Mount Ellen: Henry Mountains High Point

When I realized that I had the whole Labor Day Weekend to go out exploring with Sprocket, I decided it was high time to go check out Utah’s Henry Mountains. I’d been past them before but since it was early spring, the roads up into the mountains themselves were too muddy down low with snow gracing the higher peaks. The Henrys are rarely explored despite the fact that the highpoint, Mount Ellen, stands 11,522′ high giving it more than 5,000′ of prominence. The summit is also the high point of Utah’s Garfield County.

As is usual, I had a hard time gauging just how rough the road to Bull Creek Pass actually was going to be. It can be difficult to tell just what people expect road conditions to be. As it turned out, it was rough but nothing that ever required me to use 4-wheel drive. On the way down, I did avail myself of low range since it was pretty steep.

From the saddle at Bull Creek Pass, we made our way up through the wind pretty quickly. It looked as if a fairly major rainstorm might be approaching from the west but it wasn’t moving very fast and seemed to only be rain (no thunder or lightning).

Our views were way more expansive than my iPhone camera can show you. We could see all of the myriad canyons around us plus the Abajos and the La Sals in the distance. I was a bit disappointed that it was slightly hazy; I would have loved to glimpse my home San Juans from this distance!

The trail petered out when we reached the ridge and made for kind of slow going through the large rocks. Sprocket hates this sort of hiking. We lingered on the peak for just a few minutes before heading back down to the Jeep. The clouds continued to appear to not be moving quickly but the wind was still whipping across the ridge from the west.

Almost back at the Jeep, I was shocked at how powerful the gusts were! There as a bit of rain in the wind and it stung my cheeks and the wind pushed me continually off trail as we jogged back to Ruth as fast as was prudent.

As I stood on the summit, I felt a weird feeling: I just wanted to go explore the canyons at my feet instead of climbing more peaks in the range. Perhaps it was the vagabond traveler in me but I felt the call of exploring pulling me back out of their remote clutches and back on the move.

Pikes Peak & Devils Playground: El Paso & Teller County Highpoints

The main goal of our roadtrip was to start checking off some peaks on the County Highpoint list again. I hadn’t gotten one since summiting Bushnell back in March so it was high time to make progress on the goal. Since this time of year is a little tough in terms of access, I had limited peaks to choose from and decided to go ahead and drive up Pikes Peak since I would not only grab the El Paso County Highpoint on the summit but also the Teller County Highpoint, Devils Playground along the way.

We arrived at the toll booth quite awhile before they opened but happily passed the time chatting with some other people in line. I even made some coffee on the stove in the back of the XJ for the drive. I snapped a couple of shots of the mountain going down the road but most of them turned out really well framed just like this one:

When we left the toll booth, they’d said that because of high winds on the summit, the road was closed at mile 16 although they were fairly confident that wind speeds would drop and we could continue up at some point. I wasn’t too upset since mile 16 is where Devils Playground was located. We arrived and immediately started up the small slope. Sprocket was delighted to be playing in the snow. He ran right up to the summit and stood on the rocks and waited for me. Clearly, my dog knows what’s up. Teller County marked my 46th Colorado County Highpoint!

With perfect timing, the road opened all the way to the Pikes summit when we were just below the Devils Playground summit. I had so many good laughs watching SP frolic his way back down to the Jeep. He definitely knows how to have fun.

Just a couple minutes up the road, we reached the summit, my 47th county highpoint in Colorado! It was pretty windy so we didn’t stick around too long before heading back down the mountain.

Colorado County Highpoints: Northern Plains

After saying goodbye to Bart, Leigh, and Boone, Sprocket and I headed north from Burlington making our way to Yuma, Colorado. There was snow on the roads but it wasn’t icy (or as it would be later slushy).

Normally, one would be able to pretty much drive right to the Phillips County highpoint but the north-south road was drifted with about 4-8″ of snow so Sprocket and I jaunted north from the intersection just to the south.

After Phillips County, it was just a short drive to Sedgewick County with its short hike out to the highpoint. There was some pretty deep drifted snow on the way out past the abandoned barn but after that the going was fairly easy and the snow was already starting to melt rapidly!

We made our way north into Nebraska, grabbing lunch in Sidney, before making our way to Colorado’s Logan County highpoint. By the time we arrived, the snow was almost gone!

We tried to visit Panorama Point but unfortunately the snow was really drifted on the last mile to Nebraska’s highpoint. I wanted to drive all the way home that night so I was aware of time constraints, plus the landowner’s sign warned that because of bison in the area hiking wasn’t allowed.

Instead, we headed south through Pawnee National Grassland to Shannon Benchmark, the highpoint of Morgan County. On our way out to the highpoint, Sprocket was reminded of his hatred for prickly pear. (He used to almost refuse to walk across the field of the Log Hill property.)

I briefly debated spending another night in the area and trying to arrange a visit to the Terry Bison farm for the next day but after the blizzard adventure, I decided to put it off for another time but in the space of three days (including one mostly weathered out!) I’d added 9 Colorado County Highpoints to my total bringing me to 45 of 64 (70.3%)!

P.S. Ruth was the best ever: we had a tank of gas going over the mountains where we got 30mpg! (XJs love 45 mph and elevation; there’s a reason we make a good team.) I can’t imagine a better vehicle for someone with a county highpoint hobby.

Adventure Is Embracing The Unexpected: People

After I summited Two Buttes, I pushed north towards the Phillips County Highpoint. The wind that I’d experienced on the hike didn’t seem to abate. When I approached Lamar, I saw a sign notifying me that US 40 was closed from Kit Carson to Limon. I began to realize that the dark clouds and wind might be a little bit more than just a small storm.

In Kit Carson, I tried to take Colorado 59 north but it, too, was closed. Not really willing to hunker down in the Jeep before noon to endure what at that point were just windy conditions with all of the trucks waiting to go westbound so I turned east towards Cheyenne Wells. There, I found US 385 open to the north so I just kept on towards the goal; wind and some non-sticking sideways falling snow aside. In Burlington, I navigated through town, only to find that my northbound route was closed… and I-70 westbound was closed.

I drove around town looking for a restaurant or a bar that I could hole up in, hoping against hope for somewhere that might look like it might have wifi. I spotted Essential Foods and headed inside. The space was simple but the lunch menu they handed me looked delicious. I’d already eaten on the road but they happily let me just sit and drink coffee for hours, understanding that I was just seeking refuge from the DOT and its road closures. Outside, the snow started, but it wasn’t sticking and I was frustrated. Time ticked by and it became clear that Denver was a mess and I probably shouldn’t expect any roads to be opening any time soon.

As I worked on my computer and the snow finally started to stick to the roads a little instead of just blowing sideways, a man walked up to me and asked if I’d found a place to stay. He had offered his vacant, for sale house to a couple also holed up in the restaurant and wanted to extend the offer to me as well. James, the homeowner, drove us over to the house to show us around the house that turned out to be a gorgeous 1919 Craftsman. James fretted about the lack of furniture, turned the heat up for us, insisted on opening the blinds so it didn’t feel like a cave, and offered to go to the grocery store for some toilet paper. Simply feeling grateful to have a warm place to stay, all I could do was reassure my host that it didn’t matter that there was no furniture, that I had toilet paper in the jeep, and that I couldn’t ask for anything more for the night.

Back at the restaurant, I got to know my housemates for the night better: Bart and Leigh (along with their dog Boone) run Be Hippy, a grassroots lifestyle brand. We chatted about social media, traveling, and marveled a little bit about the goodness of people opening their homes to us. The staff at Essential Foods continued to take good care of us stranded travelers and eventually we drifted off to our warm home for the night.

I’d started off the blizzard delay so frustrated and annoyed with DOT for being overly cautious but in the end, I was filled with the warm fuzzies of making friends, being reminded of the kindness of strangers, and the absolute importance of being open to adventure. Thank you James, Bart, and Leigh for making my day and being part of a weather event that added so much adventure to my plains highpointing.

Oklahoma State Highpoint: Black Mesa

Sprocket and I did not roll into the Black Mesa trailhead the traditional way: we wandered in from the north via a variety of dirt roads towards the end of our first full day of visiting Colorado’s eastern plains. Thankful for daylights savings time, we hit the trail at about 4pm alternating jogging and walking the flat first two miles. It was warm but the breeze kept us cool (I probably would have ran more but I was a little worried about the big black dog).

We shifted into mountain gear for the short ascent to the top of the mesa and cruised right up:

After wandering across the summit plateau, we found the surprisingly substantial monument marking the highest point of Oklahoma. The views around were pretty sweet, although the broad mesa mesa that they felt a little bit far off.

I was getting hungry so we jogged back down the trail. The sun was starting to get lower in the sky and although Sprocket was tired, we made good time, and were able to drive to Boise City for dinner before it was totally dark.

Colorado County Highpoints: South End of the Plains

Last December, I headed to the central plains to collect a few more highpoints before the end of 2015. As I start to think about attempting to finish the Colorado County High Point list before the end of 2016, I really wanted to finish out the plains highpoints. Sprocket and I started out our loop with the southern most points of the plains.

Appreciating the plains points takes a little bit of extra attention. I studied the cholla and the yucca plants. I poked around small towns and stopped at view points and informational markers:

The highways were lonely and many of the dirt roads were even lonelier.

Ruth even summited a couple of the highpoints along with Sprocket and I:

My ascent of Two Buttes (Prowers County HP, 4711′) came on Day 2 in some crazy winds: sustained 24mph with 51mph gusts at the time of my hike kicking up white caps on Two Buttes Reservoir. We were there, though, and it was only about 400′ of ascent to the summit so Sprocket and I decided to tough it out and get ourselves to the top.

Bushnell Peak: Fremont County Highpoint

When I’m home on a Friday, my day usually starts out with puppy cuddles and gently transitions to coffee at my computer for #hikerchat. A couple of weeks ago, as the chat was just gearing up, Mike mentioned that his climbing partners were hurt and wanted to know if I was down for a summit. I am always down for a summit.

We started trying to decide where to go and I immediately gravitated to my county highpoint list. Many of the peaks were out because of distance or potential avalanche danger. I narrowed in on Bushnell Peak in the northern Sangre de Cristo range. I could find precisely one report of it having been climbed in late-winter conditions around the end of March. It had been quite awhile since Colorado had received any snow and none was predicted for the coming week so we decided to go for it.

‘Scuse the dirty windshield

We met up in Poncha Springs and headed south in the growing dusk to the trailhead. We really lucked out, I did not realize that all the roads in the Raspberry Creek area are closed starting March 15th for Sage Grouse protection! The road up towards the trailhead was rough but not very difficult. Be careful though; there are some sharp rocks here and you can get yourself in trouble really quickly with a slice to the sidewall of your tire.

We were able to drive up to about 8,800′ and I probably? could have pushed up to about 9,000′ in the jeep. We discovered when hiking the next day that once the road entered the trees, the snow was both slushy and about a 1′ deep. Parking down at 8,800′ added less than a mile so it wasn’t too big of a deal.

Early early alpine starts are not my forte so I was glad that Mike pushed me to hit the trail at 3am. I rolled out of bed at 2:45, walked Sprocket around a bit, and was ready to hit the trail. As I mentioned above, we shortly ran into snow and the postholing started. I started out breaking trail and immediately began to think, “There is no way we’re going to reach the summit with these conditions.”

The old mining road peters out as it reaches the wilderness boundary and attempting to follow it in the dark was more difficult than I had expected. We crossed Raspberry Creek and I wasn’t seeing the road continuing up the creek drainage that we expected to follow. Mike and I briefly consulted and we decided to just head directly up the southwestern ridge of Bushnell.

This wound up being a really great plan. Just out of the flats we started to run into bare ground on the top and south sides of the ridge. From about 9300′ up to nearly 10,200′ we enjoyed just patches of snow and mostly easy forest walking. As we reached an aspen grove, the slope abated a little bit and the sun started to rise.

What started out to be a glorious sunrise lighting nearby Twin Sisters and the Collegiate Peaks to the northwest faded a bit as dark clouds began to gather just on the eastern side of the summits. We briefly discussed the weather and both agreed that the clouds seemed to be moving more north than west towards us so we pressed on.

The snow got harder and more difficult to traverse but the final pitch to the summit looked to have plenty of exposed rock that looked easy enough to walk up. Here, my spirits started to rise. I was feeling strong and I realized “We could actually do this.”

The wind at this point was cold so we just kept moving. At the summit, I snapped just a couple of photos, including this selfie, before hi-fiving Mike, and getting moving again. I’m pretty sure I excitedly fist pumped as I walked the last few feet to the summit for my 36th Colorado County Highpoint.

Downhill travel is always faster and that pace really helped to warm me up, plus I was motivated to down out of the wind! As we approached the valley floor, we found ourselves descending into a beautiful spring day.

Thanks for an awesome, confidence building day Bushnell. I had a blast and I was so so excited to know that my recent efforts to prepare for the mountains are working. Thank you to Mike for the suggestion to get out and do something big and for being willing to work with my goals!

Central Eastern Plains Highpoints

I have been very adamant about one goal for 2015: I was going to reach 50% on Colorado’s County High Point list. I spent most of #SummitSummer working to make this a reality. I’d secretly hoped to make it to the 50% mark with “real” highpoints (aka mountains and not flat plains points) but that was just a secret hope. When I’d summited Douglas County’s Thunder Butte that had put me within four high points of my goal. I’d toyed with plans that would have let me get a few of the “real” highpoints before the snow fell but thanks to life, they didn’t quite work out.

But, the goal was still in reach, I had the Eastern Plains in my back pocket and I really hoped to make one of what I figure will be three trips before the end of the calendar year. I got distracted by Christmas things (getting my tree and crafting) and before I knew it, I was down to just two windows of time. Pushing it off until the last second seemed a little bit dumb knowing that a winter storm could roll in and make driving hundreds of miles on dirt roads the opposite of fun so we seized on last weekend.

Shay was kind enough to let Sprocket and I spend Friday night at her place. We got up early on Saturday morning to begin our adventure. Just outside of Byers, we saw a herd of bison then a herd of antelope. I decided this whole flat land thing wasn’t that bad.

We pulled up to the Washington County High Point, wandered around the side of the road matching up the GPS point with what appeared to be the highest non-road spot and snapped a photo with our new selfie stick; Sprocket was a little bit unsure and is demonstrating pro side-eye.

We headed back to US 36, passing through Last Chance, and headed on to the Yuma County High Point, another road side “attraction.”

We wandered around on the side of the road being sure we touched the high ground and enjoyed the sunshine a bit.

Getting to the Kit Carson County High Point and Overland Benchmark East (the Cheyenne County High Point) was a little interesting. Some of the roads I attempted to travel southward from Flagler were just two-tracks between two fields. The dirt was mostly dry but there was some snow drifted in as deep as 9″ in some places but they were just small and never encompassed both my front and rear tires at once. Since, there were ample turn around possibilities and the snow wasn’t that deep so I just kept pressing forward. Ruth didn’t miss a beat and plowed right through the narrow slushy “drifts” and we eventually made it to a windmill near Kit Carson County High Point. Afterwards, we hiked south to Overland Benchmark East where I reached my 50% Colorado County High Point goal for the year!

It was only about 12:15 when I got back to the Jeep from Overland BM so we headed south to the Kiowa County High Point. Along the way, we reached a fork in the road.

And then we found an interesting monument:

Somehow, the flat wasn’t boring, just kind of relaxing, actually.

We saw some more pronghorn:

We hiked out from the end of County Road 44 to the Kiowa County High Point and enjoy some pretty views of mountains off to the west.

I knew I was starting to run low on daylight so I sadly had to forgo Crowley County’s High Point in order to reach Lincoln and Elbert’s high points while it was still light (they were fairly directly on my way home).

It felt a little bit like we were racing against dark to get to the Elbert County High Point:

But we made it, just as darkness was falling, for our 7th county highpoint of the day.

Mount Union: Yavapai County Highpoint

I wasn’t entirely sure what Sprocket and I were going to get up to on our way back from the Phoenix area while bound for Colorado. I figured I’d take a couple of days to make the drive and that we could adventure somewhere along the way. I’d debated between hiking Black Mesa, the Navajo County highpoint, and adventuring in the Bradshaw Mountains to Mount Union, the Yavapai County Highpoint. I didn’t really make up my mind until I reached the Bumble Bee exit on I-17.

I often rave about the wonders of taking the blue highways but I really outdid myself this time. It is only 45 miles on the interstate between Black Canyon City and Camp Verde and I managed to map out a route that more than doubled the mileage and took the original 45 minute drive and turned it into an adventure…

After climbing up from the Verde Valley, I passed through the small community of Crown King and then started following the Senator Highway north. The dirt road was in pretty good shape and we made good time (for gravel) and only hit snow in a few patches.

After so much quiet and lonely driving through the mountains, it was almost anti-climatic to get to the base of the Mt. Union spur road. There are private homes along the road (and the gun fire in the distance was sort of disconcerting) so we hustled our way up to the peak. I lazily didn’t change out of my flip flops so the little stretch of the road that was shaded by the peak itself was sort of interesting. (Oops.)

We scrambled up as far up the stairs of the lookout as we could, Sprocket braving the steep narrow extruded aluminum bravely, and looked around. The Bradshaw Mountains are not among Arizona’s most majestic but they really are in the middle of everything; the views were a little obscured by clouds but I got an idea of just how much I could see from that vantage point!

I decided to take FS 261 down to the highway and I was actually kind of surprised by it! I had to pick my line with some care in places to compensate for the stock XJ’s relatively low clearance. I could have made it up the road just fine but it would have been tough in a couple of spots. Although it felt like it had been a really full day already, I decided to push it all the way back to De Beque over a snowy Lizard Head Pass into Ridgway and then north to our own bed after a really busy week of friends and mountain tops!

Harquahala Mountain: La Paz County Highpoint

My original plan, after visiting Mt. Lemmon and Rice Peak was go head down and climb Mt. Wrightson, the Santa Cruz county highpoint, but for reasons I can’t really explain, I just wasn’t feeling like it. I drove up through the mountains to the east and then circled back around to the west. And then, I just kept driving west.

During the winters I spent in Arizona, especially around the Quartzsite area, I’d really been wanting to hike or drive up Harquahala Mountain, the La Paz county highpoint. I’d heard that although 4 wheel drive is recommended that it doesn’t require high clearance. Sounds just perfect for an XJ! As I reached Gila Bend, I was pretty sure Harquahala was my destination. Darkness fell about the time I reached Buckeye but that didn’t stop us from tackling the approximately ten miles to the summit in the dark. Ruth handled everything masterfully (honestly the road was not that difficult and we did 90+% in two wheel drive and reached just one switchback where 4wd became necessary). Atop the summit, I had my sixth Arizona county highpoint!

At the summit, I realized the battery on my DSLR was dead. I’m super disappointed because the moon was SO BRIGHT that I kind of wanted to play around with some long exposures. Since that didn’t happen, I bundled up (although the breeze was warm) and Sprocket and I enjoyed the twinkling lights of the small towns to our west and of the I-10 corridor.

It was cozy cuddled with Sprocket in the back of the Jeep but as the sun started to rise, I crawled out of bed to take it all in. Absolutely incredible.

After wandering around a bit, we headed down hill, the sun still putting on a spectacular show (and illuminating the beautiful scenery we’d missed driving up in the dark).

This was an amazing drive! It wasn’t technical but the desert mountain views were incredible! It was such an amazing day to wake up and start the day.