And now for a few more photos from before winter roared back into Colorado this past week:
Earlier this winter we took a day trip up Poudre Canyon, about a half hour northwest of Fort Collins. One of the more popular trails here is a ~5.5 mile loop combining the Greyrock Trail and the Greyrock Meadows Trail. A short spur trail heads up to the summit of Greyrock Mountain (pictured above) near the apex of the loop but we opted to pass on this route due to icy conditions and dwindling daylight. Despite ranging in elevation from 5,500-7,000 feet, the trail was surprisingly snow free, save for the lower sections that were well-shaded by the canyon walls.
The highlight of the hike is most certainly the spectacular granitic rock formations surrounding Greyrock Mountain. I say granitic because the rock here is actually not granite but what geologists call quartz monzonite; essentially granite with slightly less quartz and slightly more feldspar (hence the pinkish color). A seemingly trivial difference perhaps but an important one to geologists trying to unravel the history of the rocks. The steep, smooth faces of Greyrock Mountain wouldn’t look out of place amongst the granite domes of Yosemite National Park. There’s also some good sized pegmatite dikes that criss-cross the area. We found some very large and attractive quartz and feldspar crystals poking around the meadows that surround Greyrock Mountain.
On a non-geology note, the trails winds through several different burn scars, apparently of different ages based on the amount of regrowth in different areas. Many of these burned areas are likely due to the High Park Fire of 2012, one of the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history which ravaged the lower sections of Poudre Canyon. There had apparently been a large windstorm here recently, as there were numerous downed trees, some dead snags but some still very much green and alive, strewn across the trail:
On the hike back down to the trailhead (on the Greyrock Meadows Trail), we were treated to a spectacular sunset over Poudre Canyon as well as views of the distant Mummy Range in Rocky Mountain National Park.
It’s no secret that I love mountains. It’s also not much of a secret that the San Juan Mountains of Colorado are my favorite mountains. I love the San Juans for a number of reasons. One of them is geology. Look at a map and its easy to lump the San Juans in with the rest of the Rockies, but geologically speaking, they’re a whole different ballgame. Formed not by uplift but by some of the largest and most violent volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history (think Yellowstone only MUCH, MUCH larger…), the San Juans have a personality all their own. They are tall (12 peaks above 14,000 and 314 above 13,000), large (more than 10,000 square miles, as opposed to the long but skinny ranges that dominate the rest of Colorado), and so steep that only three ski resorts exist here.
I also love the San Juans for the solitude they can offer. 5+ hours from major metropolitan areas (*cough*Denver*cough*), escaping the crowds here is much easier than in the rest of the state’s mountains (*cough*Aspen*cough*).
As of last weekend though, my number one reason to love the San Juans is that the San Juans contain Ice Lake, which might be the most beautiful location I’ve visited on Earth to date.
Ice Lake is a glacial tarn located at 12,300 feet not too far from the mining town of Silverton. Fortunately, it’s one of the few major destinations in the San Juans that you can’t get anywhere close to with a jeep, which drastically limits the number of people that you see and the number of engines that you hear. Instead, it is accessed via a steep 3.5 mile hike from a trailhead along South Mineral Creek. It’s been on my list of places to go for several years now and my girlfriend Michelle and I recently got a chance to spend a few days in the San Juans and make the short but steep trek up to the lake. Hiking in Colorado’s high mountains in the summertime can be challenging. Near daily vicious afternoon thunderstorms make it hard to spend any appreciable time above tree line. Despite the fact that a good chunk of this hike was above treeline, we didn’t hit the trail until a little after 8am but fortunately the weather gods cooperated on this day.
While the scenery along the trail is spectacular, all is forgotten once you catch your first glimpse of Ice Lake. One look at the brilliant neon blue water and you suddenly feel as if you’ve been hiking through a prison yard for the last few hours. I’ve never seen water so vividly colored; some of the hot springs in Yellowstone are the only things that come even remotely close. The color is caused by the presence of “rock flour” in the lake, extremely fine sediment left over from the days when large glaciers scoured out Ice Lake Basin and ground the fragile volcanic rocks into a powder. These sediment particles are so small that they remain suspended in the water, scattering blue light toward the eyes of every astounded hiker and backpacker that reaches the basin.
Unlike many of the other high alpine basins in the San Juans, Ice Lake Basin is HUGE! Covering nearing five square kilometers, the basin contains several other named and unnamed lakes as well as some of the most impressive wildflower fields I have ever seen. White, red, pink, and yellow varieties of paintbrush, elephant ears, asters, and columbines blanketed the basin. Wildflower season in the lower elevations has long past but up at 12,000 the show is just reaching it’s zenith!
Interestingly, the other lakes in the basin were not nearly as brilliantly colored, but rather a more drab blue-ish green that was nevertheless spectacular, especially when the wind calmed and the waters began to reflect the ring of peaks surrounding the basin. We lucked into a day where the thunderstorms had trouble developing and so we were able to spend 5-6 hours exploring the basin, crossing fields bursting with wildflowers, and relaxing by the lakes. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the mountain goats that often frequent such basins, but we had to settle for a handful of marmots and a trio of llamas which another party had used to pack their overnight gear into the basin.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Walking through the basin, I was reminded of Robin Williams’ famous quip about Glacier National Park: “If this isn’t God’s backyard, then he certainly lives nearby.” Apparently God has now purchased a summer home in the San Juan Mountains because the scenery here is truly second to none.
At least that how the Kiwi’s promote the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park. Given that I haven’t expereinced the vast majority of the day hikes in the world, I am not in a position to judge the accuracy of such a statement, however after last week I can say with certainity that you would have a very difficult time arguing against them.
The Tongariro Crossing is located in the central portion of Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s oldest. The 19.4 km (12.0 mile) track climbs up and over a saddle between Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro, two active stratovolcanoes that along with Mt. Ruapehu form the backbone of the national park and are the highest points on the North Island of New Zealand. If there is one thing that the trail is known for, it’s bad weather. The trail had been closed for most of the week that we were on the North Island due to snow and 120+ km/hr winds but on the last day of the trip, the clouds parted, the winds moved on, and we had 100% perfect weather for the entire day.
Undertaking the Crossing involves taking a shuttle bus to a trailhead on the west side of the mountains. 19.4 km later, the bus picks you up on the north side and drives you back to the carpark. From the very beginning, the landscape is incredibly stark, with almost no vegetation. Mt. Ngauruhoe (which played the role of Mt. Doom/Mordor in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) looms above you for the entire first half of the hike. In many ways, the landscape is similar to what you would experience hiking across the flanks of Kilauea or Mauna Loa in Hawaii only much more mountainous. All three of the volcanoes in the part have expereinced significant eruptions in the last few decades and the trail crosses a number of fresh lava flows, pyroclastic deposits, craters, and steaming ground.
The trail begins by slowly climbing up a broad glacial valley on the western flank of the mountains. After about 8 kilometers and a 750m (2500 ft) climb up Devil’s Staircase (brief side rant: “Devil’s” is an prefix used FAR too often when it comes to naming moderately challenging sections of trail. Go hiking anywhere in the world and I promise you you will encounter a difficult section of trail named Devil’s Staircase, Devils’s Highway, Devil’s Ladder, or Camino del Diablo or something like that. I really want to know how these conversations go. “Ooh, this here trail is pretty steep…what should we call it?” “I dunno, whatever we call it though we should probably slap “Devil’s” on the front of it to make it sound nice and foreboding.” I mean, I get that its steep and you might be a little winded when you reach the summit, but in all honesty, unless you are trying to climb Everest in 120 degree heat with no oxygen, I have a feeling the Devil could assign you far more hellish tasks.) , we arrived at Red Crater, the highest point on the main trail. Side trails split off the main route and head to the summits of Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro. Since we had gotten a late start, we chose Mt. Tongariro since it was shorter and didn’t involve scrambling up a 45 degree scree slope. The views from the top were breathtaking, one could see almost from one coast of the island to the other. After Red Crater, the trail descends sharply down to Emerald Lakes past a number of hydrothermal vents and pools and lots of steaming ground. The second half of the trail basically just heads straight down the mountain and is relatively unremarkable. We ended up running the last few km’s in order to catch the 3:30 bus back to our car and not have to wait for a hour to catch the next one.
All in all, an amazing hike, especially for the geologically inclined. My only complaint were the hundreds of other people we shared the trail with. This was to be expected I suppose given that this was the first day in a week that the trail had actually been passable but it was still far from what you would call a wilderness experience. Despite the length and elevation gain, the crossing is not a particularly difficult trail. With the exception of one stretch just after Red Crater, the trail is incredibly well maintained and the footing is superb. We manged to complete the trail in exactly 7 hours including our side trip to Tongariro Summit.