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Adventure Dispatch

Walking the Walk with Julia Oleksiak

By The Cairn Project

In August, Ambassador Julia Oleksiak undertook an epic urban-to-wildland thruhike, making her way on foot from Denver’s iconic Union Station to Rocky Mountain National Park outside of Estes Park. Highways, blisters, and insights on the work yet to do to expand access to the outdoors – read on for her day-by-day report!

Day 1 

Denver to Superior: 17 miles 

Existing as only an idea in my head for 1.5 years, on the morning of August 10, 2019, my dad drove me to Union Station in downtown Denver. I remember the nervous feeling I had the entire way driving from his house in the suburbs to the heart of the city. Nerves not so much about completing the walk, I knew no matter what happened I would be making it to Rocky Mountain National Park one way or another. It was the nerves of not knowing exactly what would happen in the in between, the type of nerves you have leading up to something that you know you can no longer prepare for, you just have to do. And so I began, on foot, in Denver, somehow needing to believe that that night, I would end up in Superior, staying at my friend Faith’s house. 

My dad began the walk with me, which is something I am even more grateful for than I realized in the moment. I believe that going from all of the buildup to setting off alone, while very much still surrounded by all of the commotion and people in the city, would have been extremely challenging. Instead, I was able to explore the city I had known my whole life and that my dad had called home for about 26 years, together with him; both of us seeing new parts of the city and little bits of life that can only be seen by walking. This included various flowers growing in unexpected places, street art, local businesses and little facets of everyday life easily passed by in a car. At this point I kept thinking that the walking infrastructure was in place in the city, there was just no one walking on it. 

My dad and I parted ways a little bit before I joined into the US 36 Bikeway, and from there I was alone for the first time. This allowed me the space to really reflect on what I was doing and the reasons behind it. 

Observations along this portion of what I dubbed the DRT, Denver Rocky Trail, included seeing just how much Denver and the Front Range were expanding and gentrifying, with construction of new houses and office buildings at every turn. When my thoughts were interrupted by the chirp of the prairie dogs, still making their homes on what was left of the prairie on the outskirts of a major highway, I thought about how they were the urban hiking version of the pika, chirping when you came near in the high alpine, their mountain top homes disappearing due to climate change. 

Instilling the help of music to power through a section directly alongside Highway 36, I was surprised when I saw the Twin Peaks restaurant, my trail marker to veer from the bike path and start making my way to my first stopping point that night. I remember the pure elation recognizing that this meant I had actually walked from Union Station to Superior, a section of road I drive frequently on my way to Boulder. Not only that, it was still early in the day and all in all I was feeling good! It wasn’t until later that night that I realized what urban thruhiking legend Liz Thomas had meant when she told me that 17 miles on pavement equaled the impact on your body of walking about 25 miles on a dirt trail.

Day 2

Superior to Lyons: 27 miles 

I woke up on the second day feeling a bit stiff and tired but knowing that I was in this thing now. I had made it to Superior on foot and, although I could have been picked up by family or friends along the way if I needed, in my mind there was only one path forward and that was walking the 27 miles to Lyons. 

Almost immediately upon beginning that morning I noticed a pain, first in my right foot and then in my left, which I had never felt before. Once again I thought of Liz’s words: the things that would start hurting on an urban hike wouldn’t be the normal things you think of when you hike on a dirt trail. With that in mind, I tried my best not to think about it and to just put one foot in front of the other. This was helped by company on the trail for a couple of miles, a fresh peach found along the way from a roadside stand, and beautiful pastoral views of Northern Colorado’s farm fields. I remember at one point texting my best friend a string of expletives, to which she immediately responded worried, thinking I had been hurt. No no I assured her, just hot, my feet were in a lot of pain, and I was feeling over walking on the shoulder of the road, yet still had over half way to go to get to Lyons. 

With some encouragement, a covert bathroom break on the side of the road, and energy chews (generously donated by Honey Stinger), I continued on, hitting a beautiful section of trail I didn’t even know existed called the LoBo or Longmont to Boulder Trail. Being off the road and on gravel for a bit lifted my spirits, as did the promise of lunch once I made it to Niwot about 3 miles ahead. 

Knowing that I couldn’t stay there forever though, and that I still had as many miles to go as what I had just completed, I coaxed myself to get up, put my shoes back on, and start walking again.

As much as lunch and the fresh squeezed lemonade I splurged on was a good recharge, the stop also served as time for the pain, soreness, and giant heel blister I had started to develop to set in. That, and I also realized at this stop that my period had started, because of course it had. Knowing that I couldn’t stay there forever though, and that I still had as many miles to go as what I had just completed, I coaxed myself to get up, put my shoes back on, and start walking again.

At this point I could have really used some music or something as a distraction, but walking on the shoulder of the road meant I needed to be aware of my surroundings and oncoming traffic. At one point a cyclist circled back around to me and asked if I was okay. He had seen me walking earlier that day further south and reckoned that was a far way to walk! I told him about what I was doing and that I was planning to reach Lyons that evening. And so we both continued on our way, with our respective goals and reasons for being out there along that stretch of N 75th St. 

Fast forward a couple of miles, and I was close to having a full on break down, wanting to just sit on the side of the road, cry, and not continue any longer. This moment, along with one other on the next day were hands down the hardest parts of the hike: getting past the mental block and continuing on when everything in your body and mind is telling you to stop. 

After taking a minute to sit and let myself feel defeated, I spotted a sidewalk up ahead (thank goodness for sidewalks!). Knowing this meant I could zone out a bit and put my headphones in, I started to walk again. The very first song that came on, “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus, which a friend suggested I add to my playlist as a joke, got me laughing and out of my head, and this was enough to get me to the town of Hygiene. From Hygiene I powered on by first talking to a friend and then my sister on the phone, hearing what they were up to a welcome distraction 20 miles in. 

After walking 7 miles on the same, flat, straight road, it was extremely gratifying to make a left turn onto CO-66, the road that would take me all the way into Lyons, with views of Longs Peak (located in Rocky Mountain National Park) ahead of me the whole time. This gratification, however, quickly dissipated when I realized that I still had 2 more hours, the two longest of the 24 hours that this trek took in total. When I saw the first tell tale sign that I was entering Lyons, I was completely overcome with emotion. All the more so when I saw a bench to stop at to consult the map of where I was staying that night, and the bench read, “Smile, you’re in Lyons.” How ironic I thought, and couldn’t help but smile, although the words in my own head were closer to “thank effing god I’m in Lyons.”

That night my body found out what it really meant to walk 27 miles on pavement (on top of 17 the day before). When I took my socks off with the intention of hobbling over to the shower, I saw that the pains I had been experiencing in my feet all day had manifested as big swollen bruises alongside the bed of my right foot and the arch of my left. Thanks to the expertise of Liz yet again, I learned that this was a pretty common reaction to repetitively pounding on pavement and likely wasn’t something that would cause permanent damage (perhaps the only thing that would have given me pause to continue the next day). And thanks to the graciousness of my hosts that evening, I was well fed and taken care of with ice packs and pillows for elevating and puppy therapy to take my mind off the pain.

Day 3

Lyons to Lion Gulch trailhead parking lot: 13 miles

Predictably, being on my feet at all the following morning felt miserable. I remember slowlyyyy making my way from the house I was staying at to a coffee shop in town in sandals and thinking there is no way I can do this today. But thanks to the Ibuprofen and rest, the swelling had gone down a bit, and thanks to the coffee, I found the motivation to put my walking shoes back on. And then something amazing happened! It was as if my feet knew what those shoes meant, as if they knew we had to all work together to make this happen. And so with the pain somehow subdued, I started the section of the hike I was most worried about: walking along the largely nonexistent shoulder of the winding mountain road that US 36 becomes from Lyons into Estes Park. 

And then something amazing happened! It was as if my feet knew what those shoes meant, as if they knew we had to all work together to make this happen.

It’s important to note that given all of this, I was in relatively high spirits that morning. I had half of the mileage to complete that day as the day before, and although I was hurting and this was likely the most dangerous section, this part really felt like the most meaningful. I set out to bring awareness that a lack of transportation can serve as a barrier to accessing outdoor spaces such as Rocky Mountain National Park, and for many travelling by car to Rocky, this section of road is the gateway to the park. By car it takes about 40 minutes total, by foot, 8.5 hours. 

The immensity of this section really hit me about 2 hours in, when what minimal shoulder there had been completely disappeared, replaced only by a guardrail to keep cars from sliding down the heavily sloped walls into the canyon below. As you can imagine, that’s not really great terrain for walking, and I was constantly jumping over the guardrail at any oncoming cars to have at least this barrier between them and me as they passed by. This was the most intense portion of the 68 mile trek, and was the second time that I sat down (on a rock outcropping on the other side of the guardrail) and really thought to my self “what the hell are you doing?” This lamentation did not last long however, as I heard what sounded like a mountain lion call, and across the road up the canyon saw a herd of deer start running. In this moment I had the stark realization that not only did the cars pose a threat, but that I was also walking alone, wildlife habitat surrounding me, and thus needed to heed the same precautions as if I was hiking a dirt trail. 

Once this portion of the road and my adrenaline rush passed a bit, I was able to continue trekking on alongside what now felt a much bigger shoulder post guardrail hopping. On this section of the road I was also met with two surprise re-supplies: a cookie from friends heading up the canyon to enjoy the park that day, and later mineral water and sour gummy worms from another set of friends who were coming back from enjoying the park. Although my trek only lasted 4 days, it cannot be understated how much this “trail magic” kept me going. 

I concluded this day greeted by my friend and his van parked at a USFS trailhead lot about half way up the canyon. Not only was it a lifesaver to be able to break up this section of the hike, I felt an immense amount of gratitude to be surrounded and supported by so many friends throughout this journey, down to being handed wine and provided a “couch” made up of two crash pads to rest my legs on after 13 more miles that day. 

Day 4

Lion Gulch trailhead parking lot to Beaver Meadows entrance, Rocky Mountain National Park: 11 miles

I didn’t sleep the best that night, but woke up feeling ready to get this thing over with. It was the shortest mile day but most importantly THE LAST DAY. As I started walking early that morning, I reflected on the fact that if there weren’t any cars, this would actually make a really beautiful trail. And along with that thought and the wildlife experience from the day before, I also put myself on high alert in case there was any wildlife checking me out from a perch above.

I remember when I came around the curve and saw my first glimpse of the mountains that make up Rocky Mountain National Park. Not the Foothills I had been climbing all that day and the day before, but the rugged, grey, high peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I was filled with so much excitement, everything started to feel more real, I was getting close to the park! 

A few more miles in and I reached the highest point of my hike at 8,061ft, and couldn’t help but think “it’s literally all downhill from here!” From there I reached the Estes Park sign welcoming me into the famed tourist destination town, and happiest of all, I was finally back on a s-i-d-e-w-a-l-k.

From here I hit the riverwalk, which took me through the town of Estes, and I was filled with the strange sensation that although I now fit into the scene in my hiking clothes and day pack, no one there knew what I was doing or what I had been through to get there. Past town, much to my dismay, I was once again channeled back onto US 36. This time though, I felt far safer as the road was no longer winding, the speed limit through town was much lower than in the canyon, and I was also just a mere 1.5 miles away from my final destination, the Beaver Meadows Visitor center!

But to me, that sign marked the single most impressive physical feat I had accomplished. It signified a hard fought and ultimately won mental battle. Most importantly, it marked a commitment I had made to myself, to The Cairn Project, to my community, and to using my privilege to bring about awareness and to raise money for breaking down barriers to access to the outdoors.

This final portion of the hike feels very surreal to me. My dad who had driven to the visitor center to pick me up and who had started the hike with me was there to see me complete this whole thing. There was a line of cars waiting to get into the park, and I on my own two feet, having walked 68 miles to get there was going to beat them into the park. 

When I first spotted the sign reading “Rocky Mountain National Park, Established in 1915,” I think my heart skipped a beat. And as I walked up to it, the ending point of this long anticipated trek and 4 day journey, I shed a tear under my sunglasses. I suppose it was all rather unceremonious, the people in the cars waiting to get in were likely thinking “wow that girl is really excited to see this sign.” But to me, that sign marked the single most impressive physical feat I had accomplished. It signified a hard fought and ultimately won mental battle. Most importantly, it marked a commitment I had made to myself, to the Cairn Project, to my community, and to using my privilege to bring about awareness and to raise money for breaking down barriers to access to the outdoors. 

If you helped support me in any way during this project, sincerely from the bottom of my heart, thank you. (If you have made it to the end of this long post, also thank you.) Let me urge you to continue examining your own privilege, having these conversations within your communities, listening to the perspectives of and amplifying the voices of those outside of your communities, seeking out resources, and doing the work. Because otherwise, without digging any deeper, this really was just a far way to walk.