Day 10: Diamond J to Margy’s Hut
When Marian called the Diamond J to set up our reservation she had been told there would be no problem shuttling us to a different trailhead in the morning but when we tried to reconfirm the arrangement last night the manager claimed she hadn’t realized we needed a second shuttle. Her husband had to help her get breakfast ready for the wedding party but after that she released him to drive us, so we ended up getting out by 8:30 which wasn’t bad at all.
The hike started out easily enough around a meadow but as we headed toward Sawmill Park the trail got steeper and steeper. We had started giving Carys raisins earlier in the week as a way to keep her going through the last fidgety mile or so of a long hike day, but over the course of the following days she had begun demanding them earlier and earlier in the day. Marian kept a stash in her pocket and whenever Carys stuck her arm out the side of the rain cover I would stop and Marian would hand one over. Finally today she was asking for them right after breakfast and because we were going up a steep hill I had to stop fairly regularly. Each time I stopped and she saw Marian she would stick her arm out and when I turned to start hiking again leaving her raisin-less, she would pitch a fit. I got so fed up of it that eventually I took you out of the backpack and told her to eat as many raisins as you wanted while we were stopped, because we weren’t having any more raisins while we were hiking. She stuffed her face for 15 minutes while we took a break but we had to pack up and get moving before she had completely finished because rain was not far away. Luckily she fell asleep soon after that and remained that way almost until we got to the hut. We had a bit of a hard time locating the trail at Sawmill Park; I think it would have been much more difficult if we didn’t have the GPS. We did find the intersection and sign but I think we would have wandered around the meadow for quite a bit if we hadn’t been guided. It was a fairly flat mile or so from there to the hut, which was lucky because it started to rain. I picked up the pace and barely got wet at all; Marian and Tom were a bit behind and they were soggy by the time they got to the hut.
Our lunch from the Diamond J was also soggy by the time we sat down to eat it, but that was just because the tomatoes leaked all over our croissant sandwiches. We ate some of them anyway, chatted with a couple of guys who were preparing to do some work on the cabin after it closed at the end of September, and took naps. We were all bundled up in our warm clothes prepared for a chilly afternoon when I realized that it actually wouldn’t be too hard to block off the fireplace with an upturned bench so Carys couldn’t reach it, which hadn’t been possible at the previous huts. We quickly started a fire and it was lovely to be warm and get all of our clothes dry. Cooks Illustrated’s rich hot cocoa recipe was a great accompaniment to the wet afternoon. Margy’s was the only hut that didn’t have a cistern of any kind, so Marian and Tom hiked a quarter mile to the stream to get water. The hut provides a big jerry can and a backpack for that purpose. I think they figured out that by the end of the trip Tom had purified 120 liters of water for us using the steripen, one liter at a time.
We had spaghetti bolognese for dinner, which was a big hit all around. We don’t normally let Carys eat standing up but the benches were so low that the food was at eye level when she was sitting down, and she was quite happy to be self-sufficient.
We ended up reliving the raisins a couple of times later that evening; all the fiber led to a couple of diaper blowouts that resulted in even the cotton outer layer of the Gdiaper getting pooped on. The Gdiapers were awesome for pee; they held a lot and never leaked. But I realized why I often see the cotton outers at the consignment store but never the plastic inners that hold the compostable pads: the inners got poop on them almost every time she did one, and had to be washed out each time in hot bleach water, and were quite stained by the end of the trip.
We checked the huts reservation system and saw that six other people had reservations to stay at Margy’s that night, but none of the showed up – I guess they were put off by the three separate storms that rolled through that afternoon because nobody showed up. We were grateful for the space; Marian and Tom slept upstairs and Carys had the downstairs bedroom to yourself while I took a spot next to the fire.
Day 11: Margy’s to the Lenado Trailhead
I had hoped to add another day to our through-itinerary and hike all the way into Aspen but it wasn’t possible for two reasons; firstly the difficult bushwhack up from Woody Creek to the ridge overlooking Aspen, and secondly because the McNamara hut is closed in summer because there’s an elk herd nearby. (In what I consider to be among the most fabulous of ironies, the only people who are allowed to drive on the road to the hut from Aspen are people with hunting licenses.) We considered paying an Aspen-based guiding company to schlep tents up the hill and meet us at the top, but we couldn’t find a viable way around the bushwhack so we abandoned the plan.
Marian and Tom’s friends Gail and George heard about the trip a few weeks before we left and volunteered to pick us up at the Lenado trailhead and drive us around to Aspen, so we set out for an easy 6-mile walk downhill to meet them. We were early and they were late because they got lost so we ended up waiting for about three hours, but Carys had a great time exploring the bridge over Woody Creek. We had burgers at the
Woody Creek Tavern, and while Gail and George had come fully prepared with camping gear and planned to camp with us, we ultimately abandoned the plan because the weather looked pretty dicey. George had injured his shoulder recently and was nervous about sleeping on it on a thin pad, and I was nervous about managing Carys in a tent in the rain (worst case) or with everything around us being already wet from afternoon showers (best case). Tom also decided that he’d had enough and was ready for civilization again so he headed home with Gail and George.
Marian and I did some frantic research to find a hotel room for the night in Aspen on a holiday weekend (!) and weren’t coming up with much, but the Filipino receptionist at the Aspen Mountain Lodge where we had a reservation for the following two nights rescued us when he recognized our last name as also being Filipino. He gave us a room that he had been holding for overflow from another hotel; I had decided that camping was the best we could do and was gung-ho for it, but Marian was very grateful to have the room. While I would have loved to be up in the hills for sunrise I think the hotel ended up being the best thing all around; it didn’t really rain much later but we had a fair bit of trouble finding the right road the next morning which would have been stressful if we were trying to find a camping spot and get set up before dark. We had Thai food for dinner although I had to take Carys back to the hotel early for bath and bed, and later we had to walk around outside because she wasn’t too happy about going to sleep.
Day 11: Day hike to Bald Knob
I had seen photos online of the panorama of peaks visible from Bald Knob so I was always hoping we could conclude the trip with a hike there from McNamara hut, even if we couldn’t get to it by through-hiking. We planned to drive to a fork in the dirt road and leave the car there, doing a 6-mile circuit with the peak in the middle. We wound through a maze of private roads above Aspen, eventually managing to stay on the right one, and followed it as it turned to dirt. There were a couple of sloppy sections where we were very glad to have 4WD, and we found the fork without trouble. It was an easy couple of mile hike further up the road to the hut, which was surrounded by and filled with equipment – looked like quite a bit of work had been done on it. From there we struck off up the creek, looking out for winter trail blazes to point us up the hill to our left. At some point we lost the blazes so we left the creek and kept going up to the highest point we could see, which did eventually lead us to the broad grassy knob. Carys continued her nap while Marian and I enjoyed the view, and then we all had lunch together – including some Magic Bars, which really were magical. I found the recipe online afterward and realized why – it’s graham crackers covered with sweetened condensed milk, then chocolate chips, nuts, and coconut.
The winter trail to the knob had been so difficult to follow that I decided I wasn’t comfortable trying to follow the loop – in a direction that would initially have taken us away from the car – so we went back down the way we came. I was half expecting a note on Marian’s car demanding proof of her hunting license from a Forest Service employee whose car we passed, but instead we just saw several groups of mountain bikers. Tom had read in a Hut Association’s (very old) update – of which there was a binder full in one of the huts – that the real reason the road is closed so the rich people who live above Aspen don’t have to deal with a lot of traffic on their roads over the summer season. Forbes notes that “billionaires pay top dollar for parcels on Red Mountain Road.”
We drove back down into Aspen and had a nice (early) dinner at a French restaurant which was a great deal with a 50% off coupon that Marian had found.
Wrapping up: Aspen to Breckenridge
I had originally booked two nights for us in Aspen because I didn’t know if we might get held up somewhere along our route; you have to book all the huts in advance but I did check before the trip and found that each hut also had space for us the night following the one we were supposed to be there, so if the worst came to the worst and we got held up at a particular hut for the day then we could still complete the trip. So I added the extra day in Aspen to absorb any overflow hiking days, and had planned to drive from Aspen to Denver airport – with a stop at Breckenridge on the way to pick up our bags – all in one day. In retrospect this would have been doable but would also have been a long and stressful day. Instead we decided to break up the journey; we found a very cheap condo in Breck for the night and drove over Independence Pass. It had rained for most of the morning but was starting to clear as we set out for a short hike to Independence Lake close to the top of the pass.
We met a guy coming down the trail with camping gear who said he had been hailed on overnight. The weather socked back in again as we came over a steep section of trail hoping to see the lake, but it was still over just one more rise. Carys was trying to sleep and couldn’t because of the rain, so we turned back – only to see it clear again five minutes later. We had lunch – in the car – at the top of Independence Pass and continued on to Breckenridge. Carys had a heck of a hard time getting to sleep in the car and was very fussy at the Breck end when she woke up, and my patience was short by the time we got to the condo. Luckily it was ready, even though we were early, and even more luckily the Peak Properties office was open on the Labor Day holiday and Marian was able to collect our bags so we could pack.
We ate the burgers we had planned to have when camping in Aspen, and then Carys and I went to explore the dirt road running behind our condo. It turned out that there was a little stream right next to the dirt road with a bridge across it to reach the next condo property, and she enjoyed walking over the bridge multiple times as well as climbing down next to the stream and putting her hands in the cold water. I had hoped for more moments like this over the course of the trip but we had often been thwarted by the afternoon thunderstorms.
Breckenridge to home
Our drive to Denver was uneventful, and Carys woke up just a few minutes before we arrived at a park close to the airport for her to stretch her legs before the flight. There were a couple of other kids at the park and as she is wont to do when this happens she mostly stood and watched them. We were selected for extra screening as a result of the TSA seeing something in our bag which looked dangerous (although they never took anything from us or told us what it was), which Carys rolled along with quite cheerfully. Our flight was completely full and we had a window seat in the last row which I was a bit scared about. Carys was eating raisins as we took off when she put her head on my arm – eyes still open and looking around, followed by eyes closed and fast asleep. I got a dead arm pretty quickly but I wouldn’t have moved her for anything, and she ended up sleeping for 1:45 of the 2:30 flight. I couldn’t believe it – it was certainly one our easiest flights ever. Then we had an hour on the train as we had landed at rush hour and Alvin couldn’t meet us at the airport. The train is really loud as it goes through tunnels and she was initially quite scared of it but she quickly realized she was OK and ate raisins and watched the other passengers for the rest of the journey. Alvin met us at the BART station and had (purchased!) dinner waiting for us at home, so we were able to get unpacked and laundered quickly. We kept Carys in the tent for bed as Alvin had his Best Buddies century ride coming up the following weekend, and I thought it would provide good continuity across the return home as well as the two hotel rooms over the weekend. He actually rode slightly slower than last year but spent an hour less at the rest stops and finished in 6 ½ hours, for 66th position out of 350 riders – he was quite pleased with himself.