I’ve been pining for the Welch-Dickey loop since mid-winter. It’s a short, easy walk to the first ledges on Welch (above), but beyond there are a number of steep sections that just aren’t safe when wet or icy. So we’ve been waiting — and waiting — and waiting. I had preexisting plans to explore Castle in the Clouds with a friend last Sunday (a week ago, not yesterday), but after half our Greenleaf crew split for Welch-Dickey and flooded my Facebook feed with pictures of the route, I just couldn’t take it any more.
The parking area was packed when we arrived for a 2pm start, but most folks were heading down. The hike up to the first outlook was crowded. Lilo demonstrated the pros of having a well-trained hiking dog who knows who her friends are and isn’t overly interested in making new ones when we reached one stone staircase with a gaggle of minimally supervised grade schoolers playing at the bottom on either side. She just walked right by ’em and kept going. Love that dog! She’s remarkably patient with young kids when asked to allow petting, but she had places to go and mountains to hike.
(This was part of why I totally agreed with Liz‘s advice on the what-do-you-look-for-in-a-hiking-dog? post, even though I didn’t consciously realize it until I started meeting prospective dogs. I wanted a dog who’s okay with the world existing! Lilo wasn’t, always, and it took a lot of hard work to get to the this point; my previous dog was a pretty special snowflake and his world was pretty small as a result. But I also wanted a dog who was likely to be more interested in me, most of the time, than in everything else around. Lilo’s handler and task focus is part of what makes her so easy to hike with. The trail can be a busy place; a dog that wants desperately to interact with everybody on it can be as tricky in its own way as a dog that wishes they’d all just go away!)
I worried briefly on the walk up that the views wouldn’t match my memory, but I shouldn’t have bothered. This is a glorious route that spends a lot of time on exposed ledges looking down into wilderness. If anything, it was even more stunning than I recalled. I’ve always thought it would be a great sunrise hike and I bet it’s just stunning in the fall.
We saw very few other hikers past that first outlook. I’m usually an early-morning hiker, but I guess there’s something to be said for letting the crowds disperse before you start! Especially on a loop like this that has a very clear preferred direction: counterclockwise. The many ledges are easy walking when it’s dry; the rock is nicely textured and there was only one section where I felt the need to put my hands down (and I always put my hands down early, so). But going up that section definitely beats downclimbing it! So unlike most loops and lollipops, pretty much everyone goes the same direction here.
Aha! Here’s that ledge that I would not wish to descend. The trail approaches it head-on a bit to the right of this picture; Lilo had wanted to go up there, but we thought she was probably wrong (even though she’s almost never wrong, but sometimes scent blows around and settles in unusual ways) and insisted that she follow us around to the left. When the trail reapproached it here, she didn’t even look back at us puny two-leggers: she just walked right up.
This was probably not an optimal time to realize just how much my poor friend dislikes ledges! I find them fun and really like exposure; sometimes I am That Guy and forget to check with people first, and other times (like this one) I forget that a given section of trail exists until I get there. She killed it, though! And so did Titus, who was a little concerned to start — he’s so cute, you guys; he’s such a cheerful, athletic guy that I forget that he’s not actually very brave yet and doesn’t realize that he has hind feet — but worked with me super-well, letting me show him where to walk and staying nicely in place while I climbed up to him and then helped him again. He is such a good, good, good little dog.
At last we came to the end of the ledges and enjoyed a mile or so of wooded trail back to the junction and then very shortly thereafter the now-nearly-empty parking lot. I had spent part of the hike explaining to my friend why it was worth buying a WMNF parking sticker — good for a year from date of purchase; mine is valid through August 2016 — and so was extra surprised to find a ticket on the side door of my car! I moved it up next to the sticker on the windshield and snapped a photo of it alongside my sticker, which gave the person I spoke with the next day at the Thornton Police Department a good laugh. I’m sure they make a killing in that lot on good-weather weekends and the more power to them, but not from me!
My favorite part of the hike wasn’t the company, though that was excellent, or the views, though ditto. My favorite part was that it was the first time I took both dogs out and we actually hiked. Previous outings had been mostly training and management, which was of course fine and not unexpected. But the this-is-my-life-now switch had flipped in Titus’s brain mid-week; he’s still a busy, active fellow, but the frantic edge is gone. And taking him out a couple of days in a row and letting him get a little tired helped, I think, the hiking job make sense to him, too.
We still have a lot of work to do, of course! A lot, a lot, a lot. But it was really cool to be only a month into this two-dog family and to have everybody understand that their job is to go down the trail — and for everybody to be good at and enjoying it! Welch-Dickey for the win, you guys. In every possible way.