The hike began at 10,300 feet above sea level with strong, cold winds coming off the snow-capped Arapahoe Mountains to the West. The view was quite simply stunning as we stepped onto the Jean Lunning Trail, deep in the Roosevelt National Forest.

Tears welled in my fiancé’s eyes as she took it all in. For a moment we entirely forgot about the altitude headaches throbbing dully at the back of our skulls.

“This is so beautiful; magical. I could live and die here,” she whispered.

The view from the the Jean Lunning Trailhead.
The view from the the Jean Lunning Trailhead.

Our hike very nearly ended before it began. Had we not checked the weather before departing, things might have gone a little differently.

But having spent the last four weeks hiking in high 70-90 degree temperatures — short and t-shirt weather — neither one of us thought today would be any different. But then on a whim, I checked the weather. I was glad I did.

While the temperatures would be hitting the low 90s by noon in Aurora, the Roosevelt National Forest would barely have crept above 50 by the time we arrived. The high was a balmy 62 degrees.

The drive up to the trailhead was a long rural one that took us through Left Hand Canyon — a route I have no doubt my father would have enjoyed.

As we rose out of the canyon, the air grew ever thinner. At first we felt light headed, but this soon resolved into a dull headache that we carried like an extra weight in our pack well into the hike.

We arrived at Brainard Lake recreation area a little before 10 a.m. to find the parking lot nearly at capacity. And as we were directed to “do whatever the blonde lady tells you to do,” we discovered our hike had just gotten considerably longer. The Long Lake parking lot where we had planned to begin our trek was full and we were forced to park about a mile downhill from the trailhead. Back in La Crosse we wouldn’t have given the challenge a second thought — what’s another mile — but we weren’t in Wisconsin anymore, the dull throb in the back of our heads an ever present reminder of that fact.

Our trek would take us on a gentle three-mile hike around Long Lake. Along the way, we’d rise a further 180 feet in altitude, though with our attention turned to the beauty all around us we hardly noticed.

A solitary hiker nears the end of her trek along the Jean Lunning Trail in the Roosevelt national forest
A solitary hiker nears the end of her trek along the Jean Lunning Trail in the Roosevelt national forest

As we descended deeper into the tree line, the wild flowers dotting the trailside — Monkshood, Alpine and Golden Asters, Hawkweed, and Giant Red Indian Paintbrush — grew denser.

Monkshood dotted the trailside.
Monkshood dotted the trailside.
Red Indian Paintbrush
An Alpine Aster blooms just feet from the trails edge.
Blue spruce trees tower above our heads.
Blue spruce trees tower above our heads.

At each break in the tree line, we marveled at the Arapahoe Mountains each dotted with what at first glance appeared to be dark green shrubs, but were in reality the same tall Blue Spruce trees towering above our heads. It really was the only indication of distance and scale.

Along the way, we crossed half a dozen or more mountain streams. One in particular stood out. From several-hundred yards out, we could hear the water making its way, propelled solely only by the force of gravity, to the lake below.

The sound was so pronounced that one fellow hiker remarked, “it’s a babbling brook.”

I found the description quite fitting.

I babbling brook carries ice cold mountain water from the ice capped mountains above.
I babbling brook carries ice cold mountain water from the ice capped mountains above.

As we rounded the half-way point, the forest closed around us and the terrain grew hillier. Away from the crowded lake shore, we caught the first glimpse of wildlife — a deer, I can only assume, making its way down the hillside to the slate-blue waters below.

All told our hike took us approximately five miles through one of the most beautiful places I’d ever ventured.

Niecie expressed her delight with the hike, a sentiment I had seldom heard cross her lips, and exclaimed “now I need a nap.”

Niecie stands triumphant at the Jean Lunning Trailhead.

Please comment and share:

  • Have you ever gone hiking in the Roosevelt National Forest?
  • Where is your favorite place to hike?
  • Have you experienced altitude sickness?
  • Where should we go next?

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