24: White Ranch
Visibility is becoming worse and worse as I attempt to negotiate the curves of this winding two-lane mountain road. I downshift into second gear and peer intently through the fog and swirling snow, trying to discern the contours of the road ahead.
This morning I woke up to a particular restlessness. The last time I spent a night in the woods was back in November and I could tell it was time to get out again. White Ranch is a very popular destination for Front Range mountain bikers in the warmer months of the year. In the past, I’ve dismissed it as not being “wild enough” to justify spending a night out. But recently I read a blog post by TGO magazine’s Chris Townsend which has led me to reevaluate my idea of what is wild. If mountain lions and bears have found a home at White Ranch, who am I to say that it’s not wild enough? I check the forecast; a storm is moving through tonight. That gives it just the edge that I’m looking for. The decision is made; I’m going.
Back on the mountain road, the fog lifts a little and I’m able to drive the final few miles to the trailhead. There my heart sinks for a second as two white passenger vans appear in the mist. An organized group is here tonight. I sign up for the campsite farthest from the group and try to find a permit. Finding none, I drive to the upper trailhead.
Permitless, I shoulder my pack and cross the road to the trailhead. A Jefferson County Open Space truck comes down the road and I flag it down. I explain to the ranger about the permit. He hands me one saying that he didn’t put them out because he didn’t expect anyone to be camping on a night like this. I say neither did I, and that’s why I’m here. We both laugh and talk and I learn that the large group is composed of Outward Bound instructors who are receiving training here. The ranger wishes me a good night and I hike up into the storm. There is good snow cover on this north facing slope and I notice a couple of sets of cross-country ski tracks. The trail reaches a crest and I hike down the partially bare southern slope.
About the gear: I prefer using unlined trail runners year round. For this trip, I’m wearing wool socks, Gortex socks, oversized trail runners, and neoprene overbooties. The overbooties may be overkill on this trip since it’s cold enough that the snow is mostly dry. For traction, I’m using Kahtoola MICROspikes.
At one point, I feel that I’m being watched. I look to my left and there’s a mule deer keeping an eye on me from the shelter of a ponderosa pine. Beside her is another doe curled up like a dog beside the tree. Soon I pass the Outward Bound camp– a couple of large dome tents and a low slung tarp. Farther down the trail, I see a small campfire glowing yellow and orange through the mist. I find my campsite and set up shelter under the spreading branches of a ponderosa pine.
As I cook dinner alone in the cold and the dark, a feeling of delight and deep contentment comes over me. It’s not rational but I’ve learned not to question it. It’s one of the reasons I keep returning to wild places month after month, year after year.
After dinner, I go for a hike to warm up. Turning off my headlamp, I enjoy walking through the storm in the dark, the snow being just bright enough that I can follow the trail. Back at camp, I fall asleep listening to the hypnotic sound of snowflakes hitting my shelter, gathering in clumps, and sliding down the steep sides.
About the gear: The headlamp used on this trip is a Princeton Tec EOS. During the warmer months, I prefer something lighter, but during long winter nights I appreciate the power and burn time of this headlamp.
I awaken to a gray dawn. Looking out my shelter, I notice that frost and snow have transformed the landscape. I grab my camera and go outside.
Shangri-La 2 under ponderosa pine
About the gear: The Golite Shangri-La 2 continues to be a delight. This shelter has the easiest set up of any that I’ve tried. You just stake it down flat and tension the roof with two adjustable trekking poles. I also like the way that snow slides off the steep walls.
While I’m photographing the trees, a man with a volunteer ranger uniform and a name tag that says “Eric” walks up. He says that he saw me hike in around dinner time last night and I mention that I noticed his campfire. Eric is an experienced outdoorsman who has been at it since the seventies. We talk about animals, destinations, and gear. The red TNF tent he’s using on this trip is one he’s had since he got started. It turns out that we both are partial to these lower altitude open ponderosa forests.
Walking on, I continue to explore the landscape.
After breakfast, the cloud cover starts to break up and blue sky peeks through.
About the gear: On top, I’m wearing a lightweight poly/merino base layer, Polartec 100 pullover, hooded windshirt, and a synthetic hooded insulated jacket. On the bottom, a lightweight poly base layer, Polartec 100 pants, and REI Sahara pants. The fleece pants and insulated jacket are too warm to wear while moving but provide needed insulation while stationary at camp. No traditional shell layer is needed on this trip since it’s cold enough that all precipitation is in the form of snow. The hat is a simple Polartec 200 toque. On my hands are Manzella 4-way stretch gloves that are form-fitting enough that I can wear them while operating the controls on my camera. Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain High gaiters close the gap between my footwear and my pants. The insulated jacket is a Golite Coal which is still one of my favorite articles of clothing after years of use. I really like the butt-covering length, the hand-warmer pockets and the removable insulated hood.
I arrive back at the trailhead just past 11:00 PM. A Jefferson County truck pulls up. It’s the ranger I met last evening. We talk for a while. In parting he says, “Come back often.” I tell him I plan to, at least in the off-season. And I mean it. These 24- hour outings are becoming addictive.