Different Ways of Seeing the Land

North Lone Pine and Bald Mountain Trail

North Lone Pine Trail, Red Feather Lakes

Location: Just west of Red Feather Lakes

Directions: From Ft. Collins, take Highway 287 north and turn onto CR 74E (Red Feather Lakes Road) toward Red Feather Lakes for approximately 22 miles. Once you see the sign for Red Feather Lakes village, take your second left onto Deadman Road. About three miles up Deadman Road you will pass a metal gate that may or may not be open (it typically opens late June and remains open as long as the roads are passable). The trailhead will be on your left a mile past the metal gate. If the gate is closed, you can park to the side of the gate and walk up the road the rest of the way to the trailhead, which will add an hour to your hike.

Duration: 2 to 5 hours, depending on if you go all the way to the summit of Bald Mountain and where you are able to park.

Access Notes: Deadman Road may have a few rough patches in late spring, but the road up to the metal gate is generally accessible by passenger cars. The stretch of road after the first metal gate may be closed as late as mid-June depending on the conditions on the pass, and if it is, you can simply park to the side and walk up the mile to the trailhead. It is an uphill walk all the way to Bald Mountain from where you’ll park, so be prepared for a good workout. The trail itself may be wet and muddy in late spring, and you may have to cross a rushing creek one-third of the way up if you plan on summiting Bald Mountain, so it’s good to wear waterproof hiking boots. On weekdays in summer, especially if the gate is locked, you will have the trail to yourself. This is a quiet trail on weekends, too, compared to many Front Range trails like South Mesa in Boulder or White Ranch in Golden, and this is one reason I selected it for a summer hike. There are picnic tables at the trailhead and parking area. Dogs are allowed on leash.

The hike:

Even though you won’t see any fourteeners or rocky, snow-capped peaks surrounding this immediate area, don’t be fooled. The trail starts at an elevation of 9,400 feet and climbs to 10,900 feet at the summit of the mountain, if you decide to go that far. Before you enter the woods, you’ll want to walk over to the picnic tables at the parking lot and look at the distant view of the hills to the east and north of Red Feather Lakes, extending into Wyoming. The landscape gradually softens to a wavy roll where the hills end and the flatter plains of Wyoming and northern Colorado begin. The view of the Mummy Range, which is southeast of Bald Mountain, is blocked at this vantage point.

As you start out, you’ll be walking on a narrow trail in a mixed forest of pine, spruce and aspen, shaded from the sun and without views for the most part. In late spring or early summer, particularly after a period of rain or snow, you’ll walk across tiny channels of water streaming downhill across the trail toward a larger creek that carries all the water down the mountain. You’ll pass an area of uprooted trees, evidence of some past windstorm. Imagine hiking in the middle of such an event! The downed trees are gray and weathered and young trees have sprung up to replace the decay.

There will be large, smooth and lumpy rock formations in the woods, places that offer shade and shelter for various small animals. These are the same types of rock formations you may have seen on the drive up from Ft. Collins, and are also the same as the rocks atop Horsetooth Mountain in Loveland. You can see how the geology of the Front Range foothills is similar from south of Highlands Ranch all the way to the Wyoming border.

You’ll come across a mysterious dilapidated structure about a quarter of a mile up—something that looks like a screened-in porch that has caved in. You’ll also notice evidence of various types of human activity here, from the way the trail has been meticulously constructed to allow water to channel across and away, to the clean, sawed edge of logs that have fallen across the trail. You’ll see the work of humans when you walk on top of the rock supported trail near the stream, and wonder about the former function of a large, rusty pipe that lays abandoned on the side of the trail. You are in the midst of Roosevelt National Forest, at the edge of the Rawah Wilderness, and yet this place has been experienced and worked over by many people in the recent and distant past.

Seeing the Land

When I was a kid, my parents owned a travel trailer with which we used to go on long vacations that involved a lot of interstate highway travel. I used to brag that I’d “seen” more than 35 of the 50 states, but really what all that seeing amounted to was a blur out the back window of the Oldsmobile as I sleepily longed for the end to day’s travels. We never took the scenic route, except when we drove through National Parks like Yellowstone or Zion. We traveled on major freeways and stopped every couple of hours to stretch our legs, get gas or have a meal at Stuckey’s. Although I did see the way the landscape changed from the flat farms of Michigan and Ohio to the rolling green hills of Kentucky to the walls of trees running parallel to I-95 through Georgia, I didn’t get to see much of the nuances of the land in very many places. We stayed in KOA campgrounds that had the same general layout, the way hotel rooms all look the same inside, no matter if you’re in Alaska or if you’re in Miami. My parents weren’t into hiking or exploring. They were into visiting tourist traps, shopping for souvenirs and walking around city centers.

About fifty miles south of this trail is Rocky Mountain National Park, a place that as of 2010 boasts more than 3 million visitors per year. How many of those visitors actually get out of their cars, other than to use the facilities or check out the visitor center? How many of them just go for the dizzying drive up Trail Ridge Road, stop at the summit gift shop, then drive back down to Estes Park for dinner before heading home? Granted, even from the inside of a car, there’s a lot to see in Rocky Mountain Park. Rarely will you drive through without seeing at least a small herd of elk. You’ll enjoy vistas of mountains and tundra that are breathtaking. You’ll see wind-twisted trees, crows and hawks and maybe a pika or two.

A tree growing out of a tree

Seeing the land from a car is one way of seeing. It’s very limited, because you’re driving past at a speed where details are lost. It’s difficult to spot smaller animals and practically impossible to identify individual species of plants when you’re busy watching the road, or gazing passively out the passenger window. What impression would someone have of Denver or Boulder if all they did was drive through it along I-70 or the Boulder Turnpike. Would it be a good impression or a bad one?

When you drove up to the Lone Pine trailhead, you experienced this kind of seeing. This is a very brief snapshot of the land. The details are a blur. You’re probably thinking about how much farther your destination is, how many more turns in the road before you see the sign for the trail. You can’t feel the ground beneath your feet and you can’t hear and smell much of anything except the interior of your car. It’s not a good way to get connected to the land.

When you enter the land, actually get out of the car and walk onto a landscape, you experience it in a more vibrant, naked way. You hear birds, wind, and airplanes overhead. You feel the way the land slopes up, down or sideways. Even a road that seems perfectly flat when you’re in the car is not flat when you’re walking—your effort and breathing tell you so.

Why even bother getting out and walking the land? Because the way you see the land affects how you feel about it. The more you see, the more you experience, and the more interesting it seems. The more value it acquires in your mind and heart. Seeing a mountain from a car for a few minutes isn’t the same as backpacking it over the course of days.

Life is everywhere, even in the rotting crevice of a fallen tree.

By slowing down even more, you can heighten your experience in ways that will stick in your memory for a long time. When you’re seeing something passively, you’re missing out on a lot.

For example, have you ever driven along a road and realized afterward that you couldn’t recall its features because you were so lost in thought? Have you ever hiked a favorite trail and couldn’t recall a single unique feature of your surroundings a day later, because you were preoccupied with a conversation with your hiking partner?

Cultivating a deeper seeing is one way to develop mindfulness and presence, so your experience of a trail is not only more rewarding, it is more memorable.

The activity:

Regardless of where you parked your car, start by stepping up the slope of the picnic area of the trailhead to look at the view. Think about what you were noticing while you were in the car on the way up. How does that compare to what you notice now, as you look out to the distant plains of Wyoming and northeastern Colorado? Consider your impression of the view. Do you think what you’re seeing are places where a lot is happening, that are full of interesting things to see? Why or why not?

Begin hiking the Lone Pine Trail at a pace that’s comfortable to you, even if it’s brisk. Notice what you see while you’re walking. Where do you place your gaze most? Do you notice the sights or the sounds more?

After sitting for at least 10 minutes noticing everything around you, stand up and take a look at the spot where you’re sitting—the tree, the log or rock under you. Look closely at it. What do you notice about it that you didn’t notice while you were sitting on it?

You can keep doing this until you reach the smallest object or life form you’re able to perceive, whether it’s a moss or an insect or a strand of spider web. Describe it.

You can “see” deeper by using other senses. Scrape up a bit of soil with a twig and place it in your palm. Imagine what it smells like before actually smelling it. Does it smell how you imagined? How do you describe the smell?

With your eyes closed, touch the place you were sitting. Does its texture surprise you in any way?

Think back to one of the first questions of this exercise, which was to consider the distant landscape and whether it seemed to you that there was anything of interest going on out there. Has your impression changed?

This deeper perception makes me see how life, great and small, is happening on every square inch of this world. From the tiniest microscopic bacteria in the soil, to grasses, trees and animals, there is no such thing as a place where there’s “not much there.” Life is everywhere, and there’s life and death drama occurring despite what humans are doing or what value we place on the land in our minds.

As you complete your hike, imagine how your experience of Red Feather Lakes would be different if you never got out of your car.