I Like Hot Springs, Long Hikes, and Harrowing Drives on Mountain Passes in the Snow

Hanging Lake is one of those hikes that is quintessential Colorado.  I didn’t know this until the other day when a friend of mine found out I was going to Glenwood Springs for a day trip.  “Are you going to Hanging Lake?  I’ve always wanted to go there!”  Sure! I answered, then I had to Google it.  The Glenwood area has never been one of my areas of expertise.  It has always been a long drive away from wherever I have been living.  On average about four or five hours away, depending on traffic.

My original plan was to go to a hot springs and let the naturally warm and stinky water flush out the toxins of typical bullshittery in my daily life I have to contend with.  There is just something about sitting in hot water that helps you forget you are living in hot water most of the time.  But since this was a hike to a very beautiful, and well-photographed location, I decided to include it in the itinerary.

On the drive up, I let my mind wander, listened to my entire playlist on shuffle, singing with some songs at the top of my lungs and listening to others like I was just hearing them for the first time.  Probably because I was.  I couldn’t remember where any of these songs had even come from.

The I-70 corridor from Denver to Grand Junction is beautiful in the Spring.  I stopped for lunch in Avon at Burger King.  Not very glamorous, but I wasn’t there for the fine dining.  It was noon and I had other places to be. Avon is apparently where all the roundabouts in America go.  No fewer than five roundabouts just to get to Burger King.  One right after the next.  The next leg of the drive was just putting in the miles until Glenwood Canyon, where Hanging Lake is nestled in among the limestone cliffs.  Spring was a great time to go, because as anyone in Colorado knows, there are only two season in the Canyon:  Winter and Road Construction.road

Hanging Lake is about a mile up from the parking area.  Considering what I have hiked, from the well-groomed trails of RMNP to the overgrown logging roads of my growing up, Hanging Lake fits somewhere in the middle.  The website and the signs posted around the park warned of icy conditions and a difficult hike.  The first 200 yards of the trail were some of the nicest sidewalks I have walked in my life.  I was beginning to doubt the urgency.  The trail takes a sharp turn from the paved bike path and the majority of the hike is stairsteps of stone.  It is a lot of work, even for someone used to lots of hiking or walking, but the footing is stable and easy to follow.  Seven bridges cross the creek that runs down from Hanging Lake.  By the third bridge, I had passed several hikers on their way down.  They warned about ice on the trail and how “you WILL fall.”

When I mentioned my plan to do Hanging Lake the other day, I was met with a few different responses.  Some saying how it was such a beautiful place and others talking about how popular it is.  How they prefer more wild/untouched terrain and the crowds you encounter.  During my hike, I didn’t see the crowds, no more than any trail at Rocky Mountain National Park.  A couple summers ago, I did Black Lake, which ends up on the western foot of Longs Peak.  In spite of snow up to my knees, uncleared trails, and even a point where there were no trails, I had to have run into at least 30 people on the hike.  They all remarked about the untouched beauty of the place, while I remember looking to the north and being able to see cars on a road heading towards Bear Lake, possibly the most oversaturated (and overrated) destination in Colorado.

On my hike up to Hanging Lake, I might have seen twenty people, heading up and down.  By the third bridge, I could see why.  The slush of the morning, with the impact of hikers and sporadic rains had turned the snow into No-Shit Olympic Grade Luge Ice.  Even in my Merrells, I had a hard time getting footing, and did better to avoid ice or snow altogether, instead hopping from rock to rock or staying on the mud.  Standing in one place meant that you would just be at the mercy of gravity and find yourself sliding downhill.  I was glad for last month when I took the kids to the ice rink.  My hockey-stops and turns came in handy.ice

The hike reminded me of a disaster movie.  On the way, I passed a family. A mom and dad and two little kids.  Then there was the couple in their mid-to-late fifties, the family with the college age daughter leading the way, the inexperienced mom who kept sliding down the hill, and the handsome dad who offered his hiking pole every time she did.  The Sikh hikers who didn’t speak much English, and the father/son duo. The quartet of sorority girls in yoga pants and running shoes.  And the puff-puff-pass 420 couple. I guess that got to make me the lone street-smart off-duty cop or the retired special forces with a mysterious past, or the knowitall asshole writer…oh yeah, I see where I fit into this now.

After working my way up the ice slide, a difficult railed walk up some stone steps, and a walk down the catwalk, there was Hanging Lake.  I was drenched in sweat from the climb and shed my layers to air out.  Hanging Lake’s clear waters and icy falls were mesmerizing.  Cut-throat trout lingered near the edge of the catwalk, and blue jays swooped in to squawk and mooch whatever trailmix they could bum off the visitors.  The catwalk gives you a vantage point back across the canyon to snowy peaks and sheer rock faces.  The lake is small, and warning signs all over stress the importance of leaving it alone due to impact so that others can enjoy it.

I found out while in Glenwood that this has been the source of debate and controversy.  Hanging Lake has so many visitors each year that in May, shuttles will drive people out to the area and visitors will be limited to less than a thousand per year.  You will have to buy a permit to make the hike as well.  One story I was told blamed a swim team who had all jumped in the lake and posted pictures of themselves doing this on social media.  Other accounts were that people were impacting the area by erosion, leaving garbage all over, and even using one highly-graffitied historical hut as a toilet along the way.

When I was done taking my pictures, I decided to head back down the trail, seeing that snow was coming in from the opposite end of the canyon.  The man I had spoken to on the way up had been right.  As I let my mind wander to troubles of my own life, stresses that caused me to take this trip in the first place, I felt my feet swing up from under me and with a teeth gritting crunch, I was flat on my back.  With only a scrape on my elbow and a sore butt, I decided that the trail was a good place to clear your head, because there was no other room for thoughts other than where your next footstep would be placed.  classic shot

By the time I reached the bottom, the snow had become freezing rain.  I was sore, sweaty, and in need of something to put in my stomach.  I stopped in Glenwood Springs for gas and lunch.  Picking the first thing that came up on Yelp reviews for local eateries, I went to Polanka,  Polish restaurant, where I ordered the combo meal.  Six perogies, saurkraut, a cabbage roll, and a length of kielbasa.  It was the high fat and calorie kind of comfort food just perfect for after a strenuous hike.  The owner of Polanka and I talked about how marijuana dispensaries are ruining his business.  We talked about the impact of idiot hikers and tourists on Hanging Lake, and about how it is pretty much overhyped.  This was in contrast to what the lady at Starbucks told me before I set out on the drive home.  She loved Hanging Lake, but both could agree that restricting access to this landmark didn’t sit well with them, even if it was necessary to protect it.

After lunch, I went to Iron Springs and sat in hot springs for about three hours.  There I visited with a number of people.  From a well-traveled man born in Damascus to a quartet of selfie-obsessed college girls on Spring Break to Sunnie and Cody, a young couple from Columbia Missouri, who had stopped along the way to Las Vegas where Sunnie was doing a dance workshop before heading to LA.  Then there was John and Maddie who had been in Moab on vacation and had stopped in Glenwood on the way back to Wyoming.  We traded stories, talked about our lives and perhaps one of my favorite things about road trips like this for me, is you get to make friends to share that moment with and once you part ways, you will probably never see each other again, but in the process you have enriched each others’ lives.

The afternoon began to fade, and I had a four and a half hour drive back home, so I set out.  By Vail Pass, a spring storm had set in and I had to keep my eyes on the road.  The roads were awful until I hit Denver and then shortly after that, snow had turned into a deluge of rain.  After 15 hours on the road, I was ready for bed.  My skin still heavy with the smell of sulfur and a pounding in my forehead from too much time in the water and not enough hydration.  A whirlwind of a daytrip across my home state I would recommend to anyone, all done for little more than gas money, lunch money, and $20 to get into Iron Mountain Springs, which was well worth it.

Usually I write about getting out more with my kids, but sometimes you have to make these journeys alone.  For me, the destination is arbitrary.  And sometimes, the only way you can make sure you can do these kinds of things is to do them alone.  If you keep an open mind and a friendly word, you won’t find yourself alone for long.

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Clinton Harris is a Colorado native and a writer learning to get out more.

He uses an iPhone 5SE for his photography.  He is lucky because he’s not a photographer, it’s just he lives in a part of the world where it is hard to take a bad picture of anything.

The Search for Bigfoot

I grew up in a mountain valley, one of the three vast “Parks” of Colorado, a windswept plain at about 8000 feet above sea level, surrounded by 12,000 ft. tall mountains on all sides.  We were isolated.  Undeveloped and to this day, still one of the most untouched regions of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

My home town was, and to this day, hovers at around 700 people.  We had one school.  Two gas stations.  Three bars.  Three liquor stores. And two grocery stores, both of which featured severely marked up milk, bread, canned beans, and meat.  Most people in town drove sixty miles to the nearest town (in any direction) to do their shopping. Only during blizzards when the roads were closed did the locals succumb to price gouging and shop locally.23795308_10155225267713412_8676039804032762096_n

A number of years ago, when I was just around my youngest’s age now, someone in town had a corral of horses down by the river. Something had been spooking them.  Something which had emerged from the primordial forests, followed the river down, close to town, and began tormenting these horses.  In the partially frozen mud of the Michigan River, someone found a footprint.  It was like the shape of a man’s footprint, only large.  And fresh.

I remember that chilly afternoon when a large group of local men gathered, some riding in the back of pickup trucks, others with their dogs.  A few had horses.  All of them had hunting rifles.  There was a lot of hushed talk, fearful talk in low voices about Bigfoot.  Sasquatch.  For two days, the men crashed through the willows which choked the floodplain.  They looked for any other sign.  Hair.  Scat.  More prints.

Two weeks later, a black bear was shot by a friend of my dad’s with a bow down by the bridge outside of town.  The bridge that spanned the Michigan River. Bears weren’t all that common in those days, having been hunted out decades before. And with the death of the bear, strangely enough, the signs of Bigfoot also disappeared.  The two were obviously a coincidence.  But I never forgot the angry villagers who converged to drive a monster out of our community.

I love telling my kids that story whenever we visit.  This last Thanksgiving, my youngest, seven years old at the time, got excited about the prospect of hunting Bigfoot.  His grandpa outfitted him with all sorts of lanterns, flashlights, compasses, binoculars, and other gear to help him in his expedition.  Unfortunately, Grandpa ran out of steam that afternoon, and so it was up to me, Grandma, and his sister to indulge him on his trek.

The days were growing shorter, and so at about 4pm, we loaded up in the car while my dad napped, and headed east to one of my favorite places in North Park.  I’m convinced it would be nearly impossible to take a bad picture of this place.  The sunsets are spectacular.  The mountains are just as they were when settlers came into the area, and probably not much different than they were when the first people came into the area, with the exception of a few timber roads and patches of clearcut here and there.23755425_10155225267848412_3970156591653163350_n

We drove up the winding road, chasing the shadows cast by the last rays of light for the day.  The higher we got, the colder the air became.  The roads were rutted with mud and snow and ice.  An unseasonably warm November, but because of recent snowfall, the mountains were caked in an impressive white, unmarred above treeline by the warm days that had followed.

As night set in, we took pictures and walked a hunting trail a little ways to the trailhead of what is still one of my favorite hikes.  I have probably hiked this path in the Summer more times than any other trail.  It is daunting to say the least.  Most of it is at a grade that would be straight up if not for the switchbacks.  An old logging road allowed to grow over.  A thick forest of lodge-pole pines and aspen make up most of this five mile ascent until you reach tundra and some of the best views of the valley I have ever seen.  North Park stretches out to the west, north and south.  To the east is the Front Range as you stand on wilderness area, the highest tors and crags to the South are the Rawah peaks, across the valley to the West are the Zirkels.  Unlike Rocky Mountain National Park, just a few miles to the south, there are no groomed trails, no busloads of tourists, no cell reception, and no signs kindly reminding you to take only photographs and leave only footprints.  There is just you, the biting wind, and the cerulean sky infinite.

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That night, there was no Bigfoot to be found.  And though we only stepped out of the car for a little bit, being unequiped for a night hike in the snow, my son ran and played, searching, hunting, as is what boys are born to do.  His goal was fulfilled, even though I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that we didn’t even see any footprints that weren’t our own.  But that is what adulting does.  It fixes your sights on the goal for so long that you forget to enjoy the path.  We didn’t need to find Bigfoot, only look for him.

And that is what we did.

We headed back home, watching the last rays of light fade behind the mountains to the West.  The stars and other worlds of our solar system began to wink into view.  My son fell asleep in his seat, holding his trusty brass lantern.  My daughter got back into range of the cell tower and was happy again.  My mom and I talked about life and the world and broken things and hope.  Back at the Grandparents’ house, hot chocolate was poured.  Television was watched. And Bigfoot remained elusive.

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Last Services for 100 Miles Should Tell You Something

In June 1998 two buddies of mine–Jimmy and Jason–and I rented a Chevy Blazer and lighted out for the territories, heading west at 11pm.  Our plan was to leave at dawn the next morning, but we were all so excited to take this roadtrip that we decided just to roll out of town right then.  Nobody was going to sleep anyway.  We left Greeley, CO and hit I-80 at about midnight, then we drove, missing the majestic landscape of the I-80 corridor as we cruised at a reasonable 110 mph.  The playlist must have been very heavy on Death Metal (Jason’s choice), but as the hum of tires on hot Wyoming asphalt lulled us to sleep, it didn’t matter what the guy from Foetus was screaming about.  It could have been Cannibal Corpse. I don’t know.  They all kinda blur together at some point and the nuances of shrieks and growls distinguishing that particular oeuvre of music are lost.

The last thing I remembered was Rawlins.  A town I have loathed since I was young.  A destination my dad used to torture my mom and I with as a child.  Their are only a few interesting things about Rawlins.  In the 19th century, when the West was wild, an outlaw was hanged and the Sheriff who did the hanging had the man’s skin tanned and made into a pair of shoes.  Also, there is a refinery nearby.  The Sinclair refinery.  This is where all the dinosaur gasoline comes from.  As a kid, I loved dinosaurs.  The town of Sinclair smells like the tarpits that might have killed the dinosaurs.  It’s horrible.

We stopped for gas in Rawlins, where a truck driver was tweaking so hard that he signed his name on the gas receipt with a happy face.  We kept driving into the night, snacked up as required.  We hoped to make Utah by dawn, and we did.  Our vehicle passing through Greenriver and Rock Springs in the pre-dawn light, the long shadows stretching out ahead of us.  Jimmy took over driving and the mountains and forests of the Ogden area soon dissolved into the Bonneville Salt Flats.  I slept.  Jason slept.  Jimmy kept driving.  Driving through the early morning hours, eating up the miles of road as the rest of us dozed.  He passed by a place that was advertised as being the last services available for the next 200 miles.  He might have said something about this as we flew past, but I wouldn’t know, because I was asleep.  I always remember this wrong, since I thought he had passed Deadhorse Point, but that’s on the opposite end of the state.

Maybe we were about to make our own Deadhorse Point? More like Dead Recently Graduated College Kids Point.  With 1/4 tank of gas in the car, Jimmy had passed the last gas station for 100 miles.

He informed us of this when Jason and I woke up, asking nonchalantly, “How many miles will a quarter of a tank get us?”  A quarter of a tank was a liberal estimation.  More like whatever was left in the tank when the fuel light came on.  The only thing burning brighter than that low fuel light was Jimmy’s ears after we started chewing him out.  After dropping down to 55 mph to conserve fuel and scrambling through the owners manual, we determined that the car had a capacity of around 18 gallons.  Which by our estimate meant we had about eighty miles to go on about three gallons.  We turned off the AC, ran with the windows down, and held our breath for the next hour.

Looking at the map, we decided to take a state highway, south to a town big enough to have services.  We soon discovered that in Nevada, when they say, “Last services for 100 miles,” they don’t mean “In the direction you are traveling.”  It takes into account all cardinal directions.

We watched those mile marker signs pass, counting down the remainder of the distance we might have to walk to find the next gas station.  60 miles.  54 miles.  45 miles.  That little gas pump burning angrily in the sea of dials within the dash instruments.  Cruise set at 55.  Then lower.  We felt like we were crawling after the triple digit pace we had been going. We crawled right through a town that was a speck on the map, with a gas station that had long since been abandoned.  An old Australian shepherd mix (maybe mixed with Coyote) sitting on the stoop.  Signs posted all over the place warning that tresspassers would be shot and buried. We didn’t slow down.

Jim reminded us that it was okay. He had AAA. As we neared the next closest town, we still had no cellular reception to even call AAA.  Jim’s indestructible Nokia didn’t have enough oomph to reach the nearest tower.  In those days, people didn’t even text, and the internet was just dialup for most people, much less any kind of navigation via cell phone.  We were looking at a long walk in the mid-morning desert sun on an empty stretch of road.  The weather was weird though.  Cloudy to the east, a weird, yellow hue to the sky.  A tail wind was helping us along.

Sputtering, we coasted into a gas station.  Nineteen gallons went into the tank.  Mentally exhausted, we stepped into the hot desert air, no longer being forced into the car at 50mph.  Inside the gas station shop, we loaded up on provisions for the next leg of the trip.  Plenty of liquid to drink, strange candy bars not of our region.  Candy I hadn’t seen in years.  Idaho Spuds and Suzie Q’s.  O Henry bars.  Chik-0-Stiks.  Bit O Honey the size of your arm.  It was like the farm where crappy Halloween candy was born and shipped off to stores before it could outgrow being fun-sized.  These were the real-deal, King Sized versions.  Wash them down with a Big Red or Sarsaparilla!

Our tank replenished as well as our spirits, we continued on.  By the time we stopped at our hotel, we were wiped out.  Television in other towns is always strange, approaching something of an uncanny familiarity to what you are used to, only a little off.  Local commercials are usually low budget used car commercials with a weird little man in a bad suit, shouting about how nobody can beat his prices.  The news reflects the regional styles, with a demographic selected to be the most appealing to natives of the area.  Somehow the chalky makeup and overly teased hair, the perfect teeth, is always rankling when compared to your own homeland.  You think “How did people this goofy looking make it onto TV?”

I would imagine everyone wonders this, no matter where they are from or where they wind up.  When you get used to how the newscasters look, its time to pull up stakes and move on.

On the news, we learned that the source of our tailwind, which gave us about 25 miles per gallon, was the first tornado to hit the area since the late 1800s.  It touched down some distance away, tore the roof off some sheds and departed as quickly as it had come.

We ate dinner at a restaurant more suited towards the simpler palate of a vastly Mormon population.  Salt and pepper being the only exotic spices allowed.  Fat and flour being the other ingredients.  No coffee.  Not that we needed any.  The first leg of the road trip was about 16 hours.  Reno was our first main excursion.  Beyond a couple casinos, there wasn’t much to do in Reno, so we headed up into the Sierras.  Three Colorado boys driving the mountain roads of California was like a duck taking to water, only the roads are wider and better cared for. We flew along.

Then onward to San Francisco.universal

Me, Jimmy, and unidentified Tourist (far right) at Universal Studios. 1998.