Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

A hike up to Fern Lake begins at the Fern Lake Trailhead on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Along the Fern Lake Trail, hikers pass through Arch Rocks, over a bridge at The Pool, and by three cascade waterfalls. Near the, you'll gain spectacular views of The Gable, Knobtop Mountain, Notchtop Mountain, and Little Matterhorn from its northern shore. Explore the full Fern Lake hike profile below for trail map, driving directions, and more of the details and tips you need to enjoy this adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trail Snapshot: Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Parking & Trailhead Information for Fern Lake in RMNP

Parking is more limited in this area of Rocky Mountain National Park, and you'll likely have to park at the Park & Ride then take the shuttle to the Fern Lake Trailhead. You'll find driving directions above to The Fern Lake Trailhead (closest to this hike), the Fern Lake Bus Stop Parking area (very limited parking), and for the Park & Ride lot. See the RMNP Shuttle page for dates and times of service. Avoid parking along the road as this damages the roadside, and vehicles will be ticketed. If you park or are dropped off at the Fern Lake Bus Station, the hike from the station to the trailhead will add and additional .8 mile, one-way, to your hike.

The Hike: Fern Lake in RMNP

The hike up to the lake is a moderate one. The only demanding aspect is the round-trip distance of 7.8 miles. In the late-Spring and early-Summer, snow may still be on the ground, adding some difficulty to navigating the trail. However, most of the summer months, this is a pleasant hike with a significant amount of shade. The first trailside sight is a cascade tucked away in a gulch above the tail, Windy Gulch Cascades, which can be seen to the North (right) about 1/2 mile in.

The trail continues, following the Big Thompson River. At 1.5 Miles in, the trail weaves through several house-size boulders at Arch Rocks (pictured below).


Just a bit further at 1.7 miles in, a bridge crosses the Big Thompson River near the spot of its confluence with both Spruce and Fern Creeks. This area is know as The Pool. After crossing the bridge at The Pool, there is a trail junction. The trail up to the lake splits off to the right.


Just about 1/10th of a mile past The Pool, an unnamed set of cascades can be heard and seen to the right of the trail (pictured below).


The next mile of trail continues up a set of switchbacks that make a steady climb through the forest to Fern Falls (pictured below).


After Fern Falls, there is just 1.1 mile left to the Lake. This is the segment that may still be packed with snow. At the Lake, hikers will find a panorama of sights. From here, a social trail can be traced down to Marguerite Falls, a small set of hidden cascades along Fern Creek and just below the Lake.

Fern Lake can be a jumping off point for several other destinations:

ouzel falls waterfall in rocky mountain national park wild basin hike with text overlay explore more hikes in rocky mountain national park

Tips & Resources for Hiking to Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

  • TIP: It is advisable to arrive early as parking is limited. One may opt to ride a shuttle that drops you off at the trailhead.
  • Trekking Poles & Traction Devices are Recommended in Spring and Winter: During this time of year, there can be patches and even longer segments of snow and ice on the trail. Because of this, we recommend Trekking Poles and/or Traction Devices for this trail.
  • Bring Snack or Picnic Lunch: You'll need fuel for this hike. There are a lot of great spots along the shores of the Lake to sit down and enjoy a picnic lunch.
  • Trail Map for Bear Lake Corridor: Trail Map Link
  • Packing List: Always pack the 10 Essentials. Download our Hiking Guide to get list and dayhiking packing checklist.
  • Colorado Road Conditions: Colorado Road Conditions
  • After the Hike: Baba's Burgers & Gyros


Map & Driving Directions

Click for Driving Directions

elk bedded down in tall grasses of moraine park in rocky mountain national park hike with text overlay explore more hikes in rocky mountain national park

black lake rocky mountain national park header

Black Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Black Lake is among the most spectacular lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. The journey to Black Lake is a strenuous, 10 mile, round-trip hike with significant elevation gain--but both the destination of Black Lake and the several waterfalls along the way make it more than worth the effort. Explore the full Black Lake hiking trail profile for trail map, driving directions, and all the details you need to enjoy this adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Trail Snapshot: Black Lake Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park

Parking & Trailhead Information for Black Lake RMNP, Colorado

The trail to Black Lake begins at either the Glacier Gorge Trailhead (see driving directions above), or at the Bear Lake Trailhead (driving directions). Because the Glacier Gorge Trailhead has more limited parking, you may need to drive further up to Bear Lake. There you'll find a short connector trail that will put you on the path to the Glacier Gorge Trail system. In the event that parking at Bear Lake is full, you'll then need to park at the Park & Ride near the Bierstadt Trailhead and take the bus into the trailhead. This service runs 7am to 7PM and more information on the RMNP shuttle bus routes can be found at this link.

The Hike to Black Lake RMNP

Hiking to Black Lake takes you into the Glacier Gorge Trail system with many wonderful destinations including Mills Lake, Jewel Lake, and Ribbon Falls. Be sure to review the different waypoints and destinations below so that you don't miss any of the sites. The first destination--and one you can't miss because it's right along the trail--is at .8 miles, Alberta Falls. After the waterfall, the trail ascends toward an eventual trail junction. The way to Black Lake is to follow the Glacier Gorge/Loch Vale trail that bears right. This trail climbs steadily for about another half mile until arriving at a second major trail junction with three options. The left-hand trail leads into Glacier Gorge and eventually to Mills Lake.

mills lake rocky mountain national park steve bratman creative commons

Morning Light at Mills Lake in the Early Spring - Courtesy of Steven Bratman

List and Links of Destinations From Glacier Gorge Trailhead to Black Lake

1. Glacier Gorge Trailhead
2. Alberta Falls - @ .8 mile
3. Mills Lake - @ 2.8 miles
4. Jewel Lake - @ 3.2 miles
5. Ribbon Falls - @ 4.8 miles
6. Black Lake - @ 5 miles

At Mills Lake, the trail follows its eastern shore for about 1/2 a mile until arriving at Jewel Lake, a much smaller body of water surrounded by lush green marshes. The next segment of the trail is my favorite, a challenging stretch of approximately 2 miles that leads hikers across bogs, and through verdant forest where the snow hangs on well into the summer months. In fact, this stretch may prove very difficult in the spring and early weeks of June depending on that year's weather. The trail continues to follow Glacier Creek up into the higher reaches of the park and ever closer to Keyboard of the Winds, the jagged rock formation ever present against the eastern sky.

Keyboard of the Winds is named for the sounds that flow from it's sharp edges as high winds whistle and roar across its peaks. Be sure to stop and listen for the music. It can be a mesmerizing experience.

If snow is still on the ground, then the last bit of the trail may require some basic route finding. The established trail skirts the left/east side of Black Lake, but can at times be hard to find. Stay close to the creek and you should be okay. Soon, hikers will encounter Ribbon Falls, a beautiful slide waterfall. Black Lake is just .2 mile further up the trail. This final segment is steep and requires negotiating some rocks and boulders before coming over the rise to gain breathtaking views of Black Lake.

ouzel falls waterfall in rocky mountain national park wild basin hike with text overlay explore more hikes in rocky mountain national park

Tips & Resources for Hiking Black Lake in Glacier Gorge RMNP :

  • Start Early: The hike to Black Lake is challenging and hikers will want to begin early to avoid being in this exposed area when afternoon thunderstorms often tear through the area in Summer.
  • Trekking Poles in Spring and Winter: Because the trail is high in the mountains, the snow and ice can hang around into late Spring and even early Summer, then pick up again in the Fall. Because of this, we recommend Trekking Poles and/or Traction Devices for this trail when the trail conditions are such.
  • Parking: If the parking lot is full at Glacier Gorge Trailhead, there is a shuttle available to take you to the trailhead, or you can park at the Bear Lake Trailhead.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park Trail Conditions: Click for RMNP Trail Conditions
  • Trail Map for Bear Lake Corridor Trails: Trail Map Link
  • Rain Gear Recommended: On every occasion I've been into Glacier Gorge, it's been gorgeous weather--and it rained. So, bring Rain gear. In the summer months, thunderstorms can form quickly in this area, especially in the afternoon--just another reason to begin your hike early.
  • Packing List: Always pack the 10 Essentials. Download our Hiking Guide to get list and dayhiking packing checklist.
  • Colorado Road Conditions: Colorado Road Conditions
  • After the Hike: Inkwell Brew Coffee
  • Photo: We would like to express our gratitude to Erik Page for sharing such an amazing photograph of this hike.


Map & Driving Directions

Click for Driving Directions

above bear lake in rmnp looking to glacier gorge colorado hike finder

2016 Hiking Boots Review

3 Great Hiking Boots for 2016

We asked our readers what piece of gear they most needed. The most common response was "a new pair of hiking boots." So, I stopped by REI to get an education on the best of this year's hiking boots. The sales associate knew her stuff! I was able to narrow it down to three recommendations. 1) My favorite, a boot that doubles well for both hiking and backpacking, 2) An affordable and reliable standard, and 3) a boot for those of us who may not have the best feet and ankles, so we need some extra cushion and support.

La Sportiva Trango TRK GTX


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    • Why Buy?: This boot fits like a glove. I put it on, laced it up, and I was in love. The Trango is super light-weight for a backpacking boot. It's light enough to be comparable with a good dayhiking boot. The sizing is surprisingly true to form. I wear a 10.5 to 11 and a 10.5+ fit perfectly, giving just a bit more room in the toebox. The Women's version comes in a set of green tones (pictured at top of post) and the men's in the red. Of the three, this was my favorite boot.
    • Construction: You may be looking at it and wondering, "What the heck is it made of?" It's a polyester mesh that's coated with thermoplastic polyurethane. The boot is super breathable and the GoreTex inner keeps your feet dry. The Trango has got a pretty aggressive tread pattern on it's Vibram sole.
    • Weight: Women's 2 lbs.; Men's 2 lbs. 8.4 oz.
    • Cost: $165 to $220
    • Buying Them:

Women's @ Backcountry.com
Men's @ Backcountry.com
Women's @ REI.com
Men's @ REI.com

Keen Targhee II


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    • Why Buy?: The Keen Targhee has been around for while and improves every year. If you are looking for an affordable boot with great grip, it's hard to beat. Review after review raves about how comfortable and supportive the the Targhee turns out to be. We love putting our kids in Keens when we go hiking because they perform great on slick rock and uneven terrain. Keen says that these tend to run a 1/2 size small and to order 1/2 size larger than your typical size.
    • Construction: Waterproof and breathable with leather upper and a durable outsole. Keen soles--what more needs to be said!
    • Weight: Women's 1 lb. 14 oz.; Men's 2 lb. 2oz.
    • Tip: There is a waterproof version and a non-waterproof boot, the voyageur, that looks really similar. If you want waterproof, go with the Targhee.
    • Cost: $135
    • Buying Them: Purchase Keen Targhee II Mid Boots

Women's @ Backcountry.com
Men's @ Backcountry.com
Kid's @ Backcountry.com
Women's @ REI.com
Men's @ REI.com
Kid's @ REI.com




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    • Why Buy?: I'll admit, these are kinda funky looking. But wait, these boots get rave reviews from hikers who have bad knees, weak ankles, arthritis, and the list goes on. Why? The Tor Summit boot has support. It's got a huge base, which gives you more surface and more cradle for your heel. If you have had a hard time finding a comfortable boot, this may be the one for you.
    • Construction: The Hoka Tor Summit has a leather uppper, and an eVent waterproof-breathable bootie. Vibram Soles.
    • Weight: Women's 1 lb. 11 oz; Men's 2 lbs.
    • Cost: $180
    • Buying Them: Purchase the HOKA ONE ONE Tor Summit Boots

Women's @ Backcountry.com
Men's @ Backcountry.com
Women's @ REI.com
Men's @ REI.com

Dayhikes Near Denver is an affiliate of both REI and Backcountry.

Ultimate Guide to the REI Garage Sale Denver

To create a guide to the REI Garage Sale, I took about 4 hours stalking the store, talking with Denverites who were pros at this, took notes, and got some gear myself. This guide is based on how things work at the downtown Denver , Colorado REI location.
It sounds like most stores have a first-come-first-served policy--not Denver. Because of the high volume of gear and high number of members who come through their garage sales they have had to develope some unique the protocols. I'll explain that in the next section on how the whole things works.  If the Denver Flagship store is not your home store, then give yours a call for the details on how they run their garage sales. Here's a link to REI's store locator. Let's get into it

How the REI Garage Sale Works

reigaragesale_couponHere are the basics: You have to be an REI member. If you're not, don't let that stop you; you'll still be admitted to the garage sale and you can purchase your membership when you checkout (not sure if all stores work this way). Another option is to buy your membership online, print out your receipt,  and bring it with you. The Denver store uses a ticket system and they move groups through in 20 minute segments that they call "color waves." So an hour before the sale starts (get the sale start times on the store's event page) a guy comes out with a box full of tickets: blue, pink, orange, etc. Because it's luck-of-the-draw, it doesn't really matter if you are in the front, middle, or the back of the line. It also means that you can draw an orange ticket, and your wife might draw a blue ticket--so you may have to go in at separate waves, unless you find some nice person to trade tickets with you (I saw this happen a couple times). Each color wave is made up of 100 people and you get 20 minutes in the garage sale room. Each person is allowed 5 items.colorwaveboardreigaragsale

How Do You Know When Your Wave Can Go?
Fifteen minutes before the garage sale officially starts they announce the color wave times and post them by the front door. On this particular day, the pink ticket holders got to go first. I was an orange, which went last-- get-there-early strategy didn't play out like I thought it would. Everyone then lined up according to their color waves and a line of people  snaked into the building, and up the stairs to stand outside the garage sale doors. After all the waves are done crashing upon the garage sale gear, REI then has an open door policy until the room hits capacity.

When your twenty minutes are up, you can take your gear down to the cashiers and check out. But wait, don't do that until you've read the tips below.

10 Tips for Getting the Most out of REI's Garage Sale

1. Because of the color wave protocol, I wouldn't worry about getting there uber-early. In fact, I would just pull in about 15 minutes before ticket time. You can grab a coffee at Starbucks and hang out. By the way, you may be required to get a parking pass when you pull in. I've never had to do this before, so it must be new. However, when I pulled out, I just told them I was a customer and I was not charged. Driving away,  I heard the attendant say something about the first hour or two being free.

2. Know what you are looking for, and prioritize it. Jackets, downs, and sleeping bags disappear fast; so, if that's what you are hoping for, go to that area first (clothing and jackets were straight in and on the right). Also, know about how much you are wanting to pay for the gear you hope toe find (see #7 on pricing).

3. Set aside any sense of hurry. I found my best gear after all of the waves had gone through. The REI members at the sale were amazing: they were patient, even fun, and the REI employees who ran the sale had a real relaxed demeanor. So, just be patient, kind, and enjoy it. REI garage sale

4. They typically refresh the gear for each wave. I didn't see them do this today; I guess some things got thrown off, but I hear that it's pretty normal for REI employess to wheel in new bins of stuff and to put it out on the tables. This might happen throughout the day after the color waves have finished. It all just depends on how much gear they have to get rid of.

5. Go for a walk with your gear.  Of the ten tips, I think this is the best one. Something funny happens to us emotionally whenreidenverflagshipstore we go to sales like this. For example, I saw some guy pick up a pair of ugly sandals--all of a sudden I was interested in them. We end up picking up stuff we don't really need, or in our hurry we forget to inspect the gear for damage. Here's what happened with me. I looked over several courier bags in the garage sale but couldn't find one I liked, then I picked up some patagonia slippers that were 80% off, and some trekking poles. One of the trekking poles wouldn't lock correctly, but it looked fixable. Then I went for my walk.

Down on the main floor, I found a courier bag on clearance that I liked and added it to my hoard. I also spent about 15 minutes educating myself on the pricing and the features of different commuter/courier bags. An awesome REI employee looked over the trekking poles with me and told me how to fix them for a few bucks. I tried on the patagonia slippers and decided that they were just flat-out ugly. So, I set them aside.

I also found some easter eggs on my walk. People had jettisoned garage sale gear in the various departments of the store, stuff they thought they wanted--like my ugly slippers--and later realized they didn't. I found a really nice Marmot down jacket just tossed to the side. With my emotions cooled, I was ready to go back in.

6. Go Back. After exploring the store and visiting the clearance areas (you may find some deals in clearance on par with the garage sale prices), go back up to the garage sale when it has been opened up to everyone. This is when I found the bomber courier/commuter bag I was hoping for. It was buried under a bunch of backpacks and was far superior to the one I picked up on the clearance rack. There were tons of boots, shoes, and sandals left.  I found a really nice pair of Merrel dress shoes that I had not seen during my orange color wave. Clothing and sleeping bags were the main thing that were picked over, but there was still a lot of good gear to look through.

7. The baseline for pricing appears to be 50%. It can be higher for stuff that is as-new, and lower for damaged gear. On your way out of the garage sale doors you can ask for reduced pricing. Don't do this with all your gear though. Have one or two things in mind, and let them know exactly why you think it should be marked down. If something is damaged or worn and is not 50% off, then I would definitely ask for a price reduction. Every once in a while you'll find crazy deals, but I'd say it's better to go in with the expectation that it's a 50% off sale with the occasional 80% off item.

reigaragesaleline8. I wouldn't recommend getting stuff requested by friends. Here's why: you're stuck with the gear you buy (or they are),  there are no returns on this stuff. So, if you are looking for requested gear, make sure your friend knows there are no returns on garage sale items. I'd also ask them, "What if it's not exactly what you are looking for?" I was looking for boots for my wife and found some promising ones. But boots have to fit really well, so I passed on them. For clothing, you really have to know people's sizes well. Plus, that REI 100% guarantee is important for some purchases (boots, a well-fitted multi0day pack), so weigh that into your decisions, too.

9. Wear Socks. There is a TON of footwear. If you are looking to buy shoes or boots, you'll need to be wearing a solid pair of hiking socks.

10. There is more winter gear at the Spring garage sale and more summer gear at the winter garage sale. This summer garage sale seemed to be a mixed bag, and my impression was that it was a bit smaller than the other two.

happycustomers_reigaragesaleAfter the garage sale,I talked with Mara and Scott, who were celebrating their finds. The couple recently moved to Denver from Chicago and have been doing a lot of trail running and camping. Because their last camping experience had been a cold one, they were looking for sleeping pads. They found some great ones and were able to pick up a double sleeping bag as well.

What did I walk out with?  Well, I put the Merrel dress shoes back--I remembered that I don't like shoes that don't have laces. I ended up with an STM Courier bag and those REI/Komperdell trekking poles.

If you're an experienced REI garage saler, we would love to hear your tips as well.

PS: The REI garage sale continues this Sunday, August 4th 2013 from 10am to 7am. Here's a link to the REI Denver events page for details.

Disclosure: Dayhikes Near Denver has an affiliate relationship with REI. Basically, that means if you click on one of their ads on here and buy something, we get a percentage of the sale.

elk falls waterfall spilling over granite cliff faces with evergreen trees in staunton state park colorado

Elk Falls - New Waterfall Near Denver

Elk Falls in Colorado's new Staunton State Park opened to the public in 2013. This highest waterfall near Denver had been unknown to most, and inaccessible, except to a few. Now it's an adventure waiting for able hikers! If you are a fan of waterfall hikes and you live near Denver, you'll know that it's kind of slim pickings; most of the best waterfalls in Colorado require driving beyond the Front Range, or into Rocky Mountain National Park. Elk Falls, is just 50 minutes from Denver! The 3700 acre Staunton State Park offers incredible hiking, rock climbing, and beautiful rock formations - all making for some great Colorado day hikes. Explore the full Elk Falls hike profile below for trail map, driving directions, and many of the details you need to enjoy this adventure in Staunton State Park.

Trail Snapshot: Elk Falls Overlook Hike at Staunton State Park

Parking & Trailhead Information for Elk Falls in Staunton State Park

The parking and trailhead area are immediately noticeable after the park entrance. On weekends, things can really back up at the entrance due to the number of visitors and those who need to purchase a parks pass. If you don't have your yearly parks pass, you can pick one up at a local Kings Soopers grocery store at the customer service area. Because your hike will begin with the Staunton Ranch Trail, the main artery of Staunton State Park, just look for the main trail which heads to the center of the park. If you've parked at the lower parking area, you'll have two Trailheads before you, the Staunton Ranch and the Mason Creek trailheads. Be sure to choose the Staunton Ranch Trail. The Elk Falls overlook can be reached by starting on the Mason Creek Trail, but its a significantly longer and more difficult 17 mile loop hike. Maps are available at the entrance and highly recommended for this hike.


The Hike: Elk Falls in Staunton State Park

The Staunton Ranch Trail leads hikers into the heart of Staunton State Park, through stands of ponderosa pine and past the Staunton Rocks climbing area. After 3.3 miles, the trail ends at a trail intersection with three new trails. The most direct route to the Elk Falls overlook is to choose the Bugling Elk trail which follows a small creek for 1.1 miles until it arrives at Elk Falls Pond, a good place to stop and Fish.

At Elk Falls Pond, a third trail, the Lion's Back Trail, leads another 1 mile up to the Elk Falls Overlook. Atop a highpoint, hikers will gain great views down to where Elk Falls drops from the cliff face into a beautiful mult-tiered waterfall. Out and Back, its a total of 10.8 miles.

Colorado State Parks is working on an Elk Falls Trail project that will eventually open access to the base of Elk Falls. This is projected to be completed and opened to the public in the Fall of 2016.

If you'd like to add a more challenging return segment to your hike and see new areas of the park, hikers can pick up the Marmot Passage trail until it meets with the hiker-only Scout Line trail, which eventually leads back to the main Staunton Ranch trail. This return route will add additional mileage, difficulty, and time to the hike back. Consult the trail map and topo lines to get a feel for the demanding nature of this option.

Tips & Resources for Hiking To Elk Falls Overlook:

  • TIP: Getting into the park can be slow at times, so be prepared to wait at the entrance on busy weekends.
  • Trekking Poles & Traction Devices are Recommended in Spring and Winter: During this time of year, there can be patches and even longer segments of snow and ice on the trail. Because of this, we recommend Trekking Poles and/or Traction Devices for this trail.
  • Trail Map for Staunton State Park: Trail Map Link
  • Packing List: Always pack the 10 Essentials. Download our Hiking Guide to get list and dayhiking packing checklist.
  • Colorado Road Conditions: Colorado Road Conditions
  • After the Hike: Crow Hill Cafe in Bailey
  • We would like to express our gratitude to Bill Chopp for sharing such an amazing photograph of Elk Falls.


Map & Driving Directions

Click for Driving Directions

waterfall in canyon with bridge in foreground fish creek falls waterfall in colorado

Looking for more waterfalls near Denver? Explore our more than 50 Colorado Waterfall Hikes, our favorite Waterfall Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, or 7 Waterfalls within One Hour of Denver.

james nelson

Why Can't They Find Missing Hiker James Nelson? - UPDATE: FOUND

UPDATE: 5/27/12

Eagle County Sheriff's Office may have located the human remains of James Nelson at a remote campsite near Holy Cross City, an old mining community ghost town.

Nelson's journal indicates that he may have been experiencing altitude sickness, something that can be unpredictable, affecting even very experienced mountaineers. However, folks coming to Colorado from lower elevations are more susceptible.

You may read in other articles that some of his gear is missing, including his gps, camp stove, and his camera. Some comments I've read at other sites draw the conclusion that there must be more to the story, and insinuate foul play. However there are a couple more likely scenarios. Two winters of snowpack building and melting over the site will move gear all over the place (see photo below). My guess, and hope, is that some of these items might be found. Another likely scenario is that some hiker saw an abandoned campsite, didn't know that a hiker went missing in the area, and pocketed the more valuable items.

Our condolences go out to the Nelson family and James' fiancé. Everything I've read about James is that he was an honorable and loving man who had a passion for the wilderness.

James Nelson Campsite
James Nelson's Campsite - Eagle County Sheriff's Office

ORIGINAL POST - Why Can't They Find Missing Hiker James Nelson? - Oct. 23rd 2010

Search and Rescue had spent over 1000 man hours in four days scouring the Holy Cross Wilderness before they called off the search for missing hiker, James Nelson. As I write this, it has been twenty-one days since Nelson struck out on the trail on Oct. 3rd. A few volunteers have been looking for him still, but no one has found a trace of him. Why? Why can't they find James Nelson?

Some Possible Reasons Why:


A Bermuda Triangle in Colorado? -

The Holy Cross Wilderness has its host of strange and mysterious stories about people vanishing within its nearly 200 square miles of rugged landscape. It has even been termed the "Holy Cross Triangle." The most perplexing account is that of Michelle Vanek, a 35 year old triathelete and mother of 4 who decided to climb Mt. of the Holy Cross in September of 2005. Just 400 feet below the summit, Vanek became exhausted and sat down. She and her hiking partner made plans to meet back at the main trail for the hike down, then her partner pushed on to the summit. After summiting, he hiked back down to their rendezvous point, but Vanek never showed. That began the largest search and rescue operation in Colorado history. Over 700 volunteers assisted in the effort. They combed the mountain and wilderness area for days, but found no sign of her.

If James Nelson decided to summit Mount of the Holy Cross, he may have accidentally descended into the Cross Creek area. On 14ers.com, the mountain is noted as being notorious for funneling people into Cross Creek drainage when they lose the trail. However, Nelson's name was not on the register at the summit, and no one spotted him on the mountain. Additionally, his plans to attempt Holy Cross were not definite. My guess is that Search & Rescue poured a lot of energy into searching the mountain because, if that indeed was where Nelson was lost, altitude and exposure would make his window for a rescue much smaller. Hopefully, Nelson decided against the ascent, however he did have plans to go off trail.

Where Hikers Typically Get Off-Trail on Mt. of the Holy Cross.
Photo by Chicago Transplant as Posted on 14ers.com
Bushwacking Off-Trail -

Though one friend commented that James was a "stickler for staying on the trail", he may have gone off trail for several miles, essentially cutting across to another trail. A map posted by Nelson's sister on 14ers.com shows his plans to bushwack on day 4 of his itinerary. From the Cross Creek Trail north of Mt. of the Holy Cross, Nelson would cut his own trail east, until he eventually could descend onto half-moon trail. It's a burly hike, and it would be very easy for an experienced hiker to get turned around.

James Nelson's Intended Bushwack
This map was posted by Nelson's sister on 14ers.com showing the general route that her brother intended to bushwack from Cross Creek to Half-Moon Trail.
Off-Trail Unintentionally -

This is a very typical scenario: A hiker sets up camp as the sun sets. It's dark, but he knows that he needs water. He grabs his water filter and headlamp, then heads off into the night toward the sound of a nearby creek. All the while, he assumes he knows the way back. When he gets to where he remembers setting up camp, it's gone. This happened to a good friend of mine in Rocky Mountain National park. He wandered around in the night, almost fell off a cliff, then somehow made it to an utility station, found an unlocked Jeep Cherokee where he stayed the night. This also seems to be what happened to Denver native, Jesse Capen, who in November went searching for the Lost Dutchman's Gold in Arizona's Superstition Mountains.

Nelson is a photographer and a similar scenario could have occurred if he downed his pack and attempted a short hike for the purpose of getting a particular photograph.

Cliff Bands -

The area around Mt. of the Holy Cross is riddled with 5 square miles of cliff bands. Many of these have to be negotiated technically, with ropes. Some of these areas just cannot be searched without putting searchers in harm's way, especially as the weather turns in October. Cliff bands can easily get a person trapped. You climb down a small section of rock, then you realize that you can't get back up. It's easy to panic once you are stuck, then to make poor decisions. Many people fall in an attempt to down-climb. Hopefully, Nelson didn't wander into this kind of situation.

Animal Attack? -

Mountain Lions and Black Bear are the two animals big enough to really harm a person in this part of Colorado. However, attacks are pretty rare. In this case it's important to know that animals are not neat and tidy when they attack. It can't be ruled out, but an animal attack of this nature would have most likely scattered a lot of evidence in the woods that would have been found by now: pieces of fabric and scattered equipment, etc.

Foul Play -

No evidence points in this direction. In Michelle Vanek's 2005 disappearance, there was some blood found and a couple run-ins with suspicious individuals camped or squatting in the area. In Nelson's case, there have not been any persons of interest or evidence of foul play.

Massive Boulder Fields -

These create small caves and coves in this area. If Nelson took cover for the night or to get out of the weather, ground searchers and even those searching for him by helicopter might not be able to see him.

October -

In the fall, the weather turns in the Mountains. October is when you can really see and feel the shift. If the worse happened to Nelson, then snow can make finding a person extremely difficult. Also, it buries the important clues that could help the effort to find him. The good news is that the weather has not yet come in full-force (but it will soon), and that snow also has some benefits. It makes colored objects stand out and footprints more visible.

Leave No Trace -

James Nelson is an Eagle Scout and respects the wilderness. He practices Leave No Trace principles, meaning he is not going to leave trash around and his campsites would show minimal impact. This makes him harder to track.

Mines and Mining Areas -

Holy Cross City, an old mining site and Colorado Ghost town, has been searched after hearing that James was interested in old mining relics. Abandoned mine shafts and adits can be incredibly dangerous. There are usually signs posted outside of them with a list of several ways you could die inside: old explosives, Carbon-Monoxide and other gases, and collapse of the mine. The encouraging thing is that Nelson's friends and family describe him as "focused and intelligent", highly doubting that he would attempt to enter these areas.

Reasons for Hope:


His Gear -

From the photo at the trailhead, he appears well-prepared. He seems to be someone pretty obsessed with gear, so I'm assuming he has some good stuff on him. He has a GPS, trekking poles, tent, down sleeping bag, among other things.

james nelson
Picture Taken Of James Nelson at the Fall Creek Trailhead
His Character -

From reading 20+ pages of forum posts on 14ers.com, and every article that pops up on my google reader, I've really come to respect this man. He is adventurous. At the same time, he is really sharp, even wise. Some have put him down for hiking solo and not carrying a cell phone, but these aren't necessarily stupid decisions. Cell phones have very limited use in a place like this, usually only on the higher ridges. I've carried Satellite phones on trips I've guided and couldn't get a connection all day. Hiking solo should definitely be a calculated decision in an area like this, but it doesn't appear that Nelson made the decision willy-nilly. And he did the most important thing he could do: He left an itinerary.

Search & Rescue Still Out -

Though the official search ended on Tuesday, Oct 12th, Search & Rescue volunteers were back on the trail and with dogs on the weekend of Oct. 18th. The dogs even picked up his scent along Lake Constantine. Search & Rescue in this area is known to be one of the best in the state, and the Nelson family has expressed their gratitude and confidence in their efforts.

Community of Volunteers Looking for Him -

I spent a couple hours on 14ers.com reading the posts by the community there. Several of these men and women have hit the trail together looking for Nelson. I will make a quick aside and say that if you are making plans to go look for Jim, it's a rough time to do it. You should be highly experienced, with someone, and contact search and rescue first. Two members of the community just finished retracing Nelson's intended bushwack as well as scoured a few other areas. You can read their trip report here.

Hunting Season -

Hunters will be out in full-force. They travel cross-country and in areas that most hikers never visit. They may be the people most likely to find clues or even find James.

Stories on the Mountain -

There have been many amazing rescue stories from this area. Two of them give us good reason for hope. My one disclaimer is that weather is the big difference. Still, these are encouraging. In July of 1997, Kathleen Kinderfather, spent 5 days lost near Mt. of the Holy Cross before they found her. Here is the incredible part - she was 67 years old. The second story happens in 1968. A 16 year old boy got separated from his family in a hail storm. They found him alive 2 weeks later on the slopes of the mountain. These aren't intended to give false hope. We know the statistics are grim, but as long as we don't have any other story to tell, we may as well be telling stories of hope.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Nelson family and James' fiance during these days.

Railroad Culvert - Lee Gulch Trail

4 Great Stroller Hikes Near Denver

Our children are not big enough to hike long distances yet. So, we usually we put the kiddos in child carrier backpacks. When we can though, we try to break out the Bob Stroller and hit a local trail. Here are 4 trails close to Denver that work great with a stroller.

Criteria for these Denver Area Stroller Hikes

  • Crushed Gravel or Paved Trail
  • Great Views or Natural Features
  • Accessibility

Click on the Maroon Links to get directions, trail maps, and hiking profiles.

#1 The Bluffs Loop South of Denver

Bluffs Regional ParkThis 2.7 mile loop trail is one of our favorites, and probably is the hike we do the most. The Bluffs provide panoramic views of Colorado's Front Rang and of downtown Denver. We try to go around 7pm when the sun is setting. You're likely to see deer and meadowlarks along the trail. Right now, we just hike it, but other will use this as a challenging run with the stroller.

#2 Bear Creek Trail at Lair O' The Bear Park

Lair of the Bear Trail

This 1.7 mile stretch of the Bear Creek Trail is accessed at Lair O' the Bear park. We've observed from our O'Fallon Park Hike that the trail stretches further west.We doubt that all 6.3 miles are stroller accessible, but there is definitely more to explore. The trail follows bear creek and goes in and out of the trees, so you get a bit of shade. Be alert for mountain bikes as it's one of the more popular mountain biking trails near Denver.

#3 Fountain Trail at Roxborough State Park

Roxborough State Park - Fountain Valley Trail This trail is not paved but all 2.7 miles are considered handicap accessible, so it makes for a great hike with your stroller. Of the four hikes, this is the most beautiful. It's also great for birdwatching as well as giving the kids a chance to see deer, as they are used to the human traffic in the park.

#4 Clear Creek Trail in Golden

Clear Creek Trail in Golden Colorado We'll admit that this last one isn't that much of a "real hike." But it makes for a great lazy weekend morning. The trail runs along Clear Creek and there is always something to entertain: swallows playing under the bridge, kayakers and water rescue training, and the summer farmers market. We love to take a picnic, and throw a blanket down in Parfet Park or grab coffee at the Windy Saddle Cafe which has a great little play room for the kids.

Disclaimer: These hikes are for strollers that are designed for jogging and trails. The Clear Creek trail is paved and would be great for almost any stroller.

Picnic area at Eldorado Canyon State Park

7 Great Picnic Areas Near Denver

Looking for a great place to picnic near Denver, Colorado? As we have been profiling hiking trails close to Denver, we have taken notes on the best picnic areas.

Criteria for these Denver Picnic Areas

[unordered_list style="star"]

  • At Least 1 Picnic Table
  • Close to some great hiking
  • Great Views or Natural Features

Click on the Links to get directions and full hiking profiles.

#1 Daniels Park Picnic Area

View From Daniels Park Near Sedalia Colorado

Daniel's Park is our favorite for watching the sun set - they are some of the best sunsets you'll see on the front range of Colorado. The park is small, but has an old rock picnic shelter complete with a stone fireplace. There are picnic tables throughout the park and a few grills as well. Daniel's Park is located in South Denver about 10 minutes south of Highlands Ranch. There are no established hiking trails in Daniel's Park, but we've put a few hikes together on the trail profile.

#2 Betasso Preserve Near Boulder

Betasso Preserve Near Boulder, ColoradoBetasso Preserve has great views looking east to Denver. After exploring Boulder Falls, we drove up to the park for a picnic. Unlike many of the other picnic areas we've visited, it was just us and the squirrels. So, if you are looking for a quieter picnic spot, this would be our first suggestion. Betasso preserve also has a shelter that can be reserved for a reasonable fee. Just follow the link to the Boulder County Picnic Shelters page.

#3 Evergreen Lake Picnic Area

Evergreen lake, ColoradoEvergreen is a quaint village about 40 minutes into the mountains from Denver. You can walk from town to the lake, or park the car at the lake parking lot on the west side of the lake. There you will find a small picnic area complete with grills. There is a lot to do at the lake: paddle boats & canoes, fishing, and a boardwalk.

#4 Eldorado State Park Picnic Area

Picnic area at Eldorado Canyon State Park

Eldorado Canyon State Park may have the best picnic area in Colorado. The drawback are the crowds. On the weekends, just getting in the park can be an issue. So, we suggest going on a weekday. It makes a perfect after work picnic. The picnic area is right along South Boulder Creek and the views of the canyon are breathtaking. The directions at the above link will take you to the parking area for the Rattlesnake Gulch Trail, but you'll want to drive past that until the road dead ends at a parking area. There you will find both the picnic area and the interpretive center. Eldorado Canyon does have an entrance fee because it is a Colorado State Park. You can view more info at our Eldorado Canyon Hiking trails profile page.

#5 Lookout Mountain Picnic Area

Forest and Meadow Loop at Lookout Mountain Nature CenterDeer, squirrels, and rabbits wander about the picnic area at Lookout Mountain. It's situated in a grove of ponderosa pines an close to the interpretive center. It's a perfect place to take the kids, and can be a real educational experience.

#6 Echo Lake Picnic Area

Echo Lake, Near Mt. Evans & Idaho Springs ColoradoThe picnic area at Echo Lake near Mount Evans is just about perfect. Of the seven picnic areas featured here, this one has the highest capacity. But it probably has the highest traffic. We've been up on the weekends and the key is going early. There are grills, restrooms, and an old stone shelter house.

#7 O Fallon Park Picnic Areas

ofallon park picnic areaWe saved one of the best for last. O'Fallon Park has a beautiful grove of pines that provide plenty of shelter. Bear Creek runs along the picnic area, and there are some great hikes that can be accessed from parking lot. The drawback is that this place fills up quickly on the weekend, even loud. So nix this one as a weekend spot, unless you plan to go for a 10am lunch. An old stone chimney barbeque can be accessed from across the creek.

If you have other picnic areas that you would suggest, leave us a comment and a bit of information on it!

snow on red rock formation in roxborough state park near denver easy winter hiking trails

3 Easy Winter Hikes

It's hard to just get out of the house on a Saturday morning. Add a bit of cold weather, scraping the frost off the car, getting the family bundled up, and it's just that much harder to get out and enjoy nature. So, I've looked over a few of our favorite local trails and decided on three Denver hikes that are really easy to get to and have a lot of "bang for the buck."

Criteria for these Denver Winter Hikes:

  1. Accessible in the Winter
  2. Mostly Level Trails
  3. High on the Beauty & Wildlife Scale

Three Easy Winter Hikes

#1 - South Valley Park Trails

snow on trail with red rocks and blue skies at south valley park in Littleton Colorado winter hike near denver

Red Rock, Deer, and beautiful meadows are the draw here. This hike is on the south-west side of Denver in Littleton, Colorado, and very accessible from 470. When there is good snowfall, it would be perfect for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. This Denver trail has been one of our favorite sunset hikes because of the way the setting sun lights up the red rock. Click Here for the Full Trail Profile.

#2 - Lakes Loop Trail at Rocky Mountain Arsenal

lakes loop trail rocky mountain arsenal header

It might sound kind of strange to say, "We're headed over to the arsenal for a hike", but the Rocky Mountain Arsenal has been turned into what has been called an "island of habitat" in the middle of the city. There are lakes, Bison, waterfowl, deer, burrowing owls, all just about 7 miles east of the center of Denver. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal features several hikes, and we profile a beautiful one at the trail page for the Lakes Loop Hike. Finally, be sure to check their seasonal hours at their website.

#3 - Roxborough State Park Hikes

red rocks and snow along hiking trail at roxborough state park in colorado winter hikes near denver

When you enter Roxborough State Park, it is a bit like entering a different world. There is a real sense of being down and inside of it because the towering red rock creates such a unique space. This is one of the best winter hikes near Denver because you are often shielded from the wind, and the trails of the valley floor are fairly level. If there has been a lot of snow, we would suggest you call the park office to be sure that the road is clear. We have a couple trail profiles in the links below, but the park offers several other options as well.

If you have any hikes that you would add to the list of Best Easy Hikes Near Denver, then post a comment. If we haven't profiled them yet, we will.
Happy Colorado Hiking!

Photo Credits: Thanks goes out to Adam Meek and the US Fish and Wildlife service for photos in this post.

Physicist Lost in Woods 3 Days Near Aspen, Colorado

Lost in the woods for 3.5 days because of bad directions. That's how The Glenwood Springs Post Independent explained the plight of a physicist turned lost hiker over the first weekend in August. But the story reveals that there was a lot more going on than just bad directions. Let's stop and take a better look at what the 50 year old Physicist did wrong and what he did right.

What He Did Wrong:

  • He bit off way more than he could chew. It looks like the was attempting a self-made, 25+ mile loop in just 14hrs! I don't care if you have good directions. When you make a plan like that, you obviously are not taking into account many things, especially weather.
  • He planned on hiking out in the night.No one should rely on their GPS that much. You can still walk yourself right off a cliff in the dark. Even with a great GPS. At night, the margin for error is huge.
  • The one mistake he admits was that he shouldn't have relied on the GPS info he downloaded from the web. It sounds like his directions were bad. However, even if the GPS points were correct, terrain can really throw you off. Our brains love to make what we see on our map or GPS unit look like our surroundings. Technology can get you found, but it can also get you lost or killed.
  • He relied too much on experience. He had visited Aspen before and done some hiking, but the hike he wanted to take required a deeper knowledge of the area. Usually, when you hear a lost hiker story, the first thing that is mentioned is that they had some experience. Experience can help, but it can also blind us.
  • And his biggest mistake. He didn't leave an itinerary.

What He Did Right:

    I don't want to bash this guy, because I could see myself in his same position just a few years back. He did some things right that kept him safe and alive.

  • He may not have left an itinerary, but he called to let his wife know that he was going out on a hike and that he planned on being back at his hotel later that evening. He also told her that he would call her when he got in. Had he been hurt, search and rescue would at least have been able to begin a search (which they did) and gather clues to where he might have gone. However, they would probably waste a lot of valuable time trying to locate him.
  • It sounds like he packed a good pack. Though he only planned to be out for an absurdly long day hike, he packed a small backpack with a bit of food, rain gear, and a few other things that came in handy. When you are out, always remember to bring the 10 essentials.
  • Finally, he didn't panic. It sounds like, once Nazarov realized that he was lost in the Colorado wilderness, that he took his time and used his senses. This is probably what got him out of the woods.
  • This ordeal could have taken a bad turn, but it turns out that it has a happy ending. Nazarov was able to get his bearings and work his way back towards Aspen. He ran into a search and rescue team when he was almost out of the woods. They took him back to town to make sure he was OK and to get his story.

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