Sunday, September 7, 2014

Goodbye and Thanks for the Trails: The Boulder Skyline Farewell

With my leave from the Boulder looming, I wanted to do a fitting last horah to the trails of Boulder. I wanted it to encapsulate something iconic and so I settled on the Boulder Skyline for my big goodbye. While I know of trail runners who do this on a weekly basis (or more), for me this seemed a fittingly epic way to say goodbye (at least temporarily) to these trails.
The Boulder Skyline from the South Campus


As I am not an experienced ultra or trail runner, I opted to do a point-to-point course. I also decided to get the hardest part out of the way first by tackling South Boulder / Bear Peak. To do this south-to-north route, I would first go up Shadow Canyon and tackle South Boulder Peak and then pick up Bear. From there I would do the ridge between Bear and Green before going down and picking up Flagstaff. My plan also allowed for the possibility of picking up Sanitas if I had the gas (and time) left.

South to North Elevation Profile


I had Alita drop my vehicle off at the northern terminus near the Sanitas Trailhead and bus me down to the South Mesa Trailhead.

A few primer runs up Green had taught me that I need a lot of water at this time of year and that a trip up Green was enough to drain my water bottle. So in staging vehicles I also stashed a jug of water on the Flagstaff Road at the base of the Ranger Trail between Green and Flagstaff.

South Boulder Peak / Bear Mountain

I got off at 7:30 am. I would have preferred to start earlier, but this worked just fine. While the floods have left the Mesa Trail with some deep ruts, it is still runnable for me up to the cabin at the base of Shadow Canyon.

Here I crossed Shadow Creek by the little shack and started the real climb. At this point I should point out that when I (and most people) say they run up Bear Peak. . . we really mean go up as quickly as we can with minimal stopping. I suspect there are maybe a half-dozen people in Boulder who can actually run up Shadow or Fern canyon, but I am not among that number.

Looking South from South Boulder Peak

After a good bit of hiking I made the saddle between South Boulder Peak and Bear. Towards the top you get into a burnt-out area. It took me about an hour but the views were worth it.

Testing out the panorama feature on South Boulder Peak 
While South Boulder Peak is not really visible on the Boulder Skyline, it is so close to Bear that it’s an easy double peak bag. The trip over to Bear was just a quick jaunt down and up the Saddle.

Looking north from Bear Peak at Green Mountain and Boulder


With half the peaks done, it was time for my favorite part. The stretch between Bear and Green has great views and some nice running through the trees. The trail is not technical and you have already paid the elevation price to for the view and trees. I particularly like the Green Bear Trail from the Bear Canyon Trail to the summit of Green. It’s a nice and easy ascent through some nice woods with good-sized trees.

This is Bear Canyon, while I did not run this stretch, this is similar to the nice trails and trees of the Green Bear Trail
The Green Summit was where I saw my first other people for the day – and advantage of being able to run mid-week. Here I paused for a light snack before finish up the run.

Looking west at a trail intersection before the final push to Green

Green to Flagstaff

In comparison this one was barely an additional summit. However, my legs were getting tired at this point and my ankles, raised on pavement and dirt road trails, often have trouble on some of the loser sand / gravel of the trails down Green.

I stopped and filled up on some much-need water at the Flagstaff Road before going to the flagstaff on Flagstaff. While this is not technically the summit, it was close enough for my purposes.

Looking over Boulder from the Amphitheater near the Flagstaff Summit


Coming down from Flagstaff I took a wrong turn near Crown Rock. As I was looking at a biker going up the road and thinking I should be crossing soon, I tripped on a rock. My hand hit a rock and I heard a rather odd sound. When I looked down my right middle finger was bent sideways about 45° at the first joint. Not really knowing what to do I re-set it and kept going. I had feeling in the tip and it could still bend, so I hoped it was not too bad. As of this writing a few weeks later, things seem to be healing well. It was a good reminder that of the catch-22 that I experience on trails – even though you have stunning views, its best to keep in the moment and not admire too much.

With my worries about my finger, I decided not to try for Sanitas and call it a day where I parked near the Centennial Trailhead. I went home pleased to live in such a beautiful area.


Peaks: South Boulder (8,520), Bear (8,460), Green (8,080), Flagstaff (6,915)
Total Distance: 15 mi
Total Vert: 4,650 ft
Time: 3:06:11 (3:49:32 with breaks)

Pace: 12:37

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day (Ft) Bliss

Franklin Mountain State Park

Labor Day 2014

South and North Franklin Mountains
When I found out the my unit would be doing some training at Ft. Bliss I was a little disappointed because I did not have high hopes of the outdoor potential near Ft. Bliss. I was once again pleasantly surprised when my research found a nearby state park with mountains and trails – entirely within El Paso city limit.

My unit had a little time off over Labor Day and our commander let us go out and explore. My initial research on the park’s website was a little disappointing. Their map shows the general parking areas, but does not really give much information concerning the trails. On the other hand, the park does seem to be working towards a much grander vision. The website says they are working on a network which will eventually have over 100 miles of trails. This would be a pretty awesome Texas-sized Central Park.

One of the major things that struck me about hiking here was how underused the park was. Had this been Chataqua Park in Boulder on Labor Day Weekend I suspect we would have been hard pressed to find a site at 8 am (when we pulled in), but here there was still plenty of parking. On the hike up and at the summit, we had the mountain to ourselves. On the way down we saw about 15 people (which for a beautiful and sunny Labor Day seemed pretty light).

For our hike we chose North Franklin Mountain – the highest point in the park at around 7,180 ft (according to Google Earth). We started from what I will call the Agave Trailhead (this is what Google Maps lists it as if you plug in the GPS coordinates).

North Franklin Mountain Hike Stats

Agave Trailhead: 31.916750°, -106.509600°
One-way length: 3.8 miles
Vertical gain: 2,359 ft
North Franklin Mountain: 31.902800°, -106.493627°
Ascent time (with breaks): 2 hours

West Cottonwood Spring Trail

West Cottonwoods Springs Trail (left), Agave Trail (right)
Elevation profile starting at trailhead
West Cottonwood Springs Trail
Length: 0.5 miles
Gain: ~480 ft

The ankle-eating rocks of the West Cottonwood Springs Trail
For the first half-mile we took the West Cottonwood Spring Trail. This trail was all double-fist sized rocks that were less than pleasant. If I do this hike again I might try the Agave Trail. It’s about 0.25-0.3 miles longer, but it gets you to the same place and (from the ends at least) the footing looks easier.

Agave Trail to the top and West Cottonwood Springs Trail to the bottom
The branch up to the spring could be interesting as it appears to have one of the half-dozen trees in the entire park, but we opted to go for the summit.

Agave Trail
Length: 0.8 miles
Gain: ~535 ft
Intersection with West Cottonwood Springs Trail: 31.914777°, -106.501168°

Agave Trail Elevation profile (starting from trailhead)

Mundy’s Gap Trail

Looking over Mundy's Gap from the north

Length: 1.5 miles
Gain: 825 ft
Start: 31.914764°, -106.500702°

Start of Mundy Gap Trail

From here the footing got easier. From the start of this section you can see the summit and a good scrambler / climber could cut off a mile or two, although probably not that much time. We opted for the official route which follows a more gradual climb. From the information boards at the trailhead, North Franklin Mountain was apparently originally intended as the site of some towers and even had some initial grading done at the summit. But the El Pasans revolted and the land became a park instead. However, the initial work on the summit meant that this trail and the North Franklin Trail are old roads. As such, the hike is not overly technical beyond some loose footing.

Mundy's Gap Trail - just past the gap
The first section has some shade in the early morning sun as it is on the west side. Once you make the saddle (or Mundy’s Gap, I presume), you have great views of west and east El Paso. Once over the saddle there is a nice bit of down before you get to the split where you can chose the Tin Mine or the summit.

Enjoying some morning shade on the western slope

North Franklin Mountain Trail

Length: 1.8 miles
Gain: 1,440
Mundy Gap Intersection: 31.914548°, -106.492919°

Start of the North Franklin Mountain Trail
From here the trails gets steep. As compensation there are some amazing wildflowers – yellows, oranges, whites and blues.

There are a lot of switchbacks with great views of the rest of the mountain chain, El Paso and Ft.Bliss.

The summit is flat with great views of New Mexico, Texas and Mexico.

Looking north from the summit
Overall this is a great hike and an amazing resource to have in the middle of a city and right next to an Army base. While though footing is a little rough in spots, there are some great running  and hiking trails here.

Looking south from the summit