Colorado’s high-elevation paradise isn’t one monolithic block of rock extending from the foothills of the Front Range to the verdant valleys of the Western Slope and from the Wyoming to New Mexico borders. It’s a varied and nuanced patchwork of some two dozen distinct mountain ranges, each with its own discrete topography, its own unparalleled attractions, and its own je ne sais quoi. These mountain systems make Colorado the envy of thrill-seekers the world over. Don’t miss the chance to make them jealous. Here’s your go-play list.
San Juan Mountains
Colorado’s mountain collective has many standouts, but for the biggest, baddest, most beautiful peaks in all the land, there’s no beating the rugged swath of alpine splendor that sprawls across the state’s southwestern corner. The San Juans claim the title of Colorado’s largest range and house not only its most vast wilderness area, but also 13 fourteeners and countless ice blue lakes and plunging waterfalls.
More from our December 2017 Issue
- Will Colorado Ski Resorts Be Short Staffed This Winter?
- Walking In Zebulon Pike’s Footsteps
- The World Ax Throwing League Comes To Denver
- The Trials of Dating in Colorado When You Don’t Ski
- The Most Futuristic Technology Coming Out of Colorado
- The New Ski Bum Is No Slacker
- The Last Isolated Places in Colorado
Signature Peaks: The Chicago Basin fourteeners (14,082-foot Windom Peak, 14,059-foot Sunlight Peak, and 14,083-foot Mt. Eolus)
Wildest Parcel: 499,771-acre Weminuche Wilderness
Adventure Hubs: Telluride, Ouray, Silverton, Durango
Bikepacking the Alpine Loop
When: July to September
Sure, you could hop in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and motor along the Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway through the San Juans. Or you could test your fitness by biking the thing, thus completing one of the finest mountain bikepacking trips in the country. The 63-mile lollipop loop connecting Silverton and Lake City careens through rocky tundra and alpine basins choked with columbine. The route, a jeep road, is punctuated by two killer climbs up and over 12,800-foot Engineer Pass and 12,620-foot Cinnamon Pass. Colorado’s mining history teases your peripheral vision as you ride. You’ll pass several ghost towns that have weathered the years. And then there are the views. “Going up Engineer Pass, you’ll see Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn peaks, and on Cinnamon you have Handies, Red Cloud, and Sunshine,” says Connie Wian, a loop veteran.
Wian’s favorite itinerary: Load up your panniers with a tent and sleeping bag and start in Silverton for quick access via Colorado Highway 2; push past the Animas Forks ghost town en route to Engineer Pass. From there, it’s a rolling downhill past the former mining town of Capitol City to Nellie Creek, your camp for the night. On day two, the route heads into Lake City (grab a snack here), then swings south. You’re about to push nearly 4,000 feet up to Cinnamon Pass. The two-mile (round-trip) detour to American Basin, just east of the pass, is a must for wildflower fans. Conquer Cinnamon, then cruise back to Silverton to complete the loop.
“We have the best access to mountain climbing, skiing, backcountry skiing, and ice climbing. It’s probably the best in the Mountain West.” —Nate Disser, owner of San Juan Mountain Guides in Ouray
Canyoning in Ouray
When: May to October
Andrew Humphreys, co-owner of Canyoning Colorado, has probably answered the question What is canyoning? a thousand times. But he never tires of explaining the activity: “It’s the sport of descending down mountains using drainages with creeks, which usually have waterfalls. We descend in any way possible, including jumping, swimming, rappelling, and downclimbing.” Technically, “canyoning” and “canyoneering” are the same thing, but the latter is often associated with dry, red-rock slots rather than splashy canyons. No matter which term you use, canyoning is officially a thing in the San Juans. And Ouray is the headquarters for it, thanks to the area’s steep terrain and abundant snowfall, which feeds waterfalls that course through rocky chasms just minutes from town.
First-timers can experience the rush in Angel Creek Canyon, a less claustrophobic slot that includes a 35-foot rappel over a lacy gusher. Already a seasoned climber? One of the classics is Oak Creek Canyon, which is full of powerful cascades—the tallest requiring a 110-foot rappel—and sinuously sculpted rock.
More San Juan Mountains
Best For: Next-Big-Thing Seekers
What: Ice climb Lake City
When: Dec. to Feb.
Why Here? The San Juans have long been a hot spot for the crampon set, with bustling Ouray and its famous ice park historically dominating the frozen waterfall scene. Lately, though, solitude seekers have been branching out to nearby Lake City, which has a small, uncrowded ice park of its own (perfect for beginners) and plentiful backcountry pitches, like the north face of Half Peak.
Inside Scoop: “The San Juans have steep, craggy faces with good sun exposure—that’s how you end up with good ice,” says Steve Banks of Irwin Guides, which leads a variety of climbs in the area. “And Lake City is very much a sleepy mountain town, but it’s getting more popular every year.”
Info: irwinguides.com; lakecityicepark.com
Best For: The Earn-Your-Turns Crew
What: Heli-ski the backcountry near Telluride
When: Feb. and March
Why Here? Heli-skiing—that is, hitching a ride on a helicopter to swiftly access steep and deep backcountry terrain—is mostly the stuff of Alaskan dream vacations. Only two outfits operate in Colorado, and just one, Telluride Helitrax, caters to skiers who prefer slapping on the skins and powering their own ways uphill. On its heli-assisted ski tours, Helitrax drops you into a remote, 13,000-foot San Juan basin (exact location depends on weather and snow conditions); then you’re under your own power for the rest of the day’s runs. When you’ve had your fill, ski out (either to a waiting van shuttle or all the way back into town) and toast the day’s accomplishments in Telluride.
Inside Scoop: “We take you well away from where other backcountry skiers would be anticipated to go,” program director Joseph Shults says. “There’s a very good chance you won’t see any other tracks.”
Massive: That’s one good word for this sky-tickling system of mountains located smack in the middle of Colorado’s alpine playground, and not just because 14,421-foot Mt. Massive calls it home. The tallest peaks in the entire American Rocky Mountains chain rise here—from the state’s high point, Mt. Elbert at 14,433 feet, to the block of fourteeners in the Collegiate Peaks to the 100-plus summits higher than 13,000 feet. It’s a range characterized by extremes with adventure to match.
Signature Peak: 14,433-foot Mt. Elbert
Wildest Parcel: Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, the Lower 48’s highest-elevation wilderness area
Adventure Hubs: Leadville, Buena Vista, Salida
Thrills & Chills
Backcountry Pass and Peak Skiing
When: December to May
We know: I-70 gridlock gets old, fast. Luckily, the cure for those ski-resort blues awaits in the Sawatch Range. If you have the avy know-how and experience for backcountry ski touring, you can string together epic winter ski mountaineering and camping without having to share the powder. “The access here is really good because we have old roads that go way back into the range,” says Heather Glyde, owner of Sawatch Guides, which leads ski mountaineering trips in the area. “As they melt out, you can access a ton of peaks without the crowds.”
Where to go depends on your fitness and skill level. Those getting started with off-piste skiing will find plenty of glade-covered terrain in the backcountry at Monarch Pass. (Tip: Try Snow Stake Bowl or Perfect Trees, both accessible via short skins off U.S. 50, south of the Monarch ski area.) Advanced skiers will find vast drainages to explore near Cottonwood Pass, especially with the help of a snowmobile assist and tour from Buena Vista Mountain Adventures. “I ask people, ‘Do you like the back bowls at Vail?’ Because we’re about to go into an area three times that size, and it’ll just be you and your friends,” says owner Chris Nicewarner. The truly hardcore can take a day to skin up to a high-elevation basin, set up base camp, then spend the weekend ski mountaineering on the surrounding fourteeners (you should travel with an ice ax and crampons and be able to assess avalanche risk). One of Glyde’s favorite trips: spring snow-camping in Horn Fork Basin and skiing 14,423-foot Mt. Harvard and 14,078-foot Mt. Columbia. sawatchguides.com; bvmountainadventures.com
“I’ve heard the Sawatch called the ‘gentle giants.’ Looking out my window in Buena Vista right now, I can see 14,000-foot peaks that just pop right out of the valley. But they’re mostly Class 2 hikes, not jagged and rocky.” —Brandon Slate, owner of Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center in Buena Vista
More Sawatch Range
Best for: Landlocked Surfers
What: Stand-up paddleboard on the Arkansas River’s splashy white water
When: June to Sept.
Why Here? No longer content with placid lake paddles, the most intrepid SUPers are now all about stand-up surfing on rapids. The Arkansas, which rises high in the Sawatch and flows along the range’s eastern front, draws them in with its more than 100 miles of runnable river, plentiful access points, variety of rapids, and white-water parks in Buena Vista and Salida. Rookies can practice on the Class II through-town run in Salida from Big Bend to Salida East; skilled paddleboarders can test their mettle on the Class III bumps of Lower Browns Canyon.
Inside Scoop: “People love exploring rivers, and this is a great way to do it—it’s less claustrophobic than a kayak,” says Brandon Slate, owner of the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center, which offers lessons in both calm water and rapids. “But even Class II rapids in Colorado can be dangerous because of rocks and cold water. Take a flat-water lesson before gettingon the river.”
Best For: Those Who Just Wanna Get High
What: Rock climb on Independence Pass
When: May through Oct.
Why Here? The granite slabs along CO 82, from Monitor Rock all the way up to 12,095-foot Independence Pass, contain a climbing clinic’s worth of easy-access crags, from simple 5.5s to 5.11s, single-pitch and multipitch routes, and sport and traditional climbing. “Some of the classic areas in that zone have places you can bounce around from crag to crag,” says Stephen Szoradi, owner of Aspen Alpine Guides, while others ascend high enough to afford views of adjacent valleys. Try the Grotto Wall Traverse, a 5.8, three-pitch traverse, or the 5.10a Cryogenics route for a tough granite crack climb.
Inside Scoop: “Monitor Rock doesn’t get climbed that much and has aspects of world-class multipitch climbing,” Szoradi says. “The Nose of Monitor Rock is one of my favorite climbs—a great starter route for someone who’s a beginner at multipitch traditional climbing.”
Info: Independence Pass Rock Climbing II guidebook; aspenclimbingguides.com
The Long Trails
There’s going for a hike in the woods, and then there’s going for a hike in the woods. If disappearing into the backcountry for weeks or months sounds appealing and you live in Colorado, you’re in luck. Several long-distance hiking and/or biking paths crisscross the state, knitting multiple mountain ranges into singular adventures. Which one provides the plod-along pace you’re looking for? We break them down.
American Discovery Trail
Total Miles: 6,800
Colorado Miles: 1,153
Ranges Crossed: Front, Tenmile, Sawatch, Elk, Ruby
Route: From either Julesburg or Holly (the ADT splits into northern and southern branches across the Midwest before coming together in downtown Denver) to Loma via the Eastern Plains and the I-70 corridor, with a jog south to Buena Vista and Crested Butte
By The Numbers: Six national forests; 15 passes above 9,000 feet; 10 Denver museums; crosses the Continental Divide three times
Highlights: Pikes Peak, Royal Gorge, Mt. Elbert, Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, the Grand Mesa, Colorado National Monument
Best For: Trekkers and/or bicycle tourists who are just as interested in urban culture and small-town Americana as they are a wilderness sojourn
Continental Divide Trail
Total Miles: 3,100
Colorado Miles: 800
Ranges Crossed: San Juan, Sawatch, Tenmile, Front, Never Summer, Park
Route: From the New Mexico border near Neff Mountain to the Wyoming border in the Medicine Bows, traversing the Continental Divide in all its glory
By The Numbers: 12 wilderness areas; about 70 consecutive miles above 11,000 feet; 14,270-foot Grays ››Peak, which is the CDT’s high point
Highlights: South San Juan and Weminuche wildernesses, Collegiate Peaks, several ghost towns, Grays Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Mt. Zirkel Wilderness
Best For: Extended wilderness escapes; Cheryl Strayed–type personal journeys; and/or backpackers who want an excuse to not shave for six months (or a month and a half for just the Colorado chunk)
Total Miles: 486
Ranges Crossed: San Juan, Sawatch, Tenmile, Front
Route: Durango to Waterton Canyon (near Littleton) over Colorado’s highest country, from the San Juans Mountains through the Sawatch on to the Front Range
By The Numbers: Six wilderness areas; 10,300-foot average elevation; 89,354 feet of elevation gain
Highlights: Weminuche Wilderness, a string of Collegiate Peaks fourteeners, Mt. Massive Wilderness, Kenosha Pass, Lost Creek Wilderness
Best For: Hardcore hikers with the lungs for high elevations and four to six weeks of free time to complete this Centennial State rite of passage
If you’ve always thought of mountains as gray, adjust your filters for this polychromatic range in west-central Colorado. First, there are the peaks themselves, which give new meaning to “purple mountain majesties” (they’re called the Maroon Bells for a reason). And then there are the blues, yellows, reds, pinks, and whites of the alpine blossoms that explode across the topography—especially near Crested Butte—come summer.
Signature Peaks: The Maroon Bells (14,156-foot Maroon Peak and 14,014-foot North Maroon Peak)
Wildest Parcel: Raggeds Wilderness Adventure hubs Aspen, Crested Butte
Ski tour from Aspen to Crested Butte
When: February through April
The badasses who walk among us associate the winter route between Aspen and Crested Butte with the Grand Traverse, an annual all-night ski race that tests even the hardiest explorers. But when the runs—and the scenery—are this good, why rush it? Thanks to a few well-situated huts in the Alfred A. Braun system, experienced backcountry skiers can turn this so-called “American Haute Route” into an extended vacation in alpine nirvana. By day, you’ll climb—ski mountaineering style—well above treeline, then schuss down fourteeners or enjoy powder sessions in the cirques and ridgelines. By night, it’s all about huddling up by the wood stove with a flask of whiskey. “I love the European nature of this trip, going hut to hut and ending up in a different town,” says lifelong skier and Basalt resident Lindsay Yaw Rogers. “You’re also going into some of the most pristine backcountry terrain in Colorado, surrounded by all these gorgeous peaks. It definitely puts a feather in your cap.”
A simple, direct route (20.3 miles total) starts at the Ashcroft ghost town on the Aspen side. Tour 5.3 miles on Pearl Pass Road to either the Tagert or Green Wilson hut (they’re next to each other) for the night—or make it two to give yourself time to conquer 14,265-foot Castle Peak or explore Montezuma Basin. Then climb up and over 12,705-foot Pearl Pass to reach the remote Friends Hut, yet another excellent base for a day of skiing, particularly in Star Basin. Finish with the 10.5-mile descent into Crested Butte. The extra-ambitious can tack on traverses to the Markley, Goodwin Greene, and/or Opa’s Taylor huts too. Caveat number one: Avalanches, difficult route-finding, and weather challenges make this a trip for seasoned winter backcountry travelers only. Caveat number two: Huts book up months in advance; plan accordingly.
“I always call the Elks the rugged range. It has those sharp, dramatic ridgelines that look so fierce compared to the rest of the state.” —Heather Balogh Rochfort, author of Backpacking 101 and the Just a Colorado Gal blog
The Acrophobe’s Nightmare
Brave Capitol Peak’s Knife Edge
When: July through September
Info: Colorado Fourteeners by Gerry Roach
Plenty of Colorado’s fourteeners feature razorback ridges with dizzying exposures. But one—a roughly 150-foot stretch of one—stands out as perhaps the most notorious of them all: Capitol Peak and its knee-knocking Knife Edge. Just below the 14,130-foot summit, the route up the peak’s northeast side becomes a stegosaurus-back ridge with a sheer drop thousands of feet on both sides. Many a climber has hauled himself all the way to its soaring starting point only to take one look and turn around. And with good reason: Five hikers died attempting Capitol Peak in 2017 alone. But if you have the nerve (and the necessary skill), the Knife Edge is an unforgettable experience for any hardcore scrambler. “I’ve done the majority of the fourteeners, and this ridgeline is incomparable,” says Heather Balogh Rochfort, author of Backpacking 101.
Plan on at least two days for the 17-mile (round-trip), Class 4 ascent with 5,300 feet of elevation gain. Take the Upper Capitol Creek/Ditch Trail (the trailhead is west of Snowmass Village) to the campsites just below Capitol Lake. The next day, get an early start and push up to the saddle between Capitol and Mt. Daly, then pick your way through talus fields to the Knife Edge. If your legs don’t immediately turn to jelly, attack it. Pros suggest either holding on to the top edge and smearing your feet across or straddling the crest and inching along. At the other end, you still have to hike to reach the summit—but really, you’ve already bagged the psychic high point of this trip.
More Elk Range
Best For: The Fleet Of Foot
What: Trail run the wilderness around Crested Butte
When: July through Sept.
Why Here? Mountain runners get a double dip of trail access in the valleys and peaks surrounding Crested Butte. Not only does the area’s extensive network of mountain biking trails lend itself to excellent running routes, but Altra-bedecked bipeds also have easy access to some 422,000 acres of designated wilderness in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Raggeds, and West Elk wildernesses—where bikes are prohibited—just outside of town. As if that weren’t enough, for most of the summer, afternoon jaunts turn into The Sound of Music–style wildflower bonanzas as the high country explodes with lupine, columbine, paintbrush, larkspur, and flax. Top trip: the 14-mile loop from the Oh-Be-Joyful trailhead to Poverty Gulch Road up and over Daisy Pass, then continuing through Democrat Basin and back to the trailhead.
Inside Scoop: “This loop is a backcountry experience away from the popular trails,” says Martin Catmur, president of the Crested Butte Mountain Runners club. “There are great views, you won’t be trammeled by bikes, and the flowers going up toward Daisy Pass are incredible.”
More than any other Colorado range, the Gores are defined not by what’s there, but by what isn’t: namely, fourteeners and the summit chasers that come with them. Instead, this compact, snowy system, located roughly between Steamboat Springs and the Vail-Silverthorne corridor, saves its robust, gorgeous terrain for those who are content to adventure in high 12,000- to mid-13,000-foot elevations.
Signature Peak: 13,586-foot Mt. Powell
Wildest Parcel: Vertiginous Eagles Nest Wilderness
Adventure Hubs: Vail, Silverthorne
Scramble the Grand Traverse
Stand in the middle of Vail Village and look northeast. See the pointy behemoth rising above the condo roofs? That’s 13,041-foot Grand Traverse Peak, a Vail icon and half of the alpine scramble known as the Grand Traverse (not to be confused with the Grand Traverse ski race between Aspen and Crested Butte in the Elk Range; see “Epic Days, Cozy Nights” on page 76). A worthy summit goal in and of itself, combining Grand Traverse Peak with its 13,079-foot neighbor, North Traverse Peak, via the blocky sine wave of a ridgeline between them makes for a classic day in the mountains. But know this: The traverse is no Sunday stroll. The roughly 11-mile trip has at least 4,400 feet of elevation gain and demands both superb fitness and mountaineering experience with advanced scrambling. “Just looking at the traverse on a map, it looks like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome,’ ” says Donny Shefchik, field director and senior guide at Vail’s Paragon Guides, which leads hiking and mountaineering trips in the region. “Then you get out there, and it’s twice as big as you imagined it would be.”
The shortest way to tackle the traverse begins at East Vail’s Bighorn Creek Trail and tracks northeast to the Bighorn Basin, directly below Grand Traverse Peak. Leave the trail and route-find (there is no trail; stay on durable surfaces to avoid crushing vegetation) your way up the steep slopes to the saddle south of the summit, then climb the Class 3 ridge to the top. The traverse begins with the serrated ridge snaking north. “Grand Traverse Peak to the unnamed 13,035-foot pinnacle is the gnarliest part,” Shefchik says. “It’s a series of pinnacles, maybe Class 4. Most people skirt the pinnacles rather than staying right up on top of the ridgeline.” The second half of the ridge mellows out a bit as it leads to North Traverse Peak. Bag that summit, then head north to the 12,340-foot saddle and drop back into the Bighorn Creek basin just as your leg muscles begin to scream for mercy.
Raft Gore Canyon
Smack in the middle of the Gore Range, in a foreboding black chasm where 1,000-foot walls corral the churning Colorado River, you’ll find one of the country’s most extreme white-water trips. Here, six Class V rapids are stacked within eight river miles. In between those monster churners is a series of Class IVs that would be the highlight of rivers anywhere else but aren’t even named here. Unlike most other river trips in the Centennial State, this turbulent chute flows through a roadless, inaccessible area, cranking up the consequences of a mistake. “This is the big leagues,” Liquid Descent owner Alan Blado says. “And it’s the greatest single-day rafting trip in the universe.”
You don’t need to be an expert paddler to see the inside of Gore Canyon. If you can pass a rapids swimming test, you can sign up with an outfitter who runs the canyon. The question is, are you brave enough? The first two miles of the 10-mile trip ease you in with flat water. Then it’s on. The highly technical, Class V rapids between you and the finish line include the boulder-choked Gore Rapid, the 14-foot-high vertical waterfall of Tunnel Falls, and the crazy-long Kirshbaum Rapid, all of which require precision paddling maneuvers with the thinnest of margins for error. “Gore Canyon is not for the masses,” Blado says. “But people who know what they’re doing—we’ve had people say it was the best day of their lives.”
More Gore Range
Best For: Hardcore Backpackers
What: Cross the Eagles Nest Wilderness
When: July through Sept.
Why Here? So forbidding are most of the ridgelines forming the spine of this alpine wonderland that only two on-trail routes exist that cross it east to west. Of them, the best is arguably the 19-miler on the south side of the range linking 11,770-foot Red Buffalo, 11,917-foot Eccles, and 11,922-foot Uneva passes via the Gore Creek and Gore Range trails. Start on the Gore Creek Trail near East Vail and connect the passes to finish on the Gore Range Trail. Make it a three-day tour, camping near the ponds east of Red Buffalo Pass on night one and in the Tenmile Creek drainage on night two.
Inside Scoop: “You could see moose, and there’s a pretty fair chance of seeing mountain goats up on the passes,” says White River National Forest ranger Mike Beach.
Medicine Bow Mountains
Wyoming generally gets all the credit for the glacial cirques and austere gray tundra of this lonely northern range, but Colorado has its own chunk of the Medicine Bows—and it tends to be overlooked. Colorado’s claim stretches between the plains of North Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, encompassing the Rawah and Neota wildernesses, both known for their old-growth trees and abundant wildlife.
Signature Peak: 12,953-foot Clark Peak
Wildest Parcel: The roadless, little-traveled terrain of the Neota Wilderness
Adventure Hub: Walden
Cross-Country Ski in Untouched Powder
When: Jan. through March
In much of Colorado, “skiing” means bombing down black diamond runs. Luckily, in the northern reaches of the state, mellower cross-country skiers can get their turn. The Medicine Bows host miles of trails, from groomed and marked tracks to wilderness routes, plus the winter conditions to take full advantage. “Cameron Pass is one of the few places in our district where the snow stays all winter,” says Kristy Wumkes, partnerships coordinator for the Canyon Lakes Ranger District. “There’s beautiful mountain scenery up there, and you can get away from the crowds if you’re willing to go in just a few miles.” Wumkes likes skiing the intermediate Meadows route in the Neota Wilderness as a 5.5-mile, one-way shuttle between the Zimmerman Lake and Long Draw trailheads or tackling the advanced 11-mile (round-trip) route up to cirque-ringed Blue Lake in the Rawah Wilderness.
Just west of there, the groomed trail system at Colorado State Forest State Park boasts everything from easy day skis to multiday tours (stay at the Never Summer Nordic yurts) through the park’s open bowls and evergreen forests. “There aren’t any ski resorts in the area, so you have a lot of unclaimed terrain back there,” says Bron Austin Deal, chief operating officer at Never Summer Nordic. “And there’s really good, untouched snow. There aren’t many other places that offer this type of cross-country skiing on such a vast platform.” cpw.state.co.us
More Medicine Bow
Best For: Fans Of A River Runs Through It
What: Fly-fishing in North Park
When: June through Sept.
Why Here? If it’s trout you seek, it’s difficult to beat these cool rivers and lakes for big fish paired with precious solitude. Rainbows, browns, brookies, and cutthroats swim the Gold Medal waters of North Gate Canyon in the Platte River Wilderness, and the Rawah Wilderness’ mountain lakes are lousy with cutthroats. What’s more, North Park’s flood irrigation systems nurture famously enormous browns in the valley’s meadow streams (like the Michigan, Illinois, and North Fork of the North Platte rivers).
Inside Scoop: “This is the headwaters of the North Platte River, a freestone river—meaning there are no dams on it,” says Scott Graham, manager of the North Park Anglers fly shop and guide service. “It’s a completely wild, self-sustaining fishery. But the best thing about this area is we’re off the beaten path, so not a lot of people come here.”
Info: coloradotu.org; northparkanglers.com
Sangre De Cristo Mountains
The name of this range (“blood of Christ” in Spanish) conjures a somewhat foreboding vibe—a fitting mood for a landscape characterized by challenging peaks and very few people. Here, fourteeners rise above the San Luis Valley, which holds dramatic cliffs, improbable sand dunes, and some of the most difficult fourteeners in the state. And that name? Some say it refers to the cries of a murdered priest; others believe it’s a nod to the area’s beautiful reddish alpenglow.
Signature Peaks: 14,294-foot Crestone Peak and 14,203-foot Crestone Needle
Wildest Parcel: The 30-square-mile dunefield at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Adventure Hubs: Crestone, Salida, Alamosa
Backpack to Lily Lake
When: July through September
Step for step, this stunning path delivers the best effort-to-reward payoff in Colorado. In less than four miles of hiking, you’ll travel from the lush Huerfano River Valley to a tucked-away tarn at about 12,400 feet, right on the edge of a falling-away slope that looks more like something you’d glimpse in the remote Andes than on a trail a few hours from Denver. The unbelievable part? Lily Lake isn’t overrun with backpackers.
Although this trail flirts with serious alpine terrain on all sides, it remains a moderate, nontechnical trip. Start on the San Isabel National Forest Trail 1308, where vistas of 13,500-foot Iron Nipple, 14,042-foot Mt. Lindsey, and 14,344-foot Blanca Peak expand with each footfall. Head east at the junction (a left will take you up Lindsey, if you’re in the mood for elevation gain) and continue to the wide, precipitous basin bracing the enormous summits of the Sierra Blanca massif. Then switchback up a steep, rocky slope to the sheltered notch holding lovely Lily Lake. Primo campsites reside in the trees; grab one at least 200 feet from the shoreline before taking your camp chair and flask to the water’s edge to revel in the beauty.
“The Sangres are a time warp. The absence of resort towns and traffic signals yields a remoteness that expands horizons—both of the land and of the mind.” —Joe Lavorini, program director, Rocky Mountain Field Institute
More Sangre De Cristo
Best For: Limit Pushers
What: Traverse the Spanish Peaks* in a day
When: June through Oct.
Why Here? Like lonely sentinels, the Spanish Peaks loom 7,000 vertical feet above the surrounding sagebrush-filled valley, granting views that extend well into New Mexico—and the opportunity for a test-yourself megahike. Fit runners and hikers can traverse between 13,626-foot West Spanish Peak and 12,683-foot East Spanish Peak in one strenuous, 26.1-mile push—a big bite that delivers a fitness challenge, unmatched vistas of the Blanca massif, and an escape-the-crowds getaway all in one. Best route: From Cordova Pass, take the West Peak Trail to summit one, backtrack to the Wahatoya Trail, go east on East Peak Trail for summit two, then return to the Wahatoya Trail and descend north to your waiting shuttle car (drop it off ahead of time) at the Forest Road 442 trailhead.
Inside Scoop: “It’s a designated wilderness, but there are no fourteeners and no lakes, so the major draw is the isolation,” says Jeffer Wingate, La Veta field office manager for the San Isabel National Forest. “And there’s a lot of cultural and historic significance to those peaks, from prehistoric times to Native Americans and Spanish conquistadors to miners and Anglo pioneers.”
*The Spanish Peaks are a distinct range but are often grouped as part of the Sangre de Cristos. We’re counting them as the Sangres here.
Best of the Best
Experts say there’s no official tally for the number of ranges in Colorado. Here, a list of several more action-packed systems where adventures abound.
Located along the east side of the San Luis Valley near the New Mexico border.
Known for holding the only Colorado fourteener located completely on private land, 14,047-foot Culebra Peak.
And the most awesome adventure you can have here is completing your fourteener list by ticking off Culebra—after making a reservation and paying the $150 fee.
Located North of I-70 and west of the Gore Range.
Known for wide, mesalike silhouettes and great fishing in its 100 miles of streams and 110 lakes.
And the most awesome adventure you can have here is tiptoeing across the Devil’s Causeway, a four-foot-wide (in some places) sky bridge deep in the Flat Tops Wilderness.
Located at the edge of the Eastern Plains, from north of Fort Collins to just south of Colorado Springs.
Known for Colorado’s most beloved alpine playgrounds, from Pikes Peak to the Indian Peaks Wilderness to Rocky Mountain National Park and Longs Peak.
And the most awesome adventure you can have here is rock climbing the classic granite crags at RMNP’s Lumpy Ridge.
Never Summer Range
Located West of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Known for a precipitation-catching position on the west side of the Continental Divide and the resulting lingering snowpack.
And the most awesome adventure you can have here is backcountry skiing the couloirs on 12,484-foot Nokhu Crags.
Located Northeast of Steamboat Springs.
Known for rugged Mt. Zirkel on the northern end and backcountry/Nordic skiing and snowmobiling on Rabbit Ears Pass on the south side.
And the most awesome adventure you can have here is exploring the new network of mountain biking trails at Buffalo Pass, which added 16 miles of trail in 2017 and plans to complete over a dozen more in 2018.
Located between Paonia and Crested Butte.
Known for barbed ridgelines, sheer cliffs, and bountiful wildflowers.
And the most awesome adventure you can have here is mountain biking through fluttering aspen stands, then up and over the Dyke (a thin rock rib) on the singletrack Dyke Trail, accessible from Irwin Lake Road near Kebler Pass.
Located between I-70 and the Mosquito Range.
Known for world-famous Breckenridge Ski Resort.
And the most awesome adventure you can have here is summer backcountry skiing on Peak 10’s north-facing Fourth of July Bowl (which often stays runnable until early July).
West Elk Mountains
Located between Paonia and Gunnison.
Known for fortress-shaped rock formations and, yes, lots of elk.
And the most awesome adventure you can have here is backpacking the Mill Castle Trail over 12,440-foot Storm Pass to catch a glimpse of the stony pinnacles called the Castles. m