Late season in the backcountry
Part of the fun of living in Colorado’s Favorite Playground is the ever-present opportunity for adventure, as illustrated by an impulse we had a couple weeks ago:
“Shoot, did summer really come and go already? What about all the fun adventures we planned but never got around to, like that backcountry camping trip?”
“Yeah, shoot! …you think it’s too crazy to still try and do it?”
We had a destination in mind – a particularly pretty little high alpine lake, tucked away right at treeline along the Continental Divide.
It’s only a few miles as the bird flies from Winter Park, but actually getting up there is a whole ‘nother story. The drive there is up an unnervingly narrow forest road, complete with switchbacks, blind corners, loose rocks, and rutted-out potholes as big as a Mary Jane mogul – and that’s just to get to the trailhead!
The hike itself is its own challenge, requiring a steep traverse across the open tundra. No small feat, especially with a weekend’s worth of camping supplies strapped to your back.
Still a couple days until the weekend, we weighed our options. The trip would be just the adventure we had been jonesing for, though we’d inevitably encounter chilly late-season weather, especially if things got wet or snowy.
“…but…but…we never got in a good backcountry camping trip!”
“You’re right…do we still have time? I mean, it IS late September in the high country…”
“This weekend is supposed to be nice weather, perhaps the last nice weekend of the year. I say we go for it. We should be fine. Just remember to bring your long johns.”
So that was that. We packed up the SUV, shifted into 4-wheel-drive, and began our ascent.
(After all, what good is a sense of adventure without a little feeling of the unknown? If you knew exactly how an adventure was going to pan out, what’s the point of even going?)
The drive up, though quite bumpy, was no less lovely, with brilliant groves of golden aspens accenting the mountainside. The hike in actually wasn’t that bad either, but at that point maybe we were just too excited to notice the weight of our backpacks.
Next, time to find a campsite. A backcountry campsite is pretty much the same as any other campsite – flat spot for the tents, trees for cover, plenty of firewood – it just happens to be at an elevation over 11,000 feet.
We set up camp, get settled in, and take a moment to appreciate the landscape. This. Place. Is. GORGEOUS! Sheer granite cliffs, scraggly green conifers, shrubs and willows in the peak of their autumn color. The lake is crystal clear and as smooth as glass, but for the occasional breeze or the dimple of a rising trout. Should we have brought our fly rods? Man, we shoulda brought our fly rods.
Alas, it’s getting late. The sun slowly slips behind the mountains, treating us to a remarkable Rocky Mountain sunset.
Time to get the fire roaring. If it ever got cold that night, we never really noticed. Maybe it was the fire, or the wool socks and extra layers of fleece, or the high-tech sleeping bags, or maybe just the Southern Comfort, but we never felt too chilly.
We woke up to cool, soupy weather that looked like it could turn to full-blown rain or snow at any moment. Time to get back down! We pack up and begin our descent.
On the hike back, we hear a commotion in the bushes right along the trail. A bull moose pops out right in front of us and sprints away across the tundra. Whoa! How does such a large animal move so fast? Especially at this elevation, with the air so thin! We can barely hike ten feet without losing our breath!
Needless to say, if we got a photo of the moose, you would have seen it by now. It ran off so quick we didn’t really have time to get the camera out. Besides, we weren’t really thinking to snap a pic at the time. We were just thankful it ran away from us instead of toward us.
Despite the damp dirt road slowly turning to mud, we manage to get down from the divide safe and sound. We decide to welcome ourselves back to civilization by stopping by our favorite local burger joint. As we’re eating, that swampy sky finally opens up, and rain showers down on the Fraser Valley. The rain eventually turned to snow later that evening.
Thankful to Mother Nature for affording us one last night to camp, and having quenched our thirst for adventure, we congratulate ourselves for finally managing to squeeze in that backcountry camping trip.
Colorado’s Favorite Playground, indeed.