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Snow Day

How's the weather treating you?

I read the other day that you should never start a conversation with the weather. I guess it's boring, and a social taboo. Ok. Thanks for letting me know.

I'll admit, I’m more interested in day-to-day weather than most, but what if the weather is unusual? I mean, that seems to be a good reason to talk about the weather. It might be true for most conversations, but it’s pretty much the whole point of my most recent hike.

Since I’ve been whining all winter about the lack of snow, when there is snow—actual, ground covering snow—I’m gonna talk about it...non-stop. Ok, I get it now. It's boring to talk about the weather. But after months of waiting, wishing, and begging, snow finally made an appearance, and I couldn’t wait to get outside.

Just The Facts

Trail: Spruce Mountain Trail - Spruce Mountain Open Space
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Gain: 480 ft
Distance: 5.5 mi. (loop)
Trail Use: Hiking, Snowshoeing, Mountain Biking, Horseback Riding
Trail Condition: Maintained, and clearly marked
Bring Your Dog: Yes (but must be on a leash)
Access: All year long
Trail Map: www.douglas.co.us
Entrance fee: Free

Blazin’ My Own Trail

When I arrived, the parking lot was empty, and I was the first person to put tracks into the snow. Well, at least people tracks. Someone had driven into the parking lot, but didn’t get out. Did they forgot their snowshoes and changed their minds?

I didn't bring snowshoes either. I don’t think there is a hard rule for when you should, or should not use snowshoes. But from what I’ve read/learned/experienced, if it’s only a few inches of snow (somewhere between 3-5”) it’s not going to help too much. If I’m sinking to my knees in the snow, I’d want to be on a good pair of snowshoes.

On a typical day (no snow, and warmer temperatures) I'd expect a packed trailhead parking lot. Spruce Mountain Open Space caters to a lot of diverse activities: mountain biking, horseback riding, trail running, and of course hiking.

I've stressed the importance of trail preparedness many times. And what do I do? Fail as a preparedness example. We get a little snow, and I lose my mind. In my excitement to play in the snow, I forgot to bring some of my trusty hiking gear: trekking poles, boot chains, gaiters, and my sunglasses. For shame!

You’d think I’ve never been outside before. I like hiking with my trekking poles, so I'm not sure how I forgot those. If it's a short hike, I'll be fine; I won't collapse under my own weight without them. Snow chains are great if the trail is icy, or slippy on the hills—nothing to worry about there. But having my gaiters and sunglasses would’ve been so much better. My gaiters would've kept the snow from sticking to my boots and pants, and sunglasses make it so much easier to see the views if I'm not squinting all the time. Oh well, you live and you learn.

One thing I did remember was to put on was sunscreen. My exposed face was the only skin I needed to protect, and let’s face it (yes, that’s a pun) my mug ain't looking any younger.

To The Mountain Top

At first, the wind was ripping through the open space. The clear meadows, to the east, weren’t doing anything to slow down the wind, and it spread deep drifts over the start of the trail.

The heavy snow, and sculpted drifts only lasted a few yards, and by the time I reached the start of Oak Shortcut, I was striding through much easier snow.

If you visit Spruce Mountain without snow, the hike up is straight forward, and simple. All the effort is focused into a brief climb to Pine Junction, and then the rest of the elevation gain is spread out over about a mile. Even in ankle deep snow, the climb is easier than you’d think.

Lining both sides of the trail, and clinging to autumn leaves, the Gamble oak are now weighted down by the bright-white blanket of fresh snow. The wind has all but stopped blowing, and the hushed sound of a snowy morning enveloped me.

Snow changes scenery so much it’s hard to keep going. I want to stop at every new bend, soak up the views, and force my senses to take in everything. It might be another year before I’m on a hike like this again, and I'm doing my best to remember it all.

So Butte-iful

Switchbacks guide me into morning shadows, and through a few deep snow drifts. Even though the trail was hiding under the snow, I didn’t have any trouble keeping to the path. The nice part about a well-maintained trail, even when covered in snow, you can still find your way.

If the snow is deep (thigh-high instead of above my ankles) it’ll be more difficult. But I could still see the slope of the hillside, which helps keep me from wandering off into some random direction.

One of the better views of Eagle Mountain, which is a butte, will be from Paddock’s Point. There are several buttes in this area: Raspberry, Rattlesnake, Nemrick, and Eagle Mountain. Spruce Mountain (the namesake of the open space) isn’t a butte, but a mesa.

A mesa and a butte look very similar, but they do have a distinction. A butte is often taller than it is wide, and a mesa is pretty much the opposite...wider than it is tall.

I’m sure you’ve seen a butte before. Monument Valley, Devils Tower (go watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and Pawnee Buttes (also in Colorado) are some prime examples.

Canyonlands National Park, and Grand Mesa (another Colorado location and the largest flat-topped mountain in the world) are fine examples of a mesa. That concludes our montology lesson for today. I hope you enjoyed it.

After the views at Paddock’s Point, I’m nearing the top of Spruce Mountain, and the trail becomes a enjoyable meander.

When The Going Gets Easy...

Like I just pointed out, a mesa is pretty much a flat-topped mountain, and the trail from this point forward is easy and, well...flat. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t stunning. Spruce and pine cover the mesa, and allow only a little sunlight to filter through. The wind isn’t blowing that hard, but even if it was, I’d be nice and sheltered in these trees. I don’t even notice the wind until I step out to an edge. I could spend all day searching along the rims, and outcrops gazing along outlines of Rampart Range and the greater Front Range of Colorado.

Devil’s Head Tower is the highest point in the Rampart Range, and one of my favorite hikes in this area. The morning hours have already slipped away, and I need to get moving, or I be here all day.

After a short distance, I came to another junction. The trail is a loop from this point, and will lead right back to this junction. There is the option (if you keep right) to hike down a service road, and back down the mountain. But I wanted to stay up top, and continued left, making my way to Windy Point.

Point Me In The Right Direction

It’s been me, myself and I up to this point. I’ve been shuffling through the snow in silence; no other sounds except my snow-crunching boots.

For some reason, I’m not even sure why, I stopped in a sunny patch on the path. I felt the presence of the deer before I heard them. The call wasn’t terrifying at all, a simple alert call. The grunt, almost a coughing sound, echoed around me.

"Hey guys. Somebody's in the forest...an he's super noisy." Deer are pretty casual, if you're wondering.

I looked around, scanning the trunks of the trees, and a patch of scraggly shrubs—I couldn’t find the deer. They blend-in too much for my sun-squinty eyes. I kept going, and only a few yards later saw two tracks running perpendicular to the trail. They’re much quieter than me, and far more stealthy.

A few minutes later, I reached Windy point. It might not be the actual halfway point, but it’s close. From Windy Point—which was not windy at all for some reason—I could see far south, spotting the snow-capped top of Pikes Peak.

Backtrack

The late morning sun was doing its best to melt all the powdery snow. Aided by the sun, snow-heavy branches started to loosen and drop a shower of white back to the ground. This winter wonderland wouldn’t last much longer, and muddy brown spots were already starting to appear on the trail.

Like the south side of the mesa, the northern edge has lots of opportunities to explore rocky ledges and outcrops. Eagle Mountain fills the views with a backdrop dotted by the other buttes; all framed in brilliant-blue Colorado sky.

I arrived at the junction again, and closed the loop on the untouched snow. I follow my own tracks back as I head toward the parking lot.

Shortly after passing Paddock’s Point ,once again, I met the only other person I’ve seen on the trail today. He’s pushing his Fat Tire bike up a narrow section of the trail. So I’m not the only one who likes a snow day.

I’m so glad I finally got to spend a day out in the snow. If I'm honest with myself, I'm ready for spring, and all the color it awakens. Spring is always unpredictable in Colorado, and I’m sure there is at least one more snow day coming, but you never know. I’ll take what I can get, and enjoy the transition from winter to spring.