Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rocky Mountain National Park / Estes Park / Golden Colorado Trip - Summer 2014

I didn't feel like writing five separate posts for one trip, so here is everything outdoorsy I got up to in Colorado after spending a couple days in Denver.  Click any photo to view them larger and as a slideshow.

Trail around Estes Park Lake

As a light warm-up to help us acclimate for Longs Peak, we walked the paved trail around Lake Estes.  This trail is mostly flat and about 3.5 miles long depending on which route you take.  There are a couple water fountains and bathrooms along the route and you are fairly likely to see ducks or elk along the way.  There are several places to park around the lake and most are free.

View Lake Estes Loop in a larger map

Emerald Lake Hike from Bear Lake Trailhead

For our next tuneup we took the shuttle to the Bear Lake Trailhead and hiked to Emerald Lake which sits at an elevation of 10,090'. We considered visiting more lakes (Haiyaha and Mills) and doing a loop hike, but decided against that due to weather concerns.  On our hike we visited Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake.  The lakes are spaced roughly half a mile apart and each has a unique character.  Nymph Lake is small and shallow and had lily pads growing in it.  Dream Lake was long and wooded with scenic mountains in the background.  Emerald Lake was the highest, deepest, and probably coldest of the three and it was our favorite.  Though it was cool, cloudy, and windy for most of our stay, we all managed to get in and swim for more than a few seconds in this lake that is frozen much of the year and was actively receiving fresh snow melt.  
Dream Lake

Emerald Lake

View Emerald Lake Hike in a larger map

Alpine Hike

This short 500-yard trail heads uphill from the Alpine Visitor Center in the western part of the national park.  It gives visitors a chance to experience the tundra at 11,800' elevation, see incredible wildflowers, and maybe catch a glimpse of a marmot or pika. 

View Alpine Visitor Center Walk in a larger map

Longs Peak

Marmota Monax Monax
Marmot, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
After attempting to dayhike Longs Peak, here is a summary of my findings followed by a longer description, map, and photos:

1.  Start early.  While incredibly fit people can summit Long's Peak and race back down to the trailhead in a few hours, the trek takes most people 12-15 hours and it is a good idea to be back down to the treeline by 1 or 2 in the afternoon to avoid summer storms.  For reference, we got hailed on at 1:30 and rained on much of the way down.  Starting early has the added benefit of letting you take in some amazing views of sunrise if you manage to get at least a few miles up the trail.

Duct Tape Saves the Day Again
2.  Go in the summer unless you like super technical climbing.  Ice and snow remain on sections of route well into July most years.

3.  Make sure you are acclimated. Take a few days to acclimatize to high elevations before attempting to summit the peak.  As you may have ascertained from reading the rest of this post, we spent a couple days in Denver (5,280'), then did a short easy walk in Estes Park (7,522'), followed by a hike to Emerald Lake in the national park (10,090') and a short walk at the Alpine Visitors Center (11,800') while camping at the Longs Peak Campground (~9,000').  You may want to look into taking Ibuprofen, Naproxen, or Acetazolamide to help with altitude sickness.

Small Mammal Colorado
Pika, Rocky Mountain National Park
4.  The scenery and wildlife viewing are fantastic.  Even if you don't make it to the peak, the hike is
well worth it.  We saw marmots, pikas, elk, and ptarmigans up close. Bighorn sheep and other wildlife are also often seen along this route.  In the summer, tiny, delicate, incredible wildflowers are blooming all over.  If at all possible, make it to the keyhole to take in the fantastic view on the other side.

5.  Take plenty of water, food, and clothing.  We each drank at least 2 quarts of water/energy/electrolyte beverages.  3-4 quarts is recommended.  Weather ranged from warm and sunny to cold, windy, hail and rain.

6.  Take a first aid kit and duct tape.  Lots can go wrong on this hike/climb and timely help isn't guaranteed.  We came across a hiker with a boot blowout and aided his hike down by providing him with some duct tape.  You can sometimes find duct tape in tiny rolls or roll your own by wrapping it around a toothpick or something small so it takes up less space.  As mentioned earlier, Ibruprofen or Naproxen can help alleviate some common symptoms of altitude sickness.

Our trip

Hiking at 3:30 AM with a Headlamp
We camped at the Longs Peak Campground for two nights.  The campground borders a private summer camp which can cause noise and traffic issues if you have bad timing like we did.  We set our alarms for 3:00 AM and were hiking towards the trailhead at around 3:30.  Lots of people were up and making noise at the campground at 2:00 which may be a smarter time to get up for multiple reasons.

Hiking at dark with a headlamp was a new experience for me and it was fun, though at times I felt like I was walking in a trance.  There was fairly full moon and some hikers didn't bother with lights.

The route to the summit is 7.5 miles long and includes roughly 5,000 ft. of elevation gain.  The last 1.7 miles of the route is not a trail and is more of a scramble/climb over boulders, past sheer cliffs, and up steep rock faces which is why averaging just over one mile an hour (there and back) is pretty normal.

Sunrise began around 5:15 or 5:30 and we got an amazing show having reached a location somewhat near the treeline.  There are two toilets along the route which is nice since privacy is limited above the trees.  We saw lots of wildlife on our hike including numerous elk, pikas, and marmots at close range. Along the way I heard two of my favorite wildlife noises: elk bugling and hermit thrush songs.

Sunrise from the Longs Peak Trail
The Keyhole. Longs Peak
We made it through the Boulder Field and up to the Keyhole by around 11:15 (which is probably too late).  The view from the Keyhole was awesome, but the route beyond it was a little too much for me and many people I talked to.  The rest of our party continued on, only to turn around on the Trough due to time and weather concerns.

These concerns were validated by the fact that there was a thunderstorm with lightning and hail at 1:30.  The storm caught many people out in the open, while I managed to shelter under a large rock downhill from Chasm Lake but not quite below the treeline.

We got rained on for much of our remaining hike back to the trailhead but were able to dry off quickly when the sun returned.

Fork to Chasm Lake

Elk Herd Near the Boulder Field

Boulder Field Campsite - Exposed and Windy

View from the far side of the Keyhole

The Ledges

Colorado Small Mammal Pika
Pika, Rocky Mountain National Park

View Longs Peak in a larger map 

Golden Trail and Whitewater Park

Golden, Colorado is a cool little college town with tons of outdoor recreational opportunities.  It is nearly surrounded by parks in the foothills with hiking trails and to top things off, Clear Creek runs right through the heart of the city offering fun for tubers, kayakers, and reckless swimmers.  The Clear Creek Trail runs along both sides of the creek, which enabled us to rent tubes, put in upstream, float about half a mile down and walk back up to do it all again.  The creek has a whitewater park with some man-made rapids which are pretty exciting to go over.
The Trail Was Flooded, but that Just Means More Floating

Photo By Lindsay Smith

Photo By Lindsay Smith

Red Rocks

Though it actually came first chronologically, I didn't do much of the trail, so I just wanted to note here that Red Rocks has a few trails.  If you go there for a show, get there a couple hours early and take in the natural beauty of the place.

Trading Post Trail at Red Rocks

More photos and information on hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park can be found in my previous post at:

Or on the NPS website:

Sunday, July 6, 2014

JB Hunt Park / Lake Springdale

JB Hunt Park in Springdale has roughly three miles of paved trail and a short gravel nature trail.  The paved trail contains several loops, some overlapping, so you can easily tailor the distance to your liking.  The asphalt trail is in somewhat poor shape in places, though that may change soon when the trail is connected to, and partially overlapped by, the Razorback Greenway.

The trail is steep in places with some sharp, blind turns so watch your speed if you bike it!  The lake allows fishing and the nearby nature trail has a nice wildlife viewing platform; though we saw way more wildlife along the paved trail than we did from the platform.

The park also has a playground, baseball fields, and a very clear, wide open disc golf course that would be great for beginners or people tired of hunting for their discs in the woods and high grass of Lake Fayetteville.

Lake Springdale

Geese in the Way - Lake Springdale

JK3 Riding on the Nature Trail

View Lake Springdale - JB Hunt Park in a larger map

Dogwood Springs Walking Path - Siloam Springs

Today I visited the new Siloam Springs Whitewater Park and then drove into town to explore the Dogwood Springs Walking Path.  While I walked/jogged the trail, there is a great bike rental place downtown near the trail (Dogwood Junction Bike Shop).

I got on the trail downtown, near University and College and followed it westward along Sager Creek through a city park.  The creek has had some restoration work done recently and I saw lots of ducks, herons, and turtles in it.  After nearly 0.5 miles, the trail leaves the creek and follows University onto JBU campus.  There is a water fountain and outdoor fitness station just past the entrance to the university.  My friend got pretty close to a snake crossing the trail in this area.

The long stretches of trail on the west and north sides of campus are the most scenic, as they are forested and offer views of the creek. At about the 1.5 mile mark, the trail passes by the neighboring wastewater treatment plant which detracts a bit from the experience.  From there the trail wraps around campus and runs by Oak Hill Cemetery.  Once you reach Holly St., I would recommend leaving the trail, maybe checking out campus a bit, and then taking University and the trail back to downtown.  This makes for about a 5k for anyone training for a race and avoids the less scenic portions of the trail.  If you choose to stick with the trail, it travels another 1.5 miles south and east past some apartments and schools before dead-ending in a neighborhood with no signs telling you where to go.  I took Carl north to Alpine to Garrett to University, but there are lots of other routes you could take to get back downtown.

This trail switches multiple times between being a real, separated, 8' asphalt trail and just following a sidewalk and it is difficult to follow at times.  Be sure to keep an eye out for Dogwood Springs flags/signs on poles.  Two complaints I have about this trail are that it could use more signage and that it needs to form a complete loop.  If such a campaign doesn't exist yet, JBU or some other community organization should start a movement to "Complete The Loop" like the one underway in Little Rock seeking to finish the River Trail.  I would love to assist with researching ideal routes if anyone needs help.

Fountains at Siloam Springs

Great Blue Heron - Sager Creek, Siloam Springs
Outdoor Gym at JBU - Photo by John Kester III

Cathedral of the Ozarks

View Dogwood Springs Walking Path in a larger map

Monday, June 30, 2014

Big Opportunity to Promote Active Transportation in Central Arkansas

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  When AHTD gives you traffic nightmares, promote active/alternative transportation!  Already jokingly dubbed #LRpocalypse by @ArkansasBlog, it is looking like traffic in Central Arkansas could get really nasty for much of 2015-2019.  Here is why:

1.  Broadway Bridge replacement - Scheduled to start in 2015 and take two years to complete.
2.  I-30 Downtown Bridge Replacement - AHTD says they will try to wait until the Broadway Bridge is done to begin this $300-400 million project, but they may not have a choice due to funding-related requirements.  I've heard reports that preliminary work on the I-30 bridge will start while Broadway Bridge is still out of service.
3.  I-630 widening/"improvements" - I've written extensively on my opposition to widening I-630 and this is just one more reason for people to hate the project.  Though plans are still being finalized (and will hopefully be canceled) construction work is scheduled to begin in 2017 and run into 2019.

So to recap, starting sometime in 2015, maybe the spring, the Broadway Bridge will close, making traffic in downtown Little Rock worse.  Before the bridge is finished (don't these things always take longer and cost more than predicted?) it is likely that work on I-30 in the downtown area will begin.  Around the same time, AHTD will probably be closing lanes of I-630 in order to add lanes that won't offer any long-term congestion benefits.  In short we are looking at 4 years of at least one major highway project (Broadway is Hwy-67/70b) impacting traffic in Little Rock/North Little Rock and probably 2-3 years of overlapping projects.

So, what's the upside?  Well, if you look at a map of downtown Little Rock, you'll notice that there are two pedestrian bridges near the Broadway and I-30 bridges, and these won't be closed! Nor will the pedestrian lane on the Main St. bridge.  People tired of sitting in traffic forever will be looking for better ways to get downtown.  Those that live within 2-10 miles might be looking at biking.  People who live closer could walk or take the trolley.  This 4-5 year traffic nightmare presents a great opportunity to increase the number of people who commute by bike, foot, or bus in Central Arkansas, but there are some things Little Rock and North Little Rock should do in order to make this time easier on residents and to make it simple for people interested in exploring new modes of transportation to do so:

1.  Improve the Trail System - Little Rock needs to "Close the Loop" on the River Trail and build more spur trails to link more neighborhoods to the trail system.

2.  Expand education and outreach efforts - People need to know that trails exist and can get them where they want to go.

3.  Encourage employers to provide shower facilities.  The city could even build a public facility downtown, maybe at the Bus Terminal, the River Market, or on the River Trail.

4.  Create a Bike Share program.  People are more likely to use bikes if they don't have to worry about storage, parking, maintenance, theft, or large upfront costs.  Lots of cities have these, but the City of Little Rock claims they are too difficult to implement. With more cities adding Bike Share programs all the time, this argument doesn't seem to hold any water.

If you care about active transportation, help get the word out.  Little Rock is looking at years of horrible traffic congestion and residents do have other choices for getting to work.

Here is a piece I did on when bike commuting beats driving in Little Rock (and elsewhere):

Nice background on benefits of Bike Share programs:

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Hiking Hazards in Arkansas

While Arkansas is blessed with great trails, it is also has an abundance of animals and plants that can ruin your day in the wilderness (and the following week).  I try to do an annual backpacking trip and when I go in the summer, I avoid Arkansas and flee to the mountains of California, Washington, or Colorado where you can wade through thick vegetation without the fear of stepping on venomous snakes or emerging covered in hundreds of ticks or invisible chiggers.

If you are thinking about hiking or backpacking in Arkansas in June, July, or August; my first piece of advice is don't do it and maybe try a float instead.  If you decide to go anyways (or want to be prepared for hikes in the spring and fall) be sure to learn how to avoid the hazards described below:

1.  Poison Ivy - This nasty plant causes an itchy, often bubbly, rash on a significant portion of the population.  The rash often takes a day or more to show up and is quite unpleasant.  It is found in almost every county of the state and loves to grow in and along trails.  Closely related Poison Oak looks similar and contains the same rash causing oil.  It is found in about half the counties in the state.  Look for vines or slightly woody/small shrubs with shiny leaves-of-three (let them be!).  The photo below shows poison ivy in the late spring.  The leaves can get a bit darker later in the year and white berries form on the vine in the fall/winter.  For more on how to identify these species click here.  Interestingly enough, poison ivy looks a lot like young Box Elder saplings, though the arrangement of the stems is different.

Young Poison Ivy Plant in Fayetteville
Poison Ivy with a Better Background
 2. Ticks - These small arachnids blanket the wilds of Arkansas from late spring to fall.  I'm not saying you can't get them other times of the year, but you are essentially guaranteed to get them if you brush up against any vegetation in the summer.  Though they may not enjoy attaching to humans as much as adults do; seed (larvae/baby) ticks add a special psychological horror to the experience when you realize that the dust/dirt on your leg/arm is actually hundreds or thousands of tiny blood-seeking arachnids.  My personal experience is that ticks and seed ticks are at their worst in July and August which is why I usually stick to floating or swimming for my outdoors fun then, unless I'm trying to finish up a book. Tick-borne illnesses are on the rise and can be quite serious.  I recommend wearing long, light colored pants and light-weight long-sleeved shirts if you decide to tempt fate and spraying your boots, ankles, waistline, etc with bug spray.  If you can handle extra warmth and breaking fashion laws, it helps to tuck your pants into your socks.  Companies also make clothing impregnated with permethrin if that concept doesn't make you nervous. Always do a thorough tick check as soon as you get home (or whenever you take a break).

3. Chiggers - Chiggers are horrible.  I'm willing to bet the vast majority of people who've encountered these tiny mites would rank them as the worst item on this list.  If you're unlucky enough to have been bitten by a copperhead or rattlesnake then maybe that's worse; I (and 99.999% of Americans) wouldn't know.  The problem with chiggers is you can't see them and I don't really think you can feel them until they are long gone and the agony has begun.  Chiggers leave your ankles, waistline, or any other area where clothes hug your skin, covered in dozens of incredibly itchy bites that are an intense experience for 2-3 days and can take weeks to disappear.  Prevention tips are similar to those listed above for ticks.

4.  Venomous snakes -  I hesitated to include this in the list since venomous snake bites are extremely rare compare to cases of heat stroke, tick-borne illnesses, chigger attacks, and poison ivy rashes.  That said, Arkansas is home to multiple species of venomous snakes and they are most active in the summer and fall.  I spend a fair amount of time outdoors and have never been bitten by a snake, but I do know someone who has been, so a little caution can't hurt.  The best way to avoid being bitten it to watch where you are stepping and where you are putting your hands.  Wearing boots and/or sturdy gators can help protect you as well.  It should be obvious, but poking or otherwise messing with a venomous snake you've encountered is a bad idea.

5.  Heat - Heat coupled with extreme humidity (i.e. summer in Arkansas) makes it difficult for your body to cool itself.  Be sure to carry plenty of water and take plenty of breaks when hiking or backpacking in the summer in Arkansas.  Given this and all the hazards discussed above, doesn't a nice float on the Buffalo or a cool spring fed stream sound better?

Click here for more information on floats in Arkansas.
Here are some pieces I wrote on swimming holes in Arkansas.