It’s funny how living a spontaneous life can lead you in random directions. A month or so ago, my friend Amy in Denver messaged me to come out sometime. I knew I had a few weeks vacation left this year, and also knew that hiking season in Colorado is about to get cold and icy. So I did some quick planning, and voila – motions were set for me to drive to Colorado (with all my hiking/backpacking gear) the following week!
My plan was to stay with Amy for a couple nights in Denver, do a day hike with her, then head out on my own to camp and hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was way too short of notice to get a flight for cheap, plus I needed to haul all my equipment anyway, so I loaded up my car and set off for Colorado! (I’ll do another blog post later on at some time to review my gear – it’s kind of in an evolution phase right now).
I decided that this was a vacation, and driving was part of it. So I was in no hurry. Shortly after taking off I learned my good friend Andrea was in Kansas City for a conference. The timing was perfect so we met for dinner as I was passing through!
A little bit after leaving Kansas City I was greeted with a picture perfect Kansas sunset. So pretty! This picture doesn’t get the whole horizon, but it was entirely orange as far as you could see each way.
After spending the night in the middle of Kansas, I arrived in Denver on Sunday afternoon. I got a few camping supplies I needed at REI, then met Amy at her place. What views she has in Denver!
We had a great time catching up, watching football, and preparing for our day hike the next day. Her friend Pete is a local expert at hiking, he recommended a place near Boulder called “Mitchell Lake Trail” up past the Boulder area. The next day we drove up there (about 1.5 hour drive or so), and off we went!
I can’t describe how beautiful this hike was in person. I can share a few pictures but being there puts you in a whole new world. It was like I was in this enchanted wonderland of nature. So much natural beauty that you normally only see on TV. Being in the middle of it kind of puts you into this warp zone, you can’t believe you’re actually there. You know there are dangerous wild animals lurking very possibly near you, but you try to ignore that fact and just soak it all in.
We are slightly nervous as we saw signs that this is in active forest for bears, mountain lions, and moose. It’s very rare to see these animals, and even more rare to have a bad encounter. However the slight chance is always there so as new people to this forest we are both have our heads on a swivel haha. Amy DID see a bear off in the woods on the way back down! We had no interest to stick around for me to sight it out too (lol) but I’m glad she was able to experience that!
The forests are lush, green, with manicured rocky trails. People pay huge money for manufactured landscaping like this, but this is all natural. Everywhere.
Our total hike to the top was about 2.75 or so miles… so we did close to 6 miles round trip. The first mile was in the forest (see pics above). We are gaining elevation along the way, and eventually we pop out past the “tree line” as they call it. Trees can’t typically grow in elevations above 10,500 (or so?) feet. Once we reached that elevation thereabouts, we started to be able to see the “bluebird sky” and the mountain formations we were trekking deep into. We also passed a few beautiful small lakes during our ascent. Notice the rocky trails we had to walk on – we were out of the forest so now the paths are basically cut through or actually on big rocks/boulders.
As we got higher and higher, we had to stop for breaks here and there for water and catching our breath. I wasn’t used to the thin air so I had to catch my breath more than back home in Indiana. You can still breathe OK but you need more breaths. If you’ve never been in higher elevation it’s hard to explain. Your body isn’t getting as much oxygen in each breath so you need to learn how to breathe more efficiently.
We passed several small lakes along the way. Here are a couple of them and surrounding backdrops.
We knew there was a bigger lake up at the top. Once we finally made it, it was sooo worth the walk up! (actually, the entire trip up was worth the walk up!)
We stayed up there awhile (it was pretty windy and cooold) then made our descent back down. It took about an 1 hr, 45 mins to go up…. and about 1 hr, 30 mins to go back down. Going down was easier physically, and also granted us forward facing views of everything below us that we’d climbed. I’m still in awe back at home writing this.
Phew… what a day! That wore us out, so after getting back down to Boulder (about 45 minute drive from the Trail Head), we had some amazing tacos at a local place – by the way, tacos out west are WAYYY better than in Indiana haha – then we made a visit to my friend Deanna, who just happened to live (seriously) about 4 blocks from the taco place we randomly stopped at. I found this out after texting her while eating. I knew she was in Boulder but had no idea where. How cool that she was literally 4 short blocks away. We had a nice visit with her then headed back to Denver.
After a fun night in a pub watching football and reminiscing with Amy. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time! Thank you Amy! I got a good night’s sleep on her 3 foot tall air mattress she has for guests (no joke! so comfortable!). In the morning, we said our goodbyes, and I rolled out the on my way to a group hike I had scheduled via AirBnB Adventures. I had no idea this was a thing! I accidentally found it. For just $50 you can sign up for a group hike, you join random strangers with a guide for a 1/2 day hike onto a nearby mountain. How cool is that?
So I drove to the meeting place in Golden. That is about 1/2 hour drive from downtown Denver. You may recognize that town as that’s where Coors Brewery is. I’d done that tour several years ago on another trip – pretty cool, you should try it if you’re ever out there.
Anyway, we all met at a coffee shop, made our introductions, and got to know the guide. She was VERY nice, very knowledgeable, and made a plan for us. She does this group thing each week, so she decides where to take the group based on the group presented before her. She decided we were all in good enough shape to hike to a mountain peak! So we carpooled or drove our own cars (I drove myself) to a mountain trail head about 45 mins from Golden.
Here are some pictures from that hike. This was a MUCH harder hike than the one Amy and I did. It was mostly forest switchbacks. Switchbacks are paths that zig and zag up a hillside. The hill is way to steep to go straight up, so you zig and zag up it at more manageable grades. Once we got above the tree line, the paths were more normal, and the views were spectacular!
After another 30 or so minutes we finally made it to the peak! We had to do some physical rock climbing at the very end (kind of nerve racking but doable), but once up there we had 360 degree views of every peak around us! So gorgeous!
We made our way back down the mountain to our cars, and I had to start heading to Estes Park. I had a camping reservation at Rocky Mountain National Park that night. It was about a 2-3 hour drive for me to get there. On the way I stopped in Boulder for gas and a few supplies at Walgreens.
Here’s a side story. While parking in Boulder I actually had my life threatened by a homeless man (no joke). I parked on the street, got out of my car, and he started yelling at me with this very evil stare. “I see you looking at me”… he said. (I wasn’t looking at him – in fact I didn’t know he was there until he spoke to me). I said “what?” He looked me square in the eyes and yelled and pointed “I WILL KILL YOU!!!” it was seriously like Jack Nicholson in The Shining …. I’m like… oookay. I just walked away 😮 Let’s just say I had a much friendlier experience in Boulder the day before with Amy and Deanna haha. Anyway I left there asap, and Waze had me driving through the University of Colorado campus to get to the highway to Estes Park – that was a cool experience.
I finally got to Estes Park with only about 1 hour of daylight left. I didn’t have any time to sight see at all that night, I had to find my campsite and set up, pronto. I checked in at the gate, and the attendant gave me the standard precautions about how to avoid bears in your camp. Put things in the bear box, and in your trunk, etc. I’d already researched all that and came VERY prepared, but she said they like to come out at night and sniff around. She said the bears even know how to see if your door is unlocked 😮
Luckily there was no fire ban in the park, as each site had a fire ring. I bought some fire wood from a lady at the campground. I didn’t see wood by her at first but I did see snacks and drinks near her… I asked her “you selling fire wood?” She looked at me with a PO’d face and said in a sarcastic tone: “No, I’m just staring at it”. Turns out it was in a box truck in front of her. I’m then thinking… well, at least she didn’t threaten to kill me.
I got to my camp (had to walk up a hill from my parking spot), I had a really pretty spot that was a bit away from the nearest neighbors. I was the closest spot to the forest… which means the closest spot to the bears. Amy had joked to me in Denver the day before “You’ll be the appetizer” haha.
I set up camp and finally was able to fire up my camp stove for dinner. I snapped a couple of pictures of the site all set up at night.
By this time I was exhausted to say the least. I packed up anything that had a scent and put them in the bear box that was at my camp site. (trash, toiletries, toothpaste, anything… I wanted no part of any bears sniffing my tent). Needless to say, no matter how tired you are, you are pretty apprehensive in a tent by yourself in bear country. Every gust of wind sounds like a 300 lb bear lol. I was able to doze off a few hours later thankfully. But I was awakened by this crazy wind storm around 2am or so. It wasn’t a rain storm, it was a legit wind storm. I could see the stars in the sky. I would say the gusts were 40-50 mph… my Nemo Galaxi tent held strong! No wind got in, nothing came loose, I felt very secure.
By that time I was getting used to the whole “sleeping in bear country” thing, so I fell asleep after the wind storm, and woke up a little before daylight. (This is when bears are most active by the way) I put on my headlamp and walked to the restroom, which was about a 3 or 4 min walk. You can bet your life my head was on a swivel lol. I didn’t see or hear anything so all was good. Back at camp, I started setting up a fire and my camp stove and such for breakfast. Talk about a grand start to the new day, check out some of the sunrise pics. I had a killer breakfast view for sure.
Once it was full daylight, I packed up and wanted to drive around the park to do some sightseeing and see some wildlife. I didn’t have to wait long. These two were right by my camp!
I drove out of the campground, and found a slew of professional photographers focusing in on a giant prairie. I pulled over to get a few shots and a video.
I drove more around the park for a few hours. I had to stop a lot, to take pictures of all the golden Aspen trees. Did you know that Aspen trees are the world’s largest living organism? When you see them all grouped together, they are basically all one tree, joined by their roots! Amazing. Here are a bunch of pictures of Aspen groves/trees around the park.
I had planned on camping in the park for three nights, however a big snowstorm was about to hit the area the next day. I decided to get out of dodge that day, and start my way home early. I didn’t mind so much, as I didn’t want to be stuck on a mountain snow storm. Anyway, after taking all the pics above around the park, I started down a road that I thought was an exit to the park. I went back several miles, and ended up at a dead end, which was a gem called Bear Lake. It had a pretty big parking lot, with lots of people there. So I got out to check it out.
There were many hiking trails leading out from Bear Lake, and trust me I was VERY tempted. I would have if I didn’t have to leave that day. But I started heading East right after the pictures above, starting my long drive back home.
I made it to Lawrence, Kansas after a looooong drive that day and into the night. I spent the night in a very nice interstate hotel… it was a brand new place, very luxurious but at cheap interstate price. Trust me that soft bed and hot shower was amazing after the last few days!
The next day I stopped for gas in Missouri. As I was pulling out, I saw a sign that said “Lake of the Ozarks – 60 miles” down this side road. I thought about it for a second and said “hmm. Ok!” So I went down that road to see about backpacking/camping down there, since I had an extra night to kill now. Now let’s be clear – this was NOT ideal hiking/camping weather. It wasn’t cold, but it was nasty rainy. All day and all night. BUT. I still wanted to do it as I had invested in “crappy weather” gear, so I wanted to test it out.
I made my way to the lake, and I had picked out “Ha Ha Tonka State Park”. It’s known for it’s geological formations and elevations. Perfect for hiking. Backcountry camping was allowed too. Perfect.
I parked and luckily had a 2 hour window free of rain, I made it back to a designated backcountry solo campsite I signed up for at the visitor center. I was really racing to get back there as I could hear thunder off in the distance. I didn’t mind walking in rain but didn’t want to set up camp in it.
I made it back there in time, set up camp near this amazing creek with a little waterfall. The rain never came back till after dark, so I had time to cook dinner and such before. It was some pretty rocking storms most of the night. I was safe from lightning as I was deep in a gully, I wasn’t up on a ridge. But I was still happy to be back there in the middle of the dark wet woods, as my gear worked awesome. I was dry the entire time, everything held up well. The next morning I toured the rest of the park by car, I saw an old abandoned castle ruin, and some killer views of part of the Lake of the Ozarks.
I got home the next night, driving to Indy from the lake, in a driving rainstorm the entire way. It was pretty uneventful though thankfully.
What a trip! I’ll always remember this. Thank you so much to Amy for hosting me in Denver, I had so much fun hanging with you, as always!
Terry – October, 2019