Colorado 14er: Mount Of The Holy Cross

Mount of the Holy Cross is barely a 14er, with its summit reaching 14,005′, but it is not Mt. Holy Cross it is “Mount of…” which I find sort of pompous but I digress. I’d heard that Holy Cross was a beautiful mountain and I was kinda skeptical since it’s listed on as part of the Sawatch Range which never quite does it for me. (I have become a mountain snob, I won’t lie to you.) I was wrong. Holy Cross was a great mountain to climb. It is, however, the highpoint of Eagle County, and it was my 49th county highpoint in Colorado, bringing me to just over 78% completion!

Famed western photographer William Henry Jackson, photographed the mountain in 1873 from the flanks of neighboring Notch Mountain (Notch actually obscures Holy Cross from US 24 so it cannot be seen) while traveling with the Hayden Party. Some questions exist as to whether Jackson doctored the photo so that the cross was more distinct.

Photograph. Mountain of the Holy Cross. 2004.0286.16.
The National Museum of American History

In 1874, another famous artist of the American West, painter Thomas Moran climbed to the flanks of Notch Mountain to make some sketches of Mount of The Holy Cross for a painting. Moran’s inspiration by Jackson in turn inspired Henry Wordsworth Longfellow to write a poem “The Cross Of Snow.”

Anyway, in addition to being Mount of the Holy Cross, there’s a lake named Bowl of Tears and another snowfield called the “Supplicating Virgin.” This also finally explains to me the name of “Shrine Pass” leading from Red Cliff to I-70 near Copper Mountain (no joke this always made me think of the Shriners…). In the 1920s there was a large push to develop the area around the mountain, as well as the mountain itself, as a place for “devotion” and worship. The Colorado Mountain Club pushed back, advertising a 1923 outing as an opportunity to “see it BEFORE it is desecrated in the name of religion. It is a glorious mountain, in a splendid and so-far inaccessible setting of ragged ridges and sparkling lakes.” After their trip, they were clear to note in their report that the cross was barely visible as a result of it being late summer.

As a result of all the interest surrounding Holy Cross, President Hoover declared the area a National Monument in 1929 leading to the construction of Tigiwan Road in 1932 and 1933. The Tigiwan Community House, spotted on the drive to the Half Moon Trailhead, was built to house pilgrims and the CCC built the stone house visible on Notch Mountain from the summit of Holy Cross was built to shelter them as they viewed the cross.

Then, as quickly as it had grown, the pilgrimage movement ended in the late 1930s. In addition to economic hardships followed by World War II (and the heavy usage of the Leadville area by the 10th Mountain Division for training), for various possible reasons the cross always seemed to be less impressive than promised. (One suggestion is that rockfall happened in the right arm to make it less apparent.) In 1950, the National Monument was decomissioned by Congress.

Okay, giant historical aside is over but I owe a huge thanks to Kevin Blake’s article “Imagining heaven and earth at Mount of the Holy Cross, Colorado” for allowing me to really geek out on this.

As a hike, Holy Cross is a bit of a bear because the standard route from Half Moon Trailhead climbs about 1000′ to Half Moon Pass before descending 1000′ to East Cross Creek and only then can you make the 3200′ ascent to the summit. This, of course, means that one must also climb 1000′ on the “descent” of the mountain to get out of East Cross Creek’s canyon.

I’d given a half-hearted effort to climbing Holy Cross back in fall 2015 so I knew it’d be nice to get the climb to the Pass out of the way before going for a summit and decided to camp at East Cross Creek. I arrived at the trailhead about 2pm and really hoped that I wouldn’t wind up just getting drenched on my way to camp since the clouds were looking somewhat ominous.

Although a few drops fell on me as I started to pitch my tent, it never actually rained overnight. I had hoped to crawl into the tent and do some reading but I lasted about 30 minutes before I promptly fell asleep… at 5pm.

My headlamp appears to have jumped from my daypack, which I discovered when I woke up about 11pm, so I set my alarm to go off at 5:30 since hiking before that without a light source would be rather silly. I hit the snooze button once and started climbing up the ridge of Holy Cross about 5:45.

Notch Mountain in the background

It never ceases to feel magical to be in the mountains as the sun makes its way over neighboring ridges. This one was no exception. Suddenly, as the sun crested Notch Mountain, Holy Cross started to shine.

There’s a great stairstep-y path leading a good chunk of the way up the talus slopes before you cross a somewhat flat section of the ridge and then tackle the final steep, 500′ easy scramble to the summit.

I’d been worried the last 800′ to the summit that the weather was going to take a turn significantly before the 10am predicted by the National Weather Service but it actually seemed to get better while I was lounging at the top. By this point, I was basically dreading the ascent back to Half Moon Pass with my pack. It wasn’t particularly heavy but it was enough to just not want to do.

It was only after grinding the first 500′ of the climb out of the way that I had a chance to really appreciate that I’d gotten my 49th Colorado County Highpoint (of 64) and my 14th 14er (using the CMC list).


Blake, Kevin (2008) ‘Imagining heaven and earth at Mount of the
Holy Cross, Colorado’, Journal of Cultural Geography, 25:1, 1 – 30. DOI:10.1080/08873630701822588.

Longfellow, Henry Wordsworth. “The Cross of Snow.” The Poetry Foundation,

“Mountain of the Holy Cross.” National Museum of American History, National Museum of American History,

On The Page: One Hundred Mile Summers

I really enjoy most memoirs about long distance hiking; somehow the rhythm of hiking becomes the rhythm of reading and you’re swept along the trail. One of the things I’ve noticed, however, is that narratives about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail seem to break down about the time the author reaches the Oregon border. I’ve lived in both Oregon and Washington and I know that the PCT in both states is astoundingly beautiful. I figured this paucity of narration was a side effect of narrative fatigue after explaining the struggles with adjusting to the trail as well as the result head down hiking to make miles before the snow starts to fall.

Somewhere along the line I started to think, “I’m not so sure I want to thru-hike the trail.” It just started to seem like a not ideal way to absorb the beauty of the trail. A couple of years ago, Amazon suggested One Hundred Mile Summers: Hiking The Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada by Eleanor Guilford.

Guilford began backpacking in the late 1960s with the Sierra Club. She became enchanted with backpacking and completed the John Muir Trail before expanding her hikes to the PCT. She generally completed a trail section each summer of about 100 miles, expanding the length of her hikes after her retirement, and finished the PCT at the Canadian border in August of 1989.

I really enjoyed reading Guilford’s account of her hike. She is frank and honest about what she experienced along the way and I think her section hiking approach really allowed her to be fresh and open to experiences the entire trail. I also felt a really strong kinship with Eleanor as a solo female hiker. She utilized Amtrak, buses, and hitchhiking to get to and from the trailheads and her home in the Los Angeles area, in her sixties and at seventy! Sometimes I had to remind myself that she wasn’t thirty like me!

Guilford’s hike being spread out over two decades meant that she was able to make observations about how equipment, attitudes, and policies changed over the years. While clearly not a professional writer, Guilford’s enthusiasm and positivity about the trail are infectious and never ceased to make me smile. I was a little disappointed that she ran into some rain in Washington, despite hiking in August which is usually a gorgeous month in the Cascades even at elevation, I wanted glowing Washington prose! (She did positively describe what she could see.)

Is it spring yet? I need some high mountain backpacking after reading One Hundred Mile Summers.

Ice Lakes Basin

After parting ways with the FSJ guys, I headed down South Mineral Creek road headed for the Ice Lakes trailhead. I was pleased to discover that by following the Clear Lake road I was able to cut off some elevation gain and Sprocket and I promptly hit the trail. The trail to the lakes doesn’t mess around: it climbs about 2,000′ to the upper basin in right about three miles.

When I emerged into the lower basin, my jaw dropped. This basin was one of the most gorgeous places that I’d ever visited. Since the goal for the next day was to climb Vermilion Peak, San Juan County’s high point, I continued on to the upper basin to remove as much elevation gain as possible for the next day. (I camped at Ice Lake this time and will probably continue all the way up to Fuller Lake next time.)

The upper basin was more alpine and austere than the lower basin but in some ways I loved it all the more. It was rather chilly up in the 12,000′ basin so I bundled up and enjoyed reading in the last of the sun’s rays.

The next morning, we didn’t rush out of the tent because we’d cut our approach distance by camping in the basin. This was a mistake, while it was brilliantly sunny at 7:30, by 8:15 fluffy clouds had started to appear in the sky. It was still super early so I headed out, climbing above Fuller Lake studying the sky the whole way. As I reached the bench above the lake, I heard the first roll of thunder. It was time to call off the hike. It wasn’t quite 9am but the weather was speaking clearly.

I hustled back to the tent, quickly shoved it in my pack, and started downhill as quickly as possible. The clouds were rolling in over the mountains and things were about to get realllllyyy interesting. As I reached the lip of the upper basin, the hail arrived.. The descent down the headwall was nerve wracking as thunder boomed around us. Sprocket fell in at my heels and we headed down as quickly as the wet rocks allowed.

As sad as I was that my Southwest Colorado high point adventure started out this way, I’m not sad that I’ll have to come back to Ice Lakes basin soon. This was one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been to, thunderstorm and all.

Cedar Mesa: Fish and Owl Canyons

I was planning on heading to Utah’s La Sal Mountains for Memorial Day weekend but when I started chatting with a fellow teacher, I discovered that she and her husband were hoping to get out backpacking on Memorial Day so I happily changed my plans a bit and we obtained permits to hike Fish and Owl Canyons off of Cedar Mesa.

Both Meghan and I needed to be at graduation on Friday evening so we set our departure time for very early on Saturday morning. We got a little bit later start than we wanted but still had time to stop and grab breakfast at The Peace Tree in Montecello (I believe it is owned by the same people as The Peace Tree in Moab).

As we approached the Kane Gulch Ranger Station to pick up our permits, I was a little apprehensive about the whole trip. The temperatures were in the upper thirties and it was raining. At the ranger station, we learned about where the water sources were in the canyons (we’d had enough rain that there was pretty much water the entire way except from Fish Canyon about a mile from the confluence to Owl Canyon about two miles up from the confluence). We watched a quick ten minute video about protecting the water and archaeological resources on Cedar Mesa and then we were off.

As we unloaded from the car, it started raining and rained on us for pretty much the next couple of hours as we descended into the canyon. The rain did not dampen the spirits of any of us (dogs included) as we stretched our legs after the long ride.

The mile and half to the edge of Fish Canyon went quickly and before we knew it, we were at the edge of the canyon. Growing up in Washington State, I hated going to the eastern part of the state because it was a boring desert. Now, I have this big place in my heart for deserts (eastern Washington included!) and the views just made my heart happy.

Many trip reports make a big deal about “The Crack” into Fish Canyon and we made quick work of it. My friends’ pup, Wilson, wasn’t so sure about making the descent but Sprocket had quite easily demonstrated the descent into my arms technique and we all made it just fine.

I decided to take you all a rainy selfie while waiting for Meghan and Ethan:

I love wandering through canyon bottoms. The trail was fairly well cairned as it crossed back and forth across the canyon and we covered about eight miles or so from the car before we made camp. After making some meals, trying to keep the dogs out of Fish Creek (I hate wet dog in my tent!), and a little bourbon, we headed to bed. I’m glad that we were choosy about where to pitch our tents because about 1am, it absolutely poured on us!

The next day, we decided to make the push all the way out of the canyon so we tried to keep up a nice steady pace down the rest of Fish Canyon and then up Owl Canyon.

Rocking some serious backpacking style:

Fish Canyon

The hiking in Owl Canyon was a little bit easier than it was in Fish Canyon. (The route finding in upper Owl was a little more difficult though). The rock formations were also a little more diverse.

The dogs were super happy when their three miles without water ended and Owl Creek appeared.

I really enjoyed the route finding on the way out of Owl Canyon (and my curiosity about all the side canyons was totally piqued!). There were some awesome waterfalls, with actual water!, and an exciting ascent out of the canyon.

The pups and I paused at the top of the canyon to wait for Meghan and Ethan. The views were again, incredible.

We’d had a great time in the canyons. There’d been some rain, some fun hiking, beautiful canyons and really good company. Since we’d put in 10 solid miles that day, we decided to head for home to sleep in our own beds. We stopped on the way home at Stateline Bar and Grill near Dove Creek, Colorado for some very needed burgers.

I think we tuckered out the dogs:

Spring Break to Mexico, Part 4: Picacho del Diablo

After consuming way too much pollo in San Telmo (we accidentally got two plates of chicken instead of one… probably should learn Spanish to prevent incidents like that…), we turned east towards Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir. I was really excited about making this drive all the way from the ocean to our trailhead at about 8,000′.

At the lowest elevations, the vegetation was decidedly desert like. I oggled some new cactus species along the way although I didn’t grab a lot of photos for some new cactus of the week photos. (I’ll try harder next trip!) As we climbed, my excitement for the hike kept building!

Eventually we reached pine trees! Big, beautiful pine trees surrounded by gorgeous exposed rocks! It was an astounding change to be in this environment and is definitely not anything I’d have expected to see in Mexico before researching this trip.

The signage for the park made me so happy. It was totally reminiscent of US national park signs but it was still … different.

After passing through this meadow that totally reminded me of Yellowstone, we turned south on a dirt road to our trailhead.

Although a day ahead of schedule, we loaded up our packs to head for our first camp. After a few miles we realized that something wasn’t quite right. I powered up my phone to check the GPS and we realized we’d walked down an old road instead of following the trail. We decided to return to the car (especially since my hiking partner realize that the drivers side door might not have gotten locked!), spend the night, and begin all over according to plan.

The morning was cool and made for great hiking weather. We set out towards Blue Bottle Pass. We didn’t make great time but we really enjoyed taking in everything:

As we reached the Pass, we finally got a look at Picacho del Diablo. Holy cow: that mountain is intimidating looking!

Crossing over onto the northeast face of Cerro Botella Azul, we also found some snow!

Then it was time for the descent into the canyon towards Campo Noche. Unfortunately, following the trail here was really difficult. Most trip reports emphasized the need to traverse as far as possible towards the saddle between Picaho and Cerro Botella Azul and … we didn’t. Quite a ways down the canyon, we realized we’d been cliffed out since we were in the wrong chute. We tried to traverse to the east but were faced with more cliffs that we didn’t feel comfortable negotiating with full packs. Sadly, we realized that going down the wrong way was pretty much the end of our adventure. We’d have to climb back to the saddle, then down the tough terrain, then up the mountain, then up to the saddle again. I took next to no photos of that descent or of our reascent–it was a real butt kicker! (I’ll be back. Who’s with me?) This is the one photo I have of the canyon:

Camp at the pass was beautiful though. The wind was blowing pretty hard but we had a nice windbreak. Since we were shortening our hike we at all the food, drank some hot chocolate, and enjoyed the light on the rocks around us.

The next morning, we made quick work of our hike back out to the car and decided to run up and check out the observatory before heading to San Felipe.

View of Picacho from the observatory:

Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Backpacking

It’s been a long time since I shouldered my pack and headed out for a few nights. It’s been even longer since I hit the trail with Sprocket. F was headed down towards Phoenix for a motorcycle ride so Sprocket and I seized our chance and headed out north of Clarkdale, Arizona.

We descended down from the parking lot to the bottom of the valley floor. Sprocket took a nice swim in the creek so he’s be a little cleaner for tent sharing and then we headed north into the canyon. There is no camping allowed for the first four miles of the trail but we dallied here and there so Sprocket could enjoy the rare Arizona water.

Most of our hike was pretty lonely but we did run into one couple so I asked them to snap a picture of Sprocket and I.

At the end of the Parsons Trail, the stream disappeared below ground and we made our way north along the cobbles between boulders the size of our van. I must admit that I wasn’t quite prepared for Arizona backpacking—in the Northwest and Montana water is pretty much available anywhere you need it, Arizona is not like that.

By about 3pm, I could tell that Sprocket was about done and honestly, my feet were pretty much done with rock hopping so we called it quits for the day. I set up the tent and then we basked in the sunlight before it dipped below the canyon wall. Then we moved inside and cuddled up, Sprocket even found a way to put his head on my pillow and stick his nose in my sleeping bag.

In the morning, we headed further up the canyon. We found some water and kept trekking north. When the canyon opened up, we scrambled up the western bank to find ourselves on the Sycamore Basin trail. Once we hit the trail, we turned back to the south.

I’m really glad that I made the loop instead of an out and back in the canyon because Sycamore Basin was beautiful! I always find myself drawn to the inner canyon floor but sometimes a mid-level of the canyon can be astoundingly beautiful.

As we climbed above Sycamore Basin, I got a text message from F saying that he was sick and headed back to the RV. I took a quick glance at the map and decided that we’d make it home that night instead of staying out another night. Sprocket, trooper that he was, followed me as I picked up the pace over Packard Mesa. The trail wasn’t always really apparent but Sprocket was always there right behind me.

As we descended back to the canyon floor, Sprocket jumped out in front of me despite having done a really long day for him (we wound up doing about 15 1/2 miles). I had planned for a fairly leisurely three day trip that turned into two pretty tough days. As always though, I wouldn’t trade my time exploring a new place for anything!

Gear Review: Exped SynMat UL 7

F and I don’t sleep in a tent too often because we do most of our travel in one of a variety of vehicles and it’s a bit more comfortable for Forrest than the tent. However, I really like backpacking and would take Forrest along sometimes so I insisted that he find a sleep system that works for him, regardless of the cost.

Having picked out his sleeping bag, he turned his attention to a sleeping pad. The 3/4 length REI self-inflating pad wasn’t doing enough to keep his hips off the ground and made sleeping really uncomfortable. On the way back from the wedding we stopped at the Missoula REI and tested everything they had but kept coming back to the Exped SynMat UL 7.

Retailing at $165 for the medium (Forrest’s choice at 72″ x 20″), this isn’t a cheap sleeping pad. However, it is really comfortable (I know, I stole it for my trip to Behind the Rocks) and almost 3″ thick. When I used it, the temperatures fell into the high teens and in combination with my 15 degree bag, I was cozy and comfortable.

One of my reservations was a mat that had to be blown up but it really doesn’t seem to be a problem. Plus, since it tips the scales at a scant 16.2 oz, blowing it up seems like a small price to pay. It isn’t the easiest thing to fold back into its stuff sack but it seems to be getting easier with practice (I think the trick is to make sure you really roll all the air out of it before trying to pack it away). The stuff sack measures in at 9″ x 3.5″.

Is the pad worth the $165 price tag? Maybe. If it’s the difference between being happy sleeping in your tent or choosing to stay home on the couch, absolutely. If you’re okay on what you’ve got and just want a bit of a comfort upgrade, I’m not sure: I’m coveting a comfy full length pad now but am happy enough that I’m not sure I need to spend the cash on a second one (but I’m taking this one when I go solo!).

I’d love to hear more about someone’s experience with the REI Stratus Insulated pad at $79.50 as a comparison!


Behind The Rocks

About a week and a half ago I had the opportunity to shoulder my pack and head out into the “back of beyond” for a couple of days. For the first time ever I didn’t take Forrest, Sprocket, or anyone else with me. I was on my own for 72 hours (I actually woosed out a bit and came back to the real world at about 68 hours but good enough).

I’m much more of a “goal oriented” hiker and I floundered a bit my first day or so out. Making your way cross-country in the maze of rocks is absolutely amazing but also sort of daunting, especially with a pack on your back. I eventually gave in and picked a destination down a jeep road so I could start putting down some miles. (Perhaps this trip was about breaking through being alone and the next will be about having a more exploratory attitude?)

As a bit of an experiment on traveling alone, I would say it was successful. I was never scared or worried about myself and I got to do lots of thinking, hiking, and sleeping. On the other hand, I did learn that for me “solo” is better served with a side of canine companionship: Sprocket isn’t exactly talkative but he is an awesome listener so he facilitates thinking quite nicely. (Besides, he’s an awesome tent cuddler.)

Another awesome thing about my hike was seeing the La Sal Mountains, the Abajo Mountains and the Henry Mountains from amidst the red rock.

Here’s the La Sal Mountains just peaking out from Behind The Rocks (I had a better view of them from the rim but apparently I was too struck by their beauty to take a picture):

The Abajo Mountains, to the south:

The Henry Mountains, to the west:

In the end, I’d say I was pretty lucky to have those three days, wouldn’t you agree?

Reverse Bucket List: Sprocket

I shared my reverse bucket list yesterday and today it’s Sprocket’s turn! He’s excited to share all of his awesomeness with you guys:


Dominated my first snow at age 10 weeks. My parents took me up to Mary’s Peak in Oregon and I was plowing through the snow!

I’ve visited 31 states. I’m only three. Mom & Dad say I should be able to hit up a few more this year too!

Partied in New Iberia, LouisianaEven at a few months old, I knew how to bring the party.

Climbed a 10,000′ foot mountain. My lifetime high point is actually Loveland Pass in Colorado (11,990′) but we drove to the top. I climbed Trapper Peak (10,157′) in Montana all by paw power.

Was the Best Dog at my parents wedding.

Gone backpacking. (Twice!) I love hiking but backpacking? I hike, I eat, I swim, and get to cuddle in the tent? WIN. I plan on doing more of this in the next few months.

Perfected the perfect mad-dog water jump:

Superstitions Backpacking

Sprocket I had the opportunity to go backpacking with Maryanne and her dog Kiva (her husband Seth even joined us for some of the fun). We headed up the the Superstition Mountains and hiked throughout La Barge Canyon, Boulder Canyon, and out the Second Water Trail. It was a wonderfully relaxing trip: there was tons of talking, some hiking, a touch of swimming (well, a lot on Sprocket’s part), and even some whiskey drinking.

The area had been pretty drenched in rain the weekend prior which meant that there was lots of water in the creeks and in waterholes along the trail. Sprocket, of course, was delighted.

Our first campsite was in La Barge Canyon between Geronimo Head and Battleship. It was a beautiful location but by far the best part was getting to catch up with Maryanne (a close second was watching the dogs play). The sunset light on the rocks went really well with the comfort of conversation with an old friend, a sipper of Jameson, and some dog cuddles.

The next morning, we awoke to frost on the ground. Rather than wait for the sun to reach us in the bottom of the canyon, we scrambled up to the base of some rocks to bask in the sun. Once we walked into camp, Seth was there waiting to start our adventures for the day.

We hiked over into Boulder Canyon, set up camp, and prepared day packs for a hike into a box canyon. It was a lovely hike on a way trail that skirted the southern base of Battleship and then descended into the mouth of the box. When we reached the large pool, we all took turns jumping into the water. It was freezing but totally worth it.

Back at camp, we started a fire, cooked dinner, and relaxed under the stars. Just after midnight, some clouds rolled in to keep us much warmer than we’d been the night before so in the morning we just were not in any hurry to move. We restarted the fire, ate our breakfast, and started back to First Water Trailhead at about 11 so that we could make it back to Maryanne and Seth’s for pizza, beer, and Superbowl!

We’ve come a long way from biology class twelve years ago: