Last Saturday, my friend Michaelanne and I got to watch the Rocky Mountains hibernate. It was one of the more memorable hikes I’ve done in recent years, a late-season jaunt across familiar ground in an unfamiliar season. In Colorado, the difference between one weekend and the next is drastic and ultimately humbling. In a week where I watched the economy do more of a tailspin — and also watched more friends lose their jobs — it was deeply refreshing to walk in the woods, hear the most perfect silence, and get my spiritual bearings back. We tend to be small, temporal, self-obsessed, insulated and driven by things that are ultimately not important. Nature is persistent, beautiful, and tends to be more brutal than any stock market. This fact was not lost on me last Saturday — as we entered a clearing on the trail, we could see the Ten Mile Range disappearing in the snow.
That’ll make you pay attention, especially when you are wearing shorts like I was.
This hike is top-notch. I’ve done it four times, and it never ceases to amaze me. Do you want in on the secret? Oh, alright. Seeing that my blog gets about 15 readers a day (and I presume many of you are out of state), I’ll divulge. Just don’t telegraph it to Colorado.com. You can’t trust those tourism promoters!
It’s the southern end of the Gore Range Trail. The first segment is fairly popular as it goes to Wheeler Lakes, a pair of alpine ponds in a clearing. But the trail forks to the left, and what’s beyond that junction is what interests me. I can’t name another trail in Colorado that has such variety: it weaves in and out of the woods, through meadows, past ponds, around marshes, across creeks, along rocky ridges, back into the trees, across scree, beneath a hidden lake, and ultimately, up through the tundra to a low saddle called Uneva Pass, where a window to the north unveils the serrated Gore Range.
Each of the four times I’ve trekked up this (twice I’ve reached the pass), something magical happens. The first time was with my best friend Matt after I’d graduated from high school. At the scree field just shy of Lost Lake we saw an ermine dash across the trail and scurry over the rocks. The stench it left behind — they are mustalids like skunks — was short-lived but I’ll never forget the lesson: don’t f&*# with an ermine.
This go around, Mikey and I had a pretty different wildlife encounter: two couples of blue grouse.
Now, obviously I love birds. Who doesn’t? Certainly not these folks. But more often than not, the only birds you see on the trail in Colorado are juncos, jays, nutcrackers and the occasional woodpecker (a western tanager is another story). But grouse is a bit different. In spring these horny little bastards get all gussied up in hilarious breeding plumage and strut like they’re on Project Runway. In fall, well, they’re more concerned about survival. These fatties were pecking around the forest floor and running around with their tails up. Easy dinner if this were the Oregon Trail.
One couple was just shy of Officer’s Gulch. The other couple was hanging out just beyond it. At the crossing of the creek, Mikey and I found ourselves hiking through chest-deep willows the color of rust.
Mikey is running in the Philadelphia Marathon in November, so we kept a pretty quick pace for most of the day (and she somehow ran 18 miles the next day). By 11am we were at Lost Lake (pictured at the top, where she’s covering her ears) eating lunch and debating whether we should push for the pass. One stiff wind — which rippled the placid lake and carried the scent of snow — sent us back to the trailhead.
We made great time, ultimately reaching these ponds by 1pm, just as the wind mellowed out. In summer, the ponds are surrounded by marsh marigolds and elephantheads.
But on this day, it was pale grass and brittle stalks baring seeds. You can see what I believe are elephantheads, the dark stems below left of the grass.
One final thing about this trail, why I love it and why I was a bit relieved last weekend as we trekked it. As I’ve mentioned before — and as any of you living in Colorado know — our northern mountains have been ravaged by the mountain pine beetle, especially Summit County and the Gore Range. In the past few months, I’ve gotten accustom to the sight of red and dead lodgepole pines in the James Peak Wilderness, Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park and Steamboat Springs.
Last weekend, it dawned on me as we were heading down in a light snow that the forests leading up to Uneva Pass seem unaffected by the beetle. My fingers are crossed on this one, but I wonder if it has to do with how spaced out the trees are. I’ve always enjoyed how this trail weaves in and out of meadows and takes in views of the Ten Mile Range and the Mount of the Holy Cross. And maybe those meadows are a buffer. Or maybe the beetle just hasn’t found them yet. We’ll have to see. In the event I go back in the next few summers and find one of my favorite places in Colorado red and dead, I’ll just have to remind myself that nature is brutal and there is a certain humility I can gain from that.
We got back to the car at 3pm, stretched our chilled muscles and hopped in the car. It then began to pour an icy rain…nature, at least on this day, was forgiving.