The Magic of Estes Park

One hundred yards into the run, and I was already fatigued.

It wasn’t a huge climb, and I was walking it. I was fully warmed up. And yet I felt like I’d already run 20 miles. When we got to the top of the rise and began running down into the canyon, I caught my breath and fell into a groove. Until we began climbing again.

Are we done yet?

I knew what was wrong, of course. And despite the struggle, I was having the time of my life.

I just returned from five awesome days in Estes Park, Colorado attending the U.S. Trail Running Conference, an event I’d looked forward to since February.  I attended presentations and panel discussions, networked with race directors, and tried out some pretty cool products, all of which I’ll talk about in upcoming posts.

And, of course, got in some running. I went up and down (and up) the gorgeous Black Canyon Trail, climbed 1,500 feet over two miles to Gem Lake, and ran loops around Lake Estes. All of this in sunny, cool weather which calls to trail runners like chocolate calls to – well, everyone.

I came back convinced that every trail runner or hiker should travel at least once to Estes Park. Here’s why.

Mountains.

For some of you, such as my daughter living in Denver, ‘nuff said. (“Mountains” is her TL;DR why she moved there from Michigan.) I don’t share her deep and permanent love for them, but I was continually struck by them during my visit. They’re a continuous reminder of just how small and insignificant we are.

The trails included some incredible overlooks at the larger, snow-capped mountains farther away, and valleys and plains below. During group runs, many of us stopped at them just to take in the scene for a few minutes. (That’s my excuse, anyway.)

Gaining a new appreciation for breathing.

I’m not out of breath. I’m just taking in the scenery. Yeah.

After several years of training and racing, it usually takes a pretty good effort to get me breathing hard. Not so above 7,500 feet. Experiences vary: one runner described it as, “trying to breathe through a straw.” I had no trouble breathing fully, but fatigue hit me on any climb whatever, even at the start of a run. My first day 5-mile run felt more like 10, and even walking uphill was a slog.

I gradually acclimated, and running got easier. At Lake Estes on my final day there, I felt nearly normal and was able to enjoy an eight mile run on a mostly flat path. Not ready for those 14ers yet, though.

Getting away from everything.

One of the overlooks on the Gem Lake trail.

What they saw.

Estes Park makes you want to throw away the cell phone and submerge yourself in nature. Although I spent most of each day at the conference, I made sure to get outside. Each morning there was a fun run on the trails, and the sessions started late enough to not feel rushed. A long walk during the day was also a must, either after lunch, after the final session of the day, or whenever the hell I felt like it.

Or how about a nice climb?

I spent the morning of my departure packing up, staring out at another beautiful day. I just couldn’t leave without one last run. So after checkout I headed down to Lake Estes and ran the paved path around the lake. I had just enough time to sneak in two loops, about eight miles, before driving to Denver for the flight home.

Just enjoying running.

Training is part of my weekly routine, and there’s a temptation to just push through it as necessary preparation for my upcoming race or races. But racing isn’t why I run. I started running longer and harder because I wanted to. Because I came to enjoy it.

And while I try to appreciate each run while it’s happening, it’s much easier to do so away from the routines of home. Last week I could just go out and run for the sake of it, and enjoy the company of those who share the passion for the trails. No one cared how slow or fast you were, how far you went, how hard you worked. We were running trails, and that was all that mattered.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing, outdoor, nature and water

The payoff: reaching Gem Lake (elevation 9,000 ft.)

================

(BTW, next year’s conference is in San Luis Obispo, CA, home of the Race SLO series. Just in case you’re interested.)

Advertisements

Western Hiking Trek: Fantastic Falls and Fossils, Alien Plants, and Painted Ladies

Guest poster Keith Shaw wraps up his stay in the Badlands, discovering and exploring some hidden gems of nature among the tourist traps. It seems likely that few people these days are enjoying these particular trails. Too bad!

Bolded text in his reports are emphasis mine, highlighting what I find to be particularly interesting. I have also edited for length and to fix typos.

Day Four – Supposedly Taking it Easy

My legs had not forgiven me for the trauma suffered on the Notch trail, so I decided to drive to several cities. Lead, Deadwood, and Spearfish were all boom towns during the gold rush days. The greed for gold made them a haven for gunslingers, gambling, and loose women.

The continuing greed for gold in the modern era have turned these towns into performing memorials. Wild Bill Hickok was killed in a Deadwood gambling saloon, and it is re-enacted several times a day for the tourists, much like a bizarre Disneyland ride. In between buildings dedicated to the lore of the Old West are modern-day casinos.

I inquired at the Deadwood visitor center if they could recommend any nature trails in the area. After a moment of stunned silence followed by some furious behind-the-hand conversations, they thought there were a couple in Spearfish Canyon that led to waterfalls. Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway seemed a good place to start, and within 20 minutes I saw a sign leading to the trailheads.

The three mile (round trip) trail to Roughlock Falls was mostly level, with impressive views of the canyon walls and peaceful glades. However, the path to the top of the falls was very steep, making my already sore legs even worse.

I returned to the car [and] instead of taking the hint, I walked the short distance to the other trailhead. Gee, it is only 3/4 mile round trip to the base of Spearfish Falls. How hard could that be? That was answered by a series of steeply descending switchbacks, followed by a walk through tall pine trees to the base of the falls. It was definitely worth it as the falls were surrounded by a riot of color from fall foliage, making a near perfect picture suitable for a postcard. I hope the image shows this.

I spent about an hour sitting on a bench, mesmerized by not only the beauty of the scene, but also the peaceful symphony of sound. I noticed many Monarch butterflies flitting about. It was only when one landed next to me that I realized that it was a moth sporting the same color pattern.

Predator birds steer clear of Monarchs because of their terrible taste, so in true Darwinian tradition, other species have adopted similar color patterning. Querying the Oracle (internet), it turns out that they are Painted Ladies. Seemed somehow appropriate considering the proximity to the local gold rush towns.

Day Five – Travel and Training

Today was travel from Rapid City to Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska. I decided on a way less traveled down Route 29, featuring endless open expanses of prairie and pasturing cattle. Not a tree in sight.

Along this road is the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, one of the largest fossil finds in the US from about 20 million years ago. Thousands of bones were found from early ancestors of wolves, rhinos, micro-camels (2′ tall!), prairie dogs and boars. This photo is a representation of one of the first pits to be uncovered. Talk about a challenging jigsaw puzzle!

Continuing south, the boring flat plain is interrupted by a 500-foot tall sentinel known as Scott’s Bluff. It was a famous landmark along the Oregon Trail for emigrants who chose the Conestoga Wagon for their conveyance. It may be explored fairly easily as there is a drive to the summit. The road is narrow, twisty and has several tunnels, but is well maintained by the Park Service.

Several trails adorn the top of the bluffs, leading to overlooks of the scenery below. The thing that interested me most was the abundance of strange plants I’ve never seen anywhere else. Here are two of the more bizarre ones.

I was going to just walk two trails and head for dinner when I noticed a side branch going down the side of one of the bluff faces suddenly disappeared. Some distance farther down it reappeared by coming through a TUNNEL. I was hooked. I’ve never seen a trail like that. So it was back to the car for hiking boots, water bottle and energy bar, and hiking hat.

If you look dead center on this photo, you can just make out the opening and the trail that continues all the way down to the valley floor at the ranger station. I “just” wanted to go down to the tunnel.

This photo shows the opening from a better point of the South Rim Trail. There are about four long steep switchbacks down this side of the bluff, then it goes out between the teeth at the right end. It then continues down four more long switchbacks on the other side before getting near the tunnel.

Here is the final length of trail and you can just see where the tunnel opening is.

This one is in the tunnel looking out at the world, and the final photo is the exit from trail level.

Surprisingly my legs didn’t hurt as much as I expected, so maybe the training is paying off. However, my feet were barking loudly from all the ankle exercise on the steep grades. After taking a shower and getting cleaned up, I went out to a recommended BBQ place for dinner. By the time I returned to the motel my legs and feet felt fine.

Which brings up an observation and irritation. Country and Western music is EVERYWHERE, motel lobbies, gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and even on the sidewalks in town. C&W is without a doubt my least favorite musical genre. Fortunately I loaded my iPad with Zappa, The Who, Pretenders, Stooges, Pixies and many Punk Rock groups that I like, so I have a musical antidote on hand when the C&W level gets too toxic.

Time to do laundry…

 

Badlands Trek: Giant Heads, Magical Caves, and the Ladder From Hell

Guest poster Keith Shaw continues his hiking trip through the Badlands area, encountering spectacular natural and man-made wonders. Did he survive Notch Trail and the ladder? Find out below!

Note: Bolded text is emphasis mine, noting what I find to be particularly noteworthy. I’ve also edited for length and to fix typos.

Day Two: Fun and Frustration

This was a day of ups and downs. It was still cold and overcast this morning, so I decided to see Jewel Cave and points along the way. Hopefully the weather will clear tomorrow as the Main Event is to see and hike Badlands National Park.

I stopped at the Crazy Horse monument, an unbelievable undertaking of converting a large mountain peak into an image of the Indian chief Crazy Horse sitting astride a stallion. It is HUGE. The entirety of Mt Rushmore would be smaller than just the Chief’s headdress. They have the face done and are working on the outstretched arm. This morning the Chief’s head was literally, as well as figuratively, “in the clouds”.

The museum is quite impressive with an extensive collection of all things Indian: culture, attire, artifacts and many photos. Then it was off to Jewel Cave.

The good news is that this is by far the most impressive, fantastic, magical cave I have ever visited, and that includes Mammoth and Carlsbad. The metal scaffolding is new and the trail brings you within inches of the array of bizarre formations. It is a challenging stroll in that it has 792 stair steps spread out over about a mile length, but it was worth every bit of the leg trauma. If you ever find yourself in South Dakota, you simply HAVE to visit Jewel Cave.

The bad/ frustrating news is the cave has virtually 100% humidity, and my camera objected. I tried rebooting, installing fresh batteries, but to no avail. So no photos. 😦 However, I have included a few courtesy of the internet for your enjoyment.

Within 10 minutes after leaving the cave, the camera woke up and behaved itself perfectly. This was most fortunate, as I was having day-mares of having to go out and buy a replacement camera in Rapid City.

A bit of blue sky and sun greeted my return from the depths, so I made a quick decision to redo the Needles Highway drive in the reverse direction before going off to Mt Rushmore. I really enjoyed this experience.

To be truthful, there are spots where the highway is wide enough, and even a few curves with guardrails. BUT, whenever you meet an oncoming car, Murphy always intervenes and selects only the narrowest spot for this to happen. Oh, and I did find the “Eye of the Needle”. Of course it is in a spot where you really have to pay attention to the wheel. I found a pull-off and walked back to get the photo.

My enjoyment of the Needles experience consumed more time than I thought, so it was a rush (what else?) to get to Mt Rushmore. Sadly I arrived just as the light faded, but did get this unusual view of George on the way there.

Keep your fingers crossed for good weather tomorrow so that I can report on the Badlands.

Day Three: Exhilaration and exhaustion

Finally the storms have cleared this morning, bringing sun, blue skies and cool temps. Perfect conditions for experiencing Badlands NP, which is about 50 miles east of Rapid City via I-90.

I always check in at the visitor station to learn about the park, get hiking maps, and discuss the trails with the rangers on duty. I had read about the Notch Trail in several books, considered to be the best, but also one of the most challenging. With due warnings, I decided to try it. After visiting a few overlooks, I arrived at the Notch trailhead. The sign announced,

“Notch Trail  –  Rough Terrain – Wear Sturdy Boots – Not for the Faint-Hearted”

The trail begins with an easy wander along the base of a canyon, until you come to the Ladder From Hell. It is made from 4-inch diameter wood and strung together with heavy cable to form a flexible ladder. It begins at a modest 30 degree slope, but ends going nearly vertical.

Once at the top, a break was needed to get my breathing and heart rate under control. Then the trail gets really scary, very narrow in spots with steep climbs that require both hands and very careful foot placement, along with relying on strong ankles and good boot grip. But the payoff was when the end of the trail comes to the Notch, gloriously overlooking the White River Valley far below, enhanced by a refreshing cool breeze. I stood at the edge watching various hawks and eagles playing in the updrafts. Wonderful!

A safe return was accomplished, but not without very loud complaints from my poor abused legs. As this was going to be the only hike of the day, I exchanged the dusty hiking boots for more fashionable footwear. However at the next overlook, I found that I could barely walk, so I forced myself to walk around a bit to work out the post-trauma cramps. One should never put a horse away wet…

Every overlook brought widely varying vistas. The range of geological formations is truly remarkable. Overall, the Badlands ranks right up there with Death Valley for the most alien landscapes.

A trip to the Badlands seems to require a compulsory visit to Wall Drug Store just to the North of the park. It is a huge sprawling building filled with everything Western and all things Kitsch. What a conglomeration!  That experience was balanced by returning to the Badlands to enjoy sunset at Pinnacles Overlook.

Until tomorrow, my friends.

Keith

Western Hiking Trek: Narrow Scrapes, Fantastic Caves, and More (Guest Post)

I’m pleased to announce that several upcoming posts will be guest written by my longtime friend and avid hiker Keith Shaw, who is trekking the trails out west. He’s sending email reports to his friends, but the writing and photos are so good I wanted to share them with you all, and he’s given his blessing.

What Keith is doing is remarkable for several reasons. He’s a large person who has no fear of hiking narrow trails that lead to high places. And he’s had some physical challenges resulting in his losing the feeling in both feet. Yet he not only retrained himself to walk again, he’s boldly covering terrain even yours truly the ultrarunner fears to tread.

His three-week trip started in Rapid City, SD (Badlands, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Devil’s Tower), Scott’s Bluff in Nebraska, then on to explore Grand Teton and Yellowstone and loop back to Rapid City.

A couple of quick notes: the bolded text in his reports are mine – they are what I find to be particularly noteworthy. I may also make minor edits for length and to fix typos.

And now, here’s Keith!

Trek 2017 – Day One

Hello dear friends,

This is my first entry on this year’s trip. The flight into Rapid City, SD was uneventful, but I was a bit tired as I arrived about 1 a.m. and then spent two hours reorganizing everything from travel mode to use mode. BTW, Detroit was something like 94F when I left for the airport, but when I arrived in RC it was 38F and raining. What a difference!

As the first two days are predicted to be rain and heavy overcast skies (read that as poor photography), I decided to visit the two caves in the area and enjoy some of the “stimulating” drives that the mountains so joyfully provide.

Will my car fit?

First on the agenda was Needles Highway. Calling it a highway is a bit of a stretch. While paved, it is very narrow, so when two cars meet, the sideview mirrors almost have to touch, while the outer third of the passenger-side tires are off the road, and no guard rails to the valley below. The Needles are vertical granite spikes, some even with a thread slot in them due to wind erosion. The old tunnels are only one-way, so opposing traffic must take turns. When going through the one shown I think I had 8-10″ clearance on each side of my rental black Chevy Malibu. I saw a pickup truck before me scrape a side mirror, so I was very careful not to follow his example.

This led me down to Wind Cave NP (national park). The overland geography is rolling open pastures with few trees but mucho wildlife. Who would believe that underneath it is the third longest cave in the world? Something like 140 miles of cave trails documented so far, all within ONE square mile of land. The 3D map looks like a ball of spaghetti! It is also the only cave system in the world to have boxwork formations, effectively negative space shapes of dried up cracked river beds. The were formed when harder calcite rock formed over softer limestone that was the original sea bottom. The earth heaved up when the mountains were formed creating cracks and fissures, which then flooded with highly acidic water. The water ate away the soft limestone, leaving the strange boxwork patterns on the ceilings and some walls of the passageways.

Some of the “boxwork”

Leaving Wind Cave via the Wilderness Loop road showed the abundance of said wildlife, with herds of bison (buffalo), elk, deer, and many birds. The final leg of the journey was on Iron Mountain Highway for another bout of enjoyable steering wheel exercise. Sadly, the much-touted scenic overlook at the apex was actually up in a cloud, so the panorama was limited to about 25 feet of distance. 😦

Half a ton of pot roast!

Tomorrow will be Jewel Cave, Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments.

Stay tuned,

Keith