Category Archives: Colorado
Steamboat Springs was in some Chaos with the ski mountain closing right after Christmas in 76. The locals were in a world of hurt while us transients made our plans to move on. I went back to Indiana for Christmas, said my goodbye’s to my hoosier friends and packed up my VW Bug with everything Connie & I would need for a new life in Colorado. My father-in-law’s was impressed for how well I packed my car. I remember how excited I was to know what my next step of the Adventure was going to be. It felt so great to have the freedom to move to this beautiful state where I knew we could get jobs and prepare for the next adventure. Connie was doing the same in Indianapolis and was starting to lay some plans for our May wedding there.
I had secured us an apartment in Westminster, CO, near 72nd and Federal. Connie remembers it was furnished at $160 per month. Definitely a starter apartment but nice. We arrived in early January of 77 and all was good. I took the first job I could get which was a night janitor position in a large hotel on I-25 near downtown Denver. During the day I was looking for a better job. Connie landed a job as hostess at another large hotel in Denver taking a bus to work. Soon I landed a job as a chemist at Colorado International, a chemical formulating plant in Commerce City. This job was good in that it seemed like I was following what my education had prepared me for. However, things did not totally add up for this business. I was given far more responsibility than I deserved.
Connie lasted in her job until the National Western Stock Show rolled into town. Her hotel was strategic for the hosting of the stock show where many of the wealthy ranchers came to play. The story of her dismissal had to do with her response to one of these rich ranchers who was being extremely rude. Her response back to him, that she could be just as rude to him did not fly with her boss and she was immediately terminated. She did find another job that worked out much better. A positive from our time in Westminster was our motivation to drive into the mountains for great skiing. It was good prioritization of our recreation budget. And a tidbit about my old friend Steve. Turns out he found a way to return to Kansas City for a visit and on his way back got nabbed in Russell, KS, for possession of a few joints. He used his only phone call to call me to see how much money I could wire to them. Funny how the amount I could send turned out to be his fine.
I started asking more questions at Colorado International and even had my brother, a lawyer at Monsanto, do some research on this company. They needed someone who could run a Gas Chromatograph to validate various herbicide and pesticide products that they were formulating. But it did not take me long to question why we were buying raw chemicals and then packaging them to be sold at a loss. This was not a sophisticated operation and when my brother told me the owner had 22 chemical warehouses around the country, activities started to add up to a mafia type operation. Lot’s of strange things happened at Colorado International before I was able to quit latter that Summer, but I sure knew that I did not want to be apart of what ever was really going on there. The plant was destroyed after explosions and fire in December, 1977.
Our wedding on May 7th was nice. Married in the Butler University Chapel with a dinner reception for close friends and family at the North Willow Farms Clubhouse. I never really thought about how stupid I looked in a powder blue tux but that was my favorite so I went for it. Connie and I fulfilled the wedding expectations for our families but we were ready to return to Colorado where we were set to move into a nicer apartment complex in Boulder. I think this is when I realized Indiana was a good place to be from. Some advice for men, you should not get married the day after your birthday especially near the yearly holiday of Mother’s Day. This celebration gauntlet generates far too much tension.
Once in Boulder I started focusing on completing my IU degree at Colorado University. I validated my Colorado residency by living there for a year. And to my great surprise I applied for a government scholarship to help with my school expenses and I received all that I needed. Making very little money in 1976 set me up well for my scholarship request. We did not know what the future held but we were both into the Adventure.
It is the middle of autumn 1976 and I no longer have a job at Rabbit Ears Lodge nor do I have a place to live. But I was fortunate to get a job as a maintenance man for the Holiday Inn in Steamboat Springs. I guess my resume was strong with a few months experience as the maintenance man at Rabbit Ears Lodge. So Steve (Indian? Friend from Rabbit Ears Lodge) and I headed into Steamboat. I went to work and Steve looked for a place to live. We met at the Tugboat that first evening when Steve was excited to tell me that he found us a place to live just above the Tugboat with a couple of girls from New Jersey. Seems like I remember thinking, oh well, The Adventure Continues. Turns out it was a fairly sweet deal. The girls had the lease on an apartment with a main bedroom for themselves and a loft for Steve and I right in the heart of Steamboat Square or “Party Central”. I can’t remember if Steve got a job, but he did pickup some income dealing pot to the locals.
Our female roommates were not really our type so there were no sexual tensions, however, we sure did have some spats about the use of the apartment. Steve and I quickly became socially connected which in turn helped our roommates. In many respects the Tugboat was our living room. We spent a lot of time playing pool and forecasting how great the ski season would be. The Tugboat and Ski Time Square was an iconic landmark during the development of the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort. Across from us was the Sheraton Hotel that encompassed the entire ski base area. There were a few condos and and some private homes, but hardly the ski area development that now covers everything down to highway 40. I was officially living the life of a Ski Bum waiting for it to snow.
My job at the Holiday Inn typically focused on fixing the plumbing but I would also be called on to drive the hotel bus which was actually a converted school bus. Not sure if I got a commercial upgrade to my drivers license but I probably should have. I did have a stressful/embarrassing event when I was tagged to drive a group of visiting travel agents around Steamboat. They wanted to go up on the mountain as far as the roads would take us, however, a blanket of 4 or 5 inches of wet snow greeted us on a dirt road which may have been today’s Apres Ski Way. Well as I started up the incline I lost traction and the bus started to slide back down the hill. Luckily nothing was up there and we only ended up stuck. This was before cell phones so after apologizing to my passengers I had to hoof my way to a phone and call for help to extract our guests off the mountain.
This time in Steamboat for me was a search for my rite of passage into my adult future. This also translated into how to manage that freedom that comes with adulthood. Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll consumed our free time and I was taking it all in while trying to manage my consumption. This small community of 20 somethings was burning the wick at both ends and I was starting to question the sanity of such an existence. Luckily I had a serious girlfriend back in Indiana who helped to keep me grounded in discussions about a more stable life passage. However, I guess my adventurous spirit justified taking it all in. Keep in mind that America was coming out of the Hippie movement which glamorized trips on hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin and acid. Regretfully, I agreed to take an acid trip which was about a 24 hour commitment initially to wild hallucinating fun that faded into the painful reality that your body was not supposed to be treated this way. I do remember a fairly comical event from that trip. There were a few of us who ventured out into the night wanting to play in the snow. We found ourselves over at the Sheraton’s outdoor swimming pool that was empty and frozen. We thought it would be fun to slide down into the pool on the slick icy coating. We ended up in the deep end where there is that gradual drop-off from a depth of about 4 to 9 feet. And of course we could not climb back up the incline due to the ice. I can’t remember how long we were there contemplating our predicament, but it was a bit hilarious. I’m not sure how we did get out, but it gave me a a good reason to avoid hallucinogens forever thereafter.
I had come to understand that this loose life style was not for me, but I had to navigate this current environment as best I could. Thankfully, I did benefit from the experience that this beautiful Colorado ski town was offering. I explored the surrounding area of Routt National Forest and Steve and I actually went backpacking up to Gilpin Lake. My passion for this place was growing so I was looking for a way to continue a life in Steamboat Springs, although on a more responsible path. I had even heard about the curse: In 1881, Colorow, a Ute Indian leader declared: “Those who come to the Yampa Valley to live will never be able to leave.
My girlfriend, Connie, and I would talk about what it might be like if she joined me in this beautiful place. Out of those conversations my heart moved me to officially propose marriage over the phone and her acceptance included the stipulation that I come home to validate to her parents that it was going to be OK for their 20 year old daughter to quit school and move to Steamboat Springs. OK then, I got off work on a Friday afternoon and drove 22 hours straight to Indiana to ask for Connie’s hand in marriage and arrange for a way that she could join me at the beginning of the year in Steamboat. I must have sold myself well but I think this really happened because Connie’s parents knew she was going to do this with or without their blessing. I drove back to Steamboat an engaged man with a lot to think about.
It was early December and there really wasn’t any snow on Mt Warner, Steamboat’s ski mountain. Everyone dependent upon the ski industry was getting really nervous. They were trying to trigger snow by seeding the clouds with silver-iodide, they were even enlisting Indian medicine men to offer their influence. But it didn’t snow, we were officially in a drought. If the ski area lost the Christmas revenue it would be a disaster, so the local merchants loaned their physically capable staff to go up on the mountain and shovel snow out of the woods onto the ski runs in order to officially open for Christmas. I participated in this effort which generated a weird kind of camaraderie but it didn’t really work. The Ski Corp officially closed right after Christmas and the snow making equipment industry was launched. I opted for new plans to bring Connie out to Denver at the beginning of the year, where we would find jobs and reevaluate our next step. The wedding was planned for May.
My subsidized summer as a missionary was coming to an end and I needed a job. I fully intended to spend the upcoming year living and working on the Northside of Denver until I could qualify for in state tuition to go to the University of Colorado in Boulder. Awe, but the Adventure Continued elsewhere. I answered an ad in the Denver Post to be a Maintenance Man at Rabbit Ears Lodge located between Kremling and Steamboat Springs on the Eastside of Rabbit Ears Pass. My justification for considering myself a maintenance man came from mentoring from my fixit and make do father. This job wasn’t paying much so I figured I had a shot. Plus, this was a ‘Way Cool’ opportunity to live and work in one of the most beautiful lodges in the Rockies.
So I got the job, most likely because I could talk the talk and I had a brain. Basically they gave me room and board plus a small allowance. What the heck, that was all I needed, the Adventure Continued. Rabbit Ears Lodge was currently owned by a successful Realtor in Denver. The Lodge had been a Phillips 66 Executive Retreat, but I heard they had trouble justifying its tax write-off as laws changed and they sold it in 1972. So this Realtor from Denver got it cheap and thought he might turn it into a destination resort in the Rockies. And it probably could have happened if real money had been thrown at it. Instead I got to add a unique 4 months to my Adventure.
I was able to get out of my apartment lease and I packed all my belongings into my VW Bug and drove to Rabbit Ears. I had no idea how this was going to play out but I was game for the adventure.
The road to the property is accessed by a gravel road off of US Hwy 40 to the south just before you start your climb over Rabbit Ears pass. The 640 acre property surrounded the 110 acre Lake Agnes, which I was told was one of the deepest lakes in Colorado. Once I arrived and connected with the lodge Director, I was introduced to the small cast of employees who were responsible for running this rather exclusive mountain resort. We were all in our 20s trying to figure out where life was leading us.
The Cast of Characters
Ted was probably the oldest, maybe 25, and had been there the longest, which meant all summer. He was the cook and helped out in the office. He had the best room in the employee bunk house and sort of dictated the rules. Anna, a waitress/housekeeper, was a strange tiny girl who wanted to present herself as “Hippie Mysterious”. Her clothing leaned toward seductive, but she did not have the body to back it up. Leslie, a waitress/housekeeper, was mysterious in a different way, as in, why was she there. A fairly good looking girl whose story I would come to learn later. And then there was Steve, basically a handyman who helped with all of the recreational activities, fishing, horseback riding, and wilderness excursions. Steve was basically “full of shit” touting himself as being an Indian because he had the looks to back that up. And I was the maintenance man, mostly I fixed toilets, and filled in to help the guests have a good experience.
This place was paradise for us 20 somethings who all had a touch of adventurous spirit. We did have guests but not so many that it infringed upon our free time. Steve and I were not only thrown together for various tasks, but we did seem to develop some chemistry. Steve was from the wrong side of the tracks, but he could bullshit his way into any social scenario. He knew that he could not pull anything over on me which laid a foundation of honesty that I believe he greatly cherished. Steve was wild and crazy and I helped him manage some boundaries. We had a fabulous time maintaining and promoting all of the great recreational activities offered by the lodge.
Autumn was approaching and the guest reservations were dwindling. The lodge was hoping to see a spike in reservations connected with guests wanting access to skiing in Steamboat Springs. I don’t think we really cared, we just wanted this dream to continue. However, life did change for a long weekend when the owner from Denver brought his family to the lodge. We had all gotten pretty comfortable with the minimal work by day and heavy partying at night. We had to cleanup our acts and suck up to this pompous owner. He had a son maybe 10 years old who he essentially wanted us to babysit by providing him with our various wilderness adventures. However, I believe he realized that he should not entrust this child with Steve so I was pressed into duty. It was all cool, his son had a great time and I gained the owners trust. Basically I had to vouch for how this motley crew that was running his lodge were totally capable of handling the influx of guests that he was hopeful for.
Running the lodge did require that we accomplish various service and maintenance tasks. I remember fixing a lot of leaky faucets, broken toilets and splitting a lot of firewood. I learned about septic systems and fireplaces. And I learned a bit about horses since we had 5 or 6 that we would gladly schedule for guests, although I don’t remember any taking us up on that opportunity. Steve and I felt an obligation to exercise the horses, always coming up with reasons why we needed to ride to the far reaches of the property. However, I can’t say that I ever got comfortable riding. One day Steve and I were on horseback paused at the end of a really lush green valley. Steve must had dared me to race or pretend it was a calvary charge which set us off on a full gallop down the valley. I can’t believe I hung on because I only remember pure panic. Overall, how cool was it to live in the mountains at a beautiful lodge with your own horses and some of the best fishing in the Rockies.
Autumn at Rabbit Ears is amazingly beautiful when the aspens paint the hillsides with their flickering yellow leaves. Snow was starting to make appearances and guests were few in number. Steve was obsessed with seducing little Anna, but she was showing no interest so he was hoping a get-away to the Strawberry Park Hot Springs near Steamboat Springs would open that door of opportunity. These hot springs were a bit of a secret known only to the locals and we were more then overdue in taking advantage of them. Steve, Anna, Leslie and I headed off on this adventure thanks again to my VW. The video below shows the Springs today as a unique commercial spa operation still in the middle of the wilderness.
When we went there in 1976 it was a very unique Hippie Love-In type experience that was free to those who knew how to get there. The pools were laid out in terraces of hot to cool water with a fair amount of rock layout that provided a magically comfortable experience. It seemed like we stayed all night floating around naked under a light blanket of falling snow. I don’t think Steve had a breakthrough with Anna, but I had a good time with Leslie. In the coming days I would find out that Leslie wanted a more serious relationship. If that had a chance I needed to know more about who she was. Turns out she had lost a lot of weight and was now trying to figure out who this new skinny Leslie was. Unfortunately she was still carrying a lot of psychological baggage so I kept my distance from any involvement, plus I had learned that she and Ted had been an item which created some community tension. Leslie moved on shortly thereafter.
We were given 2 weeks notice that the Lodge was going to close for winter, so we used that time to plan our next adventures but we also tried to cram in as much of this beautiful experience as we could. The main lodge was a massive rock and wood structure that wrapped around the shoreline on Lake Agnes. The lower level was mostly open space designed for indoor recreation.
When we knew our time was nearing its end we spent a lot of time playing ping pong on a table setup in front of a fireplace that was a long as the table. Ted was the ping pong wizard, but I did end up his equal. The weather was probably terrible so we ended up playing ping pong day and night. It is amazing how good you can become during such an intense athletic effort. Of course I did draw from my youthful talent that took me to sixth grade Lafayette, IN, runner-up ping pong champion. It was a good way to phase down the Rabbit Ears experience and say our goodbyes. Steve and I ventured into Steamboat Springs where I found a job as “Maintenance Man” at the Holiday Inn. The Adventure Continued and Steamboat Springs would play a significant role.
Next Post: Steamboat Springs Ski Bum
Needing a job and a place to live, I landed just up the road in Steamboat Springs with the another maintenance man job at the Holiday Inn. I never really got to be a ski bum though, it did not snow in the Colorado Mountains during the 76/77 winter.
On New Year’s Eve, 1975, I was partying hard with my college friend, Jeff, in Aspen Colorado. Jeff and I decided to drive out for a Colorado Ski adventure in my 73 VW Bug. We had no real agenda other than to ski and party. It was a successful trip. I guess you could say that Skiing and Colorado captured my attention and motivation for future adventures. The stage was set for an incredibly important year in my life.
When I think of 1976 my thoughts are dominated by my Indiana Hoosiers Basketball Team that went undefeated winning the NCAA National Championship. I was a senior at Indiana University in Bloomington totally absorbed as a student fan of the greatest College Basketball team of all time. This team so deserved to win it all with an undefeated record because the previous year’s team would have accomplished that goal if Scott May had not broken his arm. I can’t remember where I watched the championship game but I do remember immediately heading to downtown Bloomington to celebrate the victory with thousands of other Hoosier fans. So 76 has always been etched into my profile and is most commonly reflected in my username/email address, ghsmith76.
1976 was about so much more the college basketball, that Spring during my final semester at Indiana I was riding on my fraternity’s Little 500 bike team until a hernia ended that biking career. I dropped some tough classes allowing for a light load which was conducive for serious partying. I had no idea what I was going to do after college, but I prolonged that decision a bit by coming up 6 hours short of qualifying for graduation. I even checked out the Nuclear Navy Program, but failed the physical due to being color blind. But life was good, I was ready for the adventure to begin.
I did get that hernia taken care of and I was starting to consider job options when my mother alerted me to an opportunity for a Presbyterian Missionary summer assignment to work at the House of Neighborly Service in Brighton, CO. The job was to help run the Day Care Center which served the children of the Chicano migrant workers in the area. Probably all that mattered to me was this opportunity provided a way to relocate to Colorado. It sure did seem like a great adventure.
I had no clue about the social issues surrounding Mexican migrant farm workers, but I would definitely learn. I was one of 4 recent college graduates who answered the call and thankfully one of us was a local girl of Mexican heritage. I learned a lot about what I represented to this Chicano community. To the families of these children, especially older brothers, I was a gringo or honky and I did not know why. I suppose I did some good for that community, but frankly I was mostly focused on being in Colorado.
My initial plan was to enroll at the Colorado School of Mines in order to get those needed 6 hours but also to explore an engineering curriculum, something that was unavailable to me at Indiana. So I went to Golden and spoke with the admissions folks, and found that all was good if I wanted to enroll. Then I found out there were only 6 female students in the entire university. After a brief evaluation of my options, I decided to explore engineering up in Boulder at the University of Colorado, however, this would have to wait a year until I could qualify for in state tuition. So, I was looking at a year living in Colorado. The Adventure had truly begun.
My commitment to the House of Neighborly Service was ending but I had this idea about how cool it would be to spend the night in the mountains, voila, backpacking.
One of the girls I volunteered with who was from Ohio agreed to this venture and we were able to acquire the basic backpackers needs. We didn’t really know where we were going but I knew that there must be a good spot up toward Rollins Pass. All was going well, we hiked down to a small lake, setup our tent, and started warming our dinner over a sterno fire. On that night, July 31, 1976, the skies opened up nearby at the Big Thompson Canyon, setting off the deadliest natural disaster in Colorado history. We survived that stormy night with no clue about how lucky we were. We were camping high enough to avoid the heavy runoff. The next day as we were redirected to drive back to Boulder via Denver, we turned on the radio to hear of the disaster that claimed 144 lives.
The aftermath of the disaster was centered in the town of Lyons just up the road from Boulder. I could not help from being drawn into the sadness that permeated the region, but I’m not really sure how it affected me. Shock and amazement about how quickly your life could be taken. Serious respect for understanding weather. Maybe it was just my initiation to my new life away from Indiana. Colorado was home for the next 11 years and it played a significant role in fulfilling my passion search of my 2nd Quarter.
In recent years I have returned to backpack in the Colorado Rockies and the connection is still strong.
Next Post: Rabbit Ears Lodge
My missionary job was ending and I needed a job. Lucky for me the Adventure Continued with the opportunity to be the maintenance man for the beautiful Rabbit Ears Lodge located between Kremling and Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
In Lake City I needed to reevaluate my overall trek goals. I was not making the milage to easily complete the CT before winter so I decided that completing the entire Colorado Trail was not going to happen. I had received many reports about how hiking through the open range cattle and the affect they had on water sources was not overly desirable. So I decided to skip the next couple of sections, primarily the Rio Grande National Forest. So I hitched a ride over to Gunnison to set myself up to return to the CT at Monarch Pass. My overnight visit to Gunnison proved to be one of the most enjoyable town visits of the adventure. Great beer at the High Alpine Brewery and and a great steak at the Ol’ Miner Steakhouse.
I was rejoining the CT on August 30 near the northbound entrance to the Collegiate West Loop. After a few miles I came upon a confusing sign which signaled a detour around Monarch Ski Area due to timber work being done. I knew there was a detour on the CT but I did not get the message partly due to the location of the map and also possibly due to my being colorblind and not really seeing the red and green lines on the map. I ended up hiking into the Monarch Ski Area where the Director of Operations rescued me by driving me back to where I should have been. He was truly interested in why I screwed up and I think he planned on changing some of the signage. I would say that Monarch Ski Area looked like a very nice ski mountain.
The trail again kept me above tree line and I did catch some rain showers on that first day back.
I had another great campsite above Ross Lake Reservoir next to a small lake. The next climb was up the Middle Fork of the South Arkansas River which took me over to the Hancock Lakes where I had another awesome campsite.
This was Labor Day weekend so I was sharing the area with weekend campers. The following day, Sunday, took me up the Alpine Tunnel Trail which much of it was the old railroad bed.
Again this was beautiful country and I ended up with a sweet campsite next to a stream where it was perfect to have a fire. Labor Day brought more of the same beauty and perfect weather, but I knew bad weather was on it’s way.
I ended up with another great campsite that I was alerted to in the Guthook Guide App and that evening gave me one of the best sunset cloud shows I have ever witnessed.
The day before I had broken one of my trekking poles but I determined that I could make it due if I could tape the seam together. As is my luck a SOBO backpacking couple came along just as I was working on this and they gave me much better tape to accomplish my task.
September 2nd would take me to Cottonwood Pass which presented a decision point.
I would need a few more days to get to Twin Lakes and a few more to Leadville. In those days I would need to cross over Lake Ann Pass and Hope Pass both substantially exposed. The thunderstorms that were coming were actually forming as I approached Cottonwood Pass so I decided to hitch a ride into Buena Vista and reevaluate my situation. After confirming how bad the next 5 days of weather appeared and discussing with my wife how it would be nice if I decided to head for home to help with watching our 15 month old grandson, I decided I had experienced the best of the Colorado Trail and that there was no need to weather the coming storms. So the Colorado Trail Adventure was over, but it was an awesome adventure whee I believe I experienced the best of the CT. A few day later when I was beginning my drive home I took this short video of the storms where I would have been hiking.
So I felt good about my decision.
My first week on the Colorado Trail, Durango to Silverton, was awesome and my visit to Silverton was successful for resupply, beer and and great steak dinner at Handlebars. I highly recommend the Avalanche Brewery and the Sultan IPA which is just a few doors down from the Blair Street Hostel. Overall Silverton is a great mountain town, however, they are a bit obsessed with OHVs. I did take a zero day mostly to allow my tired body to recover.
Jan, who runs the Hostel gave shuttle rides back to Molas Pass for $5 so I was back on the trail on August 23rd. Molas Pass is at 10886′ but you then hike down to the Animas River and the train tracks at 8918′. I did get to see the Durango to Silverton Tourist train go by and it did look like a good ride.
After the river you climb up the Elk Creek Canyon to above 12000′. I climbed as far as I could so to set myself up for the final hard climb the next day. I settled for a nice campsite in the trees where I had deer guests and learned a lesson about keeping my backpack close to the tent. Rodents chewed my shoulder strap where my handkerchief was attached and nearly severed that strap. I was fearful for the rest of my trek that the strap was going to break apart. This campsite also presented the most aggressive mosquitoes that I encountered. The next day would include the 5 avalanche debris fields that created some delay, however, routes had been created through them that were not too difficult.
The climb out of Elk Creek Canyon was a serious effort, but the beauty was inspiring. There was a stretch that got a bit technical but mostly it was about the altitude.
I maintained a slow but steady pace to finally arrive at what would be days above tree line. The view from the top looking back was awesome.
Once above tree line the wind became an issue, but the weather was good which allowed for various exposed campsites.
I ended up camping next to a small lake that appeared to have fish in it. Hiking above tree line reminded me of the Lofoten Islands but in a special Rocky Mountain way. Yes, the Rocky Mountains are really big rocks that dominate all of the vistas. Simply gorgeous.
My next campsite was again exposed but perched above a beautiful valley.
The following day I needed to position myself for the ascend to the CT High Point. The campsite again provided a fabulous view.
The High Point on the Colorado Trail is 13,271′ but you don’t sense that it is a high point since it is such a gradual climb. The wind was really blowing but the skies were blue and the temperature was fairly nice. The views continued to be amazing as I approached a view of Lake San Cristobal next to Lake City. I needed to get to water that was near a Yurt where a herd of sheep were being managed. The sheep covered the trail but were no problem to move through. I decided to hike on far enough to get away from the sheep. I again camped on a totally exposed hillside. The following day I passed open range cattle grazing. I needed to get to Spring Creek Pass Trailhead in time to catch a 12:30 pm shuttle back to Lake City. I stayed in the Ravens Rest Hostel making plans for what would be my next section.
I felt like this was the season I needed to take on the Colorado Trail. My trek in the Lofoten Islands of Norway got me in pretty good shape but it also meant I would get a late start on the CT. That translated to starting in Durango with the northbound goal of hiking to Denver. Normally I don’t focus on the through hike concept but I did initially hope to complete the entire CT. I was definitely onboard for the complete CT during my first week on the trail.
I knew that acclimating to the altitude was going to be critical for an old backpacker who was coming from an elevation of about 300′ in Oregon. So driving to Colorado was an excellent way to acclimate. Over about a week I adapted myself to the higher elevations of Colorado which enabled me to at least survive those initial days climbing up from Durango into the San Juan Mountains. Overall I believe that a late start on the CT is enhanced by taking on the northbound approach. Some positives were guarantees of maximum beauty in the San Juan’s, good water access thanks to a good snow year, and the sun is typically at your back (helpful for solar charging).
I was able to leave my car with a friend in Colorado Springs and receive a ride to the Durango Junction Creek Trailhead. I spent the night at the NFS Campground and started out on August 15th. I knew that the elevation climb over the next couple of days would be the greatest vertical change on the entire CT, close to 5000′ to Kennebec Pass but much more than that with the various undulations. The vertical alone would be tough but climbing from 7000′ to 12000′ feet is the real challenge. Once I reached 11000′ feet I was sucking air. Climbing at high altitude was slow and tiring, but thankfully I was not getting sick so my acclimation had worked.
The first day turned out to be longer then I might have planned, but water and campsite options dictate your decisions, So I had to go 14.5 miles with about 4000′ total ascent to Junction Creek for my first night. Yes you can push yourself the first day, but I sure was tired sharing the limited campsite space with about 15 other SOBO backpackers. I was getting acquainted with my various navigational aids: Guthook App, CT Databook, and my Garmin InReach Mini. Goal for Day 2 was Taylor Lake which I knew would push the altitude envelop but would set me up for the next days at that elevation. However, the 4000′ climb to Taylor Lake was brutal since high elevation took its toll. The last 500′ I would go about 20 feet and then rest, but I only had to cover about 8 miles so I had the time to slog along. I did have a bit of a headache at Taylor Lake, but nothing bad.
The trail to Taylor Lake was truly stunning. The beauty of the San Juan’s was exploding in perfect weather. Taylor Lake turned out to be a very nice campsite.
Day 3 would mean mostly hiking around 12000′ which amplified every uphill section. I was encouraged though because my body was not rebelling and I had hopes for getting stronger. However, water was known to be scarce in this section with a small seep of a stream as it was called as the only water for 22 miles.
The seep came after 7 miles which made for an easier day since that was my only campsite option. Unfortunately the seep occurred in a few places and from my northbound approach I ended up choosing to filter water out of the less desirable seep which ended up clogging my Katadyn water filter with mud. Oh well, live and learn.
But I did take advantage of the great viewpoint campsite just north of the seep. The following day meant 15 miles to the next reliable water, however, the terrain was not that tough so it turned out to be a good but I was tired. A strong motivator was the incredibly beautiful scenery that epitomize the San Juan’s. I do believe this is the most beautiful portion of the CT.
On my 5th day on the trail I was beginning to understand my challenges. One problem I have is loss of appetite while on the trail. This was not going to work for a sustained period of time so I would need to increase my calorie intake. I decided to address this issue in Silverton when I resupplied. Yes, Silverton, now I was starting to think about those nice cold IPA brews that I would have in town.
Blackhawk Pass presented some of the best hillsides of flowers that I saw on the CT. But not just here, the flowers were awesome throughout my CT Trek.
I was truly in heaven. The weather was fabulous and the scenery was amazing. My last night before Silverton was the beginning of many nights of being totally exposed above tree line, but the weather was cooperating. However, this day ended up being filled with smoke from a controlled burn.
My final push into Silverton at Molas Pass presented the most risky weather situation I had to deal with. Storms were forming but I felt like they were going to miss me to the south. Wrong, they moved north and overtook me when I had very little cover.
The hail was large enough to hurt so I had to essentially dive into a tree and hope that lightening would not choose that tree. I was lucky because a strike occurred very close as in the light and the sound were simultaneous. I was able to finish out the segment and hitchhike a ride to Silverton from the Molas Pass rest area.
How does an old retired guy end up becoming a backpacker, and why? This passion is not a common pursuit for any age. The older I get the more lonely I find myself in the pursuit of my favorite activity. Lonely is not a bad thing, solitude is actually a huge part of my backpacking pursuit. I just find myself wanting to share my passion with others of similar age and experience. I do love seeing so many young people exploring the backcountry even if it does make the pursuit of solitude that much more difficult. I think it would be great to still have those backpacking friends from my youth, but life intervenes.
I learned how to survive in the wilderness as a young man while living in Colorado. Then, backpacking was more about conquering the wilderness, proving that I could go to these remote beautiful places. And I am so thankful that I did, but life intervenes. Yes, family, job and many other hurdles replace that freedom for a period of time. When freedom returned, backpacking again emerged as a passion, but now with wisdom and some restraint. So the Why? Can be answered by the passion, but How does this happen?
Backpacking is physically demanding and can definitely be uncomfortable which is why most all of my friends do not share this passion with me. Sure, everyone wants to be on those mountaintops but reality does not allow that for most. I believe that getting in shape in order to pursue serious backpacking would be extremely difficult at my age, which is why I am so thankful that I have stayed in shape. This was not really an option. I have inherited a bad back and I have paid the price for not maintaining strength to protect against throwing my back out. So I have pursued exercise throughout my life primarily seeking out games to fulfill the goal. Basketball was my mainstay, however, a lifetime playing roundball rewarded me with both my hips needing to be replaced and that was the end of basketball. Because of the hips I could not participate in any exercise that created lateral stress, however, hiking only creates forward stress. Luckily I have found that backpacking physically agrees with my chrome cobalt hips.
Without fitness getting in the way, the question becomes, “why would you want to place yourself in such uncomfortable situations”. And this is the real challenge. Committing to a backpacking trip when the comforts of home are so appealing is the greatest hurdle. The pressure to stay in shape especially in old age is a significant motivator, however, it is the reward of the adventure that drives you to the trail. Of course the process gets easier and your experience tends to help you overcome most unnecessary hardships. But it is the defiance of old age that may be the ultimate driver. Experiencing the beauty of true wilderness for as long as possible is the ultimate motivator.
The reality for everyone is not knowing when your body will finally give out. For me I have to always be concerned about my hips, but that unknown is a motivator as well. Do it while you still can. That is why I am placing the more difficult adventures at the head of the bucket list. The Adventure Continues.
- Travel to Colorado
- Zirkel – Mica Lake
- Rabbit Ears
- Gilpin Lake Loop
- Wyoming Trail
- Mt Werner
- Flattops – Hooper Lake
- Snow on Gilpin Lake Loop
- Devil’s Causeway
Travel to Colorado
I retired at the end of June, backpacked the Wallowa’s, Three Sisters and the Timberline Trail to get back in the groove with the main adventure goal to backpack around Steamboat Springs, CO, during the month of September.
And it was awesome. Heading off on a month-long journey with my dog required some planning but for the most part we just adapted to the situation.
We decided to take the northern route through Montana which did not turn out to be a wise decision due to many forest fires burning in the north. We did get to stop by the Palouse Falls on the way to Spokane but the fires around Missoula were extensive and the air quality was horrible so we moved on as quickly as possible to Jackson, WY. There was some smoke in the Tetons, however, it was acceptable.
This adventure was as much about exploring new backpacking trails as it was about learning how to travel with my dog Brook. Staying in a hotel or a campground were new experiences for her. She struggle a bit with the need to protect me from all the nearby sounds but she quickly adapted to the situations. The other travel issue was how to dissipate Brook’s high energy.
We dealt with this on drive days by stopping at parks to play some ball.
The visit to Jackson, WY, was a great way to start the backpacking portion of our adventure.
We camped in a NFS campground with plans to find a representative backpacking overnight to experience the local wilderness. Asking around town we decided to backpack to Goodwin Lake and Jackson Ridge. The road to the trailhead turned out to be the worst we would encounter, but the Rav4 handled the challenge. The view would have been of the mountains next to the town of Jackson but the smoke filtered the view extensively. However, the Goodwin Lake terrain was exceptional. This was trip was also about acclimating to the altitude. The trailhead started at about 8100′ and I hiked up to about 10000′ above Goodwin Lake exploring Jackson Ridge. I was definitely sucking air but I had plenty of time to let my lungs adapt.
After coming out from Goodwin Brook and I did some sight-seeing around Jackson Hole. Traveling to Steamboat we were able to checkout Pinedale, WY, to do some research for a future trip to explore the Wind River Range.
Back in Steamboat
My adventure to Steamboat was not a random choice. In 1976 I left Indiana to replant in Colorado. I ended up in Steamboat Springs that winter only to see the mountain close because of no snow. This story is much longer but the outcome included living and working around Steamboat until 1987. During that time I was discovering my passions (Second Quarter). Returning to my backpacking origins was a confirmation of that passion as well as a walk down memory lane. Oh, but Steamboat has changed. I left the area 30 years ago and it was obvious that Steamboat was growing, but I would not have predicted how this invasive development would creep into the wilderness. Money can afford beauty and Steamboat has sold a lot of it.
The Zirkel Wilderness which is northwest of Steamboat provided my entry into backpacking and fishing. The small store in Clark provided the entry. Today the Clark store is thriving from serving the growing population in the area and the large influx of vacationers and hunters. Over the next 3 weeks the Clark store served me numerous blueberry pancakes.
I started out on my first trip on August 3rd needing to escape the Labor Day weekend vacation crowds. I thought I got to the Slavonia Trailhead early on Sunday morning, however, I ended up having to park about a half mile down the road. My goal for my return to Zirkel was a new destination for me, Mica Lake. This turned out to be the right choice since it carries the lowest traffic and allows camping near the lake.
This was about a 3 mile hike in climbing 1500′. I was still sucking air, but acclimation to the altitude was progressing. The weather was perfect and my campsite on a rock next to the lake was perfect. Brook and I shared the lake with a 4 or 5 other groups but the basin was essentially ours alone. This video gives you an idea of the solitude.
What a great return to the Zirkel Wilderness. Now out of the wilderness to meet my old backpacking buddy, John, at Steamboat Lake for a few days.
John was recovering from some serious medical conditions but was making incredible progress so we were able to push his body more each day.
First a hike around Steamboat Lake and playing tourist in Steamboat. Then we had to summit the iconic Rabbit Ears which recently lost part of an ear. I have made it known to my children that I would like for them to spread my ashes from Rabbit Ears. This request is to insure that my ashes end up on each side of the Continental Divide as well as forcing my kids to venture into the wilderness. The hike is basic but with some vertical challenge. A few fires had sprung up around Steamboat and were now contributing to a less than desirable air quality.
Gilpin Lake Loop
It was time to say goodbye to my old backpacking buddy. We referred to ourselves 30+ years ago as the last of the true mountain men. I was so impressed to have my friend hike to Gold Creek Lake with me on the first day of my Gilpin Lake Loop. This was simple loop that would allow me to come out with time to visit with my old business partner, Jeff, from the early Steamboat days and be able to watch my Denver Broncos. Broncos looked great.
My next venture was to explore the Wyoming Trail which is really the Continental Divide Trail near Steamboat. I knew that the Wyoming Trail connected to the Gold Creek Trail which I had recently been on and from there I could take it over to connect with the Three Island Lake Trail, but I would need some shuttle help. Jeff provided that shuttle and hiked with me up to Gold Creek Lake.
Once I switched to the Wyoming Trail I could tell that I was alone except for hunters who might be lurking in the woods. I was climbing out from the Gold Creek basin when I had a fairly exciting encounter with a large brown bear. Brook and I both saw the bear about 50 feet away when it jumped up and then scampered off through the woods. The animal was so elegant in how it effortlessly bounded over the fallen trees. I was impressed but not scared. I really sensed that we both had plenty of space in this wilderness and we would not be seeing each other any more. The first night we actually got a little rain which definitely improved the smoke situation. However, there was a fair amount of thunder and lightning which Brook had to deal with. She is not afraid of a storm but she does not want to be in the tent during a storm. But that is her choice and she seemed to be OK with sleeping outside during the storm.
The following day we needed to traverse the open space of the Wyoming Trail over to where we would descend to Three Island lake. The problem was that I did not have a map showing me exactly where that connection would be made. I knew it existed but I was also stressed a bit by how far I had to go to connect with it. Finally reaching the sign provided a very positive feeling.
The terrain of the Wyoming Trail that I was on was much like a mesa and was obviously used for open range grazing. Truly beautiful. The hike down to Three Island Lake was easy but finding a campsite that was approximately a quarter-mile from the lake was a challenge. I ended up falling twice with my backpack on while bushwhacking over fallen trees. We did end up with a great campsite though.
Bob was joining me from sea level so we needed to work on acclimating him to altitude. We started off by hiking up above Fish Creek Falls and then climbing Mount Werner or the Steamboat Ski mountain up to the Thunderhead Lodge.
We took the Thunderhead Trail up but got lost and ended up on a mountain bike trail that was not going to end well if bikers had been using it. Overall the hike was tough and rewarding, as in the option to have a Burger with Beer at the lodge. This was also an opportunity for Brook to prove her flexibility in that she had to stay tied to a rail outside the lodge while we were eating and she did great. We all got to ride the gondola down.
It was time to venture into the Flattops Wilderness with an overnight that would help to prepare Bob for a multi-day outing. We chose the trail to Hooper Lake from Stillwater Reservoir that would take us up over a saddle for a spectacular view back over Stillwater.
It had rained all the night before but this was a beautiful crisp day showing the area’s first snowfall. Brook was definitely excited by finding the snow.
We thought about going to Keener Lake but opted for Hooper Lake. This area also shows the signs of open range grazing along with offering good fishing. Hooper Lake was spectacular sitting under a surrounding fortress wall.
This was the coldest night of the Colorado Adventure getting down to 28 thanks to a clear sky which spawned a sunrise beaming off the fortress.
Mount Zirkel Goal
We were now ready for a 3 day trip with the goal to summit Mt. Zirkel. The plan was to do the Gilpin Lake Loop camping at Gilpin the first night and then on to the Gold Creek meadow to camp for the next 2 nights while summiting Zirkel with a day hike.
We knew that a front was coming in but it was only supposed to produce wind on the second day. The hike to Gilpin had some challenging stream crossings but it was a beautiful day. It was a perfect evening set for the first night near Gilpin Lake. Brook enjoyed managing her herd.
We were treated with a beautiful sunset and sunrise.
I did get lucky waking up in time to capture the sunrise.
The climb over the pass brought on the wind but it was to be an easy day.
And then down into the Gold Creek meadow.
We chose a campsite at the head of the meadow and set our tents up with a great view. Then the clouds started to form causing us to consider the possibility of some snow.
We had a good fire, a good dinner and then it started to snow at about sundown. Off to bed listening to really heavy snowflakes pounding our tents. Brook finally came into the tent around 9 pm and sleep happened. Woke up a little after 10 pm realizing that we had a problem with snow. To much and to heavy, the tent was collapsing under the weight. In fact, Brook was being smothered at the foot of my tent. I was banging the snow off the tent which scared Brook and she went out on her own. Turns out she went over to Bob’s tend and scared him a bit since he could not figure out what animal was prancing around his tent. I got the snow cleared from the tent but now I had to think about how we would deal with the mounting snow pack. At that time there was about 6 inches and it was snowing hard. All I could think of was how the snow/moisture might affect some difficult stream crossings that we would have to make the next day. Actually, I offered prayers that we needed it to stop snowing, and thank God it did.
Morning greeted us with almost a great sunrise, but it had definitely stopped snowing so I knew it might be a bit uncomfortable but no worries about making it back to the trailhead.
It was actually quite beautiful seeing all of this familiar terrain covered by snow, but we still had some difficult stream crossings to navigate. The very first crossing was right by our campsite and thankfully there had not been snow melt to raise the stream. On to the trail which was still easy to follow. As we progressed into the forest and dropped elevation the snow was lighter, but more stream crossing were ahead.
Overall I really loved this piece of the adventure. The snow was a great twist and it reminded me cross-country skiing which I also was introduced to back in those early days around Steamboat. The hike out got a bit wet as the snow was raining off the trees as we got lower.
Now back to Steamboat to recuperate and prepare for the hike I had anticipated the most, the Devil’s Causeway.
The weather was clear but there was going to be wind which might prove to be a problem up at the Causeway, but then again it would probably provide a good excuse for deciding not to cross. So back to Stillwater Reservoir for the trail to the Devil’s Causeway.
This area also had the best option for autumn aspen colors. Overall the aspen color change was disappointing but there was enough color mixed in with the evergreens to present some of the most beautiful scenery of the adventure. The climb up to the Causeway was steady with a final push at the end.
Once on the top the 360 views were amazing. I think Brook really appreciated it as well.
The Causeway was all that I had heard it would be, and there was no way I was going to walk across it, but I had the good excuse of it being to windy.
The weather had changed and my hangnail on my big toe was making it difficult to hike so Brook and I headed back to Oregon.
I was surprised to see all of the energy exploration activity while driving across Utah on Hwy 40. Vernal, UT, seemed to be a major hub for this activity. Maybe all of that activity was the reason while that deer darted out from the bushes next to the highway and slammed into my car. This type of accident is typically reserved for evening travel, but this was middle of the afternoon, traffic was heavy. I was moving at 65 mph with oncoming traffic, so no time to take evasive maneuvers. My split second decision was to not hit the brake since I think that might have allowed the deer to hit the windshield. So I took the hit which damaged the entire passenger side of my car.