When I thought about my first hike in Arizona this past spring, I knew I was prepared for the environment. I had lots of water, sunscreen, and a wide brimmed hat, just like everyone reads about desert hikes. I also knew that it would be comparatively hot as I was coming from Colorado where spring is just a snowier extension of winter, to the Phoenix area where the temperature was in the low 80’s. Hiking in temperatures in the 80’s is not too bad, if you’re used to it but I hadn’t hiked in temperatures that high in months.
So when I decided to hike in Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction, Arizona, I felt that I was ready for the challenge of a desert hike. What I wasn’t prepared for was how steep the trek would be and, maybe most surprising of all, how high the altitude would be at the top, 4,861′ which is only slightly less than the elevation of my home near Boulder Colorado. I was hiking the Siphon Draw Trail, which didn’t ‘look’ that tough on the map or even when I drove into the park, but I definitely misjudged this one. The first 1/2 or so of the trail is relatively flat with saguaro cacti all around and great views of the Superstition Mountains looming above. After a short while, the trail officially leaves Lost Dutchman State Park proper and enters the Tonto National Forest and the climb really begins from here. About every 30 minutes or so during the hike I could hear a steam whistle from a train that runs through the Goldfield Ghost Town. Normally man-made noises would detract from a hike, but here it added a bit of an old west feel to the area.
In most places that I’ve hiked steep grades are usually lessened by switchbacks, but there weren’t too many switchbacks on this trail! The Siphon Draw Trail is mainly a vertical trail! I only managed to make it to the area known as ‘The Basin’ and only then realized how tough of a hike this really was. The final mile or so has, according to the park brochure, a 2,000′ elevation gain over the last mile! That would make it the steepest hike I’ve ever done, but today was not the day for me to pull that steep of an ascent off. I may try it again some day and maybe make up that one mile, 2,000′ ascent.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hiking the Tsankawi Trail in Bandelier National Monument is truly a unique trek. It is located in the high desert of New Mexico near the city of Los Alamos in the Tsankawi section of the park. This is a less traveled area than the more famous section of the park proper and it made for an interesting, unexpected side trip.
Part of the appeal of this area of the park, to be honest, is that there are far fewer people here. This means that you can really take your time exploring this relatively short 1.5 mile hiking trail. Not long after you leave the trailhead, you get to climb a wooden ladder (fun) to get up onto a ridge that leads you to the Ancestral Pueblo village of Tsankawi. There isn’t much left of the village itself but the area is littered with pottery shards, one of the very few places left where you can actually touch history. The pieces are small but you can clearly see the colored lines that were painted onto the pots.
After leaving the pottery shards of the village behind, it was onto some of the most unique aspects of any hike anywhere in the world. The Ancestral Pueblo villagers walked the same paths so often that they ended up wearing out the rocks to the point where it looks like a bobsled course winding its way through an Olympic venue. I can’t describe how totally awestruck I was by this and by the fact that the National Park Service still allows people to hike on it (thank you NPS).
I’m just going to keep the words at a minimum here and let all of the photographs speak. If you’re ever in Northern New Mexico and want a truly unique hike, without many people, some Native American history, and stunning high desert scenery, check this place out. It is such an interesting, and very easy walk.
If you’re looking for a great place to eat après hike, Tomasitas in Santa Fe is the perfect locale to refuel. The food is consistently outstanding and the location at the Railyard District is just minutes away from the famous plaza. Try the roast beef burrito and be sure to eat the sopapillas with honey butter. After that, consider finishing off the evening with a cold one at the Second Street Brewery, just right around the corner.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The plane ride to Las Vegas was full of peppy 20 somethings on their way to a weekend of “fun” in Sin City taking selfies, pre drinking, dancing in their seats and playing card games as a preliminary bout to the main event (apologies for the boxing metaphor). It’s really why most people go there and I get it. Where else can you go to do things that are illegal in most states? But that isn’t why we’re here…my wife and I are here to do mostly un-Vegas activities.
The first un-Vegas thing we did was staying outside of the city. Our stay was in Kyle Canyon which was about 45 minutes from the airport where the brightest lights were from the moon, the stars, the headlights from the car, and maybe the glow from the Strip about 15 miles distant as the crow flies. The drive from the airport did seem a bit long but all of the suicidal jackrabbits on the highway forced you to pay attention. Unfortunately for one jackrabbit, the car’s bumper proved to be fatal. There were also wild donkeys on the road too but they were a little smarter than the rabbits and moved off of the road whenever the car got close. But staying so far away from the bright lights has certain advantages, the primary being just being able to relax where the pace of the place is slower compared to the craziness of Las Vegas. When it’s hot enough to melt your shoes walking the Strip, the temperatures are quite a bit cooler in the canyon, about 20 degrees cooler (in the summertime, 20 degrees cooler can make the desert summer just a little more tolerable).
The next morning, we headed to the Strip for a few hours of sightseeing. The Strip is an all out attack on your senses. First off, there are people everywhere, hoards of them. Most people do walk here and it truly is the easiest and best way to get around (there are taxis too but walk if you can). On your eyes, there is a constant barrage of signs, billboards, lights, and street performers vying for your attention as you stroll up and down the Strip. There is no rest for the bloodshot eye in this town! Your ears will get all of the sound it can handle as each hotel has music coming from outdoor speakers as you pass in front of their grounds. This is all good until you transition from one casino to another and the sounds just overlap into one confusing din of Top 40 hits.
The best part of the strip has to be the hotels themselves. The architecture is stunning. It can be argued that the some of the hotels lack originality in wherever they draw their inspiration from but that makes them no less spectacular. The hotels often are made to look like scenes from other famous places while still managing to be large, functioning places to gamble, entertain, and sleep. You can go around the world without leaving the Nevada desert it seems. New York, New York has done a magnificent job of replicating the Manhattan skyline. Paris has a scaled version of the Eiffel Tower. The Venitian has canals with singing gondoliers that take you through a mini replica of Venice. The list goes on: the Luxor is like a modern pyramid of Giza, Excalibur is like a giant English castle, Caesars Palace is Roman themed, and the Bellagio has a water theme. There are just too many beautiful hotels to mention but try to see as many as you can. You’ll get lots of steps in on your FitBit which will help work off some of those buffet meals you’ll consume during your stay.
That night we attended Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at the Bellagio and gambled while waiting for the show to start, we played slots for about 20 minutes and won about $20 and then gave it right back to the casino, high rollers we are…not. The show was a water themed production which fit well with the overall concept of the hotel. The show itself has been in Vegas for many years and still draws very well. If you’ve not been to a Cirque du Soleil show before, they are very well done and entertain you for the entire time, unless you don’t like clown humor, then it’s entertaining about 90% of the time. The music is performed live, was equally as impressive and was perfect for the act it was supporting. After the show, we caught one the “Fountains of Bellagio” shows as we walked back to our car. These draw big crowds and was considerably cheaper than the Cirque show…free. Next up was the drive back to our hotel and more jackrabbit dodgeball.
The next morning was an early one, 4:15 A.M. after only a couple of hours of sleep. I know the couple of hours of sleep thing is par for the course in Vegas but for most people, their reasons are vastly different than ours. We were getting up to go kayaking on the Colorado River. We had booked a full day, unescorted trip and had to meet up with the outfitter, Desert Adventures in Boulder City at 6:00 A.M. sharp. After going over the cursory safety details and pointers, we hopped into a van which would take us to the put in point just below the Hoover Dam where we would begin our damn tour (I couldn’t help the Vegas Vacation reference at least once). We would be on or near the river for about the next eight hours.
If there is no wind, the paddling is pretty easy as you are going downstream with the current for approximately 13 miles to where you get picked up by the tour company. During the journey downstream, you get to take in the canyon scenery while gently floating along at a fairly leisurely pace. Aside from just being in the kayak, there are also many opportunities to get out of your boat to do some hiking. After about two miles, there is a popular slot canyon which is fed by a hot spring. The water is warm as you walk along the canyon floor and it feels goooooooood! Trouble for me was navigating the rocks where the mini waterfalls were. It proved to be much harder than it looked. I managed to fall off of the first fall (pun intended) and found each successive waterfall to be increasingly difficult. The falls were not too tough to get up but getting down, well that was a different story altogether. I guess there is a shoe for everything and we had the wrong ones for walking through slot canyons. When kayaking, Keen sandals are perfect since they can get wet but dry quickly. In a slot canyon they get rocks in them which is mostly just a slight nuisance but more importantly, they don’t grip the slippery rocks at each little waterfall. There aren’t very many slot canyons where I live and I was not prepared for this part of the trip. Next time I will be!
Later on, there was a much easier to navigate slot canyon called Arizona Hot Springs and the Keens were perfect this time. The short slot canyon was also spring fed (hence the name) and access to the pools was via an approximately 20′ ladder. Sandbags are used to create the pools but everything else is purely natural. Don’t get any water up your nose though, there’s s a brain eating amoeba in the water that could cause you some serious problems. I hear that if a brain eating amoeba got into some people’s heads, they would starve to death 😂. There were about four or five pools and each one got progressively hotter as you worked your way upstream. I found the next to last one to be just right for me to sit in.
Back on the river, we still had about eight miles to go and about four hours to get there. As easy as the paddling was so far, eight more miles would be a piece of cake. Wrong! The wind had come up from downstream and made the paddling extremely difficult. I had to stop several times from fatigue and I consider myself fairly healthy/fit. Needless to say, we didn’t do much sightseeing the rest of the way as we battled the wind to make it to the rendezvous point by the 4:00 deadline. There were times where the wind was blowing so hard that we weren’t even moving. Considering that we were paddling downstream, I found this extremely disheartening. We made it to the takeout beach with a few minutes to spare, only to learn that there were others who were behind us. For most of the paddle, I thought we were the last ones in the group still on the river but was so relieved to know that we weren’t.
Our last day was spent recovering from the past couple of days of “un-Vegas” activities. I did a short hike in Kyle Canyon before we checked out of the hotel and then we began slowly working our way back to the airport.
What I’ve learned about traveling is that no matter where you go, there is something for everyone. Most people would probably look at our trip and say what a waste it was to go to Vegas and not do the Sin City itinerary. Others avoid Vegas altogether. For us, we did the things a traveler would do rather than what a tourist would do. Either way, there’s something in Las Vegas for everyone.
By the way, the plane ride home was full of quiet, exhausted people (us included) who I’m sure all have fun stories to tell but can’t because of the “code”.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
Living at the relatively high altitude of a mile above sea level in Colorado, sea level hikes usually just don’t sound too tough. So when my daughters boyfriend Anthony agreed to hike the Ka’awaloa Trail on the Big Island of Hawaii with me, I figured we were in for a fairly routine four mile or so hike. As you can see from the sign above, it basically says that you should be a superhero to safely complete this hike. I’ve seen signs similar to these before and they’ve ended up being pretty tame considering the warnings (spoiler alert: this sign was spot on). The hike is primarily known as an alternate method for getting to the Captain Cook Monument. You can kayak there yourself and try navigating all of the rules (and there are many) set forth by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (which we did do too), you can pay to have someone guide you by boat or kayak (which we did not do), or you can hoof it in your Keen’s like me and Anthony did.
The trail down to the water was tougher than I expected it to be with awkward sized stones making the footing loose. So loose in fact that Anthony wiped out pretty hard right in front of me, drawing blood (which I hear can attract sharks 😉). He was fine to continue and we made it down to the monument without further incident.
So a little bit about the monument. The Captian Cook Monument is said to mark the spot where Europeans first made contact with the native population of the Big Island of Hawaii. Not far away, it is also known to be the spot where Cook met his end at the hands of the Hawaiians over a disagreement about a stolen boat. There is a white obelisk to commemorate the landing spot and an “X” to mark the spot where Cook was killed. Some of Cook’s remains are said to be in small caves on the cliffs to this day. I decided to ask a local native Hawaiian who was sitting right beside the white stone monument what he felt about the fact that this area was set aside to memorialize Cook and his achievement with a large white stone pillar and he said that he wished he could paint it black. Sore subject apparently (I thought it might be, but felt compelled to ask). There is obviously also some non-European Hawaiian history here as well. The ruins of the village of Ka’awaloa can still be seen in the area just a few paces away from the obelisk.
So the hike is nice and the history is fascinating, but the main reason most people go down to monument is for the snorkeling in crystal clear Kealakekua Bay. We saw lots of colorful tropical fish, coral, and no, Anthony’s wounds didn’t lure in any sharks. Dolphins were sleeping off in the distance (don’t ask me how dolphins sleep, I have no idea) but we didn’t get close enough to see them while in the water snorkeling.
After being totally refreshed snorkeling, it was time for the 1,300′ hike back up to the trailhead. What I have learned through the years is that almost every place you travel to, there is always some great equalizing force to make things difficult. At home in Colorado, the lack of oxygen as you rise can be substantial. In Hawaii, the proximity to the equator and humidity were a substantial challenge comparable in difficulty to the oxygen deprived mountains of my home state. I have never sweat that much on any hike, anywhere in my entire life. I was outwardly embarrassed by how soaked my shirt was, but was secretly grinning from ear to ear at the experience. Anthony proved to be a great hiking buddy, the hike was as tough as advertised, the history, the snorkeling, and thankfully no sharks.