Places I like: South Colony Lakes

The northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise abruptly over the town of Westcliffe to the east, and their towering spires loom over Great Sand Dunes National Monument to the west. But what the tall peaks hide within their folds is one of the most stunning alpine scenes I’ve ever laid eyes on.

That’s a big claim, for sure. I’ve seen some fantastic places. But there is something about South Colony Lakes that stands out.

The lakes fill a tiered basin underneath the steep slopes of Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak and Broken Hand Peak on one side, and the gentler, cliff-banded flanks of Humboldt Peak on the other. To the south, Marble Mountain and other majestic spires rise. Many of these mountains have exposed, striated layers, giving a clue to the intense pressures of geologic uplift, wringing ancient and persistent violence to bend rock layers just so.

The lakes are pretty, to be sure, shining gems under the bright Colorado sky. But the star of the show is Crestone Needle, and it is best seen at dawn.

As the sun rises, the long shadow of Humboldt Peak makes a retreat. The low light of sunrise drench the eastern face of Crestone Needle, giving it a warm, orange hue that is one of the most spectacular mountain vistas I’ve come across. You understand the meaning of the word “alpenglow” when you catch Crestone Needle during the peak colors of sunrise.

And it’s a fleeting thing, gone in minutes. But the scenery still packs a wallop just about any time of day, as the Needle commands center stage above the lakes.

Bob Doucette

Places I like: Wetterhorn Peak

For many years, I had this thing for a Colorado mountain called Wetterhorn Peak. I saw pictures of it. Heard about people climbing it.

And then I saw it. Five years ago, while hiking Uncompahgre Peak, I finally laid eyes on this beauty. That’s when a low-grade obsession began — not all-consuming (that would be weird), but frequently on my mind.

A few months ago, I finally got to climb it. What usually happens after a climb a peak is something like still feeling a great appreciation for it, but the allure it had previously fades a bit.

That didn’t happen this time. Every time I see a picture of Wetterhorn, or relive that late spring ascent, I still find myself in a bit of awe. Not because of the difficulty of the climb (it’s not an extremely tough ascent), but more from its beauty.

Four ridges rise to its 14,015 summit. From the north, it’s rise is nearly shear. The south features a dramatic and signature sweep. Its east and west ridges are steep and rugged.

Pictures tell the tale better. Here is Wetterhorn as seen from the summit of nearby Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak as seen from Matterhorn Peak.

My friend Kay hiked in from the north and snapped this amazing photo.

Wetterhorn as seen from the north. (Kay Bessler photo)

Wetterhorn as seen from the north. (Kay Bessler photo)

Wetterhorn wears the snow pretty well.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn's east face.

Late spring snow conditions on Wetterhorn’s east face.

And like a true beauty, she holds up well in a close-up.

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

The Wetterhorn summit, with the Prow to the left.

And if you’re fortunate enough to reach Wetterhorn’s summit, the views from the top are incredible.

Amazing views to the north from Wetterhorn Peak's summit.

Amazing views to the north from Wetterhorn Peak’s summit.

Climber and BASE jumper/wingsuit flier Steph Davis writes a blog she titles “High Infatuation.” Though I think that term has a different meaning for her than for me, I can definitely  relate to the sentiment. Especially when it comes to this mountain. She hasn’t lost her luster.

Bob Doucette

Places I like: Chicago Basin, Colorado

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You know how wild a place is going to be based on how difficult it is to get to. While not a foolproof axiom, it generally holds up.

And that describes Chicago Basin, Colorado, very well. You can either hike in from some 20 miles out or hop a train and get dropped off in the middle of nowhere to start your journey to this slice of alpine heaven.

It’s a lot different than most of Colorado. The state is pretty dry by nature, but the San Juans tend to accumulate more rain and snow than neighboring ranges. And compared to the rest of the San Juans, Chicago Basin gets even more. The end result is a place so lush, so green, that is practically drips with foliage.

At times, the clouds and mists obscure the real rock stars of the basin – its peaks. But invariably, these beauties refuse to remain veiled for very long. Four summits towering more than 14,000 feet crown the upper reaches of the basin and even more 13,000-foot peaks join the show. Like the wilderness itself, all these mountains are wild. No gentle, grassy slopes for these crags. Instead, you’re greeted by sheer cliffs, tall spires and rocky ramparts that create an imposing – and inspiring – skyline.

In some ways, it’s too bad you can see these scenes from the road. But like a lot of things in life, with great effort comes great rewards. You’re going to have to do more than take a long drive to see Chicago Basin. But if you’re willing and don’t mind the toil, you’re going to see real wilderness on its terms, and in its full glory.

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Bob Doucette

Places I like: Missouri Gulch Basin, Colorado

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When I first laid eyes on Colorado’s Missouri Gulch Basin more than ten years ago, it was after a grueling, albeit short, hike with an overly loaded pack on my back. Ten other people were with me, most of whom were also laden with burdens a bit too heavy for their own good.

Lightning and rain pounded down on us from the skies. When we finally made camp and the skies cleared, we were treated to one of the sweetest alpine amphitheaters I’ve ever seen.

A high ridge flanked the west while Mount Belford stood tall to the east. To the north, the rugged and lofty wall that is Missouri Mountain. The basin itself was covered in green, willows down low and alpine grasses and flowers higher up. I knew that some point I’d come back to this amazing place.

Ten years later, I was back. My pack was considerably lighter. And this time, I was alone.

I can’t overemphasize how taxing the hike up is. Or how beautiful. The geological structure of the basin carries even the smallest sounds, which can be both magical and haunting: the pika’s high-pitched chirp, for example, versus the urgent call of the raven. Either way, sound carries much further and more clearly than it ought.

If I go back again, I’ll make sure I’m in better shape. If I do, I’m sure I’ll walk out of those woods with new and amazing impressions to go along with the memories I already have.

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Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Places I like: Yankee Boy Basin, Colorado

Yankee Boy Basin as seen from Mt. Sneffels' summit.

Yankee Boy Basin as seen from Mt. Sneffels’ summit.

Tucked away in the folds of the western reaches of the San Juan Mountain Range, Yankee Boy Basin spreads out before you as a peaceful high country plain guarded by some of the fiercest ramparts in all the Rockies.

In late spring and early summer, there is just enough snow on the peaks to offer a bright contrast to the rugged browns and grays of the cliffs above. That same snow feeds the basin with life-giving water, which has helped the meadows below sprout with green grasses and bright flowers. We’re still too high to see much of the forests below, but this place above timberline is very much alive.

As beautiful as the meadows are, the surrounding mountains that are the stars of the show. The monarch of this realm is Mount Sneffels, a huge peak with a massive gash down its center. Its flanks are jagged ridges, adorned with stone towers that make them appear as the spine of a huge, ageless dragon.

But most striking is the Dallas Divide. This high, sheer wall of rock is anchored by Gilpin Peak on one end and Dallas Peak on the other. Between them, a steep, high ridge clothed in rock and snow, so imposing that just getting to the town on the other side – Telluride – forces you into a lengthy drive around the range, not over.

But unlike manmade fortresses that inevitably fall, this stronghold – carved over time by ancient geological and glacial forces – remains strong. Eons go by, and all is still peaceful in this little alpine realm.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Places I like: Garden of the Gods

Think of the greatest city park you’ve been to in your life. All the things that make it great, fun and healthy. Then wrap your mind around this: It’s not as good as a certain city park in Colorado Springs.

Sorry, but it’s probably not even close. All the designs of man cannot hold a candle to the contours created by the ancient geological forces that pushed Pikes Pike heavenwards.

Welcome to Garden of the Gods.

Garden of the Gods is, by definition, a public park owned by the city of Colorado Springs. A lot of people drive through it. Many more walk around or hike its paths. But the park is best seen and enjoyed with a much more vigorous exploration.

The city has taken time to preserve the park’s amazing natural features, but also has included 15 miles of trails for hikers, trail runners, cyclists and horseback riders.

And let’s not forget about the climbing.

The massive walls, towers and needles that shoot up with nearly unfathomable verticality seem radically out of place here. Such formations – rusty sandstone, pale limestone and a slew of other sedimentary rock – appears as they were plucked out of some desert wasteland in Arizona and plopped down in the semi-arid pine forests of Colorado’s east slope. They practically beg climbers to explore them.

Such formations beg the question: How did they get here? And this is where the history lesson comes in.

These vertical formations were once buried deep under the soil as horizontal plates of compressed soils from primordial times when the high plains of eastern Colorado were under water.

But the massive forces that thrust Pikes Peak to more than 14,000 feet also unlocked the high plains’ geological secrets, breaking up those old sea beds and pushing them into the air. Wind, rain and time further carved them into the dramatic formations we see today.

And these gifts of time and geological movement blessed the park with some of the best climbing routes any single city could ever hope to possess. From near-ground bouldering problems to multi-pitch walls, visitors can challenge their skills without ever leaving the city limits.

Climbing. Running. Cycling. Hiking. Horseback riding. All within a single city park. That’s why Garden of the Gods is better than any park in your city and likely any other park where you’ve ever been.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Places I like: Black Canyon, Gunnison River, Colorado

Some of the most rewarding places to go are often the most difficult to reach. But like anything, that which is worth having often is gained through effort.

That pretty much sums up my feelings of an amazing stretch of river deep inside a western Colorado canyon.

The Gunnison River is well known among trout anglers for its prime fishing. The best of those waters lie deep within the Black Canyon.

The Gunnison weaves and cuts its way through 48 miles of blackened rock on the western side of the Continental Divide. The canyon is anywhere from 1,800 to 2,800 feet deep, making it one of the deepest chasms in the United States.

What sort of power does it take to slice open eons-old rock into such a large gash? Melt water from the high country’s snow, combined with gravity, do the trick. The Gunnison River loses more elevation in those 48 miles than does the Mississippi River along its entire 1,500-mile length.

This creates a beautiful panorama. Deep inside the canyon, its stony walls rise sheer. Buttresses jut out from the walls, giving the river twists and turns that churn its fast-flowing waters. Occasionally, the canyon will toss a boulder down, further complicating the river’s path. It makes for a pretty wild run.

It’s that wildness that also makes it prime trout habitat. Cold, fast-moving waters flowing over rocks churn it up significantly, raising oxygen levels. Fast-moving stretches mixed in with eddies and pools gather food for trout like a banquet table. Few rivers are more perfect.

But getting to the best fishing spot takes some doing. The easy-to-reach stretches are usually played out. But a short hike down the bank, one river crossing (and yes, even in summer it’s quite cold) and a brief, somewhat exposed climb over a rock rib took me to a seldom-reached stretch of trout paradise.

The reward wasn’t just in the fishing, though it was indeed very good. But to be able to sit down, filter a little water and listen to the river while thinking about life, God or many other things on my mind – that was a rare treat.

If you’ve ever wondered why fly fishing evokes such poetic, even artsy, musings from its practitioners, this is a big part of it. The ambiance of an ancient canyon, and the fast-flowing waters that sliced it open, does much to exercise the mind.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Places I like: Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area, southwestern Oklahoma

Is it possible for a place to be cursed by its blessings? In some ways, I think it is.

I live in Oklahoma, which in many ways has been blessed. Its rich soil makes it ideal for farming and ranching. Oil and gas below ground still make people fortunes. And its geography has made it an easy place to settle and develop.

What that means, however, is that the vast majority of the state is accounted for – planted, grazed, fenced in or otherwise incorporated. That leaves precious little land left in its natural state.

That’s why I’m grateful for a place like Charon’s Garden.

Southwestern Oklahoma is a vast, flat expanse that is mostly reserved for agriculture far from the state’s bigger cities. But near the military town of Lawton is a grouping of ancient granite peaks, rugged canyons and wild places known as the Wichita Mountains. In the heart of this little range is the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

In Oklahoma, this small slice of wilderness is about as wild as it gets.

The mountains themselves stand in defiance to the flatness of the southern plains. They are old – really old. They predate every other range in the country, by some estimates dating back as far as 600 million years. Eons of water and wind erosion have whittled them down to bare granite, broken up only by the persistent cedars and blackjack oak that dominate the landscape. Miners tried to find gold and other minerals here decades ago, but left mostly empty-handed, giving it back to nature.

It’s in this venerable slice of wilderness I have found my happy place. Venture deep enough inside and you find yourself alone to soak in fresh air, natural sounds and just think. It’s atop mountain summits and craggy overlooks where I’ve been able to find peace, if even for just a few moments.

People travel far to find such a thing. Peace. Stillness. A break from the machinery of manmade life. I’m grateful I don’t have to go that far.

Many poets and writers have written much more eloquently about communing with nature than I ever could. There is a joy in putting those experiences to paper, but it’s not nearly as great as actually experiencing it firsthand. In the spring, I’ve been treated to the colorful carpeting of wildflowers and lush greenery that appear in Charon’s Garden after seasonal rains. In the winter, its rugged beauty shines through. In every season I’ve been able to look into the eyes of some of the grandest creatures of the prairie – buffalo, elk and deer.

I’ve been to some amazing places, both here in the U.S. and abroad. But every time I go into Charon’s Garden, I’m reminded how great this place is. Just down the road from my own doorstep, I am also reminded that one of the biggest blessings of my home state is something that is not harvested or extracted, but left wonderfully alone.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Places I like: Matterhorn Creek Basin, San Juan Range, Colorado

It’s late September, and the aspens of southwestern Colorado are in their full fall regalia. Their uniform greens have transformed into red and yellow, setting the forest afire in colors that signify the coming change of seasons in the high country.

This is just one of the treats awaiting visitors to the Matterhorn Creek Basin, situated in the heart of the San Juan range.

The San Juans are an anomaly in the Colorado Rockies, a confluence of titanic geological forces. The combination on continental uplift, glacial carving and vulcanism has made this massive alpine wilderness one of the wildest and most spectacular places in all of the lower 48.

Hiking in, you can see the signs of its rich geological heritage. Dome-shaped mountains are around one turn, surrounded in turn by vertical spires elsewhere. Further up the trail, following the basin’s namesake creek, the trees part and the sentinels of the basin rise high above all else. Straight up the trail is Matterhorn Peak, a 13,000-foot mountain with graceful, grassy slopes up its east face that lead to its jagged summit tower.

To the west is one of Matterhorn’s bigger brothers – the striking and vertical Wetterhorn Peak, rising to more than 14,000 feet.

It’s high up Matterhorn that the Matterhorn Creek Basin can be appreciated in full. The minor peaks that towered overhead moments before bow before their loftier cousins. Wetterhorn’s stark beauty is at its highest here, while the impressive bulk of Uncompahgre Peak – the highest in all the San Juans – rises to the east.

Under blue skies, with dramatic summits all around and a forest aflame in color below, you understand the value of wilderness.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Places I like: Huangshan, Anhui Province, China

From the heights of Huangshan, the stuff of Chinese mythology is made. Rising a mile above the fertile terraced rice paddies of Anhui Province, the mountains of Huangshan greet the morning with a scene depicted thousands of times in in Chinese paintings and tens of thousands of times in the Middle Kingdom’s poems.

The clouds roll in like a tide at sea, with only the tops of the peaks’ granite spires poking through. It’s a morning scene played out regularly here, the “Sea of Clouds” reality that reaches back into the soul of China’s reverence for one of its most beautiful places.

Huangshan’s verticality is what makes it distinct from many of the other great ranges of the world. What it lacks in elevation it makes up for in its visual extremes. The combination of geologic uplift and glacial carving give the land its unique architecture.

In the valleys, it’s typically warm. A combination of broadleaf, pine and bamboo forests carpet the lower reaches of the mountains. The swaths of bamboo are easy to spot – lighter green patches contrasting with the darker greens of the other vegetation.  Higher up the slopes, the pines take over until the beige of bare rock juts alone into the skies.

The temperature changes higher up, too. Summer in Anhui can be downright oppressive, but cool breezes on the upper slopes provide a welcome break.

That relief, in addition to the scenery and the deep cultural resonance, make Huangshan a must-visit place for the Chinese. It’s also earned it World Heritage Site status from UNESCO. So it’s not surprising to see hundreds or even thousands of people walking Huangshan’s steep staircased paths on any given day.

If those visitors can catch Huangshan on those cloudy mornings, they get a chance to see something rare in much of the world – a natural scene that has inspired artists and poets for centuries.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088