Mirror Lake and Crater Lake – Indian Peaks Wilderness

When I first heard of the Cascade Creek Trail to Mirror Lake and Crater Lake hike, I knew it was a challenge I wanted to take on in 2022. The scenery looked so surreal and picturesque that I set a goal to experience this hike for myself before the summer was over! The hike to Crater Lake is about 7.5 miles one-way, and most people opt to camp overnight before making the return trip. Unfortunately, all of the camping permits were booked up for days I was free to camp, so I decided to take on the additional challenge of doing the entire 15 miles in one day (and I dragged my husband and dog as well). With around 2300′ of elevation gain in total, I figured the hike would be challenging but doable if we got an early enough start – and it ended up being quite the adventure!

We decided to car camp at the Monarch Lake Trailhead the night before so we could get a full night’s rest and a super early start. Monarch Lake Trailhead is located in Indian Peaks Wilderness, and you will need to purchase a parking pass in advance or at the trailhead itself. Our dog, Willie Nelson, kept us up part of the night so we didn’t get as much sleep as we were hoping for, but we still managed to hit the trail around 6am.

The first 1.5-2 miles are relatively flat and a great warmup for the rest of the trail. You’ll meander through forests as you skirt around Monarch Lake before the trail gradually begins to ascend switchbacks as it follows Cascade Creek. There are a number of river crossings and waterfalls along the trail which made the entire journey super scenic – and our pup loved the constant supply of water!

At around 4.5 miles you’ll encounter Cascade Falls, an especially impressive waterfall that is a great place for a quick break. The last 3 miles or so of the trail are a bit more challenging as you alternate hiking through forests and meadows. The last mile to Mirror and Crater Lakes is steep, but so worth it as the lakes and Lone Eagle Peak come into view. The jagged mountains and crystal clear water were so unreal to see in person. There’s even fishing allowed at the lakes, and my husband managed to snag a small trout at Crater Lake!

We made really good time on the hike to Crater Lake, averaging 25-30 minutes per mile. After an hour-long rest at the lake we refueled wth snacks and water, reapplied sunscreen and bug spray (a definite must) and began the journey back. We continued to make great time for the first 5 miles or so on the way back to the car, but the last 3 miles really dragged on because the sun was beating down on us and our feet (and Willie’s paws) were starting to get sore. The last push around the edge of Monarch Lake seemed neverending, and we rejoiced once we finally stumbled upon the trailhead.

All in all, this hike was definitely a challenge, but so worth it. I haven’t done a day hike of this length in several years, so I was really happy that we made such great time. The elevation gain is challenging in some sections of the trail, but overall fairly moderate. I would have definitely loved to experience camping at Crater Lake, but this hike is very popular and permits tend to book up pretty far in advance. If you haven’t checked out Cascade Creek Trail to Mirror Lake and Crater Lake, I highly recommend paying it a visit!

Review: RightOnTrek Backpacking Meals

Today I’m really excited to be sharing a review of some RightOnTrek backpacking meals! RightOnTrek was kind enough to reach out to me and send over some of their meals for me to taste-test and review. I got to try the vegan shepherd’s stew, mac and cheese, backcountry chili, and high country pad thai, and I was really impressed wih all of them!

RightOnTrek was founded in 2018 by a group of backpackers after they completed the 200+ mile long John Muir Trail in California. The company is based in Montana and specializes in making the backcountry more accessible for hikers and backpackers. For being a relatively small company, they have an impressive variety of backpacking meal options, with plenty of allergy-friendly meals as well!

The first meal I tried was their mac and cheese, which was actually rated the #1 mac and cheese by Backpacker Magazine! I can definitely see why – the mac and cheese was super creamy and flavorful, and very filling as well.

Next up, I tried their vegan shepherd’s stew meal. I was really happy to see that RightOnTrek offers vegetarian/vegan meals, as many backpacking meal companies aren’t so accommodating. The vegan shepherd’s stew was really hearty and comforting, and my fully carnivore husband enjoyed it too!

The next meal I tried was their backcountry chili. Chili is definitely a staple when it comes to backpacking meals, and RightOnTrek’s version was a great option. Like the other meals, the chili was delicious and filling, especially with the addition of the corn biscuits that came as an optional mix-in.

Finally, I sampled the high country pad thai. I actually didn’t realize the pad thai was vegetarian, and what I thought was chicken was really soy curls! The pad thai was super rich and flavorful, and definitely one of my favorites from the meals I tried. I especiaally enjoyed it with the addition of the peanut butter, sriracha, and salted cashews that RightOnTrek provided.

All in all, I was really impressed with all the RightOnTrek meals I tried. I definitely plan on stocking up next time I embark on a backpacking trip! Thanks again to RightOnTrek for sending over some meals. Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever heard of RightOnTrek, and if you’ll be trying some of their meals for yourself!

Flatirons Loop – Boulder, CO

The Flatirons Loop, also known as the Bluebell, Royal Arch, Flatiron, Bluebell-Baird and Meadow Trail Loop, is a short and scenic hike in the town of Boulder, CO. The hike is just 2.4 miles in total with an elevation gain of around 730′. This short and sweet hike offers beautiful views of the First and Second Flatiron, as well as the town of Boulder and the surrounding mountains. This hike is fairly moderate making it a great choice for visitors of all experience levels.

The hike begins at the parking lot for the Chautauqua Ranger Cottage. We opted to do the hike counter-clockwise which I believe is the most common route. The trail begins with a moderate incline along a wide gravel path as you make your way up to the Flatirons. Meadows surrounding the trail are home to beautiful flowers and cacti, and you’ll likely spot some deer along the way.

As you enter the treeline, the path gets a bit rockier and narrower until you pass a marked detour to Royal Arch and reach the First and Second Flatiron at about 0.8 miles. We watched a few hikers beginnning their ascent of the Second Flatiron which was really cool to see. The highest point of the hike is about 1.15 miles in, where you’ll reach a spur that takes you to the Third Flatiron.

Continuing along the loop, you’ll begin to head downhill as you pass over a scree field. The trail is very well-marked as you descend into the meadows and eventually make your way back to the parking area.

This hike is very popular on weekends, so try to visit during the week and early in the morning or later in the evening when possible.

Summit Lake to Mount Evans – Colorado 14er

This past weekend I decided, a bit spontaneously, to take on the challenge of summiting a 14er, which is a mountain with a summit at 14,000+ feet in elevation. I’ve already completed three other Colorado 14ers (Mount Sherman, Mount Bierstadt, and Pikes Peak) and wanted to check off another: Mount Evans. While there’s actually a paved road leading all the way to the top of Mount Evans, there are also a variety of routes you can take to hike to the summit. I opted for the Summit Lake to Mount Evans route which is considered a moderate hike, but fairly easy compared to other Colorado 14ers. At around 5.5 miles roundtrip with 2,000′ of elevation gain, the hike is challenging but relatively beginner-friendly. This hike is also rated Class 2 out of 5, meaning it has minimal exposure/risk. Some hikers will argue that you only properly summit a 14er if the route has at least 3,000+ feet of elevation gain, but I say: hike your own hike and be proud of yourself regardless!

The trail begins at Summit Lake in Mount Evans Wilderness. You will need to purchase a $2 timed-entry reservation to park here, but if you arrive before 8am you can just display the printed reservation in your windshield, regardless of what time slot it’s for. There is also a $5/vehicle fee which you self-pay at the parking area, unless you are an interagency pass holder in which case you only have to worry about the reservation fee (display your pass in the windshield as well). More info can be found at Recreation.gov. I arrived around 6:15am and the main parking lot was already full, so I had to park in an overflow spot along the road. Mount Evans is an incredibly popular hike so if you visit on a weekend, plan to arrive as early as possible.

Summit Lake

From the parking area, you’ll begin on a marked trail that leads you around the lake and up to the summit of Mount Spalding, which has an elevation of 13,840′. The initial ascent out of the parking lot is almost entirely uphill, and you’ll gain around 1,000′ of elevation in about a mile. This portion of the trail is well-marked with cairns, and I had no issues sticking to the route. After around 45 minutes I made it to the summit of Mount Spalding where I stopped for a quick snack. From here, you’ll have fantastic views of Mount Evans and the surrounding mountains.

Views from Mount Spalding

The next portion of the trail leads you down and over a saddle that will connect you with the ridge that eventually leads to the summit of Mount Evans. As of June 18 there was still a little bit of snow on the trail, but nothing too serious. The saddle is a welcome break from the ascent to Mount Spalding, and the trail is very easy to follow.

Views from the rocky ridgeline

Once you reach the rocky ridgeline, your pace will likely slow down significantly as you have to step carefully in certain areas and keep a sharp eye out for cairns. I didn’t have any issues sticking to the trail, but I really took my time and didn’t rush through this section. My main priority was to prevent altitude sickness and keep a steady pace. There is a bit of a false summit that you’ll hike around, and the trail stays below the ridgeline for the last mile or so. Eventually, the road and summit complex will come into view and you’ll finish the ascent on some moderate switchbacks that lead you to the summit.

Views of the trail, summit complex, survey marker, and an obligatory summit photo!

After snacking on a sandwich and grabbing some photos at the summit, I began the descent. I would say heading back down the trail almost felt rougher than going up. Going downhill on such rocky terrain was uncomfortable on my knees, and I did stray off-trail once or twice. I believe there are a few routes along the rocky ridgeline and I managed to get off of the main one, which is the easiest. I’ll also note that my watch ended up tracking the hike as closer to 6.75 miles in total. All in all, I was back at my car by 11:30, so I wrapped up the hike in almost exactly 5 hours. I felt totally fine during the hike but was hit with some altitude sickness once I made it back to the car. I definitely recommend staying well-hydrated and bringing plenty of snacks to combat this as much as possible. If you’re visiting from out of town, it’s also important to let yourself acclimate to the elevation before attempting this hike.

If you squint you can spot a marmot!

I thoroughly enjoyed the hike from Summit Lake to Mount Evans. It was sufficiently challenging that I felt I was pushing myself, but not so hard that I questioned my ability to summit. For locals, I’m sure this hike is a walk in the park! I would definitely recommend this hike if you’re visiting from out of town or looking for a beginner-friendly 14er.

Camping With Our Dog for the First Time

Hi folks! Today I’m switching up my normal content and sharing our experience camping with our dog for the first time. I thought it would be fun to recap how everything went, offer some suggestions, and reflect on what we might do differently next time.

Our original plan was to spend one night at a local Colorado Springs campground that was pet-friendly. My thinking was if our dog, Willie Nelson, was causing a ruckus, we could easily pack up and head home since the campground was only about a half hour from our house. The campground was nice and the people working there were super friendly, but the sites were very close to each other and there was not a lot of privacy. It was also an RV park/campground, so it was very noisy in general. We decided to pack up and head to another area about an hour away that we were familiar with, Turkey Rocks, to see if there was room for us to pitch a tent. We figured, worst case scenario, we could always come back to that campground since our site was reserved.

The road to Turkey Rocks is incredibly rough and bumpy, so it was already a lot less popular than the campground. We made our way up a massive hill and at the top spotted a beautiful designated parking and campsite area. With no one around and amazing views of the mountains, we pitched our tent! Before our trip, I purchased a pet tether that could either go into the ground or around a tree and would give Willie about 15 feet to run around. We had to make sure there was nothing within his reach (like camp chairs or a water bowl), or he would knock it over, but having the tether made setting up camp and relaxing so much easier. We explored for a bit and settled in as the sun began to set. We made sure to bring a few of Willie’s toys and his food/water bowls from home, and he seemed to be doing really well.

Once it was time for bed, we brought him into the tent where it was, admittedly, a bit squished. Willie did some sniffing and poking around before settling down, and we all fell asleep pretty quickly. Around midnight, Willie managed to open the zipper to the door of the tent just enough to slip out, but thankfully we were able to grab his leash and hook him up to the tether before he wandered off. We definitely learned our lesson to zip the door from bottom to top rather than from top to bottom!
Willie was sniffing and pacing around like crazy, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a few deer had wandered through at some point. From midnight to about three Willie seemed to be pretty on edge. We left him on the tether but opened the door of the tent so we could hear and keep an eye on him. He used the bathroom and played for a bit, but mostly seemed preoccupied with sniffing and digging. Eventually, we brought him back into the tent where he continued to whine for a bit before settling down again for the night.

All in all, the experience went about how I expected. Willie was actually able to settle down in the tent pretty well, except for those three hours in the middle of the night. The tether was a great tool to have so we could be hands-free and know that he wouldn’t escape and run off. As much as we’d love for him to be an off-leash dog, he’s still a bit young and tends to wander away. Definitely something to work on as we bring him on more adventures!

Below is a quick packing list if you plan to go camping with your pup. One big item we need to purchase is a doggy first aid kit. I wasn’t too concerned about it for this trip since we were pretty close to home, and thankfully, we didn’t need one. In my opinion, though, you never know what could happen and should always be prepared for the worst! I also recommend making sure your dog is chipped and wearing a collar with updated contact information in case they happen to escape and run off. I would also suggest having a clear, updated photo of your pup on your phone in case you need to start sharing for people to keep an eye out.

Do you have a furry friend that accompanies you on camping trips? What are your tips and tricks for making sure they’re comfortable and have a good time? Let me know in the comments!

Packing list:

  • Bowl(s) for food/water – since we were able to just drive up to our campsite, we brought Willie’s regular bowls from home. We do also have a collapsible bowl specifically for camping which we’ll likely use on trips where we have to hike in/out.
  • Toys – we only brought two, but I’m glad we had them on hand because he did play with them for a bit throughout our trip.
  • Tether – definitely a must-have in my opinion (unless your dog is used to being off-leash). Having the tether made it very convenient to keep our hands free while also giving Willie plenty of room to explore.
  • Poop bags – another must-have! Remember: leave no trace.
  • Food/treats – obviously, food is a must-have, but I also thought having treats would be helpful in case Willie needed to be distracted or if he happened to wander off and we had to coax him back. We didn’t end up needing them, but he got a few treats anyway for being a good boy!

Zapata Falls

Zapata Falls is a beautiful hidden gem that can be found in Colorado’s Rio Grande National Forest. Located just 20-30 minutes from Great Sand Dunes National Park, Zapata Falls is an easy hike to a stunning 25-foot waterfall tucked among the rocks.

The trailhead for Zapata Falls is found along Highway 160. Once you turn off the main road to follow signs for the Zapata Falls Recreation Area, be prepared for about three miles of bumpy, gravel road. Our Subaru had no problems at all on this road, and we saw a large variety of vehicles that made it up just fine.

From the parking lot, follow signs to Zapata Falls. The trail is very obvious and well-maintained, and you’ll experience minimal elevation gain over the half mile it takes to reach the falls. As of April 17 when we visited, the creek and waterfall were completely frozen. It was very slick to walk through the crevasse and up to the frozen waterfall, so microspikes are recommended. If you tread carefully, you’ll likely be fine without.

The waterfall is a beautiful sight, especially in its frozen form. During warmer months where the water is flowing freely, you can carefully maneuver your way to the top of the falls as well. Dogs are also welcome, though they must be kept on a leash.

Have you visited Zapata Falls before? Let me know in the comments!

Great Sand Dunes National Park

I recently shared my Colorado Summer Bucket List, and one of my goals was to visit at least one new national park in Colorado. This past weekend, my husband, dog and I hit the road and crossed off that bucket list item by visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park for the first time! We had so much fun exploring the area and the dunes were an amazing sight to see.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is located in the southern portion of Colorado, about 4 hours from Denver. The park is actually home to the tallest sand dunes in North America! We left Colorado Springs super early and arrived a little after 9:00 AM. I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as crowds considering we visited on Easter, but there were only a few other groups in the parking lot when we arrived.

We parked at the Dunes Parking Lot, located just past the Visitor Center, and set off to explore. One of the coolest things about Great Sand Dunes National Park is dogs are actually allowed on a number of trails, as long as they’re on a leash! We saw lots of other pups while we were there, and ours loved exploring the dunes with us.

There aren’t many well-defined trails on the actual dunes, so you can kind of choose your own adventure and wander around. We started heading for the tallest dune we could see, and it was quite a strenuous effort. Even though we only ended up hiking for about 2 miles roundtrip with about 500′ of elevation gain, the sand made it a very challenging hike. We both wore hiking boots which ended up working out just fine, as our pants helped prevent sand from getting in our shoes. Some people were walking barefoot, but I think wearing boots helped prevent our feet from getting super sore.
The weather was also perfect, hovering around the low 50’s with a nice breeze. Over the summer, the sand can get as hot as 150 degrees Fahrenheit, so make sure you plan accordingly!

We really took our time hiking up the dunes and took plenty of water breaks. To reach the top of Star Dune, the tallest dune in the park and North America, you have to hike about 3 miles round trip, with over 700′ in elevation gain. We weren’t feeling up that on this visit, but it would be cool to go back and explore some more!

Aside from hiking, sand boarding is another really popular activity at Great Sand Dunes National Park. We tried to make a DIY sand board from an old skateboard we had lying around, but it was not very effective. You can rent sand boarding gear outside of the park before your visit if you want to give it a try!

All in all, we had a ton of fun at Great Sand Dunes National Park, and I’m so glad we were able to check off one of our summer bucket list items so early in the season. We still have Mesa Verde National Park and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to explore, so hopefully we can find the time to visit in the coming weeks!

Have you ever been to Great Sand Dunes National Park before? What’s your favorite national park in Colorado? Let me know in the comments!

Colorado Summer Bucket List

The weather is finally starting to warm and the snow is beginning to thaw which means spring is almost here. Before you know it, it’ll be summer and we all know the warm weather never stays as long as we hope! I really want to take advantage of the warmth this season, so I’ve put together a Colorado Summer Bucket List as motivation to try some fun new summertime activities. Colorado is full of activities year-round, but I think the state truly shines in the summer. So here are some goals I have for this summer in Colorado, and some activities I’d love to experience for the first time!

  1. Whitewater rafting – I’ve whitewater rafted a number of times before in the Southeast, and I’ve loved every experience. Colorado is known for having some great whitewater rafting, and there are tons of companies that offer trips ranging from beginner-friendly to advanced. Since I haven’t been whitewater rafting in a few years, I’ll probably aim for an intermediate trip, but I can’t wait to escape the heat by hitting the river this summer!
  2. Go on an overnight backpacking trip – I did a good amount of hikes last year, but due to my husband getting shoulder surgery at the beginning of the summer, we weren’t able to go camping or backpacking at all. This year, I’m determined to go on at least one overnight backpacking trip! I’d love to do one in May at a lower elevation spot, and then work up to a really epic and challenging overnight trip later in the season. Let me know in the comments what your favorite beginner/intermediate Colorado backpacking trip is!
  3. Take a scenic train ride – there are a bunch of scenic train rides throughout the state of Colorado, and I’d love to experience the state’s natural beauty this way. I haven’t been on a train ride in several years, but I always love sitting and watching the changing scenery go by.
  4. Spend a weekend in New Mexico – I’ve never been to New Mexico, and Santa Fe is only about a 5-hour drive from Colorado Springs! I figure this may be one of the only times in our life we’re living near the Southwest, so I want to take advantage by spending a weekend in a new state. My husband and I also haven’t had the chance to travel somewhere new to both of us in a few years, so I think it would be a really fun time.
  5. Visit another national park – like I mentioned in by Top 5 Things to Do in Colorado post, the state is home to not one, but four national parks! I’ve only been to Rocky Mountain so far, but I’d love to visit at least one, if not all, of the other three (Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Great Sand Dunes). Great Sand Dunes is only about a 3-hour drive from us, so I’d love to spend a day exploring it sometime over the summer!

And there you have it folks! What’s on your Summer Bucket List for 2022? What are your favorite Colorado Summer activities? Let me know in the comments!

Top 5 Things to Do in Colorado

I’ve called Colorado home for a little over a year now, and I’ve embarked on some pretty amazing adventures since moving to the Centennial State. Colorado is known for being an outdoor-lover’s paradise, and there are tons of activities to enjoy year-round. Today, I want to share my list of the Top 5 Things to Do in Colorado. This list is definitely not comprehensive, and I’d love to do an even more in-depth post in the future, but it can be a great starting point as you plan your next visit to Colorado! This guide is also especially helpful if you have limited time to visit and want to hit some of the most unique and iconic Colorado activities that the state has to offer.

  1. Hit the slopes – first up on my list of Top 5 Things to Do in Colorado is hitting the slopes! Colorado is home to some incredible ski resorts and is known as one of the best destinations for winter sports in the U.S. I think everyone should try skiing or snowboarding at least once in their life, regardless of age or background! I’ve skied at Monarch Mountain, Breckenridge, and Keystone, and thoroughly enjoyed my time at each. Skiing and snowboarding can be pretty intimidating as a first-timer, but once you get the hang of it, you’re going to have an amazing time! I recommend researching ski schools or lessons if you’ve never been and want a professional to show you the ropes.
  2. Visit all 4 national parks – did you know Colorado is home to not one but four national parks? Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park can all be found in the state of Colorado. I’ve only been to Rocky Mountain myself (click here to read my post about Dream Lake) but I definitely plan on visiting the other three while I still call Colorado home. All of the parks are uniquely beautiful, and I can’t wait to fully explore them so I can check this off my list of Top 5 Things to Do in Colorado!
  3. Soak in a hot spring – next up on my list of the Top 5 Things to Do in Colorado is visit one of the state’s many beautiful hot springs. There are a bunch of hot springs throughout the state of Colorado that vary in price, aesthetics, and amenities offered. From low-key resorts to luxurious mountain spas, there is definitely a Colorado hot spring for everyone to enjoy. My personal favorite so far has been Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort! This is one activity that is great year-round, and a good option if you want to enjoy Colorado’s natural beauty without embarking on a physically strenuous activity.
  4. Catch a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater – this is one item on my Top 5 Things to Do in Colorado list that I have yet to experience, but am really looking forward to. Red Rocks Amphitheater is known for having awesome acoustics and being a super cool concert venue in general. I have tickets to see a show at Red Rocks Amphitheater in April and I cannot wait to check it out for myself!
  5. Summit a Fourteener – last but certainly not least on my list of the Top 5 Things to Do in Colorado is summit a Fourteener. Colorado is home to a whopping 58 Fourteeners, aka mountains with a summit above 14,000 feet. Each Fourteener is a challenge in and of itself, but there are definitely some mountains that are more beginner-friendly than others. I personally have summited Mount Bierstadt (14,065′), Mount Sherman (14,043′) and Pike’s Peak (14,115′), and they were all incredible experiences. Check out my video “How to Summit Your First 14er” for a ton of info on how to train and prepare for your first Fourteener!

I hope this list of the Top 5 Things to Do in Colorado is helpful as you plan your next Colorado trip! What activities and experiences are on your list of the top things to do in Colorado?

Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Dream Lake, located in Rocky Mountain National Park, is a great day hike, perfect for those with limited time to explore the park. At 2 miles roundtrip, the hike to Dream Lake is relatively easy and great for hikers of all experience levels.

The trail to Dream Lake starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead, just about 20 minutes from the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station. At the first fork bear left and follow the signs to Dream Lake. You’ll gradually gain elevation as you make your way through the woods. After about a half mile, you’ll arrive at Nymph Lake.

Continue pushing on and you’ll soon arrive at Dream Lake. Dream Lake is an expansive lake that offers beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. During the winter, the lake will freeze over, giving you the chance to walk across its surface. Depending on weather conditions, microspikes may be helpful for navigating the snow and ice.

Have you made the hike to Dream Lake yet? What are some of your favorite hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park?