Friday, April 24, 2015

Campsite Selection

Campsite Selection

Meadow view
Golden Gate Canyon State Park Meadow view
This is another article I wrote for CampHelp.net.  The site will be up soon.
Selecting a campsite for your tent or trailer is pretty easy to remember.  When you arrive, my advice is to Look Up, Look Down, and Look All Around:
Look Up – I always look at the trees around the campsite, checking for dead limbs or branches, a tree leaning into another one (dead fall) and at rocks and ledges that may be above me for stones that may tumble during a storm or in the night.  You want to make sure the area overhead and to the sides is clear of any dangers that may blow down on top of you in a storm.  Wind is often strong in the mountains and tonight may be the night when that limb decides it’s time to fall off that tree.
Look Down – Look at the lay of the land, specifically where water could flow during rain.  You don’t want to camp in a ditch or in a low point because it will be wetter and colder (cool air sinks).  Typically, a higher and more level point of land is best for tent or trailer.  Don’t camp too close to a cliff either, as you could be blown, washed (or just roll) off the ledge onto those shark teeth rocks below.   Do remove rocks and sharp sticks from under the tent for a comfortable night’s sleep and plan to return the area to the pristine natural surface you found as you leave.
Look All Around – Look around you for signs of trails as you don’t want to camp where wildlife or people could blast through unexpectedly.  Look for enough space to pitch your tent but don’t camp so close in dense trees that you have to cut anything to make your tent fit.  Try not to camp too close to your neighbor for your privacy and theirs.  Look for beautiful views and quiet spaces.  Also look for some trees or tall rocks to be around your site to help reduce winds.
While tent camping is usually associated with backpacking, it is not always the case.  This is where CaRV camping works well, with a flat and developed camping site, maybe even a pull-through parking space with plenty of clearance above, below and around.  The car can carry all your gear and food and gives you an escape to go try that little cafe you passed on the way in to enjoy a dinner instead of cooking one.  CaRV camping in a tent/trailer/RV at a State Park or National Forest is a great way to just get outdoors and enjoy the peace.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Hidden Mesa Trail - The Mesa Top

Top of the mesa trail sign
I hiked the Hidden Mesa Open Space Trail along the mesa top 3 times in the past 2 weeks because it is so QUIET. The 2 mile loop trail, just a third of a mile from the parking lot, is an easy, mostly flat hike with views in all 4 directions.  My wife joined me for each of these hikes.  A map is available at the link also.

Looking North East
The peacefulness is just plain inspiring.  Bird song was the second loudest noise I heard.  Prairie Dog warnings were the loudest noise by far.  Even the occasional whoosh of an airplane above was washed away by the wind and that wind was heard through the trees.
I last wrote about the Hidden Mesa Trail here, when I walked a portion of the lower trail off CO 83 at Franktown.  I still have to walk the trail from there up to the mesa top and will write about that when it happens.
Looking East
The trail is well marked
Most of the walk is in the sandy top soil of the mesa.  This sand is from the worn down crust of the top layer of Rhyolite, and is filled with quartz and black, brown and red river stones that came with the Rhyolite.  You can read about how this form of Rhyolite came to be here.

Rhyolite in its interesting hoodoos
As you travel counter-clockwise from the parking lot junction, you travel mostly on rock with short sandy areas in between.  Conifer trees sprout from the stone along the path and provide moments of shade and add sound to the wind whistling through them.  Oak scrub grows mostly from the soil and away from the cliff edge.  You can see highway 86 below you beyond the tumble of rocks and occasionally hear traffic on it.  The trail continues around the edge, then works back northerly onto the mesa center before running to the edge twice more.

Looking Southeast
Now on the eastern side of the mesa, the views are of Cherry Creek below, the farms and Franktown. Below is the 124 acre test farm, greenhouse and orchard next to the old family house of the original farm and acreage that Douglas County Open Space purchased as part of Hidden Mesa.  The picnic area and parking lot are next to that, with the farm lane winding down to cross Cherry Creek and then picking up the Cherry Creek Trail going north and south.  A couple benches up here provide views to the east and provide a break in your day.

Early spring flowers
A lot of old trash has washed on down the mesa to the right.  Behind the oak scrub there is an old refrigerator, a furnace and half an acre of rusting tin cans.  My hope is someday they will remove this trash, recycle what they can and bury the rest.  The mesa top deserves that.

Natural surface trail
Showing the route and distance to the Trailhead on CO 83 below
 The trail continues on, turning to the left before its junction with the trail to the farmland below. Prairie dogs squeak here, warning others of the danger.  It is fun to watch them run from hole to hole, pop up and down and suddenly go quiet when you get too close.  A couple holes are right next to the trail and I expect these prairie dogs are very busy sounding the alarm on weekends.

It is nice to have signs as nice as this one

Bench for relaxing
A mountain biker whizzes by after announcing his presence, then thanks us for stepping off the trail to let him pass.  Nice trail etiquette! This trail is quite popular with the mountain bikers.  It has some technical challenges mostly along the rock edges, and gives a good climb up the ridge, but it is not too technical for novice riders.  Plus it is close to Castle Rock, Franktown and Parker.

Rhyolite near the edge
Mostly in the open now, we look to the north and follow the view of the mountains of the front range until they fade in the distance.  We climb a hill and drop down a little to the parking lot trail by the bench.  Returning to the car is fairly quick, with just a short drop and a few turns along an old farm road.
More spring flowers
The gate here closes automatically at dark.  We sit and talk a while listening to the wind, and finally leave as another mountain biker pulls in.  It has been a peaceful afternoon.

Parking lot for Hidden Mesa
Getting here is easy.  Take I-25 south of Denver to exit 184 at Founders Parkway, then follow to the left through the stores 2 miles to the Terrain Subdivision on the east side of the road.  Turn left into the second entrance which is Rising Sun Drive, follow left through a roundabout to Autumn Sage Street, then turn left onto Castle Oaks Drive.  This takes you downhill by the remains of an old farm, and crosses a stream.  Then take the second gravel road right onto Pleasant View.  Follow this to the top where the parking area is, park and hike.  There is a Port-a-let at the end of the parking lot.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Lost? No Compass? No Worries!

Older style compass.
Lensatic compass
Forgot your compass?  Are you lost and without a compass and need to find the way home?
Here's an idea from our new project in the works, Camp Help.
While this may be a problem for most folks, if it is sunny at all you can find directions easily using the track of the sun across the sky.
Place a stick in the ground and mark where it creates a shadow.  Label this with a W.
Then wait 20 minutes or more. Sit and eat a snack.  Enjoy the view.
Now, place a mark at that new shadow and mark it with an E.
The first mark is to the west, the second mark is to the east.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Quarry Mesa Open Space

View from the top north towards Castle Rock
Long just another mesa at the south end of Castle Rock, Rhyolite was discovered at Quarry Mesa Open Space in 1872, creating Castle Rock's first Rhyolite Quarry.  Rhyolite was determined to be a great stone for building construction, and it was used to create Colorado's State Capital building, and many other historic buildings in Denver and Cheyenne.  The original Douglas County Courthouse, and many businesses and residences in Castle Rock were also built using it.

Looking back along the old RR grade up the east face of Quarry Mesa
Allocated after 2009 with help from Great Outdoors Colorado, the Open Space of Quarry Mesa offers 133 acres of views and wide-open space with 3.4 miles of native material trails, suitable for both hikers and mountain bikes.
This trail also connects to the Rhyolite Regional Park and the Rhyolite Bike Park just off Crystal Valley Parkway.  A Cyclocross course exists in the Rhyolite Bike Park at the mesa bottom.
The hike to the top up the old RR route was not too steep, and it winds around the north side giving an overview of the Cyclocross course below.  It was windy when we went and we were surprised at how large the area at the top really is.  It is easy to imagine how this looked before mining.  We even saw a bluebird when we returned to our car.

Following the road on top around the east side
Three trails lead to the mesa top, and a trail loops the mesa top along with an old road.  Views of Castle Rock and the front Range of the Rockies are excellent from here.  The trail around the edge is called Madge Trail for the rancher who founded the quarry, and it runs 3.4 miles.
Restrooms are available at Rhyolite Regional Park.
Please beware of rattlesnakes while using this trail.

Pikes peak in the distance to the south, next to a cairn
If you want to read more about how the 36.7 million year old Castle Rock Rhyolite was formed, read HERE.
A Quarry Mesa Trail Map is available HERE.
A link to Rhyolite Regional Park is HERE.

View of the grassland at the top of the mesa, this is huge!
To find these trails and parks, exit I-25 at Plum Creek.  Turn left and go to Wilcox Street, turning right at the light. Wilcox Street becomes Frontage Road, follow for 1.6 miles.  Turn left onto Crystal Valley Parkway and follow for 2.1 miles.  Turn left into the Rhyolite Regional Park and park, follow the paved trail back uphill along the road (a good ways) towards the native-surface trail system. Future plans show a parking area by the old railway grade next to the pedestrian bridge, which is the shortest way up.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Colorado Trail

Along the Colorado Trail.  All photos courtesy the Colorado Trail.
I have wanted to through-hike the Colorado Trail since I first moved to the state in 1993.  The trail stretches 480 miles from Denver to Durango following the continental divide.  Most of the trail is above treeline and it is divided into 28 sections.
The trail passes through 6 Wilderness Areas, 6 National Forests, penetrates 8 of the states mountain ranges and traverses 5 major river systems.


Total elevation gain of the trail is 89,354 vertical feet, or more than climbing Mount Everest from sea level THREE times.  Trail elevation ranges from 5520 feet at Waterton Canyon at the Denver Trailhead to 13,271 feet just below the Coney summit in section 22.  Average trail elevation is 10,300 feet.


Through-hikers usually complete the trail in 4-6 weeks.  Numerous road crossings make it possible to meet family and friends (bearing food) and allows Section Hikers to cut the trail into do-able pieces. It rains most every day and lightning is a real safety concern; most hikers setup camp for the night before the rains and lightning start.


The trail can also be ridden by mountain bike, excepting Wilderness Areas and there are trails/roads around those.  You can also use a pack animal like a horse where you can ride it or carry your gear. Or you can go like my friend Mike who has used a llama each year to carry his groups gear while section hiking the trail.


The beauty of the Colorado Trail is beyond outstanding and hiking through summer wildflowers at elevation with forever-long views can't be beat.   Expect daily temperatures to run from a high of 80 degrees to a low of 30 degrees.  There are two long sections where water may be an issue. Cell phone coverage is spotty at best an many hikers use a Spot tracker service to notify family of their location (helps with rendezvous) and to call for help.  Some sections near towns will be busy with people day hiking on weekends but most of the trail will be quiet.
For a blast into the past you can even board the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad at Elk Park on the CT and ride to Durango or Silverton if you have a ticket.


Backpackers can begin hiking the trail in late June and must finish by early September due to weather.  Even then it can snow every month in Colorado at the elevations the CT passes through.
Planning for the hike will take a little time.  Check out the Colorado Trail Trip Planning section and read the Guidebook.
If you live or vacation in Colorado consider joining the Colorado Trail Volunteers to maintain and work on trail sections part of the season.  Your generosity will be enjoyed by many.
When you go backpacking on the Colorado Trail, bring the CT Data Book and Trail Maps.  Happy hiking in some of the best scenery Colorado has to offer!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Golden Gate Canyon State Park Panorama Point Scenic Overlook
Golden Gate Canyon State Park is only 30 miles from Denver, but it encompasses 12,000 acres at an elevation range from 7600 feet to 10,400 feet.  The state park has 36 miles of hiking trails and has 22 miles of trails for mountain bikes and horseback riders to enjoy.
Camping is the reason at Golden Gate Canyon State Park, and the campsites are highly rated.  Do plan ahead and book your site before traveling.  Backpacking sites usually don't require reservations, just avoid holidays and camp during weekdays if you can.  For questions about Golden Gate Canyon, call the park at 303-582-3707.
The park hosts 134 campsites plus backcountry sites that are not too far away from a road.  They even have a few shelters at the backcountry sites, built as lean-to's like used on the Appalachian Trail. There are cabins and yurts at $60/night/6 people, plus the historical Harmsen Ranch Guesthouse at $220/night/8 people for overnight lodging.  The camping areas also handle tents at $14/night (no electric) and trailers and RV's $18/night, some with electrical hookups.
For a tent-only experience, plan to camp at Aspen Meadows.  Tents, trailers and RV's are welcome at Reverend's Ridge in the park.  No tent, no problem.  Just book a cabin or yurt to spend the night.
By the way, the owners of the Harmsen Ranch Guesthouse were the founders of Jolly Rancher candy company in Denver.  Sweet!  

View within the park
The park features snow capped mountain views, sub-alpine wildflower meadows, pine and aspen forests and offers fishing along with hiking and rock climbing.  Hunting in Jefferson County is allowed during the season.  The Panorama Point Scenic Overlook offers views of over 100 miles of snow packed peaks along the continental divide.
While the park is generally busy year-round, you can still keep to yourself on the backcountry trails and campsites.  This is an excellent location to test your new backpacking equipment or train for your long backpacking trip as your car is never more that a few miles away.  You still get the cool nights, wildlife and outdoors peace at significant elevation.
The Park Map will give you a good idea of what to expect.
Keep in mind it is close to the metro Denver area for a quick weekend or weekday get away and you won't be the only person who had that same thought.
To get there, take highway 93 north from Golden, Colorado for a mile and a half, then turn left onto Golden Gate Canyon Road and follow it for 13 miles to the park entrance.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sellars Gulch Trail

Sellars Gulch Trail from Festival Park
We joined Sellars Gulch Trail in downtown Castle Rock in the parking area in front of the city police station for a short after-lunch walk.  Back in the 1880's, Castle Rock was founded at the confluence of Plum Creek and Sellars Gulch.  Both waterways supported the early community with water for drinking and lumber for building, both needed at the time.
At the Festval Park, there are seating and performing areas, public art and a paved connector to the Plum Creek Trail.  Parking is good here for a quick stroll, with a nearby coffee shop to rest in afterwards.
Heading easterly the trail quickly goes under Perry Street.  Over the years the city added tiles to the bridge wall, all hand-painted by community children.  I attached the 4 tile panel photos below.  Our child's tile is still there, 15 years later.

A panel under the bridge with children's tiles

Another panel under the bridge with children's tiles

And another panel under the bridge with children's tiles

And even another panel under the bridge with children's tiles

The trail continues to slowly climb the hillside beside the gulch.  Beavers have made pools behind their dams.  Trees are everywhere along the water here, even the ones chewed down by the beavers.  Lots of birds chirp.  All this and we are still in downtown Castle Rock!
We pass under the Union Pacific (old Denver and Rio Grande) railroad bridge and continue walking along the trail.

Tribute sign along the trail
After a slight curve we come to a marker on the trail that speaks of a former town Mayor, Ray Waterman who was very instrumental in creating the fine community of Castle Rock we know today.  A bench that was also dedicated to Mayor Waterman faces the stream for relaxing. We are behind the Douglas County Fairgrounds and turn around where Lewis Street crosses Sellars Gulch from the Craig and Gould neighborhood. The Sellars Gulch Trail crosses the water on a bridge here and continues much further, wrapping around the ball parks southeast of the fairground.  We plan to walk the area soon. 
We like the paved trails because we can walk them a couple days after a snowfall and keep our feet dry.  A second mountain bike rider swooshes past us.  Several walkers greet us on the trail.

Bench dedicated to Mayor Waterman
A map showing Sellars Gulch Trail where it connects with the Plum Creek Trail is HERE. Look near the bottom right of the page.
To hike this trail, exit I-25 at 181 Plum Creek Parkway, turn east and follow to the second stop light at Wilcox Street.  Turn left (north) and follow to Second Street.  Turn right and park on the right side of the street.  Begin your hike in Festival Park.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Colorado Bluebird Project

Colorado Bluebird
The Colorado Bluebird Project Nest Box Monitoring of 2015 will begin April 1st, 2015 and run weekly through September 1st.  The project is under the guidance of the Audubon Society of Greater Denver and is used to gather scientific information about the Bluebirds and whether they are increasing in population locally or not.
The Town of Castle Rock has over 150 Bluebird houses installed in the community and uses volunteers from the POST Partners of Castle Rock to monitor the birdhouses during the nesting season annually.  If you are interested in volunteering, here is a brochure which explains the project in more detail.
Colorado Bluebird Box
These beautiful birds have had a difficult time nesting and raising their young because of land development and the use of metal fence posts.  They are secondary cavity nesters, which means they must rely on other species used nesting cavities to make their homes, or they use artificial nest boxes.
The program has you check specific nest boxes weekly and keep an online Google Docs document current with your findings.  Training is offered with about 2 hours a week being all the time needed to monitor a nest box.  Other volunteers build new boxes and install them in March each year.
If you don't live in Castle Rock, check for spring and summer volunteer opportunities with your local Audubon Society.
The Training Manual is a PDF located here.  Training is offered at 7PM Wednesday, March 18 at the Castle Rock Town Hall in the upstairs Chamber Room.  I hope you can make it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Hangman's Gulch Trail

Trail sign from the Plum Creek Trail
Hangman's Gulch Trail...now that is a trail name oozing with history, of intrigue, maybe even murder along the open plains...Plus it makes a great cross trail!
So, how did Hangman's Gulch get its name?  I went to the Douglas County History Research Center at the Douglas County Library to ask someone who knows.  This story goes back to the time when Colorado was still a territory.  The Pikes Peak gold rush began in 1859. The Colorado Territory was established in 1861 and Colorado didn't become a state until 1876. Towns were very few and far between.  The land was mostly claimed by native american tribes and the area was sparsely populated with people crazy enough to live in a place like that.
The story goes that back in 1867 (before the town of Castle Rock was settled) a homesteader along East Plum Creek was murdered by two men who were passing through the county.  The settler's body was discovered the next day by neighbors and the murderers were tracked to the area around Palmer Lake.  When they were confronted, several articles belonging to the murdered man were discovered in their possession.

Paintings on the railroad bridge walls
They then "all but confessed".  One of the men became violent and the posse quickly hung him from a nearby tree.  The second man was taken to the area about one mile north of Castle Rock and after a "short trial was hanged there".  He was buried in the gulch, only to resurface a few years later when his grave was washed out by a flood.  The skeleton was put together and was used by the public school science classes until the building burned in the 1880's.
Shaun Boyd, the Archivist at the Douglas County History Research Center told the Hangman's Gulch story to me and shared some inconsistencies about the report.  There are several problems proving this account including; a lack of names, no mention of a death or murder in the area, why they took the accused murderer to Castle Rock instead of the then county seat at Franktown, the wrong date for the school burning down, or even a mention of the hanging itself.  Apparently this is what a legend is, some event where the details have faded from memory.

The trail under the railroad bridge

This bridge was built in 1918, about 97 years ago

More paintings

Hangman's Gulch Trail opened in May 2013 and will eventually take hikers coming from Chatfield State Park to the Cherry Creek State Park along the Front Range Trail.  We hiked the trail this day from its connection on the Plum Creek Trail.  It runs about one and a half miles from Plum Creek to Woodland Boulevard and is open to bicyclists also.  The trail climbs up the gulch and winds its way toward the Douglas County High School and the Castle Rock Rec Center.  The first of 3 bridges it goes under is the railroad bridge.  This bridge was built in 1918 which was almost a century ago.  The wall to the south has a painting of Castle Rock, the north wall has a railroad engine, both painted in a very creative way with the use of a flock of birds.

Old highway 85 bridge

The old highway 85 bridge from uphill
The trail continues uphill along the gulch.  An old silo sits off to the north in the field and there are trees with birds chirping as you go.  The next bridge the trail goes under is the old Santa Fe Trail or Highway 85, which used to go straight through downtown Castle Rock.  The paintings at this bridge tell the agricultural and Native American stories of Castle Rock.  The second picture shows the cattle that were ranched here along with the garden and chickens on the retaining wall.  The trail continues climbing up the gulch.  The mountains start coming into view to the west as the trail climbs the hill.
The next roads the trail goes under are Interstate 25 and Front Street.  Here the Douglas County High School students have painted several literary sayings on the wall and have decorated the bridge with the school mascot and colors.  I like the way winter is depicted in prose.  This long tunnel is lit.
From here the trail continues climbing the hill to the Castle Rock Recreation Center.  It meets up with the Castle North Trail connecting neighborhoods to the High School.  Continuing across the street uphill from the Rec Center takes you into the Woodlands Trail and Park, from which you can continue uphill to Founders Parkway near the intersection with highway 86 and Ridge Road.  Just northwest of this intersection begins the drainage called Hangman's Gulch.

Downhill entrance at I-25

The first literary promise is a proverb

More prose

And more...

And more...

The uphill entrance of the bridge tunnel under Front Street
To hike the trail, you can park at the Meadows Trailhead and follow the Plum Creek Trail south to the junction with Hangman's Gulch Trail.  To get there, from I-25 take exit 184, go west to the Meadows.  Cross Highway 85 and the railroad bridge, then turn left into the parking area.