An autumn hike in Colorado mountains

jenphotographs mueller colorado panorama landscape

There’s nothing like the first fall photography hike in Colorado’s mountains when the air is cool and fresh. The meadows filled with sweet-smelling wild grass have transformed from lush green to tawny gold with shimmers of silver. The smell of junipers and pines wafts through the air. Trails are sun-warmed and dry. Miles flow by effortlessly. The Colorado sky is a bold, striking blue with a few fluffy clouds sailing across.

When I write “sailing across,” I mean: at Mach 4 speeds. On this day, the mountains had unusually strong winds and gusts up to 75mph. The first thing I did after arriving at the park was tie up my hair and search the car for a hat or a handkerchief to no avail.

Colorado: Mueller State Park

Although I’m a seasoned hiker and camper, I was rusty, which would become apparent later. Mueller State Park seemed like a good park to start with getting my sea legs back. Most of the trails are easy to follow, well-maintained, and relatively short. If there were any emergencies, help wasn’t far away. And most importantly: it’s a scenic park. Between the distant hazy mountains, valleys, and historic buildings, photography opportunities abounded.

The plan

It had been several years since I last visited Mueller, and my memories of the trails were hazy. The name, Cheeseman Ranch, amused me. To make it an easy loop, I’d take the Cahill Pond leg, which would swing by a historic cabin and bring me back to the trailhead. The topo indicated that I’d face mild-to-moderate elevation gains and losses but nothing too strenuous or challenging. Including the spur to the summit overlook, the total hike would cover about 3.16 miles. Perfect for a half-day hike. And if I was feeling good, there’d be plenty of time for another short loop.

jenphotographs mueller state park map legend trail names
JenPhotographs Mueller Stat Park Map of planned route

Although it’s theoretically possible to cover three miles in an hour, what novice hikers don’t realize is the elevation gains can slow up the pace significantly. If you’re not acclimated to Colorado’s altitude, that can too impact your speed. Unless you’re in a mad dash to arrive at a campsite by a certain time, you’ll likely stop every so often to enjoy the sights or to search for wildlife. Or, like me, to take a few pictures. I expected to average about 45 minutes per mile – about two hours 15 minutes, not counting the time for the summit hike, which would likely take me additional 45-ish minutes due to the steep terrain. A leisurely pace, to be sure, but the day was fine. I wanted to enjoy the trail and not rush.

I normally carry a pack with two or three lenses and a few other necessities like a first aid kit, water, and snacks. Today, I wanted to keep my load light. I wanted to fly unburdened. Perhaps Zephyrus, the Greek god of West Wind, knew and sent the winds.

After some hemming and hawing, I armed myself with a 50-300mm f3.5 zoom. If there were any wildlife in the area, this lens would improve my odds of photographing it. A water bottle hung from my other shoulder. And off I went.

The hike begins

Almost immediately, I was greeted by a rolling meadow with a hazy mountain for its backdrop. Though I was just a few minutes into my hike, I paused to scour the meadow for wildlife. Were there elks?

jenphotographs landscape picture of meadow with dry golden grass and mountains in back

Though it was about 50 degrees, the sun beating down on the dry grass made it feel warmer. This is another trait that is unique to Colorado. Because of its dry, thin air, people will feel warm on cool days. It’s not uncommon to see people comfortably wearing shorts and flip-flops in on sunny 30-degree days.

The aspens were just starting to change and many trees were in that odd in-between stage between yellow and green.
jenphotographs aspens in mdidle of changing colors
jenphotographs landscape wild grass aspens

Every so often, I make it a point to stop and look around for something interesting to investigate. Or a unique angle to photograph a seemingly common subject. My favorite technique is ridiculously simple. Most people photograph landscapes, animals, or people while standing straight up. In that position, a camera is typically around five feet above the ground, give or take a few inches. Your average viewer is so accustomed to this perspective that by making a minor change to the camera height can dramatically change the feel or the look of the scene – even though it’s the exact same subject. Unless you happen to have a monopod or tripod, raising the camera can be a challenge on a hike. However, lowering is as simple as getting on your knees or even on your stomach.

One common reaction whenever I propose this is: “I don’t want to get dirty.” You’re hiking. You’re going to get dirty anyway. Get your butt down.

For both shots (above), I knelt to get the wild grasses and wheat in view.

Though it wasn’t that early in the day – around 9 AM when I started the hike – the park seemed virtually empty. Like I was alone in the world. I wouldn’t have to share the trail.

This dirt road was

mine and mine alone to explore.

While I’m a big advocate of getting people outdoors, I’m also a selfish hiker. I like it when I have the trails to myself. (get off my lawn! *shakes fist at cloud*)

jenphotographs hiking trail mueller state park

When I was eight, I was riding somewhere with my dad. He kept glancing back over his shoulder with a searching look in his eyes. I asked if something was wrong. “No,” he explained. “When you go anywhere new, whether it’s on foot or by car, look behind you every little while. This way you know what it looks like if you need to turn around.” (He, of course, said this in words that an eight-year-old could understand). I didn’t understand how smart this was until I started hiking regularly.

I always look back.

I taught dad a few things over the years, too. A few years ago, we went on a hike near his old house, and I pointed out a hawk in the trees. “How did you ever see that?” he asked. “When we walk in an unfamiliar area, we tend to look at the ground so that we don’t trip. Every so often,” I told him with a smile, “look up. You might be surprised by what you see.” He raised his eyebrows and nodded.

Wind in the grass

It’s grass. Wee!

jenphotographs mueller state park mountain meadow grass

One downside to photography is it can be a challenge to adequately capture an invisible force. Like wind. In the above picture, the grass looks beaten down, but it’s hard to tell how or why.

The wind today was an extremely strong and constant presence. Hiking uphill while facing the wind turned into a workout.

I now have an ass to rival Jennifer Lopez’s.

To better illustrate this wind, I made a short video for your enjoyment.

A disaster strikes! (not really)

About halfway up the hill (pictured), I started having a nagging feeling. This leg felt like it was taking longer than it should’ve. Trudging on, the marker for the trail #33 (Buffalo Rock) popped up behind a gentle swell a few minutes later. Whoops. I had missed my turn to get on the Cahill Pond Leg. Up till that point, the trail and all of the other forks had been well-marked. It’s possible I simply missed the marker or perhaps it was knocked over by the strong winds. I remember seeing a path leading west through beat-down grasses but assumed it was a fire road for the park rangers to use. Hindsight is 20/20.

Looking at the map, all I needed to do was travel west on #33 and take the left fork and I’d be back on track. An extra .6 miles. Not a huge detour. This was a good indication of how rusty I am at hiking and navigating, which made me uneasy. Fortunately, the terrain was very gentle and forgiving.

If this had happened in a different area of the park where the elevation gains are more severe or the terrain is more treacherous, this error would’ve been far more troubling.

JenPhotographs mueller state park map alternate route

As luck would have it, this unplanned detour worked out in my favor. The detour led to a slightly higher hill, and I had an even better view of the valley and the mountain ranges beyond.

This turned out to be one of my favorite photographs from the day.

I don’t like explaining my photographs and why I think it’s good or bad. People  should decide for themselves whether they like it and why. Maybe it’s the subject. Or the light. The colors. Composition. Or…


like any other art,

is highly subjective.

I often will refuse to title my photographs. Or if I do at all, it’ll be generic. “Landscape #514”. “Man in the Rain”. “A black dog #5”. When photographs and other art have leading or suggestive titles, viewers will lean on that to make a sort of a mental story about the image, rather than allow the image itself to do that job.

By avoiding titles and explanations, people are less likely to be influenced by me and more likely to arrive at their own conclusions.

A random piece of trivia about Aspen trees

In Colorado, aspens frequently are covered with black marks stretching from ground to around eight feet up. They’re fairly uniform in height and cover the whole trunk. In the past, I always assumed it was due to a fungal disease, for which aspen trees are very susceptible to. As a result of these diseases and climate changes, biologists and arborists believe they are reaching “threatened” status (USDA: Aspen Decline). However, a interpretative display sign along the trail informed me that these black marks are scars from elks nibbling on the bark. Curious, I kept an eye out for a fresh mark. Now that I knew what to look for, a freshly nibbled aspen trunk was easy to find. Unfortunately, the sign didn’t say how long it takes for the raw wood to turn black.
jenphotographs aspens black marks

The Colorado aspens frequently are covered with black marks stretching from the ground to around eight feet up. They’re fairly uniform in height and cover the whole trunk. In the past, I had assumed it was due to a fungal disease, to which aspen trees are very susceptible. As a result of these diseases and climate change, biologists and arborists believe they are reaching “threatened” status (USDA: Aspen Decline). However, an interpretative display sign along the trail informed me that these black marks are scars from elks nibbling on the bark.

Curious, I kept an eye out for a fresh mark. Now that I knew what to look for, a freshly nibbled aspen trunk was easy to find. Unfortunately, the sign didn’t say how long it takes for the raw wood to turn black.

jenphotographs aspen peeled bark elks

Heading to the Grouse Mountain Summit

The last leg of my hike went off without a hitch. By now, the hour was approaching noon. There were signs of civilization. A mountain biker who earned a glare from me for passing too closely. Families with children. Grumpy teenagers suffering from Internet withdrawal. A few pairs of couples. I also spotted a couple of solo hikers. My stomach rumbled. I ignored it and headed up the spur to the Grouse Mountain Overlook.

Up on the summit, the wind was strong and a constant presence as it buffered me from all sides. I inched near the edge, wary. If the wind gusted in an unexpected direction, it’d be easy for me to lose my balance. It was a struggle to keep still for this video.

Warning: may be loud. I had trouble keeping the camera steady in spite of bracing myself on a rock.

Wrapping up the hike

Full disclosure. This hike wasn’t all full of light and airiness. In spite of my writing here, I am not a whimsical person by nature. By the end of this hike, I was hungry and had a headache from the sun. The children on the trail irritated me. The parents, though, are to blame for not teaching their kids basic etiquette like not laying across the entire trail, throwing rocks at people, and other general idiotic behavior. I headed back to the car to eat my sandwich and debate whether to go back out on another hike.

Hiking in the afternoon at a popular park also meant sharing easier trails with people who would no doubt irritate me somehow. If I had the time for a longer hike or was in the right physical condition for a more challenging trail, I’d go back out. On top of that, the likelihood of me finding wildlife would go down to nil because they’re generally not as active during the midday hours.

If I went out for another hike, I’d end up getting cranky. I didn’t want to leave Mueller with a sour outlook. In the past, whenever I hiked with the other people, I tried to make sure the end of our journey was a positive one so that they’d look forward to going back out again.

In the end, I decided on a compromise. Just after lunchtime, it felt too early to go home. Instead, I’d go on a tour of the park to familiarize myself with the terrain as well as scope out some roadside vista points. I also stopped at the visitor center, which also functions as a small museum. The museum had examples of minerals and rocks that could be found in this park, as well as the pelts of various native wildlife and the skulls of a coyote and a deer. It was surprising to see how small a coyote’s skull was. In hindsight, I wish I had photographed these items.

Exploring the park and its amenities filled a couple of hours. After that, I headed back home.

The conclusion (aka what I learned)

After I finish any task, whether it’s for work or personal projects, I like to think about what I could’ve done better or done differently. Offhand:

  • Paid more attention to the map vs the trail. This is the big one. I’m super happy I started with an easy hike.
  • First aid kit – really, omitting this is a rookie mistake that many day- and overnight-hikers are guilty of making. I should’ve been smarter. All it takes is one bad step on a loose rock. I won’t go without again.
  • Food/snacks – if I had brought food with me rather than leaving it in the car, I’d have been less grumpy and would’ve likely gone out on another hike.
  • A backup pack – for day-hikes where I might want to travel light, it’ll be good to have a lighter, smaller pack or fanny pack. I’ll put this on my to-get list.
  • Clothes/accessories – I should’ve had a hat or a bandana in the car. The latter would actually be better because it’s multi-use. It can be used for other things like mopping up messes, as a marker, and even as a makeshift sling. My hiking shoes, I was happy to see, fared well. I’ll need a new pair soon though.

Mueller State Park

About two hours from Denver (depending on your starting point), Mueller State Park is a great little park. Over 5,000 acres covers a variety of terrains. Wide-open meadows with ponds and babbling creeks serpentining, deep woods, and steep mountains. Aside from a handful of trails, the elevation gains are fairly minimal compared with other parks along the front range. It’s a great park for beginner and intermediate hikers.

Here are some thoughts about this park:

  • Very clean. With the recent movement to beautify our parks (see here and here), I was impressed to see that the trailheads, parking lots, and visitor center were very clean. There were a few odd pieces of litter here and there, but it was overall tidy and clean. Well worth the admission price of $8.
  • Great campground layout. Many parks arrange campsites like parking lots, with cars, RVs, and tents packed in like sardines. At Mueller, however, campsites are positioned parallel to roads. On one side, campers will have minor traffic. On the opposite, campers are treated to woodlands.
    They can see their neighbors to the front or back, but they’re usually a few feet away. This layout gives campers a sense of isolation and wilderness, which is difficult to achieve in a typical campground. Plus you don’t have to worry as much about sketchy or noisy neighbors disrupting your evenings. I would be very comfortable solo-camping here.
  • Hefty campground fees. For a facility that offers only electric hookups, $38 seems a little high. Tent-camping isn’t much better; it’s a whopping $28 per night. This is in addition to the park admission pass fee of $8. Showers incur an additional fee, as well. It’s cheaper than hotels, though. But considering that parks are supposed to be accessible to everyone…this is concerning.
  • No pets on trails. While I understand why pets are not allowed on trails, the fact that they’re allowed in paved areas and campgrounds seems contradictory. It’s generally not safe to leave pets in vehicles even on a cool day. Perhaps parks should enact an all-or-nothing policy? I will have to think on this.

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