Vail Valley Word-Class Wilderness

Filed in Expert Articles, Hiking Articles by on November 10, 2013

TWG_story_hiking17imgHave you ever looked out at a magnificent mountain scene and wondered about how it all got there?

Imagine yourself on a cool crisp summer morning, well organized and taking your first steps onto the hiking trail. The first rays of sunlight dapple the surrounding peaks and you are on your way to visit a magnificent alpine lake. From the lake you’ll climb even higher to a pass at an elevation of 12,000 feet. From here you’ll be able to view the dramatic alpine landscapes on two sides revealing hundreds of summits both far and near.

One reason the Colorado high country is such a fantastic place to hike is the diversity in landscapes, plants, and animals that are encountered as you gain elevation. Keep your eyes peeled, and your senses alert to catch some fascinating natural treasures along the way.

Consider that your first steps onto the trail are at a starting elevation near 10,000 feet. You are starting out in a cool thick shady sub-alpine forest where little sunlight reaches the forest floor and there are occasional snow patches in the shady recesses beneath the towering spruces and firs.

Like many trails in our local wilderness, this one follows an historic path that gold miners once used in the late 1800’s. Imagine teams of fifty mules tethered together carrying supplies in and packing valuable ore out. These trails often parallel a creek because this is usually the natural route up a mountain valley where the traveling is easiest. Fortunately, these areas surrounding creeks are often very scenic to boot.

As your trail veers away from the creek, you notice for the first time that it is perfectly silent. You breathe quietly and take in the calm of the scene. The stillness, the silence, and the solitude instill a sense of oneness between you and this magnificent earth. You sense rejuvenation because everything around your represents peace, harmony and balance. We all find nature to be so calming and rejuvenating because it’s where humans came from long ago.

You take a moment to reflect on the word recreation. It is like re-creation. What is it we’re trying to re-create? By picnicking outside in a beautiful scene, or by sitting peacefully on a smooth sun-warmed boulder on the side of a tumbling mountain stream with our eyes closed, we are re-creating what once was; a time when humans lived within the balance of nature, with both the goodness, and harshness that living in nature provides.

You snap out of this dreamy state, and realize that you have become perfectly still and quiet. Yes, the wilderness therapy is working to bring you to deep relaxation. A soft twittering and peeping of tiny birds comes into your range of hearing. Guided by the sound you start scanning the nearby trees. You notice a flitting high above in the crown of a nearby spruce tree, the tiny birds twittering to each other as if they’re having a conversation while foraging for food. Although you can make out black, white and gray colors on the birds, it is difficult to tell which species they are until one of them lets out a very clear “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” Very handy for identification, the chickadees actually tell you their name, but only if you are willing to listen.

While holding perfectly still and observing the chickadees, a few fly into a nearby pine and begin foraging within the needles. They are gleaning insect larvae, spiders, seeds and other food on their travels. Upon close inspection you notice two distinct patterns on the chickadee’s heads. One has an all black crown while the other has a clear white eyebrow. You just discovered the difference between a black-capped and a mountain chickadee. Good job.

Feeling satisfied that you are able to observe these birds with your naked eyes, you ponder the uniqueness of birds, and how feathers are like nothing else, and how personal flight must be just so awesome.

Without moving you notice there is yet another sound, a faint, “seet” high-pitched in a hoarse raspy voice. Again letting your ears guide your eyes to the source of the sound, you realize that there is a small cryptically-colored brown bird creeping its way up the trunk of a nearby spruce. To your amazement, it swoops down to the base of a tree less than ten feet away. You delight at the little twitters and peeps that the bird makes. These tiny sounds are how birds stay in communication with one another while moving through a forest.

With your attention focused on the tiny bird methodically hopping up the tree trunk, you have a realization that this bird is gleaning insects and larvae from crevices in the bark. It becomes obvious that the thin downward curved bill of this bird is specialized for reaching into little nooks within the bark. This quiet inconspicuous bird will only be noticed by those who hold still, listen and observe. This is the price of admission to view the brown creeper, a year round resident in our local forests.

Feeling further satisfaction that the birds seem to be coming right to you, you take a big swig of water and push on up the trail. It feels great to get and early start, so you can stop along the way and take it all in.

While huffing and puffing your way up a steep section of trail, a loud nearby rattling noise catches your ear seemingly scolding you from above. Looking up to a bare branch about twenty feet away, there complaining is a perky little pine squirrel holding a cone between his front feet, with his tail curled up above his body as if he were shading himself with a canopy. A close look reveals a crisp furry white ring rimming his glossy black eye. You look at him in a non-threatening way, and he pauses then resumes his business of chewing apart his pinecone and extracting the seeds.

While observing this seemingly simple scene, you notice how the squirrel’s eyes are located far to the sides of its face. Your mind wanders to an interesting trait that animals and birds that are potential prey have evolved with eyes positioned for maximum peripheral vision, so they can keep an “eye-out” for predators. Predators on the other hand have eyes positioned close together to give them precise binocular vision to pin-point prey. Some animals, like humans, are both predator and prey.

Suddenly your feeling of connection with nature seems especially inspirational. As you absently reach for your water bottle, a smattering of pink and white on the forest floor catches your eye. Nestled a few feet off of the trail at the foot of a large pine is a clump of magnificent little flowers. Carefully you tip-toe through the fragile forest and kneel before the little jewels. Wow! Fairy slipper orchids- you had heard about them, but now they’re before you in real life. A shaft of light illuminates the flower patch as if it were a mysteriously appearing shrine. This deserves a photo you think to yourself, and you reach into your pack for your camera. Delighted with the macro setting and zoom features on your camera, you compose a one-of-a-kind image immortalizing this moment in time.

“My gosh!” You think to yourself, “I had better get going.” Now the sun is well up into the sky and it is starting to get warmer. You decide to take off a layer of clothing and put on some additional sunscreen. As you fumble through your pack a giant chocolate bar with toffee chips randomly appears in your hand. “Plenty for lunch too,” you think to yourself and quickly justify a large hunk broken from the corner of the chocolate bar. It’s early in the day for chocolate by most people’s standards, but hikers get to bend the rules. Uphill hikers need fuel, and of course chocolate tastes fabulous.

Checking your watch you realize that you just spent ten minutes on this break alone. Boldly, you remove your watch from your wrist, and place it in a zipped compartment of your pack. Rarely does one need exact time in the backcountry. Thinking like a wild animal, you arrive at a conclusion that animal time is divided into major segments: dawn, mid-morning, high noon, late afternoon, sunset, and finally the blackness of night. Relieved at the thought that the more scary animals are active mainly at night, you press on. As your mind wanders you begin to visualize a mountain lion pouncing on you from behind. “Unlikely” you think to yourself, “Probably a better chance of being struck by lightening,” then you shudder at the thought because lightening is always a potential threat for anyone hiking in high places.

Your heart is pounding in your ears and you’re breathing hard because the uphill is continuous, and even though it is so beautiful, you keep pressing on because you feel you need to keep covering ground. Your muscles are warm, and you’ve broken a light sweat. The burning you felt in your thighs and calves has now given way to a feeling of strength. “I feel good,” you think to yourself.

While hiking along hard, images of predators creep back into your thoughts. A haunting image of a coyote latched onto your ankle pops into your head. You snap out of it and think, “ludicrous, it is a fact that coyotes do not attack humans”. Nonetheless the haunting image continues to flash in your head. Looking down at the ground daydreaming in a trance while moving along quickly on a flatter stretch of trail, your heart suddenly jumps out of your chest, and a chill creeps up your spine as you let out a startled gasp as your brain sends its first image of a large-furry-thing ahead. You let out a chuckle of relief upon realizing that it is just an innocent mule deer grazing on lush green vegetation beside a precious little brook. The motionless deer stares back at you, and upon assessing the situation decides to slowly tiptoe into the cover of the surrounding forest.

“See,” you say to yourself, “I know there’s animals here.” You now sense the wilderness, that vast void between you and anyone else that would respond to the cry for help. “Keep going,” you think to yourself, and giggle a bit at how the deer startled you.

Pressing on you come to a log that crosses over a six-foot wide stream. For a moment you envision yourself bumbling on the log and falling into the swift water. A vision of tumbling with a pack, camera, and clothing over the rocky stream bottom seems really undesirable. Then the fleeting vision is replace by a feeling of confidence as you start across the log focusing on the other shore, while consciously not looking at the moving water. Reaching the opposite bank safely, you turn back and contemplate the balance beam you just crossed. “Agile as a kid,” you joke to yourself while congratulating yourself on the big crossing.

You assess the trail and the landscape ahead and see rugged peaks seemingly rising straight up on the skyline ahead. The landscape is opening up a bit with green lush vegetation, meadows, streamlets, and clumps of pine, spruce, and fir. You make your way up the trail climbing beside a picturesque rushing mountain stream surrounded by grasses, sedges, flowers and shrubs. A real mountain paradise you think to yourself. The landscape is accented by outcroppings of smooth rock and occasional giant boulders that are remnants of the last ice age.

You make a connection between the glacial period, and the current day landscape. You visually survey the landscape ahead and determine that where those giant snowfields hang onto the mountainsides above, once were glaciers. Alpine glaciers carved out the basin for the lake, and melting snow now feeds the lake with cold clear water.

You pause and take in the beauty of a little four-foot waterfall. Upon closer examination you see vibrant fucia colored flowers lining the edges of the falls. “Can’t pass this up,” you think to yourself as you pull out your camera. You carefully walk over to the water’s edge and compose a shot of the vibrant Parry’s primrose flanked by white bunches of bitter cress, and yellow-eyed white petal flowers of the marsh marigold. After snapping a few choice photos, you pack your camera away then break off some young tender leaves of the marsh marigold. The leaves look similar to spinach leaves and can be eaten raw like salad greens. Satisfied with the tangy greens, you begin working your way up the trail once again.

Suddenly a sharp single-note whistle catches your attention, and you look up to see a chubby marmot perched atop a large boulder looking down at you. Marmots are the largest members of the squirrel family, and can often be seen sunning themselves on rocks, and foraging through vegetation. Like other squirrels, there is a lot of chasing of one another going on.

After enjoying the antics of the local marmots, you continue on your way sensing the lake is near. You hike to the top of a roll in the landscape, and there it is. Sparkling sunlight glittering off of the water’s surface welcomes you to this magical pristine little lake nestled in the heart of the rugged mountains. To lay back in the thick grassy turf on the edge of an alpine lake is to truly bring peace upon yourself. Your senses are heightened as you quiet yourself and hold still in this awesome landscape.

Your eyes wander above where some large puffy cumulous clouds have formed backed by brilliant deep-blue sky. Following your ears, your eyes make their way to a tiny braided six-foot waterfall, ooh, there’s another. You prop your backpack against a small boulder, and create a makeshift lounge chair. While sitting on your jacket and leaning against the cushion of the backpack, you contemplate your good life and the good fortune that has brought you here on this exceptional day.

Without warning, there is a loud “Swoosh!” of air and you look up to see a huge dark image of a golden eagle rising at high speed from a talus field across the way. There is lots of shrieking coming from the rock piles as the eagle ascends with prey squirming in its talons. The loud “meeeps” are coming from pikas which are tiny creatures related to rabbits that inhabit rock piles near and above timberline. For the next few seconds it seems like every pika and marmot in the valley is screaming.

Golden eagles are master hunters equipped with amazing vision that can spot small prey from a mile away. This particular eagle descended from high above with great speed and its approach concealed by a roll in the terrain just above the boulder field. Goldens weigh about twelve pounds and sport an impressive wingspan of seven feet. You feel blessed to have witnessed this mighty raptor working the pika patch.

The final hike to the pass is less than a mile away, and seven hundred vertical feet to climb. Figuring it will probably take another hour to reach the pass, you continue making your way crossing many one-foot wide streams along the way. The wildflowers are stunning with red sprays of Indian paintbrush, pink mountain heath, yellow arnica, and purple sky pilot. The stream banks are loaded with natural bouquets of brilliant colorful flowers arranged to perfection.

As you begin to ascend above treeline at an elevation of 11,500 feet the views of the lakes, ponds, and streams below are breathtaking. The vistas are so dramatic that they could never be captured on film. Catching your breath you look out to take it all in, your head swirling a bit from the thin air. An eerie feeling sweeps across you as you sense out of the corner of your eye that the surrounding lichen-covered rocks are beginning to move. You snap out of it and realize that you are standing next to five plump little ground birds called white-tailed ptarmigans. These fascinating birds only live near and above treeline and rely on perfect camouflage to keep them concealed. The ptarmigans continue to peck and pull at the vegetation as they quietly walk away.

“What an amazing adventure this has been,” you think to yourself with all of the birds, animals and magnificent scenes that you have encountered so far. You catch your breath while looking above at the rocky trail that zig-zags back and forth leading to the pass. You mentally prepare yourself for the final grunt to the top.

Upon reaching the top of the pass, you feel a rush of pure joy, sensing that you are at the top of the world. Leaning against your hiking stick you gaze out at the 360-degree scene. There are three mountain ranges in sight, hundreds of individual peaks, several lakes and multiple streams all set before you.

Looking down at your feet among the soft lush grass are hundreds of yellow, purple, red, pink, and cream colored flowers bobbing in the cool breeze. “Remember this scene,” you say to yourself. “On days when this world we live in does not seem so peaceful, remember this scene.”

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