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Mirror Lake reflects Lone Eagle Peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness —Photo by Jason Hatfield

The 5280 Guide to Colorado’s Best Wilderness Areas

Ten of the best federally protected wilderness areas in the Centennial State.

By |

Take a look around. See the buildings, the cars, the wide-lane roads, the construction cranes. Now imagine a place untouched by development, unmarked by human hands, bereft of concrete highways—where clouds outnumber people and skies are unbroken by metal beams. By creating a federal system for identifying and protecting public lands, the 1964 Wilderness Act ensured that areas like these would survive and would be notable for what they lack: new mining projects, residential or commercial development, and extensive roads. Today there are 44 federally protected wilderness areas in Colorado that cover more than 3.5 million acres (roughly the size of Connecticut). These are places where our great rivers spring from snowmelt, where glaciers once carved valleys out of rock like it was soft clay, where shifting tectonic plates crumpled and broke the land. These are places that endure. Get out there and see these 10 for yourself.

The Basics

Traversing wilderness requires a bit more prep than your average dayhike. A few do’s and don’ts:

Do

Bring a map. You’ll find few signs—aside from hiker-built cairns, which are actually frowned upon by “leave no trace” disciples—beyond the trailhead.

Stay on the trail. An errant footstep can kill delicate alpine vegetation.

Use bear-proof containers to hold your food. You don’t want to share a late-night meal with a black bear.

Bury your waste at least six inches deep because—well, if you don’t know why, you shouldn’t be hiking.

Tell someone where you are going. And check in when you get back.

Don’t

Leave anything in the wilderness. Pack out what you carry in—and that includes used toilet paper, folks.

Camp lakeside. Pitch your tent at least 200 feet from water. Even better, find an already-established site to minimize the impact on vegetation.

Let Fido run off leash. If it’s a pain to keep your pooch on the trail, consider leaving him or her at home.

Keep climbing if heavy clouds gather. That’s nature’s way of telling you it’s gearing up for a storm. Take note and head for lower ground.

Take home souvenirs. Leave all rocks, plants, and fossils just where you found them.


Eagles Nest

Protected Since 1976 | 133,496 acres | Near Frisco and Silverthorne (east access) and Vail (west access)

Near the I-70 corridor, the Eagles Nest Wilderness seems prime for development. But Mother Nature had a different plan when she created steep mountains and narrow valleys that are hard to traverse. Even today, most trails dead-end and thus remain scattered and blissfully uncrowded.

On Your First Visit: The 2.8-mile (round trip) stroll to Lily Pad Lake just might be the best place to start exploring Colorado’s wilderness areas. The hike, which has a calf-busting, 0.2-mile climb from the trailhead, turns into a leisurely jaunt perfect for out-of-town guests and kids with short attention spans and even shorter strides. The payout is two lakes with—you guessed it—plenty of lily pads.

Expert Take

“I had a close encounter with a moose in Eagles Nest. He almost ran me over when I was sleeping. It was in the fall, during the rut, and at 3:30 in the morning I was woken out of a dead sleep to the sound of hooves pounding. I had just enough time to get out of my sleeping bag and see a pair of bright eyes before it jumped away.”

—Erik Myhre, e-commerce manager, Trouts Fly Fishing


Flat Tops

Protected Since 1975 | 235,214 acres | Near Meeker

Back in 1919, the U.S. Forest Service sent a landscape architect to survey a road near Trappers Lake in what would become the Flat Tops Wilderness. After a short time at the water’s edge, he went back to work convinced the area should never be developed. Some say his defiance was the catalyst for conservation efforts that led to the federal Wilderness Act. Today, climbers cling to cliffs that are part of the Leadville Limestone formation, a water-hardened stone that’s ideal for handholds and footholds; fishermen cast away in 100 miles of streams; and hunters chase elk on the plateaued mountaintops (the formations look like mesas, which are created by erosion, but were actually scraped level by glaciers). This is also a place to see nature’s devastation: Fires in 2002 burned near Trappers Lake, and the bark beetle infestation in the 1940s left silvery ghost forests of tree skeletons that look like something from a Game of Thrones set.

Only Here: The aptly named Devil’s Causeway is a 50-foot-long loose-rock ledge that’s about yard wide in places but draws daredevils each year hoping to tiptoe along the narrow shelf. The initial drop is less than the length of a tennis court, but a secondary drop plummets another 600 feet, which is why you’ll often see even brave souls forced to crab-walk back to terra firma on their, ahem, glutes. You’re better off taking a selfie with the causeway in the background than snapping one at its edge.

Expert Take

“I’ve climbed a lot in the [Flat Tops] canyons. The land is very raw and rugged, but some areas are lush, and it almost doesn’t feel like Colorado: cliffs with lots of greenery and water streaks.”

—Matt Samet, climber and journalist


—The Hermosa Creek Trail, near Hermosa Creek Wilderness; Image courtesy of Nat Lopes/Hilride

Hermosa Creek

Protected Since 2014 | 37,236 acres | Near Hermosa

As Colorado’s newest wilderness area, the Hermosa Creek Wilderness is still difficult to find on maps (even Google Maps), which is why it feels like such a well-kept secret. The pristine watershed has at least 17 separate ecosystems, old-growth ponderosa pines, and lots and lots of fish. It’s a spot worth fighting for, which is why, in a bipartisan moment, U.S. Representative Scott Tipton (R-Cortez) and Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet collaborated to convince Congress to permanently protect the area.

I Spy: Hermosa Creek is filled with genetically pure cutthroat trout, not the brookies found in many of the state’s waterways. To catch a big one—they can grow up to 18 inches long—you’ll need to cast with a five- to six-weight fly rod.

Expert Take

“I have an affinity for Hermosa Creek, not just because of its natural features, but because of the way local communities came together to support the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act. Everyone from conservationists, sportsmen, and grazing-permit holders—Republicans and Democrats alike—supported this.”

—Scott Tipton, U.S. representative


Maroon Bells–Snowmass

Protected Since 1964 | 183,847 acres | Near Aspen and Snowmass Village

If Colorado had an official state photograph, it would probably be a sunset shot of the lake beneath the twin Maroon Bells peaks…or one of the area’s columbines blooming in August…or of the aspen leaves turning gold in September. This range is part of the Ancestral Rockies, which more than 300 million years ago created peaks that have been slowly crumbling ever since. That’s part of the appeal: Thanks to layers of sedimentary rock, no matter how often you go, the landscape is constantly changing. Avoid weekends, especially at Maroon Lake or nearby Conundrum Hot Springs, and go farther to escape the crowds by tackling longer trails such as the 28-mile Four Pass Loop, which traverses West Maroon, Frigid Air, Trail Rider, and Buckskin passes (all above 12,000 feet).

Danger Zone: In preserving Colorado’s wildest places, we’ve also created a problem: We’re loving these areas to death. There were more than 15,000 overnight visitors to the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness in 2013. People leave behind human waste and litter that is choking the area’s natural vegetation. Instead of beating down the path to the tourist spots, seek out less-visited trailheads to access the area’s impressive passes and deep U-shaped valleys. Dave Levy, protrails.com’s co-founder, suggests the 8.5-mile trek (one way) to Willow Lake via the East Snowmass Trail. “Like everything in the wilderness, it takes effort,” Levy says. “There’s no quick hike in. But when the pass drops down to the lake, it is as if you found the back door into awesomeness.” Visit wilderness.net to learn more about how to save wild places.

Expert Take

“The way Maroon Lake reflects the mountains and trees with emeralds and aquamarines is amazing. When you turn around, there’s a whole different geology and different textures, colors, and sparkle. It is awe-inspiring.”

—Val Rossman, Pennsylvania-based artist-in-residence for the Wilderness Workshop in 2015 (an Aspen-based program that connects artists with the outdoors)


Indian Peaks

Protected Since 1978 | 76,711 acres | Near Nederland (east access) and Winter Park (west access)

Because the Indian Peaks Wilderness is so narrow—ranging from about four to 15 miles across—and close to major cities and trade routes, the region has long been accessible to human visitors. Native American artifacts—including a still-intact game-herding wall for trapping prey—are occasionally discovered here. Mining efforts, particularly in the late 1800s, once threatened development of the area, but the poor ore quality cooled prospectors’ gold fever. Today, water pools in more than 50 lakes, many above treeline, and wildflowers carpet the slopes in July and August.

Bragging Rights: Avid trail runners have strung together an unofficial “Indian Peaks marathon” via the Buchanan Pass–Pawnee Pass Loop. The roughly 26-mile course gains about 6,500 feet of elevation (yes, you read that correctly) and is best run counter-clockwise from the Brainard Lake trailhead, as climbs in this direction are a little more forgiving. Either way, you’ll probably hit one of the two Continental Divide crossings— i.e., high points—during prime thunderstorm time in the early afternoon. If clouds gather, find shelter below the pass and wait out the storm. You’ll need the rest anyway.

Expert Take

“The Indian Peaks are at least as spectacular as Rocky Mountain National Park, but fewer people go there. You don’t get all the out-of-state tourists—you get locals. If you are looking for something that is world-class spectacular, that’s the place to go.”

—Charles Danforth, trail runner and astrophysical and planetary sciences instructor at University of Colorado Boulder


Rawah

Protected Since 1964 | 78,000 acres | Near Gould and Walden

The Utes used the word “rawah” (pronounced ray-wuh) to describe a “wild place” or “abundance.” Both descriptors fit, because this area is filled with lakes, long glacier-formed valleys, and pine forests—or what’s left of them. The recent pine beetle outbreak decimated the Rawah Wilderness’ tree population, but you can already see how the land is beginning to heal. As the trees rot away, grasses and aspens fill in to create a young but diverse forest.

The Classic: The 10-mile round-trip trek to Blue Lake is an ideal way to study subalpine habitat. The trail stays below treeline, offering you chances to spot golden eagles and beavers along the route.

Expert Take

“One of the places I like to go is called Preacher’s Corner because a preacher used to come in and set up shop there. It sits in a little valley with the west branch of the Laramie River running through it. If you get up early in the morning, there is always a moose having its breakfast in the creek.”

—David Fanning, rawahranger.com writer and Poudre Wilderness Volunteers member


Collegiate Peaks

Protected Since 1980 | 167,584 acres | Near Leadville (north access) and Buena Vista (east access)

Thanks to its stockpile of eight of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners, the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness lures folks who want to walk in the clouds—and trek through the valleys. “It’s a big roller coaster,” says Bill Manning, executive director of the Colorado Trail Foundation. The 485-mile-plus Colorado Trail has two segments in the Collegiate Peaks region that form a 160-mile loop, which takes about two weeks to backpack. The west side was added in 2012, so even the hardiest adventurers are just starting to cross this epic trip off their bucket lists—meaning you’ll probably be the first
person in your office to bag this one.

Stay The Night: Watch the Milky Way twinkle while camping near Lake Ann. Tucked just below the Continental Divide, this alpine jewel is surrounded by wildflowers and sits near the Three Apostles, a trio of rugged thirteeners that are less choked with traffic than the big eight.


Microvision

How a hike with my toddler son taught me to look closer—at everything.

The sign at the Denny Creek trailhead in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness laid out the basics: The path ahead rose 4,337 feet over 4.59 miles. There would be wildlife and strong winds. The views, the sign guaranteed, would be spectacular. I read the fine print and jokingly asked my husband, Chris, “Do you think we’ll make it?”

Of course we wouldn’t. While most people journey to the Collegiate Peaks to climb up, up, up, we were hoping just to get reasonably far from the parking lot. Our son Oliver, then two and a half years old, buzzed with energy after a nap, but there was only so far his tiny legs could walk—and only so far we were willing to carry him back down the trail.

We decided to go for it, but Oliver soon lagged. Preoccupied with the hassle our hike had become, I turned to watch my son pause—yet again—to stick his head in a tree stump. He pulled back from the trunk, looked at me with a puzzled expression, and asked, “Honey?”

I didn’t get it, so he repeated: “Honey? Pooh?” until I realized that he was looking for Winnie-the-Pooh’s honey. Whenever I read him the classic tale, he would study each illustration before he’d let me turn the page. To his toddler imagination, there were forests where honey pooled in trees and bears were cuddly companions. Now, here we were, in just such a place.

My sense of weary exasperation vanished. “No, no honey,” I told Oliver. “But what do you see?” In the shadow of massive fourteeners, we focused on the forest’s smallest inhabitants. We noted ants carrying away bits of ancient wood, moss carpeting the stump, a lone mushroom sprouting from a pile of nearby pine needles. I got down on the ground and rested my cheek in the dirt, so that the tiny fungus looked like a giant tree.

“More!” Oliver urged as we ran up the trail. We dipped our fingers into the frigid waters of a stream. We spied a small rodent scurrying through the brush. And, of course, we stopped at every tree stump to look for Pooh’s liquid gold. As we explored, I recalled the trailhead sign, which also included a quote from the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss among the stats and warnings: “The smaller we come to feel ourselves compared to the mountain, the nearer we come to participating in its greatness.” Although our physical achievements that day were hardly grand, my son had shown me how the subtlest change of perspective could bring those words vividly to life.


Lost Creek

Protected Since 1980 | 119,790 acres | Near Bailey

This area is filled with granite rocks in peculiar shapes, such as rounded boulders, stacked blocks, and near-perfect spheres, along with precariously perched stones. Pink-orange-black rocks litter many of the trails in this wilderness, leading to places like Harmonica Arch (accessed via the Goose Creek Trail), an excellent example of a large rock bridge.

Ancient History: If not for its rugged landscape, part of the Lost Creek Wilderness would have been covered in water; it was the site of a proposed reservoir. The rugged remnants of the Antero and Lost Park Reservoir Company’s camp can still be seen.

Expert Take

“Because of Lost Creek’s proximity to the Front Range, it’s one of the most accessible [wilderness areas]. It doesn’t have the soaring fourteeners, but it has its own beauty.”

—Dean Winstanley, associate director of statewide stewardship, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado


South San Juan

Protected Since 1980 | 158,790 acres | Near Pagosa Springs

Trek into the South San Juan Wilderness, and you’ll find what just might be the wildest place in Colorado. The area is unusually isolated and difficult to traverse, thanks to eroded volcanic rocks that created seemingly impenetrable ridges and canyons. That’s why some people hope the area is harboring a wildlife species averse to human development: namely, the Colorado grizzly bear. Despite the name, the last sighting of this ferocious and reclusive beast was in 1979, when a hunter killed one here.
Scientists think that the she-bear may have had cubs, so…it is possible.

Go With The Flow: The headwaters for several rivers, including the San Juan, form here, and the area is flush with lakes (more than 30), including Red Lake. The 10.4-mile round-trip trek to the body of water gains 1,400 feet in elevation but is pleasantly approachable for novice hikers.

Expert Take

“Being there sparks the imagination and makes one feel truly alive, knowing this remote, craggy wilderness was the last stronghold of grizzly bears in Colorado.”

—Rose Chilcoat, former associate director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness


La Garita

Protected Since 1964 | 129,626 acres | Near Lake City and Creede

One of the first five wilderness areas to be designated in Colorado, the La Garita Wilderness is a tale of two wilds. There are the forests and streams of the San Juan Mountains, plus San Luis Peak—the area’s only fourteener—which attract hunters and fishermen. But in the southeast, the Wheeler Geologic Area is a wonderland of eroded stone formations. This remote spot has been compared to Garden of the Gods, Mesa Verde National Park, and Bryce Canyon National Park, and it’s breathtaking on its own—plus it has fewer visitors than those better-known destinations.

Worth The Effort: The eight-mile trek to the Wheeler Geologic Area is rugged, so start in the afternoon and pack a tent for an overnight stay nearby. The heavily eroded rock formations are best viewed at dawn and dusk.

Expert Take

“I’ve led horseback-style hunts for elk in La Garita as a guide for five years and as an owner for five. One of my favorite spots is Machin Lake. It’s in a basin and about 13 miles into the wilderness, so it’s pretty secluded.”

—Mike Bondurant, owner, La Garita Outfitters


—Photo credits (from top): Liam Doran/Tandemstock, Jason J. Hatfield, courtesy of Nat Lopes/Hilride, C2 Photography, Ryan Wright/Tandemstock, Scott Ackerman, Jason J. Hatfield, iStock, Ethan Welty/Tandemstock, Jack Brauer, Kennan Harvey/Aurora Photos

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