Just over five miles into my hike up and down Green Mountain in Chautauqua Park outside Boulder, Colorado, this past winter, I faced a choice.
Left and up on the Crown Rock trail, or down, right and straight back to the parking lot on the Baseline trail.
Sifting classic Colorado powder after it danced on and around the stated green of coniferous trees was not getting old, so I chose up and left.
Whether it is tucking down for a better view of Cooper Lake on the Cecil Rhode traverse or darting off the beaten path to behold the waterfall on the Primrose side of the Lost Lake Trail, I’d learned side trips pay dividends.
Sitting at Crown Rock, eating my dinner of curried vegetables and overlooking Boulder would be the perfect end to my day.
My map, or to be more exact a hastily taken picture with my smartphone, did not prepare me for what I would find after eagerly climbing almost 350 feet in less than a half mile.
Cars. A parking lot. A road. Traffic. Lots of people. That dirty sludge that forms on well-traveled pavement in fresh snowfall.
This would not be the perfect end to my day.
Time for me and my curried vegetables to retreat to the parking lot. To get there I would have to take Flagstaff trail, which crosses Flagstaff Road multiple times. Many Alaskans don’t like hikes that end on major roads, so you can imagine how I felt about crossing one multiple times.
To top it off, I also would pass a man, mysterious and stoic, staring off the trail as traffic whirred in the distance.
“Everything all right?” I gently asked.
“Oh sure,” he said. “Just enjoying the silence.”
This denouement to the hike did not ruin my day. It also is not meant to belittle Chautauqua Park, as pure of a playground as you could ask for stemming from the streets of a city of 100,000 just 25 miles from Denver.
But that day did drive home one of the many things that makes Alaska special — the short, magical side trip.
In late February, I had just finished skiing a lap of Hidden Lake. Driving on Skilak Loop Road, the first hints of a serene and scintillating sunset began to tease through the trees.
I was passing Hideout Trail. A little over a mile of hiking and almost 900 feet of climbing and I could take in this budding sunset from a classic peninsula perch.
Time for a side trip.
Reaching the top, the mountains behind Skilak Lake were speckled soft and delicately imbued with the palette of an escaping far north winter’s day, making the scene, with its enduring stillness, more painting than reality.
A full moon hung over head, adding watchful dignity. The frosty Kenai River swirled into the picture from below.
And as the sun retreated, cold air pulled moisture from the snow, leading to heathered curves as misty carpets cottonly crept down the surrounding hills.
Now this was a side trip.
And this is why that Colorado trip was great. Getting back to Alaska was like that first hot shower, that first sleep in bed or that first dish-washing after an extended wilderness trip. Suddenly, all those things are not taken for granted anymore.
So as various adventures pull me around Southcentral this summer, I will look for side trips — a walk along Quartz Creek on Devil’s Creek Trail or a visit to many of the short gems on Skilak Loop Road — as an excuse to stretch my legs.
And if anybody sees me and wonders why I’ve bothered to stop for such a quick hike, I’ve already got my answer ready.
“Just enjoying the silence.”