Tag Archives: hiking

Just another hike in the woods

We had planned for many weeks to take a weekend backpacking trip. My friend Mark and I had first camped together this past summer in Colorado, though for that trip we hiked in separately and camped in different campsites, taking day hikes together. This time, we would be hiking and camping together. Mark suggested a loop he knew of on the Appalachian trail starting about two hours from Chattanooga.

The Standing Indian Loop near Murphy, NC
The Standing Indian Loop near Murphy, NC

We would start at Rock Gap (see near top of map above) and go clockwise around the loop of the Appalachian Trail to Standing Indian Mountain, then cut back north through the state campground back to our vehicle.

Standing indian Hike
A tunnel of mountain laurel

Fortunately the  weather forecast was for crisp clear conditions during this October weekend which had been scheduled many weeks in advance.  I checked my gear, loaded my pack, and arranged to get off work early on the Friday starting the weekend. We drove to Rock Gap and parked the car, heaved on our packs and started down the trail.  The objective was Albert Mountain, seen on the map above at the western boundary of the Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory.  The woods were quiet and we saw only a few other hikers that afternoon. Temperature was in the mid-60s with blue sky above. One of the prominent features of the terrain was the abundance of mountain laurel, sometimes so thick that it actually formed a tunnel overhead through which we trudged. There was plenty of water. We struggled up the last steep pitch before Albert and found a grandfather with two teenagers cooking their dinner under the fire tower there. We took a few photos looking eastward but it was getting darker and chilly so we slid down the steep rocks on the other side and pushed on, looking for a campsite. After one false try, we located a good place for the night and set up camp. The long underwear came out and the fire was welcome.

Red meat for empty bellies
Red meat for empty bellies

Even more welcome was the smell of roasting meat-Mark had packed two ribeye steaks; along with a couple of taters that I buried in the coals we had one fine eating experience under the stars. Speaking of the stars, I decided to sleep under them that night, sans tent. The forecast low was in the mid-40s and I was comfortable as the wind through the trees provided my hiker’s lullaby.

Boy, is it hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag on a chilly morning in the woods-all your better instincts tell you to stay put, but you know you have to crawl out. After a quick breakfast, we broke camp (easier for me with no tent to fold) and headed out. More rolling hills and some fine views to the east greeted us.

Gorgeous morning view looking northeast
Gorgeous morning view looking northeast

We stopped for lunch at the Carter Gap shelter where we found some fellow hikers enjoying the sunshine and trading trail stories.  I laid down amidst some tall green plants with a full belly for a post-prandial nap, waking up with a bit more energy for the afternoon ahead. We pushed pretty hard that day, covering about 10 miles total before finally settling on a campsite  along a ridge looking south just east of Standing Indian mountain. Some college students came by after dark and shared our fire for a few minutes before passing onward along the trail without even a flashlight (!) As the wind was picking up and the temps expected in the 30s, I shivered and erected my tent. I was pleased to notice how little wind got through to the interior as I piled in for an early bedtime.

Sunday dawned very cold-my fingers got repeatedly numb as I fixed the morning java and hot oatmeal. Quickly breaking camp we struck out toward Standing Indian where we planned to take a shortcut along Lower Trail Ridge back to our starting point. What’s the old wisdom about shortcuts? They don’t always save you trouble. We tried to find some water along the main trail but were unsuccessful, so we struck out down the side trail confident that we would find some aqua soon. Downhill hiking is almost harder I think, then uphill, with all of the strain on your quads. Several miles later-still no water. Forging ahead on my own while still looking for a stream or adequate trickle, I managed, in my dehydrated state, to step off the trail for about 75 yards before realizing my mistake.

Ahhh. . .the sound of running water when you're thirsty in the woods
Ah. . .  the sound of running water when you’re thirsty in the woods

I had mindlessly stepped over a hiker’s barrier of limbs at the apex of a switchback without noticing the trail arching back on itself. After getting back on the right path, I went on and finally heard the sweet sound of gurgling water up ahead. Sure enough there was a stream and we stopped for a snack and filtered up a large quantity of clean cold mountain water-there is nothing like the taste of water when you are thirsty.

It was downhill the rest of the way back to the state campground where the jarring juxtaposition of campers and automobiles clashed with the forest silence from which we had emerged. We had a boring uphill climb along the shoulder of the paved access road as we watched warily for distracted oncoming drivers. Finally arriving back at our car, we celebrated one fine weekend of backpacking. That first sip of cold beer at the convenience store was mighty fine . . .


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.

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.”