I absolutely love taking my kids hiking. It combines my two favorite activities: being with my family, and being outdoors. It also gets them off the couch and away from digital screens, an added bonus. Since I'm usually either on a hike or planning my next one, I'm constantly on the lookout for a new spot they can explore. Luckily, in Colorado where we live there is no shortage of opportunity, if you're willing to get there early. A perfect day of hiking with my kids would combine something moderately challenging with multiple rewards along the way. Any hike with good views, streams, waterfalls, or lakes scattered over a few miles is the perfect thing to keep them going. When it’s just me, planning is easy. I know what I’m getting myself in to, and how to plan for the usual emergencies that hikers plan for. I carry first aid, extra water, wear the right layers, and I know what I should do if I run into a bear, get hurt, or get lost. With kids it’s a little more complicated. Sure the route isn't as dangerous, but they’ll invent brand new kinds of problems that are harder to predict. Like wet base layers after their coat gets stuffed full of as much snow as a younger sister can carry. Or lips stuck to ice-sickles. Or taking off their shoes and falling into a creek “on accident.” It’s always a good idea to have extra of things - like wool socks - because no matter how often I remind them not to step in water deeper than their boots they still will, and I’ve learned that for three kids under the age of 10 I really can't carry too much toilette paper. We usually take a couple hours longer than whatever the trail guide says because we'll have to check out every stream, downed tree, and rabbit trail we see along the way. We’ll stop for snacks way more often than I usually would, I lose track of how many times I hear myself say “we just had snacks, let’s go a little bit further first” (cheese crackers are always a trail favorite). Rock collecting is an important part of any good hike too. At home we have a whole tackle box full of rocks that were meticulously hand collected. Most might look to the untrained, adult eye like every other rock on the planet, but take my word for it, they aren't. In his book Closer to the Ground, Dylan Tomine wrote the path is the goal. I couldn't agree more, and out here that sentiment is illustrated literally. I don’t mind if we don’t make it all the way to whatever destination lies at the end of the trail, that isn't the point. The important thing is that we’re out there together, building the memories they'll hopefully hold on to for a long time, and learning to associate being outdoors with having fun. There will be time for longer hikes and summits later, but for now all I’m shooting for is the moment I tuck them into bed after a good day of hiking and they whisper “Dad, when can we go on another adventure?” Soon I tell them, I'm already planning the next one.
The Dunes National Park is a place I had wanted to see since moving to Colorado. In photos, the giant sand dunes looked pretty out of place sitting directly beneath snow covered peaks. As interesting and beautiful as they are, we hadn’t really thought about what's actually around the Dunes. I’m not sure what I expected, but other than the dunes themselves there really isn’t much out there. The small scattered towns felt dusty, and tired from waiting. Our campsite was at the top of the roughest dirt road ever built, littered with parts of cars that had rattled loose making their way to the top. From our vantage point we could sit fireside with an unobstructed view of the afternoon rainstorms rolling across the valley. The stars were some of the clearest I have seen. Speaking of stars, the alien watch tower is worth a quick visit if you’re passing through. You never know what you might find going on there.
The highest peak in Colorado, and second highest in the lower 48 (only 60 ft. behind California's Mt. Whitney), Mt. Elbert's summit sits at 14.439 ft. It's not one of the harder +14,000 ft. climbs in the state, but the scenery along the way makes it one of my favorites. We arrived at the trailhead under a clear night sky with the Milky Way stretched out overhead. The temperature gauge in the car said -12 C, not bad but still cold enough to make me wish I had my warmer layers on when I stepped out. I pride myself on wearing the perfect layers for any hike, but somehow I never seem to. And my bag is usually filled with way more than I need. I guess thats what happens when you've been through enough misadventures that you start planning for things not going as planned. I would have loved to stand around and stargaze longer but we had a long way to go and we were both cold and ready to get moving. Layered up and headlamps on, we headed out.
We had just cleared tree line when the sun made it over the peaks to the east. I could see our whole route laid out in front of us up the north ridge, with a single pair of tiny hikers making their way just below the summit. I picked out the spot I'd stop to eat my PBJ later, and kept going. The sun was fully up now and it was a beautiful and clear morning, and the snow wasn't too bad thankfully, since I opted not to pack my axe. I could tell I wasn't going to need my heavier jacket that was stuffed in my bag, but I wished I had worn warmer socks because my feet were cold. Stupid layers. By the time we made the summit there was no one else around, the other hikers having taken the southern route out. We could see two or three other small groups slowly making their way up behind us. They had been back there all morning, gaining on us when we were in harder sections and falling back when they were. We offered them brief encouragement as we passed on our way down although my legs prefer going up to down. Back at tree line we shed the layers that had became unnecessary, ate the last of our snacks, and made friends with a Grey Jay who was clearly no stranger to hikers taking breaks. There won't be many more days of this now, its mid October and the weather is already changing. My legs are reluctant as we start heading down the trail again, but even so the conversation turns to which summit we might be able to squeeze in before the snow really hits.
The hike to Glass Lake and Sky Pond is one of my favorites in the park. With waterfalls, pristine lakes, and awesome views, it's classic Rocky Mountains. No wonder the route can be pretty heavily trafficked in summer months. Come winter though, the crowds thin out considerably, especially when you get there well before sunrise, like we usually do. More than once we've been the first car at the trailhead, which as coveted as parking spots at Rocky are, is a pretty major achievement. There’s nothing like watching the sun rise over the surrounding peaks and feeling like you have the park to yourself. I always imagine what it must have been like for the first explorers to come through this area and take it all in. The lighting changes most dramatically in the early hours and that’s what we’re after. By mid-day the light is done changing (unless the weather gets interesting) and the sun just hangs in the sky until it gets lost completely when the sun drops behind the high ridges. That means we spend our time shooting on the way up, and chatting with other hikers on the way back down. I've found the people I do run in to out there are always pretty great, and it’s not totally unusual for groups to join up on occasion, the more the merrier. On this particular trip we were crossing a frozen Glass Lake on our way down when we ran into an old man with a huge smile and lot of stories. He admitted he was "nearing 80", and spends all his free time running the trails through these snowy mountains and across the frozen lakes. We stood there on the ice listening to our new friend and laughing along with him, wondering to ourselves how in the world he wasn’t absolutely freezing. He was wearing only cold weather running clothes and spikes for traction. His shirt was unzipped almost all the way, which left his thick, white, wool-like chest hair blowing around in the frigid wind. My friend and I were dressed how you would be for these conditions, but just standing around for a few minutes on the ice, with wind blowing off the mountains and across the lake was starting to make me more than a little chilly. This guy seemed totally unfazed. Later my friend and I decided the chest hair of old mountain men must be like goose down if you let it breath. Neither of us thought to ask his name, and he never offered it, but he did give us a heads up on a winter-only shortcut that saved us at least half an hour on the hike back. He still beat us down somehow, even though we never saw him again on the trail. When we got back to the trailhead there he was, taking off his spikes with a smile on his face and ice on his furry chest, already making new friends with a group of young hikers getting a late start. They hadn’t even left the parking lot yet but I knew he was going to be the highlight of their day too.
I enjoy the chance to get out alone. For me, it’s about connecting to what is real, and re-centering. I get out often enough that it doesn’t take very long for my mind to move beyond the distraction of the gear I’m using, or the cold, and begin to wander and reflect. Something like a difficult climb, or exposed section brings me back to the present, but as soon as I’ve moved beyond that critical moment my mind goes back to working out whatever it’s working out. In those moments, everything feels very intentional. Even the sun tracking across a valley feels slow and methodical, and I feel like one small piece of some great whole. On this trip I was the first out, which is what I’m always shooting for, and had been following a set of coyote tracks for a half mile or so. As I followed the tracks I thought about the coyote making its slowly through the center of the valley just like I was, neither of us critical to the story but both equally important. At some point the tracks darted off in another direction, probably after some unfortunate smaller animal caught out in the open at the wrong time, and the two of us went our separate ways. I was packing up to head back when another solo hiker came over the falls right to where I was sitting. They were surprised to see me, I think, even though they had been following the only set of tracks out there all day, which lead directly to me. It was nice to get going again though, back to the routine of trudging along to the sound of the wind and my spikes clanking against my pack.
The redwood forests of Northern California have always been a special place for me. Growing up nearby, I've spent a lot of time with these giants. Even during the warmest days inland, the weather here would be cool and damp. The fog rolls in from the coast and hangs in the canopies, exaggerating the long strands of light reaching all the way to the forest floor. Everything is alive, and massive. The scale of things makes me feel out of place, like I'm somewhere down the rabbit hole where I didn't mean to be. People walk by looking up instead of forward, and for some reason speak in quiet whispers. To me the air here feels heavy and hushed, full of reverence for something. Maybe it’s the sheer size of the trees commanding a kind of authority, scared from lightning strikes but still standing tall. Or maybe it’s the sense of time the forests represent, having outlasted whatever was here before I walked through. Whatever it is I can’t help feeling respect and awe for the forest, like in some way I've been allowed to be here and if I can just listen closely enough, the trees might tell me something.
The park is one of my favorite places to spend a morning. We headed out early to catch the sunrise, my only real goal was to test an old Minolta. There are so many unique areas in Rocky, every time I'm there I see something new. Watching the sunrise that day I realized the mountains I just photographed were the same mountains in one of Ansel Adam's photos I had on my wall at home. That set in motion our later plan to try and find the two places we knew of inside the park where he shot photograph from.
My friend and I had this idea to try and find the exact spot Ansel Adams stood when he took a pair of photos inside Rocky Mountain National Park. One of the spots we had a pretty good idea where to find, the other was more of a mystery and thats the one we started with. We found the right valley pretty fast, that harder part was finding the right spot. The landscape has changed quite a bit, and buildings and roads exist now where they didn't before. We were pretty confident we found the right spot after a few hours of hiking around, but on the way to scout the second photo we got lucky. I happened to look out my window right at the perfect moment to see what we missed the first time. It was right there, just off the road in a place people wouldn't have a reason to notice. We hit the breaks and jumped out with our gear, and when we held out the framed Ansel photo it was a perfect match. The second photo was a lot easier, in a spot we'd been before during sunrise. Not much had changed over time, and it was easy to imagine him standing on the roof of his car with his camera tripod. So many people drive by both spots every day without realizing the history tied to a pair of photographs. Even if we weren't as close as we thought we were, It was still pretty fantastic to be part of that.
Engagement photos for a cool couple in Oregon.
The track to Jewel and Black lake is another one of my favorite hikes in Rocky. The scenery on that side of the park is what you imagine the Rocky Mountains should look like. To me, winter is the best season to be in the park, you can hike for hours without seeing anyone, the peaks are all blanketed in snow, and everything feels more alive somehow. You always need to pay attention to what you’re doing in the backcountry but during winter my senses are heightened a even more. But when spring finally does come back to the park it’s really nice to hear and see the streams flowing again.
We started without much of a plan, just wanting to get back out. With an idea of where we wanted to start, our route, and an agreement that we'd stop for anything interesting and not hurry, we heading out as early as possible. That meant a typically overcrowded trailhead was all ours. I love being in the park at sunrise. We headed off trail pretty much right away, and other than some bear tracks we didn't see much until we came to the clearing. All the way across a heard of Bighorns was the sunrise wash over the valley. They let us sit nearby for a while, just taking in the view with them. Eventually we pushed on, but for me that was the highlight of the morning.
Two of my favorite kinds of places are small towns and mountains. When those two come together I know I'll be right at home, and thats what Sitka is. I didn't meat anyone who wasn't genuine and ready to hear your story over a drink. There is also something really appealing to me about living in a place you can only get to by boat or plane.
This was a fun afternoon with friends that started with a conversation about an old car and what we might do with it. It was so hot inside that car, and it was dripping oil and tried to roll away more than once. Still, it was pretty fun to do something for no reason at all and come away with photos I would otherwise never have.