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Cooper Creek Trail

For those of you who have followed my journeys from van-life to Colorado-dweller, you know of my ever-faithful sidekick, Z-Dog, aka Ziggy. At the end of September, he will be turning 10 years old and he’s been with me since he was approximately 8 weeks old. I feel incredibly lucky to have had 10 years of adventures with a mellow and good-spirited companion like him, but his age is starting to creep in and the gray hairs are taking over his distinguished face. Despite supplements, glucosamine, and the best food money can buy, his back legs are showing serious signs of arthritis. I have mostly “retired” him from hiking, but recently I took him on a long jaunt through an avalanche-debris filled basin. 
My original plan was to hike nearby 14ers Redcloud and Sunshine. However, I didn’t sleep well the night before and turned my alarm off when it started ringing at 4am for the alpine start. When I finally crawled out of the 4runner at 7 am, I decided it was too late to try for summit and picked a different trail for the day. This trail ended up being Cooper Creek, in the basin next to the original 14ers. 
Looking east towards Redcloud Peak
As soon as I got on trail, I knew I had made the right choice. While the 14ers trailhead parking lot had been filled with cars, this parking area had only my car, and it had been three days since someone has last signed the registry. A day in the mountains for just me and Z-dog- what a treat. 
Somewhere between a half mile and a mile, we crossed our first field of avalanche-debris and lingering snow. March marked a historic cycle of avalanches for Colorado, specifically in the San Juan Mountains, but this would be the first hike where I would see the full extent of this historic cycle. 
Mature trees brought down by avalanches and left to stand upside-down
Most of the hike was fairly flat as we crossed meadows and still-lingering winter snow. Epic winters lead to epic wildflowers and this basin showed off its best. Throughout the hike, we passed group upon group of colorful wildflowers. The day was sunny and their petals beamed happily.
As we neared the last 2 miles, the started to gain significantly and Z-Dog started to lag behind and take frequent breaks. The goal was Cooper Lake, which would be gained by hiking to a saddle and then gaining a ridge. Next to us ran Cooper Creek and Z-Dog enjoyed drinking cold mountain water. Since the trail was rarely hiked and crossed many snow-filled meadows, it was hard to find the route after gaining the saddle. We did our best guesstimating and headed towards the waterfall in the distance.
Once we were underneath, I could look to the left and see the final stretch of trail that gained the ridge and would put us next to the lake. At this point, we were about 3.5 miles in with a 2500 ft elevation gain, and I didn’t think Z-Dog could handle the final 500 feet of steep elevation gain needed to reach the lake. So we did what sometimes one must do despite their original alpine goals- we turned back.
I felt the waterfall was beautiful and a worthwhile final destination, and knew in my heart that the beauty of the trail would bring me back one day to complete it. Maybe not this summer, but eventually. Plus, it would be interesting to see how the landscape changed year to year from the avalanches and moisture.
First nap break
Before descending down the saddle, we took a long break and Z-Dog took his first nap- he would take one more before we finished our hike out. He lagged behind more and more, and I knew that I had made the right choice to turn back and not push him to finish. Hiking with an old dog requires patience and a willingness to move a bit more slowly- but it’s worth it to have your sidekick out for a beautiful day with you. Since this hike, I have kept his outdoor time on much shorter forays, but it was wonderful to take him out of “retirement” and get one last long day out with him.

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