A few things I learned (some of them I should have learned a while ago, but I stubbornly refused to until this year) from my trip to the West Elks.
First: I love being in the mountains. I love the solitude. This means that I need to make some effort getting out there, and it's not reasonable that I'm talking really about day trips. In spite of that, I've found that I don't really love the "walk all day every day" routine that I've often planned. In fact, it's a big mistake to plan those kinds of itineraries in general. Even if I were in better shape than I am, I still wouldn't enjoy it as much as I thought in the past that I would. This is supposed to be mostly relaxing, and planning a week-long death march doesn't really accomplish that very well.
Secondly; I'm not in very good shape. I meant to exercise all summer, develop some hamstring strength and endurance in particular, etc. and I never really got around to doing it consistently, in part because summer has been so crazy, and in part because I wasn't sufficiently motivated to find ways to work around the craziness (which I could have, had I really wanted to enough.) Fixing this problem will go a fair bit of the way towards fixing the first—if I were in better shape, I could walk farther and more days without being sick of it. It might even help me sleep better, for that matter. This is probably the number one thing that I need to take away; hiking is a lot harder if you're out of shape. (sad face) But like I said, even if I were in better shape, I think that I don't like as much walking and camping as all of that; that's just the cost of the other stuff that I do like about hiking as a hobby. So I need to stick with itineraries that are more about getting somewhere cool, setting up a "base camp" and not moving for a couple of days, except by packless exploration and whatnot. Come to think of it, that's how we did my favorite high adventures (like the one in the San Juans.)
Third, and that last phrase reminds me, although I've done my "old man high adventures" in the Uintas and have had my eyes on Wyoming in particular, I'd kinda forgotten that my first (and best) Rockies love was always Colorado. The San Juans trip that I did as a teenager, lots of driving along I-70 as a kid, a (sadly, way too short) family trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, etc.—Colorado's got it all, and one of the biggest things about it that really works is that it's fairly easy to get to places. In recent years, this was a subconscious turn-off—like the notion that being 15-20 miles away from a decent sized town or road is some kind of impediment to solitude or something (it's not.) I don't need to get further away from civilization, and in fact the situation in Colorado where getting from civilization to the wilderness is relatively painless (most of the time) is desirable.
Fourth, I need to have good back-up plans. When my first day was harder and more exhausting than I thought it was going to be, and my second and third days were only looking to be worse, it was not good that I was kinda committed; my only options were to bail and just turn around, taking a couple of days to backtrack, or push forward (not really feasible, in this case) because my route was one that required commitment and didn't have a lot of good back-up exigencies. When I did try to make a back up plan (backtrack, and then set up along Mill Creek and do day trips up the valley from there) I hadn't done sufficient research, and was unable to find the trail head. (super sad face) The part of the route that I most wanted to see; the Castles and Mill Creek, had to end up getting cut. Not cool. Now, I really enjoyed the Beckwith Pass trail and the aspen groves along the Cliff Creek trail before I turned around—but it wasn't the highest priority part of the trip, it was just the part where I was meaning to start and end my extended 50 mile figure eight loop. As it turned out, it was all that I actually did. Had I planned on getting to Mill Creek from the get-go, I would have seen the part of the trip that I most wanted to see, and would in fact have possibly only done that when I realized that I need to scale back my overly ambitious plan partway through the trip. Now I'll have to go back and try it again some other year.
Fifth, My initial thought was to go this week, instead of last week, to try and hit peak fall color. I changed to accommodate, in part, some stuff my wife wanted help with here at home, but I also was seduced by some peak fall color predictor that I saw. The fact is, peak fall color is hard to predict. While some areas nearby in Colorado were probably at peak fall color, the very specific area in which I hiked was probably two weeks away, which you can see in some of the pictures below. Of course, the flip-side of this was that I had great, summer-like weather rather than cool and rainy (or even light, early snowy) weather, which I could have and halfway expected. This is probably a good thing. It can be hard to stay sufficiently warm in the mountains, even during the summer.
Sixth, for some reason, I expected hunting season to be the same as it is here in my low elevation home area. In other words, I thought I was early enough not to see hunters. Turns out, I saw one couple day-hiking at the beginning of my trip, I saw one backpacker coming out as I was going in, and other than that I saw nothing but hunters. In fact, there were quite a few more of them than I expected to see. Not saying that I didn't get the solitude that I wanted, but I never really felt like I was alone out there, because I had passed several outfitter-style camps, and several guys leading packhorses both in and out. Now, this is all fine—in most respects, I tend to feel more comfortable with hunters than with granola-type hippy backpackers, but I suspect that without it being hunting season, I would have seen less than half as many people as I actually did, and the feeling of solitude would have been greatly increased.
Seventh, my experiences in the Uintas made me somewhat cavalier about water sources, but either because the West Elks or drier, or because it was later in the year and streams were more dried up waiting for the new snows, I should have paid more attention to water and filled up every chance I got. I actually ran out the first day, and didn't find any water until the next morning.
|These aspens are not peak fall color. Not even close. They're still my favorite tree, though.|
|This was on the way in to the trailhead. The Elks really are an amazing series of ranges.|
|"The Dyke", a formation across the valley from the West Elks Wilderness,.|
|East Beckwith Peak from the pass (or near the pass. I can't remember exactly where I was when I snapped this.)|
|The aspens actually seemed more autumnal near the Dyke.|
|The "sea of mountains" view looking north from Beckwith Pass. Most of my best pictures are from the pass area.|
|I didn't catch the name of this peak, actually.|
|The Ruby Range|
|Another angle of East Beckwith|