The Art of Exploration · a diary of day trips, natural places, and miscellaneous adventures

Shanahan Mesa

Saturday, November 4th, 2017 in Colorado
Shanahan Mesa

Another busy week of work, which means another week spent sitting at my desk, staring into my computer screen. Saturday arrives and I’m spoiling for a hike. But I don’t want to bother with an elaborate excursion, so it’s back to Boulder to hike Mesa Trail and the nearby canyons and mesas.

I aim to park at NCAR as usual, but today there are swarms of cars heading up Table Mesa Drive. A young attendee at the bottom of the hill waves for me to stop and informs me the lot is full. I ask to drive up anyway so I can at least turn around. The attendant nods and waves me past. At the top of the hill, I encounter another attendant. I tell him I intend to turn around, having been previously informed the lot is full. He replies that there are plenty of open spaces if I want to park and directs me down the middle lane. Confused but pleased, I find an open spot and pull in.

The NCAR campus teams with people. The usual hikers and rock climbers mingle their way through the crowds towards the trails. Clusters of grade-school children and their parents stream towards the main entrance of NCAR. When I reach the building I realize what the fuss is about. A banner across the entrance reads “Happy Anniversary NCAR! Celebrating 50 Years of Science Education!”

I’m encouraged to see how popular the event is. In the current political climate, celebrating science education is more important than ever, especially science education that focuses on atmospheric research. In the courtyard in front of the main NCAR building, dozens of children queue to climb aboard the DOW (Doplar on Wheels) truck where they marvel at the array of radar screens glowing in the truck’s interior. I’m more intrigued by what’s on the back of the truck: a large radar dish. The massive saucer hurls itself around with impressive force as it scans the nearby skies for microbursts, snow bands, and similar signs of meteorological mischief. At the moment, dark clouds envelop the mountains to the north and west. Surely those clouds hide some nefarious atmospheric anomalies.

I maneuver my way through the crowds and start my hike. The trails are busier than normal. The bulk of the foot-traffic heads north along the Mesa Trail. I turn south to avoid the chaos. After a half-mile, I regret this decision. The trail gives way to a steep gravel road that climbs upward at a knee-grinding slope for nearly a mile. Two weeks ago, this section of the trail tormented me and I’m frustrated to discover that my fitness and the steepness of the trail both remain the same as they were on my previous visit. Consequently, I start to drag about halfway up the incline.

When I reach Fern Canyon Trail, I pause to rest. I gulp down some water and let several faster hikers cruise past me. As I continue to climb, the trail turns into a jumble of rocks and gnarled roots, plenty of things for my tired feet to stumble on. I keep going—up, and up, and up. After a while, I feel slightly better, even though I’m still slow. But I realize the dark clouds to the north and west are seeping out over lower elevations. As I reach the southern flanks of the Nebel Horn I turn around. Not wanting to retrace my steps back down, I follow the nearby splinter trail towards Shanahan Mesa, which meets up with the Mesa Trail. It was a nice way to finish off my hike, with new views of Nebel Horn and nearby crags.

Area Map

My hike followed Mesa Trail, Fern Canyon Trail, and Shanahan Trail for a lollipop-loop hike of 4.8 miles with 1,250 feet of elevation gain. View the full statistics for my hike on Strava here.

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