Yesterday morning when I got to the trailhead and checked in, the ranger wished me well by saying, “Have fun.” I’ve heard that typical greeting many times before and often thought, “Yeah, right.”
For a long time my hikes weren’t really fun, but rather necessary exercise. In fact, on Thursday my muscles ached so much from the hike the day before that I thought I might have to cancel yesterday’s hike. I am so glad that I didn’t, because it was both real exercise and real fun.
I discovered as wonderful a trail as I have ever found and I was in an extraordinarily good mood for it, even though most people might have considered the weather to be chilly and windy. But it seemed absolutely appropriate for the alpine tundra vegetation I hiked through most of the way.
It’s called the Niwot Ridge Trail. Niwot is a famous name in this area, because it was the name of the last great Arapaho Indian chief. Niwot means left hand.
He gets credit for the great local hoax, quoted as saying that he uttered a legendary curse about the Boulder valley that, “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”
That didn’t pass my smell test in the same way that Chief Seattle never uttered the powerful ecological words so often attributed to him (a screen writer for an ecological movie wrote them in the early 1970s). So I researched the curse as much as I could, finally writing the local historian and novelist, Margaret Coel, a few years ago. She had written the standard biography of Chief Left Hand and answered me that, “The earliest mention of the curse that I found was in a newspaper article in the 1930s. I concluded that it was a myth, and therefore did not include it.”
Nonetheless, a lot of places around here are called Niwot or Left Hand. In addition to the trail I hiked yesterday I got a great view down to Lefthand Reservoir, although it was too dark for a good photo.
The first person I passed on the trail was an older man I saw when I got back down to Long Lake after eight hours and 18,000 steps. I had not met anyone or heard a human voice in all that time. When I told him that, he correctly guessed that I had hiked the Niwot Ridge trail and said, “Don’t tell anyone about it.” Since you are so far away, my secret is probably safe with you.
I got to the mountains about 7:30 and stopped first at Brainard Lake, elevation 10,300 feet. It’s right on a paved road and so is usually crowed, but there wasn’t anyone there when I arrived. Catherine and I had first gone there last summer, and I was reminded of her again, because it was so cold and windy that I put on a big old fleece jacket over the short-sleeve polo shirt that I had optimistically set off with. Catherine had bought me that jacket years ago and that I keep in Ruthie for just such an emergency. It looks like summer in the Rockies is almost over!
I drove on to the Long Lake trailhead, elevation 10,522 feet, and was relieved to find that the usually crowded parking lot was almost empty. The early hour and threatening weather might have had something to do with that fact!
I was wearing and much excited by my new Tilley hat that had arrived the day before. I have a large collection of half a dozen hats, but this promises to be my favorite. I have been looking for a hat with a large brim, and at four inches this may be the largest that anyone makes. I love the hat, but even with straps in back of my head as well as the usual chin strip, it got far too windy and I had to stuff it in my pack.
I wanted the large brim for sun protection in addition to the sunblock that I always use. Recently, Consumer Reports rated Neutrogena UltraSheer Dry-Touch Sunblocker SPF 45 as offering the most protection. So that’s what I use. I was surprised by the article’s recommendation, however, not to keep it in our vehicles, because high heat there can prematurely age it.
The trail leading from the one around Long Lake is so narrow and unmarked that I never would have found it without one of my hiking guides. It looks more like an animal track than a trail. But the first and last third or so of the trail wound up through dark pine forests it was really pleasant, most duff and few rocks. It reminded me of hiking in the Shenandoahs when I lived in D.C. and some of the hikes near Santa Cruz.
I started in Indian Peaks Wilderness, walked through a part of the (Teddy) Roosevelt National Forest, passing the last of the trees, which by then were short and obviously wind-beaten. Then somewhere above the treeline I reached the Niwot Ridge Biosphere Reserve, which, according to a sign on the trail said it “established in 1979 for the study of alpine tundra biota and landforms.” The University of Colorado and the U.S. Forest Service jointly manage it.
The trail grew fainter and fainter. Many times it disappeared entirely, and the only guide that I had to find my way was to look for the cairns (rock piles) every 100 feet or so that are the sole trail markers. It was at that point that I realized why the sign had said, “Stay on trails where they exist.” I love hiking cross country like this, and it was so easy on the tundra.
When I reached the ridge line, I could see down into a second beautiful valley, the one that I had seen from its other side on Wednesday. That valley is the watershed for the city of Boulder. A tundra ridge and two valleys in a six-mile hike is really something special!
At noon, just as I reached my destination at about 12,000 feet and sat down for a drink of water and an energy bar for lunch, it started to rain. The weather prediction, as usual for this time of year here, is afternoon thundershowers, but this was a little early. I put on my parka and sealskin gloves and started walking back down the ridge, keeping quite comfortable and even my face completely dry, because the wind was at my back. The rain stopped after half an hour, and fortunately it didn’t hail or snow. The sun even came out from time to time.
The views were magnificent, and along the way were wildflowers in the usual profusion for this time of year. They are all very small, because small and low things do best in the cold and wild. But I also saw some beautiful spotted red mushrooms in five or six places. One of them was 5 or 6 inches in diameter, the biggest I’ve ever seen, except for portobello mushrooms in the market.
I had so much fun on this solitary hike that I feel now that I am ready to go out for several days. For that I will need to get a new backpack, sleeping bag, and tent like I had 30 years ago. It’s a bit late in the season for this year, but I am planning ahead to have even more fun next year.