This Hike Close to Denver Feels Like you are Far Away

Staunton Ranch 1Colorado is blessed to have so much amazing and accessible open space. To experience a hike back East like the one I did today at Colorado’s Staunton State Park, it would take hours of driving, packing and planning. Instead I woke up early on a Saturday morning in Denver. At 7 am I googled “Good hikes near Denver”. By 8:30 I was standing on the trailhead. Nice.

The park is a short drive west of metro Denver near the town of Conifer, an cute burg nestled in Aspen Park in the foothills of the Rockies. If you are in Denver and can’t get an extended trip into the Mountains (but then why would you BE in Denver), it is a great place to feel like you have escaped.

Here is a little history from their website:

Colorado’s newest state park opened to the public on May 18, 2013. The park is located approximately 40 miles southwest of downtown Denver, north of US Highway 285 and about six miles west of Conifer. The Park sits divided between Park and Jefferson counties, in Pine, Colorado.
The first 1,720-acre parcel of land was donated to Colorado State Parks in 1986 by Frances Hornbrook Staunton. Subsequent parcels of land were added over the years to make up the now 3,828 acre park. Read more about the story of Staunton State Park at our history page.

Staunton Ranch 3

You can download a trail map here. A lot of folks hike to the scenic Elk Falls Overlook, which features a scenic 100 foot waterfall. The entire hike out and back is almost 11 miles. Being both ill-equipped (traveling without boots or pack) and seeking a little more solitude on a busy Saturday, I made a 7 mile loop using the Staunton Ranch Trail out and the Marmot Passage Trail back. It was a beautiful walk through meadows, woods and some old ranch trails. I was grateful to have used the Marmot Trail for my return because the trail was a little steep, but the return was almost entirely a decent.

This is also a great hike for kids on an even trail with open vistas along the way. Enjoy!

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Hike Kent County Maryland

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Hike Kent County Maryland

20140407-202401.jpgWhat a great time to hike Sassafras Natural Resource Area in Kent County, Maryland. Perfect place to witness springs’s arrival.

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Manassas National Battlefield


View of the Stone House from accross the battlefield

Battlefield hikes are always some of my favorite.  The open vista walks are a constant source of scenery (as opposed to the normal “wait-for-it” hike to the peak or overlook), and as a birder, the meadow habitats attract a plethora of songbirds, raptors and other wildlife.  A recent visit to Manassas National Battlefield only reinforced this appreciation.

Walking the now quiet site of two distinct and pivotal civic war battles, it is hard to imagine you are walking through the scene of such fierce fighting or that you are today only a few miles from the bustle of the Nation’s Capital.  As a generally flat landscape with trails across open meadows, through woods and along Bull Run, it is a great walk for kids and dogs that enjoy the opportunity some open space to run.

You can build a hike using many of the trails that cross the various fields, but the First Manassas Trail offers a tidy 5.4 mile loop which takes in the most iconic sites such as the Stone House and Stone Bridge. 

This is also a great morning hike to open a day of wine tasting by catching Route 66 West and stopping in at Naked Mountain Vineyard, Barrel Oak Vineyard, or other Regional Virginia Wineries

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Millington, Maryland Wildlife Management Area


A recent walk through the Millington Wildlife Management Area in eastern Kent County, Maryland reminded me of a theme of Paul Gruchow’s book “The Necessity of Empty Places” which is that there needs to be in the world, if only for inspiration, places set aside that are not designed to be occupied my man.   

 The 4000 preserved acres in this northeastern corner of Maryland’s Easter Shore unintentionally fits that purpose.  While a wonderful mix of preserved hardwood forests, pine groves, wetlands and managed fallow farm fields, the acreage is not completely contiguous, trails are poorly marked and mapped, and invitations of public access are nearly non-existent.  In fact, armed with the website overview and a printed web-based map, following trails and finding the access points can be a challenging exercise. 

 Of course, this also means that your odds of running into another hiker are rare and your opportunities to stumble upon wildlife are very good.  On my recent walk I enjoyed seeing deer, turkey, rabbits, and a plethora of birds.  I was able to enjoy several short walks through woods and meadows, although not one seemed to match the map I had printed that morning. 

 Where I live 20 minutes down the road it is still considered quite rural.  But as I hear plans of new housing developments, convenience stores and other nearby “improvements” upon the land, it is nice to know that there will always be 4000 poorly marked, hardly used and permanently “empty” acres.  

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Halloween Hiking in Maryland

ImageImageIf you are not much into the haunted hayride scene but think it would be fun to inject a little creepy into a Halloween hike, consider a visit to the section of the Appalachian Trail that passes through Burkittsville, Maryland – the setting for the movie The Blair Witch Project.  While I am not aware of any organized activities in the area, a few local folks have nonetheless taken the time to maintain year-round a few of the outdoor scenes from that movie in the woods around this section of trail, including those piles of rocks that the characters discovered outside their tent, and a few creepy stick figures in the trees.  They are set back from the trail which makes them all the more startling and “realistic” when you do notice them – not too far from the Gathland State Park parking lot on the Southbound section of the trail. 

For a little pre-hike prep, stick your head in the open, unoccupied tomb of George Alfred Townsend (nicknamed “Gath”)  – at the parking lot near the trail head.  And when you are up there, remember not to let your friends carry the map.

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Don’t Share this Post

The River access at Cool Spring.

The River access at Cool Spring.

“You should not blog about this trail” my wife said to me as we came upon the overlook. We had been walking along the trail for an hour enjoying open views of the Shenandoah River, the Blue Ridge Mountains and of a multitude of songbirds and raptors in overgrown meadows without passing another soul. When we came to the high point where we could look back west over the patchwork of farms dotting the Shenandoah valley to the Allegheny Mountains in the distance, it almost sealed the deal – we can’t tell anyone about this place.

The irony is that most people know its here and on the weekend it used to be packed – but now it’s been virtually left to the birds that inhabit it, including an impressive array of hawks, songbirds, eagles, herons, kingfishers, woodpeckers and waterfowl that enjoy a uncommon network of overgrown meadows – a rarity among lands that have either been farmed, developed or forested since the civil war.

The hike is on a paved path and can take several hours at a leisurely pace. It is ideal for kids and for folks who cannot manage a more physically challenging dirt trail. It is almost entirely open, with views of the surrounding river and hills. There are even a few places with easy access to the River – a feature nearly unheard of in this part of Virginia.

So despite my desire to protect the identity of this amazing resource and frankly to indulge in a walk without seeing to many of my own species, I should respect the spirit of the owner of this property when they decided to make it publicly accessible in what I consider an act of monumental generosity.

Folks in the area may know this place as the Virginia National Golf Course, a beautiful course along the Shenandoah River near Berryville, VA that went out of business several years ago. Enter Shenandoah University who bought the property as part of the establishment of an environmental and historic studies program and then put it in a permanent conservation easement which includes managed public access.

Until a more permanent management plan is adopted through SU’s work with several local conservation and environmental groups, the course has been allowed to slowly revert back to nature while the paved cart path remains. This has created an exceptionally beautiful and open series of meadows along the Shenandoah River which act as a bird magnet. Within a year, the University expects to have a management plan as well as interpretive signs for both the ecological features as well as the important history of the property as a civil war battle field that saw action during the battle of Cool Spring.

But for now, this property is simply one of the prettiest walks in the region and amazingly, free and open to the public. To find the “trailhead” look for the Shenandoah University sign at the Northeast corner of the intersection of VA Route 7 and the Shenandoah River, about 25 minutes west of Leesburg. Take the gravel entrance road to the end where you will find a parking lot in the middle of the old golf course. The trail goes either way from there along the river in a rough figure 8 with the parking lot in the center.
And if you run into someone who works there, don’t forget to thank them and Shenandoah University for their generosity in sharing this great resource with the public.

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State Birds – A Revision

Think many of the official state birds are stupid or boring? If so (or even if you don’t care), this is kind of funny:

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An Apology

This was not originally intended as a blog post, but as a few final words I wrote during a recent hike up to the top of Sourdough Mountain in North Cascades National Park. Once I unexpectedly collected myself and was able to walk back down the trail, I thought I would share the sentiment anyhow. I would have liked to have added an epilogue about how, in the end, the summit was beautiful and worth the hike but I never actually made it so really don’t know. All I can do is share the link I used which lured me to the most steep and painful 9 miles I have ever walked from a trailhead in the aptly named town of El Diablo, which in Spanish means “The Devil.”

To Whom It May Concern,

As I sit here waiting for my heart to explode and end the pain in my legs, head and chest, I find myself feeling bad about my recent thoughts as I trudged 4.5 miles up (only up, always up) Sourdough Mountain Trail. I’m not sure who will find this note, but I simply wanted to ask for the universe’s forgiveness. So…

To the author of the trail guide who described this trail as “the most difficult” trail in a park of steep mountain hikes to a rewarding summit “for those able to make it”, I apologize for originally thinking you a “Drama Queen” as I sat by the hotel pool last night trying to select a hike for today.

To that author’s 9th grade English teach, I apologize for scorning your failure to teach the judicious use of superlatives like “unrelenting”, “strenuous”, “challenging” and “difficult” when I was reading your former student’s work. Turns out you did a good job with him.

To the creator of the trail itself, I apologize for calling you those things. I’m sure you were a fine person and probably did not actually take pleasure in seeing people in pain.

To the two young guys who sprinted off ahead of me while I was still trying to get my boots tied, I do not really hope you were eaten by a bear. I can’t be sure since I never really saw you again because you apparently never needed to rest, but I hope you are both okay. And I’m sure your mother is none of those terrible things I called her in my head.

And finally to my daughter who was with me and actually chose the trail. I’m no longer convinced you were trying to kill me, and I’m glad you didn’t have to hike down by yourself and explain to the rental car company what happened to the primary driver on the contract. In the end, the experience provided a lot of laughs. But I can’t think about that until it no longer hurts to laugh.


If you want to see for yourself:

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Narrows of Harpeth Hike in Middle Tennessee



One of the funniest outdoor experiences I have ever had was at the beginning of a Colorado River float in Radium, Colorado.  My family was loading into a raft with a guide and another family when the guy from the other group asked the guide “So, do we end up in the same place when we finish?”  The guide, who had likely heard everything, was gracious and explained that it’s about impossible to float down a river and end up where you started.  To this day my kids still laugh at the question and will ask me the same thing every time we launch a raft or tube.

So that was the first thing that popped into my mind when I arrived for a hike at the Narrows of Harpeth State Park outside of Nashville, Tennessee.  The area is named for a long bend in the Harpeth River the passes along tall cliffs.  But I was surprised to learn that the 5 mile long “bend” in the river results in the river passing within 200 feet of itself – making it an ideal place to park and launch a canoe because at the end of the 5 mile run, you nearly “end up at the same place when you finish.”

We didn’t canoe on our visit but we did hike the network of spur trails to a spectacular overlook and down to a close up look at a carved tunnel that provides a short cut for the river designed to power Montgomery Bell’s iron forge in the 1800’s.  It’s a beautiful place for a relatively short hike (2.1 miles in all) close to the city – and the perfect length if your hiking ambition had to be downsized from spending a little too long in the Honky Tonk bars on Broadway the night before.

I couldn’t do a better job of describing the trails than an existing blog that I used, so I will simply provide a link here.

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