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Cow Creek Trails Via Gem Lake, Estes Park CO Hiked 11/16/13

28 Nov

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Gem Lake Trail> Cow Creek TrailHead

Starting Elevation:  7882 Ft

Highest elevation: 8830 Ft

Trail Length:  Officially we did 9.2 miles around trip, my Fitbit said we did close to 11 miles ( it took us approximately 5.5 hours)

Trail Uses:  Hiker only

Degree of difficulty:  I consider Gem Lake Moderate, after the floods I think there are many more strenuous parts. If you are going to Cow Creek I think difficult would make sense with all the ups and downs and distance.

Bathrooms: Yes at the trailhead parking lot

Pets: No Dogs allowed as this is all Rocky Mountain National Park

VIews on the way to Cow Creek

VIews on the way to Cow Creek

It had been just over 2 months since those devastating floods hit so much of our front range and no where was harder hit then Lyons as well as the most of the ways in to Estes Park.   I have been reading about the recovery and the how desperate things are in those hard hit communities for small businesses.  The amazing part is how quickly CDOT has managed to repair so many major arteries helping to get tourism back as quickly as possible, but for some businesses it is already too late.  That is why on this particular weekend I searched long and hard for a hike near both Estes Park and Lyons so that we could spend some money in each town trying to help out where we could.  What I didn’t expect was how hard it would be to find a trail we could get too that hadn’t been obliterated in parts or in total. Finally at 10:30 the Friday night before I saw that the Gem Lake/Lumpy Ridge Trail system was intact and not just the trail but the roads to get there was all open too.

Map of trail system

Map of trail system

I had wanted the trail to be more challenging but I also knew that I had a girls hike on Sunday so it was worth it just to get up there and spend some money in those towns.

The weather forecast wasn’t that great either, we had a small window before a nice snow storm hit Estes Park and a huge wind warning went into effect.  We maybe had until 2 when we left our house.  When we got to the trailhead it was already snowing and the wind was whipping up pretty good at 8AM.  But it was also so beautiful being both sunny and snowing with almost no cars in the parking lot – we took off.

Wind and storm coming in early

Wind and storm coming in early

The trail has taken quite a bit of damage from the floods but was still hike-able, although RMNP had put up “hike at your own risk” signs at the beginning.  We flew up the Gem Lake trail, when we got to the lake itself the wind was so hard it pulling off drops of water off the lake, turning it to ice which was pelting us as we walked by.  It was so fun to watch, not so great to walk through.  We went right past the lake to the next section of trail starting our long journey down to Cow Creek , what we didn’t expect was how flipping cold that wind would make everything.  I had a first on this hike…. I actually took off my pants on the hike to put on long underwear, thank goodness we didn’t see any traffic ….because that would have been quite a show.  It was crazy insane cold  taking off my pants but I can tell you it saved me for the rest of the hike.

Trail signage just past Gem Lake

Trail signage just past Gem Lake

One more trail break before Cow Creek

One more trail break before Cow Creek

After putting on those extra layers on, we started moving at a good pace but steadily down with a few small ups.  Having never done this part of the trail before, I can’t say for sure but it seemed like there was some damage from the floods it was still easily hike-able with little worry about a lot of risk. We did 2.8 miles out to the Cow Creek trailhead and then headed back.  I imagine the views on the way to Cow Creek are usually pretty astounding, but they were mostly obscured by the storm moving towards us.   Even so it was amazing to behold.

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Climbing back up to Gem Lake was beautiful and getting back to the lake was interesting in that the wind was twice as bad as it was a few hours before.  Once we pushed back through the wind, we hung out in the shelter of trees and rocks for a few minutes just to marvel at ferocity if the wind.

Snow blowing at Gem Lake

Snow blowing at Gem Lake

On the way down from Gem Lake we saw a lot more traffic but nothing like there is on a good day.  Upon finishing the hike, we quickly drove over to Estes Park and hit a few stores to spend as much as we could afford.  Those owners were crazy appreciative.

Driving back, I was able to be the passenger and take in the damage from the floods.  It was heartbreaking, I don ‘t know how all those people are coping and moving forward.  There were pieces of route 36 on the other side of the St.Vrain Creek, so much debris or trees with guard rails wrapped around them….. it was weird and sad and hopeful.

I don’t know if you ever find yourself close to these communities, but if you do please spend some money and help out these small businesses.  They are hanging on by threads and struggling to make it through this mess.  I caught a few pictures of the damage and a few favorites…….

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Me at Gem Lake on the way back… Man those winds are cold!

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Lion Gulch -Homestead Meadows, Lyons, CO 2/17/13

20 Feb
best view from Meadow loop

best view from Meadow loop

Lion Gulch #949 >  Griffith Homestead #979-2> Homestead Meadow Loop #971 > forest Road 120

Lowest Elevation: 7300 Ft

Highest Elevation: 8700Ft ( according to the Nike GSP watch Aaron wears) We think we had a total gain of 2000 ft with the ups and downs.

Trail Length:  The route we took got us 10 miles give or take a little

Trail Uses:  Hiker, biker, Horses, cross country skier

Degree of difficulty:  Moderate due to length and conditions

Bathrooms:  Yes at the trailhead

Pets:  Yes on leash only, and all the dogs were actually on leash which was a first.  This leads me to believe that there is strict enforcement of the rule.

Return trips views

Return trips views

I picked today’s hike from the Falcon Guide – Best Hikes Near Denver & Boulder for the Homestead Meadows hike.   What is really interesting about this particular hike is that the Meadow Loop itself is an outdoor museum that reflects those brave people who took advantage of the homestead act in the 1860’s.  The original hike suggestion has the hiker starting from Hermit Park Open Space which is privately owned and so has a fee associated with going in that way.  It also is not that tough of an elevation gain at just +720 and we didn’t do a tough elevation gain hike last week either, so I started reading as much as I could on the area and my options.  At the end of the hike description are some options and we took one of those which had us starting at Lion Gulch, this gave us an extra 2.1 miles with elevation gain of almost 1400, not counting the numerous ups and downs so it was closer to 2000 feet in total elevation gain.  It was exactly what we needed.

Lion Gulch & Homestead Meadows Information board

Lion Gulch & Homestead Meadows Information board

Map of the Homesteads you can visit.

Map of the Homesteads you can visit.

Our first view of the hike from the parking lot

Our first view of the hike from the parking lot

What is really cool about going this way is that those original homesteaders would use this exact path to go to and from Lyons and/or Estes Park to sell their goods or work.  I know all the trails have great history, but this one really stuck with me for some reason maybe it was their sense of adventure and hope.  It climbs up and over the creek, crossing it about 10 times, maybe more and in some places there is an option between the horse path and hiker path.  I loved this climb, it was constantly changing between challenging and easy both because of the elevation we were gaining and the snow/ice on the trail.

Hiker/Horse trail indicator

Hiker/Horse trail indicator

Starting to get snowy

Starting to get snowy

mostly snow

mostly snow

As we were getting closer to the top of our major climb, we came across the trail’s ice skating rink portion.  It’s not really mentioned anywhere on any hike description and was a surprise to every hiker that had to try to pass, fortunately we had brought our crampons so getting through it wasn’t nearly as tricky for us as it was for everyone else not similarly equipped.  It was our first time using them and man did they rock, going up was easy going while down was just ok.  Fortunately there was a group of scouts who came prepared and I was able to grab their rope before I bit it.  We think it actually prevented a lot of hikers from making it to the meadows above.

Aaron on the ice skating rick

Aaron on the ice skating rink

My turn ice skating

My turn ice skating

This is also where the trail starts to leave the creek with the beautiful tree cover and opens up in the meadows of the Homestead Meadow trails.

Homestead Trails

Homestead Trails

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After walking up to the main trail break we went to our right, to go past the Griffith homestead and then onto the meadow loop.  I would like to say it was all pretty easy to follow by the trail markers alone but it wasn’t, in fact I referred to my hiking book a lot to make sure we were going the right way for the hike we wanted.   Also this loop is not popular in the winter/spring, we had to walk through a lot of snow on the path and ours were often the only and first foot prints.

Trail MarkerMeadow Loop marker

After we went past the Griffith Homestead we started hitting  that snow and then got to use our gators also for the first time too, it was pretty exciting!  It made us feel like we knew what we were doing, well really like Aaron knew what he was doing because I couldn’t get these or the crampons on without his help.   Plus we were the only ones there, we had the whole loop to ourselves and we loved it!

Stove with view

Stove with view

Griffith homestead

Gators

Gators

The loop took us past the Brown Homestead and we could have gone to see the Irvine Homestead which has the most intact buildings on it, but we decided it was getting late, we had already covered 5 miles and needed to make sure that we could handle the return trip.  It gave us a reason to come back again to check out more of the homesteads.  Getting back to Lion Gulch was easier, that trail was well marked…

Lion Gulch #949

Lion Gulch #949

While there are some beautiful views to been seen once you get to the Homestead Meadows, they aren’t totally spectacular.  Strangely though it is now one of or favorites, the whole trail is just beautiful in its composition.  The way it winds along the creek through beautiful lodge pines and Aspens while the tops of the surrounding mountains are constantly peaking through.  It was really motivating and peaceful.  Then the meadows are rich in their feeling of history and perseverance of those brave people.  I have read it is a high traffic trail in the summer and fall, but it was not that crowded this weekend which is probably not when it is at its best but I loved the solitude we got to have while explored.  It is a great trail and I hope I can take more people through there in the future.   I will put our favorite pictures after the directions to the trailhead.

Directions:

From Lyons, take 36 towards Estes Park.  The parking lot and trailhead  are 12.3 miles from where 7 & 36 split right at mile marker 8 on the left side of the road.

The end of the ice is so close....

The end of the ice is so close….

Cool looking tree

Cool looking tree

View back towards Lion Gulch after reaching the next section of trail

View back towards Lion Gulch after reaching the next section of trail

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Nighthawk Trail – Hall Ranch 11/10/12

10 Nov

Nighthawk Trail > Out and Back

Starting Elevation:  5480 Ft

Highest Elevation:  6570 ft ( but there is a an additional 320ft loss then gain for a total Elevation gain of 1410ft)

Trail Length:  10.2 miles officially, unfortunately we took a wrong turn and so did a total of 12 miles today.  It took us 4hrs 20 minutes to complete.

Trail Uses:  Hiking and Horses only, no bikes on this trail but other trails here do allow bikes

Degree of difficulty:  Moderate to difficult – difficult mostly due to length

Bathrooms:  Yes at the beginning.

Pets:  Dogs are not permitted in Hall Ranch

Fees:  None

One of Aaron’s coworkers told us about these trails so many months ago, when I first looked at the trail options after hearing about it I didn’t think I could handle such a long hike.   Plus the elevation was not what we were looking for at the time so I kept in the back of my head as the perfect hike for fall, winter & spring.  Now that the higher hikes seem out of reach for us ( mostly because we are wimps) it seemed time to do this one. For the past 3 weeks we have tried to do this hike with various things stopping us, this weekend was proving to have the same chance of letting the trail thwart us.   There was a snow storm coming to the mountains today with some hitting the foothills, this hike is right on the edge of the foothills and the mountain ranges that were supposed to get hit.   All week I stalked every weather site I could find in hopes it would change enough to let us do this hike and yesterday I saw our chance, every thing was saying no snow or rain until 1PM.

We left at 6AM hoping we would get enough time to finish the hike before the storm set in and as we got to the top of the hill on 36 where you can see Boulder down in the valley before you, we saw this:

It was pretty beautiful after an amazing sunrise, it was both a good and bad sign….good because there was still some sky showing for the sun to make it happen and of course rainbows are good luck! But bad because obviously it was raining which was not supposed to happen until 1PM!

When we got to the trailhead, the rain had stopped and it looked a little lighter so we bundled up and started off.  The landscape was so different then what we had experienced on other hikes in this area, all the cacti with the red mud and dirt I love the variety!  The trailhead had something I have not yet seen:

This is so cool!  Yay Boulder Open Space for embracing social media in such a fantastic way!  Also note that if it was muddy and you get there after 10am choose a different path…..

As for the trail, there are 2 parking lots, the one that is just a little higher up really is at the trailhead but it is not all that large and you might have to park in the lower lot if it is full.  Which is ok because the trail at the west end of the lower lot goes up to the Nighthawk Trail as well.  We were lucky enough to get there at 7:30 so there were only 2 other cars in the top lot.  The Bathroom is up here as well. As a warning all my pictures are with my iPhone, with the weather changing so quickly  I didn’t want to take out my camera, these aren’t very good quality and it really shows when I tried to zoom.

The Trail itself is super well marked, there is never a question which trail you are on.  It is also almost completely exposed with little to no tree cover but I bet in the spring and summer the colors are something to see, I know I will have to come back to check it out then.   Based on the trails we have hit in the past 8 months, my guess is that this is usually a high traffic trail during spring and summer but today it was almost just us, the deer and rabbits….. so many deer and rabbits!  I think we saw 6 or 7 separate herds of deer and they were all along the trail constantly crossing it.

At about 4.5 miles we came to the Button Rock trailhead, which is a 2 mile outcrop that leads to other trails not all part of Hall Ranch.  I think that if the weather had been different this is where we would have seen Long’s Peak and Mt Meeker, but with the snow starting and with the clouds getting thicker, we were lucky to see any mountains at all.

Stay straight on Nighthawk and you will come to a crossroads very quickly

Again stay straight and you meet up with the bike trail and Nelson’s Loop by a bench, here is the 4.7 mile mark.  If you are done turnaround and head back.

We felt really good at this point, so we went on to try to see Nelson’s ranch to get the full 10.2 miles round trip which should have been just .4 miles ahead.  Unfortunately we went left instead of staying straight on Nelson Loop and about half a mile too far we realized we did it wrong so we turned around and headed back.  It was on the way back we saw Nelson’s Ranch exactly where it should be.  It was also snowing pretty hard now so we picked up our pace and the iPhone only came out one more time for a few pictures of Aaron and I when the weather let up a little.

This is a great hike, it has a stamina building length along with lots of ups and downs to work the legs.  I bet on less snowy weather heavy days, the views are pretty awesome.  One thing I did notice was the mud on the way down, it wasn’t too bad but it was getting worse by the minute with the snow falling.  I am sure this is why there is that “check the trail conditions” sign before you go at the beginning.  I would stay away if it was a wet week or a wet day as the mud would wear you down quickly.  Either way, we plan on doing this one again in a different season.

The directions will be after the few pictures we got that we liked, with the iPhone.

Directions:

Take 36 North through Boulder onto Lyons.  At the junction with 66 turn left.  Drive through the town of Lyons at the T intersection ( SH 7 and  36) turn left on to SH7  and take it approximately 1.5 miles to the entrance of Hall Ranch park it will be on your right.