38°38’49.53″ N 106°20’39.76″ W – Elevation: 12,046′
There are still places where few humans go. And in these places, if you dare, you wander into solitude and you realize that before long, you are all alone in a glorious landscape. Prepare to hike up far away from the last road, through frozen forests, and you will be at the shores of a remote lake. And as the cold wind howls through you like a tortured ghost you feel alive like you have not felt in years and you are exactly where you should be at this point in time.
Most of mankind is trained to seek the opposite and this to the lone adventurer works beautifully in the grand design. So many of the cues would direct people here and there when a lonely path exists here, in plain sight. But in the rush of our modern ways, we brush by these quickly, hardly noticing their quiet invitation to a far more interesting world.
Photo 1: The approach into the Collegiate Peaks from Rt. 162.
Since retiring early two years ago (at 55), I’ve impatiently waited for this chance to immerse myself into a routine of exploring these natural landscapes on foot. So often our world passes by at 60mph when 2.6mph yields so much more of the fine detail of our surroundings.
Photo 2: Brilliant Fall colors on roads leading to St. Elmo’s.
Traveling virtually via Google Earth, I discovered some interesting ruins (The Mary Murphy Mine) and a pretty high-alpine lake and so I went. Leaving well before the sun rose (~ 4:30am), I drove a little over an hour up Rt. 285 until I reached my turn off to the Collegiates; what a dramatic approach!
It was overcast with the sun peeking through, intermittently. With the fall colors in their magnificent peak, the effect was visually arresting. Quickly, I ducked off of the main dirt road and went higher into the mountains, up scarier switchbacks. As the early snows got deeper, the humans became fewer. Yay.
Photo 3: The ruins of the Mary Murphy mine.
Now up at around 10,000 feet, I thought I’d park and hike up the last six miles and 2,000′. Good call (rare, I confess). And up I went in the thick overcast knowing that I’d pass the ghostly Mary Murphy Mines, the creek waters still green from old mine tailings and now deep into the dark and foreboding forests.
Isn’t this where Hansel and Gretel had become lost?
And higher up I hiked and now the trail was getting steeper and then the faint noise of Jeeps slowly crawling up this insane road grew louder. Young guys in an open Wrangler. Looked desperately cold. Who, in their group planned this brilliant adventure? Saw them later up at 12,000′, when the snows were blowing horizontally. Now really unhappy, one turned to ask, chattering, “Dude, how far are you going in this weather?” I smiled and we talked a while before they continued down the rutted downs, Jeeps bouncing along, one by one.
Photo 4: An old mining cabin below the Mary Murphy mine.
Then two hunters in camo following each other also crawling up the rocky terrain, this time in open ATVs. But they were experienced and properly dressed and they asked if I needed help. “No. I’m good.”, I responded, assuring that I was in my element. Tough looking chaps, but with warm expressions and they disappeared up and into the thick fog. Soon, their engines faded and I was back alone in my quiet mountain paradise, feeling alive and energized.
Then, as the last of the steep portion of the trail leveled-out, I could sense the presence of the lakes. Obscured by dense fog, I followed the serpentine path that faded into obscurity. There, like an infinity pool over to the valley below, the strong winds blasted up and over the lip and across the waters, white caps dancing like a whip, the lake at last revealing herself.
I was all alone.
Now I was feeling colder and knew that it was time to come down. A couple of hours later, I found my trusty adventure vehicle and came back into civilization, turning left for a quick detour into the old mining town of St. Elmo’s. I hoped that a large cup of hot coffee would be waiting for me at the country store on Main Street.
Photo 5: Main Street – St. Elmo’s; an old mining town with a dwindling population.
Sitting on a log bench, I watched a little girl feeding the happy chipmunks. The coffee and her smile warmed my core. And just as I was getting ready to drive back home, there they came, one by one, a column of restored WWII Willies Jeeps!
Photo 6: A fine collection of restored Willies Jeeps; parked alongside on Main Street of St. Elmo’s.
The easy thing would have been to pass the overcast day at home. But, this was much more interesting!