Independence Trek

For the 4th of July this year, we decided to celebrate by doing a little 13 mile hike.  Ya know, nothing big – just a tiny little outing to get into the mountains and enjoy some nice weather before hunkering down with barbecue, beer, & fireworks later in the day.

Our destination was – as it often is – Rocky Mountain National Park.  (We’re fortunate enough to live only an hour away from the park, so why not use it!?)  We went a little further north on the east side of the park than we normally do for a change of pace, and in hopes of avoiding some of the summer holiday weekend crowds.  The destination: Lawn Lake.

The trail was long, but thankfully not very steep.  This was probably my first hike up there in years – if not ever – where I felt like I could keep a really swift pace without getting winded.  (If nothing else, it made me feel like all of the working out to build up my cardio over the last year or two is finally working.)

The hike itself was pretty and took us up along a mountain stream with some seriously steep drop-offs due to erosion, through some forests, and finally up towards treeline.  We got up to the lake around mid-morning and it was gorgeous!

Summertime Lakeside Snowcaps
Summertime Lakeside Snowcaps
Windy Reflection
Windy Reflection

As is our usual routine, we hung out on the shore of the lake and had our lunch while taking in the views.  We stayed at the lake for almost an hour walking around and exploring more of the area before having to turn around and head back.  We could’ve easily spent more time up there, but with summer storms bound to start building, a dog who’d like to see us before too long, and the 4th of July barbecue goodness and fireworks to be had, it was time to go.

Now that we know how easy that trail is and how we can make good time the entire way, that opens up a lot of possibilities for taking time for pictures and exploring the entire way without my shutterbug-ness slowing us down too much.  This is one hike we’ll definitely be doing again.

-JC

Pointing Home

Remembering HomeWe came across this batch of signs in the little town of Lyons about 20 minutes away from our home while we were strolling around the town one night before dinner.  It immediately reminded me of the signs you’d see at the camps in war movies (or in my case, M*A*S*H reruns) that said how far away everyone’s hometowns were.

What caught my eye here wasn’t just the signs themselves – which were right up my alley – it was the list of towns up there.  It was quite an eclectic mix.  What made me laugh was finding 2 signs up there that pointed to towns only an hour or two from where I grew up (and where most of my family still lives).  Now, whenever I see these signs, I’ll always know just about how far away I am from where I grew up and can think about – and appreciate! – the crazy journey it’s been.

-JC

Unholy Hot Getaway

One of the big things that happened to us over the summer was my husband taking a new job where he gets to build parks and trails and preserve open space (lucky!).  With his vacation allotment about to reset to zero, we took advantage of his little bit of time off between jobs to scoot out of town for a long weekend. Getting away was especially important because other than our long-planned trip to Great Sand Dunes NP, we weren’t sure when we’d be able to get away again.

Since this trip was a last-minute thought, our options for where to go were a little limited because every mountain town’s hotels were fully booked or just insanely expensive.  Eventually, we zeroed in on heading to Grand Junction about a 5 hour drive away from our home so we could see some decidedly different scenery.

We’d only been to Grand Junction once before about 5 or 6 years ago as part of one of our big vacations.  We didn’t spend much time in the town then because we were camping at nearby Colorado National Monument, but we’d heard good things about the town since that trip.  We’re always up for going to new places, so why not check it out?

As departure day got closer, the weekend weather forecast kept getting hotter and hotter.  We were in the middle of a big heat wave in the Denver area, but that was nothing compared to Grand Junction.  Grand Junction is normally hot because it’s lower and flatter and closer to the deserts of Utah, but it’s not usually 105+ degrees every day of a weekend.  (Yowza!)  Knowing the heat would be brutal, we packed up, sucked it up, and got the hell out of town.

Grand Junction itself was pretty cool.  The downtown area was cute with some good shops and a few restaurants.  Just a good general place to hang.  There’s plenty of outdoorsy things to do outside of the city limits, and one of the most well-known attractions is Colorado National Monument.  Even with the ungodly heat, that was where we were going hike at some point in the weekend.  So long as we got an early morning start, it wouldn’t be so bad, right?

Up before dawn and on our way, we picked the Monument Canyon trail that takes you out to the Independence Monument rock formation.  We hiked part of this trail before on our previous trip, but this time we decided to do the same trail again and go a little further out because we had a lot of fun the first time around.

Very quickly we were reminded of how different canyon hiking is from mountain hiking.  With mountain hiking, you start your day climbing uphill and finish it coming downhill with little or no flat spots in between.  Canyon hiking is the exact opposite.  You start at the canyon rim, descend (sometimes rapidly) to the canyon floor, trudge through the flat for a ways, then climb out at the end of your day when you’re dog tired.  In a lot of desert canyons, the floor doesn’t have a lot of trees or shade, so it gets hot – and fast.  By 8am it was already pretty toasty and we were barely an hour into our hike.

Red Hot Day Dawning
Red Hot Day Dawning

Once you reach the canyon floor, it’s fun watching the little details of rock formations, desert plants, and even some critters.  Ecologically it’s so different from the areas we hike in around our home that it’s visually and mentally refreshing in a lot of ways.  We got lucky on this day and even bumped into a nice-sized collared lizard along the trail.  (This guy was colorful and much bigger than the little lizards zipping around all day.)

After a while, we turned around a bend and could finally see our destination – Independence Monument.  (The Kissing Couple formation is just to the left of center in the picture below, with the shorter Independence Monument just to the right of center a little further back in the distance.)

The Destination
The Destination

As I took this picture, here’s a snippet of the conversation I had with myself in my head:

Is it seriously that far away?  Can’t be.

… Damn, it’s hot. …

Really?  It’s still that far away?  We’ve already gone a few miles, so how is that possible?

…. Dear Lord, I think my boots may melt today if we’re not done by noon. …

But if I do this, that justifies having beer and bad-for-me food when we get back to town!  Hmmm…

… Holy hell – this is getting seriously hot.  Can I manage to keep my yap shut about the heat all day to get to the beer and fried food?  I think I can. …

(It’s truly amazing what you can motivate yourself to do by rationalization or visualization.  For me, both rationalization and visualization usually involve food.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mentally pushed myself through a workout I didn’t want to do in the first place by bargaining with myself using pizza & beer on a Friday night as a bargaining chip!  But I digress…)

We did get to Independence Monument and it was really cool.  I think enough of my brain cells had melted by then that I forgot to get a picture of the rock up close.  Oh well!

Once we got back to our car, we spent the weekend operating like most Southerners do during their sticky, humid summers – dashing between air-conditioned cars and buildings as much as possible.  (Lucky for us we just had the heat to deal with – not that icky humidity added onto the heat!)

In the end, we had a good hike and a fun trip in spite of the wickedly hot weather.  We also zeroed in on where we want to hang out the next time we’re out that way, so maybe it’ll be less than 6 years between trips to Grand Junction this time.

-JC

Mountaintop Beer

And now, we time warp all the way to summer with the shots hiding on my phone – our hike up Twin Sisters in Rocky Mountain National Park.

We had a really grand plan for the day.  Left Hand is one of our favorite breweries in our town.  They make a special Double IPA beer called Twin Sisters that comes out only every other year.  When we moved in 2013, we just missed this beer, so this year was the first chance we got to have it and it’s awesome!  One night – probably after a serving of Twin Sisters – we decided we should grab a bottle of the beer and take it up Twin Sisters with us and toast with the beer on its namesakes.  Bottle purchased, plastic cups packed, and off we went a week or two later.

The hike wasn’t particularly long, but it was tough because it was really steep in some sections.  One extra complication was damage from the floods of 2013.  A massive landslide took out a good chunk of the trail about 1/3 of the way up, so hikers have to pick their way through the debris field as best as we can to safely get across the chute.  Looking down into the valley floor below, you can see how far the destruction went when the mountainside came loose.  (There were still a few hundred feet – if not more! – of slide behind us when I took the picture on the left that looks west.  You can see the full magnitude of the slide in the picture on the right in a shot I grabbed a few days ago while we were hiking up to Chasm Lake, looking back towards Twin Sisters. )

Once we got through the mudslide area, it was hiking as normal – including racing the weather rolling in for the early afternoon.  As we were getting near one of the peaks, we also saw a ranger pop up on the trail on some sort of patrol.  Dang it!  Beer on the trails in national parks are kind of a no-no, so we had to be watchful and respectful.  Between the weather and the ranger, our plan was definitely in jeopardy.

As we reached the first peak, things were starting to look good on the ranger front.  As in, the ranger was nowhere to be found!  So we went about finding a place to settle in, away from the wind and the trail, and had ourselves some lunch.  Storm clouds were close enough that we weren’t going to be able to summit the other peak, but no matter because we had one hell of a view!

Rocky Mountain National Park from Twin Sisters
Rocky Mountain National Park from Twin Sisters

After lunch, it was beer time.  As I was literally unzipping my pack to pull out the bottle (and yes, our plan was to be discreet), the ranger magically popped up again and foiled our plans.  We didn’t want to take any chances as the weather was starting to build, so we couldn’t wait him out and decided to head back down to the trailhead.  Before we did, I at least got proof in a picture that I hauled the bottle up there with the best of intent.

Twin Sisters on Twin Sisters
Twin Sisters on Twin Sisters

Once we got back to the house, we cracked that bottle open and enjoyed it.  Just too bad we couldn’t have it at the peak like we had hoped!  Maybe in 2 years we can try again when Twin Sisters is back, and have a little better luck next time.

-JC

A Bit of Snowshoeing

Moving right along with the clean-up of the shots piled up on my phone, that brings us up to Christmas 2015 and some shots from a snowshoeing adventure up in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Snowshoeing is something I never tried until we moved to Colorado a couple of years ago.  My husband took me out with a guide to try it out and I immediately fell in love!  It wasn’t long after that trip that I suddenly owned my own pair of snowshoes.  Just too bad it was the end of the season and I only got to use them once!

This past winter was going to be my chance to dive in and really break in my new snowshoes and hang out in the snow.  Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate.  Most weekdays – while we were stuck at work for our “day jobs” – the weather was awesome.  Fresh snow, little wind, decent temperatures.  The weekends were another issue all together… storms rolling through, bringing with them lots of wind, biting windchills, and gobs of snow making navigating our way to and through the Park a little tricky.  Figures, right?

So yes, we were a tad wimpy when it came to wanting to avoid the wind and the travel headaches.  That meant we didn’t get out nearly as much as we had hoped.  The first time weather and time off lined up was just 2 days after Christmas – with fresh snow and “little” wind t’boot!

We chose to snowshoe up part of the Flattop Mountain trail at Rocky Mountain National Park because we know the trail, there’s plenty to see, and the lower parts of it are pretty sheltered by trees.  (We live only an hour from the Park, so that’s usually our go-to for snowshoeing because it keeps us out of miserable winter skiing traffic heading into the high country out west and gives us more time to play.)

With the snow that had fallen the day before, it was a winter wonderland.  Amazingly picturesque no matter which direction you looked.  The only complication was the wind picking up (not in the forecast… typical mountain weather!) and we were “bombed” by clumps of snow being tossed off of the pines.  No matter – it’s dry and fluffy snow, so it wasn’t like being pelted with chunks of wet, packed, ice-laden snow like we often get back on the East Coast.

The Trail Ahead
The Trail Ahead

We tooled around in the woods for a few hours, working up quite a sweat and an appetite.  (Showshoeing is an excellent workout, said to burn around 1200 calories an hour!)  We went a couple of miles up the trail until we found a nice sheltered spot in the woods an plunked ourselves down in the snow for a spot of lunch before heading back down.  I simply love being out in the snow, and I think my husband captured my utter glee quite well…

Me in Snowshoeing Glee
Me in Snowshoeing Glee

Once we got ourselves back down to Bear Lake, we popped out into one of the openings along the shoreline to check out the view.  It’s always so gorgeous at Bear Lake – unless the clouds move in and hide the mountains, of course!  That wasn’t the case for us that day.  It was quite spectacular and we quickly saw that we made the right decision to turn around when we did because the wind was only getting worse up high.

Windy Bear Lake Winter
Windy Bear Lake Winter

(That’s not clouds coming in over the mountains – that’s wind-driven snow being blown uphill and over the peaks from the western slopes!)

It’s only October now, but we’re already getting our hopes high and committing to getting out more this winter.  It may seem odd to be thinking about snow during the fall, but up at the higher elevations, it’s already snowing a little and winter will be going full-force within a month.  With a good storm or two, who knows?  Maybe we can break out the snowshoes again sooner than we thought!  (Fingers crossed!)

-JC

Chowdah-ry Goodness

Last night was the night – Hop Chowdah was released to the world!  Well, maybe not the world, but at least Longmont, CO and its surrounding towns.

We weren’t able to get over to the Oskar Blues taproom right at the tapping because of our jobs – boo office work! – but we hauled our behinds over there as soon as we could.

Walking in, it was a really cool feeling to see something you had a hand in making up on the specials board, especially at a place like Oskar Blues that’s so well-known in the beer world.  (Not to mention, at a brewery whose stuff we’ve enjoyed for so many years, even when we lived in PA!)

Chowdah is Special
Chowdah is Special

Juice – the brewer who guided this whole thing – told us ahead of time that the beer turned out really well.  But until we got that first sip, we wondered.  Once we got our hands on that pint – oh wow!  He was totally right!

Glorious Hop Chowdah
Glorious Hop Chowdah

The beer had a gorgeous caramel color and a ton of hops in the nose.  Once you got a sip, you started smelling and tasting the aromatic hops.  Then it mellowed in the middle before giving you a slap of bitterness at the end.  Thankfully, that slap of bittering hops was the good kind that comes from a strong American-style IPA (which is a style we adore).

Hop Chowdah came in at a hefty 8.5% ABV, so it’s pretty strong.  Since we live just far enough from the taproom that we had to drive, we had to be responsible and keep our Chowdah servings at one each.  That just means we’ll have to go back this weekend and enjoy a leisurely afternoon at the Tasty Weasel.  (Having too-hot-for-October weather in the forecast could be the perfect excuse to do that… as if we needed an excuse!)

We’ve gotta say thanks again to Juice and CAN’dAID for this awesome experience.  We’d do it again in a heartbeat because we had so much fun (and the final product is excellent!).

-JC

PS – There seems to be an unspoken debate on how to spell “Chowdah”.  Notice how the taproom spelled it on the board without the H at the end.  In talking with Juice and his family, we all agreed that the beer’s name has got to be spelled “Chowdah” to really dive home the Boston accent-ness of it all.  Since we’re all from the East Coast and we made the beer, that’s how we’re gonna spell it…

 

Making Some Hop Chowdah with Oskar Blues

We interrupt our posts about the goodies I found while cleaning out my iPhone for an important post about… a special beer we helped make at Oskar Blues!  Grab your nearest beverage of choice and settle in for the back story behind this beer that comes out on Thursday (October 8th)!

Earlier this summer, my husband and I attended a fundraising concert for Oskar Blues’ charitable foundation called CAN’d AID.  A silent auction was held that night that included the chance to spend a day making beer with the head brewer at Oskar Blues’ brewery in Lyons, CO.  I’d never bid in a silent auction before, but I knew it was something my husband would love to do and the money would go to an awesome cause.  Fortunately, the bids were reasonable, so I went for it to surprise him!  By the end of the night, I won the auction!!

About a month later, we finally got away from our “day jobs” and spent a day making beer.  While we were making arrangements, Juice – the brew master – asked about my husband’s beer preferences.  I told him he drinks a ton of different styles of beer, but his go-to is IPA’s… and the hoppier the better!  He’s not one that’s scared away by a big beer in terms of hops or strength either.  Juice immediately said that’s something we could work with, and I sensed over the email that his mind was already racing with possibilities of what we could make.

When we arrived at the brew house in Lyons, Juice outlined his idea for the beer – using hops throughout the entire brewing process and making a big, bold, high alcohol bad ass of an IPA.  That certainly sounded like a good plan to us!  He had a plethora (one of my favorite words in the English language, by the way) of hops to choose from, so we could shoot to balance the bitterness from some varieties with the citrus and floral tones of others to make something that’s really balanced, drinkable, and simply smacks you in the face with hops (in a good way!).  He also mentioned that we’d have to name the beer, so to start thinking about it as we worked through the day.  It’s always good to have something for the bored monkey in our minds to chew on in the background as we focus on the important matters at hand – making beer!

First up – creating the mash.  Having only homebrew experience ourselves, it was so much fun to play with the big boy toys like the pumps and hoses and the massive amounts of ingredients that go into a 20-barrel batch.  (At home, we brew a whopping 2 cases at a time.)  We got to see the pumps and hoses get to work right away sucking up the grains, mixing them with some water, and plopping this oatmeal-like mix into the mash tun.  As the 400 lbs. of malt slowly worked its way into the tun, we got to work on the 1st hops addition.

Getting the hops meant a trip to the walk-in refrigerator.  This walk-in is a beer lover’s behind-the-scenes playground with all kinds of ingredients, brews aging in barrels, and an array of little special trial batches of beers for tasting.  Once we regained focus, we emerged from the walk-in with a big bunch of Galena hops.  Our job was to take the massive brick pouch of dried hops, break up the clumps, and start releasing all of their hoppy oil goodness by rubbing the leaves and cones between our hands before tossing them into the mash tun.  Hops in their natural state don’t weigh too much, so by the time we put in I-can’t-remember-how-many-pounds of the hops, things were smelling pretty good (even though it looked like a big bowl of leafy, steel-cut oatmeal)!

Once all of the grains and hops were in the mash tun, it was time to just stir and cook the mix – possibly one of the easier parts of the brewing process, especially when you have a pro there to monitor temperature and do the big thinking work.  The mash cooked for about an hour, so that gave us plenty of time to ask more questions, see some cool behind the scenes stuff at the brewery, sample some fresh beers straight out of the tanks, and attempt to stay out of Juice’s way as he kept things running smoothly and – perhaps more importantly – do a bunch of beer math to make sure we were making something drinkable.

Next up was transferring the wort over to the brew kettle.  Our timid little beer was about to grow-up big time, but it already smelled really good.

During the boil, I lost track of how many different hop varieties were used and all of the differently timed additions.  (This is why Juice gets paid the big bucks – he was writing everything down!)  Going on memory alone, there were at least 3 different hop additions that included some from Australia.  We even added a touch of some new hop extract that’s just straight-up, intensely bitter hop goodness to top things off!  With everything we added, Juice calculated that the finished beer may have an IBU as high as 153!  (For reference for the beer geeks out there, Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA is 90 IBU’s.)

Hopping the Brew
Hopping the Brew
In between all of the hop additions, we were pressed into clean-up duty.  After all, somebody’s gotta clean out the 400+ pounds of wet grain and hops from the mash tun so it’s ready to go for the next beer.  On this day, those grunts were us.  Compared to our “day jobs”, this was still fun.

Two things to note here:

  1. Everything we scooped out of the tun was heading to a local farm to feed animals.  (Yay recycling!)
  2. We were closely “supervised” by Juice and Tim in the background as we scooped out the spent grains.

I think it was during this rather mindless chore that we came up with and settled on the name for our beer – Hop Chowdah.  Just looking at the mash as we transferred the wort over to the brew kettle, it all just looked like a semi-creamy soup.  Add to that the fact that Juice is originally from Maine and wearing his Red Sox hat, “chowder” came to mind – to which we all immediately dropped the ‘r’ to make it Boston-sounding (even though Juice doesn’t have that accent).  We tested the name on a few folks as they popped by the brew house and they liked it too.  So, Hop Chowdah was born!

As the boil was finishing up, we all grabbed a bite to eat and wrapped up our day.  “All” that was left to do for the day was pitching the yeast and getting the brew over to the fermentation tanks so those lovely little yeasties could do their thing over the next few weeks while we (tried to) wait patiently.  Regardless of the results, we had a blast the entire day – totally worth it for the experience.  The cherry on top is that the money we contributed via the auction went to a really good cause, t’boot!

So that brings us back to today… Almost 6 weeks have gone by since we brewed the beer, and now it’s almost time to unleash our hop beast on the world!  Juice told us it came out great.  (I believe his description of the final product was something along the lines of a big, strong, bad ass beer.)

On Thursday, October 8th at 4pm the first keg will be tapped at Oskar Blues’ Tasty Weasel taproom in Longmont, CO and we’ll see for ourselves how it turned out.  Until then, we’ll sit tight, feeling like little kids waiting for Christmas morning to arrive!  (In some ways it is exactly that, just an “adult beer geek” Christmas kind of morning.)

So, stay tuned to see if we met our goal of making a hoppy beast of a beer!!

-JC

PS – I’ve gotta say – yet again – a big thank you to Juice for having us over to brew together for the day… especially since he was totally cool with my taking pictures along the way!!

Update:  Looks like we’ve finally settled on spelling chowder as “Chowdah”.  This post is now lined up with that. 

 

Remains of a Hotel & an iPhone

A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through the pictures on my phone and, wow!  I couldn’t believe how many pictures I had on there from different trips and hikes that I hadn’t downloaded or done something with!  Once again, the slacker bug had – apparently – bitten me and I hadn’t realized it. (Sigh)

After I caught up with my post processing work from our Great Sand Dunes trip, I dug into the phone.  Turns out I had some good stuff on there.  The bonus is that it’d be good fodder for some new blog posts, this one being the first of several to come over the next few weeks.  (I love a 2-for-1!!)

The oldest shots I found were from a Thanksgiving weekend hike we took in Eldorado Canyon State Park outside of Boulder, CO last year.  (Yes, I had pictures languishing on my phone from that long ago!)

Eldorado Canyon is most well-known around the rock climbing world because there’s so many fabulous places to climb.  Very often, you’ll find packed trail heads early in the morning, hear the jangle of carabiners as the climbers hike the trails along with you, and see folks scaling the canyon walls.  While fall and winter typically bring really nice weather to Colorado, it’s usually just cold or windy enough to keep the crowds down a little from the height of summer.  For us, that means it’s the perfect time to go!

We were looking for a moderate hike to burn off our duck-instead-of-turkey twist on Thanksgiving dinner a few days prior, so we picked the Rattlesnake Gulch trail.  That trail had an extra added bonus – the remains of an old hotel that mysteriously burned to the ground in the early 1900s.

** Warning: History Ahead **

The Crags Hotel opened for business in 1908.  Located about 800 feet above the canyon floor, it (likely) had great views of the surrounding canyons, all the way down to the creek below.  It even had a funicular (a cog-railway-like tramcar) that ran from the hotel down to the creek at the canyon floor.  The hotel was destroyed in what’s been considered a mysterious fire in 1912.  Only fragments of the hotel remains today, with the largest parts being the old kitchen open fire oven and a few other small pieces of the foundation.  The area has been designated as a historic site within the park, open to any hikers who wish to wander through and check it out.

** History over… onto pictures! **

I wasn’t sure what we’d find when we got up there.  With so little of the hotel left, it would’ve been pretty easy to walk by and not notice.  The largest chunk of the hotel remaining was that kitchen oven (as advertised).  But what really caught my eye though was a large chunk of the foundation or the base of a fireplace that was littered with old timbers and pieces of glass and plates.  Add to that some awesome light hitting it at the time, and you know where my eye went when I whipped out the phone…

Crags Hotel Remains
Crags Hotel Remains
Glass & Nails
Glass & Nails

Walking around the site, I could only imagine how cool this place would’ve been for visitors in the early 1900s.  High enough that it was probably cooler than out on the Plains, with the added fun of a tramcar ride down to the crisp waters of Boulder Creek.  And the views… can’t forget the views!

The Cold Front is Coming
The Cold Front is Coming

(Admittedly, this shot was taken a little further up the trail, but it gives you an idea of how pretty it is near the Crags Hotel site.)

If you look closely in the scenery above, the clouds were coming in quickly from the east across the Plains as a cold front backed its way down through the area.  As is usually the case in Colorado when you’re hiking, we were in a bit of a race with the weather, but we managed to finish our entire hike just as the wind came howling through the canyon and the temperature dropped something like 20 degrees in an hour.  Definitely time to go home and warm up!

So there you have it – the first blog entry from the “remains” of photos on my iPhone.  I’ll be whipping up some more posts in the weeks to come as I finish wading through another photography backlog that I somehow accidentally created for myself.  (Some day I swear I’ll catch up!!)

 

-JC