This story was created on the land of the Ute Native American Tribe
Summer is a special time in Colorado. Places that have been largely inaccessible throughout the winter start to thaw out and nature trades fields of shimmering snow for meadows of vivid wildflowers. The cold grasp of winter gives way to warmth and we exchange our snow pants and ski boots for shorts and hiking boots. There is a buzzing excitement for warm summer nights spent watching the sunsets and staring up at the stars. There is anticipation for the new places we will discover and see with our own eyes for the first time. It’s a special feeling, and one that no other season brings in quite the same way.
These are the thoughts that were on my mind as my friend Alex and I drove west in search of that special feeling. There was a place in Eagle’s Nest Wilderness he’d been wanting to visit after seeing it from the highway for years. Neither of us had ever been there, and it looked like it may offer some of the most stunning alpine views in the state. After a few hours in the car, we reached an overcrowded trailhead, donned our heavy overnight packs, and set off.
It wasn’t long before the trail turned sharply uphill and stayed that way for a very long time. Up, up, and up we went. We’re both fairly experienced backpackers but this trail was, well, character building. Finally, the terrain relented and we stopped to rest for a few minutes. I had a fresh peach in my bag that I’d been looking forward to all day and decided that now was the time. Something about eating a peach in a Colorado pine forest just feels so, so right. It gave me the exact amount of serotonin (and calories) I needed to keep on going.
Luckily, the next stretch wasn’t nearly as brutal and we made good time, meandering through the woods, stepping from rock to rock, and crossing the occasional stream. There was one more big uphill push and then at last, we reached our destination for the night, a crystal clear, emerald green alpine lake that occupied a large portion of the basin we’d just stepped into. It was surrounded on three sides by towering peaks and jagged ridgelines, and on the fourth side was an expansive view of an entirely different mountain range.
After setting up camp, it wasn’t long before we were immersed in the chilly alpine water, soaking our tired legs. However, I quickly realized that I’d gotten too excited and jumped in the lake wearing the only pair of shorts I’d brought along. We laughed about it and then I accepted it as an invitation to spend some more time laying in the sun to dry off.
Calm evenings spent in the backcountry are always a special kind of peaceful. The general lack of cell service and adult responsibilities always compels me to slow things down and do whatever seems fun at the time. Alex and I had spotted an old cabin near our campsite and ventured over to explore it, hoping it wouldn't be any kind of horror movie scenario. The place seemed somewhat well-kept, though it was in major need of cleaning and interior renovation. It had that old, nostalgic smell of timber that so many old buildings do.
We found lots of old tools (most notably an absurdly large pickaxe), camping supplies, and a very questionable bottle of liquid that we presumed to be alcohol of some kind, but we thought it best to not find out for ourselves.
As the low light of the evening sun washed over the valley, we sat in the meadow outside the cabin and took photos of it, captivated by the uniqueness of its placement here in this basin and wondering what it’s been used for over the years. We contemplated moving our sleeping bags inside for the night but ultimately decided against it (horror movie scenarios, remember?).
We returned to camp and cooked dinner while we watched pink light work its way up the peaks on the eastern end of the valley before disappearing and leaving us in the pale light of dusk. We talked until the darkness and cold gave their signal that it was time for us to turn in for the night. I put in my headphones and listened to the soundtrack from Interstellar as I stared into the vastness of space. That was a feeling I won't soon forget.
I awoke to an equally dark and starry sky as the sound of my alarm broke through the silence of the night. Ah, the joy of alpine starts. Alex and I forced our way out of our sleeping bags, packed our bags, and wolfed down a few snacks before setting off into the dark.
There was no specific route we were following, we just knew that we needed to gain the ridge and then turn right and go as far as it made sense to go in order to get the view we were hoping for. We worked our way up the steep, slippery slope of the mountainside and found ourselves on the ridge much sooner than we’d anticipated. We spent several minutes trying to figure out how on earth we’d actually gotten up so quickly. It had been at least 1200 vertical feet, right? Was it not actually that far? Are we just super fast? How did we do that? We were truly incredulous and laughed at the fact that we were now far earlier than we’d intended to be. But oh well, better too early than too late!
Now it was time to search for a perfect vantage point from which to watch first light on the jagged, prominent ridge that dominated the skyline behind us. We traversed the ridgeline on class 3 and 4 rock for quite some time, route-finding by the light of our headlamps and working our way up until we reached a spot that gave us an immense view of the entire range. This was it. We settled in to watch the show.
The experience of watching the sunrise at a place like this is so exciting. There’s anticipation of what it will look like, hope that it will be insane, and a sliver of doubt that wonders if a cloud bank on an unseen horizon might thwart the light entirely. I felt the mixture of all of these emotions as I sat, camera in hand, watching the deep blue twilight slowly grow brighter and give way to shades of purple. Then, slowly, soft hints of orange light touched the face of the peaks. The light faded in gently and grew brighter and brighter until the whole face was illuminated with sunlight.
We were both so stoked to be there. This moment felt almost like a personal gift. Not in a selfish way, but in a way that acknowledged that on this particular day, we had the privilege to be the only humans to see this.
Eventually, the time came for us to head back down. Upon reaching the saddle that we’d somehow reached way too fast several hours before, we decided to continue up to the peak on the other side of the ridge. This summit offered a different perspective, one that truly showed us the depth and scale of the landscape. There were layers and layers of mountains as far as we could see, some close enough that they seemed almost in reach and some so far away that we could only guess at the secrets and adventures they held.
There is an almost overwhelming feeling of curiosity when it comes to moments like this, when you realize the sheer volume of experiences that the world holds. This is just one mountain range. In one state. In one country. There is so, so much to see and do out there. I heard a quote a few weeks ago that describes this feeling well: “You won’t see most of this planet. Under each rock. Beneath the water. Secrets of air and soil. Can you feel the joy behind this limitation? That there is always a new thing to discover, a new way to grow, is one of the sweetest parts of living, and it’s free and inexhaustible.” - @CryptoNature on Twitter
We made it back down to camp soon after and packed our bags for the return journey, reaching our car several hours later, feeling both the physical exhaustion and immense satisfaction that so often follows a trip to the mountains.
Thank you for taking the time to read this one! I had a blast reminiscing on this adventure and writing out the story.
A question for you to ponder and/or share your thoughts about in the comments:
What role does curiosity play in your life?