Staunton State Park is the newest state park in Colorado. It opened in May, 2013 and is located around Pine, Colorado. It is already one of my favorite places to visit and hike along the Front Range. During the week, it’s not too crowded, but on the weekends I imagine you’d have to get there very early, as parking is limited to maybe 50 cars, and there is no off-site parking allowed. When the park had its opening weekend, they provided shuttle service from Conifer. I don’t think they’re providing anything of the sort now that the grand opening celebration is past.
Upon entering the park, you’ll notice a very dramatic granite wall to the northwest of the entrance and about five miles distant, that isn’t actually part of the park system, but is perhaps a landscape feature that isn’t visible when you’re just traveling along Highway 285 toward Bailey, so it’s a nice treat. It is like a miniature version of El Capitan in Yosemite. On the eastern border of the state park itself, there are many unusual and dramatic rock outcroppings similar to this one, where the park has allowed climbers to explore. As you park the car, either in the lower, larger lot or the smaller one a little way up the road to the picnic area, you’ll have the choice of several trails, including the longer Staunton Ranch Trail and Mason Creek Trail. I took the Staunton Creek Trail on this visit, and headed toward the climbers’ access point, where I turned around. A dark cloud had moved over the park and lightning and rain were threatening. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can hike all the way to the northern-most point, which is the Elk Falls Overlook, about 3 miles from the trailhead one way.
The landscape there right now is incredibly lush and green. There are big aspens interspersed with ponderosa and other spruce and pine trees. The meadows slope down dramatically to expose a view of the Lost Creek Wilderness in the distance, Pikes Peak and the snow-capped mountains to the south of Mt. Evans. It doesn’t feel like the Front Range. The lushness, the dramatic granite cliffs and the distant views harken of the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, or Crested Butte.
I like this place because it has a kind of wildness to it, and a soft beauty that is calming and welcoming. It’s not spoiled by highway noise and overuse–yet–and it’s tucked away in a pretty little valley that’s off the beaten path.
Dogs are allowed, as are horses and bicycles on some trails. If you want to picnic there at the special covered area with tables and grills, you’ll have to reserve a spot ahead of time.
This park was bequeathed by Ms. Frances Staunton, its owner, upon her death, to be preserved as a wild place for generations to enjoy. I am grateful to people like Ms. Staunton, who knew the importance of preserving at least some of our land to cultivate wildness, both the inner and outer.
In winter, we spend a lot more time indoors. The prospect of going out into the bitter cold and slipping around on icy or slushy sidewalks isn’t appealing at all. We’d much rather be snuggled with our honey, reading a book and drinking tea. I know I would.
As much as I don’t want to sometimes, I force myself to go out for a morning walk in my neighborhood or a long hike on a trail. It’s never as bad as I imagine. I have good waterproof boots and plenty of layers to pile on when temperatures dip below the teens. There are advantages to hiking in winter. For one thing, it’s quieter on the trails. There aren’t as many people. Parking lots don’t fill up. You can go for a sunrise or sunset hike easily, without getting up at the crack of dawn or staying up past when your energy starts to decline. The best part of winter hiking, though, is how gorgeous a mediocre trail can look the day after a blizzard.
Case in point: I went on a hike the day after a winter storm blew over the Front Range on December 30th. These are photos taken from the Alderfer/Three Sisters Park the next morning. Luckily, since this was the first time we had hiked here, someone else who knew the park hiked before us and left us a set of bootprints to follow. Otherwise, we would have had to bushwack our way around and then follow our own prints back to the parking lot. For this reason, it’s probably best not to hit the trail TOO early in the morning.
In winter, since we don’t spend as much time outdoors, we really cut ourselves off from the sights and (particularly) the sounds of nature. All we listen to most of the time are sounds that come from machines or other humans: the hum of the computer, the blare of television, the rumble of a car motor, the chatter of a co-worker. Our windows are closed, so we don’t hear the birds chirping the way we do in summer. We don’t enjoy the sound of the wind as much as we do when it’s 90 degrees outside and we’re drinking a glass of iced tea while sitting on the porch, appreciating the cooling breeze. In winter, wind is often biting, or here on the Front Range, downright obnoxious. At the head or tail of changing weather fronts, winds can get so crazy they blow down fences and trees. I don’t want to be outside when that’s happening.
It’s good to reconnect with what’s going on in nature this time of year, nonetheless. Black-capped chickadees still hang out in the woods along the foothills and mountains. You can hear their distinctive chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Red-winged blackbirds remain in town, as do robins and flickers (a kind of woodpecker). They’re not as vocal as they are in spring, but they still sing. I sometimes hear the hoo-hoo-hoo of an owl in the late evening hours or in the middle of the night from where he or she is perched near my house. My favorite bird is the raven, who is the curious observer on the trail in mountainous areas. The raven seems to speak, not just sing. He complains and criticizes, then jeers and clucks his tongue. I look up and say hello, jeering back.
Winter is a time of protracted silence. It is the sound of nature taking a break. It is the sound of the thread of the cosmos; it’s the underlying, silent dark matter that surrounds everything in the Universe. When it’s dry and sunny in winter, the sounds of nature seem shrill but clear. Wind howls, birds question, a fly buzzes through its short life while temperatures hover above freezing. When you’re hiking in deep snow and it’s still snowing around you, the only sound you hear is again the sound of your own making—your breath, your heartbeat and the muffled footfalls of your boots sinking into the white.
Directions: From Highway 93 in Golden, take Golden Gate Canyon Drive west approximately 8 miles. Turn left on Robinson Hill Road. Continue to Camino Perdido, which is the north access road into the park. The trailhead is approximately one mile to the south. You’ll see brown county signs directing you to Centennial Cone shortly after you turn onto Golden Gate Canyon Drive.
Duration: Approximately 3 hours or as long as you’d like it to be.
Route: Take the Travois Trail from the parking lot. After ¼ mile you can take the Evening Sun Loop or continue left—both paths return and continue to the Travois Trail. You will want to make this an out-and-back hike.
Access Notes: Hikers are NOT allowed at Centennial Cone on even numbered weekend days, only odd-numbered days, and certain trails in the park are closed seasonally. Check the Jefferson County Parks and Open Space website for details here. There are pit toilets at the parking lot and space for at least 20 cars. Limited shade exists, which makes this a great hike on cooler or overcast days or in the winter. Dogs are allowed on leash and bicycles are allowed on even-numbered weekend days. Horses are permitted at any time. This is a multi-use trail on weekdays.
Centennial Cone Open Space Park is a large conservation area owned by Jefferson County – the Travois Trail encircles the park in more than 15 miles of hills, meadows and forest. Most of the area is moderately hilly, with grassy knolls, low shrubs, and ponderosa pines dotting the tops of hills that seem to stretch out for miles in all directions. Large, old narrow-leafed cottonwoods grow along the drainage between hills near the trailhead.
In spring when the grasses turn deep green, this landscape may make you want to run through the grass and sing “The hills are alive!”, a-la Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music (ok, I just dated myself and that’s not good). In the fall, the grass turns a dull shade of cornhusk and grasshoppers take over the area with their hissy calls. This is a relatively low-traffic trail in every season except summer, and the lack of nearby road or air traffic also makes it a particularly quiet place to hike. The ringing in your ears may be louder than any sounds you’ll hear coming from the land, especially on a chilly morning when the grasshoppers are still warming their bodies.
The dirt and gravel trail is narrow and winds around the round hills in loose, wavy shapes, sometimes in shade if the sun is lower on the horizon, or in hot, full exposure if it’s near high noon. The ponderosas and the altitude don’t seem to provide much relief from the intensity of the sun on a clear day. The trails climb up the sides of hills and up to the summits, where a view extending from Denver to Lookout Mountain to Mt. Evans and the mountains west of Blackhawk frame an ocean of forested hills and grassy ravines. At some points on the trail when you’re ascending up, you may have a sense of vertigo as you look down at least 1,000 feet or more down the steep slopes. It can also be a feeling of expansiveness and spaciousness when you’re walking on these sections. There are plenty of boulders and rocky outcroppings to sit on just a few feet off-trail and relax or contemplate, or simply take a break in the shade of a small tree. The trail is well-maintained and easy to negotiate when it’s dry.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki
In Buddhism, the term “beginner’s mind” refers to a state of openness and curiosity about a subject, devoid of judgment, expectations or preconceptions. It is about throwing out everything you think you know and allowing yourself to experience the world anew.
To illustrate this concept, there’s a well-known parable about a scholarly monk who was seeking a master teacher so he could become his student and learn more about enlightenment. The monk approached the master and during his interview, bragged about how intelligent and sharp he was and how he had showed up so many other teachers with his knowledge. The master teacher just sat and listened and went about making some tea. As the monk was speaking, the teacher began pouring the tea into their cups. He kept pouring tea into the monk’s cup until it began to spill over the brim and onto the monk’s lap, burning him. The young monk jumped up and exclaimed, “What are you doing?!” The teacher simply smiled and replied, “Your mind is like this cup. It’s spilling over with ignorance and already too full to receive any new teaching. You are wasting your time here.” And he sent the young monk on his way.
The parable demonstrates that when we think we know everything there is to know—about a person, a thing, an idea or a place—then we lose the ability to receive new information and experiences. When we close ourselves off from the world by judging it and then dismissing it, we actually shrink our lives.
In reference to hiking, there may have been times in the past when you looked at an area or viewed a photo of a particular hiking trail and thought, “I don’t like that kind of landscape. That looks like a boring place to hike. I don’t want to go there.” Or, how many times have you met a person and decided you knew everything you needed to know about them within the first hour or even the first five minutes of saying, “Hello”?
The common term for this in the Western world is, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Or, “There’s more to that than meets the eye.” In Eastern teachings, beginner’s mind means there’s more to the world than you can ever know. Therefore, when you approach the world with an attitude of “not knowing,” you can be constantly, and sometimes pleasantly, delighted by what you experience.
When you make quick judgments about the world and close yourself off from truly experiencing life with beginner’s mind, you’re channel surfing. You are not fully engaged, not present, and unable to experience the joy of getting to know someone or something with the full breadth and depth of your soul. You sit in your car in rush hour, feeling aggravated and bored, not bothering to look around at the cars next to you or see the trees and plants that are growing on the side of the road, or the way the clouds look as they pass over the sky, not expecting to see anything new or interesting or worth your attention. But there is always something to new to see, experience and feel.
Think about how long you’d like to hike on this trail and split your hike up into two halves. This activity is best when it’s done in the middle, at the turnaround point of an out-and-back walk. Find a place to sit comfortably for about 15 minutes with your journal and a pen.
Look around where you’re sitting and find an object to hold in your hand. This could be a rock, twig, plant, or pinecone. Whatever you’re drawn to. It doesn’t have to be a natural object, but it’s better if it’s something you don’t look at every day.
While you hold the object in your hand, pretend that you’re an alien that’s just landed on Earth. You know nothing about this planet or its inhabitants. Your planet is nothing like this planet. Therefore, you have no idea about this object is. You don’t know what it’s used for. You don’t know if it’s dangerous or benign, alive or dead, young or old.
Look at your object in this way, with “beginner’s mind” for a few minutes, until you feel ready to write something down about it. Spend time noting its texture, its weight, its smell, its integrity, its taste.
What do you notice about this object that surprises you?
Now, after a few minutes, you may reach a point of boredom. You may think you already know everything there is to know about this object. You’ve been looking at it for a couple of minutes and there’s nothing else to figure out. Or is there? This is the point at which we usually shut ourselves off from the world. Our minds are at first curious, then quickly become bored after reaching a conclusion after some analysis (sometimes this analysis takes microseconds).
Go back to your object and look at it deeper. Ask it what its name is. Where did it come from? What does it do? Who are its friends?
What else comes up at this point for you when observing and experiencing this object with beginner’s mind?
When you’re ready to hike back to the trailhead, think about the way you’ve looked at this common, perhaps “mundane” object with beginner’s mind. Can you look at the land surrounding the trail, where you just hiked, with the same sort of beginner’s mind? You’ll be going in a different direction, so things will look a little different than they did in the last hour or two, but what else will you notice that’s different?
When I facilitated a hike with a small group and engaged in this activity, the participants reported that they noticed a keener, more heightened sense of presence and awareness on the return. Some noticed more color. Some noticed flowers and plants along the trail they couldn’t believe they didn’t see before. Some actually found themselves curious about textures, and touched many objects while walking. In general, most of the hikers said they felt more at peace on the hike back because their minds were not as filled with chatter.
Cultivating beginner’s mind is a practice—it’s something you need to do often to really get a sense of its power and potential. It’s not something you can do once and then expect to live your life differently. But fortunately, this activity can be done anywhere, on any trail, any time of year.
Directions: From Denver take C-470 to Highway 285 toward Fairplay. Drive through Aspen Park and Conifer. At the Pine Junction intersection, turn left (south) on South Pine Valley Road, or Road 126. Drive through the small towns of Pine and Buffalo Creek. Approximately 4 miles past the town of Buffalo Creek look for Spring Creek Road on the east side. As soon as you pass the Spring Creek Road street sign, you’ll see the National Forest trailhead marker on the right (west) side of the road 126 next to a white painted road barrier. Park on the west side of the road and proceed to the trail headed west.
Duration: Approximately 2 hours
Route: The trailhead is marked by a brown Forest Service sign as the Colorado Trail No. 1776. Proceed west approximately ¼ of a mile until you reach the sign for “Buffalo Creek Burn Trail No. 758” and turn onto that trail. Hike for an hour or more, passing through the burn area and back into an unburned forest before looping back to the Colorado Trail No. 1776. Turn left on the Colorado Trail and eventually you’ll loop back around to where you started and parked.
Access Notes: There’s no parking lot for this section of the Colorado Trail, just parking off the side of the road, which is widened near the trailhead to accommodate about a dozen vehicles. During the off-season (any season except summer) and on weekdays, you may be the only hiker on the trail, regardless of the time of day. On weekends, if you want relative solitude, it’s best to arrive as early as possible. It takes approximately an hour and 20 minutes to arrive from the southeast or northwest suburbs of Denver to the trail, or about 30-40 minutes from western and central suburbs like Littleton or Lakewood.
This is an easy hike with very little elevation gain and no bumpy, rocky terrain. The views from the burn area are spectacular: the (often snow-covered) mountains of Kenosha Pass and the Twin Cone Peaks frame the valley between Buffalo Creek to the north and Bailey in the distance, a view not possible if the trees which burned during the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire had still been alive and standing. The Colorado Trail is wooded and fairly flat, with the occasional sound of traffic from the nearby road. The Burn Trail, on the other hand, slopes gently down the hillside and is mostly sheltered from road noise.
The shock of seeing vast hills with spiky, black tree stumps amid a green grasses and groundcover probably already occurred on your drive up from Pine Junction as you drove through Pine and Buffalo Creek. The trail through the cleared-down terrain is beautiful in its own way because it exposes nearby rock outcroppings and huge boulder formations. The ground is covered in grasses, small shrubs and a few wildflowers, which get greener and more colorful as spring turns into summer.
Eventually the trail makes its way south and back into the intact forest with many species of pine and spruce, offering a contrast of environments, mood and scenery.
The Physical Scars of Bad Decisions, Carelessness and Destruction
Devastating forest fires in this part of Colorado have started through acts of momentary carelessness combined with systematic problems stemming from years of unwise decisions.
On May 18, 1996, a campfire smoldered unattended in a campground in Pike National Forest near the Buffalo Creek. Winds picked up, spread the cinders and stoked a fire that eventually spread to an area 10 miles long by 2 miles across, burning 10,000 acres of forest and destroying 18 homes in the area. The area seen from this trail is the Buffalo Creek burn.
A few miles south of this trail, near Deckers, is evidence of the 2002 Hayman Fire, which spread over 130,000 acres and was deemed at the time to be the largest wildfire in the recorded history of Colorado.
The Hayman fire started because a U.S. Forest Service employee carelessly set a match to a love letter from her estranged husband and threw it, still burning, into a campfire ring during a severe drought on a windy day. The wind carried the flaming paper onto the dry grass, igniting the surrounding vegetation and trees almost instantly. She tried to put the fire out herself, but it quickly overwhelmed her futile efforts and she left the area. The fire became an inferno that killed several people and burned hundreds of homes. She later confessed to what she’d done and spent years in prison for her crime.
Another fire, called the Hi Meadow Fire, several miles north of Buffalo Creek, burned in the year 2000 and destroyed more than 50 homes. It was ignited by a cigarette butt flicked out a car window.
All of these fires burned hotter and swept the landscape faster than perhaps they should have. Two hundred years ago or more, before humans entwined their homes and businesses with the trees, lightning would often cause smaller forest fires. These fires would burn without human intervention or even awareness. The fire would clear out the dead vegetation and eventually peter out. The fires weren’t as intense due to the forest being less dense with trees and not stricken by drought, as it has been for almost a decade since 1996. Our choice as humans to build homes in the woods and not cut down enough trees or prescribe burns to keep the vegetation thinner created a perfect storm during a long, dry spell when the slightest spark could cause mass destruction.
Being in this landscape is an opportunity to contemplate the ways that our own lives are touched by the careless words and actions of others, by the wrong decision at the wrong time, by cruelty and abuse. It’s a way to consider what healing looks like and feels like, and the ways we often suffer more than we need to.
The Emotional and Physical Healing of the Soul
As you walk through the burn area, which I will call the scarred area, consider the ways healing has been taking place here. It’s been 15 years since the fire, and yet, there are very few young trees growing amidst the groundcover and grasses. That’s because there’s a certain order to how plants grow after a disturbance. First, native or non-native pioneer species such as weeds or grasses sprout from the ground. Grasses and weeds then create enough humus for small shrubs to gain a foothold. Only years later, when the ground is well-covered in thick, short vegetation, do trees start to come back.
There’s a time and place for everything in nature. Trees don’t grow naturally out of the bare ground. They need other plants to help “prepare” the soil first, and this process can take a long time in human terms. This is probably why, when I hiked through a forest of mostly dead pine-kill lodgepoles in western Rocky Mountain National Park a few months ago, I saw a comparative abundance of young trees sprouting underneath the carcasses of their dead parents. The underbrush isn’t disturbed in a pine kill forest. Dead trees may topple and rot, but the shrubs, pinecones, grasses and flowers haven’t been incinerated into ash. In a burned area, everything is destroyed and the ecology of the forest is essentially starting from square one.
Find a place to sit – there are several interesting boulder outcroppings along the trail that look comfortable – and really ponder how, in your own life, you experienced pain and difficulty in the past. Perhaps someone you loved died or left you. Perhaps a relationship ended because of a careless word or bad decision on someone’s part. Maybe you were abused or assaulted. In one moment, the forest of your own soul was set ablaze.
Years later, you can compare that place in your soul where you felt that pain and trauma to what you’re seeing around you.
This place is no longer a forest. It’s not really a meadow. It’s something completely new. It’s not the same as it was, and it will never be the same. It is a different place altogether now. There are ways it has healed since it burned, but there are ways the fire hasn’t been forgiven or forgotten by nature. It no longer smells acrid as it did for weeks and months after the incident, and the ground isn’t black anymore. But the trees haven’t grown back yet. Certain birds and mammals that need the cover of mature trees and vegetation haven’t returned yet.
The places in your soul that were damaged are different, too. You no longer hold the same beliefs you did before you were hurt. You’re a different person because of what happened to you. Perhaps you’re a better person, a stronger person. Perhaps you’re weaker and more vulnerable.
Think of the exact moment in time when you felt devastated and hurt by a loss or careless action. The intensity of the emotions was strong for days and weeks afterward. Normal life ceased for a period of time, during which you had a hard time functioning in the way you had before the incident. You were distracted. You were depressed. Your body and soul wanted to spend its energy on dealing with the pain and healing, but your mind was the taskmaster that kept you going through the motions even when you didn’t want to.
Look around at the scarred landscape. Really meditate on it. In what way does the sadness of this landscape relate to the places in your soul that feel damaged or destroyed?
Was there a time in your life you felt that your “innocence” was destroyed forever, just as the innocence of the woods was destroyed by the fire? How have you healed that part of your soul since then?
Human assistance in the healing of this scarred landscape is evident everywhere: charred trees have obviously been cut down. Some of the burned brush has been gathered and burned more thoroughly on purpose during wetter, colder months when it’s safe. In other places, people have sped up natural processes by planting trees and taking measures to control erosion.
Even though carelessness can cause destruction, thoughtful, deliberate acts of restorative kindness can heal the damage. Nature is a balance of destruction and creation. Humans are a part of that balance, and we hold the capacity for both in our own hearts.
It’s not possible to have a life of only creation and no destruction. Everyday, something has to die in order for a future thing to thrive. Human suffering often stems from our attachments to those things that naturally deteriorate and eventually die.
We get attached to a way of life, to a job, to a person, to our youth. We get attached to things or people being there for us when we need them, and we suffer when that’s no longer the case.
What does this landscape tell you about the things you’re holding onto in your life that are causing you to feel sadness and regret, that are causing you to suffer?
Before departing this trail, consider how looking at the scarred landscape makes you feel. Does it feel sad? Peaceful? Does it make you angry? Does it make you feel hopeful?
How you see the landscape may be a reflection of how you see the process of change and transformation, and how much you resist that change. It may be a reflection of how much you hold onto the safe places in your past or in your heart as a way of dealing with the trauma of an ever-changing life.
(For this hike, you’ll need to bring a pen or pencil and something to sketch on).
Location: White Ranch Open Space Park, West Access Trails
Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on Golden Gate Canyon Road. Travel approximately 4.1 miles to Crawford Gulch Road and turn right. Turn right again on Belcher Hill Road or follow the signs to White Ranch Park.
Duration: Approximately 3-1/2 hours
Route: from the parking lot, hike the north (downhill) Belcher Hill trail, then turn left on Rawhide. Walk through the campground, continuing on the Rawhide trail or taking the Waterhole trail shortcut that meets back up to Rawhide. For a longer hike than 3-1/2 hours, you can continue the Rawhide loop until you loop back around to the Belcher Hill trail, or you can cut across Wrangler Run, which is a pleasant west-facing trail through meadows.
When I arrived at the Belcher Hill trailhead around 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning in April, mine was the only vehicle in the lot. The drive up to the trailhead along Crawford Gulch road was very pleasant, with views of endless dark green hills and distant snow-covered peaks (Pikes Peak). As soon as I stepped out onto the trail, I could tell no one had been hiking since our last snowfall Wednesday morning because there weren’t any footprints delineating where to go. It was a guessing game for the first 10-15 minutes downhill through the trees about where I should step next. The ground was a lumpy, snow-covered sheet of ice in places and I had to grudgingly put on my YakTrak. I wasn’t too worried about getting lost—after all, I could always backtrack with my fresh bootprints to guide me.
Eventually out of the snow and down onto the meadows with a view of Denver and Arvada below the hills outstretched ahead, the landscape opened up to reveal rolling hills to the west and a vast, flat plains to the east. This would be a good location for a sunrise hike because it would only be about 15 minutes to a spot where you could watch the sun rise over the horizon. I would only recommend that in the summer, when the trail is dry and obvious from the parking lot down through the trees. It was difficult enough to guess the way down in the yet-undisturbed snow on a sunny morning, let alone at dusk with a flashlight.
There was no one else on the trail when I headed out, and in fact I only ran into only two other people the entire three hours I was hiking. This further demonstrates the advantages of hiking in the off-season on a weekday morning. It was peaceful, and as one hiking guide book describes, “bucolic.” The sounds from the city below—the road noise from Highway 93 and the deep whirr of some industrial machine—only leeched in a few times during the hike. I can imagine this trail is even more bucolic in the summer when the prairie grasses awaken from their winter slumber and hillsides are green instead of straw-colored.
Woodpeckers constantly called out their loud kwik-kwik-kwik call from all directions, drowning out the sound of other, quieter birds like robins and chickadees. Either there are more woodpeckers around this year or I notice them more because I just discovered last year what bird made that raucous call. A few houses are seen nestled in the trees in the hills surrounding the park, but in this part of the park they don’t detract from the feeling of wildness and serenity.
The trail is wide enough for a vehicle and alternated between mud and snow, depending on which direction its slope faced. At the halfway point, about when you begin the turn southward around the hill along the Rawhide trail (the northern-most point of the park itself), you’ll see beautiful rock outcroppings across the valley, then as you make your way further, Ralston Reservoir and a view of downtown Denver below. The trail becomes steeper and rockier here and is the most challenging part of the hike (although if you’re coming in a clockwise direction like I suggest, the steepest part is mostly downhill). You may spot a black Alberta squirrel scurrying up a tree, or a small group of mule deer. The squirrels are very black, unlike the common suburban squirrel, and have tufted ears.
This park offers a mix of a variety of landscapes: distant mountain vistas, hills, forest, meadows, rock outcroppings, views of Denver. For this reason, I found the following activity to be perfect for this particular hike.
The Activity: Drawing Yourself In the Landscape
This is a fun activity for adults and older children (age 10+). It requires that all participants have a pen or pencil and something to draw on, like a notebook.
As you begin the hike, imagine seeing yourself in the landscape the way the birds and trees and animals might see you. At about the halfway point, you will be sitting down and drawing yourself in the landscape. This is something you may wish to contemplate before you actually do it—not the act of drawing itself but how you see yourself in this landscape.
Find a spot where you can sit comfortably for about a half and hour and draw. Ideally, this should be a spot that’s visually appealing to you. Pretend you’re an artist and you’re scouting around for a good view to draw. One suggestion is along the Rawhide trail after you pass through the campground and past where the Waterhole trail meets the Rawhide trail. The trail will make a south-facing curve and there will be a view of the meadows and hills in the distance. There are some rocks to sit on. But don’t let this suggestion limit you! Pick a spot that calls to you.
Settle in and start drawing in your notebook or whatever you brought for sketching. The only instruction here is to use your non-dominant hand to draw yourself in the landscape. The reason you will be using your non-dominant hand is because the drawing will flow more from your subconscious and creative brain, rather than from automatic movements that flow from assumptions about what you’re drawing, as they would from your dominant hand. This can be any kind of drawing: abstract, detailed, gestural, geometric. Do whatever feels natural to you. You aren’t trying for a masterpiece here. This is a contemplative exercise, not an artistic contest.
Important instruction! Do not read the questions below until after you’ve completed your drawing. The questions themselves may alter how you do your drawing and will ruin the activity if you think about it while you’re doing it. It’s best to do the drawing first, then come back to the drawing with these questions to see what is revealed.
When you feel that you’ve finished your drawing, ask yourself or your hiking partner the following questions about the drawing:
What surprises you about the drawing?
Are you a part of, or distinct from the landscape in your drawing?
Are you the central figure? If not, what is? What do you think that means?
What is the vantage point of your drawing? In other words, if this were a photograph, from where would it have been taken? Or is it so abstract it has no vantage point?
If your drawing has a vantage point, look to see where the “photographer” or the “artist” is situated. Can you imagine that there is something watching you from that vantage point, and perhaps you drew what it saw?
How would you describe the mood of the drawing? (angry, soft, tenuous, peaceful…) Does the mood of the drawing reflect your mood or the mood of the land? What do you think?
What do you think your drawing says about your feelings about the land? What might it say about the land’s feelings toward you?
When I drew myself in the landscape (see image above) I noticed a few things. The trees and mountains in the background were more wispy and tenuous. The trees in the foreground were drawn jagged, pointy, dark—scary. I was feeling a little apprehensive on the hike because I was the only one on the trail and I kept imagining a cougar stalking me (I have to get over that, I know…). I am the central figure, but I’m drawn into the landscape in such a way that you can’t recognize me or that it’s even a person at all. This perhaps means that I see myself as part of the land, or that I belong in the landscape. I’m small and humble under the scary trees and looming hills, but I don’t look threatened or frightened. You can’t really tell what I’m feeling from the drawing. The vantage point was from above and behind me. When I noted that, I formulated the question about it, so I didn’t know that it was an issue until after my drawing was finished. I was sure to do the drawing, THEN come up with the questions around it.
As I turned around to see where exactly the “watcher” would have been perched to see me from this vantage point, I noticed several large pines in about the location that would have resulted in this drawing. At that moment, a raven croaked at me from one of the trees at exactly the height I was estimating, as if to acknowledge, “I see you.”
Trees have a history and mythology of being sacred beings with the capacity for healing. Many people are drawn to trees for various reasons – because the trees seem to have character, because they’re stoic sentinels of the forest, because they offer shelter and comfort. But can a tree communicate with a person through some sort of energetic or psychic capacity? You can try this game to find out.
This activity was inspired by a friend named Geoffrey McMullan, MSc, who lives in Ireland and specializes in wilderness therapy and tracking. He uses nature in his work as an addiction counselor, and has observed incredible results from his patients and clients in how they relate to their addiction or find inner wisdom through their relationship with the wilderness. One of Geoffrey’s nature games involves forming a deeper connection to and communication with a tree, stepping a good distance away from the tree, then, while blindfolded, seeing if you can find your way back to the tree. You use almost all the senses to experience and get to know the tree, and then transcending those senses to feel a connection to a tree that has less to do with logic and analysis and more of a spiritual consciousness that can’t be explained or forced.
I think this is a fun activity to try with a few friends or older children (12 years old and up) who already have an appreciation of nature and an openness to try new things.
I have selected the Flatirons Vista Trail as a suggested location for this activity, but any trail with the following aspects will work:
Heavily wooded with aspens, pines, or spruce.
Not along very steep slopes. Ideally a wooded area that’s as flat as possible.
Somewhere you can safely go a little bit off trail without trespassing on private property or disturbing the landscape too much. You’ll want a little privacy and quiet for this activity.
Avoid areas with scrub oak, junipers or a lot of pine kill (can be hazardous during windy or wet conditions).
The Flatirons Vista Trail runs through the northern edge of Jefferson County Open Space land, which is a 7,390 acre parcel west of Rocky Flats between 120th Avenue and 80th Avenue. The City of Westminster boasts (in their Feb/March 2010 Issue of Westminster City Views) “No other city in metropolitan Denver has 5 miles of
public land between its western edge and the foothills. Over 43,000 acres of property both within and abutting Westminster preserve this amazing ecosystem.” Indeed, as you’re walking westward toward Eldorado Canyon and the foothills, all you see are rolling hills and trees, and maybe the occasional herd of cows since this land is used for grazing. This is a trail that’s close to Boulder, Broomfield, Westminster, Arvada and Golden, but feels spacious and quiet, at least once you get far enough from Highway 93.
Instructions for Tree Games
Find a spot among the trees where you and your partners in this game can feel comfortable, safe and have some privacy. You may need to walk off the trail far enough so that you can’t be easily heard or hear other hikers pass by, but not too far away that you lose your sense of direction to return back to the trail. On the Flatirons Vista Trail, once you arrive at the second cattle fence where the trees begin to get thicker, you can venture south along a clearing the trees where it appears a few vehicles may have traveled in the past. There are relatively flat areas of trees where you can do this activity.
You’ll need at least one other person and some sort of bandana or blindfold, or if you don’t have anything to use as a blindfold, you can go on the “honor system” and just keep your eyes shut tight when it’s your turn.
The “blind” person is led to a tree while blindfolded and introduced to the tree by the seeing partner.
“Tree, meet Bob. Bob, meet your tree.”
Then the blind person is allowed to spend time getting to know the tree. They can touch the tree, smell the tree, and use all of their senses other than sight to get a feeling from the tree. They should not open their eyes or take off the blindfold at this time.
The seeing partner quietly sits and observes, allowing at least 15 minutes of quiet time for the blind person to get acquainted with their tree. Some questions for the blind person to consider privately may include:
What gender is your tree?
How old is your tree?
What mood is it in?
What is the feeling you’re getting from this tree? Happy, sad, angry, depressed?
Is there anything this tree wants you to know?
The seeing partner should ask these questions all at once at the beginning of the 15 minutes of quiet time, allowing the blind partner to formulate their own questions or responses when they’re ready.
At the end of the 15 minutes, the seeing partner gently suggests that the blind partner let them know when they’re ready to be taken away from their tree. Once the blind partner expresses they’re ready, the seeing partner takes them away from the tree, randomly walking in different directions in order to disorient him or her. The blind partner keeps their eyes closed or the blindfold intact during this phase of the game.
When the seeing partner is satisfied with this disorientation task, they can do one of two things, depending on the landscape:
1. Allow the blind partner to open their eyes or take off their blind fold and find their tree.
2. Ask the blind partner to (while still blind) point to the direction where they believe their tree to be, then guide them in that direction so they don’t trip over rocks and twigs. Occasionally stop and have the blind person reassess the direction they feel they need to go.
With either of these options, the seeing partner should affirm or reject the blind person’s choice of tree or direction. In other words, if the blind person is pointing in the wrong direction to walk, let them know. Or if they select the wrong tree, let them know.
When the blind person finds their tree, they should open their eyes or take off their blindfold and touch or embrace the tree to see if its energy has changed in any way. Does seeing the tree change the feeling of being with the tree? How?
When I played this game with my 12-year-old, both she and I found our tree, although we made a least one wrong assessment of the direction we needed to go to find it at first. The highlight of this game, surprisingly, wasn’t finding the tree, but feeling it’s energy while we were spending time with it. We both felt a resonance to something older, more rooted in the environment, both literally and figuratively.
Directions: From Boulder or Golden Take Hwy. 93 to CO 72 (West)
Turn left at Twin Spruce Road
Proceed past the entrance sign for Golden Gate State Park
Park in the Panorama Point parking lot
Look for the Racoon Trail signposts
The Raccoon Trail
The Raccoon Trail in Golden Gate State Park is an easy to moderate hike along varied terrain. You descend down into trees from the parking lot at Panorama Point, and enjoy distant views of the Divide through the gaps here and there. Once you reach the bottom of the hill, the aspens get fatter and you can look up too view the two big rock outcroppings above the trees to the east.
The trail winds through stands of aspens, ponderosa pine, some other evergreens, and eventually, large gray boulders on the west side. Today there were some patches of undisturbed semi-packed snow, crusty, icy patches and even some short distances of gravel, decent conditions for snowshoes or YakTrak. There’s an equal amount of ascending and descending as you make the loop.
On this day the cold front was moving in and the clouds were booking it — when you stood still and looked up it was almost disorienting to see them race so fast across the sky. Cold air and unformed clouds of snow clung to the Divide. The wind was temperamental, blowing in quick bursts here and there but never sustaining the kind of velocity that would have made the hike unbearably cold and harsh. When we arrived at Panorama Point at 10:15 a.m. ours was the only vehicle in the lot and we encountered no other hikers on the trail itself until we were almost back at the lot an hour and a half later.
I briefly stated my intention and crossed an imaginary threshold just a few feet out of the parking lot. I was in sacred space and time and everything from now on would be a waking dream. Thoughts, feelings and signs from nature would be my guide for the hike.
Cultivating Inner Knowing
The intention of this hike to was to cultivate inner knowing, intuition, or what some call inherent wisdom.
If you’d like to do this activity yourself, I recommend going to a trail that you’re somewhat unfamiliar with. You want to experience the feeling of uncertainty and Beginner’s Mind in this activity, so not knowing what to expect at each moment is helpful.
Before you start the hike, ask yourself a question that’s been pressing on your mind, something that you don’t know the answer to, but you have some idea of the possibilities. Perhaps there are financial difficulties that you’ve been worried about or sensing. Maybe you have a health problem that’s developing but you haven’t acknowledged it. Maybe your romantic relationship is troubled, and you sense something is wrong, but you aren’t sure what that problem is or what will unfold.
This is also a good activity to do when you’re feeling eco-anxiety—how will the future unfold with all the challenges we’re facing with resource depletion, economic instability and widespread pollution? It’s important that you’re prepared for what’s ahead, and cultivating inner wisdom and emotional resilience is as important as preparing physically (paying down debt, growing a garden, reskilling).
In our daily, busy lives we have so little time to contemplate these questions directly, or to use the wisdom we already have deep within us. We’re constantly distracted by conversations, work, drama, television, mainstream media gossip and scandal. There are projects, tasks, chores, shopping lists and bills to pay. We lack the space or mental energy to solve our problems intuitively, so we look outside for answers: friends, online articles, therapists, books. Or we don’t look for answers, we numb ourselves with distractions instead.
In order to practice the skill of intuitive wisdom, you have to get away from all those distractions and stay completely present and open to hearing what you really feel and know in your heart. You can do this on solo walks, hikes or through mindful meditation at home. By cultivating this inner knowing you acknowledge that you have all the resources inside yourself already to solve or simply understand just about any problem or hardship that confronts you.
This means that no matter what troubles you now, deep within you already know what to do. Sometimes the answers aren’t easy and there will be work ahead, but when you listen to that inner knowing, you will not second guess yourself or have regrets later. A person who is in touch with their inner wisdom never looks back with regret over what might have been, or what they should have done instead. They always know they did the best they could with what they knew at the time.
When you do this hike, it’s important to remain silent so that you can listen to the thoughts that pass underneath the narration going on in your mind. When you feel yourself becoming lost in daydreaming or thinking about unrelated matters back home, come back to your breath and look around to become present to the moment.
As you walk, as yourself: How do certain parts of the trail, certain vistas and changes in weather make you feel? What is your experience of the present moment? How does it relate to the answers you’re seeking?
Is nature trying to tell you something?
Pay attention to anything you observe, think or feel on the hike. Don’t try too hard to analyze everything in relationship to your question, but be curious about what unfolds. Are there strange coincidences? Is there irony somehow? Are there omens?
Symbolism and a Message
When I did this hike, I wanted to tap into what I already “knew” about the coming difficulties and challenges that were upon civilization: peak oil, economic instability and collapse, resource depletion and the resulting political battles to secure what’s left. What should I know about how to handle the challenges that will unfold in my life? What do I already know, on an intuitive level, about how I might deal with the problems to come in my own life? Did I have an idea of what would happen in the next 10-20 years?
The entire hike turned out to be full of symbolism regarding uncertainty and strength.
When we started out, we walked around the viewing decks by the parking lot but couldn’t find where the trail began. The most recent dusting of snow had covered up tracks and bootprints from the past week and the trail markers weren’t immediately apparent. When we did find them, we had to go by intuition anyway because there were no prints in the snow. Immediately, there was irony in our intention to cultivate “inner knowing” because we had to rely on it from the start in order to find out way through the trees. Without a visible trail or existing tracks to follow, I relied on subtle clues, such as breaks in the trees, a slightly flatter terrain, some barely discernible edge sticking up, indicating where small logs may have framed the gravel trail.
Also, just five minutes into our hike we came across a sign saying the trail was closed a half mile up ahead. I felt a little disappointed, but didn’t hesitate about continuing the hike. I felt that we would deal with the situation as we came across it, but if worse came to worse, we could always turn around and try a different trail. Seeing the warning, I proceeded with caution but didn’t let it automatically discourage me. I had a Plan B just in case, but went ahead with Plan A and let the uncertainty of the situation remain. This, too, played into the symbolism of what it would mean to prepare for the coming collapse.
Spiritual teacher and author Marshall Summers writes that part of the reason why people fail to prepare adequately (emotionally and physically) for the coming “Great Waves” of change is because they’re uncomfortable or afraid of uncertainty. These are the people who insist that technology or government will solve our problems or worse, that there really aren’t any problems and all this talk of collapse is just a bunch of “doomsayers” exaggerating a few problems.
When you can sit with uncertainty and even welcome it, it builds psychological resilience for the coming challenges—whether these challenges are personal or global.
Not knowing the trail very well or why it was closed did add a level of uncertainty to the hike. As the sign promised, we did see the trail barricaded a half mile up, but that wasn’t the full story. The Raccoon Trail intersected with the Elk Trail at the half mile juncture, and the Elk Trail was the one that was closed for forest fuel mitigation operations. The Raccoon Trail continued on, wider and well-trampled (and easier to follow) at that point. That was a good lesson in uncertainty, expectations and decision-making.
The trees on this trail displayed evidence of a life battered by harsh weather and brutal winds. Aspens grew in curved zig zag shapes, like fingers and limbs mangled by a crushing device and healed back up. Some pine trees had bulges and buckled trunks, one tree in particular grew a Y shaped trunk because of some trauma that had been inflicted upon it in the distant past. Trees that had died and toppled over were often leaning against living trees and would squeak and creak each time the wind jostled the tree’s branches. It was like listening to a rusty hinge from some phantom door in the middle of the woods.
This forest was a display of resilience and persistence. And yet, as I passed a stand of young aspen I felt suddenly compelled to grasp the smooth, relatively straight trunk of a younger, ten foot tall tree.
I said, “Stay strong.” I shook the trunk a little, watching the branches rattle above me.
Who was really speaking and who was listening? I didn’t know why I had grasped that tree or why I had given it that advice. Perhaps the tree had spoken to me instead of the other way around. Surely, it didn’t need any advice on how to grow in this place. It had its community around it and it knew what it had to do.
That moment felt significant, somehow. As if it had come from outside of myself, as if I had tapped into a greater wisdom—a kind of wisdom we all have access to.
Upon your return to the parking lot, reflect on what you observed and felt on the hike.
How did the trail or hike itself relate to the question you brought with you? Was there any significance to what happened or what you experienced?
Were there any moments when you had a thought or feeling that seemed to come from outside yourself? You might have had a thought come up and wondered, “Whoa, where did that come from?” When this happens, it is usually devoid of strong emotion—it doesn’t stem from fear or worry or anticipation. It may inspire emotion once you deliberate what the thought means, but the thought itself feels neutral. Did you experience anything like this?
Did anything you see on the hike (the way the trees were growing, the way the weather changed, animals or birds) lend any symbolic significance to your question?
Echo Lake and Chicago Lakes Trail near Mt. Evans January 18, 2010
The Chicago Lakes trail, which starts at Echo Lake near Mt. Evans can be pretty thrilling this time of year. There’s a stretch of trail that’s maybe a couple of feet wide above a very steep and sometimes sheer dropoff, and right now it’s covered in snowpack and ice. Unless you’re wearing YakTrax and have a lot of confidence around heights, you might be challenging your senses. At the start of the trail, Echo Lake is frozen solid and even though there’s a sign posted to keep off the lake, several groups and individuals decided to ignore that sign and ice skate, walk around and even do a little ice fishing (complete with a motorized ice screw).
What felt unusual this time of year along the Continental Divide was the sheer stillness in the air. It was balmy in Denver (mid 50s) and well above freezing up around 9,000 feet at Echo Lake. Normally when the weather is this warm in January you expect strong, gusty winds in the mountains as the air downslopes toward the plains. Not on this day. There was barely a breeze. It was blissfully quiet.
Earlier that morning, back in Westminster, I had gone on a short jog around my neighborhood and was accosted by the smell of exhaust and the rumbling engines from cars with impatient and caffeinated drivers on their way to work on a Monday that was a holiday for some. In comparison, being on this trail in the woods with just the sound of an agitated squirrel and maybe the caw-caw-caw of a crow was like a long, heartfelt sigh.
Once we stepped out from the trees and onto the ledge of the rocky slope overlooking the valley below and north toward Berthod Pass, it felt more than just peaceful. It felt expansive. Again, this was a stark contrast to the claustrophobia of the suburbs, where my views are confined by houses and cars and the sound of non-stop traffic.
My 12-year-old was intrigued by the nooks and crannies between giant boulders that had long ago tumbled off the mountain and settled on the slopes. You had to be careful to stay on the trail or risk wedging your leg in a narrow crevice between rocks, unseen due to a blanket of snow that covered everything. The trail is well-worn and snow-packed, evidence that even this time of year, Colorado’s residents can’t stay away from enjoying some solitude with nature. It’s a good time of year to hike up here. It’s a good way to test your focus and balance on the icy patches along the narrow trail before you descent into the valley. It’s a place to breathe the long, deep sigh of a body and mind letting go of the drone of a busy city.
(Note: This is a contemplative hike you can do on any trail or park near your home. I did this one in Evergreen, Colorado at the Elk Meadows Open Space Park.)
Directions: From Interstate 70 (east or west) take the Evergreen Parkway exit. Go west on Stagecoach Blvd. to the Elk Meadows open space parking lot on the north side of the road.
Duration: 90 minutes–3 hours
Route: Proceed west directly behind the trailhead sign to Meadow View trail. Turn left on the Bergen Peak trail and walk as far as you want before turning back.
Access Notes: Dogs are allowed on a leash. This hike is moderately strenuous at the point where you turn onto the Bergen Peak trail because it is a steady uphill walk up. The trail is gravel with occasional rocks, roots and small boulders to step over. In the winter the trail is likely to be snow packed or icy, so be sure to bring snowshoes or YakTrax. It’s mostly shady the entire hike, which keeps this trail cool year-round. There is some road noise at first from Stagecoach Blvd., but that gets muffled as your make your way north and into the trees.
In his book, “thanks!”, Dr. Robert A. Emmons details research that shows that people who took time to list the things for which they’re grateful every day for a period of 10 weeks experienced 25% more of a feeling of happiness than a different group that focused on hassles or events.
In other words, if you want to feel happier next month than you do today, make it a habit to be thankful for all the blessings in your life.
A daily affirmation of gratitude can put you in a positive mindset for the entire day, in my opinion. I also think that having an attitude of gratefulness for what you have, even if it isn’t quite everything you dream of, can actually get you more of what you really want than constantly complaining about feeling deprived. It’s the Law of Attraction—you attract more of what you want by focusing on the positive and following the energy of gratitude and optimism.
This hike is a way to boost your energy and mood by focusing on the things in your life that make you feel thankful and appreciative.
As you begin the hike, you’ll pass the trailhead sign and shortly past that is a small bridge. Stop before you cross the bridge and think of your intention for the hike. If you want to, voice your intention out loud. Then imagine the small bridge as your threshold between the profane space and the sacred space of your contemplative hike.
Walk in silence (if you’re with others) along the Meadow View trail, which winds its way around the mountain to the north, at which point it gets encased in shadow and trees. This is a nice hike to do when it’s hot in the city in the summer. In the winter, the shade keeps the snow from melting even when temperatures spike into the 40s and 50s around Denver. On a weekday, you will probably encounter a few hikers on the path, some with dogs, and even a few bicyclists (probably fewer in the winter).
Knowing that this is called a “gratitude hike” you’ll probably start thinking of things you’re grateful for as you walk through the woods. Resist doing this as much as you can until you reach the point where you’d like to turn around and head back. That way, you’ll be mindful of everything that you’re seeing and hearing along the trail instead of being lost in thought. Try to open up your vision to the slope of the trail, the way the trees look, and any animal sightings or calls.
Hike along the Meadow View trail until you get to the Bergen Peak trail and follow that trail to the left and up the mountain. The trail will switchback several times before you get to the top, and at that point you will be able to see a view of Evergreen, all the way down the foothills to the plains, if it’s clear enough that day.
When you’re ready to call it a half-way point and turn around, find a spot to either stand or sit for 15-30 minutes. Take a water and snack break.
(If you’re alone) Find a spot where you can look out toward a direction that feels peaceful and soothing—either into the woods or looking east onto the meadow and the town of Evergreen below. Take several deep breaths and a few moments to transition from the active, body-focused task of walking to a more internal, restful and reflective state.
Answer these questions. Take time in between statements to absorb what you just wrote. Don’t rush it. Let each one settle in. If you prefer, speak your answers.
Take notice of any birds or animals while you are doing this activity. Do they play a role in your life on this day, too?
What are you most grateful for in this moment?
What are you grateful for in your life?
(If you’re with a friend or group) Take turns saying what you’re grateful for in the moment and in your life. Don’t judge anyone’s answers and resist the urge to say, “me too.” Acknowledge everyone’s statement with a nod. Be sure to count to five between each person’s proclamation, so everyone feels acknowledged and heard, not rushed.
The activity can end when no one has anything more to say (and it can go on for a while, depending on the size of the group and everyone’s mood).
Before you return to the parking lot, offer gratitude to the mountain and forest for all your insights and mindfully step back over the small bridge threshold.