Backpacking on the Wild Side in Northern Colorado

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Does your idea of a wilderness experience involve a night sky so flooded with stars you have difficulty finding familiar constellations? How about snowfields in August? Maybe you like those chance sightings of wildlife? If you answered yes to these questions, all this and more “wild side” scenarios can be found.

You may think it’s too early to start thinking about backpacking in the Colorado Rockies, but this is the best time to make a list of targets for the warmer days ahead. Living 20 miles north of Denver, Colorado, I’m lucky to be close to many wilderness areas exploring the wild side, places where I feel like the only person in the world.

The trick to finding these places takes some luck and deductive reasoning when looking over the maps, or noticing promising areas when visiting a particular wilderness. Following animal trails, going over unnamed passes, or just going a few hundred yards off-trail presents a totally unique look to the back-country, yielding some fresh new terrain.

Here are three areas I’ve traveled:

  • Indian Peaks,
  • Vasquez Peak and
  • Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Areas.

All the trips were multiple day backpack excursions. I’ll provide a small sample of what you can expect in each unique and beautiful place, ranking them using a wild side (WS) scale I created myself, to rate how wild an area is in terms of usage, wildlife and scenic views. Wilderness areas start at six, ending at ten. Antarctica, remote mountain ranges and jungles are examples of tens.

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area

The Indian Peaks wilderness lies west of Boulder. It’s heavily traveled, especially on the east side, but there are some areas to be found providing eight to nine on the WS scale. Our adventure begins at the trailhead near a fork of the St. Vrain, surrounded by forest in the area of Buchanan Pass. We day-trip near the home of the St. Vrain Glaciers by contouring along the timberline, finding a high vantage point so we can gaze at them.

The next day we pick up camp and head to the south, up Cony Creek Valley, finding different terrain. In a two-mile span we travel through forest, noticing a creek below. Cony Creek leads to beautiful Cony Lake, flanked in the back by 13,223 foot Mt. Audubon. The scene is from a postcard. As night approaches, we decide to camp in the open on a high ridge. The stars are incredible. I can see the Milky Way and hear howling coyotes. This trip gets an eight on the WS scale.

Vasquez Peak Wilderness Area

Next on the list is the Vasquez Peak Wilderness Area, situated west of Berthoud Pass and south of Winter Park. Our style of travel was a destination hike. We park cars at the St. Louis Creek trailhead, south of where we put off for the hike at Berthoud Pass. For three days we’ll hike on or along the Continental Divide, leaving it when we head west towards St. Louis Pass since two-thirds of Vasquez Peak lies above timberline.

It’s an exhilarating experience as we top out on two 12,000 foot peaks. The views up here are amazing. In different directions one can see huge mountains, spread out in chains, stretching for miles on end. Wildlife opportunities are excellent. We see a golden eagle, snowshoe hare, marmots, pika and elk. We see elk bones and the eagle at the same time; our sign – soar as high as we can, but remember we are mortal.

We sink down to the trees when it’s time to camp passing groups of krummholz, German for “twisted wood”, Englemann spruce and Subalpine fir unable to grow upright due to the fierce winds occurring at this altitude. These tough survivors of the alpine grow their trunks horizontally with gnarly and twisted branches shaped by the elements. We honor these beings for their tenacity.

On our last day, we hike up Mt. Nystrom to take us to St. Louis Pass. On our way to the pass, we get soaked in rain, and hearing lightning strike scares us out of our wits. The sun comes out, the air warms and we see St. Louis Pass. Over the pass is a beautiful campsite near a high-altitude pond with more wonderful views. In Vasquez, one will dream of alpine thoughts, elk herds, mists rising from valleys, lush meadows and colorful springs. We didn’t see a soul in three days. I rate this with a WS factor of eight.

Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area

The Mt. Zirkel wilderness area approaches 120 miles away from Denver as the crow flies. Far north and west, it’s an isolated place. Zirkel provides a rugged type of experience. The transition from the lower lodgepole forests to the subalpine is gradual as we make our way up the South Fork Big Creek Trail. Our stop for the night is Seven Lakes. We pass some huge trees, ancients among the crowd, unusual for being up so high.

The nice thing about Seven Lakes is they lie at the point where forest gives way to the alpine meadows. A huge plus here is the gentle slope leading south to the Continental Divide. A hike up here reveals a magnificent view of the Sawtooth Range, aptly named for the dramatic and sharp tops of the three mountains before us.

From left to right are Mt. Zirkel, 12,180 feet, Big Agnes Mountain, 12,059 feet and Little Agnes Mountain at 11,497. This image of huge mountains is worth the journey. I kept thinking about the huge wilderness behind the peaks to the south and west.

On the way to our second spot, we startle a mule deer buck materializing out of thin air, nearly giving me a heart attack. Later, we are sitting on a log, admiring a view while snacking, when suddenly we hear a big ruckus behind us, an elk sneaking by, only ten feet away. Nice to experience wildlife encounters and mountain vistas most people only dream about. I rate it a nine.

Go on into the Wilderness

Finding wild side experiences aren’t difficult, provided you visit the place from a fresh angle, perhaps by bushwhacking or visiting a less traveled section. You’ll see intense sunsets, a variety of wildlife and fulfilling mountain scenes making these enclaves real gems. So go on, take a walk on the wild side in the Colorado Rockies wilderness.

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