Boulder Colorado’s Mesa Trail

Some say that the Mount Sanitas Trail is Boulder’s quintessential hike.  The hike is 3.1 miles round trip and has an elevation gain of around 1,350 feet but to me, there are better hikes in Boulder and although the Mount Sanitas Trail is a great (short) workout, it is not the most scenic hike in the area, in my opinion.  To me, the hike that should be on everyone’s Boulder must do list is the Mesa Trail.

The Mesa Trail has almost the exact same elevation gain as the Mount Sanitas trail, but it spreads that elevation gain over a one way distance of about 6.8 miles.  It may actually be one of the flatest hikes you can do in Colorado since it parallels the mountains rather than climbing up them.

As far as scenery goes, there are few hikes anywhere in the country that can rival this one.  The Flatirons are the rock formation that you see in every tourist magazine that features an article on Boulder.  These five primary blocks of sandstone make for a spectacular backdrop for a day hike.  In additon to the Flatirons, this is one of just a few areas along the Front Range where the pine forest actually comes all the way down over the foothills and onto the prairie below.

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The trailhead at Chautauqua

Another great aspect of this trail is its accessabiity.  The trail has three primary trailheads: The South Mesa Trailhead, the Trailhead at the National Center for Atmospheric Reasearch (NCAR), and the Chautauqua Trailhead.  Of the three, only the South Mesa Trailhead has a fee to park ($5).  All three can be very crowded in the summer tourist season and on any weekend day when the weather is good.  Go to NCAR if you want free parking and moderate crowds.  The view here of the Flatirons is really good too but go to Chautauqua for the best view (the downside is the bigger crowds.) For a less crowded section of the trail, start at the South Mesa Trailhead.  It is the least scenic of the three trailheads but it still has some decent views of the Flatirons, Boulder and even Denver off to the southeast.

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Early summer flowers

The best part of hiking the Mesa Trail is that you have many options, and the hikes are all pretty accessible for most people.  If you start at Chautauqua and NCAR, you can walk right up to one of the Flatirons and touch them within about 20 minutes after leaving the parking lot.  Also of note is the many side trail options off of the main trail.  If you’re looking for a longer hike, the side trails heading into the hills are nearly endless and offer you the opportunity to get a workout as good or better than the one you can get on Mt. Sanitas.

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One of many trails that can be accessed from the Mesa Trail, the Mallory Cave Trail

In my opinion, the Mesa Trail pretty much has it all: great scenery, the option for longer hikes while all are within the close proximity of the city of Boulder. For a great après hike food/beer option, check out the Southern Sun for a laid back vibe and great beer just down the hill from the NCAR trailhead.

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For most of the winter, the trail is still accessible and can still be hiked (microspikes recommended though)

Of 14ers and Keggers

Many years ago, I made a pact with myself to climb one 14er (a 14,000 foot peak) a year for as long as I am physically able to.  I managed to do this for a few years before life got busy and days in the mountains took a back seat. But now I have more spare time and have been hiking for most of the summer so the timing seemed right to start my goal over again. However, I wanted to do an “easy” one and with the help of a friend (hi Mike!) we chose Quandary Peak as the best possible option. Quandary is a mountain near Breckenridge Colorado, less than a couple of hours from where I live, near Boulder. The only problem with picking an “easy” 14er within driving distance of a major metropolitan city (Denver) is that you can expect a small army of hikers who are thinking exactly the same thing.  So this would not be a hike in solitude but rather a hike more closely resembling a conga line to the summit. Foreshadowing?

No matter how fit you are, high elevation has a way of taking you down a notch or two. Even though I had been hiking a lot over the summer, I noticed the lack of oxygen almost immediately after leaving the car at the trailhead, at 10,900 feet above sea level. The mountain introduced itself to us straight away by letting us know that this would be no “easy” climb.  I was carrying a simple day pack with a few essentials like Vanilla Coke, trail mix, camera, aspirin, etc. and felt good that I had not overpacked. I was as light as I could hope to be, gear wise anyway. We hiked along pretty well for quite awhile before we ‘really’ started to notice the effects of the higher altitudes.  It slowed us down tremendously but we were outside on a crisp late summer day and we were just taking our time getting up the hill, just happy to be up high again.

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Rocky Mountain Goat

When I hike or spend time in the outdoors, I prefer solitude over crowds. Today, I had to accept the fact that there would be large numbers of hikers and there most certainly were. Recently, I have been doing a cruiser bike ride on Thursday nights in Boulder with a couple of hundred, mostly college aged cyclists. On these rides, I have noticed that most of the younger crowd is just out to have fun, and that they generally behave in a respectful manner.  I have found that I enjoy being around their youthful energy.  Unintentionally, this prepared me for being around a bigger crowd of like-minded people just like the ones I would see on the trail today.

We continued to make our way up the mountain step by step and as we did, a rumor of something unheard of began to filter down to us from hikers that had already reached the summit, that some guys had carried a keg of beer to the top and that if we didn’t hurry, we would miss out on having a a cup at the top. At first, I scoffed at the idea that anyone or any group of people would, could, or should carry a keg up a mountain when I could barely carry my light pack with snacks.  But the more we passed other hikers with the same news, the more exciting getting to the summit was becoming. The anticipation of confirming the validity of the rumors was actually helping to take my mind off of the trials of the hike.

As we neared the top, we could hear a group of people counting, but we had no idea why.  We could also see a fairly big group of people on the summit gathered around in a circle.  So what we heard was that some guy set a goal to climb all 53 of Colorado’s 14ers in one summer, and this was his last one to complete what is a very monumental feat.  His buddies decided to bring a keg to the top of the last 14er to celebrate his accomplishment. Truth really is stranger than fiction –  when we reached the summit, there was said keg on top of said 14er in all of its silver glory, glistening like a trophy. Everyone who made it to the top, strangers alike, were offered a beer. Although it was very foamy and not my beloved Fat Tire (it was PBR I believe), it was the best beer I’ve ever had on a 14er (okay, it’s the only beer I’ve had on a 14er).

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The circling crowd on the summit

 

Now to the counting we heard from below, as it turns out the millinials were counting off the seconds that a few brave (read crazy) souls were doing ‘keg stands’. So this was to be a  special ’14er’ keg stand where the goal was to last 14 seconds.  Man after man tried and failed until a woman in her late twenties managed a 16 second keg stand.  When they flipped her back up, she had tears rolling down her cheeks. Tears of joy? Beer in her eyes? Lack of oxygen? Tears of sorrow for not making it further than 16 seconds? Realizing there was no hospital nearby?! I have no idea, but whatever the reason…very impressive, and fun to be a part of.

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Commencing keg stand

And how did they get the keg up to the top? They made an apparatus out of PVC pipe and plywood with the keg strapped to it so that two people (or even four) could carry it up to the top (they must’ve been Engineering majors). They took turns carrying it up, but comparing their load to the load I carried, it looked much more impressive for them, not so much for me.  This may explain though why everyone got a free beer at the top…so they could carry an empty keg back down instead of one with the excess weight of beer they couldn’t finish. Again, impressive!

My first 14er in many years and there was a kegger on the summit! Crazy. Awesome. Fun.

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Parting shot

Great Sand Dunes National Park

To me, this place is the worlds greatest sandbox. This sandbox is a long drive from almost anywhere with the nearest big cities being several hours away by car. Getting here takes some effort.  Many people who stop here are on their way to somewhere more popular like Mesa Verde or the Grand Canyon but Great Sand Dunes National Park can be a destination in and of itself.  As you drive north on Colorado Highway 150, there are interesting sights in all directions. To the east is the 14,344′ Blanca Peak rising sharply from the San Luis Valley. To the west is the San Luis Valley completely surrounded by mountains. In the rear view mirror is Northern New Mexico.  Your destination is to the north where you can begin to see the light tan colors of the sand dunes off in the distance.  Maybe you’re thinking “they don’t look so big”?!?!  As you get closer, you realize that they are very big!!!  The tallest dune is around 750 feet tall.

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They look like little ants, but they’re not!

I first came here as a teenager with my parents and have since been here with every single member of my immediate family and many friends too.  So what keeps us coming back?  This is a place to play in the sand, first and foremost.  Hikes up the dunes are fun and very tough.  The sand is hard to walk through, especially when walking up the dunes.  The sand can also get very hot and will burn your feet.  It doesn’t sound like much fun but it is.  There is a Lawrence of Arabia feel to the place sans (pun intended) the fighting armies.  It is also very rewarding to make it to the top of the biggest sand dune, being the Star Dune being that most people want to conquer.  The views of the surrounding peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains are almost surreal while standing on top of a 750 foot tall sand dune.

If you have kids with you, it is the kind of place where you can let them go around at their own pace.  There are no rocks, lions, barbed wire, or anything else that can hurt them.  We just let our nephews run around and kept them within eyesight without having to worry about much other than the heat, and making sure they had enough water.  They had fun just picking their own line up the sand and had an even greater sense of accomplishment when they made it to the top of a high dune with little or no help (or supervision) from anyone else.

Another popular park activity is sandboarding, essentially snowboarding on the sand (as if you wouldn’t have figured that out yourself). This is a pretty unique opportunity to check another box on the adventure bucket list.  The biggest problem with sandboarding, in my opinion, is that there is no ski lift to take you to the top.  Have fun with that!  It does look like fun though.

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Medano Creek

Hiking up the sand dunes can be very hot and tiring, so cooling off in a mountain stream is just the thing to help you recover.  There is a very wide yet shallow creek running just in front of the big dunes called Medano Creek and it is a great place to cool off when it’s hot out.  Lots of people just hang out here and never make it onto the dunes proper.  The water is just right if you’re there in early summer, but can be quite chilly before that with the creek barely trickling by late summer. If you like to walk but climbing the dunes isn’t your thing, try walking in the creek.  It’s shallow, feels good on your feet, and is just about as flat as you can find in the park.  One of our favorite pastimes is playing smashball in the ankle deep water, it just feels like a beach thing to do. Some people are content to just sit in the water to cool off.  Kite flying is always fun and there’s usually plenty of wind to keep the kite up high (the wind is how the sand got here in the first place).

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Constructed by Tusken Raiders maybe?

 

During some alone time while I was walking along the creek, I noticed some very steep looking sand  “cliffs” and there were people trying to climb up them.  I started thinking that they might be fun to jump off of, at night!  It wasn’t hard to convince my family to join and after dark, we put our headlamps on and headed out from the campground back to the jumping off point that I had seen earlier in the day.  The best part about jumping off of the sand ledges is that the landing couldn’t be softer. There are very few rocks, trash, or any other debris to land on…just soft grains of sand to pad your landing.  After maybe an hour of jumps and sticking landings, we headed back to the campground and hardly needed the headlamps to see our way back.  We even saw a few satellites passing overhead.  The sky here is very clear and light pollution is almost nonexistent due to the long distance from any large cities.

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The Sand “Cliffs” in the Daylight

If you go, there are a few things that could help make your time on the sand a little bit more enjoyable.  The elevation at the park is 8,200 feet so be prepared for that to have an affect on you.  Drink lots of water for both the elevation and for the heat.  Do not try to hike the dunes without something on your feet as the sand gets very hot.  I’ve tried all types of footwear and have yet to find the perfect defense against both the heat on your feet and keeping the sand out.  The closest I’ve found to something that keeps you safe and keeps the sand out are called sand socks, something that some beach volleyball players wear for similar reasons.  These worked well for awhile but then got really hot and filled with sand.  The bottom line is just to keep something on your feet so you don’t burn them, sand getting in your shoes is really better than burning your toes.  Mosquitoes can be very bad in the summer and are plentiful around the campground.  Once you cross the creek on your way to the sand, the mosquitoes won’t follow you.  And as always, don’t forget the sunscreen!

P.S. – Most of the “tourists” hang out within a hundred yards or so of the main parking area. Be a “traveler” and experience more than just the sand castles people build within the direct vicinity of the parking lot. Head upstream!

 

Bike: Top Five Reasons I No Longer Say “On Your Left”

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I work in Boulder Colorado and get to enjoy biking the Boulder Creek Path at lunchtime.  Boulder has an interesting mix of people that use the path and it is quite popular.  The path can get pretty crowded with lunchtime athletes, students, and tourists.  As a courtesy, bicyclists commonly say “on your left” as they pass pedestrians or slower moving cyclists to avoid crashing into them.  The pedestrian has the right of way and it is the cyclists responsibility to avoid them.  Sometimes, you could expect to be scolded for not saying it loud enough or not at exactly the right time.  So in the spirit of some of the great wars between outdoor groups like rafters versus fisherman, snowboarders versus skiers, and hikers versus mountain bikers, I offer my take on the cyclist versus the pedestrian.  Here are my top five reasons for not giving the pedestrian the courtesy of the “on your left” shout out anymore:

  1. The vast majority of walkers have their headphones on so loud with their favorite Justin Beiber song cranked up they can’t hear anything else.  Or, more realistically, The Grateful Dead.
  2. Your version of “Rocky Mountain High” is very different than what John Denver had in mind.  Even though pot is legal here now, it still isn’t supposed to be smoked in public.  Many people ignore this, especially in Boulder and they are wandering all over the path without a care in the world.  Just the other day, a guy on a recumbent bike was smoking a joint and discretely put it to his side as he passed me by.  Now that sounds like a great combination: biking and marijuana.  I guess this guy must have a really bad back.  So much so that he has to ride a recumbent instead of a regular bike and needs to smoke a joint instead of taking a Percocet.
  3. You are a tourist and you’re  oblivious to the fact that you are on a multi-use path where you could get plowed over while you look at the creek, the mountains, and the scenery.  Admittedly, Boulder is a pretty cool place to look at but really people, pay attention.
  4. You don’t know what it means when someone says it.  This one I don’t fault people for.  When I first hit the trails in Boulder, I had no idea why people were saying that to me.  Now I know that I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed but I had honestly never heard that one before.  Also, multi-use path rules and regulations can differ from one place to another so I know that it can be confusing.  I know that on a trip to San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge a couple of years ago, I was walking on the right side like I would in Boulder and had a cyclist yell at me for being where I shouldn’t be.  When I think about that one, I still can’t figure out what I did wrong.
  5. You think that “on your left ” means move to your left.  I can’t tell you how many times walkers move to the left when I’m passing them, making it a close call for both of us.

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After all of these top five humorous yet sometimes annoying reasons to not say “on your left”, I still find myself giving everyone the courtesy of saying it regardless of how many people may not know their left from their right (after possibly eating too many ‘special brownies’).  I just make sure that they don’t have headphones in, aren’t high, they  aren’t tourists , that they look like they have common sense, and that they know that having a bike crashing over them like a speed bump would be bad for them and the cyclist.  But it will most certainly be the cyclists fault!

Be safe out there 🏃🏻🚴

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