COLORADO – ONE GIANT PLAYGROUND

By Beth Bershader - 

What to do when you have friends visiting who’ve never been to Colorado and you have a one week backpack trip planned but the mountains have too much snow?! After calling every ranger district in Colorado, I resolved to finding areas to car camp and day hike. Luckily, Colorado is one giant playground. Living in southwest Colorado, it is ideal for exploring.

I poured over maps to find the biggest bang for the buck. Where, oh where, could our feet take us that doesn’t require post-holing in snow up to our waists but still providing spectacular views. I also wanted to include visiting some classic quaint historical Colorado mountain towns rich with history.

Our first stop was a hike to Lower Blue Lake in Mount Sneffels Wilderness. After traversing an avalanche debris field, passing by a giant waterfall and traveling on snow for the last mile we reached the very blue colored lake melting out with dramatic jagged peaks surrounding the basin. On our way back, we stopped in Ouray otherwise known as the Switzerland of America since it is surrounded by glorious mountains. Named after Chief Ouray of the Utes and mostly known for the Camp Bird Mine which produced 200,000 ounces of gold in 1902 in addition to 29 other mines during its hay day. When we had our fill of this quaint town, we headed to camp at Ridgway State Park with its 84k+ acre reservoir. 

We next hiked the Deep Creek Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness which is Colorado’s largest wilderness area at 488k acres. This trail took us through large aspen groves, across multiple massive avalanche debris fields and provided views of many of our fourteen thousand-foot peaks across the way as well as the Telluride ski resort below. We were lucky to even see a herd of elk and could hear them bugling in the distance. When we finished our hike, we headed into Telluride where all the beautiful people are (it’s a very wealthy town that many famous people visit). This is a former Victorian mining town with many historic houses and landmarks. We grabbed a quick iced coffee and headed back to Ridgway State Park. We stopped for beer and pizza in Ridgway, the gateway to the San Juan Mountains. The town is a former railroad stop from back in the day for the Denver-Rio Grande Railroad.

The following day we drove up to Red Mountain Pass at 11,018’ in elevation and started our hike to Red Mountain #3 which is 12,890’ elevation.  Many waterfalls, silver mines and the run-down mining camps surrounded us. We huffed and puffed at high altitude with our jaws dropping at the amazing 360-degree views of the San Juan mountains as we headed towards the reddish iron ore rocks that cover the surface of Red Mountain #3 crossing many snowfields along the way. Once we reached the summit and took photos in every direction, we took a long break snacking on left over pizza from the day before. We really wanted more and to go over the next peak, but we had a long drive ahead of us and didn’t start as early as we should’ve so down we went. We stopped in Silverton for beers which is federally designated as a national historic landmark district as a former silver mining camp with most of the roads still dirt and old wooden store fronts lining the streets. From here we traveled up and over Molas Pass at 10,912’ and Coal Bank Pass at 10,612 ft down into Durango known for the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. We passed through and headed to Vallecito Reservoir one of Colorado’s most beautiful and largest bodies of water. Vallecito is Spanish for little valley and was an ancestral home to many Ute Indians. We camped here for the night.

Our next day was a sleep-in day then a short hot hike to Lake Eileen which was filled with lily pads that had yellow flowers gently sitting atop them. Very idyllic scenery. After we descended, we took a dip in the lake to cool off and stopped by the local Rusty Shovel bar for beers and relaxing lakeside.

The next day was a driving day through Pagosa Springs up Wolf Creek Pass at 10,857’ passing by 105’ Treasure Falls then down into South Fork which is at the confluence of the South Fork and Rio Grande rivers and onward to Creede, our base camp. Creede is a tiny mountain town named after Nicholas Creede who discovered the Holy Moses Mine which netted thousands in silver along with the other mines in the area. Now there is the Bachelor Loop historical driving tour to see the fantastic mines that were built. Many old-time criminals hung out in this town and some movies were filmed here as well, most recently Johnny Depp’s The Lone Ranger. We walked the streets visiting some of the shops and taking in the day.

The last day with our friends was spent hiking above Creede to the Continental Divide Trail high above treeline to top out on some 13,000’ peaks with amazing views of the La Garita Wilderness and San Luis Peak in our faces, another Colorado 14,000’ mountain. Flowers abound, marmots running around, thin air and views to die for. Lucky us. 

The next morning, we bid our friends farewell as they continued traveling through Colorado. Thinking back to all these glorious places our feet took us there many commonalities along the way: few people, sooooo many flowers, wildlife, perfect blue bird days, mosquitos, mosquitos, and mosquitos! We love our dirt church here in Colorado, our one giant playground!