Stanley Canyon Is Worth the Effort
Hiking was never a strong passion of mine when I was younger. We had places to hike where I grew up in Northern California, but in my youth, it was not a regular hobby for my family or me. Little Darby was a hiking trail nestled in the hills east of our home. The trail was a popular place for school field trips, as well as for teenagers looking to escape the watchful eye of their parents. I remember the dirt road leading up to the thick surroundings of fir trees. In my memory, the buzz of cicadas always seemed present, regardless of the season.
We would reach the top of the dirt road and come into a clearing that was complete with redwood picnic tables. We would sit and eat our packed lunch, keeping still in our seats in an attempt to avoid the splinters that were sure to pierce through our shorts. Then we would climb the hill, one kid after another, like ants marching up an anthill. With youth on our side, my fellow classmates and I were not fazed by the altitude. I felt like Superwoman hiking that measly 2,800 feet.
My future eventually brought me to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and my husband Todd and I set our sights on hiking the various trails surrounding our city. Deciding we were not about to begin on an easy trail, we planned to tackle Stanley Canyon. All we needed was a weekend when the stars aligned and he and I were free to spend a few hours together.
In early June, my best friend from Oklahoma came to visit. Her only request during her visit was to go for a hike. Todd was still recovering from a bout of strep throat, but he insisted we hike the 4.4 miles up and down the trail. The summer morning started warm and sunny, with a slight breeze. The base of the trail began at the United States Air Force Academy. Packed with sunscreen, bottled water, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we began our hike on a gravel road. Flashbacks of Little Darby brought confidence. This is going to be easy, I thought. We already live at 6,800 feet altitude, so what is another thousand feet or so? A shimmering reservoir awaited at the top of the trail, our golden ticket, complete with swimming opportunities and vibrant scenery. The four of us, including my 7 year old, were excited to venture up the mountain. We would start at an elevation of 7,400 feet and attempt to reach Stanley Canyon’s 8,865-foot peak.
Quickly, the dirt road narrowed into a clay trail and before we knew it, the trees were wrapping their branches around us. We came to a small clearing and took a quick photo opportunity; we could see the entire Colorado Springs valley from our vantage point. Hills, houses, golf courses, and other tiny structures filled the vast valley. We stopped here briefly, then began to ascend the cliffs, gradually climbing the steep terrain. I quickly wondered if my son would be able to handle it. I should have known he would be the least of my worries when he quickly said, “Follow me, Mommy.”
As we ascended further, the wind got stronger, as if to say, Are you sure you want to keep going? The leaves and bushes clicked together in the wind, distracting us from how short of breath we felt. The trail would level out, then become steep again, alternating. A small creek bordered the trail, and occasionally small waterfalls would greet us as we moved around the corners. We took several breaks as our body temperatures rose. Todd would occasionally need to catch his breath. He was much sweatier than my friend and me.
A few hours into our hike, the trail became steep again, and to make matters even more challenging, now it was strewn with hundreds of boulders of various sizes. What were these obstacles protecting? I wondered. Midway up the boulder trail, we heard a rumbling in the distance. Looking up, we saw an ominous black cloud above. Todd, now soaked from head to toe, finally relented — We should go back. The strep had not completely left his system. Defeated, we retreated home to hot wings and beer.
A couple of months later, my older boys returned from their summer visit with their dad, and we thought it was time to introduce them to this hiking thing. Todd was free and clear of strep throat and decided he had something to prove — to me and to himself. The weekend after the boys’return, we started up the familiar dirt road and began the climb. About a half a mile into the trail, we came upon the shallow creek, which would stay by our side for the remainder of the trail. We took our time, pausing to view the jagged rock formations of Pike National Park. Families with small children would breeze by going up the trail while others came barreling past us on their way down.
We kept on climbing, and soon we came to the jagged rocks where we had previously turned around on our last attempt — tails between our legs. We all felt challenged at this point, and we used our hands to keep balance and pull ourselves up further. As we climbed, a family with a tiny wiener dog passed us going down. Breathing heavily, the little guy jumped from rock to rock, as if he had done this a million times before. Get out of my way, we imagined him saying as he hopped down the trail.
We eventually conquered the rocky barrier and came to a flat meadow. We had only been hiking about two hours. The last time, we had not even made it this far in three hours. Black-Eyed Susan wildflowers that resembled tiny sunflowers filled the meadow, bordering the trail like crowds of children waiting for a parade concession. They doubled in purpose as both specks of sunshine and rest stops for the Police Car Moths. Aptly named for their black-rimmed wings with white centers, the moths patrolled the meadow, landing periodically to rest and taste the pollen.
Surrounded by aspens, we continued through the flat forest area that soon opened into a broad field, it too filled with more Black-Eyed Susans speckled throughout the knee-high grass. We knew the reservoir was not far behind. Our pace quickened now, for we no longer had rocks and gravel trail to maneuver. At the west side of the field, we saw one more hill, yet this one was wide and only about thirty feet in height. “The home stretch,” we thought — something we had said when we conquered the final rocky climb, and said once again when we first entered the plateau of forest and meadow. However, this time, we knew it was true. My oldest son and I ran full speed towards the hill, believing our momentum would bring us to the top quicker.
At the top of the hill, our prize awaited in the form of crystal blue water that reflected the aspens surrounding the lake. Several float-tube anglers lounged near the center of the lake under cumulus clouds and a blue sky. Although only a few families were nearby, we moved to the south end of the lake, hoping for a private, flat spot to eat our lunch and soak our feet. Armed with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and goldfish crackers, we watched a family of ducks swim right by, indifferent to our presence.
Within minutes of finishing lunch, my youngest quickly ditched his shoes and shirt and jumped in the water to cool down. His brothers quickly followed suit. While the boys swam, I waded along the beach, watching the tiny schools of minnows gather around my ankles in the clear, clean water. Todd chatted with fellow hikers. Soon, the wind began to pick up. We feared a thunderstorm might be on the way. The boys redressed, and we began our 2.2-mile descent back to Colorado Springs. We followed the trail back through the meadow, past the Black-Eyed Susans, protected by the Police Car Moths. Couples and families passed us on their way up, some asking, “Are we there yet?”
“Almost,” we told them all, hoping they found the same satisfaction and sense of accomplishment we did.
We made it home in time for celebratory burgers and beer. Todd made it this time; we all made it. It has been a long time since Little Darby, Northern California and I have come a long way — 2 states and 6,100 feet, to be exact. Low-altitude hiking is a distant memory now, yet a t-shirt with a distinctive S for Superwoman is still not in order. If we can do 8,900 feet, then surely we can do 10,000, 11,000, even a 14er. With summer behind us, and fall in full swing, we will probably wait until next season.