You know the Scouts motto: Always Be Prepared. It’s something to remember for every mountain outing. Although, it took on new meaning for me last weekend while I was up ...
Although Sam and I love the mountains of Colorado, we were craving a change of pace last Saturday.
I like big buttes, and I cannot lie. So we decided to drive the quiet back roads of eastern Colorado, western Nebraska and southern Wyoming to explore the bluffs and grasslands of the high plains.
Our curiosity led us to Pawnee National Grassland, past a huge wind farm, through a herd of grunting bison, up to the highest point in Nebraska, along the Oregon Trail, to the summit of Saddle Rock, and then home again through eastern Wyoming bluff country.
We left Fort Collins around 10am and returned by 8pm. Here are the day’s shenanigans:
Map Pin B: Pawnee National Grassland
Pawnee National Grassland is full of birds, including Mountain Plovers, American Kestrels, Burrowing Owls, Long-billed Curlews and more. The U.S. Forest Service, Fort Collins Audubon and the Audubon Society of Greater Denver put together a handy Pawnee National Grassland Self-Guided Birding Tour brochure. The guide provides a good list of resident and migratory birds, a clear map and insider viewing tips. May and June are supposed to be the best times for birding here, so we used our drive as a scouting trip and moved on. I plan to tackle this three-hour, 21-mile birding tour in late spring/early summer, so watch for a future blog.
We also drove past the sizable wind farm you can barely spy from the top of Horsetooth Rock on a clear day. Every time Sam and I have climbed Horsetooth we’ve asked each other, “I wonder how far away they are?” Well, now we know – 65 miles northeast of town. Boom! They are colossal, whirring structures. Sam was smitten.
Map Pin C: Panorama Point
During our quest to find the highest point in Nebraska, we played “Count the Minuteman Missile Silos.”
Although we didn’t keep a final tally, they seemed to be everywhere. After a little Googling, we learned there used to be 200 launch sites clustered around the three-state region we were touring. Today, there are still 150 active launch sites in a 9,600-square mile area commanded by the 90th Missile Wing of the United States Air Force. A sobering thought on an otherwise carefree day.
After making multiple right turns on county roads, and getting dive-bombed by countless birds, we found the private ranch that welcomes visitors to Panorama Point.
We paid $3 per person at the gate and drove – yes DROVE – to the highest point in Nebraska (elevation 5,424 feet). Directions to Panorama Point.
But first, we used our car to gently herd some bison off the road.
Panorama Point unceremoniously emerged at the end of the relatively short drive. After checking that the coast was clear of bison, we hopped out of the car and Sam signed the guest registry.
Of course Sam and I took a “summit” selfie. We’re standing (and sitting) around the Panorama Point monument stone set in concrete in the middle of a brown bison pasture. Someone left a summit sign with the wrong elevation. (Sad trombone sound.) No matter, we had fun finding this quirky destination off the beaten path. So much so, we’re kicking around the idea of visiting the highest points in all fifty states. I guess that means I’m training for Denali, Mom.
Map Pin D: We Brake for Old Sh*t
If you’re a photographer who loves lonely windmills, faded barn wood and dust-bowl era abandoned buildings set against stark, limitless horizons, then get your keister to western Nebraska. So many cool photo ops.
Map Pin E: Scotts Bluff is the Real Deal
Next, we drove north to Gering and Scottsbluff, Nebraska, to hike the Saddle Rock Trail of Scotts Bluff. Scotts Bluff National Monument is the perfect place to binge on Mormon Trail, California Trail and Oregon Trail history. The visitor center is loaded with exhibits. You can view wagon wheel ruts just past the parking lot, and there are loads of interpretive signs and points of interest at the top of Saddle Rock.
You have the option of driving to the top, or you can hike the 3-mile RT asphalt trail that provides 435 feet of elevation gain and some pretty cool views.
This hike isn’t a slam dunk. There are plenty of possible perils on the trail, such as falling rock (they aren’t kidding … I swear the bluff erodes before your eyes), rattlesnakes in the summer, and of course THIS:
Map Pin F: Sam Screams for Ice Cream
At this point in our journey, Sam set his laser beam focus on food. We stopped at Runza, a fast-food restaurant big in Nebraska. Sam inhaled a twist cone, crinkle-cut fries and his very first gut-busting mushroom and Swiss cheese salty-beef-melty-sandwich stomach rock. In the heartland, they call it the #5. Once again, THIS:
We used to have a Runza in Fort Collins where Dunkin’ Donuts stands today. According to a map on the restaurant wall in Gering, the only Runza left in Colorado is in Loveland. NoCo, you’ve been warned.
Map Pin G: Torrington Turning Point and the Turkey Trots
Somehow Sam survived the Runzas, and we headed toward Torrington, Wyoming – our turning point home. I want to point out that along the back roads of eastern Colorado, western Nebraska and southern Wyoming, we saw an amazing amount of wildlife. Song birds, hawks, bison (not so wild, but very cool), deer and pronghorn galore, to name a few.
Along Highway 85 outside of Torrington, Sam pulled over so we could hear and watch a flock of nearly 40 wild turkeys. As we hit the road again, Sam spied a male pheasant on the other side of the highway. We smiled from ear to ear as we counted, and re-counted, all the different animals we saw in one day.
Map Pin H: “H” is for Home
We stopped just north of Cheyenne to enjoy a beautiful sunset then headed south for home. After logging 350 miles, we made it back to our front door by 8:06pm. Our biggest takeaways:
- Taking the road less traveled is a wonderful escape from the traffic and congestion of local trails, Front Range cities, and popular mountain destinations.
- The high plains are filled with wildlife and interest if we’re willing to give this area our attention.
- Our neighboring states have some cool things to explore.
- We’re eager to go birding at Pawnee National Grassland in a few months.
- As long as you have plenty of food, water and gas, it’s fun to keep your plans open when traveling rural roads. It gives you the flexibility to spontaneously stop and enjoy the good surprises that pop up along the way.
One thing that I’ve been trying to focus on is being in the moment. I used to hate this phrase. It seemed like some new age ideology, which I stubbornly try to believe that I’m not into, and it seemed to carry a sense of shame with how you regularly live your life. I don’t know – I just hated it when people would talk to me about living in the moment.
But, as I grew older and (maybe) wiser, I began to realize that I spent a lot of my mental energy on the past and the future, which would almost completely obliterated the present.
If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.
This was most certainly a trail time realization after my husband, Bill mentioned it to me, but it took sweating it out on a hike somewhere to let this sink in. That’s not to say the practice is easy, because here I am with 20/20 hindsight on my moon lit, glow stick snowshoe hike on the Gould Loop realizing that it could very well be my last snowshoe adventure for this winter. And I wonder to myself, knowing that may be the last snowshoe trip, did I enjoy every moment? Did I soak it up and appreciate it? When you’re not in the moment, it’s lost forever.
Every month I write up the Fresh Air Fort Collins Extra Mile Newsletter. It’s full of organized events to change things up on your outdoor excursions, give you some creative ideas to try outside, as well as a list of classes and seminars to help you increase your outdoor skills. I often wonder if it’s useful enough for readers. After writing up the one for February, the glowstick full moon open house at the Moose Visitor Center in State Forest State Park hosted by Colorado Parks & Wildlife sounded like a lot of fun. So, I put it into my schedule and started to rally some friends to join me.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife hosts a full moon glow stick trail event a few times during the winter at the Center. They line the Gould Loop with randomly placed glowsticks and set up a hot chocolate and cookie stop in one of the cabins that line the trail. Everyone wears glowstick bands during their snowshoeing or cross-country skiing experience. There’s also a potluck aspect to this where you can eat dinner before or after your excursion.
It’s a popular event with people returning year after year. There can be anywhere between 90 to 250 attending, but the funny thing is that it doesn’t feel like it. The organization is really loose and free. You basically show up with your potluck dish, eat whenever you want, and do as much of the trail as you want. It’s mountain whatever philosophy. I love it.
Fresh Air guest blogger Becky and I made the trek up there together, talking about our families and trail epiphanies along the 2 hour drive. We were some of the first people to get there, so we strapped on our snowshoes and hit the trail, opting to eat our potluck dinner afterward.
The trail was groomed and easy to navigate. It’s a 6.5 mile loop (that’s truthfully a tad longer) with trail signs, and it’s mostly flat with very little elevation gains. It’s easy for kids (not so much the length) or beginners. Here’s a review that Chloe wrote January 2014. My snowshoes were giving me blisters for some odd reason, so Becky let me borrow her microspikes. The trail was packed enough that you didn’t even need snowshoes. There was no postholing with crampons, as long as I stayed on the trail.
It was beautiful snowshoeing at sunset and watching the moon rise over Nokhu Crags. The moon was bright enough that we didn’t need to pull out our headlamps. The light reflected off of the snow creating a deep blue glow that made it very easy to stay on the trail. It was magical.
We’d occasionally cross paths with a few people, and then towards the end of the trail we came across a large number of groups of people starting later. I’m an antisocial hiker. I love the silence and not being obligated to chat since I do that all the time for work and family. My hikes are often an escape from everything else I do. However, it was nice to switch it up and chat with people about their trail times, how much they loved this event last year, and the countless “hello’s” as we passed. It was both friendly and fun!
And then? We finished the trail, ripped off our snowshoes, and shoveled food in our faces at the potluck. People baked homemade rolls, had hot chili and soups in crockpots, delicious salads, and desserts as far as the eye could see. IT WAS AWESOME! This was the best way to finish up 3 hours on snowshoes!
This week we did get more snow in the high country, so snowsports aren’t over yet for Colorado. The snow sticks up there until mid-May and sometimes early June. If you’re looking for something chill, you might want to consider the Gould Loop (even though glowstick hikes are over). And if your adventures are getting a little stale, check out the monthly Extra Mile Newsletter for some new ideas to freshen it up. I know I’ll be adding more to my own calendar since this event was so much fun.
And who knows – maybe it wasn’t my last snowshoe trip. With the way Colorado is, I could be doing wildflower hikes and snowshoe trips in the same week. But if it was, I certainly made the most of it!
One Way Length: 6.5 miles round trip in the loop
Beginning Elevation: 9,400 ft
Peak Elevation: 9,650 ft
We all enjoy the mountains for a variety of different reasons, but it seems that outdoor adventurists share a common trait – we see the outdoors as sanctuary. We’re out there to relax and breathe in some Fresh Air. Some of us are out there to gain perspective and work through personal challenges.
The mountains were a life saver for me last summer as I went through a bout of deep depression. There were a number of times that I’d hop in the car in the middle of the night to hang out by the river, or cancel everything on my schedule to get boots on the trail to sweat it out. For me, the mountains were my therapy.
In a recent trip to snowshoe the Gould Loop with Fresh Air guest blogger Becky (trail review to come soon), she had mentioned that she noticed a number of people climbing 14ers were processing loss – usually the death of someone near and dear to their heart.
I’ve been thinking about all of this for quite some time and wondering what it is about the outdoors that helps us process stress and overcome personal challenges.
I recently received an email about Dr. Carl Nassar, a therapist and the founder and Clinical Director of Heart Centered Counseling here in Fort Collins wanting to contribute some insight for Fresh Air Fort Collins readers. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. In addition to seeing clients in his offices, he’s a student and presenter on the topic of ecopsychology – the study of the connection between nature and our mental health. I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about ecopsychology, how we benefit from being on the mountain, and ways that we can make the most of our trail time.
Thanks to Dr. Nassar for the insight and I hope Fresh Air readers find this insight valuable.
Not many people may be familiar with the term Ecopsychology—what is it and how long has it been in clinical practice?
Ecopsychology sounds like a complex word, but actually it’s a straightforward concept. It is a methodology that recognizes the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of each person is irreversibly linked to a connection to our living planet—the Earth.
In Ecopsychology, we recognize that an individual who reclaims her connection to the natural world—to the Earth as a whole—will experience a greater aliveness and a richer vitality.
The more we experience being alive on this Earth, as a part of this natural world, the healthier we will be, and collectively, the healthier a planet we will create.
When you ask me how long Ecopsychology been around, my first response is it’s been around well before civilization existed. In fact, it was probably one of the core avenues for mental and emotional wellbeing in early human cultures.
Early on, human communities learned that their own sense of richness is enhanced by their bond with the living world all around them.
As we moved toward “civilization” and moved away from the living world, we created separation and isolation from it.
The recognition that this separation from our natural world was a part of what was hurting our psyche probably came about in the early 50s, but gained popularity in the term Ecopsychology by the early 90s.
What’s the difference between Ecopsychology and cognitive therapy when it comes de-stressing and problem solving—two of the most common mental benefits to enjoying the outdoors?
In cognitive therapy, we teach clients how to change their thoughts so that they can change the way they experience the world around them. We start within the mind and try to impact their world from there.
However, in Ecopsychology, we start with the world and let it impact our experience of ourselves. In Ecopsychology, we acknowledge that nature has its own natural rhythm, and as we connect to the sacredness in the world around us — as we connect with the world’s organic rhythms — we naturally slow down, as if entering a more mindful or more meditative state. The very act of reconnecting to the natural world around us brings us back to our own natural rhythm—a slower rhythm in tune with all of life.
From that place of reconnection, our thought patterns naturally change, because our entire sense of self and our entire pacing changes. We shift from being human doings to being human beings again. And in that way, we reclaim our sense of wellbeing in a fuller capacity.
People have been seeking refuge, finding themselves, and solidifying personal philosophies in the mountains for what seems like all time and eternity of humanity. With trendy movies like Wild, profound authors like John Muir, and outdoor enthusiasts sharing their own personal stories of adventure—what is the foundation of this common link we share?
The foundation—the common link—we all share is that we were born a part of nature. And when we come back to it, we find ourselves again.
When we find nature again, we find our natural rhythm. “Civilized” life invites us to get lost in the busyness of too many demands and too many technologies. Nature gets trampled over by pavement. And we too get bulldozed.
But just outside the city lines lives a world that moves in its own way, at its own pace. It’s a world that won’t submit, no matter civilization’s efforts.
And to walk outside the city lines, to be in nature with stars up above and the soil in our toes, we match our pace to this natural pace—a slower pace.
In the end we are moved to accept life as it is, on its own terms. And that leads us to an acceptance of ourselves for who we are. Nature brings us back to ourselves.
In the process, we discover a world of value around us, and a person of value within us.
Physical activity of any kind increases adrenaline and endorphins, thus helping people combat depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental health hurdles. How is this different in the mountains than in the gym or other non-team sport?
It’s a wonderful point to bring up. It actually breaks down the merits of going to the mountains into two very important parts. As you mentioned, physical activity in itself is wonderful, as it helps our physiology release stress stored in the body, and allows us to return to ourselves in a far more relaxed way.
However, when we hike in the mountains instead of on the treadmill, we get not only the benefit of the physiological release a body can provide on the inside, but also the spiritual release that comes from reconnecting to the natural world on the outside.
You see, reconnecting to the natural world, we stop life’s busyness for long enough to feel again. We break the isolation from the life all around us. We recognize we are never truly alone. Rather, we’re surrounded by a living world of which we are an important part.
We recognize we are a part of something beautiful—something spectacular. And, instead of striving to become, we realize that we already are.
Just as the world is already here, and does not need us to make it all over again in a new way, so too is that true of ourselves. We all already exist in a way that is enough, in a way that is worth celebrating, in a way that belongs.
What are the best practices for people mentally disconnecting from stressors while in mountains to get the most out of their break? Also, what are the best techniques someone can go through to leverage outdoor tranquility to help themselves sort through challenges?
The interesting part of the question is it’s a trick question. When you’re out in nature, the work is not to try to solve the problem, but to solve the moment.
If you’re out in nature looking to find relief from your stress, and you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to solve this problem of stress, you’ll put yourself in a difficult position. All you’ll be thinking about is the stress itself, which is the opposite of what you want to happen.
Instead, get out in the world and just solve the moment by attending to what you’re feeling right then in the present moment. Be with your feelings, allowing them to just be what they are, just as you might allow the rain, or the thunder, or the storm to just be what is. This will shift your thinking in a subtle but profound way. Instead of trying to solve the problem of what you’re feeling—your stress—solve the moment by being with what you’re feeling.
The idea of going out into nature is to be with nature, not to solve nature, not to make it better, but to be with it and come to experience it in all of its wildness and beauty and violence and magnificence.
And that’s the work for us when we go on to nature, if we want to resolve our stressors and reclaim tranquility. It’s not to fight for tranquility, but to be tranquil with whatever’s coming up.
Nature actually shows us how to do that by her very act of being, and as we connect to that by slowing down into our natural state of being, we naturally find our tranquility. This happens not through effort, but through presence.
Carl Nassar is a professional counselor and director of Heart-Centered Counseling