and a short hike before heading up to Mueller State Park on the western slope of the Front Range for three more days of camping.

GPS track of the ride and photo Dump below with commentary.

Mule deer buck. Photo enhanced from iPhone 5s image. There is a lot of wildlife in the park, some of it semi-tame.
This is another enhanced photo of a bobcat with a rabbit hanging out of its mouth (directly above the road sign). Unfortunately I drove up on it and could not get my phone out in time to get a great photo. It's one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. It trotted right across the road keeping an eye on me.
Rainbows and unicorns over my my happy place at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. Actually that is the Fort Carson Military Reservation below on the Great Plains so the pot of gold is being guarded by the 4th Infantry Division.

Enlarged photo of parts of the United States Air Force Academy with the football stadium at center and the Rampart Range behind. I rode a mountain bike trail that is just beyond those peaks in 2011 at Rampart Reservoir, still one of the best mountain bike trails I have ridden anywhere.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, Florida

I traveled with my father to visit my sister in rural St. Johns County, Florida over a long weekend. The trip was mostly to visit with her and her kids but we also planned a foray to nearby Castillo de San Marcos (St. Mark's Castle) National Monument in St. Augustine because my nephew Connor had missed an opportunity to go inside the fort on a field trip a few months ago due to federal budget sequestration.

Castillo de San Marcos, a Spanish fort from the 17th century, in St. Augustine, Florida.

St. Augustine is usually reported as the oldest city in the United States. It was founded by the Spanish as an outpost and strategic point for resupply in the New World in 1564. I really enjoy the old historical sites related to the colonial period of the (future) United States, and St. Augustine is the oldest and so is one of my favorites. It's also the only significant location of Spanish colonialism that I have visited so it holds some extra interest for me as a history buff. If you want to be horrified, you can read about the conquistador that founded it Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and all the terrible things he did to the native tribes and the Huguenots from a nearby rival French outpost.

A nice view of the Intracoastal waterway with lovely palm trees. The imposing walls of the fortress can be plainly seen to scale by comparing to the people. When I first visited in 1988 a ranger pointed out scars in the walls from cannonballs but I can't pick out any in this photo. I forgot to look for them when I was there.

The city was first built in the 1500s, which is amazing, because at that time in Europe, fighting men still wore metal armor, bows and arrows were still used as military weapons, and jousting was still practiced, albeit more as a sport than for real value in wartime (gunpowder had existed for a couple of centuries at that time). We do not associate such things with the age of exploration. The stone masonry fortress we see today was actually not built until the 1600s and so reflects slightly later sensibilities in military history, featuring extremely thick walls meant to resist a cannonade. It had replaced previous wooden and earth structures of much less permanence and was situated to provide the defenses for the town of St. Augustine.

The landward face of the fortress, showing how the structure of the fort allowed a cross fire to be provided to almost any point along the walls of the fort. That was the purpose of the protruding portions of the fort called "bastions." A bastion is in the foreground.

A view of the sally port and drawbridge over the moat. This photo was taken from a fortified redoubt that protected the approach to the gate from direct cannon fire.

The hardship endured by those early Spanish soldiers and settlers would defy all reason by today's standards. At the time, Florida was a virtually untracked wilderness threaded through with malaria-infested swamps filled with alligators and poisonous snakes. The dense understory of the forest was almost impenetrable with the sharp-leaved saw palmetto crowding the trunks of the trees.

Saw palmetto underbrush.

Also there was no air conditioning, although on most days there was probably a fresh sea breeze along the ramparts of the fort, which has a nice view through an inlet to the open Atlantic. Maybe it was enough to drive off the mosquitoes. Still, it must have been a sweaty, buggy, miserable place to be stationed compared to arid Spain. On the other hand, the native tribes seemed to do fine, so perhaps that is a matter of European perception.

Spartan living quarters inside the fort. These vaulted stone ceilings were not initially present but were added in the 1700s to strengthen the fort against bombardment.

The structure of the fort is fairly impressive and must it have been daunting to contemplate an assault. There is a moat and the drawbridge was guarded by a heavily fortified redoubt so that no direct assault could have been launched against the gate without first seizing it. The geometrical layout of the fort is pleasing to the the eye and served the practical function of providing clear fields of fire for cannon and muskets to enfilade an assault from any direction. Though made of a grim gray stone, I found the symmetry of the fortress beautiful in the afternoon under blue skies with a scattering of palm trees around. It's one of my favorite historical sites to visit. I'll probably be back again and if I lived nearby I would be a regular visitor.

Photo dump.
A view of the redoubt that guarded the gate of the fort.
The drawbridge on the highway to Anastasia Island, a barrier island that shelters St. Augustine from the open Atlantic. A replica square-rigged sailing ship is moored next to the bridge.
Somehow I grabbed a photo of the interior of the fort that does not reflect the many visitors that were actually present. We went on a weekday so I assume it is considerably worse on the weekend.

A hotshot furnace on the lower works. These were used to heat up cannonballs until they were literally red hot. They could then be fired into the wooden ships of the era to set them aflame.

A view out through the gate showing the thick walls, the inner gate, the drawbridge, and the redoubt mini-fort that guarded the approach to the gate.
The parapets are surprisingly low. I assume this was to facilitate the firing of guns [edit: the low parapet helped reduce fragments generated from return fire from attackers - a high wall would just shatter into shards. Source: Wikipedia]. This view is from the most seaward bastion. The open Atlantic is visible just past the palm tree on the right. I have previously ridden a motorboat across that stretch of water. Apparently in the 1500s the barrier islands were smaller so that the Atlantic was actually a bit closer.

A slightly better view over the lower works out to the Atlantic Ocean.

A massive bronze siege mortar.
A view inside the seaward turret. I think in the old days there would have been a wooden floor up there to allow observation from the windows.
Not-related to the fort but this is the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center which has a lovely approach on the landward side and Spanish architecture (not period I'm sure). I somehow got a photo with no person in it despite there being thousands of visitors in St. Augustine at the time.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Retro Mega-Post: Colorado Vacation 2010

[Author’s Note: this is the narrative of a trip I took in 2010. From details on the scraps of paper the draft was hand written upon I can tell it was written almost immediately after I returned, although I did not date the document. I did not have a blog at that time but fortunately I remember I wanted to write down my account while the memories were still fresh. I had completely forgotten that I'd written it. I’m so glad I found it!]

After decades of saying I was going to do it, I finally planned and carried out a vacation to Colorado.  Having taken up the hobbies of whitewater kayaking and mountain biking, I considered my options. In the end the time of year determined my choice. Planning the vacation for September, a dry time of year in Colorado, I decided to skip paddling in favor of mountain biking. As it turned out, there was some dam-release whitewater running in Colorado but I think I can say I didn’t miss it. There was enough else to do anyway.
Even the drive across Kansas blew my mind (no pun intended). I had never been up close to windmills like these before and was staggered by their sheer size.
True big sky country in far western Kansas.
Pikes peak on the horizon. I can't even begin to explain how excited I felt to see the Rockies ahead. This side highway that led from the interstate to Colorado Springs also gave me a view of true cattle country that I had never seen before.

The drive from Ringgold, Georgia is 20 to 21 hours to Colorado Springs, where I had reserved a camp site in Cheyenne Mountain State Park. I stopped on the way after 14.5 hours in Salina, Kansas to break up the trip. In daylight, Kansas is a lovely state, much better than it's reputation for flatness. The central part of the state is particularly beautiful with rolling grass covered hills. Arriving the second day at Cheyenne Mountain, I quickly settled into my beautiful campsite in a grove of stubby Gamble Oaks. The park is relatively new, having opened in 2006 and as a consequence everything is new and contemporary. The facilities are excellent and the employees and volunteers were all friendly. I took in my first taste of Rocky Mountain scenery since I was 5 years old and reveled in it before heading out to get a look at Colorado Springs, get a bite to eat, and find some wi-fi.

Unloading at my campsite on the lower slopes of Cheyenne Mountain. It's a beautiful park.

The next day I awoke early, still living on Eastern Time, and headed to Pikes Peak with some direction from a friendly volunteer in the park visitors center. Unfortunately it was busy at the mountain and I had to wait in line for about a half hour to get to the gate. It cost $12 for one car with 1 person. The drive to the top was a little frustrating, with some people not understanding the distance and wanting to drive 5 to 10 mph and others with no care whatsoever wanting to break the speed limit all the way up. I image it’s a lot more enjoyable on a normal weekday. The volunteer at the park had persuaded me that the peak often clouds up in the afternoon so I chose to drive directly to the top while it was still a clear morning and take my time at all the hiking spots and overlooks on the way down. The road eventually climbs up to the tree line and above and it activated my agoraphobia (fear of large open spaces) with no guard rails and steep slopes where a car could tumble end-over-end for a mile or two if it were to go over.

Don't go off the road here. That would be bad.

The scenery becomes spectacular and finally you arrive at the top, more than 14,000 feet above sea level and the air is cold as well. I was wearing shorts but donned my hiking boots with wool socks and a fleece anorak thing to hike around the top. Except for their being way too many people, I have to say it was awesome and I recommend it to everyone.

A view of Pikes Peak over a small reservoir on the road that leads to the top.

I've heard that elevation has been revised. This is the highest ground I have stood upon, not counting airliners.

Yeah. This is me, age 37. Can I go back to then? There are some things that need fixed.

That night I camped in the howling wind. I heard a few animals around but otherwise it was a good night. I later figured out that the animals were small rabbits common in the scrub and grassland of the Front Range. They were almost tame and it was possible to approach very close although for some reason I never took a photo. They were smaller than the cottontails we have in the east, and somewhat stocky looking. I researched online and determined they were likely a prairie sub-species of cottontail.

Camping here. If I could camp here, on this day back in 2010, I'd be perfectly happy if it was Groundhog Day and I could relive it over and over again for the rest of my life. The Colorado Front Range is the most perfect place in the world in early September.

The next day, Labor Day, I decided to try out mountain biking. I had put it off for a couple of days to attempt to allow my cardiovascular system to adjust to the altitude. I chose to start at a trailhead near my campsite and ride some easy trails down towards the visitor’s center, near the bottom of the mountain slope. The trail designers there favored these tight rock formations that you can barely fit through on a bike without snagging a pedal. At first I was excited that I was having little trouble breathing but eventually I had to start climbing again to get back up to my campsite and that’s when it got ugly. I had to stop about 3 times to rest where normally I would have expected to complete the entire climb. In the end, I had ridden about 5 miles, not much by my standards but considering the elevation, I thought it was pretty good. [Commentary added in 2014: I also have to mention the quality of the trail as it was smoother than anything I had ridden in the Southeast, or have ridden since. Trail is just smoother out there].

That is what I call smooth singletrack mountain bike trail. For anyone thinking the path had a surface laid down, I assure you, that is just what the soil looks like there. The pink granite of the region naturally breaks down into fine pea gravel, and there are virtually no roots.

A view from one of the mountain bike trails at Cheyenne Mountain State Park.

After mountain biking and lunch, I decided to head over to check out Garden of the Gods, a series of red sandstone rock formations on the edge of town. It being a holiday, there were way too many people present, but the problem wasn’t the numbers, it was the fact that too many were in a hurry. I got some spectacular photos and after I got off the sidewalks and onto some actual trails I enjoyed the experience. [Additional commentary from 2014: my memories of Garden of the Gods now are wonderful so although the crowds were annoying at the time, I had completely forgotten until I reread the draft, which feels like a victory of some type.]

The Garden of the Gods. Pikes Peak is the high mountain in the distance.

Garden of the Gods. Cheyenne Mountain is in the distance beyond the last red rock formation to the right.
Balanced Rock at Garden of the Gods.

This cute girl asked me to take a picture of her with her friend and then took mine. And that was about 20 pounds ago.

The following day (the fourth day of the trip) I actually followed up on the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, which had been too busy on the day I went to Pikes Peak. This was a cool bit of history, with ruins that dated back to before the arrival of Europeans in North America. It was a relatively short experience (about 90 minutes including the attached museum) so I went up to eat lunch in Woodland Park and then on to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. I had arrived just in time for a lecture in front of two giant fossil redwood stumps from over 30 million years ago – very interesting natural history. Then I went on a 1 mile loop hike to see the rest of the petrified forest under an angry afternoon sky.

The cliff dwellings at Manitou Springs. I had trouble getting a wide view of the site but this gives you a pretty good idea.

A petrified redwood stump at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Then with about 3 hours of daylight left, I decided to take the scenic route back to the campground so I could have a good look at authentic Rocky Mountain high country. The drive led me through high range land and remote parts of Pike National Forest and into an area of “high chapparel” that is one of the most desolate, lonely stretches of highway that I’ve ever driven. I was amazed by actual tumble weeds rolling across the highway. My GPS told me I was well above 8,000 feet for much of this drive. Finally in the waning hours of daylight I descended to the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River. The vegetation around there really drops off and it becomes a near desert. I didn’t get to the gorge in time to cross the bridge but I did get to the overlook to take pictures. It’s an amazing place, with the gorge a vertical 2000 feet deep. Then I headed back to the campsite in the dark through Canon City, eating at a Denny’s (I miss Denny’s, there are none in the Chattanooga area). That was a full day.

Behold the notorious South Park, Colorado (the dry looking basin in the middle distance) from Wilkerson Pass.

A lonely ranch in South Park.
Royal Gorge

The following day I decided to try mountain biking again, this time somewhere with a more authentic western feel. I had originally hoped to ride in the high country but having experienced the effects of hypoxia on Monday, I decided it was best to ride around 6000-7000 feet. The place that looked good was Red Rocks Open Space. The concept of an open space was new to me but they appear to be all over the place in Colorado. Basically it is a park, in this case a city park, but a park that preserves some of the feel of the original open range where foot traffic, bicycles, and horses are expected to share the use. It’s an interesting concept. Red Rocks is located around some mini-canyons of red sandstone similar to that at Garden of the Gods, and in fact it is relatively close to Garden of the Gods.

Putting the "open" in Open Space. This is an example of the grasslands of Red Rocks Open Space. That is Garden of the Gods in the distance, the mountains of the Rampart Range in the background.

The ride did not start off well and I was immediately breathing hard. Then I lost the trail and gashed open my shin on a pedal and had to tend to it with my medical kit. I was ready to give up when I finally found the correct trail and having spent the first 1.5 miles climbing now had a nice long gradual downhill. After that I had caught my breath and felt warmed up and I was able to explore much of the remaining trail. Although it was not a wilderness experience, it was a great ride. I took my time, photographing all the unique rock formations and getting pictures of the surrounding mountains and the Garden of the Gods. I really felt good although I still think I rode only 6 or 7 miles at the most.

Putting the "red rocks" in Red Rocks Open Space. The park is in Colorado Springs but trails lead from here into Pike National Forest and thence into the high country. There is a virtually unlimited amount of riding and hiking available from this city park. We have nothing on the scale in the Southeast, at least not from a sizable town.
Another view of the sunlit Garden of the Gods from near the high point of Red Rocks.
Non-red rocks at Red Rocks Open Space. There are dinosaur tracks up there somewhere but it's now off limits to the public.

More red sandstone.
An abandoned rock quarry. This was hike-a-bike for me.

There are a some pillars similar to Garden of the Gods here but not on as large of a scale.

Later that evening and the next day my legs were very sore and I figured something out. The elevation doesn’t only affect your lungs. It also affects your muscles. The reason you need to breathe hard is because your muscles need more oxygen when they are working hard. I had wondered why my legs seemed to be struggling in addition to my lungs but it all makes sense now.

The next day (Thursday), I left for Rocky Mountain National Park, diverting a little out of my way to have a look at the city of Fort Collins, because everyone always says it is so great. Although it is a nice city, it seems a little overly yuppie-infested. It also has the look of a cold, snowy place. I have trouble describing what I mean by that but I’ve been to a lot of places and when I see a place that reminds me of Canada I think “Woah!” Fort Collins is farther north than Colorado Springs and I think it must be colder.

Finally I drove up into the park via Big Thompson Canyon and the town of Estes Park. What is there to say about the park? It’s an amazing place. There are numerous mountains of over 10,000 feet elevation and many square miles of alpine tundra. There are beautiful green forests of Douglas fir and glacial lakes. There are even a handful of glaciers that remain, although they are now small. Elk and other wildlife abound.

A view of Long's Peak (I think) from just a few yards uphill of my campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The south end of a north bound elk. I'd never seen an elk in the wild before I went on this trip.
Moraine Park in RMNP.

The first evening I went for a short ride on my bicycle on Bear Lake Road through Moraine Park. There is no mountain biking allowed in RMNP so you have to ride on the roads. That afternoon I spoke with a volunteer and picked up a map with some highlighted half-day hikes. The next morning I chose to do what he called the “crown jewel” of the park. Bear Lake is an easy .5 mile fully accessible hike but it isn’t apparent what is so great about it until you get to the far side of the lake and can see the high snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. Pick your jaw up off the ground and move onto the trail that leads up to Nymph Lake.

The view from Bear Lake.
A view of Glacier Gorge from the trail.

The volunteer I had spoken to had disdained Nymph Lake because it was small and full of lily pads, as if lily pads are ugly. I still thought it was lovely. Then the trail proceeds further up the gorge to Dream Lake. I was amazed at the small stream crossing where you walk across the outflow from the lake on halved logs. It’s a beautiful place with sheer cliffs and rock pinnacles in the background. Then you come upon the lake itself. Wow.

Nymph Lake, disdained by a park volunteer due to the lily pads. That's not ugly, it's lovely.

Tyndall Gorge rill. This small area where water flows down from Dream Lake to Nymph Lake is one of the most amazing little places I've been.
Dream Lake. The final lake is up in the cirque that is visible above the scree slop at the head of the lake.
Up until this point, the trails had been a bit crowded, but the crowds dropped off after I passed Dream Lake and headed further uphill to Emerald Lake. On the way I could hear some hooting and hollering but that is to be expected in such a heavily traveled park. When I got there I was blown away. Most of the forest disappears and Emerald Lake resides in a small bowl of rock formed by glaciation and a landslide at the mouth. The structure is referred to as a cirque. It is surrounded on 3 sides by vertical rock cliffs with only a short steep slope around the edges of the lake. It’s classic alpine scenery and literally looks like something from the Alps. Oh yea, the screaming was from some veterans who were there on an excursion, back from Iraq and Afghanistan skinny dipping in the lake. At this point it started snowing. Talk about extreme personalities!

Emerald Lake. I did not have a good enough camera to capture the entire lake in a single shot.

Anyway, I have been on a lot of really good hikes, mostly in the in the Southern Appalachians. We have a lot of beautiful places, with a special emphasis on waterfalls. I have been on hikes in a number of other places as well but I have to say the hike that includes Bear, Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes is my new favorite. What an amazing hike!

In the afternoon I took a drive up above the tree line on Trail Ridge Road to head over to the continental divide. It was something done on a whim but I decided to cut it short due to getting a warning indicator on my dashboard. Considering I was down to the last couple of hours of my vacation (I was due to leave the next morning), it wasn’t too much of a disappointment. I will just have to visit it again on some other day. Fortunately the warning indicator turned out to be just be a worn out gas cap so I replaced it at an auto parts store and went ahead and drove until midnight to get a head start on the return trip. I arrived 9 days after leaving. I have to say this is the best vacation I’ve been on since I was a child. I will go back again.

Cirques from Trail Ridge Road.
Feels like you could fall off the mountain here.

[Author’s note: I went back the very next year in 2011 but did not preserve a good narrative while it was fresh in my memory so a blog post would be more difficult to construct. Another trip is planned and if I have my way I will move to Colorado or other points west at some time in my life, either in retirement or sooner if I can manage it. I’m really struggling right now to get my house back into a condition that it can be sold, which is necessary to relocate.]