Nature and Spirituality

NOTE: I will be facilitating a 3-day retreat with the theme of “Your Inner/Outer Wild: Nature and Spirituality” June 27-29, 2013 in Ouray, Colorado. Visit http://ourayretreat.eventbrite.com for more information

Have you ever been hiking, backpacking or paddling down a river, enjoying your surroundings, and a feeling of utter peace and expansiveness came over you? Suddenly, all your worries felt far away, almost trivial. You felt a deep relaxation come over you, a desire to remain in that place—that meadow, that forest, that river canyon—and take in all its beauty and majesty and not have to go back to your real life with all its stress and responsibilities.

Perhaps you’ve experienced something even deeper and more profound while in wilderness. Perhaps you quietly sat gazing out at a bank of low clouds wrapping themselves intimately around a mountain peak and something shifted in your soul—as if you had been lifted out of yourself to the mysterious nether reaches of the cold granite escarpment beyond that which you could see.  Or alone on a raft, you sank into the silence and grace of a black river as it cut curves through ancient sandstone canyons, your mind slowing, your senses clarifying.

Wherever you were, in whatever special place that called to you, something happened to you. It’s as if you were at the cusp of learning the answer to a great mystery, a revelation that you could have without feeling as if you were simultaneously losing yourself, without becoming permanently lost in the dark wilderness of it all.

The feeling may have been fleeting. It may have lasted a few hours. It may have even jolted your perception of the world and your place in it. However long it lasted, it affected you. You suspect that for that brief moment in time, you had touched the Divine. Whether you call it God, Spirit, Universe, or simply Nature, you knew that you wanted to experience more of it.

In that moment and maybe for a short time after, your life came into complete and harsh focus. Your worries, your to-do lists, your ambitions—matters that once consumed your thoughts constantly—felt trivial. The weight of your responsibilities were dissolved with an exhale, as you inhaled the timelessness and serenity around you.

If you’ve ever felt anything like this while spending time in nature, you’ve had what’s called a “peak” or a “transpersonal” experience. The pleasurable feelings and impressions these experiences leave make some to want to journey to remote places, to spend long hours, weeks or even years on mountain treks, or to slog up rough terrain on less-traveled paths in order to get the kind of solitude and quiet that moments like this require. Some wilderness enthusiasts don’t just venture out in order to challenge themselves or see new landscapes, but they venture on a quest for the sacred.

In fact, for some, time spent in wilderness settings is not only a way to get away from the stresses of daily life, it can also be a spiritual journey, a search for communion with the “oneness of all being”. What’s beautiful about this experience is that the more you seek it, the easier it is to find that particular kind of peace and self-transcendence. Once you stumble upon that altered state of consciousness, it’s easier to find that space again next time, and the next. Time spent outside in nature becomes more than a hobby or pastime, it becomes a form of spiritual practice. This practice can be as spiritually fulfilling as praying or attending church on Sundays.  It can connect you to your Higher Self and to the Divine, and allows you to feel a sense of wholeness that’s rarely attainable in the midst of a busy, multi-faceted modern life.

Transcending the Self

In conventional psychology, little attention is paid to the reasons people seek out spiritual practice or the benefits of having a regular spiritual practice, whether it’s religious or not. In conventional psychology, the emphasis is on healthy and unhealthy expressions of relating to both oneself and others. The study of how a mentally healthy person relates to their “higher self”, or to aspects beyond the ego that include nature and divinity, is transpersonal psychology. Transpersonal psychology includes and incorporates all disciplines of conventional psychology, but goes beyond to answer the question: Why do human beings long for a form of self-transcendence, and how can self-transcendence take place?

Self-transcendence refers to a state of consciousness that is beyond the normal boundaries of the self. It’s more than what we consider to be our living, breathing body; more than just the job we do or the roles we take on in the world; more than just how we’re feeling or thinking in the moment. Self-transcendence is a connection to those aspects that go beyond the individual self to the concept of oneness or connectedness to the world or universe beyond. It has nothing to do with time, body or place. It has to do with plugging into the mystery of existence and the life force of the universe. It is a sense of harmony with other humans, the world, and all its inhabitants. Immersion in natural environments is one way of achieving a state of self-transcendence.

The psychological effect of time spent in wilderness has been the subject of study by researchers in the past. In one such study, Kaplan and Talbot (1983) and Talbot and Kaplan (1986) write about the psychological effects their Outdoor Challenge Program had on both children and adults who went on these week-long wilderness trips. The participants kept personal journals, which they agreed to have examined at the end of the trip by the researchers. Kaplan and Talbot found the strongest themes that emerged in the journals were feelings that can be described as “transpersonal” or transcending the self.

“For many participants [during the backpacking trips] there is eventually a surprising sense of revelation, as both the environment and the self are newly perceived and seem newly wondrous. The wilderness inspires feelings of awe and wonder, and one’s intimate contact with this environment leads to thoughts about spiritual meanings and eternal processes. Individuals feel better acquainted with their own thoughts and feelings, and they feel “different” in some way—calmer, at peace with themselves, “more beautiful on the inside and unstifled.” (Kaplan and Talbot, 1983, p. 178)

Extended wilderness immersion in the form of long backpacking trips, vision quests or meditation retreats in remote settings can bring about powerful emotional transformation. Eco-therapists and ecopsychologists who take clients out for these types of excursions sometimes report that afterwards their clients decide to leave their unhappy jobs, marriages, relationships or uproot their lives in some way. The reason can be a combination of factors. Hidden and deep pain becomes are exposed, the mind slows to allow more creative and clear thinking, and there is some experience with self-transcendence—sometimes for the first time. This can make quite an impression on an individual, so much so that the fears and blocks they have about their life are eliminated in favor of the strong desire to have more of the “flow” they manifested during the excursion. Simply put, if they’re able to imagine a better, happier life while being connected to the Divine, they’ll find it easier to make the necessary changes to achieve that life.

How to Have a Spiritual Experience in Nature

You can experience self-transcendence simply by being quiet, contemplative and mindful while doing what you most enjoy out of doors in a natural setting. You can be on a walk in your suburban neighborhood and look up to see the tops of the trees swaying in the wind and feel a sense of openness and freedom. But maybe you want to experience more than just a flash of good feelings. Maybe you want to really touch the face of God, so to speak, and transcend time and space and feel the ripple of life and love running through you. If that’s the case, you’ll want to go to a place that would most evoke a transpersonal state of mine for you. It would have to be a place that is special to you and your soul. It may not necessarily be a place you’ve been, or even know. Or it can be a place you like to hike or canoe or walk. Ask yourself what landscapes speak to you most. Are they beaches, mountains, prairies, or meadows? What kinds of nature photography are you most drawn to? What scenes do they depict? What seasons?

I’ve always loved photos of tall, craggy mountains and lush wildflower-filled meadows. I especially like photos of misty or foggy weather in the same kind of landscape, which give me a feeling of mystery and foreboding. Depictions of sunsets and sunrises, a photographer’s secret formula for taking amazing photos, are also fascinating to me. When I imagine having a transpersonal moment in nature, I imagine sitting in the valley of a tall mountain at sunrise, with cold mist rising up its face from a drizzly night, and gold and orange hues reflected off snow fields high up close to the peak. I imagine feeling utterly alone, but not in a lonely way. I would be alone in a spiritual way. It would be an aloneness that would cure all loneliness because I felt so connected to the rocks and animals and plants in that mountain valley. I was a part of everything and completely accepted. I would feel as if I were the only one witnessing the sun rising that morning, the first one awake in the world besides the birds who were just starting to chirp in the sunlight.

Likewise, think about the kind of place near where you live where you would most like to be, where you would feel relaxed and happy and safe. Take some time away from your busy life to go there. It doesn’t have to be far. It can be on established trails near town, close enough to feel safe but remote enough to feel wild. Don’t worry about the weather. Sometimes transpersonal moments come easiest when the weather is unsettled and you have more solitude. Just be diligent, and be careful about being equipped and appropriately dressed.  I’ve had the easiest time with self-transcendent moments when it’s been raining, snowing or when a blizzard was rolling in. If you live along the Front Range in Colorado, try getting up before sunrise and seeing the sun rise over the horizon from a comfortable spot on the side of a hill (Sugarloaf Mountain, Horseshoe Mountain).  Try going for a before-dinner hike on a trail close to the city, such as the Flatirons Vista Trail, White Ranch Open Space or Marshall Mesa, so that you’re enveloped in dusky light and racing the darkness. It can feel thrilling. Allow the beauty and peace of the landscape to wash over you, pull you in, fill you up. Make connecting to the land where you live a regular spiritual practice that’s good for the soul and good for the planet.

Cultivating “Beginner’s Mind” at Centennial Cone

Centennial Cone Park in Jefferson County, Colorado

Note: This activity can be fun for kids, as well.

Location: Jefferson County, near Golden.

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.

The Hike

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.

Beginner’s Mind

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.

The Activity

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.

Burning Bear, Dead Cow and Talking Ravens

Burning Bear Creek Trail #602

Location: Pike National Forest north of Grant, Colorado.

Directions: From C-470, take Highway 287 west toward Fairplay for about 39 miles. At the town of Grant, turn right onto CR-62, or Guanella Pass Road. Follow Guanella Pass for approximately 5 miles. The trailhead for the Burning Bear Creek Trail will be on the left at the top of the hairpin turns and there will be a small parking area on the right side of the road. There is a brown, wooden trail sign at the entrance to the meadow where the trail starts.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours.

Route: Follow the Burning Bear Creek Trail – there is only one route out and back.

Access Notes: The parking for this trail can accommodate no more than several cars. You may need to park lower down on the road and walk up a quarter of a mile if you can’t find parking across from the trailhead. It takes about an hour and a half travel time from Westminster/Arvada to arrive at the trailhead without traffic. Guanella Pass Road does not go all the way through to Georgetown as of 9-10-10 due to construction and landslide abatement, so taking CR-62 from Grant is the only way to and from the trail. Guanella Pass Road is a gravel road with limited winter maintenance and in dry conditions is easily passable by passenger car to the Burning Bear Creek Trail. Dogs are allowed.

The Hike

View from the Burning Bear Creek Trail

This hike begins in a marshy meadow on top of a constructed, elevated path that turns into a wooden bridge that crosses the Burning Bear Creek before it enters the shady confines of the trees. There are views of surrounding mountains: Arrowhead Mountain (el. 11,209 ft.), Kataka Mountain (el. 12,441 ft.) and Geneva Mountain form a bowl of rounded peaks directly to the east-northeast of the trail. To the west, the direction the trail runs from Guanella Pass, you’ll see distant Red Cone (el. 12,801 ft.) and Handcart Peak (el. 12,518 ft.). There’s very little discernable elevation gain the first 2 miles of the trail, only occasional undulations as it runs alongside the soft swells of a forested hill where it meets the meadow.

The winding creek at the start of the hike was a strange shade of teal blue when I was there – perhaps mineralized runoff or bacteria was coloring the water. It was running low but with enough volume to indicate at least a little bit of precipitation had fallen recently in the mountains up slope. The trees at the start of the hike are mostly pine and spruce, but aspens do make an appearance about a mile in. Across the large meadows you’ll see a house and perhaps some horses and cattle, but it won’t be long before you’ll have more of a sense of wilderness as you walk deeper into the forest. It is quiet here, being that it is so far from Highway 285 and the traffic is considerably lower on Guanella Pass since its closure at the half-way point.

Wild mushroom

The creek is much smaller and closer to the trail about a mile up, and you can stop to enjoy the sound or just dip your feet for a while. In late summer, the trail close to the creek appeared eroded from mud, so I imagine that it can be quite muddy on parts of the trail in early- to mid-summer. Look for mushrooms in the darker, moister areas, some of which can grow to the size of large grapefruit. Just don’t pick them or eat them—mushrooms can be toxic and only an expert can be sure if they are or aren’t.

Dead Cow and Talking Ravens

It was a sunny, breezy and warm day when I hiked this trail for the first time early in September. There were hardly any signs of the approach of autumn on the drive up yet, with the exception of a few patches of orange-yellow from select branches of narrow-leaf cottonwoods and aspens along the South Platte River to the west of Conifer. On the relatively flat path in the woods at the start of the trail, I would occasionally hear the rumbling and clattering of tractor trailers as they lumbered up Guanella Pass to where they were doing road work. Otherwise, the sounds of trees and birds was soothing and pleasurable. A woodpecker would pound its head against a dead tree trunk and make a repetitive, hollow sound like a tiny jackhammer. A breeze would comb through the hillsides and down the meadow through the brush, as grasshoppers took off and landed, took off and landed underneath my feet, their flight haphazard and brittle-sounding.

The woods changed texture and shape the further I went. At first, the branches were lower and greener, creating a dark green canopy with a lap of mossy growth at the base. Then the trees got leggier, with bare branches reaching further up and allowing more sunlight and warmth to the floor. An amber light enveloped the trail at that point, creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense.

A series of raven cries got my attention at the point where the path led out of the woods into a grassy area. There, about 100 yards away from the trail in the meadow, were about a dozen of the big, confident birds, perched on what appeared to be a large black boulder with white streaks in the middle of the straw-colored field. Some of them were flapping their wings and some were balanced squarely on the edge of the black object. I walked off trail toward the scene, curious and suspecting it might be a dead animal of some kind. The ravens departed as soon as they realized I was approaching, cawing and fussing at me for encroaching on their prize.

I got as close to it as I dared before I realized it was a dead cow. It had been laying in the field for some time, its interior completely caved out by scavengers. The white streaks on the black hide were bird feces from the ravens, disrespectful and crass by human standards, normal protocol by bird standards. I snapped a couple of photos and returned to the trail.

It was there that I saw the rest of the herd: cows laying about, slowly chewing their cud, moving like ghosts between the trees, quiet and contemplative in their bovine repose. Whether they knew about their fallen herd member or not, it was hard to tell. They seemed to be enjoying a rest in the shady woods and staying far away from the gruesome scene in the sunlight. They didn’t seem concerned or frightened or worried. Whatever killed their fellow cow was no longer threatening them—or never did to begin with. Maybe the cow died of a heart attack or stroke. Do animals get strokes?

Before I returned to the  trail I noticed a bleached animal skull – I’m guessing another cow skull from a different season, a different year, perhaps, decorated the trail nearby. I bent down to touch the teeth. They were like human teeth: rounded, white, solid molars toward the back and pointier, more jagged teeth for slicing in the front.

I always wonder why we don’t see more carcasses of dead animals and birds around. There are thousands of birds in a suburban neighborhood. There are maybe dozens of squirrels and rabbits. Sure, once in a while I’ll see a stiff corpse of a bird or a flattened rabbit in the gutter, but is that it? Surely, the rate of casualties must be high in the animal world where the average life span is a few years or less. Nature’s trash collectors and recyclers must do a bang-up job disposing of remains.  No landfill needed. No morgue, or hospital, or hospice necessary. Death seems to occur in private, in burrows and ravines and under vegetation.

An hour later, after an exploratory taste of the woods deeper into Pike National Forest, I turned around to head back to the car. I passed the scene of decay once again. I began to hear strange clicks and murmurs coming from the trees. It took me a while to confirm the sounds were coming from the flock of ravens I had disturbed earlier. They had flown up into the trees above the trail and were having conversations. These weren’t the insistent “caw caw caw” sounds you typically hear from crows or ravens when they’re announcing their location or yelling at each other. These were alien-like whispers, trilly little clacks and brrreeps and bird-like clucks of the tongue (do ravens have tongues?). They were quiet conversations; gossipy and bantering. When I stopped to look up to see where the sounds were originating, I would be startled by a sudden swoosh and a flapping of black wings overhead. The ravens didn’t like to be observed.

I continued walking and just listened. I imagined their exchange went something like this:

“You think she’s going to want to eat some of our beef, Bob?”

“Probably not. She looked a little freaked out by it.”

“Whatever. I’m pretty full anyway. That meat was a little on the tough side.”

“Yeah, but I hear there’s a fresh kill of elk just over that ridge there. Maybe we should check it out later.”

“You go. I need a nap first, Phil.”

I wondered what the take-away message was from this hike and I decided there wasn’t really a message. I had stepped into the living (and dining) room of Burning Bear Creek, intruded on a lunch buffet, eavesdropped on afternoon gossip, and tromped through what may have been a period of bereavement or rest for a tribe of cows. It was regular life and death drama, going on as it does every day, every month, every year, whether humans see it (and hear it) or not.

Imagine what it would be like if one day a couple of squirrels with backpacks decided to walk through your house for entertainment, exercise and to take in “the view.” You and your family would be enjoying a roast at the dinner table and one of them would jump up on the table, get a good look at the scene on the serving platter, and then continue on his merry way to your kitchen, then bedroom, then your den. One of them would stop and pee in a corner behind a chair. On their way back out, they’d pass through where you were sitting in the living room, pausing only briefly to look at your with mild curiosity and amusement as you discuss the day with your spouse. Then they’d go back to their tree and wonder what it all meant.

Contemplative Hiking With a Group

At the end of June, 2010, I had the idea to start a MeetUp group in order to manage my group contemplative hikes. Prior to this, I was scheduling hikes through my blog or just with friends, and it was proving to be ineffective. People were interested in going on a group contemplative hike, but would miss one and not return to the blog check for upcoming hikes, or they had a scheduling conflict with an upcoming hike but forgot to ask about upcoming hikes. Mostly, though, I knew I wanted to reach more people who were interested in hiking together in a group but in a mindful, silent and contemplative way. Relying on visitors to my blog wasn’t going to cut it, since many of the people who read it don’t even live near Denver.

At about the same time, I joined another hiking group on MeetUp. It advertised itself as being just a regular group – nothing thematically special about this club. Most of its members were avid hikers and the organizer had already been on more than a hundred and fifty hikes with the group since its inception. It wasn’t a contemplative group, it wasn’t necessarily competitive and it wasn’t for just singles or a certain age group. I joined because I thought it might be fun to try new trails with a group and meet other hiking enthusiasts.

It took a little while for my own MeetUp to get promoted by the website’s administrators, so in the first few days the only members were my close friends and family, who joined to show their support. I was excited to attend my first MeetUp with the other hiking group, at a trail that was almost two hours’ drive from my house and one I hadn’t hiked before. I carpooled with a couple of nice women that lived near my house.

When the entire group of more than 25 finally converged on the trailhead, we split into the required two groups (to stay within NFS group limits) and began our trek up the hill in the middle of the Lost Creek Wilderness. The pace was decent, certainly not relaxing but not crazy fast. Many people brought their dogs, half of which were border collies that wove in and out of the line of hikers, “herding” us together and then bounding up into the brush. As if on cue, we all started various strands of conversation as we walked over logs, crossed streams and passed wildflowers. There was no time for stopping. We wanted to limit our hiking time to 4 hours but there was a pretty beaver pond to visit, so we had to hustle.

I noticed interesting rock outcroppings at several points on the trail where the trees parted enough to view the landscape. I couldn’t stop to admire these, as the group was in the “zone” and I would have caused a bottleneck. At one point, we began a steep ascent up some rocks that required an extra effort, and I slowed down to preserve my energy since we weren’t even half finished with the long hike. A smaller group bounded ahead—practically racing to the top. Maybe they were training for something. I felt sluggish and out of shape in comparison.

More dogs joined the group. With at least seven circling around, I wondered when one or two would start nipping and growling at each other or trip someone. It didn’t happen, fortunately. When we arrived at the beaver ponds many of the dogs jumped in, got completely soaked swimming the pond, then ran around the group, shaking off the water into people’s lunches and laps.

At the beaver ponds most of the group stopped to take a break and eat something. Clusters of hikers gathered to converse and some laid down to relax on the grass. I enjoyed the scenery, but it was hot and getting late and I was ready to make my way back down.

I lead the way for the women I carpooled with. I kept a steady, quick pace. The fast group made their way past us again, this time practically running down the trail, their butts and hips swaying quickly and their elbows swinging wide in order to keep balance. I thought they were a little ridiculous. Weren’t they going to miss just about everything around them by hiking that fast? Certainly, you can’t even look up when you’re trotting downhill over rocks and roots without the possibility of launching into the bushes. But hey, I know how much more fun it is to exercise outdoors, so I shouldn’t judge.

When I finally got home I felt worn out, through and through. The heat, the pace, the endless chatter, the dogs bouncing around me frayed my nerves. I wondered if my own experiment with starting a MeetUp group was going to bomb. Maybe people didn’t want a quieter, more contemplative experience while hiking. Maybe people just wanted to work out and use the trail as a background for socializing. Maybe they preferred to hike with their dogs, not without them. Maybe I was out of touch with what people really wanted.

I felt defeated and a little sad.

When I got home I checked my e-mail. In my inbox were no fewer than two dozen requests to join my Contemplative Hiking MeetUp group! I read through the reasons people decided to join the group and felt giddy with each new e-mail:

“Want more solitude and appreciation of surroundings.”

“Being in nature feels like a spiritual practice.”

“…not just an hiking club, but combining hiking w/ finding that divine connectedness while enjoying the nature.”

“I think it is good to be outside and get in touch with nature while also looking within.”

“I want to learn how to read and listen to the environment and to spend more time connecting to the wind, water, flowers and earth.”

One person even commented that they themselves were considering joining a similar group, but then they saw mine. No one seemed bothered by my “no dogs” rule, either. (See my blog post regarding “Should You Take Your Dog on a Contemplative Hike?”)

Since that day, my MeetUp has attracted more than 85 members and I’ve led five hikes with the group. I limit the amount of RSVPs, so there have never been more than ten people hiking with me on the trail. Keeping the group size small is important to keeping the feeling of intimacy and contemplation. Almost every person I met who has attended a hike said that they loved the required silence. Some have said that it’s like hiking alone, but they feel safer with a group. Some said they don’t like the chatter of other groups, because it detracts from their appreciation and awareness of the surroundings. Some have said the group is perfect for introverts who don’t want to talk too much or feel strange about being quiet. We spend so much of our day in chatter: e-mail, Facebook, text messages, television, radio, headlines and advertising. It’s rare to experience relative silence, just the sounds of birds and animals and weather, especially with other people. That silence radiates out like a balm, soothing our minds and opening up our inner and outer awareness.

We’ve had some adventures together in the short time I’ve led the group. A couple of the hikes happened during rain storms. The first hike I led was to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain before sunset, and we were the only people on the trail that evening. Things that would have felt inhibiting otherwise felt invigorating within the context of the group hike: an impending wind and rain storm, darkness and dusk, evidence of bears, a deep and solitary silence in a canyon. I love seeing the light in people’s eyes when they experience something extraordinary or notice something new. I know their souls are coming alive and they are creating memories that will stick with them for a long time. I know I am.

It’s not easy staying silent for the entire hike – not for me and not for most people. Each hike has a theme and at some point in the middle I stop and we do some kind of activity that I have created (many of which I write about in this blog or in my book). I like to “check in” with people when we’re close to the end of the hike, or after the activity. We talk about what we’ve observed or felt, which deepens the experience. It’s interesting to observe that need to speak, then stay with the desire and let it pass. It’s like walking meditation and each desire to blurt out a comment becomes an observation of our monkey mind, then a letting go. No judgment, no criticism. Just a letting go and coming back to the present, to the forest, to the meadow and to the mountain.

At the end of each of the group hikes, I come away feeling invigorated and calmed. I can’t wait to see what adventures and experiences lay ahead for myself and the group in the coming year.

If you live in the Boulder/Denver area and would like to join my MeetUp, visit http://www.meetup.com/Contemplative-Hiking-Along-the-Front-Range. It’s free to join and you get reminders and invitations in your e-mail about each upcoming scheduled hike.

Why Yellowstone is Not a Good Place for “Contemplative” Hikes

Yellowstone hot pool

One of the “rules” that I have for contemplative hiking is that it should be done in silence. You don’t have to hike alone, although sometimes it’s good to get outside in nature with yourself, by yourself, and really unwind from the expectations of friends or loved ones. You can relax, go for a long walk in the woods, think about nothing but how the clouds are moving over the mountain peaks, and feel that momentary feeling of oneness and self-lessness. You can do that whether you’re alone, or with a friend, or with a small group of strangers, as long as there’s silence and space for everyone to have their own experience in peace.

Last week I went on a family trip to Yellowstone with my husband and daughter. It wasn’t my first time there, although I was my daughter’s age when I was there last with MY parents. Yellowstone is a place of beauty and danger – lots of danger. It is a place where you have to watch your step, stay on the path, stay far away from wildlife, and be conscious of where you are and what you’re doing at all times. You can be scalded, drowned, bit, and mauled if you don’t. The volcanic nature of the area makes it an ever-changing and shifting landscape, and sometimes the ground beneath your feet can literally drop out on you in a second. (Incidentally, while we were vacationing there last week, a pair of escaped convicts were hiding out in the general vicinity. Something else to be leery of!)

One of the guidelines the park has set up for visitors is not to hike alone and NOT to hike silently. This is to assure you don’t surprise a bear, whose sense of hearing is probably much better than their sense of sight. Bears don’t like to be startled, especially if there are cubs involved. A grizzly can and will rip your face off if it senses that you are a threat.

We listened to a ranger during a group hike in the nearby Teton Range tell us that wearing bear bells on a backpack isn’t enough – as a matter of fact, they’re insufficient in warning bears of your presence. Park officials advise that when you’re hiking in Yellowstone, you go in a group and you get LOUD. I mean, chatty and obnoxious. Give the impression of a large, obnoxious herd clomping down the trail. This way, they say, you’ll scare the bear away and ensure your safety. And just in case, have bear spray with you and “know how to use it.”

Apparently, in the history of the park, there have been only a  handful of fatalities from bears (grizzlies) and in all cases the parties in question were hiking alone.

So when it comes to Yellowstone, contemplative hiking is not a good idea. At least my idea of it.

This led me to consider my recommendations for doing contemplative hiking along the Front Range in silence. I don’t see it as a problem here the way it is in Yellowstone. For one thing, there are no grizzlies here. Black bears hibernate from November – April, so the only time where this may be an issue is in summer. As anyone who likes to hike along the Front Range in summer will attest, there is rarely a trail where there aren’t at least a few people around, chatting away, making the noise, even if you aren’t. As for mountain lions, they know you’re there. There’s never been an incident of a person “surprising” a mountain lion. They’re saavy and stealthy creatures who see you even when you can’t see them.

If the idea of hiking alone and in silence anywhere near the Denver/Boulder area freaks you out, then I invite you to join my Contemplative Hiking MeetUp group. You can meet like-minded people who enjoy going out in nature and hiking, but don’t necessarily enjoy all the chatter and social pressures that go with hiking in groups. I’ve organized four MeetUps so far that have been wonderfully relaxing, contemplative and for the most part, silent. But they’ve also felt safe, because we’re in a group, and a group is intimidating to all manner of predator, be it a furry black one on four legs or a less furry taupe one one two.

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.

How to Do a Medicine Walk

Coulson Gulch Road/National Forest Trail #916

Location: West of Pinewood Springs, between Lyons and Estes Park

Directions: From Boulder take the 36 through Lyons toward Estes Park. Immediately past Pinewood Springs, turn left (south) on Cr-118, where you’ll see a brown sign for Big Elk Meadows and National Forest Access. Drive another 3 miles until you get to the “Y” fork in the road. Take the left fork, following the sign pointing toward National Forest Access. This last half mile is a very rutty dirt road best accessed by high-clearance vehicles. Park along the road in front of the metal barrier. Walk south past the metal barrier where the road continues and spreads out into a bigger area. Veer slightly east where there’s a second metal barrier and locate the narrow dirt trail directly west of it that descends into the trees below, indicated by a brown National Forest Service sign that states “Trail 916.”

Duration: 4 hours or longer

Access Notes: Camping is allowed at the trailhead in certain areas, so you may encounter a few cars already parked at the trailhead in summer. The last half mile of dirt road is not maintained in winter, so this hike is accessible when the roads are dry—after Memorial Day. Elk hunting is permitted in this National Forest area during the fall, and it is advised to wear bright orange during that time when hiking in National Forest. There are no facilities or restrooms at the trailhead. Dogs are allowed on leash.

The Hike

This is one of the trails within 30 minutes drive of Boulder that feels like you’re stepping into wilderness. It’s quiet, bucolic in summer, with no road noise (except maybe ATVs in nearby Big Elk Meadows and Johnny Camp) and long, green views of the valley between Pinewood Springs and the north Boulder foothills.

The start of the trail is a narrow slit in the dirt that cuts through a sloped, grassy meadow that descends into the trees. It then follows a small creek through a thicket of woods and brush at the bottom of a gully. In the spring and summer you’ll see a variety of wildflowers dotting the trail, including lupines, yellow peas, prairie chickweed, western dayflowers, columbines and others. The view of the meadow below (Higgin’s Park) is most spectacular the first portion of the hike, before you enter the woods.

After the cool and pleasant walk in the woods next to the stream, you’ll come to a more exposed section of the trail where you can look across the valley to the west and south. After a steep and sketchy descent down a section of trail with a lot of loose sand and gravel, you’ll come to an old abandoned log cabin—a relic of the earlier part of the last century. There’s no roof, but a rusted bed frame, mattress springs and headboard are propped up inside the decaying structure. There’s even a rusty skeleton of a wood-burning cookstove flung onto the forest floor nearby. It feels odd this far into the trail, and makes you wonder how people used to bring in such items this deep into a forest. A little further down, an old livestock enclosure fashioned out of logs borders what once was a home to someone who lived this close to nature.

As you come out of the woods past this abandoned homestead you come upon Higgins Park, a large, rolling meadow with views of Cook Mountain and North and South Sheep Mountain. As the trail turns east and away from the grassy hill, you have to make a decision—go another half hour toward Button Rock reservoir or another 20 minutes to a footbridge over the St. Vrain river, following the trail until it dead ends up the river.

There are many opportunities to view and listen to wildlife along the way—chirping and crowing birds, squirrels, elk, or deer. Sometimes the more open you are and in tune with the land, the more animals you notice.

The remote feel and peaceful setting make it an excellent location to do a Medicine Walk.

Medicine Walk

Native Americans believed that every animal or object in nature had a spirit and contained special powers that were beyond the normal ability of humans. The landscape and its inhabitants was not an inanimate object to be quantified and assessed for monetary value as it is in Western culture, but a place alive with mystery and purpose, omens and symbolism. The spirit, or wakan in Lakota, of hawks, coyotes, elk and other animals symbolized such qualities as courage, success in courtship, or a deep and clear seeing. When animals appeared to humans, whether in reality or in dreams and visions, it held special meaning. There was an intimate connection between the animal realm and the human realm, each one needing the other.

It was believed that every person had their own spirit guide from nature, represented by some animal or object. This spirit guide gave the person emotional strength to endure challenges in life and the insight to succeed in hunting, love or leadership.

Spirit guides were particularly important during vision quests. Vision quests were sacred rites of passage in Native American culture where adolescents (and sometimes adults, when seeking answers to difficult questions) would fast in the wilderness for three or four days, which helped incite hallucinations and an altered psychological state in order to get a vision to guide them in their life. The quester would bring along talismans of their spirit guide they carved or created on their journey, packed in a sacred medicine bag.

During their time in the wilderness, there was symbolic meaning from things they observed from the weather, animals and the landscape that they interpreted in relationship to their own life. The “messages” they received told them of their purpose in life, revealed their special gifts and talents, and instructed them how to use those gifts to benefit their tribe when they returned.

A medicine walk is like a short vision quest, during which you pay attention to the omens in nature in order to find your medicine, which in the Native American sense is anything that is healing  and positive to body and mind. During a medicine walk, you find a place where you can spend at least a half a day alone, walking, sitting and meditating in nature with as few distractions from civilization as possible. You focus on an important personal issue and seek wisdom and guidance in nature by looking for symbolic meaning from the things you observe.

Medicine walks can be undertaken in preparation for important transitions in life: a new job, a divorce, a new relationship. It can be a healing, insightful practice when you’re feeling stuck or confused about something in your life. The insights you receive from a medicine walk can be subtle or immensely profound, and sometimes the answers aren’t what you were expecting. But simply by embarking on a medicine walk, you invite a more mystical quality in your life. You acknowledge that the world is more than a collection of profane objects, but rather a world alive with both meaning and mystery.

To prepare for a medicine walk, you select a place where you will spend a half day or longer, a place where there aren’t too many people (preferably a trail that has little or no visitors on certain days of the week). If you have a favorite trail or a place that draws you in some mysterious way, that’s a good place to go. The key is to have a place where you’ll feel comfortable and unembarrassed to walk slowly, sit for long periods of time or even have a conversation with an animal or plant. The reason you want to be out for at least a half day is because you’ll naturally come with a lot of mental chatter, and it will take at least a few hours for that chatter to subside enough for you to be open to what the outside world is trying to say.

It can be a time during which you take water, but no food. The reasoning behind this is that because fasting can further eliminate distractions.  Personally, I think hunger is a bigger distraction and I prefer to take along a snack. In planning for your walk, be prepared for any weather possibility since the weather can be completely different at the end of your walk as it is when you embark. Or, try to plan your walk on a day when you know the weather will be as agreeable as possible. Be sure to tell someone exactly where you’re going and what time you expect to be back home, in case you get injured or something happens and you’re out longer than you want to be.

I selected the Coulson Gulch trail for this activity, because it is on National Forest land and has less visitors than other trails near the Front Range, especially on weekdays. It feels like you’re deeper in the wilderness than you actually are, and provides the solitude and quiet that you’ll need in order to benefit from this contemplative activity.

When you arrive at the trail, set an intention for your medicine walk. You’re here to ask guidance from nature and you want to stay open to all omens and signs. Perhaps you’re confused about the direction you’re going in life. Maybe you want guidance about what your true talents and gifts are, and what to do with them. Whatever the question, it should be of a personal nature.

Find an imaginary threshold that you will step over to begin your medicine walk and journey into dream time, or a period of time when everything that happens and everything you observe has special and sacred meaning. You will be stepping back over this same threshold upon your return. This threshold could be the metal barrier to the trail, or the trail sign, or a stand of trees.

Walk purposefully and slowly. Allow your curiosity to seek out things that capture your attention. Don’t analyze everything you observe for meaning, because sometimes the best guidance comes in subtle ways when you least expect it.

When I went on my first medicine walk, I wanted answers on how and when to transition my career. I had a hard time receiving the messages at first. I was looking at everything and assigning meaning. Did the stand of broken aspens mean that I was making changes before I was ready? Did the wind pick up and shake the leaves on the tree because it acknowledged what I just said? Did that deer symbolize something positive or negative? Nothing I was considering felt right. It was as if I was trying too hard and making up my own meaning instead of letting the mystery unfold.

After a few hours, I started to feel tired and hungry and turned around to head back. As I was thinking about my hunger, a strange thought came over me. I looked to the grass in the meadow and was convinced I could dive into it and find food in the form of insects. This wasn’t a logical thought or even a momentary musing. It felt visceral and real, and my body almost followed my eyesight into the grass.

I had no idea where the thought came from. It didn’t feel like any I had experienced before or since. It was as if, for a brief moment, I channeled the thoughts of a bird. The sensation felt wild, foreign, and intense.

Ironically, after all that analysis of every unusual thing I observer, I came away from my medicine walk with just one simple message: don’t try too hard. Stay open. Allow the spirit guide to come to me, instead of searching it out. This could mean staying open on contemplative hikes, or it could mean staying open to what happens in life and allowing opportunities and answers to unfold instead of forcing a direction.

I haven’t channeled any bird thoughts since that one time, but now, coincidentally or not, almost every time I go on a contemplative hike I see ravens. Ravens flying in ecstasy overhead. Ravens sqwaking at me. Once, I observed two ravens, one chasing the other one that had something in its beak. As they flew right above me, I willed the raven to drop his prize, and he did, and whatever it was landed just a few feet from me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find whatever it was since it was small and landed in the snow. But in that split second when I thought, “drop it” and the bird let go of what he was holding right as he flew overhead, there was a connection between us. Once, on a hike with my husband, I was telling him about the special symbolism of ravens and how I experienced the thought of getting food from the grass, and within moments of saying that, we came upon a big raven, pecking at the grass in front of us on the trail. Coincidence or not, I felt validated somehow. The raven then flew up into the trees and watched me. It was surreal.

But what does it all mean?

To me, ravens symbolize freedom and intelligence. Their croaky cry echoing across valleys or the way they seem to fly just for the fun of it is their way of and reminding me about my own freedom. They link me to my own wildness. They’re a reminder not to take life too seriously, but to stay curious and revel in the feeling of the wind in my wings, so to speak.

When you go on your medicine walk, you will find your own spirit guide and message. Remain open but don’t try too hard to read what you’re experiencing. The best guidance comes when you least expect it. Your spirit guide will find you. You don’t need to go looking for it.

To heighten your experience, stop and have a conversation with a being. Tell a tree about yourself. Ask a bird what his life is like. Sometimes it will seem like creatures want to communicate something to you. Birds will follow you. Deer will stare at you. Trees will tremble as you approach. What is it they’re trying to say?

When you complete your walk and step back over your threshold, take a minute to offer gratitude to the land for showing you its ancient and eternal wisdom. You can bow, say thank you, lay your hands on an object or tree and offer it positive energy. Record your impressions in a journal when you get home, when they’re still fresh in your mind.

More People On the Trail – Good or Bad?

View of Pike's Peak from the Devil's Head fire tower overlook

Devil’s Head Trail

Noticing Other People Enjoying Nature

Location: Between Sedalia and Deckers, in Douglas County

Directions: From Denver take I-25 South to Happy Canyon Road (west), then go proceed on Happy Canyon Road to Highway 85 and turn right (west) toward Sedalia. (From western suburbs take C-470 to Santa Fe Drive to Sedalia and Highway 67).

From Highway 85 turn left (southwest) onto Highway 67 heading toward Deckers. Then head west on highway 67 to the north entrance of the park at Rampart Range Road, 10 miles. Take this South for approximately 9 miles to Devil’s Head campground and the Fire Tower trailhead.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours

Route: There is only one trail up the mountain to the Devil’s Head overlook and tower from the parking lot.

Access Notes: Rampart Range Road is closed from December to April since the road is not maintained in winter. It’s best to go in the summer or late spring when roads are dry and clear.

The trail itself is a moderately steep walk 1.5 miles up to the summit and the fire tower overlook. There are picnic tables and restrooms (no running water) at the trailhead and parking lot. The lot fills up early on summer weekends, even though there are plenty of spaces. You don’t need a 4WD vehicle to access this trail since Rampart Range Road is gravel and fairly smooth with only a few areas of washboard. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive to Devil’s Head from most central and northern Denver suburbs, much less if you’re coming from Highlands Ranch or Castle Pines.

This is one hike I recommend doing on a summer weekend as opposed to attempting to come when it’s not crowded, such as mid-week or early in the morning. The point of this contemplative hike is to really experience the feeling of other people on the trail, what it means, and what the future holds for those wanting to experience the peace and tranquility of nature.

Dogs are allowed on leash.

The Hike

From the parking lot to the top of the trail where the fire tower is located is 940 feet of elevation gain and a mile and a half of long, sweeping switchbacks that wind their way through tall, erect aspen and then through spruce and pine. The trail zig zags the north face of the mountain, with distant or picturesque views of rock formations, Mount Evans, the eastern plains and the Black Forest, and the Lost Creek Wilderness Range to the west.

The hike starts off sheltered in the tall aspens and crosses a small creek (during spring meltoff). Mid-way up the mountain you’ll pass huge, smooth, egg- and spire-shaped boulders and scenic overlooks. Don’t get too close to the edge!

Once you reach the summit, you’ll encounter a small meadow, a cabin, more restrooms, and an old fire tower that is accessed by a very steep and long metal staircase. This is a good place to take a break and eat lunch. The final push to the fire tower is not for the faint of heart or people with vertigo or fear of heights. However, if you can manage it, it’s well-worth the effort. The views of Pikes Peak to the south and Denver and Mt. Evans to the north are so expansive it feels as if you’re in an airplane—much higher than you actually are. The tower is closed if there’s lightning or the danger of lightning. Ideally, you want to do this hike on clear, sunny days that aren’t too windy. The final elevation at the top is about 9,500 feet, so you may feel a little winded with all that climbing.

With so many people you pass on the trail, once you reach the tower you’ll enjoy the feeling of wilderness and space. Pike National Forest surrounds you to the south, west and east, and trees are all you can see for miles. To the west, you can see the 130,000-some acres that were burned during the 2002 Deckers wildfire. The hills there are still brown in comparison to the unburned areas.

More People On the Trail — Good or Bad?

One of the many scenic overlooks from Devil's Head trail

Before you even arrive at the parking lot for this trail, you’ll notice something unique about this entire area of Pike National Forest. The length of Rampart Range Road branches off into large alcoves and parking lots intended for trucks with trailers hauling ATVs, dirt bikes and quads. There are special trails that have been designated for off-road travel by ATVs only and these trails weave in loops through the forest, sometimes parallel to the main road. Families and groups pitch their tents, bring in their travel trailers and motorhomes and spend the day or longer riding their ATVs and enjoying time in the woods.

The high-pitched buzzing of small engines permeate the area and you may start to wonder, as you’re making your way up the road to the trailhead, how you’re going to enjoy this hike with all this racket going on. It’s actually not that bad once you get up onto the trail, as most of the noise is absorbed by the trees and wind.

When I was in my 20s I used to enjoy weekends camping with friends who’d bring along their small quad that we all took turns riding. We camped in BLM land near the Lost Creek Wilderness, and being young and stupid, we did some stupid things, like making a campfire that was way too hot and throwing out sparks, drinking too much, making too much noise and probably not being very kind to the land. I’m sure we probably pissed off some backpackers or hikers who may have wandered near our camp when they heard the growl of the ATV engine zipping up and down the hills.

I haven’t ridden in any ATVs since then and actually find their noisiness irritating now when I’m out hiking or trying to enjoy the peace of wilderness. I suppose I’m not the only one who feels this way, because I know there aren’t many places that allow the kind of activity one sees as one travels down Rampart Range Road.

Recently, the idea of too many people using natural areas has come up as a source of controversy among the National Forest Service, Boulder county residents and some of my friends. In October of 2009, The Boulder City Council and the Open Space and Mountain Parks Board of Trustees were considering a pilot program that would charge non-residents a fee to use some of the open space parks within Boulder county. The reason this was being considered was because City Council was looking to close a budget gap for Open Space programs. Around 40% of users of the open space park are non-Boulder (non-city tax paying) residents, according to City Council, and they felt those people needed to help pay for the cleaning and maintenance of the parks.

The walk up to the fire tower is 1-1/2 miles and nearly 1000 feet of elevation gain.

In May of 2010, an article appeared in the Gazette stating that the Forest Service was considering charging hikers $10 per day to summit the fourteeners in the South Colony Basin near Westcliffe, Colorado. As state and federal budgets are tightened, land managers are looking for alternative ways to both cover the cost of trail maintenance and to reduce the number of people using the trails.

This controversial proposal struck a nerve among some of my friends and family, who admit they, too, feel there are too many people crowding the Front Range hiking trails on any given weekend and wonder what the solutions are.

One person even told me that perhaps there ought to be less books telling people where to go hiking, because the information is just contributing to this “problem.” (This book, of course, being the target of such facetious banter.)

But is it a problem? And why is it a problem?

As an ecopsychologist, I can say that the worst thing federal, state and city authorities can do to solve budget problems is to start charging money for people to spend time in nature. Unless people have ample opportunities to enjoy nature and connect with the land where they live, they will no longer know how much wilderness is really left and therefore won’t care about what happens to wilderness. Human beings need some sort of connection to nature for optimum mental health. We cannot lock ourselves up in a concrete box with only more boxes such as television, cars and computers to interact with and think we can end up healthy, mentally or physically. We need a relationship to the land: whether that’s a garden, an animal, a tree, a park or a backyard. When that relationship is lacking, man’s consideration for his environment withers. The environment just becomes an abstract idea. The natural world becomes an object to be exploited and converted to human wealth. It becomes a mountain to be mined for coal, an ocean to be exploited for oil and seafood, a forest to be cut down to build tract homes.

If it’s going to cost money to experience wilderness, then only those people who can afford to spend the money will be able to enjoy time in nature. Many low-income people already don’t drive up to the mountains to go hiking or just enjoy the woods because they can barely afford the gas money for such trips, let alone if it cost them $10 per person or $5 to park their car each time. Enjoying nature becomes a luxury for those that can’t afford the fees and gas prices, and the best they can do is to go to a nearby park in the city and sit under a tree.

But the bigger question is, why are so many more people using the trails, visiting State and National Parks and putting a financial burden on the agencies who are working so hard to maintain these areas? Is it that there are so many more people moving to Colorado and the population is increasing in general? Perhaps — I certainly wouldn’t discount this obvious fact.

View from just below the fire tower

Perhaps the other reason more people are finding it necessary to drive some distance away from where they live to go enjoy nature is because nature is being continually pushed out from the city by development. There are fewer and fewer places to go in the city that afford the same kind of experience once gets from hiking in the woods—where it’s quiet and scenic and smells good. It’s not so much that population is increasing, it’s also that development is increasing around the Front Range, with fewer and fewer fields, prairies, stands of trees and what investors call “vacant land.”

Is charging fees and discouraging use of trails and parks the best solution? The problem is not that there are too many people using the trails. The industrial growth paradigm that creates this need in people is the problem. It stems from how we treat or value natural areas that already exist near the city. It’s not a vast meadow with some trees to be enjoyed by all creatures; it’s undeveloped land that has certain monetary value to investors, but only if it’s bulldozed, excavated and covered by buildings and parking lots. A prairie dog or coyote is not an animal; it’s a “nuisance” to be eliminated or relocated.

Therefore, charging fees to recoup the cost of human use of natural areas or to discourage use by making it only affordable to wealthy people is like putting a band aid on a headwound. It doesn’t address the core problem of industrial growth society’s attitude toward nature, and ignores the fact that keeping people distanced from nature only adds to the problem, because people will look to material wealth to fill that void; a void they could be filling through spiritual and contemplative practices, such as an opening up to feeling enchanted by nature’s beauty.

The Activity

The intention of this hike is not to be silent and withdrawn from others, but to connect not just to the mountain, but to the people who have come to enjoy it, too.

When I hiked this trail in late May, I noticed a lot of “sneaker hikers” enjoying the trail. This is what I call people who like to hike but don’t have the latest in technical clothing and gear, who aren’t racing to the top, who are stopping frequently to take breaks and enjoy the view and maybe even snap a few photos. They came with their kids, their dogs, their friends to enjoy a warm, sunny spring day in the woods with their loved ones.

People aren’t a “nuisance” on trails. They are individuals who value the land where they reside. They value what being in the woods or hiking up a mountain does for their bodies and souls. Human beings belong to the land, not the other way around.

I can’t imagine these hikers feeling that this particular trail is an object to be exploited to create products or build mansions for the select few. I’m almost positive that if I were to ask each person on the trail if they wouldn’t mind if this entire area was closed to the public and turned over to a mining and forestry company to extract resources for the manufacture of cellphones, coffee tables and televisions, they’d look at me in horror.

Take a look at the people you encounter on your hike. Consider why they’re here. Consider what would happen if they weren’t here, or if no one cared about coming up to the mountains for enjoyment.

These are people who have seen nature displaced where they live, in small ways, or perhaps in significant ways. Deep in their memory, they all have a story to tell about the displacement or destruction of natural areas.

In 1995 I moved to Broomfield. I bought a new house in an area that was previously just old farm fields and prairie. For at least the first two years I lived there, my still-small neighborhood was surrounded by these fields. I would go walking through those fields after work almost every day, enjoying the views of the mountains and the way everything felt so wide-open and spacious. I would observe many different birds flittering about from shrub to shrub. But all this came to an end after two years of development and expansion, and the fields were covered in tract homes and playgrounds.

What is your story about losing a favorite place to development or pollution?

While you’re making progress up to the tower, enjoy connecting to the people as well as the scenery. Say hello. Make eye contact. Strike up friendly conversations.

How does it feel to share these woods and this mountain with other people?

Were there any assumptions and attitudes about other people on the trail that were challenged by your observations?

When I began my descent down the steps of the fire tower, I ran into a man and his two children on their way up. I had passed them an hour earlier, as the father had stopped to point out some kind of plant to them.

His son, who looked to be about 12 or 13, had stopped halfway up the staircase, terrified and crying. His head was slung in shame as he was unable to move up or down. I slowed down as I passed them, and looked with empathy at the father as he tried to comfort his son.

“I remember feeling the same way about these kinds of places when I was his age.” I said.

“Yeah, it’s tough having a fear of heights.” The father answered. His eyes and voice were full of compassion and softness.

In that moment, we were more than just hikers. We connected as parents, as human beings, and as decent people wanting the same things for ourselves and our children.

Destruction and Healing: In Nature, In the Soul

Buffalo Creek Burn Trail

Buffalo Creek Burn Trail No. 758

Location: Buffalo Creek, Colorado.

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

A still rare sight: A baby tree grows amidst burned stumps

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.

The Activity

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.

Forest surrounding the burn area

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.

My New Favorite Front Range Hiking Trail (Shhh…Don’t Tell Anyone)

Fowler to Goshawk Trail

Location: About a mile east of the town of Eldorado Springs

Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on CO-170, go 2.7 miles to Boulder County Road 67, turn left. Go about ½ mile where the road ends and park near the trailhead on the east side where it is allowed.

Duration: Approximately 2 hours

Route: from the parking lot, start along the Fowler Trail and follow signs to the Goshawk Ridge Trail. At the first intersection, veer right (north). Take the Goshawk Ridge Trail for about 2-1/2 miles. Once you cross a bridge, turn left on the Springbrook North trail and return via the Fowler Trail to the trailhead where you parked

Access Notes: The parking lot for this trailhead only has space for about a half dozen cars. If you arrive mid-morning on a weekend or when there’s a lot of use, you will have to park at the South Mesa Trail or Dowdy Draw parking lot and walk up the road to the trailhead, which will add about a mile to your hike. If you park at the Dowdy Draw Trailhead and hike to the Goshawk Ridge Trail from the Dowdy Draw Trail, you’ll add about 4 miles to your hike. I recommend starting at the Fowler trailhead to experience more of the contemplative aspects of this wonderful and less-traveled trail. Dogs are not allowed on the Goshawk Ridge Trail.

The 1.2 mile Goshawk Ridge Trail that forms a loop of the Fowler Trail was constructed in January, 2009, so it’s a relatively new area that has opened up to the public in the Eldorado Springs area. The day I hiked this trail was my first time. I would have to say that the beautiful variations in the landscape and the solitary nature of the walk due to its lack of popularity (not many know about it and there’s not a lot of parking) make this my favorite hiking trail within a half an hour of the Denver/Boulder suburbs.

Looking west to Eldorado Canyon from Fowler Trail.

I arrived at this trail at 8:30 a.m. on a sunny, cool Saturday in late spring. On road up to the trailhead I drove past the South Mesa Trail and Dowdy Draw parking lots, both of which were almost filled with weekend visitors. A mile up the road, at the Fowler trailhead, the parking area was comparatively empty: only about a half dozen cars lined the road outside of the “No Parking” signs.

Someone told me about this special trail a couple of months ago, touting it as incredibly scenic and lovely, and now that I’ve experienced it myself I hesitate to even advertise its location publicly. It feels like a hidden gem in an area that I call the “Disneyland of hiking”: all the popular Boulder trails west of Broadway that can become as crowded as a stroll down Pearl Street on warm weekends. Runners, hikers, families, and dogs making steady progress up and down the foothills between Boulder and northern Jefferson County. Unless you want to drive an hour into the mountains, you’d be hard-pressed to find solitude for your hike on a mild day, let alone on a weekend, this close to town. So finding this trail felt remarkable to me, like a secret that only certain “insiders” were privy to.

Rock cut passage

As you begin the walk on the Fowler Trail toward Goshawk Ridge Trail, you’ll cross a sloped meadow where deer like to graze early in the morning or late in the afternoon. You’ll switchback toward the northwest and come across one of this trail’s unique aspects: a man-made cut through the rock wall that you walk through and beyond which you’ll find yourself standing on a ridge overlooking the small town of Eldorado Springs below. This is just the first of many pleasant or delightful characteristics of the Fowler/Goshawk Trail, most of which I won’t mention in this essay because if this is your first time on this trail, you’ll want to allow yourself to be surprised at each turn.

The Relationship Between Landscape and Mood

The Goshawk Ridge Trail has a variety of landscapes and can evoke many kinds of subtle differences in mood, depending on what time of day you go or the weather. There’s a cozy, wooded canyon with a stream crossing. There are expansive views of Boulder County. There’s the not-too-distant whistle of the cargo or passenger train that snakes its way around the hills directly above and west of the trail. There’s a walk across a green meadow with wildflowers. There is also a walk through dead trees once ravaged by fire, and the quiet fortitude of a wide, flat forest that seems to go on for miles.

Fuzzy purple Pasque flowers were blooming on May 8th along the Goshawk Ridge Trail

I want to express my own feelings in each of these landscapes, but I don’t want to influence your own thoughts and feelings as you travel the trail. I’m sure each of these particular locales and changes in surroundings will affect you in different ways than it affected me. It also depends on the weather on the day you go. It may be foggy or cloudy, cold or muggy.

View of the small town of Eldorado Springs from the Fowler Trail

Whenever you come across an area that evokes a particular feeling in you, stop and note where you are, describing your surroundings and your mood. Do you feel frightened? Apprehensive? Peaceful? Relaxed? Bring a notebook along on your hike and write down your answers.

Even though the Goshawk Ridge Trail has only recently been constructed and open to the public, there is evidence of past human use and habitation. Can you spot evidence of human activity in the area?

How does this make you feel to see that this natural, relatively remote trail was once used in different ways for different purposes by people? How does it define “progress” in your mind?