The Outdoor Junkie

The Outdoor Junkie is a blog by Ann Driggers, a backcountry bon vivant who lives to hike, run, ride, ski and climb in the great outdoors, and is most often found roaming through the red-rock canyons and mountains of Western Colorado.

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Touching the Sky

By Ann Driggers
Monday, July 28, 2014

Above: Myself and Janis Taylor on the summit of La Plata Peak, 14,336 feet, Colorado's fifth highest yesterday morning.

"It is something though...

To jump up from fourteen thousand feet and touch the sky

To wonder at enormous land-waves cresting in slow motion all around

To run back down through wild meadows of diverse flowers

To return once again - to practice figuring out how to best be a human living with other humans" - Janis

--------

Our plan was hatched to bag a 14er so late in the evening it was just 6 hours later Janis and I met and drove east over Independence Pass. The early morning start saw us running through the dark, damp and pungent pine forest. The rising sun gilded the surrounding peaks as we emerged above treeline.

The trail switchbacked its way up the flanks of the north west ridge amongst beautiful wildflowers.

Views for miles...Mount Elbert, Colorado's highest, and Mount Massive, on the horizon and closer in the sawtoothed Ellingwood Ridge, another of La Plata's ridges. The rock around the trail was covered with a bright green lichen.

We tried to be as speedy as possible, wanting to beat any chance of the forecast storms, and made it to the summit in a little over 2 hours. We jumped for joy and touched the sky. I made it to about 14,346 feet, Janis a little higher since she can jump better than me.

Going down we ripped through the meadows of wildflowers, pausing only for pictures and to tell hikers on the way up they *really* weren't almost there yet. 

It was a very runnable trail, apart from a couple of short rocky sections near the summit. One of the most enjoyable 14ers I have ever been on. We pretty much had the place to ourselves until we were about 2/3 of the way down.

La Plata was a very pleasant surprise to me. Typically I expect crowded and rocky choss piles when I climb 14ers. This was the opposite. Absolutely gorgeous scenery, fantastic running trail and no people, at least those that are willing to set off at 6 a.m. and run! Extra bonus - we did not get electrocuted and we made the 9 miles RT and 4,600 feet of climbing in 4 hours and back into Aspen for a late breakfast!

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The Hills are Alive…

By Ann Driggers
Tuesday, July 22, 2014

After a slow start, the snow has all but melted and the high alpine is alive, finally. Alive with wildflowers blanketed across meadows, with marmots squealing on the mountainsides, with meadowlarks singing, with streams gurgling, with trout jumping in lakes, with rolls of thunder, and with me running, hiking and biking. It's a smorsgabord of sights, sounds and smells. The first flowers to really take hold were the lupines and Mules Ear at lower elevations.

And then it was the lovely Colorado state flower, the columbine, which decorated the trails at Snowmass for a few weeks:

And many others - daisies, penstemmons, paintbrush and scarlet giliea included. The flowers are spent down low and are moving into the highest alpine. And with them we go too. Here Paula and Heidi run up towards Buckskin Pass on their way to completeing the Four Passes Loop which circumnavigates the Maroon Bells over four passes of 12,000+ feet each.

Although it was toasty warm at 12,500 feet this weekend, even at 8 a.m. when we were up there, I found a touch of frost between the sunflowers. A reminder that the days are getting shorter, the nights cooler and we are only weeks away from fall.

This time when the hills are vibrant and blooming at the highest elevations is so stinking beautiful but everso fleeting. Take advantage of it while you can!

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Green Rush

By Ann Driggers
Monday, June 16, 2014

All of a sudden spring has finally arrived here in the mountains. Unlike years past where it seeped in a tepid and steady trickle, it fairly exploded on the scene. A super intense, bright, neon, fresh green is saturating the earth. Now snow lies only above 10,000 feet and the lower mountains are open for business. Believe you me I am taking advantage of it!

Long slender trunks rooted in the earth soar upwards and touch the sky where wind whispers in the tree tops. The sun falls through shimmering leaves, dappling the forest floor and the trail winding through it. As my feet tap out the steady rhythm of a long run, I am held spellbound, captivated by the magic of an aspen forest.

Wheels roll over bumpy ground pocked by elk, hop over fallen trees and brambles smart my legs as we are some of the first to ride the trails this spring. Although it has barely started its growth the forest floor seems lush already. Skunk cabbage slowly unfurls its massive leaves and the first of the wildflowers punch through the earth. Larkspur seems to be especially abundant this year, carpeting meadows a deep blue.

The heady scent of the white blooms of the mountain serviceberry fills the air. Around every turn a budding flower, a new leaf unfurled, and the fresh smell of spring. Even though the summer solstice approaches there is not enough time in the day for me to drink it all in. We ride and run until sunset.

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Zion Rim to Rim - Take 1

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, June 8, 2014

We set off as the sun was creeping over the horizon, stomachs fluttering with excitement and legs fresh. Here at 7,500 feet the spring air was cool and aspen leaves were just beginning to unfurl. As the suns warming rays flooded the forest with light we fell into a steady rhythm, slow but purposeful, cognizant of the long day ahead and wanting to have full immersion in our surroundings.

Our goal was to run from the west rim to the east rim of Utah’s Zion National Park, a total distance of 27 miles, essentially traversing Zion Canyon, one of the most spectacular landscapes in the U.S., if not the world. Many miles had passed beneath our feet to bring us to this point, training in the cold and snowy months of a Colorado winter, dreaming of this beautiful and warm red rock country. Like a golden carrot dangling before us this run was greatly anticipated by Holly, Janis and myself.

Finally we were here! The skies were blue, the sun was shining and we were running across this incredible place! Or hobbling in my case. Unfortunately the weekend prior, on my last training run, I turned my ankle, suffering a Grade II sprain. It was likely against all medical advice I embarked upon this run. I say likely as I did not seek medical advice, for I knew what I would have been told and I did not want to hear it. So I strapped on an ankle brace, inhaled ibuprofen, and went anyway.

As the sun rose higher in the sky we ran up and down rolling hills, through forests and open meadows, and after seveal miles reached the western rim proper. Here we could look far down into the depths of the side canyons that eventually lead to the biggest one of all - Zion Canyon. At this elevation of around 7,000 feet the first flowers of the year were opening. The trail was decorated with vermillion paintbrush, pink and white plox and the showy yellow Arrow Balsamroot. Every which way we looked the scenery was spectacular. In fact it was hard to focus on the trail as I rubbernecked my way along and stopping frequently to take photos. Once we left the rim and began our descent it was no less dramatic as the trail followed a cut in the side of the canyon wall.

As we dropped lower the canyon walls turned from white to red.

Down, down and down we went. Every turn and twist in this trail revealed another superlative view and more flowers for us to exclaim over. In one location we found three different colored penstemons within a couple of feet. If this was not peak wildflower season then it was darn close. In short, they were off the hook.

As we got closer to Zion Canyon proper we began to see more people. At this time in the morning - about 9 a.m. - they were all runners, who had started at the East Rim and were headed west to complete the Zion Traverse, a 48 mile link up of trails in the park. Our plans for a paltry 27 miles made us (or me at least) feel a little weak. Speaking of which, my ankle was doing fine but my achilles tendon was complaining on the uphills - no doubt having to work harder to make up for the weakness in the rest of my ankle.

After about 12 miles or so we came up to Angels Landing - a narrow fin of rock which projects into Zion Canyon. To reach the top involves a 3/4 mile scrambling traverse of the fin with 1,500 foot drops on either side. This exposure and the views make it a unique, and popular, hike.

We decided we couldn't pass it up, even though two of the three of us had done it before. So we headed up.

On the summit the views were mind blowing. We butt-scooted to the edge and dangled our feet off.

On the return trip, as we negotiated the crowds of hikers, scrambling and slidding down the slick rock, Janis turned her ankle. Oh no! It's catching. :(

After resting up for a few minutes we carried on and began the descent on the paved but steep trail that would take us to the canyon floor.

We crossed the Virgin River and arrived at the Grottos trailhead, 15 miles into our run. Here we could fill up with water before embarking on the final 12 miles and 3,000 foot climb that would take us to the East Rim trailhead. It was the climb that was worrying me. With my achilles complaining on any hills I really did not want to aggrevate it further - this one had a history of problems. So I made the difficult decision, but the right one, to call this the end of my run for the day. Janis, who when taking off her sock, saw her swollen ankle, wisely decided to join me. This left Holly the sole finisher of the Zion Rim to Rim and she slayed it in appropriate fashion (by the time we had driven over to the East Rim to pick her up, she had been waiting for us for half an hour).

For me and Janis it was to be Rim to River. But as we soaked our swollen ankles in the beautiful waters we decided that we would be back. There will be a Zion Rim to Rim - Take 2, and hopefully that will be a wrap. As in complete, done, finished. Not an ankle wrap.

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Escalante Backpacking

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, May 25, 2014

Every spring I like to briefly escape the mud season in the mountains and head to the desert for some warm sunshine, sand between my toes and to see the desert flowers blooming. This year my friend Holly and I set our sights on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, specifically Coyote Gulch, a particularly spectacular tributary of the Escalante River. I had been part way down several years ago on a daytrip but wanted to go back and explore the gulch in its entirety so plans for a three day backpack were hatched.

Coyote Gulch, justifiably so, is one of the premier backpacking destinations of the desert southwest. It runs for 13 miles or so from close to the Hole-in-the-Rock Road (I like to call it Hole-in-the-Head Road on account of its horrible washboard which after 32 miles gets extremely tiresome). For a three day trip we decided to do an out and back so we could cover some miles - we do like to hike, not sit around - from the Redwell trailhead. The weather forecast wasn't too bad - highs in the low 70's, chance of rain one day, and some wind. Actually to be precise 'blowing dust' was on the agenda for the first day and evening. And boy oh boy did we get it. So much for the sand between the toes - there was sand between and in everything. The first night we lay in our tent at the trailhead, we were relentlessly buffeted by the wind and waves of sand blew through the tent mesh and into our sleeping bags, ears, eyes, everywhere.

Arising after a sleepless and gritty night the weather was calmer and as we entered the gulch were able to enjoy the incredible scenery for which we had come, and appreciate the winds role, along with water, in creating it. Jacob Hamlin Arch and the surrounding deep alcoves:

We spent one night camped under the arch before moving further down the gulch. On the second day we walked beneath Coyote Bridge:

We were pleasantly suprised by the lack of crowds only seeing approximately 10 people per day - unusual for Coyote Gulch in the spring but we did go midweek. We had our pick of the campsites and the second night scored a gorgeous spot in an alcove which kept us dry from the rain sprinkles and also out of the wind which, although not as aggro as on the first night still had a tendency to show its face every now and then.

The third day on our trip was actually my birthday so Holly and I had planned some treats with which to celebrate - really just an excuse for carrying in a birthday cake and a bottle of rum. I had found Crystal Light mojito mix at Target the week prior - score! Diluted with the cold water we found from springs gushing out of the rock and added to some Colorado Montanya rum and a little lime and mint, these mojitos are the backpacking cocktail of choice. I swear it tastes a lot better than it looks:

Delicious coconut chocolate ganache cake:

We cut it in half and had one night before my birthday (after all I was born in the UK which is seven hours ahead) and one the night of. So delicious despite the extra crunch added by sand. The mojitos we had every night. hic.

Nearing Coyote Gulch's end and its confluence with the Escalante River we decided to climb up and out of the gulch to get a view of the surrounding country. This was accomplished by a fun little trail called Crack-in-the-Rock. Since we had set up camp earlier in the day and left our backpacks at the bottom of the crack it was not an issue for us to squeeze through:

Up on the rim the views were expansive. We could see the Escalante River far below as it wound its way through the redrock and on the distant horizon we could see big rain clouds. It seemed as though we were in a donut hole of storms around us for which we were thankful.

On the final day of our trip we retraced our steps. Everything looked different coming back - the twists and the turns of the canyon, the angle at which the sunlight bounced off the walls and the water flowed in the opposite direction. I'm not always a big fan of an out-and-back hike or backpack but in this case I had no complaints...it was stunning at every turn:

And then we were off on the second part of our desert adventure. Stay tuned.... 

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