article & photos by Jack Olson
OK. Before we go further, think of your favorite place in the world. I doubt you will have to think very long. Think about the reasons it’s your favorite, the adventures you’ve had there, who you’ve been with. Time’s up.
I’ve experienced magnificent places: Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Alps, Mt. Everest. But my own favorite place is no more than a hundred miles from home in the Denver area. It’s Shrine Ridge in the White River National Forest. I’d rather be here than any other place in the world. Well, as I write this Colorado has suffered record low temperatures. Why don’t we say July and August?
Start on Shrine Pass at about 11,000 feet, west of the Continental Divide. You drop down through a marshy area, boots slightly sloshing, with those water-loving flowers and plants that tower over me and some of you. Then you begin an unrelenting, but initially gentle, ascent. There are sloping meadows so full of wildflowers it’s as if a giant gardener has strewn magical seeds everywhere.
You come upon a tiny stream that doesn’t even take a jump to cross. But stop to admire the Parry primroses dipping their toes in the rippling water. Then off through the woods, but soon the trail sharply bends, climbs, and you can feel you are now breathing 12,000-foot air. Columbine appear, popping from outcrops above. Most years you will encounter a snow bank right before the top of the ridge. Get past it, and quickly.
When you take that very last step to the top of the ridge, and not one step before, the most stunning view hits you right in the heart. Until that very time, the only thing you’ve seen ahead of you to the west is the trail. Now all you see is the entire north end of the Sawatch Range, and sky. The first time I made that final step my breath wasn’t taken away. It was ripped away.
You can do several things at that point. Stand and try to keep your mouth closed. Sit and cry. You can hike maybe a mile to the left. You’re at about 12,000 rolling feet. But at the end of the ridge, what’s this? It’s all blue. The entire south end of the ridge is immersed in lupine. And looming behind them is the magnificent Mount of the Holy Cross.
But I want to tell you what makes my heart go pitter-patter in anticipation. Take a right when you hit the top of the ridge and you will cross through broad meadows of Indian paintbrush. Gasp. You’ll begin to climb up the trail to the north. At a certain point you’ll leave the trail and soon enter the Secret Garden. Within this natural sanctuary is every color of Indian paintbrush imaginable. There are hues Crayola has never used. Sit there, lie there, dream there. And to find the Secret Garden you will need to——-just a minute, it’s secret.