Pikes Peak’s Little Brother

Cameron Cone, at a height of 10,707 feet, does not figure among the tallest giants of Colorado, or even the Front Range, but its conspicuous shape and situation as one of Pikes Peak’s sentinels have always fascinated me. Until a recent invitation to join a small group of Colorado Mountain Club trekkers as a guest, I had only admired it from afar.

Crystal Park Road and Cameron Cone

Crystal Park Road and the east face of Cameron Cone overlooking Colorado Springs

The official path starts at the Barr trailhead in Manitou Springs and rises nearly 4000 feet over 4 miles. Being escorted by a resident of the private community of Crystal Park, we tackled the mountain from an access at an altitude of approximately 8000 feet, which halved our trip to about 2000 feet and 2 miles. I never fail to be enticed by new climbs and novel vistas in my back yard, and Cameron Cone did not disappoint. On the day of our outing, a thick cloud cover lay over Colorado Springs, but as we wound our way up Crystal Park Road we emerged above it. Drifts of cotton wafting up from the prairie and out of the valleys created a fascinating atmosphere.

Rampart Range enshrouded in clouds

Rampart Range protruding through the clouds

After the steep approach which involved some bushwhacking, the summit afforded fresh perspectives of Pikes Peak, several reservoirs, and additional conspicuous sentries, including Almagre Mountain (also known as Mount Baldy), Mount Rosa, and Cheyenne Mountain. While we were picnicking on the flat top, we were surprised to discover clusters of ladybugs clinging to rocks and wooden logs, and even more astonished to see them covering us and our backpacks. It took some persuasion to convince them not to hitchhike downhill with us.

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Ladybugs on a log

The landmark’s namesake, Robert Alexander Cameron (1828-1894), hailed from New York, but moved to Indiana with his family as a teenager. A man of many talents, he practiced medicine, published a newspaper, and was a member of the Indiana State Legislature, serving at the Republican Convention of 1860 which elected future President Lincoln. At the onset of the Civil War, he volunteered for the Union and achieved the rank of Brevet Major General. After its end, he followed the call of the West, and became involved in the founding of Nathan Meeker’s Union Colony in what would later be called Greeley, for Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who was credited with the phrase “Go West, young man”. The colony movement was popular just then, and General Palmer, founder of Colorado Springs, espoused some of its tenets, such as cooperative irrigation, and the temperance clause. In fact, our city was briefly named Fountain Colony. Palmer hired Cameron away from Union Colony and employed him as the manager of the Colorado Springs Company which platted the town sites, controlled land sales, and administered the newly founded community. According to our late local historian, Marshall Sprague, General Cameron named the cone for himself, but I have been unable to elicit if he ever summited it.

Unlike many early settlers who put down roots, Cameron pulled up stakes, and set out for further exploits. Following a stint in California, he returned to the Centennial State, to serve first as postal clerk in Denver, and next as warden of the Colorado State Penitentiary. He continued to live in Canon City after his retirement and was buried at Greenwood Cemetery. Even though he did not remain in Colorado Springs, he nonetheless left an indelible mark on our region.

America the Beautiful

Barr Trail is one of the Pikes Peak region’s most iconic hiking paths and whether one trains for the annual Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon, or simply desires to hike it for its own merit, it packs a punch. Beginning at an elevation of approximately 6,800 feet in Manitou Springs, it climbs steadily to 14,115 feet, over a distance of about 12.5 miles. Even though various trails up our local 14er had existed since the early 1870s, Fred Barr surveyed the mountain in 1918, and supervised the construction of the route we still use today. In my mind, it is divided into four parts, each measuring roughly 3 miles, and each endowed with its own character.

The seemingly endless back and forth of the switchbacks right from the start presents the least welcoming aspect. Their repetitive nature is compounded by Incline return traffic which, depending on time of day and week, can result in the need to sidestep the narrow path nearly incessantly, to allow runners to pass. The nearby Incline, an old cable car track, spans 2000 vertical feet in just under a mile, and has become one of the premiere fitness challenges for athletes from near and far.

Beyond the various Incline connections, the crowd lessens, and one’s view widens, including a first glimpse of the summit. At No Name Creek begins one of my favorite segments, by virtue of its profusion of wildflowers and avian activity. Who can fail to be cheered by the chirping of chickadees? Gradually, more expansive scenes of the mountaintop appear, even though, depending on one’s physical form of the day, this can be inspiring, or demoralizing. IMG_6700 (43)

After 6. 5 miles, Barr Camp, 10,200 feet high, offers a welcome resting spot, if desired or needed. Also built by Fred Barr, it was used by the tourists he guided up from the top of the Incline, to catch a few hours’ sleep, before leaving for the peak at 1 AM, where they hoped to witness the sunrise on this purple mountain majesty. IMG_6700 (51)Now as then, one can gather strength there, before transitioning to the following section leading to the A-Frame, a wooden shelter. This stretch is steep, and somewhat tedious, but what sustains me here is the proximity of timberline and with it, the promise of the beguiling beauty of the tundra.

Once above the trees, boulders of varying size dot the slanting meadows, brilliant yellow cinquefoil and other colorful blossoms nestle in their shelter, and butterflies feast upon this delicate, yet tenacious alpine flora. Photogenic chubby yellow-bellied marmots, and furry picas fast on foot keep guard, or hope for a morsel of nourishment. IMG_6700 (76)In the east, the velveteen foothills roll into the wide expanse of the Plains, with its amber waves of grain. The stony face of Pikes Peak looms large in the west. The last three miles zigzag across the façade of the mountain and terminate with the Sixteen Golden Stairs. My heavy breathing, and jelly-like legs convince me that this is a misnomer. Sixteen hundred must be closer to the truth…

Knowing firsthand how extraordinary the trip to Pikes Peak by automobile or cog wheel can be, reaching this pinnacle under one’s own power is even more gratifying. But all visitors seem united in a similar sense of elation, and I have yet to encounter anyone who is not enthralled by the panoramic view, under spacious Colorado skies. Surely, Katharine Lee Bates would agree.

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Katherine Lee Bates gazing at Pikes Peak from a rock in front of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

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A Bird Lover’s Dream

Out of a ten day camping trip to New Mexico this spring, my husband and I spent two days at the National Wildlife Refuge of Bosque del Apache. Its environment is intricately linked with the nearby Rio Grande, a major migratory route, and is best known for the overwintering of myriad Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, plus a vast proportion of western North American waterfowl, but represents an avian haven year-round. The combination of a 12 mile car loop, hiking trails, and overlooks provides access to significant portions of the refuge with its various habitats, which center around wetlands, but include prairie and woodlands as well.

We came for the birds, but all manner of creatures made their presence known. Bullfrogs, unfortunately an invasive species, were audible from afar. The sinuous copulation dance of two snakes on the edge of the road in plain sight caught us by surprise and made us feel slightly voyeuristic. IMG_1752Desert cottontails and black-tailed jackrabbits abounded, and mule deer browsed on screwbean mesquite, leaving a clear line of demarcation, with copious fruit above a line they could reach while standing on their hind legs, but none below. We had our first sighting of a family of collared peccary, or javelina, foraging for food during the early morning hours. A striped skunk flashed us a warning, tail raised, but thankfully scuttled into the brush, without emitting a fragrant cloud. At dusk, bats began to hunt insects, which was also the signal for Common and Lesser Nighthawk to commence their feeding.

Depending on the source, the impressive bird checklist for the refuge hovers around 393 species. Still somewhat a novice to birding, my discoveries might not rouse expert birders to flights of exultation, but they were uplifting to me. Bosque’s graceful, adobe-style visitor center, is a good place to start looking for feathered beings. Directly over the entrance, tiny, but noisy Say’s Phoebe babies greeted us from their nest. A large window overlooks feeders which often yield unusual encounters. Only a few days earlier, fellow birders glimpsed a Northern Parula, but this rarity did not repeat his curtain call for us. A second feeding station in the artfully designed adjacent desert arboretum afforded sightings of the speedy Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico’s state bird, and of Gambel’s Quail, known to loaf there all day.

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Gambel’s Quail

In this setting, I also lay eyes on my first fanciful Pyrrhuloxia, fittingly described as desert cardinal.

On the refuge proper, a central pond with dead trees offered roosting sites for Great, Snowy, and Cattle Egrets, as well as for Double-Crested and Neotropic Cormorants, which facilitated the comparison of their prevalent features. This crowd was joined, on occasion, by a gorgeous Green Heron. Vermilion Flycatchers, brilliantly attired, flew onto my life list, followed by an equally dazzling Summer Tanager, and by elegantly dressed Black Phoebes.

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Vermilion Flycatcher

Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers, as well as Common Yellowthroat were conspicuous, but I am sure I missed many other warblers. They still present a challenge, along with flycatchers, gulls, and several other families. American Avocet, Black-necked Stilts, Spotted Sandpipers, Willets, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Wilson’s Phalarope helped lessen my intimidation with shorebirds, though they are outnumbered by the many I have yet to recognize. The prize for cuteness went to a Pied-billed Grebe and her five young. All jostled for a free ride on her back, succeeded for an instant, but one or the other slid off, paddled hard to catch up and hop on again, until, finally, everybody was safely stowed.

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Needless to say, two days were not enough to explore this sanctuary. My resolution: Return there. Often. Hop on Interstate 25, take Exit 139 in New Mexico. The distance between Colorado Springs and Bosque del Avian is a mere 300 miles.

A Hidden World

Cave swallows chirp in high-pitched voices while circling the gaping hole that constitutes the Natural Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. Approaching it on the foot path from the visitor center, my husband and I gaze into darkness from a bright day, and once we are swallowed up by the gullet, we leave blue sky and sunshine behind. Our eyes need a few minutes to adjust to the surrounding dimness. Strategically located artificial lights illuminate the subterranean space and without them, we wouldn’t be able to see our hands in front of our eyes. The drop in temperature parallels the trail’s decrease in elevation. From the high 80s, it plummets 30 degrees, to the average year-round temperature in the mid 50s. The humidity, on the other hand, climbs from 10 to nearly 90 percent, and our skin feels cool and clammy for the first time since we entered New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert one week prior.

We pass a sign pointing to a side tunnel whence tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of Brazilian free-tailed bats appear every evening between March and October, having migrated from Mexico, Central, or South America. 400,000 was the highest, mind-boggling count ever recorded. This species of bat is one of 16 in the park, but constitutes the most celebrated and numerous of the flying mammals whose presence likely alerted humans to the caves throughout the ages. The bat residence is off limits for human visitors, but we were fortunate to witness their emergence on the previous evening and now envision them suspended upside-down from the roof of their bedroom, snoozing and digesting, following a night of hunting.

Switchbacks take us steadily down, and we catch a glimpse of the imposing height of a first wide cavern, our conduit to even deeper spaces. After a one-mile descent, we reach the rest area, 755 feet below the surface. Restrooms, picnic tables, vending machines and kiosks filled with curios, and elevators that typically transport the wanderers back to daylight, appear out of place, reminders of this other world we left behind. Here, also, lies the beginning of two more tours, one ranger-guided, requiring a reservation, the other a self-guided trek around the famous “Big Room”, named aptly, if a bit unimaginatively. The trail that circles and traverses this chamber also measures one mile and is relatively even, with only a few mild rises and dips. It affords close-up views of the artful designs that adorn the caves. Not being spelunkers, we learn an exotic, delicious new word and let it melt on our tongues: speleothem. This comprises the stalagmites, stalactites, columns and various other shapes fashioned by the action of mineral-rich droplets of water, resulting in a wonderland of figures which engender flights of fancy. IMG_2178They range from marble-, to colossal-sized, from lacy lightness to ponderous heft. In our mind’s eye we discern icebergs, snow cones, bones, whales’ baleen, Portuguese Men of War, dwarves, sentries, and moss growing off the ceiling. Draperies resemble delicate fabrics hung from the ceiling, and it is easy to envision them fluttering in an imaginary breeze. IMG_2169Where I see cauliflower and small icicles, earlier observers were reminded of popcorn and soda straws, a distinctly American touch. A less savory example among the creative appellations is “snottite”, or “snoticle”—no further description necessary.

It comes as a surprise to us that 95% of all formations are considered dry, and, therefore, completed. We hear and feel heavy drops of water plummeting out of the dark and visualize the creation of yet another whimsical silhouette, reserved for future visitors to behold, 500 or 1000 years hence. Some of this water has accumulated in underground lakes which generate mirror images that exist only as reflections.

We can only speculate (or should I say speluncate?) what went through the minds of the first humans to enter these cavities, but it’s easy to relate to the sense of awe overcoming each new explorer. When step after dim step on terra firma, or on ladders made from tree branches and metal wire that hung into gaping gorges of unknown depth, revealed new passages and peculiar mineral deposits by the light of a candle, or oil lamp, fear of heights and darkness was untenable. IMG_2144Those who publicized their experience, did not lack in superlatives, and ever since word of this hidden realm reached the public, it has been the focus of unwavering interest.

Because the elevators that usually return guests to above ground have been out of service for over six months when we visit in May 2016, we are not tempted to ride, rather than walk, the serpentine route back to the entrance. This allows us to take our leave gradually, and to relive and relish once again the immense and wondrous sphere encircling us. Our enchantment from our all-too-brief glimpse through the window into the earth notwithstanding, we can’t help but wonder about hidden treasures in the one hundred-odd identified hollows scattered throughout this region, much less in those yet unknown.

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