Thank you to Moosejaw for kindly sponsoring this post. All opinions are 100% honest & completely my own.
The saddest day of the year for me is usually in mid-April when the Grand Targhee lifts stop turning for the season, signifying that ski season is over until November. But since my husband Max & I learned to backcountry ski last December, the madness of skiing all summer long has opened up. So instead of hitting the beach, I packed clothing for temperatures ranging from 30-80 degrees, my backcountry ski backpack, skis and avy gear and hit the road. Destination: the Beartooth Highway along the Wyoming/Montana border for some skiing in June. My Moosejaw Madness story was about to begin, because I love skiing too much to only do it during one half of the year!
First stop: Beartooth Basin summer ski area. In our excitement to ski their rope tow lift area, Max and I bought full-day lift tickets without actually looking over the edge first. After we took our first look over the cornice in the photo above, we were both thinking “oh no, we just wasted $70.” It was really steep and scary looking, and we we considering bailing!
But we spent a few minutes summoning our courage, watching others ski down and survive, and then dropped in and wound up having tons of fun skiing soft spring corn. There was a definite learning curve involved in mastering the rope tow for me, which included two consecutive fails while the line of people watching me struggle and fall shouted advice and encouragement (after which I sent myself to the back of the line). But in no time, I was picking up someone else’s fallen gear on the way up, and helpfully motioning sideways to someone who fell off the tow in front of me and was laying there in my path. We ended the day really glad that we had stayed.
On day two we moved to the backcountry, and began with a bootpack up to Reefer Ridge. No more rope tow pulling me up the mountain – now I was hiking it myself, carrying my backcountry ski backpack from Moosejaw filled with my avy gear and with my skis strapped on for the way up.
After making it to the top, I had to admire this view of the Absarokas before skiing down. (Scrambling over rocks while wearing ski boots: awkward.)
Skiing down, facing the view of the incredible winding hairpin curves of the Beartooth Highway. The snow was fun, soft corn for the top half, and chunder on the bottom half. I quickly learned why some people were stopping halfway down before starting their next lap.
Next stop: Gardiner Headwall. The amount of snow still here in mid-June was pretty incredible! It was about twice as high as the cars driving through.
Time to pick a line down. This area had gotten icy from below freezing temperatures overnight, but had softened up enough to be fun now. I didn’t spend too long in this spot, because the wind was strong enough to almost knock me over!
Such a fun ski down! Those tiny dots below the rocks are other skiers doing a steep bootpack back up – the fate that also awaited me at the bottom of my run. So worth the burn though! I already can’t wait to go back.
Powder days are fun, but that zipper sound that my skis make across fresh corduroy can’t be beat! Sometimes the fog even lifts, and the sun pops out to reveal giant fir trees coated in impossibly thick blankets of white snow. The sky looks a pure, deep blue from up near 10,000 ft elevation, and sometimes puffy white clouds even come out to play.
A morning of clear blue skies and and the first rays of sunlight as it peeks over the mountains to warm up ghost trees.
And I love to take in the scenic views with a few fresh inches on top of the groomers and frosted white trees.
Day one of the great Teton Pass closure of 2017, which lasted 5 days in total. Teton Pass closed at 2:30am on a Tuesday for avalanche mitigation — something that Max and I didn’t realize until we arrived and found the gate down at 6:30am on our way to work in Jackson, WY. After getting the notification that the Pass wouldn’t be reopening in time to make it to work that day, we went to go skiing at Grand Targhee. Five fresh inches of wind-blown powder, some fog, and fun in the trees. This is my second season skiing off-piste powder on fat skis – and Max, as you will see, has been skiing for most of his life.
In the afternoon it started to snow again and things got a little more fluffy.
As our road trip through Colorado continued, brilliant fall colors were already on display on the very first day of fall. After leaving Great Sand Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, we drove the entire length of the Silver Thread Scenic Byway on our way to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The Byway wound along the banks of the Rio Grande River, tracing the routes of old stagecoach lines and railways of the late 1800s. Named after a time when silver mining and ranching were the main industries in a land that was still part of the Wild West, the Silver Thread passes through beautiful mountains that are swallowing up the remains of old ghost towns and mines.
We stopped in the rain to look out at the Weminuche Wilderness of Colorado, where the Rio Grande River originates in the heart of the San Juan Mountains at 13,821 ft elevation. This overlook was too pretty to pass by!
When we reached the Gunnison River, which has been dammed to create Blue Mesa Reservior in the Curecanti National Recreation Area, we stopped to admire the Dillon Pinnacles across the river.
A short distance later, we arrived at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – known for being “deep, steep and narrow.” It has been carved over the course of 2 million years by the Gunnison River, which used to flow with a force as much as 2.75 million horsepower, rushing through the canyon at 12,000 cubic feet during its flood stage. Today dams upstream make the process of erosion happen more slowly.
The park lands below the canyon rim are also designated wilderness, with no maintained or marked trails leading down to the inner canyon. Poison ivy is also abundant along the way down, so I opted to do a series of shorter hikes near the rim during this visit. Maybe if I make it back again I will try dropping 1,800 vertical feet in one mile down to the river while hanging on chains and scrambling over boulders, and then climbing back out again. Or not. 🙂
Our next planned destination was Mesa Verde. While driving along Highway 145 on the way there, we passed by Telluride and decided that it was too beautiful a place not to stop and explore. Telluride is surrounded by the highest concentration of 13,000 and 14,000 foot peaks in North America – how could we not take a little detour to check it out?
We spent the night in a pretty little campground in the Uncompahgre National Forest, surrounded by aspens with leaves in brilliant shades of yellow and orange.
The next day we rode the tram and hiked the See Forever Trail up above 12,000 ft elevation, both to take in the beautiful vistas all around, and to check out how amazing it would be to come back in the winter and ski Telluride!
The view from the See Forever Trail at Telluride
Telluride is definitely on my Must Ski list!
Then we were back on the road again, headed for Morefield Campground in Mesa Verde. After a restful night at camp (and a hot shower! what a treat!), we spent the day exploring the fascinating ruins of Mesa Verde. The Ancestral Pueblo people (Anasazi) lived in Mesa Verde from 550 AD until the late 13th century. Many of the dwellings in the park are located below natural overhanging cliffs, and are very sophisticated in their construction and design.
The view from inside Balcony House, a cliff dwelling that requires a steep climb up a ladder to enter. The round chambers are called kivas. Kivas are still included as central places within the community in m any modern pueblos.
Stones used for grinding corn inside Balcony House
Spruce Tree House, the third largest and best preserved cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. Circa 1200-1280 AD.
Another view inside the Spruce Tree House
Square Tower House
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde. Sadly, it was closed to exploration inside the dwellings for the season.
After a full day of exploring Mesa Verde, we spent a second night at Morefield Campground, and then set out for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Our first stop was at the Anasazi Heritage Center, which serves as the Canyons of the Ancients headquarters, to pick up maps and visitor information and to visit the museum inside. We then set out into the remote and rugged desert to explore Painted Hand Pueblo. The road to the trailhead was rough and rutted, making us glad to be driving it in a high-clearance truck. It was a hot, dry early autumn day as we took the short hike to the pueblo – such very different weather from the freezing cold and howling wind that nearly blew me off my feet in Rocky Mountain National Park just a week earlier.
Painted Hand Pueblo, Canyon of the Ancients, Colorado
Painted Hand Pueblo is in the middle of the Great Sage Plain, where deep soils hold winter moisture and have been used for dryland farming for hundreds of years. Painted Hand Pubelo was built in the 13th century, and was originally a small village of about 20 rooms. Some remaining structures, like the one above, still include faint hand print paintings and petroglyphs.
“K’amagshe is ‘White Hands.’ He was a leader of Ship’app who led the people across the landscape and left white handprint marks. His hands were white. He leads the Follow the Leader Dance.” –Victor Sarracino, Water Clan, Pueblo of Laguna
Final stops: Hovenweep National Monument and Valley of the Gods in Utah, Monument Valley in Arizona, and Antelope Island State Park in Utah.
After leaving the first stop on our road trip through Colorado, Arizona, and Utah – Rocky Mountain National Park – Max and I continued on to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. On the way there, we passed through the funky little historic town of Leadville, CO. At an elevation 10,152 ft, it is the highest incorporated city in the United States. Leadville was so scenic that we decided to stop there for lunch and for a quick walk around.
After leaving Leadville (and deciding that we had to return sometime to explore the town and surrounding area some more), we were back on the road again heading south for Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, where we would be camping at Piñon Flats Campground in the park for two nights. During our full day in the park, we hiked up to High Dune (699ft tall) and Star Dune (755ft tall) – twice! Both dunes are close to 9,000ft in elevation.
I had to really push myself the second time up. Unlike our cold and windy days in Rocky Mountain National Park, it was quite hot and dry here, with the sun reflecting off the sand. On the steep parts of the zig-zagging “trail” through the dunes, each step found me sliding a little bit back down as the soft sand gave way beneath each step. With my shoes loaded full of sand and feeling heavier and heavier, I had a few “I can’t do this any more!” moments. But Max encouraged me to climb up to Star Dune a second time for sunset, and convinced two other people along the way that they had to make it up too. This view with this light…. worth it!
But the best thing to do in Great Sand Dunes is… play in the sand! We had fun laughing at each other’s awkward running jumps into the sand, which ended with a “dooooomph!” sound on impact. Max’s cannonball jump was the best! Next time we have to try the little-known sport of sandboarding.
Last month, Max and I spent two weeks road tripping, camping, and hiking through Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. The first stop on our adventure was Rocky Mountain National Park. This was my second time being above 12,000 ft. elevation (the first time was while Backpacking the Wind River Range of Wyoming) and the first time I had spent an extended amount of time above 11,000 ft elevation.
We camped in Estes Park, sharing a campsite with a small herd of deer and a bunny who joined us in the evenings.
We explored Trail Ridge Road, the historic Old Fall River Road, and Bear Lake Road in the park, doing many short hikes along the way. Strong gusts of bitterly cold wind battered us above the treeline, making me thankful that I had brought a winter hat, gloves, and a bandanna to cover my face!
We were surrounded by a vast silence with only the sound of the wind and the call of elk bugling in the distance as we took in the massive scale of our surroundings.
The next day we woke up to a frost-covered tent and clear blue skies. We decided to take a hike up to Twin Sisters Peaks, a steep but popular hike up to 11,413 ft elevation on the eastern side of the park, surrounded by Roosevelt National Forest. Along the way up, we picked our way across the wreckage left by a huge mudslide that wiped out parts of the trail during the floods of 2013.
Just below the summit, we came across the sad scene of a man who had collapsed and died on the trail. His friend and some other hikers were performing CPR as a rescue helicopter circled, looking for a place to land. Sadly, it was too late to save him. We sat awkwardly bunched up for a while with a growing group of other hikers who had been behind us on the trail, wishing that there was some way that we could help.
As more paramedics started to arrive, the man’s friend encouraged everyone to continue on. Feeling that it was best to get out of the way, we hiked the short remaining distance to the summit. From the summit we had panoramic views of the Estes Park valley and the Continental Divide, but it was a little bittersweet, and we didn’t stay long.
We had been considering staying a third day in Rocky Mountain National Park, but decided that this was a sign that it was time to hit the road again. The next day we set out for Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which will be Part Two in my next post.
Just a few days after I returned from my seven-day backpacking trip through the Wind River Range of Wyoming, I was off on another adventure, this time in the wilderness of Montana. My adventure started with a six-hour road trip to Missoula (my longest solo road trip to date!). I was headed to Liz of Snowqueen and Scout‘s house, where I would meet her and three other women that I met though social media in person for the first time. All five of us would be participating in the first annual Wild Sage Summit, a gathering of influential women of the outdoor industry in the rugged Montana wilderness. We would spend three days backpacking together, and getting to know each other in person. It would be my first time backpacking in a group of all women, and I was excited for it.
We all stayed up past midnight having a packing party, discussing the benefits of lightweight gear, and of carrying less stuff in general to lighten our loads. Alyx of Shoestring Adventures was able to lighten her usual load by ten pounds! Liz showed us a map of our proposed route through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Montana, and gave us a choice: a straightforward out and back trip, or a thru-hike ending at a different trailhead. The one-way trip would allow us to see a lot more scenery, but had a catch – a seemingly small cross-country section where we would need to use our route-finding skills a bit to link one trail to another trail. A guidebook assured us that there would be a reasonably clear trail to follow through the cross-country section, even though it wasn’t on the map (we would later learn that this trail hadn’t been maintained in over a decade). So we of course chose the more challenging trip.
We got off to a leisurely start the next morning, in stark contrast to my usual experience when backpacking with my husband. (He insists that we wake up at 5:00am to get our start bright and early.) I drove the shuttle car to the end trailhead with Jaymie of Mug Life and enjoyed getting to know her better during the drive. This was going to be fun!
Our first day, we hiked about 10 miles with over 3,000 ft of elevation gain over steep, rocky terrain on an unusually warm late-summer day.
During our afternoon snack break, Liz checked our progress on the topo map, and proclaimed, “So we have a little bit of climbing coming up… and then more climbing.” This was the first of many funny moments that made the trip memorable.
And climb we did! Up and up and up until the sun started getting low, and the colors of the landscape lit up with firey reds and yellows.
Finally, we reached our goal – beautiful Bass Lake.
Now we just needed to find a campsite and a place to cook dinner. Tired and hungry, we decided to make a tiny-but-flat campsite work, and cook dinner down on the lake’s beach. The hot day quickly turned cold as the sun set, so we washed up and cooked some hot meals to share. Alyx put a packet of mushroom risotto inside her shirt to help speed up the cooking process and keep her warm, unaware that the ziplock seal hadn’t been closed quite properly. Soon we would all see Alyx standing there bewildered as, to quote Liz, “her mushroom risotto water broke and she birthed our dinner into the world.” Her shirt would have to join our bear hang bags that night.
Back at our tiny campsite, we determined that there was not enough room for our tents to fit. In fact, there was only just enough room for us to line our sleeping pads up side-by-side and “cowgirl camp” under the stars. It was my first time sleeping outdoors without a tent. Far out into the wilderness with no light pollution nearby, we were treated to a dark sky lit up with stars. Even the Milky Way was visible. A nearby colony of pikas called out “ehhh!” every so often, and all seemed otherwise quiet and serene. But I cannot lie – I barely slept that night. Korrin of Wild Wilderness Women was the only one of us lucky enough to sleep like a rock.
Our second day continued along the established trail around Bass Lake, and then turned off towards Bass Pass on a vague-but-discernible trail. With only minor route-finding required, we triumphantly reached Bass Pass.
From Bass Pass, we followed a few cairns down the mountain and into the creek bed below. Then the trail disappeared. But we pulled out the topo map, and pressed on.
At times bits and pieces of the trail would reappear again, assuring us that we were heading the right way. Everyone’s mood remained positive and adventurous.
We bushwhacked through underbrush and rocks, getting scratched and bruised up legs. We hopped across a giant field of boulders, cracking jokes when we found a very randomly placed cairn in this seemingly middle-of-nowhere place. (“Let me mark this! Yeah, I’d take this trail again.”)
But eventually, the trail disappeared, and a wall of seven-foot-tall underbrush stood before us. So we pushed through it.
Up, down, over and through mile after mile of jungle-like forest, five foot tall ferns, creeks and boulders.
Along the way, I found an old, rusty bear spray in the “jungle.” Had someone else really bushwhacked this same way before? And every once in a while, a trail would suddenly reappear, only to lead nowhere in particular, or disappear again. We amused ourselves by playing word games, telling stories, and yelling “HEY BEAR!” to keep the bears away. (Which worked! At one point a startled bear ran crashing through the forest away from us.) And then finally… we made our connection with the Kootenai Creek Trail, just before dark. All in all, we spent about 12 hours backpacking that day, ending the day’s adventure hiking by the light of our headlamps up to a campsite by the Kootenai Lakes. We set up camp (this time in tents), cooked and ate dinner and did our bear hang all by starlight. Alyx proclaimed, “Our motto should be: You can sleep when you’re dead.” And rather than going right to sleep after a long, tough day, we stayed up late talking and laughing about the day’s adventures.
Finally, we all went to sleep. About six hours later, in the pitch darkness, we awoke to the sound of something big crashing through the forest. It was heading right for our camp, and it was making deep, guttural grunting noises. Having worked around bears before at a wildlife sanctuary, I knew that this wasn’t a sound that a bear makes, but it was scary. And it was LOUD… and too close for comfort. I said, “Do you guys hear that?!” and pulled the safety off my bear spray, just in case something was about to attack. We made lots of noise to try to scare it away. It was largely unmoved. It continued to grunt near our camp for a while, and then finally went away. We would later learn that it was bull moose looking for a mate.
After the sun rose, we got to see just what a scenic spot we were camping in. It was nice to spend some time enjoying our beautiful surroundings before getting back on the trail.
Our third and final day was spent on the Kootenai Creek Trail backpacking through beautiful wilderness forest and alongside the crystal clear Kootenai Creek. Despite the blistering heat, some of us opted to wear yoga pants to keep our legs from getting battered any further by the underbrush that creeped into the trail here and here. With thoughts of the ice cold beer that awaited us back at Liz’s house, we backpacked our final miles together.
It was a trip I’ll never forget. We entered the trail as nearly-strangers, and left as friends.