Ah, living in western Colorado offers so many recreational opportunities, even in the middle of winter, especially during a winter as mild as 2012.  This afternoon I took advantage of the near 50 degree, sunny day and hiked the Echo Canyon Trail at Colorado National Monument.  To reach this trail, enter through the east entrance of the park and park at the Devil’s Kitchen trailhead. If the tiny little lot on the east side of the road is full, pull into the larger parking lot across the road and up the hill.  Yes, you’ll have to hoof it a little further but with this being the trailhead for five trails, it’s quite likely the small lot will be full on any given day, especially on weekends.  Serpent’s Trail, Devil’s Kitchen, No Thoroughfare Canyon and Old Gorden Trails also originate at this point. 

To hike to Echo Canyon, head to the south from the parking lot, down the Devil’s Kitchen trail.  Soon it splits off, and Old Gordon and Echo Canyon head to the left.  You’ll go down a hill and across a wash, and will then see a sign pointing UP.  You travel up a section of bumpy slickrock for about a half mile.  If you’re middle-of-winter out-of-shape like I was today, this little stretch will definitely wind you.  The park service apparently had to re-route this trail as someone bought the land off to the left and fenced it off. However, they’ve done a brilliant job of outlining the trail with stones so you don’t lose your way on the slickrock.  There are some really nice views up here, and you’ll probably drool over the expensive homes you can see (I know I did).

Looking back to the north from Echo Canyon/Old Gordon Trail

When you see another sign pointing to the right for the Old Gordon Trail, and to the left for Echo Canyon, congratulations! You’ve reached the summit of the ridge.  From what I’ve been able to find out, total elevation gain is around 200-250 feet (but it sure felt like more than that today hauling my camera!)  Follow the trail to the left, where it begins to descend.

Trail junction with Old Gordon

Finally, your lungs will get a break as you descend and get closer to the mouth of Echo Canyon.  You also finally lose sight of civilization and feel like you are on a real hike.

Entering Echo Canyon

You’ll make a turn to the right as you enter the canyon, and soon you’ll be on its floor, following a little stream.  There is lots of vegetation and quite a few cottonwood trees in this area, although of course today it was all brown and dead.  I’ve read that there is a lot of poison ivy in the warm months, so be careful of that.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about it today!  The walls of the canyon soon soar far overhead, glowing red, with streaks of desert varnish down their sides.  Lots of interesting rock formations here as well, especially my favorite – “swiss cheese” rock.  It’s not a very scientific name, but that’s what I call rock peppered with round holes.  There are also quite a few very large boulders strewn about.  It made me look up, trying to figure out where they fell from.  And it always amazes me to see juniper trees growing on top of ledges.

Juniper on ledge

There was one really interesting stretch where you climb out of the wash and up and over a rock ledge.

Rocky ledge in Echo Canyon

The trail is easy to follow, going in and out of the wash.  The canyon is narrow so there’s really no way you can get lost, especially since this canyon is a box canyon.  You know when you’ve reached the end, because there’s absolutely no way out but back the way you came in.  When I reached the end, the canyon walls on my left were reflecting incredible light onto the walls on the right.  Reflected light like this is beautiful but I found it hard to capture with my camera, especially since I didn’t haul my tripod with me. Ironically, tonight in the mail I received my new Gorillapod mini-tripod.  Wish I would have had it yesterday so I could have tested it out today!

Reflected light on cliff walls

Probably the highlight on this trail during the warmer months is the possibility of a fairly good sized waterfall spilling over the notched ledge.  Of course today there simply wasn’t any water flowing here, but I can imagine in early spring when the runoff is coming from Glade Park and above, it is probably a totally different story.  I am definitely coming back in spring to find out!  There are a few nice cottonwood trees that would also look beautiful in the fall with their gold foliage contrasting with the red canyon walls.  You guessed it – that will be yet another trip back for me!  Today what little water was left in the pool was frozen over.

The end of the trail


Frozen pool and stream in Echo Canyon


A close-up of the notch

There were not very many hikers on this trail today (I saw maybe a dozen total) but probably in the warmer months it’s more crowded.  Today, however, I reveled in the peace, solitude and beauty.

Heading out of the canyon

When heading back out of the canyon, unfortunately you have to climb up a shorter but steeper incline.  (Or maybe I’m just really out of shape!)

Up and away

This trail is about a three mile round trip and was a great way to spend an unusually warm February afternoon.  Once into the canyon itself, the hike was beautiful, and in warmer months would offer even more beauty with blooming wildflowers and cacti.  Due to the climbing, I would rate this as a “moderate” hike, but it’s definitely not that physically demanding, and the breathtaking scenery is worth it.  As in all canyons, exercise caution and don’t hike here if there is an incoming storm near or upstream.  There are not many places where you could escape the rushing water in the wash, so use your common sense.

Yesterday morning at 7:15 a.m., I arrived at the Wildwood Trailhead, grabbed my small camera bag and water bottle, and headed up the trail.  My destination:  Liberty Cap, a sandstone formation that sits atop a high cliff in Colorado National Monument and looks like a giant sandstone Hershey’s Kiss.

The arrow points to the Liberty Cap formation

 Looks kind of far away in the photo, doesn’t it? The hike up to the Liberty Cap is only 2 miles from the trailhead, but seems much further due to the steep ascent. It’s a killer, and if you are scared of heights/exposure (like I am), I DO NOT recommend hiking DOWN the Liberty Cap trail. The trail is very steep with loose scree and gravel, and just the thought of going down, looking at the sharp dropoffs, gives me chills yet.  I can hike UP the trail, simply because I can’t see how steep it is behind me. The worst part by far is from when you begin to climb up behind the big slab up until the juncture where the Liberty Cap and Corkscrew Trails split (about a mile).  Here is a shot of the trail juncture.  I found a rock (in the shade) and rested for several minutes at this point, drank some water, ate my granola bar, and watched a brightly colored collared lizard eat a mid-morning snack.

At the trail junction, Liberty Cap splits to the right, and Ute Canyon/Corkscrew heads left

The ascent up the second mile to Liberty Cap is a little more gentle and is full of switchbacks as you still do quite a bit of climbing.  While going up, the trailhead parking lot caught my eye.  My car was just a tiny dot, and I still wasn’t all the way to the top yet.

Cars look like toys from this height

Finally, I rounded a corner and was able to see the Liberty Cap.  I had reached my destination!


At last!



Liberty Cap with one of the interesting rock formations on the surrounding bench







Until recently, there was an old ladder on the north side of Liberty Cap that you could climb all the way to the top.  The NPS has taken the ladder down for now due to safety concerns.  Of course, since I’m afraid of heights, I wouldn’t have attempted the climb anyway!  The contrast between the two “worlds” you can see from the bench at the top is amazing.  On the north side, the developed Grand Valley with its irrigated fields, orchards and suburbia spreads out before you.

Awesome views of the Grand Valley


On the other side, the beautiful unspoiled, wild red/orange walls of Ute Canyon, punctuated with the vibrant greens of pinyons, junipers and sage, rise from the canyon floor.

Ute Canyon


Ute Canyon

 I walked around for a bit, savoring the gorgeous views from high above.  I wandered and found the official sign for Liberty Cap, which was actually quite a ways back from it (what’s up with that?)  The trail does continue from here and winds its way back down to the floor of Ute Canyon and on up to Rim Rock Drive (a distance of another 5 miles, with little elevation gain).  I opted to head back down instead.


Liberty Cap and the sandstone bench


The NPS sign, further up the trail

I headed back down to the trail juncture and went on the Ute Canyon/Corkscrew Trail, which in very short turn splits yet again, with the Ute Canyon Trail heading up the canyon, and Corkscrew going down.  There is the most awesome old dead tree near the second junction that if I could be there in the right light, and find the right composition, would be such a cool subject to shoot.

Old, twisted tree on the trail

I wonder how long this tree has been dead, and how long it’s been here? The dry desert air has preserved all those wonderful twists in the trunk, rather than decaying into a pile of goo like trees do back “home.”


The Corkscrew Trail is aptly named, as there are numerous switchbacks to get you back down the canyon wall.  The descent is so much more gentle than the Liberty Cap Trail, it’s amazing. It also makes a nice loop in combination with the Liberty Cap, and allows you to see geologic features from different perspectives.  You get great views of the Precambrian rock in this area coming down the Corkscrew.  The Precambrian rock is the dark, black rock and are the oldest group of rocks on earth. 

Precambrian rock on the Corkscrew Trail

Unfortunately, about 3/4 of the way down the trail, I somehow lost the trail.  Don’t know how that happened as it’s pretty well defined, but somewhere in scrambling down the numerous washes and boulders, I found myself in a spot that didn’t look familiar, and I had been moving too long (and not really paying attention to where I was going) to simply retrace my steps.  I knew I needed to keep going down off the canyon wall, and then needed to veer back west. I was a little worried because I had greedily sucked down all but two swallows of my water, thinking I was “almost there.”  The temperature had risen to the mid-80’s already, and the sun at this altitude is intense and unrelenting.  I also had seen only 6 hikers on the trail in a space of 3 hours.  Not good…  I kept following the wash I was in, then when it joined another wash, followed it down until almost at the bottom.  I decided at this point it would be best to climb up on a ridge to get a better perspective of where I was.  I decided to start heading west, and about 5 minutes later I found a very faint path.  I followed it in hopes it would lead me to the main trail, and fortunately it did.  I was never so glad to see an official trail marker!  When I finally got back to my car at around 11 a.m., I was thoroughly exhausted and extremely thirsty.  I stopped at the Conoco station at 24 Rd. & Patterson, bought a 32 oz. Pepsi from the fountain with as much ice as I could pack in the glass, and sucked down half of it before I got home.
I had hiked right at 5 miles with an elevation gain of around 1,000 feet (most of that gained in the first mile of the trail).  The views from the bench surrounding Liberty Cap are amazing and well worth the effort.  It’s a hike I will definitely do again!

My husband was off to Eureka Springs for a mountain bike race this weekend, and I wanted to go for a hike. I decided to head out to the Horsethief Canyon trails at Kanopolis Lake near Salina, which is in the beautiful Smoky Hills region of north central Kansas. It was a bit of a drive, but it was a beautiful day for cruising with the stereo blasting. I loaded up the car with my gear, the obligatory road trip snacks and my iPod and headed out.

I arrived at the trailhead to find no other vehicles in sight. Whoo hoo, I had the whole place to myself and could hike in quiet solitude!  The weather was awesome for mid-July Kansas standards: mid 80’s, light winds and low humidity. When I attempted to hike this trail in May, I was stopped by the first deep water crossing (it didn’t help that I saw a snake swimming around in the water).  The water was just as deep this time, so I went upstream about 1/4 mile and found a place where the creek was just a trickle and surrounded by what I thought was ordinary sand & mud. When I took the first step and instantly sank past my knees, I knew it wasn’t ordinary!  I had found a nice patch of quicksand.  I floundered around for about 5 minutes to extricate myself from the muck, looking all the time at the raccoon tracks on top of the sand. Obviously, I was a lot heavier than Mr. Raccoon…  I also was painfully aware of how ALONE I was and that if I continued to sink down to China, no one would know I had been there.  Finally, after 10 feet of struggling through the mire, I freed myself and fortunately didn’t lose my shoes, but I was covered from thigh to foot in dank, stinky mud. I then had to bushwhack back downstream 1/4 mile to find the marked trail. I made the decision to press on and hoped I didn’t have to deal with mud again.

I found the trails a little confusing but did manage to get on the right track. The canyon area is really cool, with rocky outcroppings peeking out among the hills.  Unfortunately, I ran into another water crossing but managed to find a place where I could boulder hop across. Whew!!  Right past this point was a really cool spot with colorful rocks. The one on the right was covered with different colored lichens and was a nice contrast to the red sandstone above.


At this point, the trail climbed for a bit and turned back to the south, where I was rewarded with a nice view of the lake.


The rather wet weather we’ve had lately certainly created a lush green carpet of grass in the Smoky Hills. The color contrast between the red rocks and green grass was very pretty.  I noticed when I shot this there were buzzards circling off in the distance. They were probably still looking for me down at the first water crossing!

A little beyond this point, I found a spot on a hillside with a thicket of sumac and a great colorful rock outcropping. I made note of it and might return in the fall. I can imagine it would be very colorful.  At this point, I decided it was time to head back to the car. I found an alternate route to cross the creek the final time, and arrived back at the car, exhausted and filthy.  The trails were in horrible shape – in places, the trail was barely discernable, and weeds were at times waist and even chest high, completely obliterating the trail. I won’t be surprised if I break out with poison ivy/oak in a few days, and I’ve already chased a few ticks off me.  Oh well, a bad day hiking and taking photos is still better than a good day at work!!

I’m very excited to announce the upcoming publication of my first photography book entitled “Kansas! Its Hidden Gems.” The book will be approximately 30 pages in length, with dimensions of 7″ X 7″ and will have a hardcover with dust jacket. It features beautiful full-color photos of both well-known and not so well-known scenic locations in Kansas. Tentative publication date is July 30.

Please contact me directly for pricing and other questions at niphotobyangela@aol.com.