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 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.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Hidden Mesa Trail

Hidden Mesa Open Space Picnic Shelter
To the east of Castle Rock is the trailhead for Hidden Mesa Trail.  This trail runs east-west from the farm valley floor of Franktown to the top of Hidden Mesa, near the Terrain and Founders neighborhoods.  Today I hiked the eastern portion of the trail that runs from highway 83 to the paved Cherry Creek Trail.
The trail runs over 7 miles round trip and winds through the rolling 1224 acre property. Cherry Creek runs through the property and brings the riparian area to meet the grasslands. The uplands include shrubs and forests along with the cap rock on top of the mesa.  4.7 miles of the trail are natural surface and the paved Cherry Creek portion runs .3 miles.  The valley portion of the trail is rated moderately easy with the mesa portion rated moderately difficult.

Trail sign along farm lane
Along with day hikers, this trail is popular with mountain bikers, horseback riders and families with children and pets.  Drinking water and a Port-a-let are available at the picnic shelter.  The parking lot handles cars and horse trailers.  The original farm house stands closed here, a reminder of simple architecture and of additions as the family changed.

R & D Center sign
At this trailhead, Douglas County is conducting a research project with the Tri-County Health Department and Colorado State University to study growing fruits and vegetables without using chemicals in the local climate.  The orchard trees include figs and hazelnuts, and an edible honeysuckle called heskap is also being studied in the garden.   The plan is to provide local farmers and gardeners potential groundbreaking techniques for growing foods from around the world naturally that have never been tried here before.  They will publish the agricultural details once they determine how well the plants and trees grow in the greenhouses and orchard here.  Last year 1500 pounds of natural produce was given to the nearby Parker Task Force to feed families.  Tours are conducted throughout the year if you are interested in seeing the garden or fruit trees. The inner gardener in me is pleased the county is willing to experiment and to grow the plants naturally.

The hike through the open field to Cherry Creek follows the old farm road as it slants downhill toward the trees by the water.  You pass an old pond on the left with a birdhouse perched on the dike.  As you near the creek the trail bends north, then turns back south before crossing it on a steel bridge.  

Cherry Creek flowing north from the bridge
Pausing on the bridge, I watched the water flow by and listened to the birds and the wind in the trees.  I could not hear the highway down here.  I continued on to reach the Cherry Creek Trail.  The paved trail runs north-south here.  To follow the Hidden Mesa Trail, turn right and continue following the trail over the rolling meadow.  At about one third of a mile, the Hidden Mesa Trail turns left and climbs toward the hills to the west.  The web site and trail sign mileages don't seem to match, oh well.  A trail map is available HERE.  This is where I turned around and returned to the trailhead as the sun was setting.  

Go right and turn left onto the Mesa Rim Loop
Even though I was just off the highway, the whole area was peaceful and I noticed I felt relaxed like I do when I hike in the forests.  Night birds were darting about, eating dinner from the bugs buzzing along Cherry Creek.  Several old trees stood tall and quiet as gray sentinels.  An owl hooted from a high branch.  Old, dried and decaying trees laid upon the ground, their age lines, cracks and wrinkles showing unusual bends in the fading light.  I was entranced and enjoyed it.  I will hike the rest of this trail soon!  I walked slowly back uphill to the car.

All of Colorado is a rattlesnake area, right?


To find the Hidden Mesa Trail, drive east from Castle Rock on highway 86.  At the intersection with highway 83 in Franktown, turn left.  The trailhead is one mile north.  Turn left by the large Hidden Mesa Open Space sign.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Hike Planning for Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter
Of all the wild and beautiful places in Colorado, one of my favorites is Rocky Mountain National Park.  Covering over 265,000 acres (415 square miles), the park hosts 350 miles of hiking trails.  The park is surrounded on 3 sides by National Forests.  While the "official" summer season is over 90 days away, and the high country is still under several feet of snow, I like to look at the areas of the park to visit and plan a few backpacking trips.

RMNP Lawn Lake
I have day hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park many times over the years but have not yet backpacked there.  Bicycling Trail Ridge Road in 2001 as part of Ride The Rockies was beyond incredible!  I remember the Long's Peak Trail hike being awesome up to Chasm Lake and the views of the Mummy Range from the Lawn Lake area really cannot be beaten.  Never Summer Mountains is also a place I plan to backpack, as is the North Boundary Trail. The Poudre River Trail and the Wild Basin areas are also calling my name.  There are lots of trails to waterfalls and lakes as well as peaks.  I'll start with an overnight trip or two and expand into a 2-3 day backpacking trip by summers end, scheduled around my work and family obligations.

RMNP Alpine Wildflowers
This hiking link contains the top 10 hikes in the park, many of which take you to areas which are backpack-ready.  Pack your ultralight pack, bring your down quilt, your Esbit stove and some food and water, and prepare to be wowed by the scenery and fantastic views.  Dress in layers, plan on it being near freezing during nights near mountain tops.  The streams are guaranteed to be cold where you filter your water.  Do bring a map and compass.  Remember to leave no trace.

RMNP Never Summer Mountains
For hiking with the family or taking your children for a day trip, here are the best easy day hikes in RMNP.  Don't forget to drive Trail Ridge Road over the top.  Beware of the elk jams.
Road bicycling in the park is good (if you are careful).  The surrounding National Forests provide miles of off-road riding and the Colorado mountains have excellent road bicycling.
Plan on lots of people visiting the park with you.  RMNP have averaged over 3 million park visitors each year, most arriving during the three summer months.
Even with all those visitors, you can still enjoy a peaceful trip in the park by backpacking a few miles in from the trail head.  This list of all 80 trails in the park will provide you with enough miles to hike most of the summer.
Do read about the trails that were damaged by the 2013 floods.  Most of the roads and trail access should be open by this summer, but there are a few areas that are not yet restored.  If you have questions about a trail, call the parks Information Office at 970-586-1206.

RMNP Alluvial Falls
To help with planning your trip, here is a zoom-able PDF map of the park with the trails shown.
You will need a bear-proof container to store your food as it is required for protection of the black bears in the park.  The one I am looking at is the Bare Box Contender for my short trips, and big thanks to Section Hiker for such a good product evaluation.
For permit-planning, here is a RMNP brochure that will answer all your questions.  There are also many trail guides, maps and other material available about the park.  Check out these pages from the Rocky Mountain Conservancy shop or search online for Rocky Mountain National Park at Amazon.

RMNP Trail to Longs Peak
These blog photos are copied from the RMNP website.  All the photos I have are of my family there, so I won't show you those.  I promise to photograph the alpine vistas myself for the rest of the stories I write.
For permits (required for backpacking) call the Backcountry Office at 970-586-1242.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Plum Creek Trail South

The Plum Creek Trail, walking north from the Plum Creek Parkway bridge
Castle Rock's East Plum Creek Trail continues south along Plum Creek from the Wolfensberger Road exit to end at Perry Street, just below Plum Creek Parkway.  I had previously walked two other sections of the trail (1 here) and (2 here) and completed this one the first day that the snow had melted enough to walk it without snow boots.  In all, the trail runs 6 miles from the north end of the Meadows to south of Plum Creek Parkway and connects to two other trail systems in town, the Hangman's Gulch Trail and Sellars Gulch Trail.

Fair Street connection
Nice, tree-lined area near the space provided for the Preble's Meadow Jumping Mouse
A bench to enjoy the solitude and watch the wildlife

I accessed the trail at the Plum Creek bridge.  Walking north, the first thing I noticed was how it got a little quieter once I was walking below the road bed.  Pools of frozen water told how cold it had been recently.  There was a little snow on the trail, but nothing that couldn't be managed with tennis shoes. I wore a windbreaker and a sweater for warmth.  It didn't reach into the 50's this day.  A cool 42 degrees was what my car thermometer reported as I started.  Needless to say, my water stayed cold. This walk was about a mile and a half one way.  A trail map can be found HERE.

Interpretive Materials explains the plight of the endangered mouse
I had known about the Preble's Meadow Jumping Mouse from when I lived here before.  In Douglas County, they have set aside special places for the species to thrive and have worked to protect the mouse and its habitat from development.  Discovered in 1899 by Edward A. Preble, in 1995 it was listed as endangered from creek erosion, non-stop commercial and residential construction, trail building, pollution and the highways.  What I learned here today was how CDOT (Colorado's Department Of Transportation) took up the problem and helped design and build the trail, and recondition the land and creek around the roads to better serve the mouse.  It looks like the rodent and river population may have improved since the work was completed.  Read HERE about the PMJM and the endangered species act.  The mouse still remains endangered due to development along the Colorado and Wyoming front range.  Further studies will show how we can continue to coexist with nature.

Castle Rock continues to impress me with their trail signage.  Turn left here
The trail continues under the I-25 bridge.  Note the rock structures added to the right to protect the town during floods
The trail passes the high bank on the west side of Plum Creek
Here it gets noisy, walking along the side of the Interstate highway
The shadow of the 5th street bridge keeps the snow from melting
The beaver have built a few dams along the creek.  A good thing!
Wall painting supporting Project Recycle, a group who gathers used bicycles and reconditions them for free
Wolfensberger Bridge and exit at Castle Rock.  My turn-around point for today.
Just north of here the trail turns away from the noise of the Interstate
I continued north along the trail which now is just below the level of the Interstate and is only 30 to 70 feet away.  To say it is loud is an understatement.  I know there is little they can do to lower the whoosh and roar of noise from the traffic and trucks on I-25.  I closed my mind to the noise and continued along.  The roar decreased a bit with more room and trees between us.  I know the trail and Interstate turn away from each other just north of Wolfensberger Road and the noise level just drops and becomes peaceful again.  If you are bicycling this area, the noise may not be as bothersome to you.  If you prefer hiking in nature, just know the sounds get better the farther you hike away from the Interstate.
As for the Preble's Meadow Jumping Mouse, the nocturnal animal won't be bothered by the noise along here during the reduced traffic at night.
The retaining wall near the Wolfensberger Road bridge is hand painted with signs about Project Recycle.  It is a group that collects used bicycles and reconditions them for free.  These bicycles are given locally and are shipped around the world.  I volunteer there occasionally as a bicycle mechanic.
To get to today's hike, from I-25, take exit #181 onto Plum Creek Parkway.  Turn left and cross Wilcox Street, then take the next left and park in the Safeway parking lot.  The trail entrance is just across Perry Street and to the left of the store.  Other trail heads with official parking are located at Meadows Parkway and Festival Park in Castle Rock.