As we hoist our heavy packs onto our backs, the last vestiges of clouds dissipate. The sky gradually returns to its proverbial azure hue, after being obscured by smoke and haze. The presence or threat of wildfires in the American West, and the bans on open fires and flames that characterized much of our Colorado summer, have been lifted, and we jump at the chance to escape for a short stint. Rain at our planned destination delayed our departure by two days, but now we thank those showers for having cleared the air, and for having created the piney, fresh fragrance that envelops us in the forest.
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Our goal is to reach the Lakes of the Clouds in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. After driving 100 miles southwest from Colorado Springs, we reach our trail, where wind whooshes through conifer boughs, and aspen leaves dance in the breeze. Most are still green, but a few are turning, harbingers of approaching autumn. The rocky path takes us higher and higher, to three alpine lakes nestled in a wide mountain basin, at an elevation of approximately 11,600 feet. After five miles and roughly 2,500 elevation gain, we set up our tent.
We have longed for Colorado’s tundra, famous for its wildflowers. Our years-long drought has lessened their bounty, and we are here late in the season, but some colorful blossoms still enliven the scenery. The lichens and shrubs that cling to the rocky slopes are already assuming their autumnal, rust-colored sheen, and drape the mountainsides in velveteen blankets.
Even though this is wilderness, animals are habituated to human visitors, as the lakes are popular not only among hikers, but also anglers. A female deer appears out of nowhere and munches grasses close to our tent, seemingly unafraid; a well-fed ground squirrel watches us filter water from a lake; chipmunks forage through our camp, in search of dropped morsels of food. We listen to the chatter of squirrels in the trees, and to the high-pitched calls of marmots and pikas in the surrounding rocky crags.
Few people have made the trek this week in late August, and the campsites are scattered enough to enjoy a sense of solitude. The languid hum of insects and the chirping of birds accompany us through the daytime and complement the constant background music provided by a waterfall cascading down a cliff face within earshot of our site. At night, we see the pinpricks of myriad stars, fewer when the moon vies for attention, more once it goes to sleep. Other than short excursions into our environs, we laze – read, write, follow the arc of the sun across the firmament. Stretched out on our backs we observe the celestial dance of the clouds: tendrils of vapor approaching, linking hands, letting go, drifting apart. Like high-altitude lizards we luxuriate in the warmth, and revel in the colors of late summer, grateful for glimpses of nature’s benevolent face.
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