You Must Choose, But Choose Wisely

Get In The Zone

Work-a-day life can be filled with tons of distractions. Work, home projects, holidays, vacations, on and on. It's all part of life. That's where hobbies come in. My hobbies go hand-in-hand, but a hobby could be anything: gardening, reading, macrame. You'll always find time to do the things you love...unless your crazy busy.

Alright, you caught me, I'm trying to gin up sympathy for why I haven't been on a hike in a long, long time. I've been busy, but who isn't these days? Well, the hiking hiatus is over! I'm back on the trails, and starting to feel like my old self again.

Just The Facts

  • Trail: Palmer Trail (Section 16) a.k.a. Red Rock Loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation Gain: 1700 ft
  • Distance: 5.5 mi. (loop
  • Trail Use: Hiking, Trail Running, Mountain Biking, Equestrian
  • Trail Condition: Maintained, and clearly marked
  • Bring Your Dog: Yes (but must be on a leash)
  • Access: Open Year Round
  • Trail Map: www.hikingproject.com
  • Entrance fee: Free

Would You Rather Go Uphill, or Uphill?

For me, hiking boils down to one important commodity: time. Time and how much of it do I have...and effort. Ok, it's more like three commodities.

The point is I've got to get better at how I use my time.

Over the past several month, my lack of time (or dwindling amount of free time), has wreaked havoc on my ever-growing list of hikes, trails, and outdoor adventures. I'll finish a hike, strike it off my list, with a gleeful pen stroke, and then, without hesitation, squeeze four more along the margins. It's good, and bad at the same time.

I don't have a scientific method for choosing my next hike. I should probably come up with one, but who's got time for that?

So far, my current "method" is to open the afore mentioned, ever-growing list, pick one or two trails, and start to plan. I'll open up Google™ Earth Pro, or one of my trusty maps, see a pocket of Colorado (Springs, or State) I've neglected, and stare wide-eyed, and I start to daydream. I'll see a section of unexplored terrain, and imagine all the possibilities.

"Oooh, I haven't been to that pond before! Look at this! I bet those peaks are nice and jagged!"

This is known as Wandermapping™. Ok, I made up Wandermapping™, but I'm sure it has German or Norwegian roots. It might not be a medical condition, but I've trademarked it anyway...just in case.

I'll shake myself back to the present, and confidently name my next hike. Then...I'll start to waffle on my decision, and see what else is available. This can go on for awhile.

I picked three other hikes before I finally settled on Palmer Trail. There is nothing wrong with the other trails, a little farther away and nothing else. Also, I'm a little rusty, and wanted to ease back in with a local day hike.

Clockwise, or Counterclockwise?

Because it's a loop, Palmer Trail is slightly out of the ordinary for me. I'll still start and finish is the same spot, like an out-and-back trail, but instead of hiking to a specific point, I'll end up walking in a big circle.

I have the option to hike in either a counterclockwise (anti-clockwise if you want to sound like you're from the UK), or a clockwise direction. And I could pick from more than one trail head: the main parking lot on Gold Camp Road, or the parking lot at the base of High Drive.

Either trail head will get me on Palmer Trail, but depending on which trail head I started from would make a significant change to my hiking experience. Do I want a workout, or do I want a comfortable stroll?

The traditional (counterclockwise) start is from the main parking lot, and much more challenging. The first mile, mile and a half, is all uphill, and gets your heart pumping, and legs burning. The parking fills up fast here, and is a favorite for trail running, and mountain biking.

The alternative start (the clockwise option) begins on High Drive, and is the easy, gradual hiking direction. I went for the easy route.

High Volume

Even though we've had a warm (and by warm I mean unbearable), snow-free winter, the mornings are still wintery-cold. The temperature had hardly inched above freezing when I headed up High Drive.

The long shadows have done there best to shield the minuscule amounts of snow we've had, and what snow there is on the trail is hiding in these shadowy creases. High Drive lives under the thick evergreens, providing safe-haven to the thin, crusty snow which added an audible crunch to each step.

Bear Creek, reduced to a trickle, gurgles under a delicate cap of wafer-thin ice. The bubbling water breaks through a few times, and then retreats under the frosty lid.

By starting opposite of most hikers/runners/mountain bikers, I had a quite start to my hike—for a little while at least. I was able to enjoy the winter morning, watching warm sunrise bathe the treetops in golden, yellow-orange. The light bounced off the rock faces, and played against the cool-blue shadows along the trail.

Release The Hounds

After about a mile on High Drive, I came to the "true" start of Palmer Trail. On the right is a trailhead marker for...Red Rock Loop. I know, it says Red Rock Loop, but it's also Palmer Trail. I'm not 100% sure why it's marked Red Rock Loop, but Palmer Trail did became part of Red Rock Canyon Open Space in 2011. The trail may have been given an "official" name then, but all my maps have it labeled as Palmer Trail (Section 16).

The mild elevation gain kept me from huffing and puffing, and I was sticking with a steady pace. Of course, if I had gone the other way, I'd be sucking wind each with each step.

One of the trade-offs for hiking a popular trail within city limits: people and pet traffic. It didn't take long before I met up with all the trail runners and their pups. I'm not the only one who likes to be out on fine morning, so at least I was in good company.

But for some reason, nobody wanted their dog(s) on a leash. I'm sure it's hard to run with a dog while on a trail, but it's a rule. It's not a big deal to me, but I understand why the rule is there, so if you do take your pup with you, please keep them on a leash. It will keep everyone safe, and happy.

Other than the pups, I hadn't seen any other wildlife, I didn't even hear chirping birds. All was quiet except for my boots crunching on the granite pebbles, and an occasional gust or breeze through the treetops.

Views O' Plenty

Half of the reason for any hike is the scenery, and my favorite part about doing this hike in reverse are the views. It's not like you won't see the same trees, rocks and cityscapes in the other direction, but I like how the clockwise scenery reveals itself in a more incremental way.

Since the climb is so gentle, I had plenty of time to look around and absorb all the subtle changes in the rock formation, and how the light stretches deeper into the canyon.

There are two distinct rock formations which keep popping into view. If they have names, I haven't been able to find them. They dominate the hillside, protruding out of the dense pine forest, almost as if the mountain had been trying to sprout solid-stone horns.

If you miss them the first time, don't worry you'll have many more chances over the next several miles. A bend in the trail would take me away from the rocks, and then wrap back to the west. The trees would open up, from a different elevation, and angle, showcasing the scene all over again. A natural rhythm repeating as I continued on.

I could imagine spotting a Bighorn sheep, standing stock-still, nostrils flaring into a breeze, taking in the world around it, or catch a glance of a Mountain Lion, its light brown fur, coarse and short, blending into the rock, before vanishing like a ghost back into the forest.

Mind The Gap

After a bit, the trail starts to move more north, and back into shadow. The leftover snow started to re-appear on the trail, and it did make narrow spots slick. I always enjoy seeing how a trail can change within moment. The hillside and trail edges are now decorated with large lichen-covered boulders. Is it possible they're not rocks at all, but the shoulders, or kneecaps of sleeping giants?

The trail opens up to a full view of Colorado Springs below, and is a reminder of how close I am to the city. I'm always delighted at how easy it is to get into the mountains.

There is one bridge crossing along the trail, and today it crosses a over a frozen Hunters Run creek. A tiny waterfall splashes between two massive rocks, which help funnel the water down the mountain, and into Bear Creek. It's a relaxing spot to stop and take a break.

Most of the elevation gain is over now, and soon I found the highest point. The trail splits, but a trail marker guides me to the left. There are several trail markers from here on out pointing me in the right direction.

Almost Done

The gentle, sweeping trail I've been on has now disappeared. In its place is a steep, rocky, descent with grabby roots, and loose footing. This is the "workout" trail. My legs are fresh, and my knees are feeling good, so I'm ready for it.

This is exactly why I took the reverse start for this trail. I didn't want to slog up this rocky stretch. But a lot of people like this intense section. I'll have to try it the other way, and report back.

There isn't much snow on this part of the trail, and that's not a bad thing. Slick, wet rocks are much more difficult to navigate than dry ones.

With the tough section over, and I soon found connecting spurs, and intersections for more trails to Red Rock Canyon Open Space. I could hop onto Intemann Trail, and hike all the way to the open space, but I'll stay to the right, and to my goal of the main parking lot.

Looking north I could see the familiar formations of Garden of the Gods. Rolling grassy fields broken up by ridges of red rocks stretched out into the distance. The blue-bird sky let the sunshine radiate down. It was a spectacular day for a hike.

Now I was getting to the real people traffic. With so many connections to other trails, I saw a lot more mountain bikes, and trail runners. There seems to be endless options for exploring.

The morning has faded to early mid-day, and my hike is almost over. A few sets of wood treads guide me back to the main parking lot. The lot isn't as full as it was this morning, but the cars, and trucks loaded with bikes, and dogs continue to show up.

I step out onto Gold Camp Road, and walk the short distance back to my parking spot. Another great hike, and another terrific trail I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.

Crazy busy or not, take the time to get out on a hike. Clear your mind, and burn off those winter calories...I know I've added a few too many.