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

Caution, summer hikers: It’s still snowy in the mountains

The northeastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado in June 2014.

The northeastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado in June 2014.

Last week, a post about a serious accident in the mountains of Colorado prompted a good online discussion about high country safety.

In the post, the woman who wrote it talked about how she and another hiker had gone up Humboldt Peak, and on the descent, attempted a glissade (sliding down a slope on your butt) down a long snow slope. The conditions were icy, and her partner ended up losing control and getting injured. In her attempt to reach him, she also slid and banged herself up but escaped serious injury. The pair was able to contact local search-and-rescue and both were led safely down the mountain.

The accident was somewhat similar to another one on the same mountain several years earlier. In that incident, the climbers involved were more experienced than the pair I first mentioned. In this case, the climber attempting the glissade lost control and was gravely injured. His partner was able to put him in a sleeping bag to keep him warm while she descended for help. He was airlifted off the mountain, but later succumbed to his injuries.

My initial thinking was that this mountain, a Class 2 walk-up, has a spooky nature to it. But a commenter online had a different take. He said that people who have a lot of experience in summer and fall mountaineering aren’t necessarily going to be as proficient when thick snow is present. A second commenter reaffirmed that message. Her take, in short: Snow changes everything.

What got me to writing this is that many weekend day-trippers and out-of-state vacationers are heading to the mountains this month. Even though the calendar makes us think “summer,” the fact is many mountains still have a great deal of snow on them. If you’re determined to climb a mountain in June, you should know that most of these mountains are different now than they will be in a month or two, and potentially more dangerous, depending on the peak.

My experience on snow is limited. I don’t live in Colorado, so I’m a visitor just like so many others. But in my few experiences, here are a couple things I’ve seen:

My friend David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope on Mount Sneffels.

My friend David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope on Mount Sneffels.

In June 2013, while climbing Mount Sneffels, I saw people who lacked the traction gear needed for the couloir that is the mountain’s signature feature on its upper route. The Lavender Couloir holds snow well into the summer, and when temperatures rise, it can break under your feet and send you skidding down the mountain. One woman I saw, who was “guided” up that portion of the mountain, froze when confronted with the challenges of steeper snow and inadequate gear. Her partner was nowhere to be found, but my group was able to help her down to a safer part of the mountain. Clearly, this was not the mountain experience she thought it would be.

Slick patches like these on Wetterhorn Peak can pose risks to climbers.

Slick patches like these on Wetterhorn Peak can pose risks to climbers.

In June 2014, while climbing Wetterhorn Peak, wet, slushy snow made our descent dicey. Three of us had our footing on the snow give out. Two of us arrested quickly without incident. A third climber slid about a hundred feet and hit some rocks. His injuries were minor, but it was a scary scene nonetheless. Wetterhorn’s standard route is very solid in dry summer conditions. But like I said before, snow changes everything. A slide on the wrong part of that mountain could send you off a 700-foot cliff.

Experienced mountaineers already have the knowledge to operate on snow slopes. But most people heading into what’s considered prime hiking season are not experienced mountaineers. Even those with a couple dozen or more summits under their belts aren’t in the “experienced” category if they haven’t had the time and training to handle snow.

So this post is directed more toward the summer hikers and not those who hike and climb in all four seasons. In light of this, some thoughts:

Check conditions on the route you’re planning. There are often online resources with up-to-date route conditions. Find those and read up. Be aware that late spring and early summer conditions often include the presence of significant snow on the route, and this will affect the difficulty and risk of a climb. Postholing will make your ascent slower and burn more energy. Snow and ice will make conditions slippery. Avalanches (“wet slides” in warmer conditions) are still a concern. A quick check of route conditions can alert you to the presence of these risks.

If you’re determined to climb mountains where snow is present, train for the conditions. Many mountain states have organizations that teach you everything you need to know about reading and traveling through snow conditions. Printed and online resources are out there. Find some friends and practice snow skills on low-risk areas. Be honest about your skills, fitness and risk tolerances.

Own and use the gear needed for snow travel. Sole spikes, crampons, ice axes, gaiters and a climbing helmet should be in your inventory if you’re going to climb snow slopes. Know how to use an ice axe.

If you are reticent to spend the time and money to equip and train for snow travel, consider different destinations or a later time of year to go into the mountains. If you’re hitting the peaks in late spring and early summer, consider lower elevation hikes and climbs. Mid- to late July through early September are much more snow-free if you’re determined to tag higher summits. Plan accordingly.

Lean on friends with high country experience. These folks are more likely to have real-time information on how routes look, they’ll know what equipment to buy and how to use it, and can be steadying influences during a climb. I had a guy like that last summer on an attempt of Longs Peak, and with sketchy conditions that had most of us questioning the wisdom of going forward, his keen eye had a more definitive answer. His word to turn around ended any ambiguity as to what we would do next and all of us got to go home with our health intact.

Near the Mount Shavano summit in June 2009.

Near the Mount Shavano summit in June 2009.

June is a funny month  in the Rockies. We all want to get into the mountains and enjoy a little adventure. But at higher elevations, the transition from winter to summer in June is ongoing. If you’re like me and your experience on snow is limited, these are some things to keep in mind.

Bob Doucette

Five reasons why I hike

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A walk in the woods. A trek in the hills. A gnarly ridge traverse that leads to an airy summit. Short or long, easy or hard — or even dangerous — the venerable hike is as old as humanity itself.

We’re one of those rare creatures that get around solely on two feet, and there is no more reliable form of transportation that putting one foot in front of the other. Whether it’s a familiar path on easy ground or something more adventurous, hiking can be just about anything.

I’ve been a hiker for awhile now. As a kid, I hiked to places where I liked to fish. I tromped through the woods to see what was there. And into adulthood, hiking has taken me to destinations I’d never have seen in a car, on a bike, or on TV. If you’ve got an explorer’s heart, you should be hiking.

For me, there are lots of reasons why I hike. Here are five of them…

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Because it’s good for my body. Hiking up and down hills and miles through woods is exercise. Yes, it’s not like doing sprints at the track or cranking out as many reps as you can at the gym. But a well-paced walk through natural terrain works your legs, back and core. Throw on a backpack and the “workout” becomes even more demanding. And if you’re doing it on steep inclines or higher elevations, it’ll beat you down nicely. A good day of hiking, repeated often, will get you in shape.

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Because it’s good for my mind. I spend enough time in a chair, at my desk, staring at a computer screen. And even more lounging around watching sports or the latest episode of “Game of Thrones.” Taking in all the messages, tweets, videos, memes and other bits of bytes on social media is akin to drinking through a digital fire hose. Our minds are under constant assault from work stress, manufactured images and artificial blatherscythe. A walk amongst the trees or over the hills for a few hours does wonders to clear my mind and allows me to really think about the world, or not think at all, if that’s what’s needed. Hiking is a good time to pray. Or just listen. The sights, sounds and smells of the woods are said to have tangible health benefits for your mind. I believe it.

hikepeople

Because of the people I meet. Some of the coolest people I know I’ve met through hiking. These are folks who are easygoing, non-judgmental and curious about the world. Most of the time, they’re smart. Wise. Grounded. The connections you make with hikers are different than those you make at work, at church, or at the bar scene. Maybe it’s because we’re all looking for the same thing, I suppose. In any case, your hiking friends might end up being the best ones you have. And if not, they’ll still be some of the most interesting and enjoyable to be around.

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Because I can. Thank God I’m still mobile and can walk. Having that ability is akin to having the hottest sports car you can imagine. You wouldn’t own that car and never drive it, right? That’s how I feel about hiking. If I can get out there and hike a short loop or go backpacking for days, I’m going to do it. My health and mobility is a gift, and to not use it would be a waste. If your choice is to use it or lose it, is that really a choice at all?

Because of the awesome places I see. Like this:

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Or this:

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Or this:

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Or any number of incredible forests, burly mountains, scenic vistas or jaw-dropping sunrises. You can live your whole life in the ‘burbs and see the same thing every day, and not much will change, even with the seasons. Or you can lace up your boots, grab a pack and find a trail and see where it leads. We humans crave a little adventure. When you’re talking about hiking, the adventure is ahead of you, one step at a time.

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If you’re a hiker, what do you like about it? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Also, check out my previous posts, Five reasons why I run and Five reasons why I lift. These have been fun!

(And thanks to Noel Johnson and Brady Lee for some of the photos featured here.)

Bob Doucette

A flatlander’s guide to high country adventure

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As spring takes hold, a bunch of us from the flatlands are having dreams of alpine vistas and Rocky Mountain summits. But we often forget that there is a lot that goes into being ready for the challenges that come with altitude.

I live at less than 800 feet. So every time I think about heading west, I know there are things I need to do before marching to the top of a high peak.

So that’s what this is about. It’s not like I’m a pro or anything, but I’ve spent the last 13 years bagging peaks in the Colorado and New Mexico high country from late spring to early fall. I’ve learned a bit — mostly through trial and error, and from my mistakes. So that’s what I want to pass along to you.

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BEFORE THE TRIP

People who live at higher elevations have an advantage over the rest of us because they have more red blood cells — the agents that carry oxygen to the rest of the body — flowing through their bodies than us. And unless you plan on spending several weeks at altitude, your body won’t be able to match that red blood cell production in time to fit inside your vacation plans. You can acclimate some, but not that fast. So extra care has to be taken in terms of physical preparation. With that in mind…

Get yourself in shape. There are a lot of ways to do this, but I’d suggest a few basics. Plan and complete some big hikes, preferably in hilly areas. On some of these hikes, carry a backpack that will be the same size and weight as the one you plan to use in the mountains. Break in those boots if they’re new. Plan on hikes that will last as long (in number of hours) as you think it will take on your trip. I’d also recommend doing some regular cardio at least four times a week — running, cycling, swimming, stairmaster — yes to any or all of that. And sprinkle in some strength training. A rugged frame and a strong heart/set of lungs will go a long way toward helping you enjoy your alpine adventures rather than just suffer through them. Ideally, these are things you should be doing at least a few  months out from your planned trip. If you want more information on that, check out this post I wrote last year.

Test your gear. Wear and use the clothes, footwear and backpack you plan to use, and make sure the fit is good. Same goes with any tents, stoves, electronics or anything else you might use or depend on. Be familiar with how everything works, and adjust accordingly if something’s not right. Having a gear failure on the trail because of your unfamiliarity with it is a potential disaster that is entirely preventable.

Ask for advice. Got any friends who are knowledgeable about the high country? Hit ’em up. You can also find good information in online forums and through social media. People are willing to help. A question you have that goes unasked is a mystery you might not be able to afford when you’re in the backcountry.

Plan and study your routes. Again, there is a lot of information online about trails, forests, peaks, etc. Plenty of guide books, too. You don’t have to kill all spontaneity, but you should be familiar with the places you’re going, the distances you’ll travel, and the type of terrain, obstacles and hazards you’ll face. And let someone know where you are going and when you intend to return.

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WHEN YOU’RE THERE

Give yourself some time. I’ve done the thing where you drive in one day, and then a day later go hit a 14,000-foot peak. It can be done, but I don’t advise it. Rather, spend a few days at a lower elevation town or city and do some practice hikes on smaller hills. After a couple of days, head into the high country, and give yourself another day or so, embarking in acclimatization hikes. After a few days, your body will be more prepared for the task at hand.

Drink plenty of water. The Rockies are fairly dry, and because your respiration will be at an increased rate, you’ll dehydrate much faster — even in a city like Denver, at 5,280 feet — than you do at home. It’s subtle at first, and you won’t realize you’re drying out… until it’s too late. So it’s not a bad thing to be sipping water regularly throughout the day, even if you’re just chilling out. When you’re on the trail, your hydration needs will increase. A 4-8 hour day hike might mean you take 2-3 liters of water with you, and try to drink as much of that as you can. Otherwise, you’ll get nasty headaches, and possibly the beginnings of altitude sickness.

Pack right. Make sure you have enough food for your hike, and then a little more. Bring the right supplies and tools in your pack, with special detail on what you might need in an emergency. If you’re wondering what that looks like, check this link for the 10 essentials. Make sure your clothing is designed to handle a variety of weather conditions your might face.

Even if you’re from another mountain state, do not underestimate what elevation does to a hike or climb. Plenty of peak baggers and hikers hail from states with mountains that have serious elevation profiles, but aren’t as high as the Rockies. An example: I hiked Mount LeConte in Tennessee, which at various trailheads will give you 3,000 feet of elevation gain or more. Many of the peaks in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming are similar in their base-to-summit profile. But I found the going much easier in the Appalachians than in the Rockies, even when approaching LeConte’s summit, solely because of how much thinner the air is in the Rockies. Remember that the trailheads at most peaks in the Rockies start at elevations higher the tops of any mountain on the East Coast, as well as most mountains in every western state except California (the Sierras pose their own challenges, as do some of the big ones in the Cascades). The level of exertion and complications from altitude will be much different than they are in the Smokies, the White Mountains, or just about anywhere else in the Lower 48.

Watch the weather. A bluebird day in the summer can turn into a nightmare of lighting, hail and wind in a hurry. Storms can form right over your head with little warning. Start your hikes early (pre-dawn is good, and even earlier if the route is long) and be heading down the mountain well before noon. Check forecasts closely, and don’t be surprised to see snowfall on the bookend weeks of the summer. Fall and spring hikes and climbs can be even more touch-and-go when it comes to snowstorms. Perfect conditions one day can give way to blizzards. On my early July attempt of Longs Peak last summer, snow high on the mountain fell the night before our ascent and turned route conditions into a mess of sloppy snow and ice, forcing us to abort the climb. Now imagine getting caught in the middle of that, while on exposed, steep terrain. Respect for high country weather changes is a must.

Respect the land and its permanent residents. Stay on the trail and don’t stomp all over delicate alpine tundra. If you bring a dog, keep it under control and don’t let it chase after wildlife. Camp 100 feet or more away from streams. If established fire pits are available, camp fires are fine — provided the conditions are not prone to forest fires and camp fires are allowed by park and/or forestry officials. Haul out your trash, and don’t burn it. Only use deadfall wood for fires, make sure all fires are completely extinguished before you leave a fire pit unattended. If you have any doubts at all about whether you are allowed (established wilderness areas do not permit camp fires) or should build a camp fire, skip it. Leave the trail and your campsite in as good or better condition than how you found it. And do not feed wildlife. Our food is not good for them, and feeding wild animals conditions them to see humans as a food source.

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So those are some ideas. Good advice can be found at this link. And most of all, enjoy your time in the high country.

Bob Doucette

My favorite mountain photos

Sunrise on the Longs Peak Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Sunrise on the Longs Peak Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Two short facts about me: I love the mountains, and I like to take pictures of them. I’m not a great photographer, but the cool thing about the mountains is their very nature can make a mediocre photographer look pretty good.

Another fact: I can get wordy. This post is going to be the opposite of that. It’s going to be all about the images of peaks that I love. So here we go…

Misty mountains

Peak 18 and Windom Peak, Colorado.

Peak 18 and Windom Peak, Colorado.

This was taken in a break in the weather during a soggy backpacking and peak bagging trip in southwestern Colorado. We spent hours in our tents waiting for the weather to improve. The occasional lulls in the rain gave us scenes like this.

Tundra in bloom

Looking down the trail on Cupid. Front Range, Colorado.

Looking down the trail on Cupid. Front Range, Colorado.

Last summer, the weather — again — conspired against me. But I found a brief window near Loveland Pass to do a solo hike of Cupid, a 13,000-foot peak along the Front Range. Gray skies, snow patches and loads of wildflowers made this sweet stretch of singletrack one of the more memorable images I have.

Don’t fence me in

Glass Mountain, Oklahoma.

Glass Mountain, Oklahoma.

While driving to Black Mesa, Oklahoma, I drove through a patch of short peaks and mesas in the northwestern part of the state that caught my eye. I love the lines in this one, from the high, wispy clouds in the sky to the fence line in the foreground. Added to that, the textures of the mountain itself. It’s not a big mountain, but it sure is pretty.

Holy moly

Holy Cross Ridge, near Minturn, Colorado.

Holy Cross Ridge, near Minturn, Colorado.

I took this photo from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross. The camera is not a good one — from an iPhone 3 — but the profile of the ridge, the snow, and the way the sun was hitting it made it pretty striking.

Brooding over mountains

Huron Peak, Colorado.

Huron Peak, Colorado.

Another one from the iPhone 3. I snapped this one hiking down the mountain, and the timing was good — a storm was forming over the top of the peak. It’s always good to get below treeline before storms roll in, and it made for a cool image as well.

Mountain monarch

Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Longs Peak is one of the most photogenic mountains I’ve ever seen. It’s big, dramatic and wild. It will test you, but it will also reward you with vivid, dramatic scenery that look great in pictures. I might add that pictures do not do this mountain much justice.

Hiking into mystery

Summit ridge on Missouri Mountain, Colorado.

Summit ridge on Missouri Mountain, Colorado.

Another memorable solo outing. Dodgy weather almost made this one a no-go, but conditions held long enough to bag the summit. While on the ridge, swirling clouds made this part of the trail appear to vanish into the mists. It was surreal and amazing to hike this stretch of alpine singletrack.

Ancient reflections

Mount Mitchell, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.

Mount Mitchell, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.

I cut my teeth on Class 3 and 4 climbing on this one. This scene framed itself nicely. The light in the sky is a little flat, but I liked the way the mountain is reflected in the water, and how you can see all the grooves in this ancient granite crag. The Wichitas are hundreds of millions of years old, but still stand proudly over the western Oklahoma prairie.

Clothed in white

Northeastern San Juan Range, near Lake City, Colorado.

Northeastern San Juan Range, near Lake City, Colorado.

You can see four 13,000-foot peaks in this one, graced with late spring snow — Coxcomb, Redcliff, Precipice and Heisshorn. The suncupped snow in the foreground is actually the summit of Wetterhorn Peak, which contrasts nicely with the peaks in the middle of the frame and the skies far to the north. Breathtaking scenery atop my favorite mountain.

Adventure is out there

Overlooking the Angle of Shavano Coulior, Mount Shavano, Colorado.

Overlooking the Angel of Shavano Coulior, Mount Shavano, Colorado.

A shot of one of my adventure buddies, Johnny Hunter, on our first snow climb on Mount Shavano. The sweeping lines of the trail, the couloir and the saddle of the mountain, combined with the sky in the background, just screams “spirit of adventure” to me.

Moment before a triumph

Mount Shavano summit.

Mount Shavano summit.

Another one from Mount Shavano. This was taken less than a hundred feet from the summit. Johnny is paused here, looking up. To me, this captures the moment when you realize that victory is near — the hard work, physical strain, whipping winds — all of it is converging on a slice of time when you’re about to top out after a big day on the mountain. It’s a sweet feeling that keeps us coming back for more.

Watch your step

Summit of Uncompahgre Peak, near Lake City, Colorado.

Summit of Uncompahgre Peak, near Lake City, Colorado.

My official “sweaty palms” photo from the top of the San Juans’ highest mountain, Uncompahgre Peak. It’s a simple hike to the top with a small stretch of scrambling near the summit. But the north face cliffs are sheer. This shot is looking 700 feet straight down.

Seasons in flux

Looking east from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Looking east from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Rain and graupple falling to the east gave these peaks a frosty appearance over the Labor Day weekend of 2009. A very moody image that shows how the weather and mountains interact.

Striking figure

Wetterhorn Peak, Colorado.

Wetterhorn Peak, Colorado.

My favorite mountain, Wetterhorn, as seen from the summit of Matterhorn Peak. Wetterhorn offers so many dramatic profiles and is an incredible (and surprisingly accessible) mountain to climb. The spiny connecting ridge between the two mountains offers a little more visual spice that symbolizes the wildness of the San Juans.

So there you have it. You’ll notice that all of these are from two states. I’ve hiked and climbed mountains in New Mexico, Montana, Tennessee and even China, but it is coincidence that my favorite mountain pics come from the two states — Colorado and Oklahoma — where I’ve lived the longest.

I’d like to see your favorite mountain pics. So here’s what I’m proposing: Go to the Proactiveoutside Facebook page (please “like” it if you haven’t already!) and put your best mountain pic in the comments that accompany this post. Include a brief description of what mountain we’re looking at, where it is, and any other interesting information about the image. If I get enough, I’ll compile them and post them in a future blog of your best images. So let’s see em!

Bob Doucette

A look at some of the greatest explorers ever

Personal exploration is something we should all do. But did you ever wonder who the greatest explorers were?

Personal exploration is something we should all do. But did you ever wonder who the greatest explorers were?

Every now and then, I dive into the ole Twitterverse to take part in a select few chats, most of which deal with the outdoors.

One of them is the Adventure Travel Q&A, or simply known as #ATQA. Some very cool folks take part in this on a weekly basis, and the topics are interesting. The latest one really got me thinking.

The subject was “exploration.” I think there are two ways to look at this concept.

The first is personal exploration. By that, I’m talking about going to places new to you. This is the type of travel where you see something you’ve never seen before, revel in new experiences, and quite often, learn and grow. When people talk about “exploring” something, this is usually the type of exploration they’re referencing. For the record, I’m all for doing as much of this as you can.

The second type of exploration is more of the classic definition: An adventure where you are going somewhere no one has ever been, or doing something that’s never been done.

By this, I’m talking about those folks who were the first to summit the world’s highest peaks, to dive to the deepest part of the ocean, to see new lands never documented by man, or to peer into the darkest corners of space. We’re talking macro-exploration here.

The question was asked who the greatest explorers were. This is exactly the type of question that I can geek out on like nobody’s business. After some thinking, this is what I came up with:

A replica of an oceangoing Polynesian boat. Imagine crossing the Pacific Ocean in one of these.

A replica of an oceangoing Polynesian boat. Imagine crossing the Pacific Ocean in one of these.

The Polynesians. You want to know how there came to be people who live in places like Tahiti, Fiji or Hawaii? They didn’t jump on a steam ship or an airplane. Not originally. No, those brave folks used canoes and rafts powered by the wind (via small sails) and their own oars. The traversed the world’s largest ocean in vessels most of us would be scared to board on a big lake. But they did it, and covered THOUSANDS of miles, braving high heat, huge waves, big storms and hungry sharks. You may not know this, but the Hawaiian Islands make up the most remote island archipelago on the planet. European sailors didn’t land there before these bits of earth had long been discovered, explored and settled by Polynesians centuries before. I’d be hard-pressed to find another group of explorers more hardy than these determined mariners.

The Vikings sailed from Scandinavia to places like Iceland, Greenland and even North America in vessels like this one, centuries before Christopher Columbus.

The Vikings sailed from Scandinavia to places like Iceland, Greenland and even North America in vessels like this one, centuries before Christopher Columbus.

The Vikings. Coming a close second are the Scandinavian butt-kickers known more for their savagery toward the poor inhabitants of Britain, Ireland and Continental Europe. These guys were expert warriors, and adept at the art of psychological warfare. That’s what made their raids and acts of extortion so lucrative. But these folks were also capable sailors, be it along the coast, up rivers or in the open sea. On that last count, they one-upped Christopher Columbus by a few centuries, crossing the North Atlantic toward Iceland, Greenland and even North America. The Vikings briefly settled the southeastern coast of modern-day Canada before giving up — way back in the 10th Century. While they quit North America, the remains of their amazing feats of exploration can be seen in the ruins of Greenland and in the continuing civilization that flourishes on Iceland. Want to know how amazing this is? A typical Viking ship was powered only by sail and oar, and the ships themselves were a little over 50 feet long. Like the Polynesians, they did it without the benefit of modern navigation we take for granted today, and if you don’t already know, the North Atlantic can have some of the nastiest, stormiest weather on earth.

The moon landing may possibly be the greatest example of exploration in history, and certainly one of the greatest achievements in the history of the United States. Exploration!

The moon landing may possibly be the greatest example of exploration in history, and certainly one of the greatest achievements in the history of the United States. Exploration!

The astronauts. Be they American or Soviet space explorers (and many other nationalities now), astronauts (the USSR called them cosmonauts) take part in a type of travel that is completely novel, and overly hostile to the presence of humans. The science, technology and pure guts it takes to strap yourself into a metal can and rocket into the void cannot be understated. Think about it: You have to take everything with you — food, water and air — and protect yourself from blinding light, searing heat/deadly cold and unfiltered radiation. If everything goes right, you live, provided you can get home without frying in the earth’s atmosphere on the journey back. Everything about space is pretty much trying to kill you.

Among the grandest accomplishments therein has to be the moon landings. Seeing this happened nearly five decades ago, and how numb we are to such feats, it requires you to step back to really appreciate what the astronauts of the Saturn project did. They traveled tens of thousands of miles, LEAVING THE PLANET to land on a completely new world. Humans have walked on earth for all of our existence. Before Neil Armstrong, no living thing had ever sniffed the surface of the moon. A lot will be said about what the United States has accomplished in its brief history, but this monumental feat of exploration will go down as one of the country’s greatest-ever achievements. So you were the first to climb X mountain? Fuggetaboutit. These guys are the only living beings on earth to have set foot on another world.

You might be bumming because your own explorations don’t measure up to these badasses. But don’t be sad, little camper. Take heart. Our efforts pale in comparison, but the spirit is the same. The effort involved, the planning, and at times, the courage to carry it out, can be extreme. But think about how much you grow. The deeds of our greatest explorers illustrate how the process of adventure is a pretty awesome thing. Use that for motivation the next time the itch to explore arises.

Bob Doucette

13er Thursday: A gallery of some great peaks that don’t hit 14,000 feet

On the slopes of Cupid, a Colorado 13er that was remarkably free of people when I was there.

On the slopes of Cupid, a Colorado 13er that was remarkably free of people when I was there.

If you’re into the Colorado hiking and climbing scene, you know all about the  14ers, the peaks that rise to elevations of more than 14,000 feet. Colorado has more of those than any state in the country, 58 high points that hit that magic number.

To say that the 14ers are popular is an understatement. Many of these peaks get crowded in the summer, with packed trails and clogged trailhead parking lots. Looking for a moment of solitude in the mountains? That’s not likely among the 14ers during the peak season of summer hiking. You’ll need to hit ’em up in less friendly conditions that surround winter for that.

But there are plenty of other mountains in Colorado. Believe it or not, most of them don’t top 14,000 feet. And because of that, they’ve become the forgotten mountains of the peak bagger realm.

Fine by me. I like the 13ers. They’re wild, beautiful and largely absent of people. My experience in the 13ers is a little limited, but memorable just the same.

Enough words. Just take a look and you’ll see what I mean.

Grizzly Peal D is in there somewhere...

Grizzly Peak D is in there somewhere…

You can hike this one and many others just up the road from Denver, and chances are, you will see few people.

Iowa Peak (left) and Emerald Peak.

Iowa Peak (right) and Emerald Peak.

Just south of Missouri Mountain are these beauties.

Gilpin Peak. Rugged stuff near Telluride.

Gilpin Peak (left). Rugged stuff near Telluride.

Yankee Boy Basin is home to some seriously amazing 13er scenery.

Kismet and Potosi.

Kismet (right) and Potosi.

See what I mean?

Campsite view of Peak 18.

Campsite view of Peak 18.

The 13ers can be quite dramatic, even if their names are not.

Pigeon and Turret peaks.

Turret and Pigeon peaks.

One word. Wow.

13ers everywhere. In the distance, Vestal and Arrow peaks.

13ers everywhere. In the distance, Vestal and Arrow peaks.

Did I say wow? Yes. Yes I did.

Coxcomb, Redcliff and somewhere over there, Precipice peaks.

Coxcomb, Redcliff and somewhere over there, Precipice.

They look good in snow, too.

Matterhorn Peak.

Matterhorn Peak.

A knockout, right?

Precipice Peak.

Precipice Peak.

Indeed, they are. In all seasons.

So there ya go. It doesn’t have to be 14,000 feet to be awesome. There are more than 600 of these amazing 13,000-foot rockpiles out there. Plenty to explore away from crowds.

Scenic Mount Sniktau's summit ridge.

Scenic Mount Sniktau’s summit ridge.

Bob Doucette