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.