As I’ve mentioned before, my mom and sister visited this past week. They arrived Sunday and stayed until Wednesday. It was wonderful to spend time with them and show them my favorite parts of Boulder (the general theme was hiking and food, obviously). Even more than that they brought a feeling of home and the comfort of family, for which I am endlessly grateful.
Although they left Wednesday (for Colorado Springs to visit my uncle and cousins) I had the entire week off from work ~ I felt like my time in Boulder is waning and I deeply wanted to try a solitary hike, so I made that time for myself by asking for the last two days off. Thus Wednesday evening I scanned through hikes on the Alltrails app and finally chose one called “Heart Lake.”
I woke up with David on Thursday morning (7 am) and prepared for my hike as he prepared for work. I had barely planned and only knew the hike was about 12 miles long, was dog friendly, and would bring me to a lake. After dropping David off at work and returning home to grab a few more items, Lacey and I were on our way down Canyon Road toward Nederland.
We wound our way through the mountains, Spotify hooked up to the Aux cable, and I felt a bit nervous. I hadn’t hiked anything other than Chautauqua without human company, and Chautauqua is only 15 minutes from our apartment. It’s also highly trafficked and the trails are in one general area. Basically, Chautauqua is safe whereas the hike I was headed toward, Heart Lake, was completely foreign to me. Furthermore I didn’t have a functional GPS so I was driving based on somewhat-educated guesswork.
I knew how to reach Ned, though, so Lacey and I made it there easily. I stopped to fill up the car’s tank then dropped into a local grocery store. In the store I picked up 4 Clif bars and a couple of apples. I was searching for something for Lacey and struck up a conversation with a man working there. He was so kind, and recommended chocolate (not for Lacey but for me)… although I subtly avoided the chocolate I did find an entire buffet-style wooden cart full of different kinds of dog bones right behind the guy, and we had a lovely conversation.
Conversation empowers me ~ I always forget how much connections with other people matter ~ so I set out from the grocery store with a smile and blasting my music, driving upwards toward the Rockies. I had general directions in a photo on my phone, so I knew to drive forward until a main road in “Winter Park.”
An hour later, I was absolutely lost. I decided to find somewhere to ask directions but realized my options were pretty limited… I was in the middle of nowhere, curling my way through a few homes, but mostly unadulterated mountain wilderness. Finally I saw a liquor store coming up on the right and I pulled over.
Getting out of my car I saw an ancient looking man sitting on a bench outside of the store. I didn’t know whether he was the owner or a customer or maybe just chilling, so I tentatively said hi. He just nodded so I just decided to make my way inside. It was dark, and filled with bottles. I was a bit lost simply looking around when I saw a younger woman standing at a cash register to my right. I said hello and she smiled, greeting me as well. I said something like, “So, I’m actually here for directions…” worried she would be disappointed I wasn’t buying (it didn’t look like they had many customers on the daily) but she just laughed and asked me where I needed to go. I told her I was headed to Heart Lake. She called to her friend; neither of them had heard of it so I said, “Winter Park?” She furrowed her brows. “Winter Park is pretty far away,” she told me, showing me on her map. I knew I couldn’t be that off the mark so I told her I’d grab my phone from the car and show her the coordinates from the Alltrails app.
“Oh, I know that hike!!” She exclaimed once she had plugged the spot in on her GPS. “It’s awesome, but it’s really steep…” She looked at me quizzically. I guess I appeared the mountain-happy-yet-inexperienced tourist. I just smiled. She gave me directions, telling me to take “the only road in Rollinsville” (back toward Ned) all the way to its ending at the trailhead. I thanked her and her friend, and we parted ways after wishing each other a good day.
I got back in my car, Lacey eagerly greeting me. We did a U-turn and I could swear the car groaned as we made our way back from whence we came.
After maybe 15 minutes we were in Rollinsville; it was definitely a tiny town. At the first major road I saw I turned, guessing it was the “only road” the woman had been talking about. After perhaps 200 feet of pavement and a tunnel, the road changed to clay and gravel and we bumped our way into the forest.
I was on this road for over half an hour, wondering every other turn whether I should turn back. I decided each time to trust myself and trust the road; that’s always part of traveling~ trusting. Finally the road curved over a railroad and I saw a campsite to my right. A man was sitting at the edge of his tent, eating something. As I passed he looked up and I saw that he was wearing a cliche pirate’s eyepatch. At first I was slightly creeped out, but then he smiled. There was something about the simplicity and openness of his expression gave me a feeling of peace. Soon after, we arrived at the trailhead.
I parked and eagerly threw my scattered gear into my backpack, lacing on my hiking boots and slathering sunscreen on my face, arms and chest. I looked up when I heard someone call, “Are you from Florida?” It was an older man, perhaps my dad’s age with another guy. They both had easy smiles and were preparing to hike as I was. “I saw your license plate,” he continued, “and my daughter lives in Sarasota!” I smiled back, happy at his happiness at having found a connection in a total stranger. “Yeah!” I replied. I explained that I was from Pensacola and we discussed Florida for a few minutes. “Are you going for the top?” he asked, and I answered truthfully that I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but I would see how far Lacey and I could make it. He agreed, saying that he and his friend had gotten a late start and that they just wanted to have a good time on the trail. Their openness and harmony with the present moment was breathtaking. We parted ways, saying that perhaps we would meet on the trail as I made my way with Lacey to the trailhead and we began walking down the dirt path.
The beginning of any new path is disconcerting, in some ways, because there’s no real way of knowing what’s ahead. This feeling washed over me as Lacey and I made our way past pine trees of all shapes and sizes, through aspens with their flickering green leaves, and over the creek, which cut across our path several times throughout our journey. The path was easy at first; I could see enormous mountains looming ahead with white patches of snow adorning their ridges, but we were too far away to even imagine being atop them. I slowly let go of control, allowing my mind to slip into the easy pace of my steps. I began to look up from the path, trusting the trail and letting my feet guide me, gazing at the deepening woods surrounding me. Lacey bounded around me, darting into the trees and leaping over logs, her ears flapping wildly as she moved.
We only passed perhaps 6 people as we climbed higher. Most people said hello and moved on, but a few stopped and we chatted by the pines or atop the bridges as the creek grew larger and stronger. These people, the ones who took the time to stop, told me about what awaited me at the top. They said to continue onward after the first lake to reach Heart Lake; although there had been two places where I could have chosen the wrong path because I didn’t have directions, I had somehow chosen the right direction and was headed for the summit.
The path became steadily steeper as we followed switchbacks upwards. Every so often I found myself surrounded by seemingly leafless pines, with this indescribable moss draping from the branches. It was like a fairy world.
Eventually the forest become less dense and I began to see glimpses of blue above the branches of pine. The air was clear and thinner, and I had to stop more often. When we curved above treeline it was like a door opening; there was no subtle shift, instead it was as if the forest chose the moment to give us up to the open sky above. I had to stop, staring around me in fascination. Open fields arced over small hills to my left and right, wildflowers glowing from every inch. I saw the first lake to my left, and called Lacey off the path to touch the impossibly turquoise water.
We met a couple who were descending from Heart Lake. They encouraged us onward, and even took a picture of us next to that first lake. I felt the effects of altitude ~ we were above treeline, and although I don’t know the exact altitude it must have been at least 11,000 feet ~ but I decided to continue to the next lake.
The path toward Heart Lake was open to the wind, which gusted wildly as we tried to move upward. I fell down more than once and felt awe and some fear; this was not what I had expected. My legs were exhausted and my mind was foggy. Even more than that, the weather is subject to nearly-instant change above treeline, and I’ve been warned more than once to watch out for afternoon storms on the mountain peaks. It was already past 2 o’clock, but when I checked the sky I saw only very distant clouds and they looked peaceful enough. I decided to continue on.
We saw Heart Lake but decided to stay on the path; it was downward from the path we had already climbed, and when I looked up the trail arced toward the summit. I was utterly spent but something within me stubbornly pushed forward… also Lacey had decided to move toward the top regardless of what I did, and I was too tired to call out to her to turn back. So, we climbed.
After what must’ve only been 15 or 20 minutes along the path, we neared the top. Each time I looked down I realized generally how dangerous the path was; it was very narrow, and the fall was absolute. My brain didn’t truly register it as an issue, though, and eventually I realized we had made it to a slight hill. The path ended and I giddily ran toward the other side, needing to reach an edge, an endpoint. I halted atop the hill and gazed forward.
The entire expanse of the Rockies was laid out in front of Lacey and me, and we gasped for air as we both stared. I don’t know what Lacey was thinking, but I believe that essentially we were the same in that moment. The shades of blue, fading, fading. I quickly understood that we would have to turn back, though, when I saw dark clouds hanging above the mountain range; they could’ve been too far to reach us anytime soon but my impeded brain was noting a distinct possibility of danger. I brashly decided to stop for a few moments, sit down, and take everything in… I ate a Clif bar as Lacey ate a dog treat… then we turned tail and began to speed down the trail. I cast glances behind us at the sky every few steps, a foolish move as the trail was already dangerous, but somehow we made it to the bottom of the steepest part of the trail. There was a young man with a large brown dog making their way toward us; I said hello but warned him of the impending weather. He acknowledged this but said he would continue forward, if only for a few more minutes. I would have done the same, I think; the stubbornness of my altitude-brain would’ve needed to get to the top despite the weather. But we had reached our goal, and Lacey and I continued to jog quickly over the rocky path toward the treeline as the clouds grew darker.
Further down the trail we met more hikers, continuing to warn those we saw. The boy and his dog met us a little below treeline. He told me that they had turned back soon after my warning, and that the weather had indeed become worse at the top. The biggest issue above treeline is lightning, highly dangerous because of the extreme exposure to the open sky. They passed us at a run as Lacey and I slowed among the trees.
The world had grown much darker, the pines blending together in a sea of greens. Rain began to fall, only lightly, and ceased as we descended. By this time, I could only think of rest and a solid meal; we made our way quietly down the mountain.
At the base of the mountain, as the forest opened up to show us the first signs of the trail, I turned to look behind us. I saw the enormous, distant mountain I had glimpsed as we began and recognized the snow on the peak; this is where we had been, only hours before. The sky was blue but less bright, the afternoon light filtering through a few clouds spread over the horizon… I knew it was time to go home.
We reached the car and Lacey fell asleep the moment she laid down in the passenger seat. I loosened my shoe laces and began the long drive back to Boulder.