Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Summit view on Clingman's Dome, looking toward Mount LeConte in the distance.

Summit view on Clingman’s Dome, looking toward Mount LeConte in the distance.

About 10 months ago, me and my sister-in-law, Jen, hiked Mount LeConte’s Alum Cave Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For both of us, it was the first time traveling to the Appalachians and eastern Tennessee.

I’ve done the peak-bagging thing in the Rockies for awhile now, as well as chasing crags in my home state. But the Smokies had an impact on me, and I hoped I could come back soon.

I got that chance this last week: A trip to visit family with the wife, and a few days in Gatlinburg.

There was a lot to gain from this, but something struck me as particularly cool. So go with me on this…

Back in November, Jen and I did the full hike of the Alum Cave Trail to LeConte’s summit (elev. 6,594 feet). That’s 11 miles, and nearly 3,000 feet of vertical gain from the trailhead to the top. Other summit hikes on LeConte or the surrounding mountains are even longer. A lot of people do it, but the fact is, many, many more won’t. Or can’t. Eleven miles is a big day of hiking for most folks, and seeing that the park attracts gobs of visitors who aren’t hardcore hikers, it’s important to find ways to enjoy it without having to commit yourself to a major, day-long effort in the hills.

Personally, I like the big days. I dig the challenge, the wildness and the solitude. But many others would love to see what I see without having to blow themselves out physically.

I came up with a couple of alternatives to the traditional big hike when you’re in the Smokies.

ALUM CAVE HIKE

A short bridge at the beginning of the Alum Cave Trail.

A short bridge at the beginning of the Alum Cave Trail.

I had no problem returning to this trail. It’s incredible. And to do it when everything was still green was awesome.

The trick here is finding a couple fun things to see, but save the trouble of committing to a summit hike.

Many people like to hike this trail, and a bunch of them opt for the halfway point, the Alum Cave Bluff. From the trailhead, it’s about 5 miles round trip. What you get is a glimpse of an interesting rock formation you get to hike through (Arch Rock), and at the turnaround, the bluff itself. In between are some scenic vistas overlooking the mountains and forests below.

This is still an effort: In those 5 miles you’re going to pick up 1,100 feet of vertical gain, and you’ll be close to 5,000 feet above sea level when you get to the bluff. But the distance and effort is within most people’s abilities. It will take most folks about three hours to complete, allowing for breaks to snack, take pics, or just enjoy the views. The bluff itself is a nice visual reward, and you’ll get to see a couple different ecosystems the higher you go.

One word of caution: Any time you go hiking in a national park or other public lands, it’s a good idea to take a first-aid kit with you, among other things. Bec rolled her ankle on the way down, so I had to do a quick wrap and tape job on her ankle before continuing. That and a couple of ibuprofen and she was good to hike out the last 2 miles. (Check out the hiking 10 essentials to have in your pack here.)

The trail is an easy-to-follow Class 1 route on a well maintained trail. Improvements to the section leading up to Alum Cave have also been recently added.

Lower on the Alum Cave Trail, it's extremely lush with huge trees, ferns, mosses and other greenery.

Lower on the Alum Cave Trail, it’s extremely lush with huge trees, ferns, mosses and other greenery.

Arch Rock, about 1.2 miles into the hike.

Arch Rock, about 1.2 miles into the hike.

Bright skies on a warm day in the Smokies.

Bright skies on a warm day in the Smokies.

Nice view.

Nice view.

Alum Cave Bluff. One of my favorite scenes.

Alum Cave Bluff. One of my favorite scenes.

CLINGMAN’S DOME

Scenes like this are what give the Smokies their name.

Scenes like this are what give the Smokies their name.

This is another one where it can be as hard as you want it to be. Clingman’s Dome is a big Appalachian peak (elev. 6,644 feet) that marks the highest point in Tennessee. It’s also the high point of the Appalachian Trail, which goes over its summit.

As you might guess, there are a number of lengthy trails to get up there, but the National Park Service also built a road which leads to an overlook very close to the top. There are several pullout sections on the roadside for nature walks or scenic views. The road ends at a large parking lot with a visitor’s center and restrooms.

Best of all, NPS also built a paved walkway that goes about a half mile from the parking lot to the summit of the mountain, where an observation platform gives you sweeping views of the Smokies.

There are a couple of reasons I like this. First, most summit views in the Smokies aren’t views at all — you’re usually surrounded by trees. The platform on Clingman’s Dome rises above all that, giving you some of the best scenery in the entire park.

Second, this is about as accessible as it gets for the general, non-hiking public. The setup gives almost anyone a chance to see what it’s like to stand atop a mountain and view the glory of the Smokies without having to exhaust themselves on a more traditional — and lengthy — Appalachian summit hike. The allure also includes the sweet scents of spruces and cooler temperatures that greet visitors at higher elevations. During last year’s LeConte hike and last week’s travels, I would swear that the woods of Tennessee’s high country smelled a lot like the alpine forests of the Rockies.

Now I know a lot of purists will scoff at the  idea of “micro adventures,” summit roads and paved walkways. But think of it this way: The best way to get people to appreciate the outdoors is to find ways to get more folks immersed in something they’ll remember. Your grandfather, or your mom, or your 6-year-old might not be up for a 14-miler up one of these mountains. But I’ll bet you can coax them up that half-mile walkway and give them the “wow” factor that leaves an impression. Positive outdoor experiences often lead people toward adopting conservationist views. And we need more of that.

Misty mountains.

Misty mountains.

Yowza.

Yowza.

Seen from the observation deck on Clingman's Dome.

Seen from the observation deck on Clingman’s Dome.

Bottom line, there is plenty of challenge for hikers and backpackers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But there are also shorter adventures that less-seasoned folks can enjoy and gain an appreciation for an American treasure.

Bob Doucette

Hiking Eagle Peak, near Colorado Springs, CO

Pikes Peak, as seen from the Eagle Peak summit.

Pikes Peak, as seen from the Eagle Peak summit.

It’s taken me awhile to post about this hike, one of three that I did on my last visit to Colorado this summer.

I was going to meet up with my friend Chuck and a buddy of his named Kevin. The original plan was to climb the Citadel near Loveland Pass, but the weather decided not to cooperate. Time for Plan B, which in this case was Eagle Peak, a 9,368-foot mountain overlooking the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs. I figured this would be a good warm-up hike for doing a four-peak loop later in the week. Little did I know that it would offer plenty of challenge on its own.

It was surprisingly steep. In addition, several sections were pretty loose. Eagle Peak is no stroll in the park.

That said, it’s scenic, and for the uber-fit fellas from the Academy or the trail runners in the Springs, it’s a great running challenge right outside of town. More power to ’em. I had a tough enough time hiking up the dang thing with my flatlander lungs.

The payoff, of course, goes beyond the fitness benefits. The summit views are amazing. I’ll let the pics to the talking.

Looking north from the summit.

Looking north from the summit.

The Air Force Academy campus.

The Air Force Academy campus.

Another view from the top, looking toward the Academy and the city.

Another view from the top, looking toward the Academy and the city.

The trail itself was beautiful, with a flat section below the summit filled with aspens and evergreens, and a waterfall farther down. I didn’t get a decent pic of the falls, but I did snap some other shots of the woods.

Kevin and Chuck hiking the trail.

Kevin and Chuck hiking the trail.

Aspen grove.

Aspen grove.

Wooded goodness on a well-placed flat section of the route. Trust me, the rest of this trail is dang steep.

Wooded goodness on a well-placed flat section of the route. Trust me, the rest of this trail is dang steep.

I’ve heard Eagle Peak described as “the Incline, but on a trail.” Sounds about right (The Incline, if you’re not familiar with it, is a popular hike up an old cog rail line that picks up about 2,000 feet in a mile. Its trailhead is in Manitou Springs). It’s a 3.6-mile out-and-back hike on what I’d call a difficult Class 2 route with around 2,106 feet of elevation gain. Needless to say, it made it easy to justify the barbecue feast the ensued after this one was over.

For people living in the area, Eagle Peak might be a good substitute for the Incline, as the latter is being closed for maintenance. The peak is also far less crowded and doesn’t come with any parking fees.

GETTING THERE: Go to the South Gate at the Air Force Academy and  gain entry to the school’s property (a guard will ask questions before you continue). Drive on Stadium Boulevard, and turn west on Academy Drive when you get to the stadium. Drive to where the Falcon Trail meets the road and park there.

Bob Doucette

High times on the Decalibron loop: 4 summits, two hikers, one great day

Bluebird day at Kite Lake and the Lincoln Group.

Bluebird day at Kite Lake and the Lincoln Group.

There are a lot of wild scenes you envision when topping out on a high peak, but what greeted us atop Mount Democrat was anything but. The trail leading to the summit was lined with hikers, and plenty of people were already there. Not quite the natural, man-beats-mountain tableau that would commonly come to mind.

And yet, there was this: My nephew, Jordan, had strode to the top just ahead of me, and when I finally caught up, there were high fives and a hug.

“Proud of you man,” I told him, congratulating him on his second 14er. “Nice job!”

He reciprocated, and we both talked about the steepness of the trail. I said something about finally breaking my 14er losing streak (it had been two years since I’d summitted a 14,000-foot mountain). We ate a little, drank a little, and took a look at the surroundings and the work ahead.

Blue skies, a chill in the air, and three more peaks awaited. A big, glorious day in the high country was in store, and it wasn’t just because of the mountains. Sometimes what matters more is who you’re with.

Mining shack ruins on Mount Democrat.

Mining shack ruins on Mount Democrat.

A LITTLE FAMILY HISTORY

The family tradition of hiking and climbing Colorado’s high peaks is not a terribly long one, but it’s been packed full of adventures that several of us have enjoyed going back to around 2000 or so.

My oldest brother Mike kicked it off. A longtime Colorado resident, Mike took to the 14ers around the same time he took his health more seriously, and within a few years he’d bagged more than three dozen summits, including some of the more famous ones like Longs Peak and the Sawtooth Ridge between Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt.

I joined in the fun soon after, and Mike was with me on my first four high summits in New Mexico and Colorado. We later brought my next oldest brother, Steve, into the fold, hitting up Quandary Peak and Mount Bierstadt during a weekend of brotherly adventures. And about four years ago, Steve and I led his his three kids, Hillary, Hannah and Hunter, as well as his wife Beth and my eldest niece, Liz, back to Quandary for another trek up the mountain’s east ridge.

Jordan jumped on this train early, heading up Bierstadt with his dad when he was a grade schooler. It was his first, and until that day with me on Mount Democrat, his only 14er ascent.

I imagine he would have done more by now, especially with Mike being such an avid hiker, but this is where the story takes a sad turn. Mike, the picture of health in our family for well over a decade, grew ill with a type of bone marrow cancer similar to leukemia, and it was an illness from which he wouldn’t recover. His passing more than five years ago was a crushing blow to my family, and especially to Jordan, his sister Katie, and their mom, Lisa. It still hurts. Every time I go up a new peak, I wonder what Mike would have thought about it. When I learn something new about training, or look for someone to call with advice about the subject, his name still pops up first. They say time heals all wounds, but that’s only true to an extent.

I can’t imagine, however, what it must feel like for his son.

Years later, Jordan has grown from being a student to a professional, and has likewise taken his dad’s path to becoming a fitter, more capable man. The dude set a goal to compete in a local Spartan race and met the challenge, but is not content with that. He’s still pounding the weights, running and playing sports.

So when I made my latest plans to head to the mountains, I floated the idea of me and him hitting a four-peak loop dubbed the Decalibron.

Of course, he said yes.

Jordan on Mount Democrat.

Jordan on Mount Democrat.

THE PEAKS

The Decalibron gets its name from a combination of four 14ers in the Mosquito Range, a grouping of mountains between the touristy town of Breckenridge and the high alpine valley around Fairplay.

The mountains – Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross – loom over Fairplay like a huge alpine fortress, easily visible from the highway.

All of the mountains are straightforward hikes, so you eliminate the complications that come with more vertical pitches and exposure. The loop itself is not that long, just 7.25 miles.

The challenge, however, comes from a couple of things. First, the initial part of the route – two miles and 2,000 feet up Mount Democrat – is pretty steep. And second, the majority of the route takes place around 13,000 feet or higher. The trailhead at Kite Lake itself starts at 12,000 feet. So no matter what, you’re spending your entire day above treeline.

The result is a hike that ends up being a fitness challenge of sorts. A doable one, but a test nonetheless.

Summit views from Mount Democrat, looking west toward the Elk Range.

Below the summit of Mount Democrat, looking west toward the Elk Range.

UP WE GO

So here’s the thing. Over the years, I’ve spent some time in the Rockies hiking and climbing the peaks, and even on bad days, I’ve been able to overcome different challenges to top out. Back in 2008, pneumonia didn’t prevent me from summitting Mount Yale, though in hindsight, it should have (the two-month recovery was brutal).

I’m not bragging here. All I’m saying is not reaching that goal is something I’m not used to. I fully expect that there will be times when a summit won’t happen. But up until last summer, it hadn’t happened to me.

So the last time I stood at 14,000 feet was on a warm summer morning in 2014, atop North Eolus in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwestern Colorado. A 2015 attempt at Longs Peak ended up in failure, and weather washed out most of my other plans for that time.

Then, just days before Jordan and I drove up to Kite Lake, weather again was a major contributor to getting turned back on Crestone Peak. A food thief – animal or human – made the next day’s planned hike of Humboldt Peak a no-go, and weather once again soured plans to climb the Citadel.

So I was feeling a bit snakebit when it came to the mountains. The losing streak was lengthening with each planned trip, every aborted summit, and each goal unreached. The forecast looked good, and we were at the trailhead early enough to get a good start. But I had to wonder what new bump in the road was going to stall me this time.

We parked at Kite Lake – there’s a $3 price tag with that, something I think is worth it – and started up the trail soon after. It starts mellow as you go by the lake, but picks up in steepness on a switchbacking trail that leads to the saddle between Democrat and Cameron. Jordan was powering through it well, as were most of the people populating the trail that morning.

One thing I found interesting was the lack of Colorado residents I saw. I met people from Iowa, for example, and a couple of other flatland states. They were a lot like me, gutting out segments of the route before stopping for a breather. The higher up we got, the more frequent those breaks became.

Mount Cameron.

Mount Democrat.

I felt surprisingly good. As the saddle neared, I felt confident that we’d hit the summit and do so in enough time to go for at least one more peak before the weather had a chance to turn.

A blast of cold, northerly winds greeted us there, the kind that hits your head and spawns an instant headache. But the views of the Tenmile Range, including Quandary Peak, helped me shrug it off. We took it in quickly, then chewed up the last, steep bit of hiking before the terrain eased just short of the summit. Ten minutes later, we were there.

Let me tell you, it felt good to get off the schneid. Standing at 14,148 feet, the two-year summit drought finally ended.

And what a vantage point. Looking west, I spied the giants of the Elk Range – Snowmass, Capitol, the Maroon Bells and Pyramid. Quandary towered just to the north, and far away, Pikes Peak stood guard over the southern Front Range.

Most importantly, we got a look at the rest of the route, starting with Mount Cameron. From where we stood, it looked like another steep piece of work.

Looking toward Quandary Peak from Mount Cameron.

Looking toward Quandary Peak from Mount Cameron.

THE PEOPLE YOU MEET

The trail up Mount Democrat was crowded, to say the least. Lots of people showed up that morning to try their hand at Mount Democrat, and possibly the rest of the loop.

What we discovered as we headed up Mount Cameron is that most of the crowd decided to hang it up after Democrat. I can understand that. The toughest part of the Decalibron is at the beginning, gaining Democrat’s summit. The mountain had a way of weeding folks out.

For our part, Jordan and I found a rhythm. It was nice to be going uphill and still able to hold a conversation. That’s not a problem for Colorado natives, but for folks like me the high altitude stuff usually turns into a head-down-feet-shuffling thing between rest stops, without much talking. Perhaps the previous days’ adventures at altitude were finally paying off in terms of acclimatizing.

About halfway up Cameron, we came across a group of younger dudes from Ohio. Cleveland, to be more precise. They’d flown into Colorado days before and were doing their best to charge up the hill. One guy in particular, with a mop-top of blond hair and an abundance of bro-enthusiasm, proved to be particularly entertaining. We all cursed the thin air and the struggle of going up. And then he would take off running up the trail, gassing about after a hundred yards or so, then stopping momentarily to bitch about the thin air before rambling uphill again. It wasn’t unlike a puppy who would sprint around the yard until near collapse, stopping to pant, then forgetting his fatigue before renewing his race around the fenceline.

“These guys are crazy,” one of the Clevelanders said, watching his friend bolt up the trail. “But I guess that’s why they’re my friends.”

Summit of Cameron, looking toward Mount Lincoln.

Summit of Cameron, looking toward Mount Lincoln.

In the middle of all this, we chatted these guys up. Jordan is a huge sports fan, so naturally, the topic of NBA basketball came up, and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship run. That’s a conversation any Cleveland fan is all too happy to have, and for good reason. Discussing this and the route ahead – “So, are you guys planning to get all four peaks?” – we came up with a good alternative name for the loop – the Decalibron James. Congrats, LeBron. Not only are you a champion and Finals MVP, but you’re now a part of 14ers lore, thanks to Jordan’s way with words.

Cameron gets steeper for awhile, but the trail eases close to the top. The summit itself is a broad expanse of brown, beige and even reddish dirt and rock. From the top, Lincoln’s summit is in view, as is the route to Mount Bross. Up here, you wonder if you’re still on Earth or on the surface of Mars. We joked about maybe seeing Matt Damon up there somewhere.

Cameron marked a good place for lunch. The weather was brilliant, and Lincoln’s summit was a foregone conclusion. The sense of urgency was past as 14er summit No. 2 was in the bag.

Our Cleveland friends were there, and in the midst of refueling a flask of Jim Beam got passed around. Hard to say no to that.

We took more pics, surveyed the scene and realized right then that we were going to get all four summits. It was nice to have that sort of confidence after a couple of years of frustration.

Final march toward Mount Lincoln's summit.

Final march toward Mount Lincoln’s summit.

ROUNDING IT OUT

We got moving again toward Lincoln, which on this loop was the easiest summit to gain. The distance between it and Cameron’s summit is short, and the elevation loss and gain minimal. Crossing the lunar-like landscape was pretty cool. Another fella hiking the loop, a dude about my age from Minnesota (“I remember what it was like to see Nirvana live!”) hit us up for conversation on this leg of the journey. He was a lot like me, a guy from lower elevations who made a point to come to the Rockies for an elevation fix.

Lincoln’s summit it the smallest, highest, and most interesting of the bunch. There is a cliff face facing the west, and a steep gully that opens up right at the top. Probably a good idea to not descend that one.

Mountain stoke.

Mountain stoke.

With three summits down, it was time to check out the skies and look at the remaining route. So far, the skies looked fine. A few more clouds, and there were some building farther to the north, but nothing where we were. The summit of Bross was 1.5 miles away, the longest segment between the peaks, and then there was still the awful descent off that mountain I’d heard and read about. Spoiler alert: the stories are true. More on that later.

Coming off Lincoln, Jordan and I had plenty of time to talk about the amazing day we were having, about life, work, and how much Mike would have loved this trip. A lot has changed for Jordan in these last five years: He’s gone from a searching young college kid to an established broadcast media professional. He’s taken total charge of his life and not let the adversity that crashed into his family set him back. He’s experienced the worst days, some joyous times, and witnessed his mom find love again, remarrying a super great guy and starting anew. That’s a lot for a young man to take in, but he’s done it. Hearing about all of that was a huge blessing to me.

It also helps that he’s a lot of fun to be around. I’ve been fortunate to have a good run of company when it comes to hiking the peaks. Some of the kindest, bravest, funniest and most interesting people I’ve ever known have been folks with whom I’ve shared the trail. Jordan ranks with the best of them.

Cliff bands on Mount Lincoln, on the way to Bross.

Cliff bands on Mount Lincoln, on the way to Bross.

So, on to Bross. Funny thing about this mountain. Parts of it are private property, owned by mining interests that go back a ways. This includes a chunk of real estate at the summit, so technically speaking, you’re not supposed to hike to the summit at all.

And that must be the most poorly enforced edict of all time. No, there is no maintained trail to the top. But, yes, there are trails. And a windbreak. And a piece of wood in the windbreak that has “Mt Bross 14,179 ft” written on it, there for the sole purpose of people picking up and holding for a summit photograph. Maybe the trail police will get us all one day, but only those most skittish about authority actually avoid the summit of Mount Bross, which, like Cameron, has that broad, Mars-like quality that makes you think you’re on another planet.

It made for a sweet finish. We enjoyed a perfect day weather-wise, and once everyone else started heading down, Jordan and I had the summit to ourselves. It’s not often you can get four summits in one day, and enjoy it on a day in which the conditions were so close to perfect. It was a nice contrast compared to the wash-outs of the past.

It was also cool to see Jordan revisit the experience he had with his dad many years ago as he tagged his second, third, fourth and fifth 14ers. Surely Mike looked down on us with a bit of a grin on his face.

No. 4 in the bag, from the summit of Bross. Lawbreakers.

No. 4 in the bag, from the summit of Bross. Lawbreakers.

If you remember from earlier, I said the descent off Mount Bross is every bit as bad as advertised. If you read route descriptions and trip reports, there are mentions of loose rocks and scree, and “skiing” down dinner plates of talus. I can confirm this is all true. It starts out like you’re hiking on BBs, then the route steepens on the middle of the ridge heading down. There were times when it made more sense to slide down and move my feet and knees as if I were making turns at Vail or something. Oh, and there was a woman hiking down who seemed to be making a better go of it than we were. She asked us what we were wearing on our feet, then gently scolded us for not wearing hiking boots. Had to give an eyeroll at that. We were wearing trail running shoes, which works pretty well on rocky, dry routes. That sort of high country condescension makes me want to show up at the next trailhead in jeans, a cotton T-shirt and a pair of Chacos. Just to piss off the “elite.” No one likes unsolicited advice, but seeing that it’s all in vogue right now, here’s a little from me: Unless your input is requested or you see danger on the immediate horizon, it’s best to keep your mouth shut. Let people learn from their mistakes. I can say without hesitation that my choice of trail running shoes over boots was intentional and well thought-out.

Democrat and Cameron as seen from the descent of Bross.

Democrat and Cameron as seen from the descent of Bross.

Thankfully, she scooted out of our orbit, leaving us and our apparently inadequate footwear to negotiate the mess below. We caught up with another pair of hikers we met that day – a dude and a gal who work at Tommyknockers, and fantastic little brewpub in Idaho Springs – and finished the hike chatting them up. We learned that they’d driven up to the trailhead in a Toyota Corolla, so I offered them a ride down to their car, assuming there is no way a subcompact with no clearance would have made it up to the lake. No need, they said. They were parked maybe 50 feet from us. Score another one for the noob tribe.

Driving down, we got our kicks watching others in passenger cars bravely attempting to negotiate the road going up. I admit, I stopped, watched in my rearview mirrors, and then laughed loudly when I saw their reverse lights engage. I guess I’m kind of a jerk like that. But it’s all in good fun.

And good fun is what it’s all about. We remember those sufferfests with pride. Hard days in the high country make for great stories and incredible learning experiences. But those great days, where everything goes right, the company is excellent and God smiles on you broadly from the mountaintop, that’s the stuff that keeps us coming back. Four peaks in one day under beautiful blue skies with a rad dude like Jordan made this trip about as perfect as it could get.

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take US 285 southwest toward Fairplay. Once in town, take State Highway 9 north toward Alma. In Alma, watch for street signs on your left. One of them will point toward Kite Lake. Take that dirt road out of town for about 6 miles to Kite Lake. The road has some decent sized ruts and dips, so a car or truck with decent clearance is advisable. If you park at Kite Lake, there is a $3 fee.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From Kite Lake, follow the trail as it goes up the slopes toward a saddle between Mount Democrat and Mount Cameron. Once at the saddle, go left and follow the switchbacks up to a broad, flatter area just below the summit. From here, hike to remaining couple of hundred yards to the top. This segment gains about 2,000 feet and is the hardest part of the route. It is also a good point to stop, look at the weather and decide if you will move on to Mount Cameron.

From here, descend the mountain back to the saddle and follow the trail up the ridge on Cameron. The terrain steepens for a few hundred yards, then eases as the summit nears. Cameron’s summit is broad, and you get a good look toward Mount Lincoln and the remaining route toward Mount Bross. This is another good place to do a weather check and see if you will have time for what comes next.

The easiest part of the route is following the trail off Cameron’s summit toward the saddle between it and Mount Lincoln. It’s a short descent, then a quick rise over a knob, then on to Lincoln’s true summit.

From here, go back to the Cameron/Lincoln saddle and follow the trail that goes around Cameron’s south side. It continues between a long, broad connecting ridge to Mount Bross. This is the longest section of the upper route, and is a mild grade in its entirety. The 1.5 mile hike to Bross ends either just short of the summit or, if you wish, follow one of the unmaintained trails (there are a few) to the top.

Leaving Bross, head west down the ridge that slopes down toward Kite Lake. The hiking is easy at first, but degrades as you get lower and the route steepens. Loose footing is present until the route goes left of the ridge and follows a more solid, gentler incline that leads to the willows and the easy hiking back to the lake.

The route is 7.25 miles from the lake. Going up Mount Democrat is Class 2; the rest of the hiking, with the exception of the descent off Bross, is Class 1.

Bob Doucette

When adventure happens: Things don’t go as planned on Crestone Peak

David at the top of Broken Hand Pass, contemplating the storm and the descent.

David at the top of Broken Hand Pass, contemplating the storm and the descent.

The term “adventure” means different things to different people. For some, it could be something as benign as checking out a farmer’s market in a town where you’ve never been. For others, a day of climbing on a new crag or backpacking to a place in which you’re unfamiliar. And for the rare souls, maybe traversing foreign lands solo on a motorcycle, where the language is not your own, the food is strange and the risk of harm from wildlife, weather or other humans is real.

Perspective is everything here. But in my conversations with people about adventure, there is a common thread that surfaces just about every time: Adventure often exists in realms where the unplanned happens. If the success of your plans for a trip or an outing is guaranteed, it’s not an adventure.

This is something I keep in mind every time I head to the mountains. The interaction of elevation, weather and will can make or break your goals in the high country.

I found that out on Longs Peak last summer, when poor weather turned me and my friends back a mile and a thousand feet short of the summit. All that effort, only to walk away with disappointment. That was in the back of my mind when my friend David and I headed into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to tackle Crestone Peak and Humboldt Peak.

I felt confident that I could handle the challenges of these mountains. But I also know that all mountains – from the benign walk-ups to their burlier, steeper cousins – have the potential to humble the most seasoned among us.

THE PEAKS

The plan was to attempt a climb of Crestone Peak, a rugged spire that shares the skyline with its more elegant kin, Crestone Needle, above South Colony Lakes. We’d considered climbing the Needle, but neither of us had been on that mountain before, and we’d read reports of people having route-finding problems in the way down. About a month ago, a climber died from a fall after going down the wrong gully, and just last week, another fall on the Needle required an extraction from a local search and rescue team. Crestone Peak is much more straightforward, so we opted for that mountain instead.

Crestone Peak is no piece of cake. The bulk of the ascent involves a good amount of exposed, sustained climbing on good, knobby rock. That has a special appeal, but the quality of the rock does not mean this is an easy mountain to climb. It has its challenges, too, and if you’re caught high on the peak with weather moving in, it’s a dangerous place to be. It’s considered the ninth-most-difficult of the 58 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado for a reason.

Humboldt Peak has a completely different nature than the Crestones. It’s a straightforward hike up it’s cool, windswept west ridge, and its appearance – described by mountaineer and author Gerry Roach as “a shapeless hump” – makes it seem like far less of a challenge than its South Colony Lakes neighbors. Objectively speaking, this is true. But even Humboldt has its surprises, particularly when snow and ice is present. Cliff bands on the middle and lower flanks of its slopes have proven to be quite dangerous to the unwary who have attempted glissades and ski descents. Humboldt has been known to kill. Snow and ice were nearly absent in the area when we arrived, but stories of mishaps on all these peaks were good reminders not to take any of them lightly.

ALTITUDE, RAIN AND CHILLED TO THE BONE

When I go to the mountains, one of my biggest obstacles is altitude. I live far away, at 800 feet above sea level. Even when I’m in shape, the challenge of altitude is high. No amount of running, hill climbs or heat training has adequately prepared me for hiking uphill with a loaded pack at 10,000 feet or higher.

So backpacking into South Colony Lakes was laborious. A road that led higher up the route had since been closed, so it’s a few miles from the new four-wheel-drive trailhead to the campsites near the lakes. It’s not steep, but it feels that way when your lungs and heart are still operating as if they were at sea level. Past the old upper trailhead, the route gets a little steeper and more rugged.

Rain began to intermittently fall on us as we hiked higher. Temperatures dropped. The level of work my body was putting in had already made me sweat through my shirt, so a little rain wasn’t going to make any difference. But things changed once we got to our campsite and stopped hiking. With the activity that kept my core temperature up now over, the whole “cold and wet” thing took over.

“Man, I need to get myself going,” I told David as I tried to get the tent out of my pack and get it set up, shivering.

“Yeah, can barely get my fingers to work right,” he said.

We fumbled around with the tent poles and the stakes until we finally got our shelter in place. There was still some campsite work to be done, but as my shivering grew more extreme, I decided I needed to get in my sleeping bag immediately. I had to warm up.

So I crawled into my bag and shook for about 40 minutes as the sun continued to set. I felt a little bad about it, partially because of the aforementioned camp chores that still awaited, but also because I felt like the weak link. Something that’s always in the back of my mind is a hope that my own deficiencies do not hinder my friends from achieving their goals. David has more than 60 summits under his belt, and from past experiences (we’ve climbed Mount Sneffels and Wetterhorn Peak together) I knew that he was the senior partner on this venture. I wondered if the sight of me huffing and puffing up to camp, and now shivering in my sleeping bag was bringing him down. It certainly didn’t look like a good omen to me.

After a bit, I rallied enough to get out of the tent and help out a little before we called it a night. Neither of us slept much, but consolation came as the clouds cleared and the stars came out. One of the benefits of having to take a leak in the middle of the night is getting a quiet moment to look at the night sky, and the tens of thousands of stars that shine overhead in ways you cannot appreciate inside a city or at lower altitudes.

I tucked in again and listened to high winds build through the pre-dawn hours. Sleep never came as I wondered what those winds would be like going over Broken Hand Pass, and then higher on the peak. Thankfully, the winds subsided by dawn, but the pass had its own obstacles.

A THOUSAND FEET OF YUCK

Alpenglow on Crestone Needle.

Alpenglow on Crestone Needle.

By morning, I was surprisingly energetic. Maybe it was the fact that the winds died down, or that bright sunshine seemed to indicate favorable conditions for the day. Our first sight was alpenglow hitting Crestone Needle – one of the most beautiful alpine scenes you could ever ask for. The Needle is a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s one of the most striking peaks I’ve ever seen.

The hike toward the pass is pleasant enough. But the pass is anything but. Broken Hand Pass is just shy of 1,000 feet above South Colony Lakes and is gained by hiking and scrambling up a loose, rubble-filled mess of a gully before ending with a short, grassy slope near the top.

We burned a lot of energy going up this pass, and David wondered aloud what it would be like descending it on our way back.

Looking up toward Broken Hand Pass.

Looking up toward Broken Hand Pass.

The pass wasn’t a total bust – it had a short section of scrambling that was sort of fun, and a taste of what we hoped to see later when we reached the peak. But our progress was slow, and rockfall a concern. We both agreed that the gully and the pass would not be a good place to be if the weather turned.

Topping out at just shy of 13,000 feet, we looked down into mellower slopes leading toward Cottonwood Lake, and later, to the base of Crestone Peak.

Low clouds were beginning to blow in from the west, but it was still mostly sunny and the temps began to warm. Sunshine seemed to bring life into the valley, and by that, I mean the bugs. Once things warmed, mosquitoes and flies rose from the marshes and set upon us almost immediately. It was great motivation to get moving, get higher and get away from the swarm that sought to feast on us that morning.

At the top of Broken Hand Pass, looking down at Cottonwood Lake.

At the top of Broken Hand Pass, looking down at Cottonwood Lake.

ON THE PEAK

For awhile, it appeared the clouds coming from the west were only going to amount to fog. They’d obscured Crestone Peak for much of the morning, but cleared just long enough for us to get a good look at the route. Some steeper hiking led to a signature feature in the middle of the mountain, the Red Gully, a water-worn strip of red rock that splits the center of the mountain’s south face. Above it were rockier, steeper pitches of conglomerate rock that were said to make for enjoyable, sustained climbing all the way to the peak’s summit.

Going up the Red Gully on Crestone Peak.

Going up the Red Gully on Crestone Peak.

It’s important to note that the type of rock in the Red Gully is different than what is higher up. Runoff from the mountain flows down the face and has worn much of the gully smooth. It’s not that steep, but it is slick in spots, even more so when wet. You need good traction from your footwear at this point, something David was having trouble finding.

His boots were only a year old, but the tread, for whatever reason, wasn’t allowing him to smear the face of the gully without slipping. As the gully steepened, the problems only got worse.

“I think I’m getting past my comfort zone here,” he said, while also saying he wished he had has trail runners on at that point. “I can’t get any grip.”

We stopped for a few minutes to assess the situation. We figured getting up the gully could be managed, but getting down could get difficult. Water continued to flow down the gully’s center, reminding us what had made the rock so slick, and foretelling what it might be like should we get caught in rain. I looked up and saw the route ahead, with still another 1,000 feet or more of climbing yet to do. Crestone’s summit was again hidden by clouds, and over a couple of ridges, those clouds appeared to build. The forecast for the day predicted a chance of storms early that afternoon, but it was clear that those storms were arriving early. With well over an hour of climbing ahead of us just to summit and the other problems now at hand it wasn’t looking good. Halfway up the Red Gully, we pulled the plug.

Gathering clouds around the ridge between Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle.

Gathering clouds around the ridge between Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle.

David was feeling pretty bad about it, noting that I’d come a long way to do this particular peak. But if there is one thing I appreciate about him is his respect for risk, and his experience in determining what those risks are. I’m positive we could have summitted. I’m not so sure how safe the downclimb would have been, especially considering how the skies were beginning to look. As they day wore on, his boot problems might have been providential, giving us pause at the correct moment to turn around before we became overcommitted going up as the weather worsened.

RETREAT OVER THE PASS

Wildflowers galore.

Wildflowers galore.

While it was a bummer to bail on the summit, it did allow for more time to enjoy the scenery around Cottonwood Lake. The monsoons had given the lake plenty of water, fed by runoff from the surrounding peaks and a busy little stream that split the valley. By early August, many of the wildflower blooms were long over, but not here. The banks of the stream were carpeted by tall plants with golden blooms, a great contrast to the green grasses and stony brown and gray walls surrounding the lake. Above us, clouds continued to move in like freight trains, quickly and steadily rushing across the skies and in between the spires high above. The interplay between the sun and the clouds, of bright light and dark shadows, gave the entire valley an ethereal feel. I stopped frequently to look up and around, taking pictures and enjoying the wild scenery before the real work of reascending Broken Hand Pass began.

Both of us had talked about the possibility of hiking Humboldt Peak the next morning. It’s a less demanding ascent, but we were pretty beat. But after getting turned back on Crestone Peak, there was more determination to salvage what we could out of the trip.

That thought had us looking ahead, perhaps a bit too far. The skies reminded us to pay attention to the now.

Ominous optics at Cottonwood Lake.

Ominous optics at Cottonwood Lake.

About two-thirds of the way up the pass, a loud and prolonged peal of thunder sounded off. The best I could tell, it came from the east, and the weather patterns indicated that anything going east of us would be heading away. Even then, I knew lightning strikes could travel in any direction. But no matter what, we’d be forced to keep climbing. It didn’t matter what the storm was doing – we still had to go up and over the pass in order to get into camp and relative safety. There was no good place to shelter where we were, or back down at Cottonwood Lake. We’d have to take our chances high on the pass and in the trickier parts of the descent on the other side and hope for the best.

Near the top of the pass, another peal of thunder, this time louder, bouncing off the walls of the mountains in a fast-moving explosion of echoes, like timed dynamite charges. The clouds darkened. Again, it was east of us. But it was a sign to get moving and get down quickly.

When we topped out, we could see the storm and its handiwork. Large volumes of rain were falling, and traces of hail or grauppel – we weren’t sure which – frosted the rugged cliff bands of Humboldt Peak. It was quite a sight, dark and forbidding. But it also confirmed to us that the storm was moving on and had not dumped much of anything on the pass. A good sign, seeing that the descent would be tricky enough as it was.

It took awhile to get down. We descended in choreographed segments, making sure whoever was downslope was clear of the fall line in case the person above accidentally kicked something loose. Rockfall is a real issue on the east side of Broken Hand Pass.

As time passed, the weather improved. We were tired and cursed the difficulties of the pass (“If I never see Broken Hand Pass again, it will be too soon,” I muttered more than once), but optimistic about what we could do the next day.

ONE MORE SURPRISE

The steepness of the trail eased once we reached the lakes. The day was ending well, and the upside to the hike was clearly seeing the route on Humboldt. David said the trail work done there recently was excellent, and its length wasn’t that much, so a good night’s sleep and some hot food should have had us ready to roll the next morning.

David near the bottom of Broken Hand Pass.

David near the bottom of Broken Hand Pass.

We entered the woods just below the lakes and neared camp. About then David stopped and walked up to a partially uprooted tree, then pointed it out to me.

Looking around a bit, he said, “It’s gone.”

By “it,” he meant his bear canister. He’d stashed it there, about a hundred feet away from our tent, as per the instructions that came with it. All of our food was in that canister, with the exception of what we had in our summit packs: half a summer sausage, a couple of cheese sticks, some apple sauce, trail mix and some dried fruit. Barely enough for one person’s single meal.

We looked around camp. No sign of it. One of two things happened: There is currently a bear around South Colony Lakes playing soccer with David’s canister, or someone saw where it was stashed and made off with it.

I’m thinking it was people rather than wildlife. There had been no reports of bear activity in the area that we’d heard of, and no signs of bear tracks or scat. A brand new canister loaded with food might have been tempting to campers lacking a conscience.

What this meant for us: Humboldt was now a no-go. That choice had been made for us by others. The only question remaining was whether we stayed the night and hiked out in the morning or packed out that afternoon.

We chose the latter. But not before chowing down on what we had left and getting a good snooze. We earned that much. Once that was done and we started packing out, David said something that summed up the last two days:

“Well, you could definitely say we had an adventure.”

I thought about that for a bit, and it stuck with me. Yes, we did have an adventure. It wasn’t a Mallory-on-Everest adventure, or Amundsen-Scott in Antarctica, but it was an adventure. We had some hardships, like the beginnings of hypothermia. There were challenges, like getting over Broken Hand Pass. Threats from the skies, like high winds in the middle of the night and storms the next day. And in some cases, too much of the wrong things to make the trip “a success,” when weather, gear and human morality all failed.

But it wasn’t a total loss. In between all those misfortunes were grand scenes of some of the most dramatic places in the Colorado high country: the rays of the rising sun bathing Crestone Needle, for example. The lush greenery around Cottonwood Lake. The fierce ramparts of Crestone Peak, shrouded in clouds, glowering at us from a couple of thousand feet above. Those sights are seared into my memory, as is the knowledge gained from being there. If there’s a next time, I have a good idea what to expect.

I also had good company. That matters when you’re out in the backcountry. A good, strong partner who can hold a conversation is valuable, especially when it’s someone you know you can trust and who will put up with your own flaws.

So we did have an adventure, one that didn’t go as planned. But it was worthwhile nonetheless.

Hiking out.

Hiking out.

Bob Doucette

Hiking Tennessee’s Mount LeConte

A sweeping view of the Smokies from Mount LeConte.

A sweeping view of the Smokies from Mount LeConte.

There are some things that don’t agree with me. Black Friday is one of them.

The idea of it—getting up ridiculously early, fighting crowds, spending wads of money and feeding the increasingly ravenous commercialism that has become Christmas is a major turnoff for me. I’ve spent the last three Black Fridays getting up early, lining up at the start line and running a 5K. Way more fun than storming the ramparts of Wal-Mart of Best Buy.

This year was going to be different, as a family get-together in Tennessee for Thanksgiving was on deck, so no race this time. I’ve never been to Tennessee before, but I’ve heard some good things about the natural beauty of the Volunteer State, particularly at its eastern edge.

I floated a plan to spend Black Friday in the Smoky Mountains, and to join like-minded people who were joining in REI’s #OptOutside movement is getting outdoors instead of stampeding the malls.

Some context…

It’s been a funny year for me. I got lazy, a little chunky, and paid for it. Dreams of summits and big races got whittled down to meager results: a failed bid at Longs Peak, a half-hearted spring trail race, and hitting just one summit – a minor 13,000-foot peak in Colorado – were all I had to show for my labors. I rallied in the fall by doing a few road races (my season-long decision choosing not to suck), but I still felt the need to try to bag one more peak before the year ended. So why not one of the Smokies’ biggies in Tennessee? It seemed a shame to get that close to a mountain range I’d never seen and not try to get out there. One peak in particular caught my eye: Mount LeConte.

Why Mount LeConte?

When I started wrapping my mind around this idea, I immediately gravitated toward trying to find the state’s highest point. That mountain would be Clingman’s Dome at 6,643 feet. That sounded cool and all, seeing I’ve got a few other state high points under my belt. But after researching the mountain, one thing stuck out – there’s a huge concrete observation tower at the summit, which is not something I want to see when I’m out in the woods going up a mountain.

I took to social media and asked around, and more than once, Mount LeConte came up as the place to go when it comes to a summit hike in the Smokies. In particular, the Alum Cave Trail was noted as being the most scenic of the many routes to LeConte’s 6,593-foot summit.

One couple’s opinion rang particularly true – Dan and Ashley Walsh, who live in Georgia and frequent the Smokies quite often. I’ve seen their Instagram pages, and their many photos of LeConte. When in doubt, trust those who have been there before.

Jen and I at the trailhead, getting ready for the big day.

Jen and I at the trailhead, getting ready for the big day.

A partner in crime…

I don’t mind doing stuff like this solo. The solitude of hitting the trails on your own has its own special aesthetic appeal, but truth be told, I prefer going with people.

I also know that a big day of hiking is not for everyone. So I brought up the idea of bringing people along, if they so chose. I got one taker.

My sister-in-law Jen digs the outdoors. She loves travel. But she’s also a mom of two boys, a wife and a one-woman landscaping show, operating her own business in a few towns north of Tulsa. It’s not like the gal has a bunch of free time on her hands, so when offered the chance to do something different – even if it meant many hours of driving and a big day on the mountain –  she was game.

Never mind that she hadn’t done a hike this long or this high in her life. A willing soul is all it takes. We’ll sort out the blisters and aches/pains later.

So what about that mountain…

As I said before, Mount LeConte is one of the behemoths of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the third highest in the park and one of the biggest in all of the southern Appalachians. The range itself, stretching about 1,500 miles from northern Alabama into Newfoundland in Canada, is one of the world’s oldest, forming some 480 million years ago. Geologists say that at their peak, the Appalachians may have been as high or higher than the Himalayas.

But all those eons of rain, snow, wind and gravity have eroded them to what they are today, their slopes more gentle and their flanks clothed in forest (though up north, there are treelines on the higher mountains). LeConte stands nearly as tall as any of the peaks in the range, and indeed, despite its age, it’s still a sizable peak. LeConte’s base is low, maybe a bit more than 1,000 feet above sea level, meaning the mountain itself rises more than a mile. A good number of famous Rocky Mountain peaks don’t have that sort of rise.

Its height is also reflected in its size. LeConte dominates the eastern skyline in the tourist towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. No route to the top is less than 11 miles round trip.

That 11-miler is also the steepest, and just so happens to be the route we picked – the Alum Cave Trail.

Alum Cave Creek, low on the trail.

Alum Cave Creek, low on the trail.

The hike…

It should be noted that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation’s most popular, getting more visitors than even Yosemite or Yellowstone. Being so close to those tourist towns and on a day where a lot of people were off work, I knew it was going to be a busy day on the trails. I was right on that count. I’m not sure the two of us went 10 minutes without seeing other people.

This was especially true lower on the mountain. Most people who hike the trail go up to Alum Cave Bluff, then turn around there.

It starts flat, winding through a mix of broadleaf and evergreen woods while following Alum Cave Creek. It’s a pretty stretch, still very green despite being in late autumn. Moss covered rocks and tree trunks all around. Unlike the mountains I’m used to hiking, this range is quite humid and gets plenty of rain. I imagine summer hiking around here gets pretty sticky.

The trail steepened as we approached a feature called Arch Rock, which has a cleverly placed stone staircase that goes through the arch and begins the first steep pitch of the hike.

Looking back at the stairs at Arch Rock. (Jen Baines photo)

Looking back at the stairs at Arch Rock. (Jen Baines photo)

Given the trailhead sits just short of 4,000 feet above sea level, I think most people might underestimate the difficulty of the hike – right up until they begin that stair climb through Arch Rock. Four-thousand feet will feel fine to any flatlander who is standing or sitting still, but add a good uphill pitch and it becomes noticeable. If you’re not used to higher elevations, keep in mind that when you hike here, thinner air will make the going a bit tougher. It won’t make you sick (a common problem in the Rockies and other higher ranges), but it will add to the effort you expend.

Past Arch Rock, the grade maintained a steeper pitch than what we saw in the first couple of miles, gaining a higher angle as we approached the trail’s namesake, Alum Cave Bluff.

Jen takes in the view from Alum Cave Bluff. (Jen Baines photo)

Jen takes in the view from Alum Cave Bluff. (Jen Baines photo)

First off, Alum Cave is not really a cave. Instead, it’s a prominent chunk of overhanging rock that builds a sort of shelter at the base. It’s dramatic, and the views from the bluff are worth the effort to get there. I can see why this hike is so popular, with the sweeping scenery and accessibility from the trailhead. I can also see why a lot of day hikers choose to turn around here instead of continuing to the summit. A sign tells you that the summit is still 2.7 miles away, and there is a lot of elevation gain between the bluff and the top.

We decided to take a breather here. One of the things I wanted to do was make sure that our pace was even and sustainable. No sense blowing ourselves out getting to the summit. I broke up the ascent into one-hour segments where we’d take a break, eat a little something, drink and maybe stretch out. So part of my job was to be a good timekeeper, letting Jen know, “Hey, let’s go another 15 minutes and then take a break,” and keep it steady. Jen was a little beat when we got to Alum Cave, but the one thing I’ve discovered about her is she has a second gear when it comes to toughness. Outside observers might have thought she was ready to cash it in, but more than once, she told me that there was no way she was going to stop before we topped out. Her spirit was willing, the weather was good, and a lot of great hiking awaited.

As we went higher, the views opened up.

As we went higher, the views opened up.

As is often the case on trips like this, we talked a lot. She asked me if I thought her boys would be able to do a hike like this. I said yes, but it would be a case of if they wanted it badly enough. Hard work and short attention spans can cut off willpower when it comes to the younger set, but there are plenty of little rippers out there who can and do hike and climb some pretty big peaks.

We also noticed accents and nationalities. Jen heard lots of voices that sounded like they heralded from the Middle East, India and the Far East.

I noticed those too, but more than that, I was taken aback by the variety of Southern accents. Some sounded Deep South, others more Cajun. I can definitely tell the difference between the sugary-sweet Tennessee or Georgia southern accents from what I normally encounter in Oklahoma and Texas. Call me weird, but I thought it was fascinating. Maybe that’s why my Colorado friends keep inviting me on their trips – to hear that funny Okie accent I picked up as a teenager.

Steeper hiking and changing flora on the upper slopes.

Steeper hiking and changing flora on the upper slopes.

The higher we went, the more things changed. There is no treeline on LeConte or any of the other Smokies, but the rapidly changing elevations meant there would be subtle differences in what you saw around you. What was just wet lower down turned into thick patches of ice higher up. The more lush broadleaf plants and trees below were supplanted by thickening groves of spruces and firs, and as the summit neared, the forest gained that familiar scent of the evergreen woods from Rocky Mountain hikes past, sort of like the sweet, fresh smell of a live Christmas tree in your house right after it’s been cut. That never gets old, and it was nice to smell it again on LeConte’s upper slopes.

Views for days.

Views for days.

Nearing the top, the trail leveled out and before we knew it a confluence of other trails split off into different directions, pointing toward other routes down and to the Cliff Tops overlook nearby. And in front of us, a collection of rustic cabins, collectively known as the LeConte Lodge. It was closed this time of year, but you can reserve a cabin when it’s open. The catch – very few utilities, and you have to hike to get there. I like the concept – you earn your stay with a little sweat equity on the trail.

Me at the summit, with the cairn behind me. And lots of trees.

Me at the summit, with the cairn behind me. And lots of trees.

LeConte’s summit was still a half-mile away, so we kept trucking. Jen was thinking we might have reached it already, but I kept telling her you’ll know you’re there when there’s nowhere else you can go to get higher. Before long, we were there, greeted not by some sweeping summit view, but a giant cairn tucked away in the trees. I’m used to cairns, but it was a little strange to top out and see nothing but woods around me. Fortunately, there were breaks in the trees down the trail that featured expansive overviews of the Smokies all around. For as far as I could see, miles and miles of long, high wooded ridges below us, giving us some of the choicest panoramas in all of the South.

A view a little down from the summit.

A view a little down from the summit.

With the summit it in the bag, we headed back down to the lodge, found a picnic table and chowed down. A married couple was wandering around, looking for water, so Jen obliged and gave them some of hers. It’s hard to believe anyone would do a hike as long as this one without more than a single 16-ounce bottle on hand, but I suppose it happens. With mild temps that day, I suppose you could get away with it, but seriously, take more than you need. You never know what might happen, and the sun sets early out there in late fall. Anyway, the dude returned the favor by handing us a Butterfinger bar, which I happily accepted. No sense turning down free food, right?

Jen at the LeConte Lodge, posing for a potential gig as a brand ambassador for Capri Sun. (Jen Baines photo)

Jen at the LeConte Lodge, posing for a potential gig as a brand ambassador for Capri Sun. (Jen Baines photo)

Eventually it was time head back down. Our late start (traffic through Sevierville/Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg is a bit slow) meant getting down before dark would be a push. After a bit, Jen said, “Going back down feels kinda sad.”

“Why is that?” I asked, my mind drifting toward what might be up for dinner once we got down.

“Because it’s almost over,” she answered.

I reassured her that there were plenty of good times in front of us on the way back to the trailhead. After all, the trail always looks different going the other way, and with the sun heading down the fading brightness of daylight bathed the hills and the woods with a warm glow that belied the growing chill in the air. Sensory overload, to be sure, and I mean that in the best way.

Heading back down. Many parts of the trail hug cliffsides, which offer dramatic views of the mountains.

Heading back down. Many parts of the trail hug cliffsides, which offer dramatic views of the mountains.

Late afternoon light, and plenty to see to fire the imagination.

Late afternoon light, and plenty to see to fire the imagination.

But what she said resonated with me. I understand exactly what she meant, that heading back to the trailhead was a step closer to leaving the adventure behind and going back to “real life” and all of its obligations, stresses and tedium. Also, the fact that the end of the trip brought about a little sadness meant that the hard work, the sweat, the soreness – all that “second-level fun” most people don’t enjoy, but a few of us relish – was worth something to her. I suspect she expected that before the hike started, but having that confirmed when it was ending was particularly gratifying. I go out there because I enjoy it, but there is a special satisfaction in taking someone on a big hike like this and turning them on to the things that the outdoors has to offer. Adventure ain’t for everyone because it’s hard. But for those who get a taste and then a fire lights in their eyes, well, getting the adventure bug can be a little like magic. Life-changing, wonderful magic.

Trail magic.

Trail magic.

So another Black Friday has come and gone, without me spending a single second shopping for anything. By opting outside, I’m sure Jen would agree with me on this: Better and more lasting memories were made on that trail then could ever have been made in line.

trailmapleconte

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the trailhead, follow the well-marked and obvious trail from the parking lot through low-lying woodlands. The trail follows Alum Cave Creek until it ascends toward Arch Rock. Climb the stairs that pass through the rock and get ready for steeper inclines the rest of the way. About a mile past that you’ll reach Alum Cave Bluff. The approach to the bluff is one of the steepest parts of the route, and under the bluff that path is very sandy. From here, it’s 2.7 miles to LeConte’s summit.

The trail continues at a steady uphill grade for another 2 miles. Parts of the trail will be on solid rock, which is often wet, so watch your footing. During late fall and into winter, some of those surfaces will be icy. The park service has installed cables to steady yourself through most of those rocky areas. In addition, the trail often hugs cliffsides, but the exposure on these sections is easily avoided and the risk of falls is minimal.

As you near the LeConte Lodge cabins, the trail levels out. It steepens slightly again past the cabins toward the top. A 6-foot high cairn marks LeConte’s summit. The trail is Class 1 and easy to follow, so the risk of getting off-route is low. The route is 11 miles round-trip; park officials recommend giving yourself 7 hours to complete the hike (including breaks, we did it in about 6.5 hours).

The Smokies are home to a wide variety of wildlife, and black bears are common in the area. Most wildlife will avoid contact with humans, but be sure to properly stow your food and do not approach or try to feed any wildlife, especially bears.

I gladly chose to #OptOutside. (Jen Baines photo)

I gladly chose to #OptOutside. (Jen Baines photo)

EXTRA CREDIT: If you have the time, explore the many other trails on LeConte, including the Boulevard Trail (16 miles, 1,080-foot gain), the Bullhead Trail (14.4 miles, 3,820-foot gain), the Rainbow Falls Trail (13 miles, 3,820-foot gain) and the Trillium Gap Trail (13 miles 3,820-foot gain). Closer to the Alum Cave Bluff Trail take the short detour from the lodge to the Cliff Tops, which are famous for their sunset views.

GETTING THERE: From Interstate 40, take Tennessee Highway 66 south (near Kodak). The road will merge with U.S. 441 as you continue south through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Continuing past Gatlinburg, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitor center will appear to your right. The Alum Cave Bluffs trailhead will be 8.6 miles down the road from the visitor center. There is a paved parking lot, but it fills up fast, so don’t be surprised if you have to park on the side of the road. As a side note, give yourself plenty of time to get through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, especially on weekends and holidays. The towns are often choked with tourist traffic.

Bob Doucette

Quick adventures: Hiking Cupid and the Loveland Pass peaks

Some of the scenery of Loveland Pass. Cupid is on the left, and many more amazing mountains are close by.

Some of the scenery of Loveland Pass. Cupid is on the left, and many more amazing mountains are close by.

Something I’ve learned lately is you don’t have to trek to the middle of nowhere to have a good outdoor experience. I’ve learned that in my hometown of Tulsa, where I can go from a downtown apartment to a network of wild, wooded trails in 15 minutes.  Don’t get me wrong, my best outdoor memories have been made deep in the backcountry. But there is something to be said for more local escapes.

Last year, in an attempt to get ready for some time at altitude, I did some research on peaks near Denver that had quick access. It led me to Loveland Pass and Mount Sniktau. It’s an easy drive from the Mile High City, and a short hike that might not be the wildest or most radical outdoor experience I’ve ever had, and the route was pretty short. But it was big on scenery and training value (the trailhead is just short of 12,000 feet, and starts out steep). Sniktau made for a nice morning alpine hike.

As it turns out, there are a lot of peaks accessible from Loveland Pass. An ambitious and stout hiker could link up three 13ers and two 14ers in a day, should the weather cooperate. And even then, you’d still have plenty of summits left to bag.

Back in July, I was faced with similar needs to acclimatize and get some altitude quickly. The weather had been wonky all week, and finding paydirt was going to be tough unless I could find a place I could get to quickly and get out.  Loveland Pass proved to be just the ticket. Just past Idaho Springs, I could check out the conditions and not be forced to lose an entire day if Mother Nature rained me out.

My plan was to hike to Cupid, and if things looked good, continue on to Grizzly Peak D. The route had plenty of up-and-down, so despite the limited miles, you’ll get a workout.

Like I said before, I had fits with the weather all week – I’d been chased off Mount Morrison, had to scuttle plans for the Kite Lake peaks, and wondered if Longs Peak later in the week would pan out (it didn’t). My morning at Loveland Pass would be no different.

One might think this view says "go home." Start of the trail toward Sniktau and Cupid.

One might think this view says “go home.” Start of the trail toward Sniktau and Cupid.

Rains hit the Front Range and Denver much of the morning, and clouds swirled around the mountains when it was dry. It would be touch-and-go.

As previously mentioned, the route starts steep. You walk up a staircase, plod along a wide trail for a couple hundred feet, then start the steep ascent toward the top of hump that is just short of 13,000 feet. The gain is almost 1,000 feet in less than a mile.

There's a ski resort over there somewhere. And a lot of other cool stuff.

There’s a ski resort over there somewhere. And a lot of other cool stuff.

For Cupid, however, you can take a bypass. A fork in the trail gives you the option of continuing up, or by turning right, you can follow below a ridgeline connecting the main route to Cupid. I took the latter.

I crossed a couple of snowfields on mellow hiking, then climbed up to the ridge. From there, it was a steady uphill pitch straight to Cupid’s summit at 13,117 feet. Simple enough, right?

More moody weather, but it looked like it was getting ready to clear up.

More moody weather, but it looked like it was getting ready to clear up.

Looking toward U.S. 6 as it goes through the pass. Clouding up again.

Looking toward U.S. 6 as it goes through the pass. Clouding up again.

But what made an impression on me were a couple other things.

First, I saw a dude running the trails. He passed me a couple of times, first early on the route, churning up the hill while I was trudging upward. Then later, going the other way off the top of Cupid, he was headed down. We chatted a bit on that second meeting before he took off again, apparently pressed to meet his wife at the trailhead. He was dressed like he was running a 5K, despite cool temps (in the 40s) and plenty of wind. I guess the body heat from, oh, RUNNING at 13,000 feet made his wardrobe choice OK. Inspired by his pluck, I’d later attempt to run some of the mellower pitches as well, but got light-headed. I reverted to hiking in short order. That’s what being a flatlander gets ya.

The good trail at the half-mile junction. Cupid is straight ahead.

The good trail at the half-mile junction. Cupid is straight ahead.

A little snow was on the route. Just one crossing here, but considerably more looking toward Mount Sniktau, which is obscured by thickening clouds.

A little snow was on the route. Just one crossing here, but considerably more looking toward Mount Sniktau, which is obscured by thickening clouds.

The next thing that hit me was the weather, The atmospherics of the day – a delightfully moody mix of colors from the snow, grasses, wildflowers, the rock and the cloudcover – made this one of the most scenic jaunts I’ve had in some time. None of these peaks have the wildness of, say, the San Juans, but when you combine all of the visual elements present that day, it made for quite a visual payoff.

After runner dude left me in the dust, there was maybe a quarter-mile left to Cupid’s summit and some decision-making in the offing. There were times when the cloudcover would appear to thin, then immediately get thicker and darker. Just when it looked like rains were imminent, a break would appear in the form of a sliver of blue sky. Reading the skies is an acquired skill. Not every cloud bank is the same. You balance what you see with the time it takes to accomplish the next task, then weigh the risks. Cold rain would be one thing, but a real storm is quite another. All I had to go by was what had occurred earlier in the day (steady rains), what I was seeing now (lots of moisture in the air, but a lack of anything electrical) and what the forecasts said (a high probability of more rain and possible storms as temperatures rose).

Getting closer to the top.

Getting closer to the top.

In the business, we call this trail porn. Sweet trail, awesome mountains, wildflowers in bloom. Inspiring lust for hikers everywhere.

In the business, we call this trail porn. Sweet trail, awesome mountains, wildflowers in bloom. Inspiring lust for hikers everywhere.

When I got to Cupid’s broad, rocky summit, I decided that Grizzly would have to wait. It would be another couple of miles round-trip, and slow going at that, with plenty of rocky, steep up-and-down hiking ahead. Who knows if the weather would have turned. So I paused at the summit, took a few pics and drank in the scenery. Not getting Grizzly would give me a reason to come back and explore more.

On the summit. Grizzly D and Torreys Peak are around there somewhere.

On the summit. Grizzly D and Torreys Peak are around there somewhere.

Looking toward Sniktau,still hiding in the clouds.

Looking toward Sniktau,still hiding in the clouds.

Dark, ominous and maybe a tad inviting? I say yes, but I'm weird like that.

Dark, ominous and maybe a tad inviting? I say yes, but I’m weird like that.

Heading back down, I had one of those moments where the virtual world met the real one. You might remember last year when, at the Durango train station, I met Kay, a gal I knew as halfpint22 on Instagram. It turned out she was on the same Chicago Basin trip I was, and it was cool getting to know her a little. This time, I saw a gal I knew through the 14ers.com Facebook page named Elissa, working her way up Cupid as I was heading down. Elissa was working nights as a nurse, and this morning solo jaunt for her was an after-work escape. It’s always good to see people take advantage of having great hiking right by your doorstep and not mailing it in after work.

And that brings me back to why I like Loveland Pass so much. If you’re looking for a summit, a good hike at high altitude, or some time in nature alone, this is the perfect fit. You can find a little adventure an hour from home and be back in the city in time for lunch.

I can’t wait to go back.

Kicking back. Fatigues by the U.S. Air Force via my brother Steve; shoes courtesy Salomon. And yes, I did some running here. "Some" running.

Kicking back. Fatigues by the U.S. Air Force via my brother Steve; shoes courtesy Salomon. And yes, I did some running here. “Some” running.

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take I-70 west past Idaho Springs, then exit south on U.S. 6 (the Loveland Pass exit) Drive to the top of the pass and park at the trailhead parking lot. The trailhead will be on your left as you park.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the parking lot, hike a sandy, steep trail on the route toward Mount Sniktau. About a half mile up, the trail has a fork. Continue straight to the top of a point that stands around 12,800 feet; the trail will split there to take you to either Cupid or Sniktau. Go right for Cupid. Your second option at the half-mile trail junction is to turn right and follow the ridgeline straight toward Cupid. This is the easier and shorter option.

Following this trail, it will hit a steeper portion to gain the ridge proper. The trail then follows the ridge to Cupid’s summit. Round-trip, it’s about three miles. Most of the route is Class 1 hiking, with some of the steeper and rockier portions rated Class 2.

EXTRA CREDIT: Continue from Cupid’s summit to Grizzly Peak D. And if you hit that point, Grizzly D connects to 14er Torreys Peak, and ultimately, Grays Peak, the highest point in the Front Range and on the Continental Divide.

Bob Doucette

Black Mesa: Solitude, silence and serenity at Oklahoma’s high place

The rugged, arid and hauntingly beautiful scenery near Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

The rugged, arid and hauntingly beautiful scenery near Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

Think of a place. A place that you’ve never been, that caught your attention, and for whatever reason, didn’t let go. You tell yourself that one day, you’re going to go there.

I seem to zig where other people zag. Whereas a lot of people might gravitate toward a tropical paradise or some sort of alpine wonderland, I seem to be drawn toward something else. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to explore Patagonia or the Himalayas, or spend a week or five on the beaches of Bora Bora. It’s just that those lonely little corners, the remote places, that capture my attention so much more.

For me, that place is Black Mesa. As in Oklahoma. Yeah, you heard that right. For the better part of a couple of decades, I’ve thought about going to the furthest point west in the Oklahoma Panhandle to see the semi-arid bluffs of Black Mesa. It started with seeing a TV news story about the people who live in Kenton, a small ranching outpost of a town situated right in the middle of the tabletop formations that rise from the high plains. The TV crew filmed it well, showcasing its haunting, Old West beauty. Scenes of the sun setting over the rocky, windswept landscape remained with me for years.

I like desolate places. I like the people who dare to live in them. There is an eternal hardness to such locales that draws me to them. It was high time I scratched that itch.

The journey is half the fun

Getting there is a bit of a haul. It’s one thing to say that you’re going to the furthest corner of a state and proclaim that it’s “remote.” But state lines are just man-made constructs, and truth be told, the corner of many states is actually pretty close to something else.

That’s not the case with Black Mesa. No major thoroughfare goes through the area. If you’re on the highway leading to Black Mesa and the town of Kenton, you have to want to get there. It’s a very intentional decision. It’s closer to Denver than it is to my home city of Tulsa; this is also true of the state’s capital, Oklahoma City. And believe me, Black Mesa ain’t anywhere near Denver. It’s a good seven hours from my home, taking secondary highways across the prairie and farmlands of northern Oklahoma and through the Panhandle until there is almost no place further north and west you can get before entering another state.

I was OK with this. Back when I lived in the Oklahoma City area, all my drives to New Mexico and Colorado traversed rural western Oklahoma all the way through the Panhandle. Flyover country can be just as monotonous as it sounds, but sometimes it can surprise you. Just east of Woodward, I ran into a surprise in an area called the Glass Mountains. Rolling plains give way to short tabletops and bluffs that, at times, cut a dramatic skyline. These aren’t the Rockies, but the range’s namesake, Glass Mountain, packs a lot of ambition in its vertically limited but striking profile.

Glass Mountain, the namesake peak of the Glass Mountains of northwest Oklahoma,

Glass Mountain, the namesake peak of the Glass Mountains of northwest Oklahoma,

Certain things I’d see along the way made me curious about what it was like to live in the Panhandle, a three-county stretch of flat prairie that at one time was forsaken by tribal and state authorities alike, dubbed “No Man’s Land” by outsiders and inhabited by the supremely tough or the thoroughly criminal before eventually becoming part of Oklahoma Territory. The Panhandle has never been cosmopolitan, wealthy or flashy. It is now much as it was back then – wide stretches of plains suitable for cattle and farming. Aside from those activities, well, you can always go back to Oklahoma City.

One site of curiosity for me is in a little wide spot in the road called Elmwood. There isn’t much here – two gas stations and a burned-out building called the Pit Stop Motel. I know about the Pit Stop because in 2002, back when I was a newspaper reporter, there was a murder here I wrote about. Someone got whacked behind the motel – shot several times and left in a car obscured by bushes, a rare crime in these parts.

A few years later, when driving out west, I noticed the Pit Stop motel had turned into a charred husk. Holy cow. First a murder, then a fire. That’s a lot of calamity for one place. Surely this place had a story. If only I could find someone to tell it.

The ruins of the Pit Stop Motel in Elmwood. But the gas station next door is still alive and kicking.

The ruins of the Pit Stop Motel in Elmwood. But the gas station next door is still alive and kicking.

So on my way out there, I stopped at the ruins of the Pit Stop to have a look. Yep, still in ruins. But something was out of place: A bright sign planted on the property’s west end advertising lottery tickets. That part of the building appeared to be intact, and upon closer inspection, was open for business.

How did I miss this? The Pit Stop Motel might be toast, but the Pit Stop convenience store was still stubbornly hanging on after all these years.

I went inside and found a woman named Emily manning the counter, eager to help. Not many of the lights were on, but the walls were lined with coolers stocked with drinks. So I asked her about the motel.

“It used to do good business,” Emily said. Her accent was strong, possibly eastern European, or maybe eastern Mediterranean. I couldn’t quite tell. “But a big storm, the worst storm, came through. It was hit by lightning.”

She couldn’t have been any older than me, but had been running the show here for the better part of a decade. The murder behind the motel happened before she came along, the storm some time after. Emily had plans to hopefully bulldoze the wreckage and open an RV park. I hope that day comes. She was really sweet and open about it. It would be nice to see things turn around in a place where opportunities just don’t grow on trees.

I bought a soda and a Tecate and continued west, satisfying a curiosity of mine that went back ten years.

Being alone

The time it took me to get from Tulsa to the Panhandle was about the same as it would take to get to the Panhandle’s end. It’s just a really long way out there. I navigated the speed trap that is Hardesty, then picked my way through the de facto capital of the Panhandle, Guymon. Unlike the rest of the region, Guymon is actually growing, with an influx of Hispanic immigrants finding work here in the city’s pork processing plants, then later, in the construction and oilfield jobs that have come along. Western Oklahoma is mostly lily white, but not here. Texas County is about a quarter Hispanic now, and in Guymon, the ratio is about a third. You can see it just walking around town, and even on the electronic marquis of a fairly new elementary school on the east side, displaying messages in English and Spanish.

Something tells me there has to be a really great Mexican food restaurant here, one that I’d like to find. I’m a sucker for pork carnita tacos and a cold Mexican lager.

Back on the road, the day was getting long, and daylight short. It was nearing sunset in Boise City, the largest town and county seat for Cimarron County, with about 1,300 people calling it home. Instead of a stoplight, you get a traffic circle that uses the county courthouse as its hub. Signs tell you which way to Denver to the north, Clayton, New Mexico, to the southwest and finally Kenton to the west. Driving straight west, it took about five minutes before I became the only car on the road.

Now that’s a strange feeling. Drive in any rural area and you’re bound to see a passing car every now and then, and usually the driver will give you a friendly wave before passing by. But I saw nothing, just the occasional ranch home, sometimes with Christmas lights up, every 10 miles or so. Other than that, I might as well have been driving on the moon.

When you’re by yourself, your senses become magnified. You’ll notice things that wouldn’t ordinarily catch your eye if someone is with you. In this case, as I tried to beat the darkness to my campsite, it was the different phases of dusk. First, you get those brilliant hues of yellow, orange, red and purple as the sun retreats below the horizon. Once it disappears, the darker, less vibrant colors take over the show as the hues of the land become flatter and darker. Soon, only a cool glow remains out west, and the land turns gray, then black, and eventually melts into the darkening sky. By then, all you can see is what is illuminated by your headlights or from lamp poles and homes miles away.

That was the point I was at when I finally got to Black Mesa State Park. All I could see where the light poles. As I pulled in and drove through, I came to realize that no one was there. No campers, no park staff, not a soul. The only thing here were the dimly lit, almost ghostly, campsites and me, motoring around until I found a suitable place to park and settle in for the night.

We’re spoiled by electricity. In “normal” life, we can do all sorts of things well into nighttime because of the benefit of electric lighting. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, that changes. Darkness is the signal to call it a night. I set up my camp, ate a little dinner, then hunkered down with a book for awhile, drifting into sleep before waking up again, usually because the copious amounts of water and caffeinated drinks I’d had on the road wouldn’t leave me alone.

Daybreak gives me a better look at my campsite at Black Mesa State Park.

Daybreak gives me a better look at my campsite at Black Mesa State Park.

Weird noises greeted me when I went outside to take care of business. Camp was near some sort of body of water, the bank on the other side covered in trees. I knew I was being watched, mostly because of the noises I’d hear when I went outside – strange calls, scratching sounds, a plop into the water. But what was the source? Antelope? Coyotes? Some other predator? No way to tell. In addition to sharpening your physical senses, being alone has a nice way of intensifying  your sense of paranoia. In my mind, I knew that even predators mostly shunned people, that wildlife is more scared of us than we are of it. It was, however, impossible not to conjure up images of a pack of coyotes suddenly surrounding me, catching me quite literally with my pants down, and collectively licking their chops.

My bathroom breaks were brief.

Getting up the next morning, I went back outside and walked up to the pond just past camp and found the source of the sneaky commotion. As it turned out, the things that were going bump in the night were just ducks. To my knowledge, no human had ever been devoured by a flock of waterfowl.

With morning also came a break in the solitude. Someone else was here. I saw him motoring around on an ATV around the campgrounds.

We visited for a bit. His name was Cody, the park superintendent, and like a lot of people, he drove a good ways just to get to work every day – 43 miles from Keyes, a little down just east of the county seat. Cody told me that the previous week, he’d only seen three or four campers in the park, and I was the first this week.

“So what do you do here when it’s so quiet?” I asked.

“There’s always something that needs to be done,” he said, noting that many of the screens at a group camp building all needed replacement, and that he’d been working on flooring and other improvements for awhile now. It occurred to be that this guy experiences solitude quite often, working hours at a park which, during the off season, hardly anyone visits. And when the day is done, he hops back into his pickup for the long haul home – I imagine just about everyone out here is accustomed to long bouts behind the wheel to get just about anywhere – before getting up early the next morning and doing it all over again.

Given that, he was eager to chat. So we talked about the park, Black Mesa and some dinosaur tracks I could see if I didn’t mind driving a little further. He also mentioned the volcanoes around Capulin, New Mexico, formed in the same period that gave birth to Black Mesa and the neighboring buttes scattered throughout this corner of the Panhandle. I’d been there a couple of times before, so that wasn’t in the itinerary this time.

I was also wondering if there was a trailhead outhouse at Black Mesa. Seeing that the restrooms at the park were all locked, I figured a pit stop before the day’s hike might be a good idea. He then proceeded to tell me there was, and how nice it was, how it cost $80,000, and how much he could get done at the park for the price of that single outhouse. He was joking about it, of course. Mostly.

I paid him my $12, and he asked me where I was from.

“Tulsa,” I replied, and he then told me that he gets more visitors from my city than any other town. “Oklahoma City is second, for sure, but for some reason, well, I always ask them what the draw is. Why here?”

That’s a good question. Maybe it’s because it’s so different from where we live. Or perhaps it’s the lure of seeing the highest point in the state. It could be that we’re just more adventurous than our neighbors in OKC. They’ve got NBA basketball to distract them now.

Some examples of petrified trees at Black Mesa State Park.

Some examples of petrified trees at Black Mesa State Park.

This sign explains a bit of the history behind the petrified trees.

This sign explains a bit of the history behind the petrified trees.

With that, I left him, checked out the remains of a petrified forest inside the park, then took the winding two-lane road further north and west, toward the remotest part of Oklahoma. Black Mesa was in my sights.

Oklahoma’s high place

The state park isn’t actually at Black Mesa. It’s within the same geological formations, but to get to the mesa you have to drive another 17 miles or so. Practically like going to the mailbox, right?

The drive has its charms. You get to see more of the mesas, and in some stretches, hoodoos. I figured these curious formations to be more of a Utah or Arizona thing, yet here they were, twisted, windblown stone sentinels overlooking the highway.

Hoodoos seen on the side of the road near Back Mesa.

Hoodoos seen on the side of the road near Black Mesa.

Kenton is nearby, but not actually on the road to Black Mesa. It’s a very small town, but situated perfectly amongst the hills. You could find many towns that have a less attractive setting than Kenton. There are a few things you need to know, however. The hours of operation of anything except the post office are pretty limited, and if you’re low on gas, you’re out of luck. The closest gas station is behind you in Boise City.

What it does have: bed and breakfasts. It’s how a few of the ranchers out here supplement their incomes. There is also a curious looking building outside of Kenton that looks like a mock-up of an Old West town. At first appearance, it looks fairly new. But I could spy some parts of the building already falling apart from neglect. My guess: it was a would-be tourist destination that never got off the ground, now left to the elements to eventually be reclaimed by the land on which it sits. It will take time for that to happen, but in this part of the world, time is abundant and relentless.

Eventually I reached the Black Mesa trailhead. A ranch-style cattle gate barred things from inside getting out (the state allows ranchers to run livestock on the nature preserve), but had a nice little chute for people to squeeze through.

Oh, and it also had that wondrous $80,000 outhouse. Which was locked. For all of the ingenious engineering that went into this shiny new one-holer, I could only hear Cody’s voice telling me that the money might have been better spent somewhere else.

I packed some extra napkins in case I had to use the non-locked outhouse at Black Mesa, which is another term for a hole in the ground dug by yours truly if the need arose.

The winter sun tries to break through the clouds over Black Mesa.

The winter sun tries to break through the clouds over Black Mesa.

I saw one other person—a small SUV pulled into the lot as I was about to start the hike. It had Colorado plates. I figured the driver would breeze past me on trail, but I never saw the dude. My guess is he stopped to make use of the 80 grand in taxpayer facilities, found them shut tight, cursed his lot in this world and moved on down the road. So as I planned, I’d have the mesa to myself.

For a mid-December day, it couldn’t have been much better. It was maybe 40 degrees, mostly overcast and still. Considering that this area sometimes sees major blizzards and normally gets whipped by high winds, I think I lucked out.

One thing that struck me about Black Mesa: It’s huge. You can’t really see it all at any given vantage point.

It also became fairly clear how it got its name. Black Mesa is volcanic in origin, having been formed by massive lava flows that filled primordial valleys from eons past. Over time, soft soil and rock eroded away, leaving behind the sturdier rock of the hardened lava. It’s been described as a region of “upside-down valleys,” which makes sense: Most of the bare rocks you see out there are black or a deep slate-and-brown hue, colors festooned upon them by the ultra-high heat from deep beneath the earth that filled a void much the same way you might create a sculpture from a plaster form.

The hardness of that rock makes the entire region, well into New Mexico, impossible to farm. No plow can penetrate the soil. Only stubborn junipers, oak, cactus, wildflowers and prairie shortgrass can break that firm crust, so the only agricultural activity going on out here is ranching.

The most common critter I saw -- Black Angus cattle.

The most common critter I saw — Black Angus cattle.

I guess it’s not surprising that the most common animal I saw at the base of the mesa was Black Angus cattle. Scores of them were out there munching on whatever they could scrape up from the mid-winter scrub. I also managed to scare up a few coveys of quail, and ravens soared overhead. All the other wildlife common to Black Mesa – antelope, deer, coyotes and rattlesnakes – remained hidden from view.

The hike was simple enough – flat for the first couple of miles before turning up a ravine in the Mesa. This is where you pick up most of the 600 feet of elevation gain to the top. The trail got a little more rugged and somewhat steep in spots – it reminded me a little of hiking Elk Mountain in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma, just bigger. And higher.

Not quite halfway to the top. The steeper section lasts about a mile.

Not quite halfway to the top. The steeper section lasts about a mile.

I’ve hiked and climbed above 14,000 feet plenty of times, but the fact is that I live in Tulsa, elevation 800 feet. Black Mesa’s summit is more than 4,000 feet higher than where I live. It wasn’t too bad, but I felt the elevation going up.

About a mile later, I was on mesa’s top. Walking away from the rim, it looked exactly like I was in the middle of a prairie. The top of the mesa is that big.

Near the top, looking north.

Near the top, looking north.

The trail was clear, however, so I kept heading west. And then I saw it: a stone obelisk, marking the highest point in Oklahoma. Now as much as I get into the high country, I only have two state high points under my belt. Black Mesa marked the third – and shortest – in my life, 4,973 feet above sea level.

The marker of Oklahoma's highest point.

The marker of Oklahoma’s highest point.

So I stood there and looked around. Scrub brush as far as I could see on this thing, considered one of the easternmost outposts of the Rockies. Then I stared out west and made out what appeared to be a snowcapped peak. Or was that just a cloud? I walked past the monument, treading west to see if I could make it out better.

This took me to western rim of the mesa. Shortgrass gave way to black rock, and a sharply dropping cliff face overlooking a wide valley in New Mexico. And that was no cloud. It was, indeed, a large mountain, maybe 8,000 feet high, some thirty miles or more away. The winds were calm as the sun struggled to break through the clouds. While a bit chilly, that cliff seemed like the perfect place for lunch and a view.

The incredible lunchtime view on the side of a cliff on Black Mesa. New Mexico lies beneath me.

The incredible lunchtime view on the side of a cliff on Black Mesa. New Mexico lies beneath me.

I pulled out a pocket knife, a summer sausage, some cheese and Hawaiian rolls. Serious trail cuisine, you know. And I munched on that while taking in ridiculous views that went on for days. There were a couple of ranch homes way down below and not much else. I imagine it was a lonesome life, at least to some degree. But man. It would be hard to beat the scenery. You might lack company, but you’d be rich in so many other things. So I sat there slicing off hunks of meat and cheese and soaked it in. Black Mesa may not be the most dramatic or hard-won summit I’ve seen, but as I stared out into the high plains, I can say that the sights and sounds of that moment may be some of the most indelible of my life. Few outdoor experiences have been so sweet.

The hits kept coming. After eating I turned back to head back down. Across the mesa top, then down the ravine and back to the flat pastures of the valley floor. From time to time, I thought I heard something – some sort of animal, I imagined – and would stop to listen. Each time this happened, I’d stand stock still, even to the point of slowing my breathing. Sometimes I’d find the source of the sounds, usually a bird call or something. But other times, just silence.

The remains of cactus.

The remains of cactus.

Now contemplate that for a moment. How often in your life do you actually perceive silence? In your home, office or workshop, even at its most quiet, you’re likely to hear the whir of a computer’s internal cooling fan, or the blower from a vent, or the hum of electric lights. More often, we have noise around us, even if it’s just white noise – the din of conversation, or tires on the road, or maybe the TV or radio broadcasting whatever.

But here, in windless conditions, I heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. To think of a place this big, with so much in it, making no noise whatsoever is difficult to describe, not to mention comprehend. The closest I can recall to this sort of audio sensory deprivation is in the midst of heavy snowfall. But other than that, the silence was, for me, quite rare. And beautiful.

Once back at the trailhead, I thought about one more thing Cody told me I needed to see – the dinosaur tracks. So a little further up the road, I pulled onto a dirt road that led to a flat area where it looked like people had driven around or parked. Stopping the car, I looked around, and then headed down into a dry creek bed that seemed to be a place where fossilized tracks might be.

Sure enough, there they were.

Dinosaur tracks!

Dinosaur tracks!

The tracks were large, about the size of dinner trays, maybe a few feet apart, a few inches deep and some filled with water. Whatever prehistoric beast left these impressions could be measured in tons. Many, many tons.

I climbed out of the creek bed and went back to the lot. It had been a couple of hours and a whole lot of hiking since I last ate, so I munched on more of my trail food and cracked open the Tecate I bought from Emily the day before. As is always the case after a rewarding summit, that beer could not have tasted better.

Dark clouds began to gather to the north. Time to head home.

Bright sunlight hits the bluffs just as dark clouds move in from the north.

Bright sunlight hits the bluffs just as dark clouds move in from the north.

On the way back, I made one more stop: A barbecue joint in the small town of Woodward called Wagg’s, a place I’d visited years before when I was out this way to write about caving at Alabaster Caverns. The food was good, so a repeat visit seemed in order.

I sat down and placed an order. There were a few other people there, too, gnawing on ribs and jawing about the day’s events. A guy on a barstool strummed quiet notes on a guitar while gently crooning country tunes in front of a tip jar. It was completely mellow, almost warm, warm in the way that the glow and crackle of a fire calms the spirit while a winter storm rages outside.

I sat there for awhile, listening to the music and enjoying my dinner while thinking about what the last two days had given me.

I got to hear the “sound” of total silence. Roam an ancient land while having the entire place to myself. Walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs.

I got to peer into the lives of people in places few people know, but places brimming with stories just the same.

At that moment, I felt gratitude. I was grateful to have the time and the health to be there. It’s rare to have any these moments, not to mention having so many all at once. When you come across such a confluence, you have to acknowledge that.

I’m a blessed man.

GETTING THERE: From Tulsa, take U.S. 412/64 west until you get to Boise City. In Boise City, continue west on Oklahoma Highway 325. The highway will take you to the state park and beyond: turn north just before you get to Kenton to reach the Black Mesa Nature Preserve. The trailhead parking lot will be on your left.

From Oklahoma City, take Interstate 40 west until you reach U.S. 270 northwest until the highway intersects with U.S. 412/64 in Woodward. Go west until you reach Boise City, then continue west on Oklahoma Highway 325 until you reach the turn north just east of Kenton to reach the nature preserve.

From Denver, go east on Interstate 70 to Limon, then continue southeast, then south on U.S. 287 until you reach Boise City, then go west on Oklahoma Highway 325,turning north just before Kenton to the nature preserve.

Mile marker benches are placed along the trail up Black Mesa. This one has a pretty nice view.

Mile marker benches are placed along the trail up Black Mesa. This one has a pretty nice view.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: At the trailhead, go through the gate and hike west, then south on a flat, well-marked trail. There is a chance you will encounter cattle on this portion of the trail. Signs with green, metal arrows show the way, and every mile there are park benches marked with the number of miles you’ve hiked.

Continue hiking on this portion of the trail for about 2.25 miles, then reach the portion of the trail that ascends the mesa. The switchbacks here are moderately steep and there is some loose rock and washouts, but the path is clear and the washouts avoidable. This portion of the trail lasts a little less than a mile, and most of the elevation gain happens here. You’ll pass under a wooden and barbed-wire gate of sorts at the top.

The trail continues south, then west on flat, easy terrain until you reach the summit marker a mile later.

Estimated total elevation gain is about 600 feet. Round-trip route length is about 8.4 miles and does not exceed Class 1, with minimal exposure. I’d consider the hike as moderately strenuous at its most difficult. Bring plenty to drink, as there are no places to filter water. This is especially important during the summer, when temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees. Also, during mild to hot weather, be on the lookout for rattlesnakes.

Bob Doucette