After that it was time to walk around and see the sites. I played around with my camera, as I was trying to get better at manually setting the shutter speed and f-stop, as well as learn its secrets. Dinner and chores finished in time for the sunset which was a dozy, and then off to bed for some fitful sleep. All three nights I was the only one in the campground which was quite nice.
Up the next day at around 5:30 and off to the trail. The hike I had planned was actually outside the Monument itself: a few miles to the West, up to the densest concentration of natural arches in the United States save Arches NP itself. They're all located in Rattlesnake canyon, North-West of the Monument. I actually got off around 6:30, which was about when it got light enough to see unaided. It was cool, low to mid twenties, but after about 30 minutes with my rain-coat on I was too hot and returned to just my hiking clothes, which ended up being the last time I wore anything for warmth this trip.
The hike was across a few canyons before climbing up to the top of Rattlesnake (the arches themselves actually being on the ridge of Rattlesnake canyon rather than down at the bottom of it). For the first half-mile or so there were many foot-prints, then just one set. At three miles in there was a very tricky spot with the snow and ice and that was the last of those prints. After a slog up to the top I reached the ridge and was rewarded with some very nice views, then down to see the tops of these arches!
Then it was time to head down and see them from below, where it was supposedly much better views. Now ... how to get down? All the maps I saw, including the one I had with me showed the trail dipping down the 100 or so feet right at the beginning and simply continuing around. I had walked to the end of the ridge on top and seen no connection. For about two hours I searched for the trail, walking back and forth. Finally I walked up to a trailhead above the ridge where a 4x4 track came in (closed for the winter). There I found a map that clearly showed that the trail did not connect, that it simply ended at the top of the arches and looked like it did on my map because, horizontally, it was almost on top of the trail that went around the bottom. The only way to reach that trail was back the way I came and then around the point of the ridge. Ahh well, I got some good pictures. Including one incredibly wide panorama from the 4x4 trailhead.
Then it was back down and around for those arches! They were incredible, and remote enough to make them a lot more fun then Arches NP. I was disappointed that my confusion on top kept me from dropping down into the canyon like I had originally planned, but I saw all the arches which was the main point. Loop over I headed back to the car. The whole trip was around 25 miles, which wasn't too bad. A lot of snow and mud and my new boots held up great so that was promising.
I turned in at sunset again, and slept even worse this night. Still I got a few hours in and woke up at 4:30, which was just about perfect. My second hike started flat and in the trees, which was good for pre-dawn hiking (with a headlamp) and I wanted to get an early start. The mud was pretty bad there and the more of the hike I completed in the morning the better, before the ground thawed out. So it was around 5:45 when I actually got started, this time in the Monument itself.
The overall hike was to go down the liberty cap trail down to the bench at the foot of the Monument, walk along that to Wedding Canyon and follow that up to the Monument trail (the bench and wedding trails both being unmaintained trails). That would lead back to the main road, and from there Black Ridge trail back to my car. Overall about 27 miles, so it promised to be a good work-out.
The sun came up around the time I hit liberty cap, which was good for both scenery and the hike down to the bench was a bit tricky.
Then off on the bench trail, which was mostly pretty good though I did lose it once. There were great views though. No footprints, which was nice, always good to have a bit of the hike that feels secluded even if it's over-looking a town.
After walking past the trail head to the Colorado National Monument Trail (looks imposing, doesn't it?) it was up Wedding Canyon. Incidentally, the trailhead was the only place I ever saw anyone else on a trail there: two women walking together, and one runner. The trail up the canyon was quite nice, though steeper than I had anticipated. As with the rest of the Monument, there were nice, canyon views the whole way.
Then I met up with the main trail and went back to the road above the canyons. The trail was expertly routed to be both safe and spread the elevation gain out as much as possible. One of the best trails I've been on, though by this point things were starting to get rather muddy.
Once I hit the road, I picked up the liter of water I'd stashed there and it was up to Black Ridge and back. This walk at first was pretty, but quickly fell into the trees and lost most of the view. What I remember about it, though, was the mud. By now it was afternoon and snow was melting and ground unfreezing and things were very unpleasant. Each step was at least an inch into the quagmire, rocks and plans, on trail, off trail, nothing seemed to work as a solution. Still, one step at a time and I made it back to the car with a very nice trip completed and time left to wander around and see the sights.
There was supposed to be rain and snow coming in that night so I planned on getting to sleep as quickly as I could, and simply packing up and leaving as soon as the precipitation came. While I turned in early I simply couldn't get to sleep. The weather was supposed to move in by 9, and when midnight came I was still awake and still waiting. I finally decided to just forget it and go home. So I packed up and left around 12:30 or so. I was glad I did, the pass at Vail and the Eisenhower tunnel got very slippery by the time I reached them, it turns out it was snowing there already, just not at the Monument! Anyways, I beat the chain law being put into effect by about half an hour, though conditions were quite slippery and very slow for me. I made it home by 5:30 that morning, unpacked and went to sleep. A very nice trip, if not overly long.
Full pictures, including higher resolution versions of the ones here, can be found at: http://www.panoramio.com/user/5423509/tags/Colorado%20National%20Monument