Thursday, January 12, 2012

Backpacking Trip to the Indian Peaks Wilderness

My wife and I were fortunate enough to be able to sneak away for a long weekend this summer to the Indian Peaks Wilderness. This wilderness area is about 45 minutes west of Boulder and about 30 minutes south of Estes Park, right outside the Rocky Mountain National Park boundary.  I had a work trip to Boulder earlier in the week, so it made it a good choice for the last minute trip planning.

Our plan was to drive to Camp Dick, park and hike into the Middle St. Vrain Backcountry Zone.  We would camp at Red Deer Lake for two nights and then hike back.  Roundtrip would be somewhere around 17-18 miles gaining around 2,000 vertical feet in elevation to camp at around 10,500 feet.

During the winter of 2010-2011, Colorado saw near record snow fall, so I was a bit nervous when I called the first week of July to request the permit and was told there was still too much snow, but to continue to check back.  July brought warmer temperatures which melted the snow, allowing us to get a permit, but it came with warnings of wet, soggy conditions which translates to lots of bugs.

We were pleasantly surprised when we got there.  While it was a little soggy, and there were a fair number of bugs, it wasn't unbearable by any means and the crowds were very thin.  Indian Peaks is known to be very busy on the weekends, so we were very fortunate that there were not hoards of people.

For the most part, the Indian Peaks trails are well signed and easy to follow.  The trails were very well maintained.  The scenery was definitely National Park worthy, it is bordering Rocky Mountain National Park after all.  Due to the lingering snow, we didn't stray too much off of our planned route.  We ran into several hikers coming from beyond Red Deer Lake saying that there was way too much snow, which made it difficult to follow the trails and difficult to walk without crampons.  Taking all of this information, we decided to just relax at Red Deer Lake and enjoy the time off.

Leaving the parking lot at Camp Dick, we followed the Buchanan Pass Trail along the Middle St. Vrain Creek.  We made a brief stop for some lunch at Timberline Falls, then continued on up towards Red Deer Lake.  The topo map we had showed a Red Deer Cutoff Trail about halfway up the Buchanan Pass Trail, but we could never find it, so we continued down the Buchanan Pass Trail until you hit the main trail leading up to Red Deer Lake.

The wildflowers were in full bloom, painting the meadows with bright yellows, reds, blues, and a myriad of other colors.  We definitely timed this trip right for wildflower spotting.  Most of the first part of the trail is spent hiking under a canopy of evergreens, and thanks to the snow melt, slogging through a few mud puddles.  About 4 miles in, the trail opens up and you are hit in the face with a beautiful view of Sawtooth Mountain.

Middle St. Vrain Creek with heavy run off

Sawtooth Mountain
About 6 miles in, you cross over Middle St. Vrain Creek using a footbridge.  Part of the hand rail was broken, making Linda a bit nervous walking across the bridge with a gushing creek just a few feet below her. After crossing the bridge, you then start a pretty steep ascent towards Red Deer Lake and Buchanan Pass.  In a little over a mile you find the main trail leading to Red Deer Lake.  This gains 500 vertical feet in less than .5 mile.  It was still fairly snow covered, even in late July.  By the time we got to the top of the hill, just below Red Deer Lake, we were standing on about 5 feet of snow.

Red Deer Lake apparently is not frequented too much by campers.  There are very few trails around the lake with very few good campsites.  We did a lot of bushwhacking to find a good spot, but eventually found a great spot, right above the lake with plenty of room for our tent, and a good dining area.  We were close to the lake to make retrieving water fairly painless.  Additionally, I packed in my fly rod for the first time ever and the proximity to the lake made it easy to just pop down to the water and cast a fly every once in a while.  We even found a nice spot to put the hammock up with a great view of the lake and surrounding area.

Here are some of the pics from the trip.

What a beautiful sight.  The lake's nice, too.

My first fish on a fly rod, and in the backcountry!

A great place to chillax.

The iceberg kept crashing into the water all weekend.

Linda even picked up the fly rod.

What a gorgeous sunset.
On Sunday, we packed up and headed out.  This was a drastically different type of trip than any of my others.  We stayed close to the camp, relaxed, fished, and enjoyed each other's company and the beautiful scenery.  As far as backpacking trips go, this was definitely my most relaxing trip ever.  I'd love to do a trip like this again, soon.  I really enjoy spending time with my lovely wife and I'm truly blessed she enjoys to spend time with me doing this sort of stuff.

The hike out was all downhill and didn't seem to take too long, but we did take time to smell the flowers, literally.  Here are a few sights from our trip out.

I would definitely recommend this trip to anyone.  I'd like to go back sometime when we could explore some other areas, like Buchanan Pass and Coney Flats.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Family Summer Trip Day 12 - Spooky Gulch and Peek-a-boo Canyon

Today, we were going to make the short drive from our Bryce Canyon campground to the Escalante / Grand Staircase National Monument and visit a spot I last visited in 2007.  This was the origin of my trail name, CanyonMan.  It's about a 45 minute drive from Bryce Canyon to Escalante, UT.  From Escalante, you turn off Highway 12 onto Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Then, it is another 45 minutes or so down the bumpy, gravel road.

To give you a sense of what it's like finding this place, here's the directions to the trailhead:

Go 24 miles on Hole-in-the-Rock Road to Cat Pasture where you'll see a sign for Early Weed Bench.  Go 2.5 miles more and turn left on a dirt road.  Turn and follow this dirt road 1 mile to a parking lot.

From the trailhead, you drop down about 100 vertical feet to the canyon floor.  About 1/2 mile from where you hit the canyon floor, you get your first glimpse of the Peek-a-boo slot canyon, I recommend bypassing this and heading to Spooky first.  Continuing down canyon another mile or so, you will run into Spooky Gulch.  This is an extremely narrow canyon, but it's a great way to get your introduction to slot canyons, because there's no climbing to get into it, you simply walk right in, whereas Peek-a-boo requires a bit of a climb.

Entrance to Spooky Gulch
Entrance to Peek-a-Boo Canyon

There's several options to navigating these slots.

  1. Go in and out of Spooky from the entrance and then walk back to Peek-a-boo and go in and out the entrance (what we did this time)
  2. Enter Spooky, come out the back end, then navigate your way to the back side of Peek-a-boo and work your way down to the entrance (what I did in 2007)
  3. Climb into Peek-a-boo and out the back end, then entering Spooky from the backside and come out the entrance (what a group of scouts were doing when we were there this year)
You could easily spend a day in this area.  There's a third slot in the area, Brimstone, but I've never done that one.  I hear it's a bit more challenging and there are areas which you can get stuck in, so I would recommend going with a partner if you're going to attempt these.

The whole family eventually made it to the back of Spooky.  Some were a bit more intimidated than others by the tight spaces, but we all eventually got back there.  Here's a few pics to give you a sense of how "tight" I'm talking.  If you're claustrophobic, this might not be the spot for you.  Believe it or not, we saw a guy that was probably 5'10" pushing 250+ pounds make it through, so you can squeeze.

We played around in here for a bit and stayed in the cool shade, it was probably 30 degrees cooler than in the sun.

We exited Spooky from the entrance and walked back to the mouth of Peek-a-Boo.  Here everyone, except myself and my daughter, opted not to enter.  Like I mentioned, it's a bit of a climb, so I understand. We helped probably 5 or so others get in or out while we were there.

Once you climb into Peek-a-Boo, it's not as narrow as Spooky, but it is otherworldly.  It almost looks like an alien planet.  There are multiple cris-crossing arches and passageways.  Here's a few shots from inside Peek-a-Boo.

LT and I spent just a few minutes in here, enough to give her an idea of what draws me to this place.  I always tell everyone, there's something special about the desert.  It just has it's own beauty to it.  It's not for everyone, but these places are phenomenal.

Family photo in front of Peek-a-Boo
We exited Peek-a-Boo, gathered the family for a photo.  See the pic above and notice the carved out area above us and to the left.  That's where you climb up.  It looks pretty straightforward, but is extremely worn and very slick.  It's not terribly difficult, but is a bit nerve racking if you're not used to climbing on sandstone.

It was extremely hot that day and we were running low on water.  A bit of advice, even though you are less than a mile from your vehicle, pack plenty of water.  We brought a liter each and were only out for 2 hours, but we drank every bit of it and my youngest was pretty parched by the time we got back to the truck.

If you find yourself in southern Utah or northern Arizona, I highly recommend spending some time around Hole-in-the-Rock road.  There are many slots in this area.  There's a really good guidebook on all the different hikes in the area.  It's the Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau.  I highly recommend picking this up.

Finally, if you're coming to this area, it's worth knowing why it's called Hole-in-the-Rock Road.  Check out this Wikipedia article on the Hole-in-the-Rock.  It's an interesting bit of history and you'll be amazed when you see what it looks like now and imagining what it would have been like in the late 1800's when it was being used by the Mormons.  They must have been some extremely hearty people.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Family Summer Trip Day 11 - Bryce Canyon

After spending a day and a half driving from West Yellowstone, MT through Salt Lake City, UT to Bryce Canyon National Park, we were ready to get out and stretch our legs and walk around.  Additionally, we had been in winter-like weather since Day 2, so, everyone was ready for some warmer temps.  For those that have never been to Bryce Canyon, it is unlike any other place on earth.  While there are many places that have sandstone and arches, none (or very few) have the number of strange formations known as hoodoos (see picture below).

The Hoodoos seen along the Queen's Garden Trail
We arrived at Bryce Canyon campground around 1pm and quickly set up camp.  I had not reserved a campsite because I was under the impression, based on the NPS website, that they didn't reserve tent sites, only RV sites.  Apparently, there are different rules for the two campgrounds.  Something like they take tent reservations in the South Campground, but not RV and vice versa in the North Campground.  We were fortunate and grabbed one of the last campsites in the North Campground.  It turned out to be one of the better sites in the park, I think.  FYI, be prepared to get dusty camping in Bryce.

After a quick camp setup, we headed out on the trail.  The plan was to do a short day hike down to the floor of the canyon and back up.

The descent to the Canyon floor.
For a quick view of Bryce and all it's beauty, this was a great hike.  From our campsite in the North Campground, we followed the Rim trail to the Navajo Loop trail.  Here we descended close to 500 vertical feet to the Canyon floor using a long series of switchbacks.  

On the Canyon floor, we joined the Queen's Garden trail.  You hike along the Canyon floor for about a mile, then you start heading back up 500 vertical feet to Sunrise Point.  Along the way, we saw things that reminded us of an old Bugs Bunny / Road Runner cartoon.

Where's Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner
In all, it was a short hike, around 3 miles.  We were back at camp by 4pm or so and ready to make dinner.  Tonight's dinner... foil dinners.  Mmmmmm.

Bryce Canyon National Park is fairly small and could probably be seen in a couple of days.  Our plan was to get up the next morning, though and head to the Escalante / Grand Staircase National Monument.