September 12, 2020

Labor Day Weekend Recap: 48 Miles of Vail Trails

As an elected official, I was pretty concerned about Labor Day weekend and its potential to drive cases of COVID19 up again. And as an individual, I didn’t want to be part of that spike in cases! So while typically I would have done some sort of fun weekend with friends, this weekend, I headed out to the mountains for some solo time on the trails.

My company gave us both Friday and Monday off for the holiday, so I headed up on Thursday after work. However, I had a morning call for my role as Trustee, which meant I couldn’t head out hiking first thing in the morning, which would have been my normal MO. Instead, I made coffee and baked oatmeal for breakfast (I tried something new and bought peach pureed baby food to use as the base, and it worked beautifully!) and took the call from bed. My plan was to head out hiking at 9:30am, as soon as the call ended… but it felt so cold in my bedroom that I decided to stay cozied up in my flannel sheets for a while, in hopes that the day would get warmer.

Well, before I knew it, it was 11am… and my across the street neighbor was knocking on the door to see if my roommates and I wanted any fresh eggs. (I love small town life!) I stepped out onto the porch to chat… and discovered it was 75 degrees out! Evidently it was just my room that was chilly, but it was actually already heating up quite a bit outside. After chatting with my neighbor for a bit, I quickly got myself together and got out the door to start my hike.

It was 12:15pm by the time I got going… not ideal to be hiking in the heat of the day! But I wasn’t planning an all day hike or anything, so I still had plenty of time. I decided to check out the Two Elk Trail, which starts about two miles down the street from my house in Minturn and then goes all the way to the top of the Vail Back Bowls. Originally, my plan had been to run to the trailhead, but now that I was getting such a late start, I drove there.

It took me a little while to find the Two Elk trailhead – Google Maps pointed me the wrong way, but I eventually found it by following the Forest Service website’s directions. The road to get there was so rutted and bumpy – I vowed that next time I’d run there! But when I actually got to the trailhead, there was only one other car there. Hooray for weekday adventuring!

The trail started out reasonably flat and shaded, but I still took it at a walk. For trails that I don’t know already, I tend to walk the ascent even if it seems like there are runnable parts – I’m worried about not having enough energy to make it through the whole thing! But let’s be honest, it’s also the lazy approach 🙂

I did not agree with this sign I saw when I neared Vail, which referred to it as “difficult terrain”. But maybe it’s difficult to ski down in the winter?

This trail seemed infinitely runnable, though, and certainly flatter than I had expected based on the description. Parts of it were well-shaded and other parts were very sunny and exposed, but even as I cursed myself for not starting earlier in the day, I reminded myself that it would feel much cooler when I finally got to the descent. Only 7 miles to the top! It is lovely to me that these days, that sounds like a very short distance.

I passed a few mountain bikers on the way up, and then at mile 3.5, I happened on a familiar sight: the bottom of Skyline and Tea Cup lifts! I was now squarely on Vail Mountain terrain, and that also meant I now had cell service, whereas it had been pretty spotty on the trail to get here.

Not my favorite lift, since it takes forever to get over there and it always has long lines. In general, people LOVE Blue Sky Basin but I find it overrated.

Rather than going straight up the ski trails, the single track trail running / mountain biking trail meandered up the side of the bowl. We headed up the left side of Marmot Valley, and then the trail zig zagged across Tea Cup Bowl, through the woods and over the bottom of Shangri-La, and then up Mongolia Bowl. From here on out, I didn’t see a single person; it felt absolutely magical to have the bowl all to myself!

How beautiful is this?!

The ascent was getting pretty tiring, though, and I was glad I only had about 2 miles still to go. I kept checking my watch to see how much more vertical gain there was until I got to the top, and counting that down in my head while also comparing it to how many miles I had left to figure out how steep it would be. From my calculations, the last mile was going to be much steeper than everything else I had done so far. But, by the time I only had one mile to go, that felt really doable. Even if it were super steep, I assumed I could get up in it 30 minutes or so – not too bad.

Finally, the trail flattened out into the trees, and I found myself at the top of Two Elk Pass. This was not where I expected to end; I had it in my head that I’d be closer to Two Elk Lodge, at the top of China Bowl; instead, I was all the way on the outer edge of the inbounds terrain, an area of Mongolia Bowl I had never even skied before because it was so far over! Unfortunately, although I did make it all the way to the top of the Pass, it wasn’t above tree line, so the trees blocked the view of the Gore Range on the front side of the mountain. No views for me! That’s okay, though, I knew I’d get some great views heading back down the back side through Mongolia.

At the top, I switched from listening to podcasts to listening to Spotify, particularly since I knew I would now have cell service. My choice of music? Well, to start, I put on The Greatest Showman soundtrack, and absolutely reveled in flying down the single track as “From Now On” rang in my ears. I think this is my favorite song in Greatest Showman, though it’s a toss-up whether I like the original Hugh Jackman version or the Zac Brown Band cover better. I love the bluegrass twang in the Zac Brown Band version!

Music + the mountains + running downhill = my happy place

After another song or two of downhill, I reluctantly switched from Spotify to the Peloton app. I’ve been participating in Reddit’s Pelothong (a month-long challenge where you compete in teams to do Peloton classes and raise money for charity), and they had a flash challenge where I needed to do an outdoor running class. I picked an Olivia class, which was only my second time trying an outdoor run. Unfortunately, as with my first time trying an outdoor running class, I wasn’t a fan; I much prefer the treadmill for classes. It’s just too frequent that the instructor asks me to do something where it doesn’t make sense with the terrain (like sprinting when I’m going over a particularly rocky section, or slowing down to rest on a smooth downhill). I absolutely love Peloton for gym classes, but I am just not sold on doing it outside. Give me podcasts and music any day!

After dutifully finishing my class, I went back to music, switching to my favorite Christian songs playlist, which I have downloaded on my phone. That way, when I got below Vail and lost service, I could still keep listening! The light was just starting to change to sunset, though I had plenty of time before the sun would actually set, and it was really lovely to run down the same trail I had come up, since I knew what lay ahead and how far I had to go. I didn’t see a single person on my entire descent, which was pretty cool. I love being alone, just me and the mountains!

I ended up finishing the run with a glorious change of music back to Greatest Showman, flying down the final stretch and making it to my car just after 5:00pm. 15.5 miles and 3500 feet of vert, done! Not bad for an afternoon.

Though I vowed once again on leaving that this would be the last time my car would be seen at this trailhead… the road to get here is so bumpy, and it’s such a quick 2 mile run from my house!

From there, I hustled home, took a quick shower, and then jumped in the car to head to Edwards for the evening. I was meeting my friends Heather and Kirk for dinner at Drunken Goat, a restaurant I’ve wanted to try for a while. We had a lovely dinner on the patio, and I thoroughly enjoyed my choices to refuel – prosciutto, mascarpone, and pistachio bruschetta, followed by a turkey, taleggio, avocado, and fig panini with a lemon parmesan side salad. Yum! I definitely went to bed happy on Friday night.

Saturday morning, I woke up determined not to repeat my mistake of the day before – today I was getting up and after it ASAP! This time, I left my car at home and headed up the Game Creek Trail, which would lead me up the west side of Vail. I have to say, it was really nice to not drive anywhere and just leave right from my door! I had done this a few weeks before, when I did my big loop around Beaver Creek ending at Vail Brewing, and there’s something to me that feels so much more intrepid about running right from my door rather than driving to a trailhead.

Although I was several miles away from where I had gone up yesterday, the trail was somewhat similar – rolling single track along a creek, that eventually gave way to a steeper hike leading up to Vail. I ended up reaching Pride Express / the top of Eagle Bahn Gondola in almost exactly two hours, which I was proud of. I thought it had taken me longer the last time, and I was feeling good in spite of all the hiking I had done the day before! But this time, I wasn’t done yet.

Though this view of Holy Cross Mountain was quite rewarding…

I kept going past Eagle’s Nest, ascending another two miles and 800 feet until I finally reached the top of Mountain Top Express, where several lifts converge between the front and back sides of Vail. I didn’t see any other humans along the way (except at the gondola itself), but I did get to see a deer running in the road ahead of me at Windows.

Hi friend! Let’s be running buddies!

And when I finally made it to the top, there were a few maintenance workers by one of the lifts… but otherwise, no one!

The legendary Back Bowls… all to myself!

From here on out, it was almost all downhill. I chose to take the gently sloping Sleepytime Road, and the wide access road felt amazing under my feet – I didn’t have to worry too much about tripping on rocks. While I had once again been listening to podcasts for the ascent, I now threw Billy Joel on my Spotify, and was thrilled when I hit a gorgeous vista and my favorite Billy Joel song (Summer Highland Falls) came on. Euphoria, indeed!

I was grinning ear to ear, and even playing some fake drums a little bit as I ran 🙂 Does anyone else ever do air drum or jazz hands while they run?!

Soon enough, I was at the top of Marmot Valley, and then down to the convergence of Tea Cup and Skyline lifts – back exactly where I was yesterday. Five miles downhill to the trailhead from here, and then I would fulfill my promise of running that rocky dirty road back to my house rather than having to drive over it in my Jeep. The trail felt like an old friend now, since I had gone up it and down it the day before, and my legs were still feeling good, which was wonderful. By the time I finished back at my house, I had made a 17.3 mile loop that also covered 3400 feet of vertical gain – not bad for doing this on tired legs!

But now, I was indeed tired. I quickly showered and then made a giant chicken salad for lunch, then flopped down on the couch with my roommates’ dog and a book for a while. It felt good, though the time passed a little too quickly! Before I knew it, it was after 5pm, and after a quick yoga hips flow to stretch myself out, I headed to the store to grab some ingredients for dinner. I had originally been thinking I’d celebrate National Cheese Pizza Day, but by dinnertime, I actually didn’t want pizza; instead, I picked up ingredients for rosemary pasta alfredo with zucchini, mushrooms, and shrimp. Yum! And then – an early bedtime. One more day of adventuring awaited!

I initially hadn’t been entirely sure whether or not I’d run again on Sunday. But when I stayed over Saturday night rather than driving home, it felt like a waste of time in the mountains to not do something on Sunday morning! So I decided I’d head out for a short hike – up Cougar Ridge to Vail, then back down the Game Creek trail I had hiked up yesterday. I liked the poetry that each day of the weekend, I had come down the trail I had hiked up the day before! (Or in Friday’s case, down the trail I had just come up.)

However, what I didn’t realize was that the trail was a lot longer than I anticipated. Although a GPX file I had downloaded showed it as 7.12 miles to Eagle’s Nest, I didn’t actually get to Eagle’s Nest until 10 miles in. Part of that was because I ran to the trailhead from my house, but that only added a mile; I am still confused where the other 2 extra miles came from. In spite of it being longer, though, I had a wonderful time, and absolutely loved the views from this vantage point.

Plus, this trail is the famed “Minturn Mile” that brings you from the resort right to my street in Minturn – and I desperately want to ski it this winter! It was helpful to get to see what it’s like in the summer, though I know it will look quite different covered in snow.

This little singletrack trail will be LONG buried with even a few inches… never mind the 6-10 foot base Vail usually gets.

I was feeling so good on the descent that I contemplated extending my run to make it a bit longer. If I turned right at the bottom of the trailhead, I could take the dirt road over to Meadow Mountain trailhead, and then back home from there, adding on the three miles I would need to bring my running total for the weekend to 50 miles! But when I was half a mile from the trailhead, I got a call from my friend Heather, that she and some other friends were at Rocky Mountain Taco a few doors down from my house. Sold – I decided to instead hustle there to say hi and hear how their backpacking expedition had gone 🙂

When I got to RMT, though, it was packed, and I decided I’d just say hi to my friends, take a quick shower and grab a bite at home, and head back to the Front Range to try to beat the traffic. It was only when I got all the way back to Superior that I regretted this plan. Unfortunately, the wildfire smoke in town had gotten absolutely horrendous – the smokiest I have ever seen the air in Colorado. It smelled absolutely terrible, and even when I was driving right next to the Flatirons on highway 93, I couldn’t see them at all. Fingers crossed that our brave firefighters will be able to get these wildfires contained soon!

I wrapped up my Sunday with dinner downtown at a friend’s house. He made crispy potatoes by cutting them with a spiralizer and then popping them into some kind of fancy toaster oven / air fryer device, and they were fantastic! I need to experiment with this technique.

Also, this wine was 🔥

After all that adventure the first three days of my weekend, Monday ended up being really low-key – a leisurely breakfast, a 20 minute Peloton recovery ride (highly recommend this chill class with Kendall), and then a few beers on the patio at my favorite brewery, 12 Degrees. In spite of the name of the brewery, it was actually 92°F out on the patio! Super hot, and I was getting sticky. But when I got home later that night, I actually had to do something quite the opposite – drain the nipple and test cocks (sounds dirty!) on my sprinkler system, as we were supposed to get snow the next day. What the heck?! Colorado weather is crazy.

I’m not at all ready for it to be fall yet – these trail runs have been too good! And I’m afraid of what ski season will look like. (That is, I’m afraid it will be non-existent due to COVID and people’s inability to stay masked and six feet apart.) The weather is supposed to warm up later in the week, and I’m definitely hopeful for more weekends I can go on long, wonderful Colorado adventures like this. Turns out, Vail is pretty fun in the summer as well as the winter 🙂


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