Our favorite hikes…so far!

In the last three months, we’ve done dozens of hikes in five mountain states. You’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for the comprehensive report on achievements in the first 100 days of our trip (such an artificial benchmark, I know, but the pundits insist!). In the meantime, I’d like to talk about a few of our favorite hikes so far.

You may be asking yourself, “What are the principal characteristics of Lorrie and Bob’s favorite hikes?” We discussed that very point as we put together our list yesterday on a hike in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains, talking while we hiked so that bears would hear our voices and avoid us. That’s the advice on all the many “Bear Aware” signs we’ve seen these last few weeks, and we also now carry bear spray, also per advice on the signs and from park rangers.

Here are our criteria, though few hikes meet all of them:

  1. A definite destination, preferably a scenic high mountain lake or overlook with great views.
  2. A mix of landscape, including shade for at least part of the hike. Attractive streams and wildflowers are a plus.
  3. Relative solitude, though we don’t insist on having the entire hike to ourselves.
  4. A loop is preferable to out-and-back, though some of our favorite hikes have been out-and-back.

And here are our favorite hikes so far (not ordered):

Paintbrush Canyon in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (13 miles). We biked to the trailhead from our campsite on Jenny Lake to avoid getting turned away at the overflowing parking lot, which also serves people playing on String Lake, where the hike starts. The trail climbs quickly into conifer forest with views of Leigh and String lakes, as well as the flat plain to the east. Rounding a bend where the trail meets a cascading stream, the trail enters the canyon proper and continues up alongside the stream, through meadows and small stands of trees. It crosses a couple of boulder fields, and then snow fields on the way up to Holly Lake, where there was snow all around and rising up the rocky peaks circling the lake (in late July!). We found a sunny and dry rock on the shore to have lunch before returning back down the trail and biking back to camp! Despite the crowded trailhead parking lot, we saw only about 20-25 hikers once we were on the trail, including three young women, sisters from Mississippi, who were traveling together for a couple of months and seemed to be having a lot of fun.

Muley Twists in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah (9 miles). It took some effort to get to this trailhead, which was in a different part of this long skinny park than our campsite located near the center. We drove about 50 miles, the last half on a dirt road, including up and over a set of steep switchbacks on the Burr Trail, that climb 800 feet to the plateau, and then four miles on a tricky and very rutted 4WD track to the trailhead. The hike itself is much easier! It starts in the dry river bed between red rock canyon walls and past three scenic arches. There are several short side-canyons to explore as well. At the halfway point, we climbed about 800 feet up to the rim and hiked back on the ridgeline, which gave great views of the Waterpocket Fold, one of the most important geological feature in the park, and a welcome breeze…this was a hot hike with no shade.

Crystal Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (10 miles). We did this as a day-hike from our backcountry campsite on the banks of the Roaring River. The trail starts in the woods and follows the river up to Lawn Lake, then higher still through wildflower meadows and across a few short snow fields to a group of three small lakes that collect the snow melt to give the Roaring River its source. High rocky walls form a semi-circle around the lakes, and our picnic spot afforded great views of the river valley opening up below.

Island Lake in the Beartooth Wilderness, Montana (12 miles). This hike starts at a small hydropower plant built in 1925 to capture water from the three-mile long Mystic Lake a few miles up the trail. We hiked through conifer forests then climbed up and across a large boulder field in a series of switchbacks. The “penstock” (roughly four-foot diameter pipe that carries lake water to the generators at the trailhead) is visible on the steep opposite side of the river for this first part of the hike, about three miles. The trail then goes over a point at the end of Mystic Lake and through the woods along the shore to meet a rushing stream from Island Lake, just beyond. We had lunch by Island Lake and considered a swim but decided the rain clouds were gathering too fast, so we returned back to the trailhead on the same trail and arrived minutes before the rain.

Observation Point in Zion National Park, Utah (5 miles). This is a popular hike in the park, and we shared the trail with many fellow hikers. It lacks the drama of the even more popular Angel’s Landing, which goes up a steep narrow ridge aided by chains, but we liked the way the trail circled its way to the point giving access to several different landscapes. The view from the top is superb, looking down on Angel’s Landing; it started snowing lightly while we were having lunch.

Bear Creek outside Ouray, Colorado (8 miles). This hike climbs quickly across scree to a point above the waterfall on Bear Creek, then follows the creek back into the mountains, at times on a narrow cliff ledge with steep walls above and below. A few miles in, we passed the abandoned Yellow Jacket mine, and the landscape changed to meadows and mixed aspen and conifer forests. We hiked to the abandoned Grizzly Bear mine, where we had lunch on a perch overlooking the confluence of three rushing mountain streams that join to form Bear Creek.

Ptarmigan Lake in the Collegiate Peaks National Forest, Colorado (7 miles). We found this hike in a book about the best hikes in Colorado, and that may explain why the trailhead parking lot was full. It starts at about 9,500ft above sea level on the road up to the Cottonwood Pass, climbing to Ptarmigan Lake, which sits above 12,000ft. We were surprised at the poor condition of the trail on the way up. We clambered over many downed trees, and the trail was only intermittently marked, so it was hard to follow. How had all those hikers whose vehicles we saw in the parking lot come through here? Still, the woods were nice, and we skirted a couple of small mountain lakes and then followed a pretty stream up into high meadows. Finally, after a lot of effort, we reached a series of small lakes, with Ptarmigan at the top affording great views of the Collegiate Peaks all around us. We had our picnic on a rock while watching three fly fishermen in the lake. The way back to the car was much easier, as we followed the real trail this time. We discovered once we reached the parking lot that the trailhead sign had been blocked by three church group vans that morning so we had missed it and taken an abandoned trail instead. Oh well…at least we made this a loop instead of out-and-back!

Fairyland in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah (9 miles). Much of Bryce Canyon is viewed from above, but this hike from our campsite on the rim took us on a winding loop down into the canyon where we could get up close and personal with the spires and fins now towering above us. There was no shade, but the day wasn’t hot (I think it even snowed briefly at one point), and there were far fewer people than at the overlook parking lots or more popular hiking trails into the canyon.

Scramble to the rim overlook from Keg Spring canyon on the Green River, Utah (2 miles). The “trailhead” was our campsite just up a small tributary of the Green River, accessible only by boat. Hiking up the canyon the previous evening, we noticed a place where the canyon walls were less sheer, and it seemed possible to scramble up to the rim. So before paddling on downriver, we decided after breakfast to give it a try! In fact, it was a relatively easy scramble, though over loose rocks in some places. Lorrie learned never to be directly below a climbing hiker when I accidentally dislodged a rock, and it crashed down the hill just barely missing her. Whew! Once we reached the rim, it was easy going, and we walked along the edge to get great views of the Green River…and the vast nothingness of the desert plateau in every other direction.

Two Oceans in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (6 miles). This is a loop trail around Two Oceans Lake, so-named because it sits on the Continental Divide. This hike takes the prize for wildflowers, vast fields of them, waist-high! We took pictures, but it doesn’t really show.


Honorable mentions:

Weirdest: Climbing Star Dune at Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado (6 miles). This hike meets none of our criteria for great hikes, but how often do you get to hike up a 750ft sand dune adjacent to 10,000ft snowcapped mountain peaks and a desert wetland? Our daughter Elise hiked it at night by a full moon!

Scariest: Bushwhacking from our backcountry campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado. Feeling cocky after backpacking up to our site and wanting a short afternoon hike, we looked at our map and noticed that a nearby stream begins about 1.5 miles away at Ypsilon lake above us. Surely, we could just follow the stream up to the lake. The hike started well, as the woods were fairly clear of undergrowth and easy to get through. As we climbed, it got more difficult, and we clambered over many downed trees and around boggy areas. But we persisted, thinking that the lake was just beyond the next rise…. After about 2 ½ hours, we came to a point where we could climb to a promontory above the stream and get a clear view. What we saw was quite a shock — dense forest rising in ridges in every direction and some high mountain peaks beyond. No sign of the lake…and about two hours of sunlight left. Clearly it would be madness to go farther, so we turned back…scrambling as quickly as we could back down beside the stream and arriving at camp just before dusk. Later, we realized that the main course of the stream we had followed at the beginning had joined together with a tributary shortly upstream, and we had followed the tributary much higher and away from the lake.

Buggiest: Photographer’s Point in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains (10 miles). This was a beautiful hike, climbing through woods, above small mountain lakes, and across meadows, to a promontory with great views of the Wind River Range, a waterfall, and a couple of lakes below. Unfortunately, we were ill-equipped for the swarming mosquitoes that accompanied us most of the way. We put on long-sleeved shirts and pants and applied repellent, which minimized bites, but we lacked netting for our heads that we saw on a few other hikers and a trail maintenance crew. We now carry them in our packs, and I’m glad to say we have not had to use them!

3 thoughts on “Our favorite hikes…so far!”

  1. wow. Sounds heavenly. Yes Bob: Your notes are a keeper even for those of us who don’t paddle to campsites or imagine hiking along the rim of a canyon, or hiking up and down and around for 13 miles . .

  2. Wow, what a wonderful time you are having. I think I shall have to file this to keep for doing some of these, starting with the one by Ouray which I have not done.

  3. Your commentaaries on your hikes are wonderful. Almost gave the old MA a heart attack seeing that you climbed to a ledge in Key Spring Canyon. Descriptions of the hikes are beautiful, almost makes me wish we were there. Take care, have dun and stay safe. Love you guys. MOM

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