Week 24: Hiking Trails and Tackling Mountains [Score +14]
Steamboat Springs, Colorado is known best as a skiing destination. The winter is long, and its [trademarked] Champagne Powder snow—extra light and fluffy—draws people from around the world to glide down its slopes.
Getting to Steamboat takes effort; it’s not as easy to get to from Denver as, say, Vail or Breckenridge, which are close to I-70. On a sunny summer day, you’re looking at a 3.5-hour drive (minimum, with zero traffic) from the Denver airport to downtown Steamboat.
On a snowy winter day, all bets are off.
I don’t ski. I don’t snowboard, either. I’ve been plagued with troublesome, loose-jointed knees since adolescence, so I have nightmarish visions of falling awkwardly and my skis pulling my knees in opposite, unnatural directions on my first tumble.
It gives me a cold chill just thinking about it. So I’m keeping that sport off my Want To Try list.
Even for a non-skier, though, Steamboat is nestled in outdoor-sport paradise. Trails for hiking and mountain biking criss-cross all over the landscape through thousands of acres of national forest. Dozens of great trails are accessible within just a few miles of downtown Steamboat, and hundreds more are within an hour’s drive, if you have a vehicle that can handle some rough roads.
Chase and I love to hike when I visit. We plan our weekends around breakfasts and what trail we’re going to tackle.
Usually, he takes me for a warmup hike before we tackle the steeper terrain. This time, we dove right in. Weekend 1, Part 1: The Devil’s Causeway and Hahns Peak.
Hike 1: The Devil’s Causeway in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area
The name alone provides a clue for what is in store at the top of this trail, a hike that is about six miles round-trip out and back and peaks at 11,800 feet. The Rocky Mountain Hiking Trails website gives a great description that I’ll share verbatim:
The Devil's Causeway, a narrow strip of land in the heart of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, is notorious for causing sheer terror, or awe and thrill, for those who dare to cross it. This "land bridge" is roughly 50 feet in length, and narrows to as little as 3 feet in width. On both sides of the rough and rugged trail (terrain is the more proper term) are 60-80 foot cliffs, with steep talus slopes dropping another 600-800 feet into the drainages below. Whether you consider it frightening, or thrilling, the Devil's Causeway offers hikers one of the most spectacular views in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.
I learned of this trail on my summer trip to the area last year, but at that time—Memorial Day weekend—it was still snowed in and inaccessible without a snowmobile or snowshoes.
That gives you an idea of how wicked this terrain can be. Guidebooks caution you in advance about how dangerous the crossing is, and hikers should avoid it particularly in high winds.
I was dying to see it for myself.
The trail started on relatively flat ground, with wildflowers in full bloom all around us. We gradually started climbing, but it wasn’t until the last mile that we really started gaining altitude. As we passed 11,000 feet, I found myself having to stop for a quick break every 15 feet or so. It didn’t look like it should be that hard, but after just 48 hours in the mountains, my body had not yet acclimated to the thinner air. But who needs a warm-up?
All the while, Chase and I were keeping an eye on the sky, because dark clouds were starting to build as we approached our summit. While we were both eager to reach the top, we knew better than to keep climbing if a thunderstorm was near with no shelter for miles.
I love a beautiful hike any day, but I particularly enjoy it when there’s a prize at the end. The Devil’s Causeway satisfied that goal.
It was exactly as described: a rocky, narrow wall connecting mountains and helping to give the Flat Tops Wilderness Area its name.
Many people are unable to cross it, and I completely understand why and would not pressure them to do so. Neither Chase nor I have a fear of heights or ledges, and we both get great satisfaction from a sense of physical daring and a little shot of adrenaline, so we were both eager to make it to the other side.
He went first, boldly scampering over the rocks as though it were no different than the trail we’d covered over the previous three miles. But I knew it was tricky when he reached the other side, looked back at me and called, “Having done that now, I recommend holding on as you cross. I realize now how dangerous it is.”
I have no shame in an all-fours bear crawl.
I took my time and felt stable across the whole Causeway. If I’d felt wobbly, I would have felt nervous, but I just focused on where my feet and hands were moving next and felt unafraid the whole time.
And I loved the exhilaration that came with successfully making it to the other side.
We shot about 50 photos between the two of us in celebration, then we had to cross back to get back down the mountain.
Our timing was critical: the building storm clouds had drawn closer, and we could hear thunder in the distance. We doubled our pace on the way back to the truck, nearly jogging at times, and made it to the trailhead before the rain started.
We got back to Steamboat mid-afternoon, with enough time for me to catch one final yoga class in the weekend Movement Fest: a relaxing, meditative, 90-minute yin yoga practice that felt divine after a tough six-mile jaunt. After dinner and a shower, I think I was ready for bed by 8:00 p.m.
Hike 2: Hahns Peak
On Sunday morning, I woke up a little sore but ready for another outing to cap off my first weekend of the trip. This time, we chose Hahns Peak, a cone-shaped, extinct volcano north of Steamboat that is a notable landmark for miles around. In past visits to the area, I’ve seen it from the road, but I’ve never hiked to the top.
With a vehicle suitable for rugged terrain, you can actually drive up to about half a mile from the top. (This is useful particularly for people who work to maintain the fire lookout station on the summit.) We chose to start our hike from the trailhead, making it about 3.5 miles to the top and back.
This is not a peak to start hiking after lunch: it is the frequent target of lightning strikes, as unmissable signs at the top warn you. Guides recommend starting your hike by 9:00 a.m. so you don’t become a human lightning rod.
Most of the trail is like any other through the Routt National Forest. The terrain for the last half mile from the top, though, was really interesting: as you climb above the tree line, the landscape abruptly changes from a dirt trail to a field of loose lava rocks (called a scree or talus, depending on your definition).
The rocks ranged from the size of golfballs to melons, with the average being in the softball range. Lava rocks are lightweight for their size, and these made a delicate, hollow sound as our footsteps knocked them together. Descending was trickier than climbing, as each unstable step was an invitation for a twisted ankle or knee (one of my knees was, in fact, sore the next day).
The trail through the scree was a barely distinguishable linear ditch in the rocks, with no other signposts or markings to guide the way.
Standing on the summit at 10,800 feet gave us an unparalleled 360° panoramic view of the area and was well worth the climb. I had to stand for a few minutes on each side of the peak to just try to take it in.
I’d love to be there at sunrise or sunset to enjoy being one of the first to see the sun or the last to see it go.
That might just have to be on my to-do list for next time.
- Did something outside my routine: +1
- Left the house: +1
- Ventured >50 miles from home: +10
- Activity benefits my health/wellbeing: +1
- Burned real calories (so I got some exercise): +1