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

Some scenes from Colorado’s Sawatch Range

sawatchcover

Last week, I posted images from my favorite mountain range, the San Juan Mountains. As much as I love that range, there are some awesome scenes from other places as well. One range I’ve frequented is the Sawatch of central and southern Colorado.

While gorgeous, the Sawatch lacks the dramatics of the Elks or the San Juans. Technical ascents are harder to come by. The routes are long slogs.

But the character of these mountains — their sheer size — makes them inspiring just the same. Coming from the east and heading into the Arkansas River Valley near Buena Vista, you can’t help but be impressed by the abrupt rise of these giants.

So here we go. Few words, lots of pics of my favorite scenes from the Sawatch, starting with Huron Peak, a favorite among many…

A storm forms over Huron Peak. Glad we were on our way down.

A storm forms over Huron Peak. Glad we were on our way down.

This summit view is one of the many aspects which gives Mount of the Holy Cross its spiritual inspirations…

Holy Cross Ridge, as seen from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross.

Holy Cross Ridge, as seen from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross.

Sometimes a mountain will give you some unforgettable memories. Maybe of a lot of them, like this…

Mists obscure the summit ridge of Missouri Mountain.

Mists obscure the summit ridge of Missouri Mountain.

Or this…

Huron Peak emerging from the clouds, as seen from the northwest ridge of Missouri Mountain.

Huron Peak emerging from the clouds, as seen from the northwest ridge of Missouri Mountain.

And maybe this…

Looking down into Missouri Gulch Basin from Missouri Mountain's summit.

Looking down into Missouri Gulch Basin from Missouri Mountain’s summit.

It’s important to stop and look around, even though you’re tempted to put your head down and gut it out…

The long morning march up Mount Yale.

The long morning march up Mount Yale.

Because you get views on the way up like this…

The upper switchbacks on Mount Belford.

The upper switchbacks on Mount Belford.

It’s inspiring to look up at these titanic piles of rock…

Morning view of Mount Belford.

Morning view of Mount Belford.

And take a look around…

Overlooking the Angel of Shavano on Mount Shavano.

Overlooking the Angel of Shavano on Mount Shavano.

Because before you know it, you’re topping out…

Getting ready to top out on Mount Shavano.

Getting ready to summit Mount Shavano.

Good times, man. Let’s hear it for the walk-ups of the Sawatch.

My best selfie.

My best selfie.

Bob Doucette

Spectacular scenes from the San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Seeing we’re in mid-summer, the mountain stoke is high. Summer gives us unique access to the high country, and it’s a busy and amazing time to be up there.

This got me to thinking about my favorite mountain range, the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.

This will be one of those posts with a lot of pictures and not a lot of words. So here goes, my favorite images from the San Juans, starting from this moody image in the Weminuche…

Peak 18 and Windom Peak on a misty day in Chicago Basin.

Peak 18 and Windom Peak on a misty day in Chicago Basin.

Not far from there, but about 3,500 feet higher, there’s this…

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness, as seen from 14,000 feet.

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness, as seen from 14,000 feet.

On the eastern edge of the range, snow gives the peaks a whole new appearance…

Late spring atop Wetterhorn Peak.

Late spring atop Wetterhorn Peak.

And in the fall, you can see the mountains getting ready to make the transition to winter…

American Basin, near Lake City, Colorado.

American Basin, near Lake City, Colorado.

Skylines like these speak to how wild these mountains really are…

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from neighboring Matterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from neighboring Matterhorn Peak.

…and how wild the weather can get.

Changing weather as seen from atop Uncompahgre Peak.

Changing weather as seen from atop Uncompahgre Peak.

Needless to say, I’ve never had a bad time in the San Juans…

Checking out the views on the southwest ridge of Mount Sneffels.

Checking out the views on the southwest ridge of Mount Sneffels.

Bob Doucette

Micro-adventures: A day trip to Natural Falls State Park, Oklahoma

Not quite the prairie scenery people imagine when they think of Oklahoma.

Not quite the prairie scenery people imagine when they think of Oklahoma.

I’m still on this kick about finding local outdoor fixes. Even though the summer heat is kicking into high gear, that’s not a good reason to be stuck inside.

The last of these posts had me looking at what outdoor fun could be had inside the city limits of my hometown. Quite a bit, as I discovered.

Next up, making a drive farther east to see what many consider Oklahoma’s most scenic state park.

Natural Falls State Park is near the town of Colcord, and just west of the Arkansas state line. Out here, you’re flirting with the topography of the Ozarks while also getting into thick woodlands.

The park isn’t very big, certainly nothing like you would see of the great western national parks. It’s just 120 acres, and contains about 4.5 miles of trails.

Natural Falls. It reminds me of a cenote in southern Mexico.

Natural Falls. It reminds me of a cenote in southern Mexico.

What it lacks in size it makes up for in its star attraction. The park is named after a 77-foot waterfall that drains into a pool that is usually fairly clear, but wasn’t on a recent visit. Still, the scene itself reminded me of the tropical cenotes of southern Mexico: A deep, circular stone amphitheater, lined with trees and lush greenery, all surrounding the tall-but-slender falls.

Concrete footpaths lead you to an observation deck overlooking the top of the falls and also take you down to the base. Park benches allow for a place to rest and absorb the view.

A stretch of trail at the park. The trails are anything from flat and easy to steep and rocky.

A stretch of trail at the park. The trails are anything from flat and easy to steep and rocky.

I was going to be a little disappointed if all the trails were paved, but they’re not. The rest of the trail system is all singletrack dirt — some easy hiking, some quite steep, with sections that are somewhat rocky. It’s not a big deal to me, but for your average day trip visitor, some of the trails might be challenging. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

The falls are awesome, but really, the entire park is extremely scenic. The falls and the stream that they feed are tucked into a small canyon, and every bit of bare earth is covered in greenery. You’ve got the typical mix of oaks that you expect in this part of the country, but also lodgepole pines that tower 60 or more feet and a good mix of shrubs and ferns everywhere else. If you’re into nature and wildlife, you’re going to enjoy this place quite a bit.

Some scenes from the trails…

The creek that runs through the canyon.

The creek that runs through the canyon.

Moss-covered tree trunks.

Moss-covered tree trunks.

Another stretch of creek, with clearer water.

Another stretch of creek, with clearer water.

A look up to the forest canopy, anchored by this huge pine.

A look up to the forest canopy, anchored by this huge pine.

Pine bark details. They look like scales of a huge reptile.

Pine bark textures. They look like scales of a huge reptile.

Green. Green everywhere.

Green. Green everywhere.

The topography of the park also makes it different from the woodlands that are more common here. It is its own ecosystem, and a fragile one at that. For that reason, park officials do not allow swimming in the ponds inside the canyon.

The park can accommodate campers on prepared tent and RV sites. There are 44 sites for RVs (seven of which have full hookups) and 17 for tent campers. There are showers available, and areas where you can play volleyball and basketball. Fishing is also on site, as is a nine-hole disc golf course and a playground.

The great thing about a day trip here is you can pack in a lot of outdoor fun without the commitment of a backpacking trip or a long drive. On that count, Natural Falls State Park scores high. Be sure to check it out.

Getting there: From Tulsa, take U.S. 412 east toward Colcord. The drive is about 90 minutes. Using that same highway, it’s anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour west of Arkansas cities such as Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville and Bentonville.

Extras: After a good day of hiking, there are plenty of places to eat in Siloam Springs (Tex-Mex, home-style, steaks), and there is a restaurant at the Cherokee-run casino in West Siloam Springs.

Fun fact: Ever seen the movie “Where the Red Fern Grows”? It was filmed here.

Bob Doucette