Fueled by a late lunch of sushi and jasmine tea, I decided to hike a couple miles of the East Lake Creek Trail near Edwards, CO on a whim about thirty minutes before I actually arrived at the trailhead. Googling “hiking trails near Edwards, CO” after learning my girlfriend would be spending the night in Denver, I was excited to see that a 25 mile round-trip trail called East Lake Creek was a mere six miles from my apartment. So, I asked my roommate if I could take her two golden retrievers, Goldie Locks and Hobbes, with me on a hike and, upon her approval, set off on a short, afternoon adventure in the high Rockies. Starting at 6:00 pm would mean I would have to keep a good pace if I wanted to hike the two miles to the East Lake Creek bridge and back before dark.
As I started up the trail, I noticed dark storm clouds off to the north. Storms usually travel directly through the valley and since I was a few miles South of it I decided to proceed. Frequent thunder and ever darkening skies to the north invoked a mild, but contant uneasiness in me as I set off on the trail.
Just as the Forest Service website described, the trail set off immediately into dense stands of Quaking Aspen and Lodgepole Pine. The trail was narrow and sometimes hard to follow. I saw only one other person along the way, a man carrying his toddler daughter on his shoulders walking back towards the trail head.
Quaking Aspens are considered the largest living organisms in the world.
An Aspen grove, like the one above, is actually one, genetically identical organism,
connected under the earth through its root system. The largest one in existence is called Pando and resides in Fishlake National Forest in central Utah. It is estimated to be over 80,000 years old and 6.9 miles wide.
A stand of Lodgepole Pines can be seen in the photo above. These trees were the first choice of the earliest European-American settlers for log cabin construction, hence their name. Lodgepole is also the species that has been the most dramatically affected by the Pine Bark Beetle problem that Colorado has been reckoning with for the past 15-20 years.
Aside from being the largest living organism in the world, Quaking Aspens are also whats called a “self-pruning” species, meaning they naturally kill and drop their lower branches in order to prevent them from catching fire and lighting up the whole tree in the event of a wildfire. The result is the black, eye-like markings that adorn the trunk below the live branches. The first inhabitants of Colorado, the Ute native Americans, believed these spots were the eyes of their ancestors watching over them.
Aspen bark is coated in a white powder which acts as a natural fire retardant for the tree. For us, the powder can be applied to the skin and carries a low, but effective sun protection factor.
The trail began as a gentle uphill climb with only a few short, steep sections. Despite my time constraint, I stopped several times to snap photos of the local flora.
At one point, the trail came to a split. I didn’t like the name of the side trail. Neither did Goldie.
After hiking for a mile or so through dense Aspen groves intermixed with towering Lodgepoles, the trail eventually opened up onto a plateau, revealing a beautiful vista of the mountains on the other side of East Lake Creek.
From this plateau, the trail descended down again through a landscape thus far typical of the area, until something strange happened. All of a sudden I found myself surrounded by a 60 or 70 foot stretch of bushy, fern-like plants that completely blanketed the forest floor.
This scene ended just as quickly as it came. The bushes disappeared and I was back in the same old Aspen groves. But not for long. At the bottom of the descent, I saw a sign indicating I was about to enter the Holy Cross Wilderness of the White River National Forest. And beyond the sign lay a landscape change even more surprising than the previous one. Stepping out of an hundred foot high canopy of branches and leaves, I now found myself in a wide open meadow peppered with thousands of wildflowers.
Maybe it was the sudden change of landscape, or the sign telling me that the area I was about to enter was somehow different than the one I was leaving, but stepping into this section of trail felt somehow like stepping into another world. Somehow I felt safer and freer here than when I was in the woods. The whole energy of the trail changed and I felt as if I was getting a taste of what the dogs must feel all the time. The only way I can describe it was a pure, childlike sense of wonder and adventure. I almost didn’t even notice the storm clouds rolling in from the east.
Continuing on, I started to hear the bubbling of running water. I reasoned that I must be near my final destination, the wooden bridge over East Lake Creek. My watch read 6:45 pm. Soon we got to a small stream at the end of the meadow and the forest resumed. Hobbes, who had been practically on my heels the whole hike, suddenly bolted into the stream. Goldie did the same. I felt proud and happy to be able to provide the dogs with what I felt was such a beautiful, serene playground.
Punctuating my hike with frequent photography stops, I still made decent time. At about 7:00 pm, I reached my two-mile marker, the wooden bridge. I had to call Goldie constantly to keep her from jumping in the water. I hiked a little bit past the bridge just to see what was around the corner, but when the trail started to steepen and with dusk approaching, I thought it wise to turn back.
The hike back was pleasant and peaceful. The storm clouds were almost gone and I let my mind relax and focus on the sounds of the trail. The dogs panting behind me, the wind rustling leaves overhead, the light brush of my legs against the tall grass, the crunch of my sandals on the trail, and the occasional whisper of a distant airplane. As I tried to quiet my mind and take in the full experience I was having, I realized that moments like these are ones I needed for my sanity. Escaping to nature has always been the best way to balance and ground myself.
Half a mile before reaching the trail head, the sun started to set in the distance and I could just barely see it through the trees. Hiking at sunset seems to bring an added power to the restorative effect of nature.
I reached the parking lot wishing I’d had more time to hike, but also happy that I hadn’t just sat around my apartment all night. After taking a minute to sit and appreciate the experience I just had, I loaded the dogs into the car and took off. The ride home was quiet and beautiful.