Day Five: After two nights each at beautiful Camp Dick & Horseshoe Campgrounds, we would be camping at the even more picturesque Lake Turquoise, 5 miles west of historic Leadville for the last four nights. Leadville has the distinction of being North America’s highest incorporated city at 10,430 feet and is a legendary gold and silver mining town where many Coloradoans made their fortunes in the 1800s. Along with many nearby ghost mining towns, Leadville is where the infamous Doc Holliday (notorious gunfighter and gambler) was finally arrested and is the home of Colorado’s most famous couple, Horace and Baby Doe Tabor. Lake Turquoise is also home to several bike races, 10ks, 5ks and various gun shooting events.
Although Leadville is less than 25 miles due west of Fairplay, it is separated by the Mosquito Mountain Range and the massive Buffalo Peak Wilderness–there is no direct route between. Before we would make it to Leadville, however, we had to travel 130 miles south. So Sunday was our longest day, as the group traveled to the Great Sand Dunes National Park—home to the largest sand dunes in our country and nestled against the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The enormous sand deposits cover an area equal to an astonishing 330 square miles! The mountains of sand are as tall as many ski slopes on the East Coast and temps can reach upwards of 140 degrees during the day, so we needed to arrive by 9am (when the park opened), rent special sandboards and be finished around 1—2pm optimally.
Four-wheel drive and deflated tires allowed us to drive up the sandy road to the beautifully remote Canyon Creek wilderness area to attempt sandboarding. The scouts were surprisingly challenged in climbing the unusually tall mountains of soft sand and all needed rest prior to their semi-speedy, and often ungraceful, descent. Everyone crashed repeatedly and was covered in sand, but everyone unquestionably was having a blast!
After about two and half hours of sandboarding, our group decided to call it quits and headed to an oasis–the coveted Sand Dunes Swimming Pool (hot springs fed) for lunch, swimming and volleyball! We finally arrived at our reserved Baby Doe Campground sites that night about 10pm. Despite the long trip to this commercially-untouched area of South Central Colorado, many of the scouts cited the unique sandboarding opportunity as one of the highlights of the trip!
Day Six: After our late night arrival at Baby Doe Campground (elevation 11,600), the scouts once again had to rise before 6am in order to arrive on time at the ATV rental in Salida 60 miles away. With the recent limited approval of driving ATVs by the BSA, combined with considerable experience of most of the people in our group along with the ultra-cautious training and guidance provided by the ATV operator, our excited scouts confidently headed up a gentle, dirt road for the Continental Divide about 10:15am.
Fifteen minutes later, disaster struck. One of our scouts lost control of his ATV and crashed into a ditch. He was a bit shaken and holding his arm. We quickly concluded that his head & neck were ok, but that he may have separated his right shoulder. Two of our scouts quickly created a stabilizing arm sling with spare clothes. Back in the parking lot 20 minutes later, the injured scout was joking around with everyone else relishing his hard-earned celebrity status. Still, a quick trip to the local medical center revealed a cracked bone in his upper arm.
In retrospect, the scout was lucky that this was the extent of his injury, as there were warnings by the ATV operator of an irresponsible rider needing to be air-lifted out a few weeks prior. Fortunately, our group was more controlled and organized, and our injured scout was responsibly driving. Still, he did manage to lose control on a smooth part of the road—this serious incident was a huge reality check for the remainder of the group that stayed behind to finish their four-hour exploratory ride to the Continental Divide.
After arriving back at Camp Baby Doe later that afternoon, it was decided that the injured scout would fly home the next day, given his inability to participate in any of the remaining activities. He was pleased that he had been able to experience so many new activities, but still disappointed that his trip was ending two days early. Even a steady rain did not spoil the special pasta dinner and high spirits of the evening, as we all reflected on fun events of the past week and as we wished our fellow departing scout a speedy recovery!
Day Seven: The rain had cleared overnight and our group was up early again. Most of us were preparing for the second more challenging “14er” hike—attempting to peak Mt. Elbert (14,433 feet), the tallest peak in Colorado and the second tallest in the lower 48 states! A 7am departure put us at the trailhead (10,000 feet), up beautiful Halfmoon Creek, by 7:45am. It was another bright and beautiful day in the mountainous Sawatch Range—home to more 14ers than any other range in the state!
To put the climb up Mt.Elbert in perspective, the hike up to Mt. Cameron on Day Four involved roughly 4.5 miles round trip and 2,200 feet of steep, rocky elevation gain. To peak Mt. Elbert would involve 9 miles of hiking and climbing as well as 4,700 feet of elevation gain. (The climb up the “Brothers” mountains at Camp Read in the Adirondacks is only 1000 feet of elevation gain…and much closer to sea level.) Mt. Elbert involved a long hike through the forest to the tree line and then an equally steep but moderately longer climb up rocky terrain like Mt. Cameron. Both peaks are considered to be Class 2 in terms of degree of difficulty (requiring some off trail hiking, occasional use of hands for balance and hiking on talus/scree).
It took us 5 solid hours to reach the summit, as the altitude allowed only gradual progress before needing to rest again. The higher we climbed, the slower the progress. Often one could only hike 20-25 steps, literally, before stopping to catch your breath and to calm one’s pounding heart. Between 13,500 – 13,900 feet is the most strenuous part of the hike as there is a steep, rock-strewn face that literally requires Class 3 scrambling as the trail mysteriously disappears off to the side (but we found it on the way down thankfully). On the way up this long climb, the uninformed hiker is duped into thinking the summit is (finally) near.
Quickly, one must overcome the disappointment of the “false” peak at 13,900, as there is still another 500 feet of elevation to go! Fortunately, this last part of the incline is “mild” in comparison. By the time we reached the top, our legs were like rubber, and all were thankful they actually made the summit, and everyone took a seat to rest their weary legs. A few of us had developed serious doubts as to whether or not we would actually reach the summit by 1pm—our targeted turnaround time. During this time of year, thunderstorms often appear quickly around 2–3pm and Colorado’s legendary lightning can easily travel up to 25 miles for a ground strike. Colorado is home to the second most deaths by lightning and one is particularly vulnerable above the tree line. So, our game plan was to monitor the clouds vigilantly and start heading down around 1pm, no matter how far we had progressed!
As the stunning pictures attest, the views on the way up were magnificent and the 360 degree panoramic view from atop Mt. Elbert was every bit as awe-inspiring as the view from Mt.Cameron. The hike to the top was well worth it to capture this unparalleled view! We could easily see Lake Turquoise and Leadville nearly 20 miles away. After a few family-related phone calls (ample cell phone coverage!) from the top and several photographs, the scouts, with one eye on the incoming clouds, knew we needed to make a relatively speedy retreat down the mountain.
Hiking down is no cake walk either, as the surface is covered in loose rocks and gravel and the exercise is equally tough on the legs. A curious marmot, along with a brief sleet shower, combined with spotty sunshine, added a special element to our hike down the famous mountain. We passed very few people hiking up the mountain—meaning we were one of the last ones to leave the summit. At the tree line (11,900 feet), we stopped for a much needed rest and got involved with feeding nuts and raisins out of our hands to birds and chipmunks. By 5pm, we made it to the parking lot and rewarded ourselves with chocolate chocolate-chip cookies on the 45-minute drive back to camp.
Back at Baby Doe camp, a delicious Mexican dinner feast awaited us, as the group that took our injured scout to the Denver International Airport 140 miles away, had time to start dinner prior to our arrival back. And with only Cliff Bars and energy drinks for lunch, the hikers were starving! For once, nobody complained about cleaning dishes, despite being physically exhausted from the long hike. Several spent time at the lake after dinner where the star-lit night sky was equally as breathtaking as the unequaled mountain top experience earlier that day.
Day Eight: We slept late today…6:30am! We only had to be 30 miles away by 9:15am. The chilly upper 30 degree morning was not conducive to enhancing the appeal of white water rafting. By the time we rolled into Buffalo Joe’s in Buena Vista, the temps were rising and the scouts eagerly scrambled to change clothes and secure PFDs and helmets before jumping into the group van to the launch site on the Arkansas River, twenty minutes away. At the put-in site for “The Numbers” (named for 7 different sections of the river), the typical river safety briefing ensued. Within minutes we were happily paddling down the chilly Arkansas river!
The nationwide drought has hit Colorado fairly hard. First, the snowpack during the winter was lighter than normal, resulting in lowered water flows in the rivers. Second, the state had experienced many wildfires during May & June, but not as badly in South Central Colorado where we were camping (and the seasonal daily afternoon rains had begun during July).
The lower river levels also negatively impacted the fishing, as water temps were warmer than normal (but still brisk!). Today, however, the low water level meant a more technical river traverse than the fast & furious pace of a “high water” year. Class 3 & 4 rapids, however, were still very challenging but fun.
Mastering sharp turns, backward spins and narrow shoots became easier by the time we stopped for the customary steak lunch. There was ample time for swimming in the cold river and we stopped in a location to jump through a special rock with a large hole and side vent that passed into the river. And we even saw people panning for gold!
Back at the Baby Doe Campground that afternoon, we relaxed playing a game of “spoons” and getting organized for the trip home. A celebratory pizza was enjoyed along with left over pasta. Afterwards, one last trip down to the beach at Lake Turquoise to see the bright lights of Mother Nature made one realize that Colorado is indeed an unusual place of breath-taking beauty and a seemingly endless list of potential outdoor adventures around every corner! Despite the ATV incident, all agreed the trip had been an extraordinary success and vowed to return to Colorado again some day! Clich here for more truly spectacular and memorable photos!