Although my husband had already been out into the mountains a few times for some early-season skiing, long periods of warm temps near Boulder and little snowfall had us itching for a nearby canyon hike one day in early January.
Our go-to destinations for quick access to local canyon hikes usually have us heading to Eldorado Canyon State Park or Skunk Canyon in Chautauqua Park. This day in early January we headed to Gregory Canyon.
We're not rookie hikers. For years we've hiked elevations of around 12,000 and 13,000 feet, even a few Colorado 14ers. Lately, however, we've stuck to local canyons around Boulder, close to home and easy to get to. I've hiked Gregory Canyon many times, although never this time of year. But with so many weeks of dry, sunny conditions in town (we're in a drought, after all), we decided on this hike without too much concern.
It was nearly 50 degrees and sunny as we headed toward Gregory Canyon, out Baseline Road past Chautauqua Park. Just past the park and before the road begins its climb up Flagstaff Mountain, you'll see the Gregory Canyon access trailhead on your left.
When we parked the car, we took note of the temperature: 39 degrees. Much cooler than in town. We were dressed in sturdy hiking boots with a few light layers and windbreakers, hats and gloves. Plenty warm enough for the hike. It was about 2:00 in the afternoon; just enough time to get up and down before sunset at about 5:00.
Gregory Canyon Trail is not long, but it's steep enough to make for a good workout. It also links to several other trails that can extend your hike and lead you much further up Green Mountain for much more expansive views and elevation gain.
If you're not familiar with these intersecting trails, stop first at the Chautauqua Park ranger station to get a map of the canyon trails, and pay attention to the trail markers. Dogs are allowed off-leash with a valid City of Boulder Voice and Sight tag, but during some seasons (late fall) and on some trails, mandatory on-leash requirements are in place. The further up you go on Green Mountain, you enter territory inhabited by black bears and mountain lions so some Green Mountain trails are always CLOSED to dogs. Know this before you go. And throughout the canyon, keep your eyes peeled for a variety of birds and wild turkeys.
From the parking lot, head out on Gregory Canyon Trail. The early part of the hike is a steady ascent crossing small creeks and large rocks. The trail through and around the large boulders is easily visible. On this day, there were occasional icy spots during the climb, but nothing troublesome. We passed plenty of other hikers, some in only shorts and t-shirts.
The Gregory Canyon Trail itself is a bit over a mile with a 900-foot elevation gain. It ends at the junction with Ranger Trail. You'll recognize this junction when you see the Green Mountain Lodge shelter.
On a hot summer day, this old log shelter is a sweet spot to take a break from your climb and catch a shady picnic lunch or snack.
We always extend the trip by going south on Ranger Trail for about a half mile to EM Greenman Trail, then left for another half mile to Saddle Rock Trail. From there, it's a pretty steep descent for 1.2 miles back to the trailhead. Note: For a much longer trip and amazing views, take Ranger Trail to Realization Point (5 miles, 2300 feet elevation gain).
When you reach the junction with EM Greenman Trail, the trail traverses laterally across the mountain through tall, shady pines. This stretch is relatively flat and densely wooded. In the summer, this shady stretch is a welcome break from the strong sun and steep climb up the rocky canyon.
A key marker in your progress back to the trailhead is when you reach the open-space ladder. This is an area of descent that is so steep it is navigated by climbing down the metal ladder to the steep terrain below. It's a bit tricky with dogs, but not impossible.
Although our ascent had been largely free of ice, our descent was not. We were slowed by long stretches of ice and some spots were quite dangerous. Given the many weeks of sunny, dry conditions in town, we had not packed hiking poles or crampons for our boots. This meant very slow going, which we began to realize would not allow us to descend before darkness fell in the canyon. Also not good, considering we had left our headlamps at home.
But worst of all, my husband had taken a hard fall on a particularly steep and icy patch just below the ladder. We didn't know it then, but he suffered a minor fracture of his scapula. So he was moving even more slowly now.
As daylight faded in the piney woods, it became harder and harder to follow the narrow, steep, and winding trail of Saddle Rock. When we lost the trail a second time, my husband pulled out his cellphone (98% charged, fortunately) and turned on his flashlight app.
We decided to backtrack uphill to the junction with Amphitheatre Trail. This is a trail I am much more familiar with. It's wide and well marked. It winds down past steep canyon walls that are popular for daytime rock climbing, and ultimately leads into the meadow at Chautauqua Park.
As you descend to flatter terrain, a narrow left-hand fork takes you back to the parking lot at the trailhead. In the dark, moonless night, it was important that we not miss that turnoff.
So this was our painstakingly slow approach -- my husband led the way with a fractured right shoulder (although we didn't know it then), shining his flashlight app to carefully descend about five to six feet before me. He'd stop when he reached a stable, non-icy patch and then turn around to shine the light up at me so the dogs and I could carefully descend to meet him.
Repeat. A thousand times.
The tension of trying to visually pierce that darkness while taking careful steps down a steep decline over rocks and ice is hard to describe. It was a lot like driving through dense fog. So much tension, and downright exhausting.
There was no way to hurry this process.We just had to patiently work this tense, slow, careful approach. The dogs had the good sense to stick close with me, and they were now on leash so no one got lost in the darkness.
We stopped occasionally to flash the light left against towering canyon walls and trees to be sure that in the deep darkness we didn't miss the small trail to the parking lot.
And fortunately, we didn't. Such relief when we spotted the trail! And even a car's headlights in the parking lot! Just a few feet from our parked car, my husband's phone and flashlight app went dead -- not because the battery died, but because temperatures had dropped too low for the phone to operate.
"Well," I said drily as we made our way to the car, "Let's NEVER do that again."
Lessons learned -- Do not underestimate the conditions. Weeks of dry, sunny conditions in town don't mean the same will prevail in the canyons. We won't be out climbing again anytime soon -- after all, a fractured shoulder has to mend. But before we venture out in early spring, we'll get an earlier start and we'll absolutely pack crampons and headlamps.
Hope you do the same.
Muddy, tired dogs are happy dogs!