Saturday, April 30, 2022, my friend Rose and I ventured out to Golden Gate Canyon State Park for a hike. It was late when we got there. I would have liked to go in the morning. I was waiting for everyone else, but by like 1:00 PM, I realized that most of them didn’t even want to go hiking. When we finally did leave, the girls I was with wanted to stop at a shop first, which took a while. We didn’t get to the park until 2:30 or so. I drove in using my friend’s phone for GPS guidance and we parked at the Visitor Center. I made sure everyone knew that we were at the visitor center as there is no cell service and I knew that taxis and ride shares do not go out there. We made a plan to meet right there at 7:30 PM. Rose and I would hike, and the other four girls would go to Meow Wolf, an art exhibit in Denver – they had tickets for a specific time slot.
The others left, and Rose and I started out on a connector trail from the visitors center to Horseshoe Trailhead and immediately found moose scat.
There was quite a bit of moose scat throughout our hike, but unfortunately we never saw any moose. We headed northwest on horseshoe trail and it was a steady incline. We walked along a beautiful stream with dozens of butterflies fluttering around us. I was carrying a pack as I’m trying to train to walk longer distances with heavier loads for our trip this summer. We gained about 600 feet on this section and I was really huffing and puffing with the elevation, weight, and my obvious lack of fitness. Rose kept having to wait for me to stop and catch my breath, remove clothing, and put clothing back on.
At one point we were “greeted” by a territorial mama grouse. She was so cute.
We got to our first junction and decided to go right and then do this loop. The decision was based on a paper trail map, not on all this data in this link, as we did not have cell service or data.
The meadows were just as beautiful as the forest. There were old homesteading cabins with information about the owners and gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. Though it was still early in spring we did see a small white wildflower along the trail here, though we didn’t know the identity of it.
When we re-entered the forest on Coyote trail, we stopped on some boulders for a drink of water. Here I paused my watch and then I forgot to restart it, so I’m missing a big chunk of data. We walked uphill another few hundred feet until we summited a ridge. We sat and enjoyed the view along with a sweet ground squirrel and some beautiful chickadees and had an apple.
We headed downhill with some fun rock scrambling, eventually remembering to restart my watch workout. We hit another meadow near Bootleg Bottom and thought it looked like a place we’d see moose. No moose were seen, and I was bummed looking at trail reviews the next day stating that many people have seen tons of moose there. Darnit!
We crossed a parking lot/road and found some pasque flowers, then turned left onto mule deer trail. We stayed in that meadow/valley for a while and saw some beautiful pussy willow and lots more poop. Then we met an adorable, friendly golden retriever who very much wanted to play fetch with the tiny pussy willow twig Rose collected from the ground.
We got to Ole Barn Knoll picnic area and trailhead, and while Rose used the restroom, I examined the maps. I mention that because I realized I didn’t go to the bathroom the whole time, and I probably should have drank more water than I did. I realized that we still had a long way to go, and we would absolutely not make it back to the visitor center by the time our ride was supposed to meet us. We started trying to get service now and again (had our phones on airplane mode to preserve battery). Eventually, I did catch a couple bars and was able to get the message out that we were running late and to not leave the parking lot to look for us, and just wait there for us. They replied, so we felt much better and kept on hiking. At the junction of Mule Deer trail and Blue Grouse trail, we deliberated whether to keep taking the trails we had decided on or to grab Blue Grouse trail and then take the road from there to the visitor center. We decided it would be more fun, and since our ride knew to wait for us, and it was probably all downhill (don’t ask me why we thought that), to take our original plan.
But very soon we started going steeply uphill. I was a little disconcerted and we stopped to consider backtracking and going down to the road. But we just kept on with the trail and kept going uphill. As we were trying to go as fast as possible, I was really struggling to breathe, and was hoping it would even out soon, but it kept going up. We turned onto Black Bear trail and it kept getting steeper. Then we reached this signpost on which someone had painted “You Made It” and we were so relieved. We took pictures with it to mark the “summit” and kept going.
But it kept going up. Like scrambling rocks up. Then we started losing the trail. We’d be suddenly walking on soft forest floor and realize we were off and then find a trail marker off in the distance. At this point we started getting worried about the encroaching dark. The sun was starting to set, and if the trail continued like this, there was absolutely no way we’d find our way in the dark with headlamps searching out little brown trail markers amongst brown trees and rocks. Eventually we got to the top of this ridge, snapped a quick picture, and kept on booking it to try to get out of this area before nightfall. I wish I would have stopped a couple more times to take more pictures, but in the moment, not knowing how far the rock outcropping section was going to go on for, we didn’t stop except to fish our headlamps out of my bag.
Once we got out of the rock outcropping, we felt better but the fear didn’t quite subside as much as it should have. We were running really late for our ride and hated to make them sit and wait, so any time there was good enough footing, we were running. We made a conscious effort to keep talking or yelling out, because we didn’t really want to scare a bear at dusk.
Suddenly Rose said, “I smell cat pee.” I couldn’t smell anything. I was mouth breathing, huffing and puffing, but she was adamant. A minute later we saw a big puddle of pee on the side of the trail (there were no other people or pets on the trail at that time). Dang! I’ve never met someone with a sense of smell stronger than mine! We keep speed-walking and running and a minute or two later we see what looks sort of like fresh dog poop on the trail, and then another turd a bit further ahead on the trail. Later we looked it up and it was most probably, considering the puddle and smell from before, mountain lion scat. We were literally chasing a mountain lion on the trail at dusk.
We got to one more split in the trail and decided to go right and in one or two more minutes we were exiting onto the road leading to the visitor center. I was so relieved I cried out, hands in the air, exultant. We walked happily along the road to the visitor center with wobbly legs, ready to have a seat and relax. But when we rounded the trees into the parking lot, the van wasn’t there.
We were puzzled. It was 8:15 PM, and by now it was full on dark. We sat down on a bench at the visitor center and got out some food. But with all the adrenaline pumping through our bodies, we couldn’t really get anything down, so we put it away and discussed our situation. We couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t be there by 8:30, when our original time was 7:30, even if we said we’d be late. We thought maybe they stopped somewhere to watch a sunset and didn’t realize how late it was getting.
But very quickly we started to cool down from the body heat of activity. We were starting to get cold and put on every piece of clothing we had, which wasn’t a whole lot. We hadn’t packed for night or cold. It was around 32°F and our clothes were wet from sweating all afternoon and evening. I said, “Situations like these really bring you back to the times when we didn’t have cell phones. But back then there were payphones all over the place.” And the second I said that, my headlamp and eyes fell upon the pay phone on the wall of the visitor center.
I ran up to it and looked. Obviously, it only took quarters, and we only had bills. So then I decided to try calling collect. We called one of our friends. It didn’t work. So then I decided to call her again, and then all the other girls in turn. We thought even if they were screening out unknown numbers, they’d catch on to the pattern. It didn’t work with any of them. (We learned later that all four of them actually accepted every single call, but once it tried to connect us it ended their call.)
Then I called my husband, Chirag in Sioux Falls. This time we got somewhere! He declined the call, so at least I knew it was working. I called back and instead of saying my name, I said, “Babe, please accept, we’re stranded in the wilderness,” and he accepted. I gave him all the girls names and numbers and told him exactly where we were and our situation. We hung up and Chirag got to work calling all our friends.
Rose and I were worried to say the least. Worried about the cold and dark and the hungry wildlife out there, sure, but also worried about what happened to the girls. We figured they either got lost trying to come get us and were out there somewhere with no service or they had been in a car accident and were all “lying in a ditch somewhere.” You know, we’re moms, so we’re required to think that.
We were pacing around on the lighted deck of the visitors center, trying to keep warm. Our brains told us to do jumping jacks or something to keep warm, but our burnt out bodies were not agreeing with that assessment. We found some bundles of firewood out back and thought if worse comes to worst, maybe we could start a small fire in the middle of the parking lot to keep warm. (We thought of all the things, lol. We wouldn’t really have started a fire, as there were already fire bans in place and we didn’t want to risk a wildfire when we could just walk a few miles to town.)
I called Chirag back after 10-15 minutes and he said two of the girls were at the rental. The other two were running late because of events that happened in Denver and having to drop off the other two due to illness. The girls in the car told him, after many dropped calls, they were just pulling into the parking lot. “Um, no. They did NOT pull into the parking lot. No one is here,” I said. “Rose and I are going to start walking soon, or maybe hitchhike. We are too cold to wait here any longer.”
“No, don’t do that. I’ll call an Uber for you,” said Chirag.
“Ride shares and taxis don’t come out here. I read that before coming out here. That’s why I was sure to set up a time and a place to meet before our ride left.”
“Okay, let me call them back and see what’s going on.”
“Look up the map online and help them find the visitor center. There is only one. Make sure they’re at this park.”
We hung up and Rose and I discussed which side of the road we’d walk on, whether we would attempt to hitchhike, and what our plan was for feeling safe and choosing a ride. It would be a 13 mile walk to Golden, but at least if we walked at a brisk pace, we’d warm our bodies back up.
Suddenly, the phone rang. I answered it, but no one was there. (Later we learned that the girls had called non-emergency police trying to figure out where our phone was. Apparently they thought that since we were calling them we must have ended up somewhere else. They somehow found the number and called it, but to no avail, it did not connect us. There must have been something about the Denver cell towers and this payphone because I never could connect to their phones going out or coming in. They should maybe fix that problem.) I thought maybe it was Chirag, so I called him again.
“It wasn’t me. Just so you know, it’s $25 every time you call me.”
“What?! I thought it would charge by the minute or something!”
“No, but it’s okay. Just call me again in 15 minutes and tell me if they made it there yet.”
We hung up again, and now I was all angry because I just wasted $75 on a few phone calls. We were pacing around, discussing our options, watching the time, and after ten minutes or so, we decided to just start walking. “I’ll just call everyone on my phone once we get to a service area,” I said.
So, we threw on our bags and started walking to the road. We walked up to the road sign, just to make sure left was indeed the way to Golden, when we saw the van turning onto the road to the visitor center. An even bigger flood of relief washed over me and we screamed and waved our arms and ran to the van.
When we got in, we heard their side of the story which involved getting stuck behind a tram that had hit and killed a man right in front of them, going to the art installation late, one of them getting very sick, being unable to retrieve their van from the police situation at the tram, and GPS taking them to an entirely different area of the park, driving around, finding a map sign, and then finding us.
I definitely learned a lot of lessons on this trip. Make sure you’re prepared for anything. I am glad I had packed headlamps, but the sweating and warmth situation was not ideal. Make sure you have quarters with you all the time. Give your ride a GPS location of where exactly to get you and tell them to enter that into their GPS when they come to get you.
But, overall, it was an incredible hike. If you hike in the Denver area, you should definitely check this one out. It had everything: evergreen forests, birch stands, meadows, streams, bouldering and rock scrambling, epic views, all the wildlife, and ever-changing scenery. Just maybe start a little earlier, and drive there yourself.