Hiking Maxwell Falls: A Matter of Unfinished Business

I’ve had a bone to pick with Maxwell Falls. Several years ago, baby Hadley and I joined one of my friends from Colorado Mountain Mamas to hike this trail that winds into the Arapahoe National Forest along Maxwell Creek. Only we never made it there. This hike in Evergreen, Colo. was only supposed to be a couple of miles and yet we kept going and going and going. We eventually turned back without ever finding the falls.

If there’s anything I hate, it’s unfinished business.

My Thursdays have been dedicated unto hiking and mid-October, I made attempt No. 2. There are two ways to access Maxwell Falls: a 1-mile hike (perfect for families), a 3-mile loop (both accessible via the upper trailhead lot), and a 4-mile round-trip trek from the lower trailhead lot.

Or, if you’re like me, get lost, go on a couple of detours and your adventure will last about three hours.

I’ve hiked pretty much every trail along Denver’s Front Range and waterfalls are a rarity so that made Maxwell Falls that much more desirable. I parked at the Lower Trailhead Lot and was delighted that the scenic trail in the Ponderosa forest maintained a steady upward pitch. The October temperatures were brisk, the golden aspens were hanging on for dear life and there was a dusting of snow on the trail. Pretty much, my ideal hiking conditions.

I’d been hiking for about a half hour and all was going well until The Stream Crossing of Doom.

What I did: Instead of skirting across the rocks strategically placed on the creek, I kept going straight and noticed a trail that continued up the valley on the other side of the creek. I followed the sketchy trail, over logs and fallen brush from the flood for about 20 minutes before turning back.

What I should have done: Crossed the stream and taken a sharp right up the mountain. Consider yourself warned.

Once I finally made it back on the trail, all was clear sailing until I reached the falls. There wasn’t a clear view of Maxwell Falls from the trail and darnit it I’d hiked all that way and I was only going to hear them. I scrambled down the boulders, snapped a few shots of the pretty, understated waterfall’s icicles that cascaded over the tiered boulders.

Now, a smarter person would have headed back to the Lower Lot but my confidence had returned so I figured I’d make my hike even longer by doing the Cliff Loop. It took me away from my creek-side view into a beautiful forest with a stunning glimpse at Evergreen’s charms. But remember that snow? The loop is not as frequented, the signage is lacking and the snow made it tough in places to find the trail. After about 45 minutes of hiking, it cut back down near the creek and I was dismayed when it didn’t connect with the original trail to Maxwell Falls. I was lost. Again.

I called Jamie but he didn’t answer (what’s the point of downloading your lamentations if someone isn’t there to hear them?) I said a quick prayer along the lines of “Heavenly Father, I knew I was stupid by trying to do this loop but do you think you could cast me a lifeline?” Two minutes later, I spotted a bridge and the original trail. Prayers answered!

Forty-five minutes later, I was finally back at the car, exhausted but jubilant I’d finally seen Maxwell Falls. Now, all that remains on my bucket list is accessing them via the Upper Parking Lot.

Only for that one, I’ll recruit my kiddos. They should consider themselves warned.


Getting there: From Denver, take I-70 west to Exit 252 and merge onto CO-74 South/Evergreen Parkway. Drive 7.6 miles and take a slight left onto Bear Creek Road. After half a mile, turn right onto CO Road 73, continue for a mile, and turn right onto South Brook Forest Road. The lower parking lot and trailhead are 3.6 miles in, on your left. To reach the upper parking lot, continue past there for about 1.6 miles more until the road turns to Black Mountain Drive/CO Road 78; drive 1.2 more miles to the upper lot (on the left).

Roxborough State Park: The Shire Never Had Views Like This!

Everyone needs a friend like Tina. We met when Hadley and her son Nolan were babies and we were a part of our hiking group, Colorado Mountain Mamas. Though we live on opposite sides of Denver, we’ve stayed friends through the years and she’s the kind of person I talk to about anything…and drag to anything. Cases in point: she participated in the Red Rocks Fitness Challenge where we worked out every Saturday morning at 7 a.m. one summer. Or that horridly steep hike up White Ranch when we laughed the whole way through (though we wanted to cry).

I recently asked her if she wanted to join me for a hike to Roxborough State Park. Located in southwest Denver, this 4,000-acre park is a bit of haul for me but has been on my bucket list for ages because of its dramatic red-rock formations like the Fountain Formation, Lyons Formation and the Dakota Hogback.

We really didn’t have a plan…we never do and I figured we’d just find a trail and wing it. I offered to pay the $7 state park entrance fee but when we pulled up to the kiosk, no one was working and a sign guided us to a pay station where we were to put our money in an envelope. Problem No. 1: neither of us had $7. I had larger bills but there was no way to make change so Tina and I dumped out every coin we had and inserted it in the envelope. Problem No. 2: the envelope was too bulky to fit in the small slot. And so we stuffed and we stuffed and we stuffed until the envelope was completely shredded, coins everywhere and we ended up just feeding our money like it was a vending machine.

Apologies to the State Park employee who finds it. In our defense, maybe you should have someone working there to avoid lunatics like us.

We parked near the visitor center, grabbed a map and I quickly identified the longest trail in the park: the 6.4-mile round-trip hike to 7,160-foot Carpenter Peak. We wasted no time starting our hike, which is a designated Colorado Natural Area, National Cultural District and National Natural Landmark.

The trail was an intermediate pitch through Ponderosa pine, woodlands, Douglas fir forests, Gambel oak thickets, and tall and mixed grass prairie. And we nailed the fall colors perfectly.

We dubbed these enchanting oak archways “The Shire”

There was sunshine in my soul that day

There were plenty of geologic wonders along the way . The steeply dipping monoclinal sedimentary sections have resulted in the series of three major hogbacks and strike valleys, exposing highly scenic dipping plates, spires and monoliths. The granite Carpenter Peak offered the best views in the park and testified how far we had come.

View from Carpenter Peak

We had kept a steady pace on our climb but picked up our velocity on the descent because we were pressed for time to pick up our kids. For the final half-mile, we were both limping a bit–Tina from hot spots on her heel and me with my plantar fasciitis. I praised her for being a swell “friend” and she corrected me with “sucker.”

We raced back to the car and as she dropped me off, I thanked her profusely and offered.

“I’m sorry that took so long.”

“It always does with you.”

But she didn’t mind one bit. I need more friends like her.


Getting there: From Wadsworth Blvd. in Denver, follow Wadsworth south past Chatfield State Park. Then turn left on Waterton Rd., which is just before the entrance to Lockheed Martin. Keep following Waterton Rd. as it crosses the South Platte River, until it ends at North Rampart Range Rd. Turn right, (south), onto North Rampart Range Rd. Then continue on for a short while until you reach the intersection of North Rampart Range Rd. and Roxborough Park Rd. Turn left onto Roxborough Park Rd. Then take the next right, (about 50 yards away), and follow it to the park entrance. From the entrance to Roxborough State Park, follow the dirt road to either of the two parking areas. The visitor center is a short walk from the second parking lot and is a good place to pick up a map/brochure of the park.

The mountain, the bear and the gun-toting Tennessean

Though I relish any time spent on The Broadmoor’s opulent grounds, I love escaping to North Cheyenne Cañon, a gorgeous red-rock, evergreen forest with scores of hiking trails.

Many of the trails start at the Starsmore Discovery Center, just over a mile from the resort so most of my explorations have been reserved for the gorgeous neighborhoods and Lower Columbine trail. But then, I learned The Broadmoor runs a complimentary shuttle to the discovery center, which would give me a jump-start on my desire to hike further up the canyon to the Upper Columbine Trail.

We had planned to spend an afternoon at the pool but when rain clouded our plans, I enrolled the kids in the resort’s children’s club, Bee Bunch, while Jamie booked a massage. That meant I had three glorious hours to explore!

But remember that rain? It would have deterred some but not me. I grabbed my waterproof gear and hopped on the shuttle. Within minutes, I was winding along the trail and ran into a family.

“Bear up there,” one of the woman casually commented as I hiked by.

“Umm, did she say there is a bear?”

Her traveling companion divulged there was, indeed, a brown bear directly off the trail about a half-hour ahead. “He didn’t bother us,” he assured me. Gee, swell to know.

I kept hiking and each subsequent hiker issued the same warning. By this point, I was starting to get paranoid. I was, after all, hiking by myself and I had just polished off The Broadmoor’s tasty 10,000-calorie brunch. I’d be some good eatin’ for a hungry bear in the rain. Plus, I’ve never run into a bear in Colorado’s backcountry.

As I was forging up the mountain, I was passed by a 30-something, fit tattooed hiker from Tennessee who was a bit rough around the edges but friendly. I informed him about the bear and he nonchalantly said, “I’m not worried. I’ve got a pistol in my backpack.”

Now, any other day such a confession would have steered me in another direction but it became one of Bode’s famous “would you rather” games: Would I rather hike by myself under threat of a bear OR hike with a gun-toting, tattooed Tennessean?

I opted for the latter and we quickly fell into a good clip up the mountain.

I may-or-may-not have snapped this picture as evidence in case my dead, lifeless body was found.

The trail was steep, the views stunned, the rain dripped, the sun persisted, the conversation entertained and it was one of those beloved hikes where  I felt powerful and never wanted it to end. When we reached the Upper Columbine trailer marker four miles later,  we parted ways as he continued going and I reluctantly headed back to pick up the kids.

View of The Broadmoor from the Upper Columbine Trail

The bear was long forgotten on my return trip but I had a new-found fondness for gun-toting Tennesseans. Just your average day in Colorado’s backcountry.




Summer hiking group fun and why Bode can stay in his BOY corner

One of my favorite things in the entire world is exploring and discovering trails, particularly in my own backyard. So imagine how thrilled I was to recently stumble upon some new-to-me sites intermingled with my long-time favorites.

The Hike

My church friend Dawn organized a summer hiking group on Tuesday mornings. Early-June, Dawn decreed our first hike would be the Castle Trail at Mount Falcon Open Space, which is is a great, moderate trail for younger kiddos.

One of my favorite memories is when I was REALLY pregnant with Bode, we decided to go for a hike and picnic. We were only a few minutes into our hike when our little 2-year-old cherub decided she was not walking another step. And when stubborn miss doesn’t want to do something, she will not do it. Nice parents that we are, we didn’t give in to her meltdown and so she threw herself onto the middle of the trail and raged for about 10 minutes.

We walked a safe distance away. No, we were not worried about her safety (because who would take her in that condition?) but rather, ours. We pointedly ignored the other parents who judged us while we let her scream it out. If she’d been in a store, it would have been another matter but since we were in the great outdoors, we let her roar with the mountain lions. It ended up working. She eventually gave up, jumped up, dusted herself off and kept on walking. She was a delight the rest of the day.

Here Hadley is seven years later at the scene of the crime. Doesn’t she look so much more docile?

We’ll compare notes again at this spot during the hormonal teenage  years.

The Castle/Meadow Trail had all the makings for a perfect outing: a wide trail, beautiful wildflower-strewn meadow and rocks for climbing. The boys reenacted being chased by Orcs in Lord of the Rings while I tried not to take offense of being mistaken for a sallow-skinned, fanged humanoid.

Our final destination was the stone-wall remnants of the John Brisben Walker family castle that boasts stunning views of Denver. Though the ruins are fenced off for climbing, we were fully engaged as we read about his rags-to-riches story that included the fire that destroyed this early-1900s dream home.

Parmalee Gulch

The easiest route to Mount Falcon is via U.S. Highway 285. Take the Indian Hills turn-off and follow the open space signs up Parmalee Gulch Road. On our return trip, my kids and I were stopped in our tracks at a stunning property just outside of Mount Falcon with a white fence that stretched as far as the eye could see. When we saw the “For Sale” sign, we pulled in.

Because we just happen to be in the market for a multi-million-dollar property.

As we dreamed of having a mountain retreat, we eventually wound back down to a new-to-us part of Parmalee Gulch Road, happening upon a fantastic playground within Parmalee’s town limits. “We HAVE to stop!” my son announced and I agreed.

For the next hour, we scaled logs, climbed rock walls to the top of the slide and climbed on bears at this awesome playground.

Turned out I wasn’t too good at the latter, which is probably a good thing.

Bear Creek Canyon

I frequent Bear Creek Canyon regularly when en route from Denver/Morrison to Evergreen. After driving down the canyon,  we landed in the funky mountain town of Morrison, devoured sundaes at The Blue Cow, threw rocks in Bear Creek and I then told the kids we were crossing the street to visit two shops I’ve driven past a hundred times but have never set foot.

Both were love at first sight: Sundance Sensations appealed to my Bohemian side while La Boutique des Bourdreux was a whimsical, vintage gift and clothing shop where Hadley and I were enthralled at every turn and could have spent an hour in there.

If it wasn’t for Bode.

As every minute passed, he grew increasingly inpatient. When Hadley and I started trying on the large selection of hats, I cooed, “Hadley, I want this hat.”

Bode interjected. “Mommy, WANTS ARE NOT NEEDS.”

It would seem he’s been taking lessons from his father on more than just pumpkins.

Hiking to non-existent reservoirs is still a day of Colorado bliss

Remember our adventures atop 14,265-foot Mt. Evans and how I vowed to go back to the eccentrically charming Echo Mountain Lodge’s gift shop and restaurant? Two days later, it happened.

Upon returning home, I checked my email. My friend Dawn organized a summer hiking group with gals from church and I was shocked to see that Tuesday’s hike was to Idaho Springs Reservoir and the trailhead was right at Echo Lake. We skipped swim lessons that day and I declared yet another mountain adventure was in order. On previous hikes, there were plenty of kids but no one Hadley’s age so we invited her bestie Alex along for the ride.

Besties at Echo Lake

Idaho Springs Reservoir

Though I’ve hiked 90 percent of the trails on the Front Range, the Chicago Lakes Trail to Idaho Springs Reservoir is over an hour from my house and deep in the backcountry so I was not familiar with it. As we started hiking, a mom whipped out her guidebook for directions and lo-and-behind it was Best Hikes with Kids, the book I was contacted about revising a few years ago!

The publisher shipped me a copy when it came out last year and I was mostly relieved I turned down the project and pleased that the author did such a nice job with it. Mind you, if I was contacted about doing something similar now, my kiddos are of a more suitable age for me to take it on.

The guidebook is thorough but here’s one thing the author neglected to mention: this hike is not great for young kiddos. For about 12 minutes, we skirted along a narrowish ledge with a steep drop. We had a few preschoolers, which made for an ulcer-inducing time. Even more stressful was I was up front with the older kids while the other moms helped the youngin’s at the back. My friend Dawn has two darling twin boys who are Bode’s age and let me tell you, those boys are mischievous. One of them tried climbing DOWN the steep cliff while the other tried to race past us while still on that ledge.

We eventually sent them back to hike with their mom and everyone was much happier. Well, except for them.

The guidebook suggested we start at the Echo Lake Campground but the host said it was quicker to commence from the north side of Echo Lake. There was a simple map in the guidebook but we had no idea how far our altered route was. We stopped a lady on the trail who had a topographical map and lo-and-behind, the Idaho Springs Reservoir wasn’t even on it. You know, OUR DESTINATION.

Echo Lake, the group at the creek and that lovely ledge.

We kept blindly hiking for another 15 minutes with glorious views of Mount Evans looming in the background. Upon reaching a creek, we opted to turn back. Who knew if we were even going the right way and we had already been hiking an hour.

If there’s anything I hate, it’s unfinished business and that is particularly prevalent with hiking. If I don’t summit, I have to go back or I obsess about it. Upon turning around, we were a few minutes from the trailhead when we ran into a hiker. I started talking to him and mentioned our turnaround point. “Oh really? You should have kept going. Idaho Springs Reservoir is only 1/4-mile from that creek.”

I guess the only positive side to that is I’ll be back.

The Scenic Route

As promised, I let the kids each pick out a souvenir at Echo Lake Lodge but opted to hold out to try the restaurant until we could return with Jamie (he was only a little bit bitter about being left behind). Then, instead of heading back on I-70, I announced we were going the scenic route via new-to-me Squaw Pass Road to Evergreen, one of my favorite mountain hamlets. My bribery? I’d buy them ice cream.

Of course, with views like this, it doesn’t take too much arm-bending. The great thing about traveling with kids is they have a radar for anything fun. We stopped at Baskin-Robbins in Evergreen and upon sitting on the creekside benches, they noticed a charming area to climb trees and play in Bear Creek so that is exactly what we did for the next hour.

Bear Creek, Evergreen

Oh, to be a kid again. But living vicariously through them is the next best thing.

96-mile journey

Solo in the San Juans: Exploring Colorado’s Highway to Heaven

Originally published in Sports Guide magazine, 2002. © Photo: Away.com.

Good travel companions are difficult to come by. I should know—I’ve had my share. Since “roughing it” means downgrading from the Hilton to a Motel 6 for the majority of my female friends, I generally travel with men. I have learned to accept their flaws (i.e. messiness and smell), and they have learned to accept mine (i.e. my loving written exploits of their failings.)

Much to my dismay, I found myself bereft of companionship during a recent mid-week trip to the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. I assured myself it was because of demanding work schedules and not as payback for my exposés. I mean, who could resist a land of craggy contrasts and stiletto cliffs–with me?

I have longed to return to the San Juan Mountains since skiing Durango Mountain Resort a couple of years ago. The range’s 12,000-square miles compose the highest area of elevation in the lower 48. With harsh, challenging, and rugged peaks, the backcountry adventures translate into some of the most dangerous and wildly irregular in the world.

Many male friends questioned the wisdom of my solo trip, which inspired me to action. I mountain biked a portion of the famous Colorado Trail, bagged two 14ers (14,000-foot peaks) in one day, subjected my Jeep to a suicidal 4X4 road, summoned spirits by camping in a ghost town, and hiked some of Colorado’s most alluring summits. As reward for my backcountry exploits, I pampered myself to a night at the Wyman Hotel and Inn in a quaint mining town—a bliss that most men just wouldn’t appreciate.

Doing Durango
The solo trip began a bit surly. Upon arriving in Durango, I spent the morning at a garage repairing my blown-out tire that had self-destructed in the boonies. That was after I had backtracked 65 miles when I realized I had forgotten my wallet at a restaurant. Oh, and then my Jeep’s tape deck broke. Good thing I brought numerous books-on-tape for my lonely drive.

I remained undaunted. My plan was to start in Durango and follow the majority of the San Juan Skyway, a 236-mile scenic byway acclaimed as one of the most beautiful drives in the United States. It crosses 5 million acres of San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests, passing through Victorian mining towns and historic ranching communities.

Nestled in the Animas River Valley in the afternoon shadows of the San Juan Mountains, Durango is renowned for its mountain biking. A variety of great rides only a short distance from town provide easy access to the backcountry.

After reviewing my options, I took a bite out of the 480-mile Colorado Trail. OK, more like a tiny morsel. The Dry Fork Loop has several options, one of which is an 18-mile loop that begins in town on U.S. 550 and turns onto Junction Creek Road, the westernmost trailhead of the Colorado Trail. The other is a 9-mile loop that begins up LightnerCreek Road.

Since I had wasted most of my day at the garage, I opted for the shorter loop. I followed the singletrack clockwise about 3 miles up a moderate slope through pine and aspen groves until I met the Colorado Trail. I turned right (left leads to Kennebec Pass, another option) and climbed a short section before riding downhill for 3 miles.

I watched for my turnoff at Hoffheins Connection and upon reaching it, kept right on going. No, I did not miss it (which is usually the case) but I instead checked out the great views at Gudy’s Rest, a few hundred yards down the Colorado Trail. I explored the trail for a while before climbing back up and descending Hoffheins Connection until I met the Dry Fork trailhead.

The Heber Creeper This Ain’t
There is a movie star in Durango—the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Train. This hot not-so-little chugger has appeared in more than 24 movies that include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and How the West Was Won. During the summer months, the train makes the journey to Silverton and winds through beautiful aspen forests, climbs narrow canyons, and hugs granite cliffs that stand sentry over the glistening waters of the Animas River.

I had a great experience on the train during my last trip. But a repeat performance as a sardine-packed tourist did not tempt. The only exception would have been for the train’s unique backcountry experience: superb hiking and backpacking routes off the Needleton and Elk Park stop-offs. Needleton’s Chicago Basin is a hotspot that serves as a base camp for scaling a network of summits, including three 14ers: Sunlight, Mount Eolus and Winom Peaks.

The Alpine Loop–Colorado Style
I instead delved deeper into the backcountry on my own fuel. I planned to follow the San Juan Skyway 49 miles to Silverton and then take the 65-mile Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway to the Silver Creek Trailhead. I would then conquer 14,034-foot Redcloud and 14,001-foot Sunshine Peaks the next day. This 11.7-mile hike has a grisly 4,634-feet elevation gain and is rated difficult due to the distance and total elevation gain.

Unlike most paved scenic byways, backcountry byways focus on out-of-the-way-roads that are typically gravel or dirt. Nearly two-thirds of the Alpine Loop is dirt roads, suitable for two-wheel drive vehicles. I, of course, chose the one-third that was not. My guidebook ubiquitously said, “high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended.”

I came to realize that when traversing over 12,620-foot Cinnamon Pass, one of the highest in the San Juans, there should be a more definitive distinction between “recommended” and “required.”

Mine sites and ghost towns dot the loop that winds between Lake City, Silverton and Ouray. I had an apparition of my own after I passed by ghost town Animas Forks when I noticed something hovering in mid-air; something that resembled the bar end on my bike. I was disconcerted to discover my bike clinging on for dear life.

I encountered the only car I would see that evening, and the man came to my rescue (I’m sure the fact I was blocking the road had no bearing upon his service). We determined it would be best to throw my bike in back. As I prepared to leave, he looked at me doubtfully. “You’re going up there all by yourself, Hon?” I nodded. “Well, watch out” he chimed before heading back to town.

Now, well wishes generally vary but they are usually along the lines of “Good luck” or even “Be careful.” His warning threw me for a loop…until I reached the turnoff for Cinnamon Pass. A precipitous and technical cluster of rocks had “bottoming out” written all over it. A very steep slope that shot straight up to the sky followed.

My Jeep has low clearance due to the running boards that serve as stepstool for mounting my bike. This has led my friend John to derisively nickname it “Girlie Jeep” (the man has no respect for short people.) As I pondered this, along with Mr. Watch Out’s warning, my fire was fueled and I shifted gears into 4-Low.

As I crawled over the next several miles, I saw my life flash before my eyes in crimson flickers, which I later attributed to my red Jeep jolting with each wallop. When I reached Cinnamon Pass, poor Girlie Jeep had become a woman.

The view was worth every painful scrape. I had witnessed the transformation from a tree-covered valley to alpine tundra, found only in the Arctic and in isolated areas in high mountain ranges. Mottled grasses and flowers struggled for survival in the very short growing season. Gazing east of the valley, I could see Handies, Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks, three of the “fourteeners” in the Alpine Triangle.

After some nasty switchbacks, I reached American Basin at the bottom of the valley. The Silver Creek trailhead was another 4 miles. I camped at the trailhead across from Burrows Park where only two structures remained in this ghost town.

Two 14ers in the Bag
My guidebook recommended an early start because afternoon storms are common at 14,000 feet. I arose to a clear sky at 5 a.m. Everything proceeded pretty smoothly. Sure, my pita bread lunch was fungus-infested and I had to turn back a few minutes into the hike to retrieve my trekking poles. But these were all minor in the Amber Scale of Catastrophes.

I followed the west side of the Silver Creek drainage for 3 miles to the head of the basin. From there the trail grew steeper through a broad tundra valley on its way to a saddle northeast of Redcloud Peak. The sun had made its appearance but the valley was still cloaked in shadows when I reached the saddle.

The hike earns its difficult ranking at this point and climbs steeply up a scree ridge to Redcloud. Mountain goats or maniacs had formed a trail that shot straight up. I chose switchbacks. Or at least that was my intent. I somehow found myself slip-sliding up the treacherously straight path at one point, cursing my deviation.

Redcloud’s summit was in view. Of course, it turned out to be a false summit, with the real Redcloud taunting me in the distance. I determinedly gulped the thin air and made a conquering yelp once at the summit. I paused only momentarily as I eyed Sunshine 1.5 miles away. Bagging two 14ers was palpable and I continued on without even so much as a swig of water.

I dropped back down to 13,480 feet, a nice reprieve. Regaining more than 500 feet in a steep haul up Sunshine was not. My final minutes were agonizing but I dedicated my climb to Girlie Jeep owners and to every woman whose backcountry prowess has ever been berated by skeptical men.

Sunshine Peak was an island in a sea of mountains. Flush with triumph, I nestled in a makeshift rock shelter to eat my fungal pita. I gazed down the long spine of the San Juans, my body marinated in sweat. The wind caused my unruly hair to do a fine impression of a Joshua tree. I stayed for an hour, drinking in the mountain air that conspired with light. Distant horizons were magnified and 14,000-foot peaks a hundred miles away appeared near at hand.

I vowed I would rather slog through swamps and tar pits than climb up Redcloud again. I discovered an apparent “descent” into the South Fork drainage in the saddle between the two mountains. The prospect of saving two miles and skipping out on climbing back up Redcloud was inviting. But the steep, dangerous talus tucked between two rocky ramparts was not. I resigned myself to the tar pit and retraced my steps, trying to comfort myself this was equal to bagging three 14ers. Err…right?

Silverton’s Heaven on Earth
I spent the night in paradise. Of course, anything that had a shower and bed qualified as paradisiacal glory at that point. But I had christened Silverton heaven on earth during my first trip a couple of years ago. Nestled at 9,318 feet in the heart of the San Juan
Mountains, this quaint mining town is a gem ringed by mountain splendor.

If you stay anywhere in Silverton, it should be at the town’s premier B&B: the Wyman Hotel and Inn. Built in 1902, this red-sandstone building has period antiques, arched
windows, high ceilings, theme rooms, gourmet breakfast and a perfect blend of nostalgic and contemporary facilities. Owners Lorraine and Tom lavished me with attention and gave me a tour of the 19 rooms and honeymoon suite—a restored caboose in the courtyard.

I then enjoyed a Tuesday night on the town. I wandered the colorful boardwalks past
Victorian buildings, restaurants and saloons that displayed reminders of the early boom times. I ate heartily at the Trail House, Silverton’s newest restaurant, and became privy to all the town gossip. I then spent a quiet evening in my Jacuzzi tub watching a movie.

Oh, and gazing out my window at summits I did not have to conquer. This had to be heaven.

The Skyway’s Homestretch
Over the next few days, I traced the San Juan Skyway to Ouray and Telluride, with a detour to Ophir Pass.

I was enchanted with Ouray’s verdant 14,000-foot peaks in this ”Switzerland of America.” Ouray opened the world’s first park devoted exclusively to ice climbing in 1995, and thousands of climbers have descended upon the hamlet ever since. Great hiking is in abundance, with rock climbing and a kayak park in the developmental stages.

In the mountains cocooning Ouray, water proves that gravity works. Natural hot springs flow into pools at the base of towering peaks, vapor caves lead into the earth and iridescent waterfalls line the walls.

I went on two short hikes: to Cascade and Box Canyon Falls. Feeling ambitious, I even climbed a whopping 0.25-mile to an overlook above Box Canyon. This inspired me to think expansive, effusive thoughts, including the wisdom of building a bridge directly over the falls so as to completely obstruct the view.

I then hiked 6 miles along the Bear Creek National Scenic Trail, drove to Telluride and hiked 4 miles to Bear Creek Falls the next day. But it was during a detour to Ophir, a small mining town 8 miles from Telluride, that my loop of the skyway came full circle.

I had taken the turnoff for no other reason than the great views that beckoned. I was
pleased to discover some of the best-kept backcountry secrets in the area, along with the town of Ophir. Damaged by avalanches in the early 1900s, I was told Ophir is currently experiencing a revival (if you consider population: 70 a revival.) Hardcore mountaineers live here including many of Telluride’s mountain guides and ski patrol.

It was atop Ophir Pass (where four-wheel drive is recommended but NOT required), that I encountered Him: Mr. Watch Out. He was pulled to the side so I could pass on the narrow road.

“You made it out,” he commented. I boasted about bagging the 14ers.

He went in for the kill: “So, where’s the bike?”

I flippantly replied it must have fallen off somewhere along the Alpine Loop.

This did not seem to shock him, confirming his opinion of me.

Then he surprised me, “I’ve gotta tell you, Blondie. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

He and everyone else, and admittedly neither did I. But I learned on that trip to Colorado’s rooftop that it is not so much about bagging summits as it is about surmounting personal ones.

-Amber Borowski Johnson ©

Mt. Elbert or Bust Busted on Mt. Elbert

I am proud to say we bagged Mt. Elbert–Colorado’s highest peak and the second highest in the lower 48. I enjoy saying that because it sounds impressive. Not so impressive is my next confessional: I have hiked much steeper and more difficult mountains than Elbert.
Don’t get me wrong: scaling 4,700 vertical feet was no stroll in the park but I was pleasantly surprised this mountain did not send me to my grave. Well, at least not completely (though admittedly one foot did make its entrance).
Prior to setting out on our trek, we realized Jamie had misplaced two key items: the map and an altimeter. We managed to fudge our way without the former but were hatin’ it without the latter. You see, ascertaining your elevation with an altimeter helps you avoid something agonizing called false summits: thinking you reached the top, only to find the real summit taunting you in the distance.

For further clarification: Baby keeps you up for first six months of her life. Finally sleeps through the night. Parent thinks HOLY CRAP, BABY SLEPT THROUGH THE NIGHT. I HAVE ARRIVED! Next night: Baby wakes up every hour. False summit.

Feel my pain?

When climbing 14,000-foot peaks (14ers) it is critical to be off the summit by noon due to dangerous weather patterns that blow through the Rocky Mountains. We stayed at a nearby B&B and were on the trail at the crack of dawn. It did not take long for the pitch to become fevered. Jamie and I have very different hiking styles. He is more of a sprint-and-stop kind of guy while I am slow and steady.
Despite the commanding views at the top, I am not partial to 14ers for their beauty. Part of the reason is you are doing the brunt of the climb above treeline. And call me crazy but there is little innate beauty about rocks, particularly when that is all you see for hours on end.

But this hike was different. We ascended through whispering aspen groves, boreal forests, glacier-scoured valleys nestled between craggy peaks and through profusions of wildflowers in full bloom. In the distance, the silence was punctured by the howl of coyotes and the call of an elk. Oh, and the cussing of a Canuck. Did I mention just how steep it was?

We kept pace with one another until about 1/2-mile from the top when Jamie got summit fever and picked up his pace from a slow crawl to only a semi-slow one.
“What are you doing?”
“Summit Fever, Amber. Summit Fever.”
And then I gave him that look. You know, that one that says you had better slow down right now if you want to create our final child and also spend the rest of our lives practicing. That look.

He stopped in his tracks.

I am proud to be a role model for supporting a husband’s aspirations and dreams.

Reaching the summit is like an elite club of folks whose altitude sickness has made them forget the misery of the climb. And that is what keeps them coming back again and again. The group is always eclectic, always friendly, and always has a story. Like this young buck who set the goal to juggle atop all of Colorado’s 14ers.


I felt strong the first few miles of the descent but the intensity of the hike kicked in the last 1.5 miles and our knees screamed out in protest.
Jamie’s knee was still bothering him when we arrived home so I graciously unloaded his luggage. And you’ll never guess what I discovered.

“Hey Jamie. I just found the maps.”
“Oh, where?”
“In your backpack.”
“Oh yeah. I put them in there so I wouldn’t forget them on the climb.”

A Mommy Blogger’s Cerebral Edema on the Brain

Jamie and I are currently training to climb Colorado’s highest mountain, the second highest in the lower 48.

We began a few nights ago, which included this paltry (and frightening) attempt at looking tough as we hauled both kids on a hike. My apologies to Bode for completely cutting him out of the picture; I would hate to diminish his critical role of welp, weighing me down. I just had to include this particular shot because Haddie made me chortle. Loudly.

Why would we want to train for such a thing?

a) We are m@sochists

b) I want to confirm the “Crazy” in “Canuck”

c) We think summiting this will be fun
d) All of the above

e) a and b above

And the answer would be ‘e.’ So why do it if we don’t think it will be fun?

Well, why do we choose to endure nine months of hell and multiple hours of labor? For the views and rewards in the end, of course! Unless, that is, you’re puking your guts out at the summit.

Colorado has 54 mountains over 14,000 feet high. Someone, somewhere decided it would be cool to start a demented little club to challenge folks to climb them. Jamie and I are members of Said Club of Dementia. Because even though I love hiking, I do not love climbing 14ers. My smile at this 14,267-foot summit?

It is fake. We then went on to summit another 14er that same day. There are no photos atop that second mountain for a reason.

We hope the snow will be melted enough to make our latest attempt at the end of June. So why the rigorous training schedule we have implemented?

a) Two words: deathbed repentance.

b) The only exercise Jamie gets these days is yard work.

c) It ticks me off that even though I workout daily, he still blows me away. At least if he is in shape, I will have an excuse for the butt whipping….

d) All of the above

And the answer, of course, would be ‘d’….