Ann and I decide to initiate the summer 2012 adventure season with a multi-day and multi-sport trip to northern Colorado. Sounds very good to me, I tell her appreciatively.
First stop: Steamboat Springs. Never did I think that this small skier paradise town would be of any interest in the warm months. I soon discover how wrong I am.
We drive through town and follow a long dirt road seven miles upslope into the mountains. My first thought is that this road must be impossible to navigate in winter with anything less than a large snowcat mountain vehicle. A steep, unpaved road like this would be unthinkable to drive in a passenger car when the route is buried in several feet of winter snow – as it surely must be for much of each winter.
Our destination is Strawberry Hot Springs. Ann has been here before. Her last visit was on September 11, 2011, the day of infamy where she first learned of the plane attack on the World Trade Center towers.
The hot springs were long ago used by the Ute Indians, who believed that the steam rising from the Strawberry Park Hot Springs contained their creator’s essence. The Utes soaked in the springs to rejuvenate their soul.
The area surrounding the hot springs was eventually settled by Europeans around 1870. The first owner grew tired of chasing off trespassers, and sold the springs to the city of Steamboat Springs for $1 in 1936.
In the 1970s, neighbors regularly complained about loud, wild parties at the springs, which contributed to the City deciding to sell the property to a private owner.
During our day and overnight camp at the hot springs, we are to learn that private ownership has resulted in an impressive, luxurious, classy restoration of the springs.
Today, one finds high-quality tent camping, “covered wagon” cottages, cabins, a clean and pleasant bathhouse (containing showers, sinks, and toilets), stone masonry walls forming edges for walkways and the numerous hot pools, created waterfalls, very warm mineral water pools, sandy pool bottoms, and pine lounge chairs. Overall, the park is very well done. I am particularly impressed by the fact that unlike so many of the hot springs found in Colorado — which tend to be little more than artificial, concrete and hokey swimming pools – Strawberry Hot Springs is rather charming, romantic and tasteful.
While there, I am amused to learn that after dark, clothing is optional, which apparently explains why I notice such a large group of pool users arriving as the sun sets. The next morning, we find a bra hanging from a shrub near a pool, which leads me to speculate that at night, the pools are not only populated by nudists, but also by, shall we say, “adult activities.” I was sorry to have turned in to our tent too early on our night at the springs…
At our arrival, the first order of business is not to set up our camp, but to get into the soothing warm mineral pools. We relax in the pools for hours of therapeutic soaking. We feel our stress and worries (and the soreness of my muscles from just having run the Bolder Boulder 10-kilometer road race) melting away.
We set up our tent, which is on a wonderful unpaved pad sitting next to the hot springs stream. I chuckle at the swinging wood door that sits alone without connecting walls at the “entrance” of our camp site. First time I have ever camped at a site with a wooden “front door.”
After our tent is up, we quickly head back for another leisurely soak in the pools. AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!…
The next morning, we make oatmeal and tea. We then take our third soak in the pools, and then break camp.
On this sunny Wednesday morning, our plan is to hike all day. We’ve been told that there are many wonderful trails in the Steamboat Springs area, so Ann decides to randomly stop at a trailhead just down the road from the hot springs park entrance. At the information kiosk, a map of the “Bear Creek Trail” is posted, but it is the most uninformative trail map I have ever seen. All one sees is a crooked dashed line from the “you are here” arrow to some destination off to the right edge of the map. There is no distance stated. No elevation profile or gradient mentioned. No natural or human features noted along the trail.
Since our intended hike for the day is relatively short, we opt to add this rather unknown, featureless trail to our day hiking. “There must be at least a Bear Creek along the way,” after all.
As I expect, for our few hours of hiking on the trail, we come across no features of note. The trail is almost entirely uphill from the trailhead. It follows pleasant forest and low-lying scrub trees and sagebush. Perhaps the leading reward for the hiker on Bear Creek Trail are the expansive, impressive views of hills, valleys and ski mountains in the Steamboat Springs region.
Each of the stream beds that we find along the way are dry, by the way. Perhaps they are intermittent streams. But perhaps we are seeing the effects of a winter snowpack that is only seven percent of normal levels for the winter that has just passed…
We drive down the road, where we find the highly touted Fish Creek Falls Trail, which is also north of Steamboat Springs. This trail is highly touted for good reason, we are to learn. There are two major falls along the trail. Lower Falls is a very short walk on a smooth path from the trailhead parking. Perhaps the most spectacular falls in all of mountainous Colorado. This is a big WOW falls. Don’t miss it.
The trail then becomes a 2.5-mile hike up a rather steep incline to the second Upper Falls. This trail alternates between being smooth and level, and somewhat rocky. Great views of the valley and canyon are found along the way. Much of the trail follows pleasant aspen and pine forest. We spot a gorgeous, extremely colorful small bird along the way that we have never seen before (later, I learn it is a Western Tanager). The Western Tanager sports a dayglow fire engine red head, and a black and yellow body.
Midway up the trail, a woman on her way down the trail approaches me and asks, “Are you from Gainesville FL?” She informs me that she remembers seeing me working out at a fitness center in Gainesville. It occurs to me that Gainesville is 1,750 miles from this remote northern trail in Colorado, and I have not worked out at the Gainesville fitness center for at least 8-10 years. We live in a small world…
Our final adventure for this late May excursion in central Colorado is a half-day inflatable kayak trip from the Pumphouse Recreation Area put-in to the Radium Recreation Area on the Colorado River. This will be my first-ever taste of paddling the mighty Colorado River and it will be my first experience trying to shift from 20 years of rigid-body kayaking to an inflatable kayak.
During our drive down to Kremmling CO from Steamboat Springs, we pass by several antelope grazing near Rt 40, which I have never seen before in the wild.
I am excited because I have never been on the Colorado, and because I have recently learned that the inflatable kayak (IK) may be just what someone with my skills and paddling needs requires to enjoy kayaking in Colorado (given my being an adrenalin junkie who has spent his kayaking career on the relatively placid flat waters of Florida).
The start of the paddle finds me feeling surprisingly uncomfortable, despite the gentle ripples I am floating over, and despite my handful of prior experiences with some whitewater paddling last year. The IK is relatively short and rounded, which means I find great difficulty remaining stable, holding a straight line, or guiding the boat in directions I desire.
But not for long.
Soon, I am confidently and comfortably paddling. I am no longer timidly following our trip leader to know where to safely paddle. Instead, I am strongly and purposefully out front, picking good lines and enjoying the wave trains – gentle as they may be (but just right for a Florida flatwater kayaker out for his first time of the season). I quickly vow to seek out more in the way of Class II+ and Class III water, and on an IK of my own.
Also helpful in reducing my embarrassing anxiety on this day is that the Colorado River is a very, very low 330 cfs (compared to over 1500 cfs this time last year). As I noted above, the very tiny snowpack from the recent winter season is creating quite disappointing conditions for paddlers throughout the state as we head into the summer whitewater season. Another comparison of how 330 cfs is bone dry for this stretch of the Colorado: The record volume for this location at the Pumphouse was 11,400 cfs in 1984.
Our river section turns out to be rather scenic. We pass through the impressive Little Gore Canyon (the more tame and doable version of the forbidding, Class V Gore Canyon just upstream, which hosts the national whitewater kayaking championships). We stop for a quick soak at a lovely little hot spring that borders the river along the way.
Because we are out of the water earlier than expected, we opt to drive Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park on the way back to Boulder. This is the highest continuously paved road in the United States. From Kawuneeche Visitor Center where we start our drive at the park’s Grand Lake Entrance, Trail Ridge Road follows the North Fork of the Colorado River north through the Kawuneeche Valley. There are several trailheads along this section of the road, notably the Colorado River Trailhead, which is the western terminus of the road segment closed during the winter.
The road crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass (elev. 10,758 ft) and reaches a maximum elevation of 12,183 ft, near Fall River Pass (elev. 11,796 ft).
Further down the road, we drive sections that induce vertigo, as the narrow road drops several hundred feet abruptly on both sides of us. The snow-capped mountains standing at over 12,000 feet in elevation on either side of us are awesome as they jut into the sky they dominate.
Our final taste of the National Park is our encounter with a large number of elk, which we find lazily grazing alongside the road in several locations.
This YouTube video consists of photos I shot during this trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKeNQAir1Hs