Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Most Beautiful Place in Colorado

We were hiking towards the South Colony Lakes this morning, when we met a group of hikers coming down off the trail.  We like to ask other hikers about their experience on the trail, and he told us, "It's the most beautiful place in Colorado!" with a starry-eyed gleam that made us hike upward even faster.

But that's telling the end of the story at the beginning of the blog, so after that teaser we must start at the beginning.  We were really looking for a shorter hike since another of those daily afternoon thunderstorms was predicted.  We had a forest ranger brochure that gave the distances to different mountain lakes from their nearest trailheads.  When we found South Colony Lakes was only 1.3 miles from the trailhead, we thought it would be a great 2.6 mile round-trip hike for a potentially rainy day.

But then we found out that two-wheel-drive vehicles couldn't make it to the trailhead.  Instead, we would have to park our car 2.5 miles further down the road.  That now makes it a 7.6 mile hike.  That's not too bad for experienced hikers like the Engelmans, and we are fresh this morning and ready for a good hike to those mountains now hidden by clouds.

Could we have driven our little Honda CRV down the four-wheel-drive road and avoided that extra five miles of walking? Absolutely not!  We found sections with big rocks and even bigger holes.  There were lines on the rocks where the underside of vehicles had scraped.  We saw car parts littered over the worst sections.  Mark could just imagine Denisa screaming all the way if he would have tried to drive our car up that road.
So instead of driving, we walked those 2.5 miles (uphill!) and enjoyed the solitude of nature instead of Denisa's screaming.  We were joined by a pair of yellow birds that finally sat still long enough for a picture. On the bright side, we wouldn't have seen them if we were driving by.
Once we got to the trailhead, we joined the hard-core hikers with their four-wheel drive vehicles.  Actually, we saw only a few people on the entire trail today.  But the ones we talked to were very excited about this hike.  So we plodded along, hemmed in by pine trees on this "short hike."  The spring snow melt had filled the creek, and there was even water running through most of the rocky trail as well.  It was hard to keep our feet dry as we jumped from rock to rock.

Three hours into the hike, we finally see a glimpse of the majestic mountains we have been climbing towards.  But even from the four-wheel-drive trailhead, we have obviously hiked much further than the 1.3 miles that the ranger brochure promised.

We get to a Y in the trail, hike further and finally come to this sign.  After hiking for 4 hours, we are still further from the lakes than the brochure promised. I think we have been tricked into taking this hike!  The local marmot promptly stood up on his back legs and laughed at us.

But the mountain valley that we were stepping into was absolutely lovely.  We had hiked to almost 11,680 feet by now, and Crestone Mountain was looming over our shoulder.  Crestone is the second highest mountain in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, looming over us at 14,294 feet.
You can barely see Denisa standing in the snow in the bottom left corner in the picture below.  Most of the time it was easier to walk on the snow rather than the muddy ground that was saturated with snow melt.  In this picture we can now see Crestone Peak, but also pointy Crestone Needle as well.

Walling off the third side of the valley was another 14,000+ peak--Humboldt Mountain.

Mark took a panorama shot that include the trifecta--all three fourteeners in one picture.  It was absolutely breath-taking to be standing in that valley.

Just to prove that Mark was also there, Denisa borrowed his cell phone to take a picture.  It seems that the batteries on her camera were down.  We hadn't planned very well for this "short hike".  We didn't check camera batteries, and we didn't pack a lunch. We were just glad that the water bladders in our back packs were full when we started.
There was one thing that kept this gorgeous mountain valley from being complete paradise.  All this moisture has led to a healthy crop of mosquitoes that were buzzing us from all directions.  We were prepared with a good coating of bug spray, but they would still do fly-bys in front of the camera lens.  That flying object that looks like a bird in the center of the next picture is actually a mosquito that is about the size of a bird.

Our hiking has obviously slowed with all the the picture-taking and jaw-dropping.  We are now five hours into the hike and we finally found the lower Colony Lake that was our original destination for the day.
There was a roaring creek that connected this Lower Colony Lake to the Upper Lake.  We had to cross that swollen creek and there was no bridge.  Our shoes were already wet from the snow, but they were now soaked from the creek crossing.

But the view of the Upper Colony Lake sitting under Crestone Needle was worth having wet feet.  This really might be the most beautiful place in the beautiful state of Colorado.
Some times we just had to stop and stare as we witnessed another one of God's wonders on this epic hike.
We are now preferring to hike in the snow, because the trail looks like a muddy little river that is running higher than our shoe tops.  Between the mosquitoes and the mud the fun meter is going down once we leave the jaw-dropping beautiful section.  We will hike the last 7 miles with saturated socks and hiking shoes. 

Now six hours into our hike, we are leaving that majestic valley behind, to start our descent back to our car many miles away.  Just as the weatherman has promised, the clouds are building, and it feels like it could rain any time.  In fact, the breeze was so cool it felt like we were hiking with the air-conditioner on.
Returning the way we came can make for a boring downhill hike home.  We had noticed mountain sheep prints in the mud earlier, and we were rewarded with a peek of a small herd scrambling up the rocks.  The little ones were losing their winter coats, and were having a hard time keeping up with the adults.
We would later find out that four-wheelers used to be allowed to drive up to the area where we saw the 1.5 mile sign.  So perhaps the ranger brochure just needs to be updated.  All we know is that we hiked 13.5 mile to see the South Colony Lakes today.  But it was such a beautiful place that we were really glad we made the hike.  We were prepared to hike back in the pouring rain, but those clouds just continued to build instead.  We got back to our car, and within two minutes the downpour started.  Once again we were blessed with a dry hike.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Day Off from "Work"

We have determined that our bodies can't keep up with long hikes every day, so our plan is to take a day off from all this "work" to allow some recovery time.  So we spent the entire day close to our camping spot, and didn't even move the car.  

But Denisa seems to think that we need some exercise, even on our days off.  So we opted for a bike ride around the pasture this morning.  The only problem with this plan is that we are parked in the valley, and all the roads seem to be headed uphill. By the time this picture was taken we were seeing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at eye level.  We had puffed and pedaled our way up to 9,300 feet in elevation.

We made it all the way into the National Wilderness area, but the entire trip was uphill.  The scenery was great, but we determined that we are not mountain bikers.  To top it off, Denisa hit a big hole hidden in the grass and had a bike wreck. She has a couple bruises and a scrape, but the only thing broken was Mark's bike mirror when he threw his bike down to come check on her. After almost 5 miles we were finished with this ride, and ready to get back to our day off.

We later took a walk down to the creek to check the head gate that feeds water into the lake.  Along the way is an old barn, that looks as pretty as a picture with the mountains behind it.
There were chores to do like feeding the fish.  We are also a little worried about some of the other woodland creatures around our camping spot.  This chipmunk might be cute, but we are just wondering about his intentions of moving in with us in the motorhome. This picture was taken from the driver's window, and they are frolicking around our vehicles all day.
We have also discovered that his rodent cousin, the field mouse, has decided to move in with us.  So we were busy setting traps on our day off.  Besides feeding fish and rodents, we also had to feed ourselves.  It was a great time to test Mark's camp fire cooking skills.  He did great on the grilled pork chops and potatoes, but we determined grilled broccoli will never be a family favorite.
The coals were still hot enough after dinner to cook up some smores.  Proving that Mark is the master of both meat and dessert, these are some beautiful toasty marshmallows that he cooked up for us.
We slipped them between graham crackers and chocolate for one of our favorite summer time desserts.  Sitting on the porch eating smores is a great way to top off a great meal on a day off.

We know that we are so blessed to enjoy 52 weeks of vacation a year.  We are having a great time enjoying God's wonders like this beautiful sunset at the end of the day.  But now it's time to get some sleep, so we'll be ready for another day of "work" tomorrow.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Snow at Lake Goodwin

We were up at 5:30 a.m. this morning because we wanted to beat the afternoon thunderstorms that the weatherman predicted for today. It was a beautiful morning, and we were greeted by a mountain columbine on the trail.  That was fitting since it is the Colorado state flower.  After trying to grow these in her carefully tended garden at home, Denisa is still amazed that this beautiful flower grows in the wild here!

It was just a little past the columbine, as we rounded a blind curve in the trail, that we heard a loud crash in the thick forest to the right of the trail.  We have been warned about bears on every trailhead sign, and by every ranger information leaflet.  We knew that it had to be a large animal to make the sound of snapping wood that we both heard.  We startled something big, but we don't have any visual proof of what it was.  A little unnerved, now we had to convince ourselves that it was an elk or a large deer.  We also realized that Denisa didn't practice good bear protocol, as her first inclination when she heard the sound was to turn and run.

Talking loudly now, so as not to startle any other large creature, we continued on more carefully now.  We were rewarded with more bright wildflowers along the path. 

The trail often ran beside Gibson Creek.  This little creek is swollen with run-off from the ice melt from the mountain, and it sounded more like Niagara Falls than a mountain creek.  We couldn't talk to each other while we were standing here.  After talking loudly during most of this hike so as not to surprise any bears, we were glad for the sound of the waterfalls.

 We decided to take this trail, because we had read that there was a nice meadow about 2.5 miles from the trailhead.  A short 5 mile hike should be good for getting us acclimated, and also get us home before the afternoon rains.  The meadow was a beautiful destination!  It is another one of God's wonders that we love to explore.

This red-red robin was bobbing among these dandelions.  We used to try very hard to eradicate the dandelions in our yard.  If we would have only known that they make an awesome landscape if they are mixed with a rolling stream and a mountain in the background!

Other winged creatures were really enjoying those dandelions as well.
We watched as this butterfly gulped the nectar from the giant dandelions that dotted the meadow.
We have all the bird and butterfly pictures because Mark was doing some consulting on the phone at the time.  We had an unusually good phone signal here, and he was sitting in the shade giving computer advice while overlooking that beautiful meadow.  What a great office he has!

One last picture of the meadow before we leave to return to the trailhead, and finish a good hike before the rain starts.

But wait, what other beautiful things might we miss if we turn back now?  We just have no common sense when it comes to keeping a hike short. We both suffer from a severe case of "what-will-we-miss-if-we-don't-finish-the-entire-trail" syndrome. We just had to see the end of the trail!  So we continued down the trail, and we were glad we did.  A little further and we could see glimpses of snow still sticking to the sides of the mountain.  We kept this picture just because the mountain snow looks like Casper the Ghost.

And we would have missed this cute squirrel, looking out from his moss draped home in a tree along the trail.

At an elevation of around 10,500 feet we came to our first patch of snow on the path of the trail.  It's always fun to play in snow at the end of June.  The obligatory snowballs were formed and thrown to celebrate summer snow.

Gibson Creek roared with water the steeper the trail got.  We had to cross the creek several times, and there were no bridges.  This water crossing was especially wide, and there were no handrails on the fallen log that Denisa is tight-rope walking across.  It might not look like a narrow log, but when you know that falling off lands you into that frigid water and carries you far down the mountain it takes on a new dimension of scary.

We thought it was interesting that this unusual water plant was firmly anchored in the middle of this raging creek.

We were well over 11,000 feet, very close to finding Gibson Lake at the end of the trail.  We climbed through an opening in the forest to find a huge patch of snow that was hiding the rest of the trail.  Again there were snowballs, but this was a serious patch of snow. 
We found we couldn't go around it, we couldn't go through it, so we tried literally crawling straight up the side of the mountain.
 We finally had to admit defeat.  We weren't going to be able to see that lake at the end of the trail after all.  For all we know, the lake might be underneath all that snow.  After climbing that very steep section, we carefully calculated our options for getting down.  Mark suggested sledding until we noted the huge trees at the bottom were our only method to stop.  Denisa finally succumbed to the only safe way down--scooting on her bottom.

The hike back to the trailhead was easy, as the trip down the mountain always takes a shorter amount of time.  Aside from a few sprinkles, the weatherman didn't deliver the early afternoon showers that were predicted so we didn't even get wet.  Our short 5 mile hike turned into a very rewarding 9 mile hike that we thoroughly enjoyed, and we are feeling pretty good about our acclimation to the elevation here.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Our Attitude on Our New Altitude

After taking a month off to visit family in Oklahoma, we found out that we are out of shape and our lungs have gotten used to the extra oxygen that low-landers enjoy.  We found that walking uphill at 10,000 feet can be a challenge for us now, so we are trying to get acclimated to our new home altitude.

It takes some time to make the 19 mile trip to the little town of Westcliffe, because the first 8 miles are on pasture roads.  But we often have some interesting scenery as we make this journey.

We made the trip to go to the post office, grocery store, and ranger station.  We got some advice on trails to visit, and found that the unusually large amount of snow this winter means that most of the mountain lakes are still frozen, and the trails to them are still snowed over.

Our first hike was north of Westcliffe from the Gibson Trailhead.  We hiked along the Rainbow Trail that runs for almost 100 miles along the foothills of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains.  There are a myriad of mountain trails that go straight up the mountain from Rainbow Trail, usually toward a mountain lake.  But on our first hike, we tried to stay on the lower elevation of Rainbow Trail.  It was good to be back to hiking in the mountains!

We have been used to seeing lots of lizards on our desert hikes, but today's hike had a different scaly creature.  We saw three different snakes.  All had pointy tails, and this one even stayed on the trail for a picture.

We had planned a 5 mile hike, but couldn't help ourselves when the scenery was so beautiful.  We ended up with 6.5 miles--a good start at getting used to the altitude.  Our feet must be out of shape too, as they were begging for a dip in the cool water of the Gibson Creek.  What they got was ice cold water melted straight from the mountain snow pack.  It was so cold that it almost gave us instant frost bite!

We were back home in time to do a little fishing in the lake right outside our motorhome.

Denisa has mixed emotions about catching and eating some of her pet fish.  This trout is big enough to make a meal for two.

After catching supper, it was time to feed the survivor fish.  Instead of single pieces of fish food, today we threw a cup at a time in an arch across the pond.  The fish boiled to the top of the water in a frenzy when the food hit the top.

We're enjoying the cooler temperatures and our beautiful surroundings.  Since we don't have electrical hook-ups, we are having to run the generator twice each day for about an hour.  We don't have any television reception but we haven't missed it.  We normally turn the passenger seat towards the back of the motorhome, to make it an additional chair for television viewing.  But the best view is facing forward, out our large windshield.  This is our view during the day, and we've enjoyed watching deer cut across that meadow.

And this is our view in the evening as we watch the sun set behind the mountains.
 We're not missing the cable networks at all!