Friday, September 25, 2009

Vignettes from the Road -- Colorado Potpourri

Horsin' Around

In June 2007, my sister, three college friends, and I went to Grand Lake and Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) to hike the Cascade Falls trail. It was a beautiful sunny day that turned out to be relatively warm and smelly. Smelly in the "horse trash" sort of way. A long stretch of the trail is shared by horses. We actually met a few on the way back. We knew many more had been there, given the "remains of the day". Unfortunately, this required looking down as much as out on the forested trail.

The western side of RMNP is much greener than its eastern counterpart. The mountains are smoother, and the ground is almost impossible to see because of the thick canopy. This side is wetter, and typically, the scenery is considered inferior to the drier leeward landscapes. I disagree, because I think comparing the two is comparing apples and oranges. They are both fruit, but their flavors are totally different. The majestic beauty of Longs Peak or Flattop Mountain is stunning, but the vastness of the trees amidst the enormity of hills and mountains clinging to the west side of the Continental Divide are just as magical. Part of the magic is in their lack of appreciation. The hike was quiet, with few run-ins with others the entire beautiful, sunny, weekend day. Solitude boosts the power of natural wonders, and the roaring sounds of the tumbling waters, the whirring of the leaves and the pines in the wind, and the birds chirping their happy tunes under a big open sky hidden only by the very trees that support them made this a particularly fun day in Colorado. Even if there was a little altitude sickness.

Natural Toothpicks

State Highway 82 southeast of Aspen climbs to Independence Pass, a beautiful summit on the Continental Divide. On a trip through this area in June 2008, three friends and I discovered that the climb up featured a peculiar forest of aspens. The forest looked like an endless field of toothpicks. Aspen toothpicks, with the trunks glimmering in the bright sunlight. It was a marvelous sight.

The scenery up the west side of Independence Pass is nearly insurmountable in Colorado, and the habitats change quickly. The open tundra near the top quickly turns into subalpine forest, crudely masking the towering peaks that overlook the region. The snow-covered triangular mountaintops are hidden by vertical lines jutting upward everywhere. The only sounds were of the aspen leaves and the rushing waters of a mountain stream and snowmelt. Pure nature, just off the road. It doesn't get better than this highway.


Near Aspen are the famous Maroon Bells, called the "most photographed" mountains of Colorado. After visiting, it is not that difficult to see why. The jagged peaks of the Maroon Bells are natural masterpieces. Even in late June, mounds of snow striated the sides in a scene seemingly right out of a painting. After an hour taking hundreds of photographs of the mountains and Maroon Lake, my friends and I hiked to beautiful Crater Lake, which sits right underneath the Pyramids and the Maroon Bells. We noticed at the latter portion of the hike a rock formation on one of the mountains. The formation looked like a face, and with closer inspection, the face was in a crevice that hid a waterfall. Sometimes, even nature knows when to smile.

A Lazy Walk

In RMNP in 2008, a beautiful hike to Dream and Emerald Lake was followed by a quieter hike around Bear Lake. A classic subalpine lake, surrounded by trees and, because of the popularity of the area, nearly a hundred people, Bear Lake is a beautiful stroll. About a quarter of the way into the hike, I see someone sitting on a rock just looking around. Across the lake, through the trees, and to Longs Peak staring back at us in the distance. The sight startled me, and continues to do so to this day. If ever there was an image that I think of whenever my imagination wanders to the mountains, I'll remember that one. It remains one of my favorite photos and favorite moments in the mountains.


Colorado is home to Great Sand Dunes National Park, one of my favorite locations in the world. Here lies a small but clean desert of sand dunes amidst mountains and valleys that are commonly green. A sheer coincidence of nature often leads to the finest of locations. The climb to the second highest sand dune peak was memorable for the heat, the altitude sickness, and the stinging of the specks of sand flying in my face. Of course, every painfully small step to the top was worth, as the "small" dune field doesn't look that way when you have a view overlooking all of it. On the way down, I commonly looked back up and noticed the beauty of just a small portion of the place. The small waves ebbing and flowing in the wind-driven sand, the perfect monotony of the color of the sand, the etchings of clouds in a pronounced blue sky, and the infinitesimal appearance of people mere yards away -- well, you just can't beat sand for a sense of the genuine smallness that we really are.

Zapata Means Shoe

My favorite waterfalls are the ones you have to work for, and Zapata Falls is a genuine treat in that department. The hike to get there is not particularly difficult in terms of elevation, but it requires getting your feet wet. Wet and cold. Very cold. Snowmelt cold.

Numbness can be a very good thing, but I imagine my pure euphoria of watching the blisteringly cold water fall inside a beautiful rock formation was responsible for what I am sure were freezing feet to disappear. Sacrificing your body for the greater cause of natural wonders is sometimes worth making. The crystal clear water, the overwhelming rocks, and the gleaming ice feeding the water were pure mountain entertainment.

Only Colorado can bring such diverse excitement, such repeated excitement, visit after visit after visit. All it requires is a drive, some courage, and some extra oxygen. Get in the car.
Let me get my "Zen on" at Cascade Falls.
A crew and Lake Granby.
Natural toothpicks.
Independence Pass.
How can you be crying when you're smiling?
Crater Lake, CO.
Would you rather be doing anything besides what this person was doing at that moment? Longs Peak, overlooking Bear Lake.
Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Zapata Falls. Note that I am standing in water while taking this photo. As it should be.