Monday, July 29, 2013

A pictorial guide to Afton (late July edition)

Running at Afton consistently challenges me. With its beautiful, challenging 25K (15.5 mile) loop, varied terrain, and opportunities for steep climbs, semi-technical descents, and a little curvy singletrack thrown in at the end, my runs there always seem epic.

Early Saturday morning, I ran most of the loop -- all but the Snowshoe Loop portion, the last 5K or so. Probably 13.5-ish miles overall. I was tired. (Overtraining? Not enough carbs?) It was challenging. It was easier to stop and walk and take pictures than to run in good style. But the glory of the scenery, and the day, and the experience of a cool, breezy, mid July morning overwhelmed anything negative about this run.

It was glorious.

5:30 am start. I've never seen the sky look quite like this before. First car in the Visitors' Center parking lot. 
Still a little dark at the start, but navigable.
Can you believe we're already a month past midsummer?
A perfect morning for an INKnBURN tech shirt and armwarmers.
The loop covers much of the park, beginning by skirting the Afton Alps ski area and climbing up to a big area of restored prairie, the Africa loop.
I saw at least 11 deer, all over the park, and a startled but dignified wild turkey.

Shortly after photographing this deer, I passed another, much closer.
She (? no antlers) snorted at me -- a sound like a soft sneeze -- then trotted away.
The prairie wildflowers were in full bloom. Everywhere you looked, there were flowers and waist to chest-high prairie grass. It was cool and breezy (55 degrees, no humidity). It felt good to be out breathing the sweet air.
 I turned off on the rocky descent to the Back 40 loop.
The Back 40 is one of my favorite areas. It's a little, wooded loop with moderate terrain and constantly changing scenery. I climbed the steps:
Sun still wasn't quite up, so blurry pics with flash turned off
I passed the Kissing Trees:
 I marveled at how overgrown some of the open areas were, just a couple weeks after hundreds of runners came through during the Afton Trail Run.
The trail follows a brief stretch along Trout Brook...
... then climbs back up to the prairie of the Africa loop. It was overcast and still cool, but I'd taken my sleeves off by now.
A few miles of rolling prairie trails
After the Africa/Back 40 loop (and after a brief excursion the wrong way down the gravel road), there's a gravel road climb to the Northern Hill. The climb begins gently, then gets steep, then suddenly you turn off the road at the northern reach of the park and are in open meadows once again. At this point, the clouds began to clear and there were flashes of brilliant sunlight. It was about 7 a.m.

The remains of an old farm are up here, including some old tools.
Might be my favorite picture from this run. Look at that lighting!
Rebuilt gate posts from the farmstead:
 It's a lonely spot for a farm, but that's a heck of a view across the St. Croix river into Wisconsin.
Up at Northern Hill I saw my first human of the morning, a man who had hiked up to enjoy his breakfast in the lean-to shelter by the farm tools. I didn't see anyone else for quite a while, but by the end of my run I'd seen a few pairs of runners and two larger groups.

I  made a small navigational error coming down Northern Hill, and ended up on the un-maintained trail (that dotted line with the black diamond on the map) instead of the trail used in the race loop. It was a fun, technical, occasionally washed-out descent!
Washed out gully on the left, detour on the right heading over the downed tree.
 It led down to one of the river beaches. A little brisk for a swim, but it does look inviting.
The river was quiet, but I did see one boat with a couple of fishermen.
 A brief straight level stretch along the river brings you across this bridge, then down and around to climb Campground Hill.
 Campground Hill is a series of steep, gravelly climbs separated by more moderate slopes. I think it and the Meat Grinder are the two toughest hills in the loop, though the climb out of the Snowshoe Loop is always surprising (to me), so also mentally tough.

Today, I walked all of Campground Hill, but was rewarded by a close encounter with a doe and fawn, halfway up the hill.
These two crossed back and forth on the path a couple of times, very close to me.
 The last part of the climb up Campground Hill is through a pine forest, then it opens out into meadows.
The obligatory "It's steeper than it looks" picture. Really, it's steep.
 Campground Hill had a fair number of campers. The sites are placed in clusters all along the trail and as I ran through the increasing sunshine, I smelled wood smoke and cooking bacon, and saw campers emerging in hats and fleece. I was going to photograph the campground water pump, where I usually stop to refill, but there was a family using it and I didn't want to bother them. I had enough water, so I kept going, and headed back down the hill.

The next segment is along the river, completely flat, and completely straight. The map indicates it's just over a mile long, but it feels much, much longer.

Out of fairness, it's beautifully shaded, has nice views of the river, and is very very runnable. But after 10+ miles of climbs and descents, it's hard to persuade your body to run that long, or to run fast.

It goes on...
... and on and ON...
... until you reach the turn leading into Meat Grinder Hill.
A sight any Afton runner probably recognizes!
Meat Grinder is a steep climb, though the first part is steepest. It carries you back out to grass and restored prairie. From here, the trail hooks south and goes into the Snowshoe Loop, 5K of winding singletrack in the woods, then slightly-less winding singletrack through the prairie heading back to the start/finish across from the Visitors' Center.

I was running low on time and had no gas in the tank. It was a stupendous day, but it was time to head back and eat something. So I headed back more directly toward the Visitors' Center, through the prairie.

The clouds had largely cleared away and the sun was strong and bright. It was about 9 a.m.
I couldn't believe this sky and this sunlight. It was so pure, and crisp, and big.
What an amazing day.
Just glorious.

I'm going to take it easy this week, eat some more carbs, sleep more and stretch a lot. Every time I come to Afton, it challenges me in a new way. I want to come back ready to run its trails with strength and joy.


  1. Beautiful day, beautiful terrain, beautiful you!

  2. Wow. Incredible. Incredible, incredible, incredible. Loved looking at these photos on a dreary day inside the office.

  3. Love those skyscapes! And the micro-sceneries offered by the forest paths.