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While visiting Colorado this past weekend, we decided to take a moderately challenging day hike in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area outside the quirky little town of Nederland. Leaving Denver on a clear morning with a mid-60s temperature forecast in the city, we were psyched for a crisp but sunshine-filled day in the mountains.

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The plan was to start at the Fourth of July trailhead, a name that further conjured up a pleasant, sunny stroll on green slopes. For whatever reason, the word “Alpine” that had been used to describe the terrain did not fully register (with me, at least), and the balmy fall weather we had been enjoying in Chicago and Denver this year gave us a false sense of what to expect at an elevation of 10-11,000 feet in the Rockies in late October.

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The drive to the trailhead quickly disabused us of any notions of a temperate trek. Sitting up reassuringly high in A’s 4WD pickup truck, we still bounced and skidded the last 25 minutes into the trailhead parking lot on an occasionally slick and consistently rutted dirt road. I was grateful for A’s careful driving as I sat in the back biting my nails and skittishly recoiling from my window view any time we approached the edge of the narrow road and the drop-offs below.

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The trailhead, at 10,120’, had a few inches of snow and the air was a chilly 35 degrees, but the sky was a brilliant blue as we started the uphill climb through a series of switchbacks. As we ascended, though, the snow got deeper and deeper, and my choice of ankle-high socks and hiking shoes began to look a bit misguided as the snow rose to mid-calf with every step. Again, careful attention was necessary as we stubbed our toes and tripped on hidden logs, crossed the icy remnants of summer waterfalls, and traversed exposed areas with no branches or rocks to grab in case of a slip.

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After a little over a mile the trail split, with the Arapaho Pass Trail going off to the right and the Diamond Lake Trail turning left. Here at 10,752′, we chose to go south to the lake because the slight headache J had noticed as the hike started was getting steadily worse, and the lake path was leveling out while the Arapaho Peak trail was continuing to ascend sharply. Alas, at about the two-mile mark, we had to make the most careful (and smart) move of the day; J’s headache was now surprisingly and frighteningly bad and accompanied by some nausea, so we needed to reduce elevation quickly. Flying in from the flatlands of Illinois the night before, spending a quick evening in mile-high Denver, then attempting to trek high and fast to nearly 11,000’ the next morning proved to be a little aggressive!

This was our first time hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area, and it was a gorgeous introduction. In the summer, the waterfalls and wildflowers are apparently stunning, and there are a number of trails and campsites that branch off from various trailheads. The Fourth of July Road does not open until late May or even June due to snow cover, and it closes by mid-November, just a few weeks away now. At any time of year, the last few miles of the access road would be difficult for a passenger car, no matter the weather conditions, and any hike at this elevation requires care and preparation. Perhaps we weren’t quite careful enough in our planning this time, but we can’t wait to go back!

This post was prompted by the Weekly Photo Challenge: Careful. See other entries by clicking on the link.

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