Category Archives: Travel

Sandy adventures

When you combine a sense of adventure, exploring the unknown, and a little bit of history, you get the makings of a good bike ride. Watch out for tricky dropoffs, though.


Topsail ramble

We were on vacation at the beach on the Florida Panhandle recently, and I decided to explore nearby Topsail Preserve State Park. Topsail has a lot of varied ecosystems, including ocean beach, dunes, coastal lakes, and conifer forests. There are multiple good bike trails, including one 3-4 mile paved path and lots of other tracks through the woods mostly with sandy terrain underwheel. I just went exploring, though my goal was to findJB-2-Missile-on-a-sled remnants of the old WW II training site where some of the first US missile program testing was performed.




Well, as it turns out I wasn’t in exactly the right spot, but I had fun riding through the woods anyway.

IMG_3070 As you might expect, once off the paved path I didn’t encounter a single other person on foot or bike. The day was cool but there was some extra work trolling across the sandy surface since moving sand around with your bike tires doesn’t translate to much forward momentum.

Speaking of momentum, the other thing about sand is that it absorbs momentum pretty efficiently. Especially when your front wheel is airborne after a drop off, the bike is pointed down, your incompetent cyclist’s weight is forward over the front bar, and you’ve never ridden this kind of trail before. In about 0.5 seconds I was launched over the handlebar and landed on my head. I was wearing a helmet, but the real saving grace was the sand pit I landed in–it cushioned my impact and I emerged with just a sore neck. Fortunately.

A couple ofIMG_3069 days later Vikki and I went back for a hike on some of the other trails that were too sandy for bike travel. Once there we saw some lovely coastal lakes, tide pools and tall dunes up to about 25 feet tall.

IMG_3082The day was quiet and warm. No one else was around. I wanted to find an alligator but never spotted one.

IMG_3084We also encountered some very old twisted wire in an oddly arranged pattern that resembled a long rectangular grid. I thought this might be some relic of the old WW II program but I couldn’t be sure.  In any case we were off the beaten path and enjoyed a great walk.


The Hardest Hike

After a day of rest, Mark and I decided to take a day hike loop starting and ending at basecamp. Many of our fellow campers at the hot springs had traveled from Crested Butte through Triangle Pass. From looking at the map I had spotted nearby Copper Lake, reached through Triangle,  and I thought it might make a reasonable hiking goal. (See map at bottom of this post.) Mark was agreeable, so we set off.

Wildflower field on the way to  Triangle Pass.
Wildflower field on the way to Triangle Pass.

The first part of the hike was quickly steep, meandering through deep bushes and giving way to a pleasant green meadow full of wildflowers, reminiscent of the land below Electric Peak described earlier. We were steadily increasing in altitude, and our breathing picked up accordingly. As the green gave way above treeline to the red rocks above, we marveled at the patches of snow left on the ground, here in late July.  We approached the gap hunched over and shortened our stride, then gasped our way to Triangle Pass, where we were rewarded with a fine view of the valley beyond.

View west from Triangle Pass
View west from Triangle Pass

Next up was a gently sloping downhill leg into the woods adjacent to Copper Lake. We scrambled across a loose rock field where Mark slipped and cut his leg, but fortunately it was superficial so he soldiered on.

On the way to Copper Lake
On the way to Copper Lake

I was pretty sure of our path but still glad to see a confirmation on the trail as we entered the woods.  We stopped briefly for a snack but the mosquitoes descended so we moved on.  It was only a short walk to Copper Lake. When we arrived, we were surprised to find lots of company-apparently we had selected a popular lunchtime spot, even for a weekday. On a small peninsula sticking out into the lake we sat down, re-fueled and restocked our water supplies, before starting back to the trail leading to Maroon Pass-the second one of the day.

Our lunch spot was the small peninsula at the lower left
Copper Lake: our lunch spot was the small peninsula at the lower left

As we walked over Maroon Pass, we considered leaving the trail and striking out across east across the valley below which would have saved us some mileage, but also introduced some uncertainty about footing, terrain, and getting across the creek in the valley. So we kept on the trail as it descended gently into East Maroon Valley. There was a beautiful waterfallIMG_1649 on our right as we drew closer to the stream crossing.  After only getting slightly wet, we got on across and started going back uphill. At this point in the day we were starting to get tired and the incline was steadily up. The trail was in pretty good shape with some muddy spots. There was no one in this large area between the creek and Copper Pass as we headed back in a southerly direction. (See map at top of post).  There was nothing to do but put the head down and grind on uphill. Gorgeous views of the valley behind us helped sustain our sense of adventure  and determination.

Copper Pass beckons
Copper Pass beckons

We finally reached the top of Copper Pass (low notch in the ridgeline here) and paused to rest. Just below us was the remnants of what looked like an old mine shaft, now filled in with rocks and debris.Skeletons of old wooden support beams lay strewn around the opening. I wondered about the people who had worked here in years past-difficult, lonely work far from creature comforts. They were made of stern stuff.

Across the valley we could see our next destination which was Triangle Pass IMG_1656 (see photo right, now approaching from the west). After sliding down the slope we rejoined the trail and trudged across and up to the final apex of the day. Our legs were tired, so tired, but we knew it was downhill back to our base camp. We stumbled a bit but gravity was now our friend as we gratefully anticipated a hot meal and relaxing in the hot springs upon our return.

I estimate our total hike was around 10 miles. Total ascent was probably a few thousand feet but at altitude the  exertion seems doubled compared to sea level.  I have never done anything quite so hard in a single day of activity. Riding 100 miles on a bicycle was easy compared to this day’s hike. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything-there is no price to put on the feeling of wonder and accomplishment that resulted.

Day hike over four mountain passes from Conundrum Hot Springs.
Day hike over four mountain passes from Conundrum Hot Springs.

Hike in to Conundrum

After my hike to Electric Peak, I was feeling pretty good about my conditioning-though strenuous, the exertion had not been to the redline. However, I hadn’t been carrying a full pack. Although I had practiced packing everything at home before departure, I had picked up a few items in Denver at the REI store before going to Aspen. Now, the night before the hike in to the base camp location, I was re-assessing my gear: Should I take the extra rope ? (yes). Do I have enough clothing? (Probably). Do I need gloves?-after all, it’s high summer (but you’re in the mountains, so take the gloves). Even with creative packing, I barely got it all stuffed in my backpack, and I staggered a bit as I tried it on. I estimate I was carrying between 30 and 35 lbs. Savoring my last meal in civilization, I went to sleep tired but content, as the smell of marijuana wafted through the hotel (after all, we’re in Colorado)

Trail into Conundrum Valley
Trail into Conundrum Valley

Early the next morning I drove to the trailhead, parked the car, and as I read the signage at the trailhead I realized the Forest Service had not left any “poop bags” in the bin. I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad about that, but off I went up the trail. The sky was gray, unlike the day before, and only a handful of other hikers were present. I soon settled into a rhythm, adjusting my pack as I went to minimize the load on my shoulders. Once an hour I stopped to take a break and get the pack off my back, eating a snack and stretching. There were a few steep stretches and some muddy spots. About halfway to the camp I had to ford swiftly flowing Conundrum Creek but I managed to find a series of shallow beds and previously placed logs that granted me access to the other side.

The trail went steadily up. It sprinkled but there was no steady rain. I met a few hikers coming down the trail and I actually passed a few going in my direction as well-that made me feel good about my fitness. Toward the end of the eight mile walk, I was feeling the combined effects of the previous day’s hike, the extra weight on my back, and the steadily increasing altitude.  I was really happy to finally see the signs delineating the campsites:

A schematic of the campsites available
A schematic of the campsites available

due to heavy use I could only pitch camp in one of the designated sites. It was a first come, first served system but since I was arriving on a Monday I figured there would be some room after the weekend crowd left. However, the last part of the trek was the steepest, and I was really breathing hard when I arrived at the hot springs. Searching through multiple campsites I finally found one open at #12 and plopped down to appreciate my accomplishment. I didn’t tarry long, though, since the sky looked threatening and I knew I needed to get the tent set up before my last energy reserves were depleted.  Mine was a new tent but it went up quickly and easily. As I spread out my sleeping pad and bag, the thunder cracked and the rain pounded on the tent-I snuggled into my bag and slept like a man who had hiked 17 miles at elevation in the last two days-boy did that feel good . . .

When you're warm and dry, the world is good
When you’re warm and dry, the world is good



Electric Pass

Looking for day hikes in the Aspen area, I stumbled across mention of Electric Pass.  It was billed as the “highest trail pass” in Colorado so that sounded like a significant goal for a flatlander like me. I loaded my backpack with some but not all of my backpacking gear, wanting to introduce my body to carrying a load at altitude. Thinking I might want a hot lunch, I packed my new backingpacking stove-an unsuspected trap as described below.

Topographic map detail
I bypassed the side trails to Leahy Peak and Cathedral Lake

I started on the trail about 7:30. One thing I learned: getting to the trailhead means traversing the Forest Service road off the pavement. They don’t maintain those babies for the likes of little Japanese econoboxes such as I had rented for the drive from the airport. By going very slowly I managed not to get stuck in the mud nor bang the undercarriage too hard in the potholes. After about half a mile I got to the beginning of the trail.

The day was fine, with blue sky and temperature in the 50s. Quickly I started breathing hard and before long I came out of my long sleeves and pants. There were no bugs at that point and only a few fellow hikers.  Pine Creek was roaring away on the left as I ascended. The climb was up and more up. Just before the turnoff to Cathedral Lake there were a series of steep switchbacks (see map annotation) and towards, but not at, the top I paused to rest under a tree. That was a mistake.  Well, actually the mistake was not paying attention to the topography. I pulled some water and a snack out of my pack. To do so, I removed my backpacking stove fuel canister and set it down next to me on the ground. As I shifted around, I nudged the canister into a gravity-encouraged inclination and off it bounced like a kangaroo rat let loose, traveling at least 100 feet downhill,  across the switchbacks, into thick brush somewhere below. After securing the rest of my stuff, I trudged back downhill to look for it but to no avail-I couldn’t peer into the dense undergrowth  nor spot it from above or below. Did I mention that was my only fuel canister? Or that it was Sunday and I didn’t know if there was a retail source for this brand in Aspen (I had purchased it in Denver the day before)?  Or that I wanted to start up the trail to my planned basecamp early the following morning?

Fuel canister is down there, somewhere . . .
Fuel canister is down there, somewhere . . .

This incident forced me to control my anxiety and accept the providential event at hand. Maybe I was planning just a little too much and not enjoying the experience. After all, if you can plan it, it’s not an adventure. I laughed at myself, put my pack back on, and kept going uphill.


Wildflower meadow on the way to Electric Peak
Wildflower meadow on the way to Electric Peak


There was a meadow south of the saddle between Electric and Leahy peaks. Here was the last green swatch below the rocks of the mountains above. And not only green, but red, blue, orange, white and all the other colors of the gorgeous wildflowers seen below.


Indistinct trail
Trail was a little indistinct here . . .

But there was more hiking to do. Towards the top I slowed to a crawl and after the vegetation diappeared, slowly stumbled across the loose rocks. There wasn’t much of a trail left at this point. Looking downhill I understood how potential injury was not far away if I slipped. Nonetheless I got to the Pass where there was a small notch in the ridge. The actual peak was another 200 foot scramble to the north-why not? Once there, the view beyond, looking east into Conundrum Valley, was stunning–see the photos below. Suddenly I had a deep sense of contentment at having achieved my goal.

At 13,600 feet, Electric Peak has a fine view.

Another view from Electric peak


I would estimate my average HR for the hike was about 130. Round-trip distance was about 10 miles. When I got back to Aspen that night, my legs were beat, but my spirit was high, especially after I found the outdoor store still open and my fuel canister in stock. This was my last chance for supplies: the next morning I was leaving for the trek to the basecamp at Conundrum Hot Springs.

Arriving in Aspen at Altitude


Pleasant pedestrian path in downtown Aspen
Pleasant pedestrian path in downtown Aspen

My first job was acclimatization; if I botched that I’d be miserable those first days at altitude. My plan was pharmacologic and calendar-based. Before leaving home, I started some acetazolamide. Then I flew into Denver and drove that evening to Aspen, about 7500 ft in elevation. Driving over Independence Pass was a bit nerve-wracking, mostly because of the crazy drivers behind me on the road trying to pass on single lane sections of the road with no visibility. To recover, I stopped at a bar named Justice Snow’s and savored an “Irish Proposal” concocted from Guiness Stout, chocolate, and raspberry liqueur. Ummm . . . After that I was feeling a lot better.

Back at the hotel, I made plans for the next day, a 9 mile hike to Electric Pass with a top elevation of 13, 600 feet. If my acclimatization was inadequate, I figured Electric Pass would let me know.

Backpacking trip to Colorado

The next series of posts will describe a trip I took this summer to Colorado, hiking and backpacking in the mountains south of Aspen. I flew into Denver with my gear, rented a car, and drove to Aspen. I stayed there two nights before backpacking into Conundrum Valley where the popular hot springs were to be a basecamp for the next four nights. My plan was to rendevous with my friend Mark from the men’s group at church. He’s an avid hiker and goes out West every summer for a two week soujourn. He convinced me to join him for this year’s edition, and I eagerly agreed.

I hadn’t been camping in years, nor backpacked in over 20. The principles haven’t changed, however: stay warm, stay dry, stay fed, and enjoy the fresh air. I even used some of the equipment I retained from years ago, lugged from house to house with the plaintive hope that I would get to use it again some day. Well, ‘someday’ finally arrived.

Why now? Well, why not? Mark had related the story of another aquaintance of his who had talked for years about doing a trip like this together. Then Mark’s acquaintance died. That motivated Mark to just start taking the trip. Talking and planning is fine, but sometime you gotta act. As Clint Eastwood put it “Let’s not go and ruin it by thinking too much.”