Rogers Pass + Leaf Peeping

Fall is in full swing here in Colorado so my husband and I ventured up to the mountains to go on a hike and do some leaf peeping along the way as well. We settled on Rogers Pass, a 5-mile out-and-back hike located just 45 minutes outside of Winter Park. With less than 1000 feet of elevation gain, this hike is very moderate and great for hikers of all experience levels.

The trailhead for Rogers Pass is located along CR-80, a very rough road with lots of rocks and holes. We made it up just fine in our Subaru Outback, but make sure you drive slow and watch where you’re going! The drive up was beautiful thanks to all the aspens that were changing colors. One really cool feature about this hike is the historic train trestle located at the trailhead.

The hike begins with a gradual ascent up through the forest before soon emerging above the treeline. Along the way, you’ll be treated to beautiful views of Winter Park and Fraser. The rest of the hike consists of several meandering switchbacks up a grassy ridge which eventually gives way to stunning views of James Peak.

At 2.5 miles, you’ll reach the end of the trail, though you could continue on to James Peak if you wanted to. We explored for a bit at the top, which was incredibly windy, before making our way back down the trail to the car.

This hike is not very popular so you won’t have to worry about battling crowds – we were the only ones there when we arrived around 9am on a Saturday! I think the Rogers Pass hike is super underrated, and it’s one of my favorite easy hikes in the state.

Colorado Horseback Riding

Horseback riding is one of those classic Colorado activities you have to do at least once, whether you live in state or are visiting from out of town. In 2021, I was able to go horseback riding through Garden of the Gods with my husband which was a super cool experience, so we decided to go riding again this year while my in-laws were in town. This time around, we opted to book our ride through American Safari Ranch in Fairplay, about 45 minutes outside of Breckenridge.

The main appeal of American Safari Ranch for our group was they don’t do nose-to-tail riding, but actually let your group space out and ride alongside each other. The setting also looked beautiful, with rolling hills, forests, and some water crossings as well.

Our guide for the day was Pedro, a super friendly and knowledgeable ranch hand from Spain. We booked an hour and a half ride which was the perfect amount of time to take a beautiful loop up a rocky mountain and through a gorgeous forest of aspens. All of the horses were very well-trained and Pedro did a great job sharing facts about the area, the ranch, and our horses. All in all, we had a fantastic time, and I would say it was one of my top horseback riding experiences yet!

American Safari Ranch also offers ATV tours and various lodging options. The ranch is also home to some adorable goats and even some alpacas!

Mount Democrat – Colorado 14er

My husband and I recently had some friends in town and one of their goals was to summit a 14er during their visit. We were ready for a challenge, so I suggested checking out the DeCaLiBron Loop, a well-known trail in Colorado that covers four 14ers in one hike! The loop leads you up and over Mount Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln, and Bross (though the official summit of Bross is technically on private property and closed to hikers). I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do the entire loop this time around, but I set a goal for myself to do at least one of the 14ers, which ended up being Mount Democrat.

We arrived at the trailhead around 6am, which many in the Colorado hiking community would probably consider a late start. Thankfully, we scored the very last parking spot in the lot so we didn’t have to park along the road. There is a $5 fee to park and you will get a ticket if you choose not to pay, so don’t skip out!

Technically, you can hike the DeCaLiBron Loop either clockwise (starting with Democrat and ending with Bross) or counterclockwise (starting with Bross and ending with Democrat). I read mixed opinions on which way is easier – many commented that the descent from Bross (or ascent, if you begin with that 14er) is very rough as it mostly consists of gravel and loose rock. With that in mind, we decided to start with Democrat.

The trail to Mount Democrat (the leftmost peak)

The trail to Mount Democrat begins at Kite Lake Trailhead, which sits at 12,000′ in elevation, and meanders upward as you near the base of Democrat. You start gaining elevation almost as soon as you leave the trailhead, so don’t expect much of a warmup for this hike! You’ll eventually reach a saddle between Mount Democrat and Mount Cameron, which is a good place to catch your breath.

Views from the saddle between Mount Democrat and Cameron

From the saddle, the trail turns into rocky switchbacks as you begin the final ascent up to the summit. There is a false summit before a short stretch of relatively flat trail that leads you up the last 100′ or so to the actual summit of Mount Democrat. From here, you’ll be rewarded with incredible sweeping views of the surrounding mountains.

The summit of Mount Democrat

I decided to head back to the car after Democrat while the rest of my group pushed on to complete the full loop. On the way down, I encountered a family of mountain goats which was a real treat to see! In total, the hike from Kite Lake Trailhead to Mount Democrat ended up being about four miles in length with over 2,000′ of elevation gain. The hike was tough but relatively short and sweet, and I’m so glad we all got to summit together.

Mountain goats and a view of Kite Lake

I’m super proud that the rest of my group pushed on and completed the DeCaLiBron Loop. Their pictures looked amazing and they all had a blast, but they did agree the descent off Bross was pretty brutal and unpleasant. I can’t wait to return and finish the loop for myself by summiting Cameron, Lincoln, and Bross!

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 along 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!

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!