Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures
Today, in our fifth week as Coloradans, we took to the trails to take our first hike since moving here in January. For the last three weeks, I had been industriously walking the concrete paths (I won't call it a trail unless it consists of dirt, rocks, and roots) around the southern part of Aurora. I have been working my way up in distance, and am now doing 8 miles at a stretch. The point of that being to get my lungs and legs ready to tackle the trails that course through the front range foothills, and eventually, the Rockies themselves.
The biggest challenge has been adjusting to the altitude. I have to keep reminding myself that the tallest peaks I climbed in Virginia are still 2,000 feet lower than the feet of the mountains we see here. We have been asking people how long it takes to get acclimated, and get answers ranging from three months to three years. And I believe that. Even the simple act of climbing stairs still leaves us a bit breathless. Where the strain shows is in tackling inclines. Walking on flat ground is not terribly taxing, but let that path start to ascend, and immediately the lungs begin to work desperately hard to pull what little breathable oxygen exists in this huge sky.
Today was Cheryl's day off, and we decided to attempt our first dirt hike. Our daughter recommended the William F. Hayden Green Mountain Park, a 2,400 acre expanse on the western edge of the Denver 'burb of Lakewood. When you get out of the car, you're standing at about 6,050 feet altitude. The summit at the top of the park is 6,800 feet. On the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, a 750-foot ascent is just part of the hike. The highest peak I attempted there was Hogback Mountain at just under 3,500 feet. I remember that day, and how tired and sore I was at the end of that particular trek. So, by that measure, a mere 750 feet should pose no problems, right?
Just to be cautious, we chose a trail that meandered around the south edge of the park, using discretion to put the big climb off on another day. Once we left the lot, we crossed a bridge over a busy toll road and entered the park. Now, I admit to being a bit spoiled. On the AT, all you had to do was look for the blaze, and you were on the trail.
But our first look at this space produced this:
No blazes, because...well, there's no trees to put them on. But we saw trails leading off in three different directions, so we consulted the map from the park's website and then asked one of the many hikers and bikers. The one we were directed to we were told was a fairly easy trail that climbed gradually. Now, everything is relative, and for someone with Colorado lungs, I'm sure that this would be classed as "fairly easy." What I was about to find out was how unadapted we still are to this place.
The trail was a real trail -- dirt and rocks -- so, that was a great thing for me. Many stretches were flat and easy. But the few uphill portions were kinda steep and as soon as we parted from the flat to the climb, we started wheezing like a couple of bad furnaces. Still, there was a serene beauty to this land, the tawny-colored grass of the Colorado prairie that walked right up to the base of the foothills.
The sky was a perfect dome of blue and the weather was close to perfect. The temperatures during the winter bounce back and forth between frigid and warm. Being a mile up into the air, the sun's rays are very direct, a lot like the sun in Hawaii. Today the temps soared into the mid-seventies, but the fierce sunlight made us both a bit too warm for our tastes. This morning when we left the house, the thermometer read 38 degrees. By the time we'd finished, it was almost 40 degrees higher. Still, if you dress in removable layers, even those extremes can be tolerated. What will be interesting will be this summer when it gets into the 90's.
Finally, we turned an uphill corner and found ourselves looking out across the land to the south. It was a pretty day, and a pretty view. The only thing that could be called spoiling was the busy work of developers, throwing up new neighborhoods at a frantic place.
We turned around at the 2.25 mile mark and headed back. It was a long, tiring trek, and the heat combined with the altitude wore us out. Finally, finally, we spotted the bridge and were soon folding our tired bodies into the car, heading for a restorative late lunch at Cafe Rio.
This was an eye-opener. Despite my hard work on the paths, I was clearly still not ready for a wilderness hike. But for our first effort on a real trail, it wasn't half bad.