“Today’s the day!” I said, as I opened my eyes and smiled. I crawled out of my tent and stretched. I had a date with a dome.
I was car camping on a lower flank of Pikes Peak, my base while I did the last few high-altitude hikes for Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado’s Front Range (Imbrifex Books, June, 2019). But today was going to be just for me – and not at a very high altitude.
I encountered Dome Rock obliquely last May. Like almost everybody else, I’d never heard of it. It sits in one of the largest of Colorado’s over-300 state wildlife areas, gets no advertising, and receives few visitors compared to Mueller State Park next door. The reserve is mostly between 8,000 and 9,500 feet in elevation, making it ideal for spring wandering. But there’s a catch: the central third of its area, containing the namesake mountain, is closed between November 30th and July 16th. For my trip last May I had to settle for a peripheral trail culminating in a distant view of the enticing dome. The hike was enough of a delight to make it into the book, but all summer long I couldn’t get that elusive dome out of my mind. I needed to get there!
Why is it closed half the year? The answer is bighorn sheep, Colorado’s state mammal. Several score inhabit the preserve, where grassy south-facing slopes offer superb habitat. Several hundred more live next door on Pikes Peak, and many travel down to Dome Rock to winter on its sunny outcrops, where they can be on the lookout for coyotes. Bighorns mate in early winter and give birth in May-June, and the area is closed to let them do it in peace. Not that the baby lambs are helpless! After only one day they can climb almost as good as mom.
It felt wonderful to hike the familiar trail down Fourmile Creek, knowing that after 2.5 miles I wouldn’t be branching off like before, but continuing downstream to the Dome. I arrived at the turnoff point, a giant stone fireplace in the bushes which is all that’s left of an early 1900s hunting lodge where Teddy Roosevelt is rumored to have slept. I kept going. “Maybe I should revise and put this in the book,” I said. Then I came to a stream crossing. And another. And another. I laughed each time, and removed my boots and socks and waded across.
Here I was: on hike #93 of 101, and I hadn’t had to wade a stream until now. I tried to shortcut a fourth crossing, stepping across stones and leaping, and got two dunked feet and a handful of thorns for my efforts. No matter! The Dome was going to remain off-book, and just for me.
It soon arrived, looking as delightful as I remembered. Now I got to watch its full face develop as I wrapped southwest around it through meadows of late-summer flowers. Not another human soul was around, even though it was Saturday.
Dome Rock is a gorgeous example of exfoliation. When its near-uniform granite was up-thrust 65 million years ago, it came covered in thousands of feet of sediment. In almost no time, geologically speaking, the sediment eroded and relieved pressure on the granite, which responded by relaxing toward the unconfined side. As it did it cracked into layers not unlike the skin of an onion. Outer layers fell away.
“I need get to the top,” I said, firming my jaw. I craned my neck. Whenever a mountain looks this forbidding, often there is an easier way around back. Even Half Dome in Yosemite has a hikers route, albeit one with cable handholds. I closed my eyes and remembered my first view, obliquely from the opposite side last spring. It had looked like there was a way.
YES there was a way! First I had to cross the stream a fifth time, and find a faint trail up a ridge to arrive at the saddle I had seen from a distance. This was only about 150 feet beneath the peak of the curved gray massif. What’s more, a class-three fissure went up the rock that was ripe for scrambling – almost as good as a cable handhold!
I’m sure bighorn sheep, with their spongy hooves and pincer toes, look far more graceful than I did as I made my way and stood atop the Dome. Click on the photos to see larger size.