Pine Valley Ranch February 2020

It’s been a wintry one in Denver so far, which bodes well for us wintry types. In my last post, I celebrated the unexpected snow day for the educator. In this post, I’m going to share a few words and images of snow hiking in Pine Valley Ranch, one of many of Jefferson County’s Open Space Parks, the jewels of the Front Range.

Pine Valley Ranch sits about an hour south and west of Denver along the 285 corridor. It is adjacent to the Buffalo Creek trails, which are very popular with mountain bikers in warmer climes. Back when I was a serious mountain biker, I would pilgrim to these trails for my birthday ride.

Pine Lake at Pine Valley Ranch. Look closely to see hockey players creating a rink.
Winter designations

There were only a handful of cars in the parking lot when we arrived around noon after filling up on provisions at the local gas stations. My hiking partner and I had brought our snowshoes, but the couple leaving said the trail was tamped down well enough to just wear spikes, or in my case, Yak Tracks. The trail starts out easy enough, with a short beautiful walk around the park’s lake, where we passed ice fishers and hockey players, all in their designated spots. We decided to add a little strenuousness to the trail, opting to head into the Buffalo Creek trails, which I knew would provide us with some elevation.

We headed along the south end of the lake to the Buck Gulch trail

Buck Gulch, part of the National Forest Service and Buffalo Creek trails, wends it way through fire-ravaged forest from the Hi Meadow fire 20 years ago.

Fire ravaged snowy landscape

The hike up Buck Gulch was a burner for both the thighs and lungs, as well as a visual delight of rock outcroppings, black sticks for trees, fallen logs, hearty pines–all against an indigo backdrop.

Dead sticks among the living
Winter palette

Our original plan was Buck Gulch–Skipper Trail–Strawberry Field trail. I have mountain biked this route dozens of times, but the 600 ft. in elevation gain in the first two miles of Buck Gulch meant it was slow-going. Plus, we were trudging along on metal coils, not rolling along on tires. Ninety minutes in, I realized I had left my poles at the last pit stop, and we took stock in our options: original, intended route with only 5 hours of daylight left or measure our wins and turn around?

Point of return, head back the way we came

Smarter heads prevailed, as we determined that snow hiking 4 miles in 3 hours in quiet, serene National Forest was as good as it was going to get. We turned around.

Just snow and trees
The drive home along Platte River Road: Boulders in the South Platte

Snow days for educators mean work a little, sleep a little, watch something brainless, shovel, drink hot chocolate, and if you can, get out into your neighborhood for some kick-and-glide with a good friend. Three miles around Sloan’s Lake for some bonding, meditation, exercise, and quiet beauty.


I have snowboarded and cross-country skied Eldora but never hiked it. Today was a spectacular day of fall colors, cool mist, springy, light hail, and solid friendship along the Lost Lake Trail near Nederland, Colorado.

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Two months since my last post. Damn. I got a new job, and although it’s awesome, it’s taking up some serious time.

Spring Break is next week, and I’ve got a solid 12 days off. Three to four of those days will be spent on schoolwork, and the other either finding some R & R relaxing and pounding my body back into shape. I’ve been watching weather patterns all season even though we’ve had an anemic snowseason here in Colorado, there are other awesome snowboarding destinations less than 10 hours away. To wit: Utah, New Mexico and yes, even northern Arizona. (OK, a little more than 10 hours away.)

I opened my season at Wolf Creek in October, and I very may well end my season there. On Wednesday, March 28, Wolf Creek is running its Local Appreciation Day and selling lift tickets for $33. If there’s new snow, I’m beelining my way down there. I’ll be watching powdermeister Joel Gratz’s OpenSnow for accurate forecasts.

If snow is not forthcoming to Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, or Wyoming (hello, Grand Targhee!), then I’m off to the Four Corners area for some mountain biking, hiking, and sleeping among the snakes and scorpions.

Read about SheSpoke’s surfing adventure in Sayulita from spring break four years ago.


This jaunt is not for the meek or for those prone to altitude sickness. But, it is a great workout and pretty scenic if you make it all the way to the top and it’s not blizzarding out. Parking will now cost you $5 at the self-serve lot, which also sports a port-a-potty for the colonically inclined. This is a good addition to the area and is worth the five bucks.

It's less windy down by the trees

The elevation starts out at 10,500 and the less-than-a-mile snowshoe to the top will take you some time. This is windy terrain, folks, and the snow gets crusted over. Still, it’s a beautiful, serene jaunt about an hour west of Denver. It’s perfect for getting your snowsports in when the snow is just not happening, like it’s not thus far this season.

You can never be too prepared for a snowshoe up a glacier. Snowshoeing will warm you up, fer sure, but bring your warmest mittens, thickest wool socks, gators, and 2-3 layers on the torso and legs. Bring a wind shell for the outer layer. It can get nasty up there.

Still a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon, as my friends and I did a few weeks ago…

To get to St. Mary’s Glacier: Head west along I-70 from Denver and follow the signs. Begin to look in earnest after Idaho Springs. If you hit the Eisenhower Tunnel you haven’t been paying attention and you’ve gone too far.

It’s less than ten miles from the exit to the trailhead. And a very beautiful ten miles at that.

Read about another high-altitude adventure from SheSpoke: conquering the back bowls at Vail.


Readers-

I know I owe you the final installment of Day 3 of my snowboarding, mountain biking, exploring, and hot springing trip down to and through the San Luis Valley last month. But before I wrap that baby up, I wanted to interlude with a recount of my first-ever 50+ miles on a road bike. Since I began road riding six months ago, I have been looking for the kind of pain and gain that I get from mountain biking. I was able to find such pain/gain in late September at the Colorado National Monument, but until two weekends ago I had yet to feel the aches in my backside, groin, hamstring, and calves that tells my body it’s getting worked, and worked good.

Well, the nice young lady who lent me my road bike knows I like pain. So she invited me up to the farmlands of eastern Colorado, to ride the Poudre River Trail, a network of trails in and around Greeley, Windsor, and skirting just along the southern edge of Ft. Collins. (Note: at the time of this riding, the trail was closed due to fallen branches from the latest snow storm.)

The 50 miles were flat miles, so the distance was going to be the thing. We got a mid-morning start and headed out with water bottles and things that pack calories but don’t actually taste like food. These are the staples of road riding, as it is not cool to actually wear a Camelbak or pack too much when road riding. Someone wrote somewhere the road bikers are overly concerned with their silhouette and pesky water supplies just ruin your otherwise divine outline against the sky. Whatever.

The thing about road rides is unmarked, unseen obstacles can really ruin your day (or week), so we dismounted where the tracks dictated that we had to.

Them's cornfields ahead

Now folks who didn’t grow up in a state the size of a national park cannot appreciate the wonderment with agriculture and ranching that those of us who did have. So I insisted that we stop, play children of the corn, and frolic a bit among the decaying vegetables. 

 

Farms this big just don’t exist in Rhode Island, and I couldn’t pass up even this tiny little offshoot adventure.

My playmate frolicking around

 

Grasshoppers were covering the ground, crunching beneath our cleated feet, so we got back to our original adventure.

Now flat and brown is not usually my idea of fun. I’m from roly-poly, leafy New England and that topography and those colors have framed my aesthetic. But since moving to Colorado 16 years ago and since spending two of them in ranchland, I’ve allowed my aesthetic to be bended and molded by my more recent surroundings. Nuances of yellow, brown, taupe, tan, and other neutral-farming colors I have come to appreciate as beautiful. How mature and accepting of me.

Pretty, huh?

Back on the well-paved but sparsely populated bikeway (was it really a Saturday?), we wended our way through new developments with their curvy streets, overpriced cookie-cutter dwellings with oversized garages, and plenty of white folk and little else. These are the places that beg me to poke fun–the realization of the American dream has apparently culminated in hues of our least favorite color–brown and has been completely stripped of personality and vivacity. My mind was going on and on thus, until I saw the beach.

That’s right. The beach on the plains of Colorado:

The beach

 

Now making fun of how they imported sand, cattails, reedy things, and rocks just to keep the vegetation grounded during the next flood is also too easy. It smacks of the The Truman Show or Celebration, FL . There’s something insidious about these ready-made communities, and insidious is just too easy of a target.

Truth is: I would totally surrender my sanctimony regarding what it means to live well to be able to kayak or swim or fish or sunfish out my back door. Seeing the beaches put a big ol’ pang in the stomach as I remembered my recent, awesome kayaking adventures last fall at Worden Swamp and this summer at Point Judith Pond. How amazing would it be to end each day instead of being limited to a bike ride or one of those horrible jogging things and instead have the opportunity to paddle, swim, contemplate and fish, balance, sail, or oar it up?

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The cycling pace had been quite leisurely as we stopped for a few minutes to stock up on caffeine. The idea of lunch was bandied about, and as secure as I am in how I look, the thought of sitting down for lunch in Spandex was beyond my comfort zone. And this is a comfort zone I think everyone but dirty old men are glad exists.

My cycling partner promised we would click in and never leave the big chain ring for the last ten miles, which meant more power with each stroke and (finally!) some soreness.

Hours later I was joking about how tired I wasn’t. Until I tried to walk up the stairs and my leaden legs needed to be coyly coaxed up every step.

Thanks, road biking, for getting difficult. And thanks, Windsor exclusive community for having a beach and making me rethink before I make fun. Sort of.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Normally Day 2 would follow Day 1 of a road trip, so here goes: On Day 2 SheSpoke awoke in a dank and dark smoke-stained room of an overpriced motel In Monte Vista, Colorado. (It was the only room available for miles.) She had spent more than a few hours of the previous evening researching the weather and camping options at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Cold and rainy. And by cold I mean sub-freezing and by rain I mean occasionally hardened into little sleetovals or even hail.

Now, SheSpoke is hardcore. She has camped out in single digits, blizzards, and really un-awesome conditions. But SheSpoke turned 40 last year and even though she’s got an extra coating (thanks to hormones and a slowing metabolism), camping out alone in weather that makes driving dicey is no longer her idea of a good time.

The paved path to some historical tidbits

So as she drove east toward the Great Sand Dunes with dreams of sandboarding, she spied the familiar sheet of white in the sky, touching not-so-daintily down to the ground. This forced her to look west, which were boasting clear skies.

The southern end of the San Luis Valleydidn’t look much better and SheSpoke knew the northern end led to a mountain pass, so west it was. When in doubt, it seems, head west.

Looking south down the San Luis Valley

SheSpoke had spent all of her morning and some of her afternoon recounting the amazing powder day she had at Wolf Creek Ski Area the previous day, so she was feeling more indoors than outdoors, on this particular day.

But outdoors was what was in store, so she turned the Subaru around and headed west to drier but certainly not warmer climes.

A few hours of daylight lay ahead, which meant setting up camp in Penitente Canyon, across the valley to the west, would be done with relative ease.

Alas, although SheSpoke has lived for many years with just a fireplace or a wood stove as the only means of not-central heating, she had trouble getting the campfire going and missed the brilliant luminescence that the San Luis Valley usually provides as it ducks under the western horizon. Still, she snapped a phone picture before sunset and was glad the clouds were moving quickly east.

After a tenacious half-hour, the fire got going and the pierogies got hot and the tea got started. SheSpoke ate about 3 meals in one that day in anticipation of a cold night and a physically demanding day on Day 3 of the road trip.

Almost sunset in the San Luis Valley. Sangre de Christos across the valley

Some time after sundown as SheSpoke was poring over maps of the San Luis Valley the coyotes started some eerie karaoke. SheSpoke drifted off until 8AM the next morning. A good 12 hours of camping sleep.

The next morning was prep time for a bike ride she had been anticipating since the prior spring on her last trip to Wolf Creek. She had heard about this trail years before from some blokes riding about on the trails in Durango. It was time to see what mountain biking Penitente Canyon was all about.

At the main trailhead I met up with Justin, who worked in the Forest Service in the nearby town of Sagauche (pronounced sa-watch). SheSpoke has been to Sagauche many times, as it is the gateway to beautiful Crested Butte, if one is into driving the backroad of Colorado Highway 114  and mountain biking the Continental Divide along the way. Buffalo Pass Campground is a cheap ($5) option for an overnight stay on 114. Driving into Sagauche one encounters some super cool topography:

Sagauche, straight ahead

On to the ride. Justin told me the way to go, as detailed trail maps can only be gotten from the Forest Service office in Sagauche, which was closed on this Columbus Day. The Loop A trail is north of the climbing trailhead and Grand Central of this particular outdoorsy playground. You ride for a mile or two on dirt road and just as you begin to wonder if you’re going the right way, a singletrack appears to your left.

Flecks of white appeared 50 yards away and even though my horror film warning light went off, I abandoned the trail, drawn to the out-of-place colors in the earth-tone palette of Penitente Canyon:


Horrifyingly, this little ball of fur was just a few yards away:

Hey, dude! You dropped your coat.

Folks overuse the word haunted quite a bit. But that’s how my ride started that day, until I came across more petrified bone, this one all eaten up and holey:

Holey bones!

But rides are made to be ridden, so I set off with the kind of singlemindedness that hedge-fund managers would envy. I wanted to ride.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Day 3 of this Road Trip.

Read about Day 1 here.