Backpacking season came early this year as the drought of 2012 wreaked havoc for the mountains and all of its interested entities. It’s always a Win-Lose, or a Lose-Win situation living in the Colorado Rockies based on your hobbies and interests. More snow = better skiing and faster runs on the river during spring. What comes with that is not being able to backpack comfortably without snowshoes until the beginning of July. This year was quite the opposite. My first overnight backpacking trip (at a max elevation around 12,000 feet) was around the end of May.

Most of the following photos and reports are from either the Holy Cross or Eagles Nest Wilderness areas which happen to surround my home of the Eagle (Vail) Valley.

MAY 2012 – WEST GROUSE LOOP

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My first trip was a hike on the West Grouse Creek trail which I turned into a loli-pop loop by going off trail and connecting to Grouse Lake.

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Camp was made here at Olsen Lake. The ridge here in the photo above is where the “bald spot” near Beaver Creek ski resort sits.

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Beautiful views of the Gore Range off in the distance and the meadows of the Grouse drainage.

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A zoom-in shot of the Gore Range in the background and Vail ski resort in the foreground. The building in the lower right corner of the photo is Adventure Ridge and the top of one of two gondolas on mountain.

JUNE 11th 2012 – NEW YORK MOUNTAIN

This day marked the 10 year anniversary of the death of my Mother. I wanted to memorialize her and go to a place in which I could be alone with my thoughts and prayers. I chose to summit New York Mountain which is part of a prominent range which overlooks the Eagle River Valley.

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This was a mountain that I’ve been wanting to bag for a while and it felt good to do it. On the backside of New York mountain you can see the famous Maroon Bells which are located by Aspen.

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There are two prominent ways to summit the New York range and I chose the hard one. It was an eight hour round trip day hike including the route finding I wasn’t really expecting to encounter, on the New York Mountain trail, via the West Lake Creek trail. The photo above is a prime example of what the “trail” looked like in the non-timbered sections.

JUNE – MARTIN CREEK TRAIL TO CROSS CREEK TRAIL TO MISSOURI PASS (THRU HIKE)

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I convinced one of my best friends to go on a pretty ambitious but incredibly beautiful trip with me to kick off the backpacking season right. The famous Cross Creek trail lies in the Holy Cross Wilderness and can be a very rugged valley to wander through.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACross creek meanders its way through the valley and has many small ponds and still water to fish off of. The fat part of the creek you see where I’m standing above was full of active trout.

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Go this far back in the valley of Cross Creek and it isn’t very likely that you see many people. We didn’t see a single person this day until we got closer to Missouri Pass (and they presumably came from Missouri trailhead and not the actual Cross Creek trailhead, which is much farther). The farther back you go the more the trail becomes faint. The trail and many of the bridges constructed need some major work. Such is the case in Holy Cross Wilderness. The upside is that you can have much of the place to yourself!

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Cabins and old mining equipment are strung out throughout the valley; Ghostly structures which have been abandoned for many years sit still in this designated wilderness arena.

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We had this incredible part of the Cross Creek Valley to ourselves for night two. This photo looks to the north (downstream) of the valley and where we camped.

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We spent hours fishing the creek in what I can only decribe as harmony. This is one of the times in which I love life the most. This photo looks to the south end of the Cross Creek Valley and its headwaters. I’ll be standing on top of this point two more times later this summer. Our trail continues on here the next morning and crosses the snowfields to Missouri Pass.

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Tanner got a good start on me to lead the way. As we move up the valley our gigantic switchback comes closer into view.

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To the top of Missouri Pass we stand and the great views of the Missouri Lakes. As we come down the pass and on our way to the trailhead we see many people in the most popular backpacking and dayhiking trails of the entire Wilderness area.

JUNE – UPPER SLATE LAKE VIA THE GORE RANGE TRAIL / CT TRAIL WORK

By this time big fire restrictions were in place. Smoke filled the skies most days and one legally was not allowed to smoke a cigarette outside (that law was kinda fuzzy). I wasn’t allowed to use my alcohol stove and I came to the harsh realization that I picked the wrong year to sell my canister system – It’s a good thing I have friends that still own them. I met up with my good friends, Dan and Crystal in the Eagles Nest Wilderness at Slate Lake on a Friday evening.

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I saw more Moose this summer than what I ever have. I snuck up on this bull around 20 yards off the trail.

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I was making excellent time on the trail, but I was still running out of daylight and knew I’d get to my friends around dusk. The colors in the sky mixed in with the clouds and the smoke made for pleasant scenery.

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Making my up the steep valley I passed Lower Slate Lake. I’d have to soak in the view a little more on my return trip in the morning.

I made camp at Upper Slate Lake with Dan and Crystal just as light would disappear. Despite the fact we went to sleep shortly after, this was the scene the next morning before our day hike from camp farther up the valley.

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I had ambitions to bushwhack the entire Slate Valley but I wouldn’t have had company.

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The falls just above Upper Slate Lake are good too.

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After fishing Upper Slate and hiking around the lake we made our way back down the trail for another overnight stop along the Lower Slate Creek.

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Fish on.

Back to the Rock Creek Trailhead the next morning, I went on a whole other mission off the Colorado Trail by Copper Mountain to do a little trail maintenance for a few days with some gentlemen who had adopted a section of the trail. After completing the CT in 2011, I wanted to give something back and I felt this was a good way to do it. Polaski and McCloud in hand, I learned plenty of trail work from these seasoned veterans!

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JULY 2012 – BC SKI RESORT, TO BEAVER CREEK LAKE, TO TURQUOISE LAKE, TO CROSS CREEK (THRU HIKE)

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June was history and the rain that the state so desperately needed finally came. I had a three day weekend so it was back to the Holy Cross Wilderness in what I anticipated to be a wet weekend. I was dropped off at the Beaver Creek village and continued to ride up escalators to the base of the ski resort. The day started out sunny and calm. I passed day hikers whom them nor I cared to have much conversation with.

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When the skiing is over, the resorts are always a trip to see in the summer. Tourists abound, I was eager to cross into wilderness. One place I was looking forward to seeing was the work that construction crews were putting in to modify the Birds of Prey Course for the women in anticipation of the 2015 World Cup Ski Championships.

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The Birds of Prey ski race is the only Mens division event held in the United States every single year.

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Once past Beaver Lake and the group of horseback riding tourists, I had the trail all to myself. The valley eventually begins to open up and views of the high peaks come in to greater focus.

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I was skunked at Turquoise Lake before and after the rain while fishing.

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I got in a good rest while I heard thunder, saw rain, hail and lightning. My evening after attempting to catch fish was highlighted by a hot meal.

The next morning I awoke to a sunny day. From the Turquoise Lake trail I joined up with the Grouse Mountain trail and began a steep ascent to the top of the pass.

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Oh so good.

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I took this photo of a “bridge” which crossed a creek on the Grouse Mountain trail. This path, like many others which I previously discussed needs much maintenance. Once on top of Grouse Pass and the treeless section of the trail, it becomes non-existent and only marked by old wooden posts and cairns.

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I ended up standing on the same mountain slope where I was back in May. Snowless this time, I was able to explore a higher portion of the Grouse Mountain. Summit attempt was in the back of my mind but the combination of clouds moving in and my solo status pushed me down the mountain.

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Thee Holy Cross Mountain and the only 14er in Eagle County. I love it here. I filled my afternoon with lots of off-trail exploring and scrambling… getting myself into sometimes delicate situations.

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Down the pass and into the Cross Creek drainage… Is that a cairn? Where’s the trail? Route-finding was difficult but I made it work by double checking my map, compass and using some logic.

I eventually joined the Cross Creek trail and began my trek north where I finally began seeing signs of human life again. The closer you get to a trailhead the more you encounter. I spent what felt like hours that afternoon trying to scout out the perfect campsite for my last night.

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Options were limited right before the rain rolled. I inadvertently camped almost 80 yards away from a family of four. The father of the family was pulling in some fish and we had good conversation about the state of backpacking gear which is a conversation I can carry on for a while.

The next morning I awoke and stood on top of a rock outcropping and spotted a bull moose wandering close to my neighbors campsite. Desperate for photos I went back to my tent to grab my camera. When I came back there appeared four cows with the bull in the early morning mist. While I never got a good photo, the memory lasts. I broke camp and made my way back to my shuttled car at the Cross Creek trailhead.

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Props to the Forest Service on this one. They replaced the washed out bridge after the big snowmelt runoff of 2011 with this high rise.

AUGUST 2012 – THE HALO RIDGE ROUTE ON HOLY CROSS MOUNTAIN

I decided to keep continuing the theme in knocking out as many local hikes as I could for the summer of 2012. Traversing the halo ridge was a trip I really didn’t invest too much time researching. A woman whom I work with told me of a summer in which her kids and she did the traverse. She made it sound as if it was easy contrary to what I had previously believed the route to be. I guess I should have told her that when it comes to heights, I sometimes get a little queasy on high, unstable ground (boulders).

I decided to make this one an overnighter. My plan was to pick a campsite beneath the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross just below tree line the night before I began the task of summiting the 14er and following its jagged ridgeline around to make one massive loop. Afternoon thunderstorms were very prevalent this time of year.

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Scouting out my campsite was made easy when I spotted the biggest bush of raspberries I had seen all season. I would forage the berries and add them to my bag of granola for the morning.

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Stealth Camping.

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The next morning was cold and when I looked outside the sky was overcast and gray. I packed up camp and made my way to the summit. I was able to get some fantastic photos of this Pika as I made my way up. I love watching these guys as they seem to be much busier than the Marmots they share these high alpine environments with.

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Several thousand feet below the summit of Holy Cross and the wind really began to pick up. Two older gentlemen coming down the mountain wearing way more clothing than I, seemed to suggest to me that conditions up top were getting rough.

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This was that part when I could see snow coming in and I busted out my thermometer to see how big of a wimp I was. I put on my layers, rain gear and weighed my options. Despite that I wanted to summit Holy Cross, I’ve been there before. I decided to move on and continue my route around the peaks.

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My photos here cannot really represent the anxiety I had while scaling the rocks around the halo ridge. A mix of snow and rain made the rocks slick and I got a good lesson in why you wear boots rather than trail runners when you’re on unstable rocks for hours on end.

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Your author and the Tuhare Lakes behind me. After I completed this trip I read a trip report of a couple guys that aborted their halo ridge traverse and decided to drop into this drainage. I can’t imagine going down those rocks were as awesome as staying on top and finishing the route.

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Making my way around the beautiful Bowl of Tears was great despite being fed up with constant bouldering and scrambling on wet rock. Sucking it up and enjoying the good is what it’s all about. I tend to just laugh at my circumstances and my surroundings in these instances.

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This was the easiest part of the route around Holy Cross Mountain. Immediately after it was a span of ground maybe 8 to 10 feet wide with thousand foot drops on both ends.

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The adjacent views.

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I guess I’ve turned taking photos of myself with Holy Cross Mountain in the background into a hobby.

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Eventually I made it to Notch Mountain and took some cover inside the storm shelter there. Having never been there, I was quite impressed with the structure. I’m glad I did this trip but I have no ambition to go and do it again anytime soon.

AUGUST 2012 – BOOTH LAKE TO LOWER PINEY LAKE (THRU HIKE)

Earlier this summer I attended my first orienteering class since college at the local community college. It gave me a bit of a renewed confidence for some serious off-trail backpacking and I made it a point to “off-trail valley hop” for the remainder of my trips during the summer.

Booth Lake is popular. Upper Both Lake, East Booth and West Booth Passes however, are not. I shuttled my car to the Piney River Ranch the night before I began my thru hike. The ranch sits on the Lower Piney Lake located on the border of the Eagles Nest Wilderness.

My hike began at one of the most popular day-hiking destinations in Vail. Upon arrival at the Booth Falls trailhead in East Vail on Saturday morning, the parking lot was already full.

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Turn your back away from the trail and the uppermost views of Vail Mountain come into site. Mount of the Holy Cross (must be a theme) sits in the background.

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After reaching the lake and chatting it up with an older couple from the UP of Michigan I began my off trail ascent to East Booth Pass. An easy bearing to follow, I made my way up to the Upper Booth Lake with ease. Above is a look at Booth Lake and my view from the beginning of my ascent.

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Cairns, cairns here and there up to the lake and the adjacent pass.

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Up to the shallow lake I explored its banks and looked for signs of life. The lake in the foreground and my pass to tackle in the back.

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Pure bliss on top of East Booth pass. The views of the Gore Range up close and personal.

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From here one could scramble the high summits or descend into the Piney River Valley below. My plan was neither. After lunch with a view I descended back down the pass and explored the upper east reaches of the Booth Valley.

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The kind of water you (I) don’t bother to manipulate for I have natures perfection.

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I found a wide open bench several hundred feet from a small tributary stream for night one camp.

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With Booth Lake within easy walking distance, I decided to go back and try my luck at a fish.

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I saw the moon cresting above the range as I circled and fished my way around the lake.

The next morning I made my way back down the Booth Valley and plotted out where I suspected the old primitive trail that led to West Booth Pass was. Some maps show this trail, others do not. I was fairly confident of where the junction was when I passed it on my way up. Once I was sure, I stacked a few rocks for others to discover this hidden gem. I know some may frown of this and I’ve even read where some will knock down cairns on purpose in the wilderness, but this was my mindset at the time.

I plotted my course up to West Booth Pass on my map and began the ascent. The trail through the trees at first is very easy as you pass some small open areas where people have camped in the past. The first section of trees is fairly straightforward as the trail is visible. The real problem is the downed timber and the lack of trail maintenance. Eventually you are on your own without a path to follow.

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A much easier prospect when you come out of the trees and your steep valley comes into clear view.

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This is what I imagine the gateway to heaven might look like.

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Another satisfying pass of a pass.

From West Booth Pass I stayed high before dipping into the Piney River Valley so I could make it to an unnamed lake. (To be fair I have seen this lake named on a map before, but the name escapes me).

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It’s a beaut, and certainly deserves one.

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Eventually I was back to bushwhacking my way down and into the Piney drainage. Views of the spectacular Spider Mountain are abundant.

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The mushrooms were popping up all over this time of year.

Good ground for a campsite was difficult to come by along the stream, but I eventually made it happen and finished up the night by catching a few guppies on the small creek.

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Turning the big bend of the valley and climbing far above the creek renders good views.

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Getting closer to the end of my thru hike and the edge of the Wilderness area.

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SEPTEMBER 2012 – GORE TO SNOW TO DELUGE LAKE LOOP

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I started this overnight backpack on an exceptional night during a time in which the leaves were turning and falling; The days getting noticeably shorter and the nights getting a wee bit colder.

This was a terrific little loop with some big views and some steep elevation gain and loss. Gore and Deluge Lakes had been on my bucket list for some time and Snow Lake was the icing on the cake.

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The stroll up to Gore Lake from the Gore Creek trail continues to give me an appreciation for the vast space in the Eagles Nest Wilderness. When I got up to the Gore Lake around sunset I thought I was all alone. Slightly startled by a voice to my right, I saw a group of guys who had already taken the campsite in which my senses were directing me to.

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I instead decided to go up to the bench high above the lake to find camp. The views and the light hitting the Gore Range that night were great.

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The next morning I took my time packing up camp. I got out my map and laid down a bearing for making my way into the drainage where Snow Lake sits.

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After climbing the ridge between the Gore Lake and the Snow Lake drainage, I could see that snow had christened the high peaks in Summit County. This was the first dusting of the fall season.

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Hiking farther along the ridge and looking down into the drainage, I saw white dots on the horizon. When I got out the camera and zoomed in on my target and into focus, my suspicion was confirmed that a decent sized herd of mountain goats were standing right on top of my destination; Snow Lake Pass.

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Eventually I made it to the crisp and clear Snow Lake.

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Not my doing, but I thought it looked cool.

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On my way up to the pass, I knew the goats were somewhere right above me. In fear of startling them and not being able to get a few good photos, I treaded lightly.

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When I came to the top of the pass, the goats were bedding down a few hundred yards away from me. Meanwhile, I looked down on the other side of the pass (Deluge Lake side) and wondered how I was going to get down without disturbing the goats.

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Eventually after some long stares and negotiating we managed to trade sides of the pass.

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This was the other end of the pass and my way down to Deluge Lake. It is very much NOT an established trail.

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Looking up from where I had come. I would turn around every now and then to watch the goats go back to their original spot and watch me descend down to the lake.

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Descending the steepest of the Deluge trail and overlooking the Upper Gore Creek valley.

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A hula girl waiting my return.

SEPTEMBER 2012 – LYLE TO MORMON, SAVAGE TO CARTER LAKES LOLLI-POP LOOP

To continue my theme of staying local and knocking out trails in my two closest wilderness areas, I went to the Southern tip of the Holy Cross Wilderness over an extended weekend. Despite this hike being “local”, I had to make a long drive in order to gain access to the Lyle Lake trailhead. A road trip through Basalt and past the (by Colorado standards) enormous Ruedi reservoir lead me to the rough dirt road named Hagerman Pass.

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By the time I got to the trailhead darkness was creeping in and I immediately began scouting for a good camp.

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The next morning past Lyle Lake I saw one couple camping on that Saturday morning. Everything else was mine. Once finished following the trail to Mormon Lake, I took a bearing and went backcountry to follow the Mormon Creek down to connect to the Savage Lakes trail.

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Scrambling down rocks and thick brush I came across the only bear I had seen all season (Not Pictured).

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When I reached the first of the Savage Lakes I finally saw people again. It seemed as though I crashed an early 20-something “cool kids” party and I really didn’t feel too welcome despite my (in my mind) friendly banter. After hiking to the upper Savage Lake and taking some photos I made my escape and got alone again on my way to Carter Lake.

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After my stroll wandering the perimeter of the lake I completely lost the trail here and had to climb some steep and sometimes very thick brush to re-connect with the trail and up Carter Creek.

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The views along Carter Creek were some of the best of the trip.

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After some serious miles during the day I made camp high above this lake, which is part of a greater chain. I’ll admit that fishing completely stunk here.

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The next morning I continued up the Carter Creek.

The vibe I caught here I cannot put into words. This part of the world seems so untouched. The farther you come up the trail here, the more obscure it becomes. The water is still, clear and the peaks surrounding make you feel so little.

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I stand in the photo above. The valley I look to below here is Cross Creek, which I had stood at the bottom of months before.

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Blodgett Lake high above Cross Creek.

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Eventually I turned around and backtracked the creek to my campsite where I packed my remaining belongings. The walk down to a connecting trail which would bring me to Henderson Park (pictured above) and a FS road felt slightly lonely as dark clouds and cool wind rolled in; not a soul in sight.

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Sitting down for a quick lunch during the long walk on the forest service road.

To continue on my intended lolli-pop loop, I had to walk on a Forest Road for miles to reach the Eastern most section of Cunningham Creek, where I would walk the thick drainage to eventually connect up near Lyle Lake.

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I recall making quite a bit of noise on purpose here. When I entered the thick brush around Cunningham Creek I came across some gigantic bear prints in the mud.

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The water falls, splits, meanders, crashes and does whatever else you want to describe the awesome things that water does in a rolling valley untouched by human destruction.

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I had made another very big mileage day and I decide to forgo a 3rd night in the bush and just hike back to my car as clouds continued to do strange things.

OCTOBER 2012 – FANCY PASS TO CARTER LAKE (DAY HIKE)

The next weekend after my lolli-pop, my dog Moose and I went on a retrieval mission for my Oakley sunglasses I was sure I had left near the top of Carter Lake. The drive was much easier this time, as I came in from the “back” at the Fancy trailhead outside the Holy Cross Wilderness.

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Ptarmigans getting ready for winter.

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I’ve been here before.

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One of my favorite photos of the season.

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Looking at Carter Lake after hiking in from the complete opposite direction the week before.

OCTOBER 2012 – WHITNEY LAKE (DAY HIKE)

Another trail to knock out in the Holy Cross Wilderness was a short stroll up to Whitney Lake. The trailhead sits right off of the ever popular Homestake Road. With the Aspens still yellow and the snow continuing to creep down in elevation, it was a perfect day to bring the pup out for a nice hike.

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Whitney Lake.

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