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In The Clouds
Traverse The Ridge Between Little Bear and Blanca Peaks
It’s been called the Sidewalk in the Sky: a mile-long ridge that connects Little Bear (14,037 feet) and Blanca (14,345 feet) peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Paired with 14,042-foot Ellingwood Point, these three behemoths comprise the Blanca Group. You can tackle the trio in any order, but thanks to a steep gully leading to the summit and danger from loose rock, it’s wise to check off Little Bear—the state’s second-most-difficult fourteener, according to 14ers.com—when your legs still have some juice. From the peak, you’ll need 5th-class downclimbing skills (technical rock climbing ability and gear is required) to reach the connecting ridge, which is just a few feet wide in some spots. Many consider it to be the most challenging of Colorado’s four “great fourteener traverses.” (The other three are between the Maroon Bells, Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle, and El Diente Peak and Mt. Wilson.) Crossing the Sidewalk in the Sky is like walking on top of the world—if the top of the world had spires that you had to scramble around with hundred-plus-foot drops on either side.
How To: Take Lake Como Road (CO 150 intersects with it near Alamosa) as far as your vehicle will go; after about a mile, you’ll need four wheel drive and jeeping skills. But the farther you go, the less hiking you’ll have to do. From the start of the road, it’s roughly 5.5 to six miles to Lake Como, base camp for your hike to (hopefully) summit all three mountains the next day.
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Kayak Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
In the shadows of the Black Canyon’s 2,000-foot walls flows a famed section of the Gunnison River: 16 miles of roaring Class V white water rife with technical rapids and kayak-trapping sieves. Expert paddlers relish the run for the commitment and cojones required, but unsurprisingly, fewer than 40 of them paddle the treacherous stretch each season. After launching at Crystal Dam, about a 20-mile drive from Montrose, you’ll face an 18-foot waterfall; multiple strenuous portages, where both car-size boulders and five-foot-tall poison ivy thwart quick progress; and drops of varying difficulty. Plus, once you’re in, the only escape hatch comes toward the end of day one in the form of S.O.B. Gully, a mile-plus near-vertical hike back up to the rim. It’s best to complete the excursion as a two-day trek, with a night spent at the cave or beach camp, both of which can only be reached following a mile-long portage around mile 12 of the float. At journey’s end, you can either take out at the Chukar Trail (a mile-long uphill walk to the parking lot) or continue paddling through the Class IIIs of Gunnison Gorge to North Fork. “One of the reasons you paddle this run is because you get this amazing feeling of being walled in—which is awesome but also scary at times,” says Irwin Guides’ Dave Bumgarner, who has run the stretch twice. “It’s not somewhere you want things to go wrong. But it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever kayaked in my life.”
How To: Guide services do not lead trips in this area. Only seasoned boaters in excellent physical condition should attempt it. A free wilderness use permit is required; stop by the national park’s visitor center or ranger station to get one. The best time to run the section is in late summer when the river is flowing between 800 and 1,600 cubic feet per second.
Hitch A Ride
Travel the Continental Divide on Horseback
Hiking the Continental Divide Trail is a relatively uncommon pursuit (only about 300 hikers traverse the state’s entire 800-mile span each year)—but experiencing the renowned route by horseback is even more rare. To reduce impact on the environment, the U.S. Forest Service provides a limited number of permits for pack trips (of those permits, only a few include authorization for trips along the entire Colorado portion of the trail). One such golden ticket goes to San Juan Outfitting (SJO), which takes six eager riders, once a year, on the excursion of a lifetime. The guide service’s Continental Divide Ride traverses 108 miles of the trail, from Wolf Creek Pass to Silverton (or vice versa), in eight days. “You really are riding on top of the world,” says SJO co-owner Mary Adkisson. “You feel like you’re in the clouds.” Bring a camera to capture the Weminuche Wilderness’ verdant fields, an unending expanse of mountain ranges, valleys flush with wildflowers, and chance encounters with deer, moose, and elk. A team of SJO guides leads the pack horses, typically cooks two meals a day (plus a sack lunch), and sets up camp, cots included. You’ll spend an average of five hours in the saddle each day, but two consecutive rest days generally built into the middle of the trip provide recovery time for your trail-weary bum at SJO’s off-trail base camp. Bonus: The site offers easy access to cutthroat trout fishing.
How To: SJO’s Continental Divide Ride ($2,965 per person) usually fills by the end of March or April and takes place in late July. SJO prefers guests with previous riding experience because of the trip’s length, but anyone with enough grit is welcome. To reserve a spot, email the outfitter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In The Dark
Explore Spring Cave
A whole world of natural wonders exists beneath our feet, and cavers have plenty of underground hollows to explore in Colorado, including Spring Cave, located east of Meeker in White River National Forest. The grotto, which was discovered in 1891 and has a river running through it, is only open from April 16 through August 14 due to concerns about spreading deadly white-nose syndrome to local bat populations. During that limited window, set out on a steep, mile(ish) hike along the Spring Cave Trail to the large entryway. Armed with a flashlight, you can walk for a couple hundred feet before the easy-to-navigate passage morphs into a technical-skills-required endeavor. At this point, veteran cavers can climb down a metal ladder—and into the real adventure. The next mile or so includes a variety of challenges, such as vertical scrambling up flowstone; “chimneying” (shimmying between two walls); and swimming through the Jaws, a section only passable for a short time each year, usually in August, when the wetsuit-obligatory, near-freezing river water is low enough that you can keep your head above the surface. “It’s unbelievably gorgeous,” says Kevin Manley, president of Front Range Grotto, a Colorado chapter of the National Speleological Society. “It’s blue-green water. The passages are huge. It’s pretty well decorated.” Route-finding through all this dangerous beauty is difficult, but if you make it past the initial obstacles, you’ll eventually reach the “sumps,” underwater passages that are only navigable if you’re willing to haul in scuba equipment and have cave-diving certification. It’s at this point that intrigue gnaws at curious cavers: No one knows what’s beyond the first five sumps because Spring Cave has yet to be fully mapped.
How To: The trailhead is at the South Fork Campground. Registration with the Forest Service is required (call 970-945-2521). Explorers must decontaminate all gear before and after entering the cave to avoid spreading white-nose syndrome. Spring Cave should only be attempted by those who know how to negotiate caves without inflicting damage. Contact the Colorado Grotto or Front Range Grotto for more information.
Climb Crystal Tower
In a world where it seems like everything has been conquered long ago, it’s notable that the first free ascent of Crystal Tower, located in the Raggeds Wilderness between Marble and Crested Butte, wasn’t achieved until 2010. Jeff Jackson—a former editor at Carbondale-based Rock and Ice magazine who shares that accomplishment with his climbing partner, Jose Miranda—says that’s likely because of the rock’s remoteness and the physicality it demands. To reach the base of the 500-foot-tall spire, direct your four-wheel-drive vehicle along County Road 3 toward Schofield Pass. About a half mile from the ghost town of Crystal, you’ll see the Crystal Tower rock formation to the north and a large collection of boulders on the south side of the path, where you can pull over. After parking, you must scramble across a steep field littered with large chunks of quartzite talus; it’s an up-up-up route with no set trail. From the base of the tower, you’ll hike about 200 feet up a gully and then traverse back across ledges to the start of the climb. The two-pitch route is rated 5.12b to 5.13a, among the more difficult in alpine rock climbing (the scale starts at 5.1 and goes up in difficulty to 5.15). Crystal Tower is made of geometric quartzite—rather than the granite, limestone, or sandstone you more often find in Colorado—and follows an unusual pitch up a crack to an overhanging, bolt-protected buttress before topping out to views of the snow-capped Elk Mountains and the Crystal River below. “It’s true adventure rock climbing,” Jackson says. “It has that awesome feel of exposure.”
How To: Head out of Marble toward Crested Butte on County Road 3. About half a mile past Crystal, you’ll see the rock formation. Guides aren’t planning trips here, and it’s all trad climbing—which means climbers will have to place their own protection (i.e., cams and anchors)—so adventurers should be prepared. Western Sloper, by Dave Pegg, Jeff Achey, and BJ Sbarra, is a helpful guidebook for this area.
Hike into Knowles Canyon
It’s difficult to miss a 14-mile-long gash in the earth, but Knowles Canyon, in the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness, may as well be hidden under an invisibility cloak. Overshadowed by its venerated neighbors, including Colorado National Monument and Rattlesnake Arches, Knowles receives limited foot traffic. “It’s an area where you’re going to find solitude,” says Dougald MacDonald, editor of the American Alpine Journal. The canyon can be reached by rafting the popular Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado River, but to truly experience its expanse, plan to hike in. From the Knowles Canyon trailhead near Grand Junction, you can choose your level of adventure: It’s about four miles to the canyon rim, followed by a downclimb to the canyon floor, and approximately 10 more miles to reach the Colorado River—a strenuous two-day backpacking trip at minimum, if you go all the way.
From the trailhead parking area, follow the trail and an old jeep road through thick sagebrush, juniper trees, and piñon pines for about three miles, until you reach a log lying
across the road with a large cairn beside it. Take an unofficial side trail another 20 minutes to the canyon rim (you can use these GPS coordinates to find the drop-in point: 39°4’18.38”N 108°55’31.87”W), from which a very steep track with some easy rock scrambling zigzags down to the canyon bottom. Here, the path all but disappears amid lush riparian grass, but it’s difficult to get lost—just head downstream beside the narrow creek bed as far as you want to go. Watch for desert bighorns near pools of water that form in the black Precambrian rock exposed here and there on the canyon floor. Or you could also simply throw down your pack, set up your tent, and revel in the classic desert canyon’s striped walls and soaring sandstone towers.
How To: From Grand Junction, follow Monument Road to the east entrance of Colorado National Monument. Drive through and turn left toward the Glade Park Store, which you’ll reach after about six miles. From there, turn right onto 16.5 Road, drive half a mile, and make a left onto BS Road. The trailhead and a small parking area are 12 miles farther.
The Long Route
Summit Bear Peak After Rock Climbing the “Wings”
No one can seem to agree on a name for one of the biggest rock formations in the Flatirons—the monikers Angel’s Wings and Devil’s Wings are used almost interchangeably—but in any case, the approximately 2.5-mile-long, off-trail approach required to reach them means they’re seldom visited. Follow the South Mesa Trail (the trailhead is on Highway 170, about a mile east of Eldorado Springs) until it intersects with Upper Big Bluestem Trail. From the junction, you’ll need to bushwhack your way up a very steep drainage until it crosses a long expanse of loose talus. The massive Wings are low-angled slabs split by a center spine; you’ll find a combination of easy (5.2 to 5.3) and intermediate/advanced (5.10a to 5.10c) climbing routes covered in lichen and moss. “You pick your line,” says Matt Samet, editor of Climbing magazine. “It’s a pretty wild and remote part of the Boulder mountains. You’re more likely to run into a mountain lion or a bear than other climbers.” After topping out, you can follow a rocky ridgeline that requires bouldering skills to the summit of 8,461-foot Bear Peak. From that vantage point, catch your breath—while taking in 360-degree views that include Longs Peak and the Continental Divide—before tracing Fern Canyon Trail back to South Mesa Trail.
How To: Solid navigation and climbing skills as well as mountaineering knowledge are required to conquer any of the south Flatirons scrambles. Climbing Boulder’s Flatirons, by Jason Haas, is a handy guide for this area.
Conquer a Trio of Fourteeners—in Winter Conditions
Deep in the Needle Mountains in southern Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness lies the secluded Chicago Basin. In the summer, it’s a popular destination for backpackers who ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad from Durango to the Needleton stop and then hike six miles to the verdant area, home base for attempting the three surrounding fourteeners: Mt. Eolus (14,083 feet), Sunlight Peak (14,059 feet), and Windom Peak (14,082 feet). In the winter, however, the area is quiet; only a few attempts are made to reach the basin in the snowy months. Why? One: Avalanche danger is a serious threat. Two: From November 22 through May 4, the train only travels as far as Cascade Canyon, adding an additional six miles to the approach (and exit). And, three: You have to break trail through snow while carrying a heavy pack filled with warm clothes, winter camping gear, and enough food for four to six days. “It’s a serious endeavor,” says San Juan Mountain Guides owner Nate Disser, who has made the offseason journey four times. “There is quite a bit of potential avalanche danger in the Chicago Basin. There are multiple slide paths you have to cross. It’s very remote.” Manage it, and you’ll be rewarded with a snow-globe-like valley surrounded by craggy peaks and the opportunity to summit the three fourteeners plus “centennial thirteener” Jupiter Mountain, one of the 100 highest peaks in the state.
How To: Ouray-based San Juan Mountain Guides (mtnguide.net) offers a ski mountaineering trip to Chicago Basin between April and May each year. The excursions cost approximately $1,500 per person. To attempt the trek without a guide, you must be in good physical shape and have high-level navigation and alpine mountaineering skills, as well as advanced avalanche knowledge.
Don’t Limit Your Adventuring to Colorado. Check out these Four Remarkable Outings in Nearby States.
Hike In The Maze District Of Canyonlands National Park | Utah
Outside named the ill-defined trails in this red-rock-strewn section of Canyonlands among the world’s 20 most dangerous hikes, because the area is “difficult to reach, almost impossible to navigate, and full of dead-end gullies.” It’s a three- to six-hour drive to the Maze District from the Hans Flat Ranger Station (located on the west side of the park) in a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. Once you’re there, make camp and take dayhikes, or backpack from one stunning spot to the next—just don’t expect a lot of company. Of the park’s 776,000 total annual visitors, only about 3,000 reach this secluded locale.
Take a Snowmobile trip In Yellowstone National Park | Wyoming
Winter is already the best time to experience Yellowstone sans crowds, but for an extra-exclusive experience, enter the lottery (which opens in September) to win one of four daily Non-Commercially Guided Snowmobile Access Program permits. Get lucky and your group—up to five snowmobiles—can explore Yellowstone’s wintertime grandeur during a one- to three-day trip from mid-December through mid-March. (Inside the park, only Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel are open during this time.) Rent gear from any of the 13 companies located near the various entrances.
Raft The Selway River | Idaho
Test your boating skills along 47 miles of Idaho’s wild Selway River, a steep and technical ribbon of water that drops an average of 28 feet each mile. During the “control,” or high-demand, season (May 15 to July 31), only one launch, containing up to 16 people, is allowed per day. The lottery to score a pass opens on December 1.
Fish On The Smith River | Montana
This 59-mile tract of water bends its way through canyons and tree-studded hills and has just one public put-in site and a single public take-out (access is limited to nonmotorized watercraft). Win the lottery—the deadline to apply is mid-February—and you and your crew can spend five to seven blissful days taking in the sights and fishing for rainbow and brown trout in near solitude. Only nine groups of up to 15 people can be on the water each day.