Happiness Is Your Backyard Trail

I plodded my way up the Hayden Trail, headed up toward my fifth “summit” of the day as the sun coasted downward. I had eaten my last Clif Shot a while ago, and had drunk my last water with it. Most of the mountain bikers and hikers had gone home for the day, and I was clocking my fifth hour running around Green Mountain, attempting a contrived trail run in which I ran down every trail leading from the summit and then back up. I had miscalculated the distance, elevation gain, and food and water needed (by not trying to calculate it at all and just guessing). I was having a bit of an adventure, a little over 11 miles from my house, which I could theoretically see from the top of Green Mountain.

Green Mountain is nothing special by Colorado standards: a 6,854-foot mesa at the edge of the Denver suburbs, rising about 800 feet above the roads that border it, two of which are freeways. Calling it a mountain is a bit comical when you look at the range of peaks that rise literally right behind it (on a clear day, you can see three 14,000-foot peaks from the summit). It’s not even the most famous “Green Mountain” in the Front Range—Boulder’s Green Mountain holds the famous Flatirons on its east face, and Chautauqua Park below those. The Green Mountain I run on is a big hill, lacking the forested trails and rocky crags of its taller, steeper neighbors.

But I love that goddamn big hill with no trees, sitting in front of the “real” mountains. It has 17.5 miles of trails, and I’ve run, walked, and mountain biked at least a thousand miles on those trails. None of them lead to a breathtaking waterfall or across a creek or a river. People don’t even take selfies on the summit—it’s kind of just a flat area that sometimes has a cairn on it. But like an old loyal dog or a reliable but scratched-up old bicycle, it’s mine. Or rather, it’s ours—myself and the dozens of people whose cars fill the Green Mountain parking lots on weekends and after work on weekdays.

For every Instagram-worthy, magazine-cover-headline-inspiring, do-this-before-you-die trail, there are thousands of miles of unsung (or less-sung) trails like those. When people ask, “What’s your favorite trail?” we tell them some trail we’ve been on once or twice in our lives, instead of the one we could walk blindfolded. And we keep going back to our backyard trails not because of one or two unforgettable experiences, but because of dozens of good experiences.

Green Mountain’s trails are usually the first ones to dry out in the spring or after a snowstorm, and plenty of people know it. I’m used to sharing it with a few dozen hikers, runners, bikers, and dogs on weekends, but also watching hundreds of cars drive past it to head up I-70 to go skiing for the day. Lots of days it’s what you might call “crowded,” but some days, you get the place to yourself for a few minutes—near sunrise, when you might surprise a rattlesnake or two, or near sunset, when you might hear the haunting party howls of a pack of coyotes somewhere nearby.

Hell, you know what, my favorite trail is not Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, or the Glacier Gorge Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, or the Hardergrat in Switzerland. It’s a few miles of trails in William Frederick Hayden Park on Green Mountain 25 minutes from my house, which I talk about like someone talks about an old car and all its quirks: there’s no shade in the summer, it doesn’t get very high, the trails aren’t technical at all, sometimes on a busy Saturday you have to step off the trail 30 or 40 times to let people pass, it gets windy up on the top, there are snakes in the summertime, I’ve been up there so many times it kind of feels like going to the gym, there’s nowhere to hide if you have to unexpectedly use the bathroom … but it’s my favorite. You know, this old thing? It’s no John Muir Trail, but I guess it’s pretty OK.

Last Sunday, as the sun started to dip below the mountains to the west, I jogged off the top of Green Mountain to head down to my car to finally get some food and water. I saw five people total in the last mile of fire road to the parking lot, downright peaceful for a busy Sunday. Peaceful enough that a deer stood in the middle of the fire road, looking up at me until I got about 80 feet from it and it bounded into the next gully—where 20 of its friends waited, all staring at me in the last minutes of golden sunlight.

OK, yeah, this is my favorite trail.

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