Colorado Rocks (Really, we have a lot of rocks)

Friends who know me in real life know that one of my annoying traits is that I can talk endlessly about my favorite Colorado outdoorsy things. (Oh, wait, I do that here on the Deb Ball too!) I have the ability to declare a certain mountain my favorite, only to say the exact same thing about a different mountain five minutes later.

Look. No one comes to Colorado because of our art galleries. Or because we are a cultural mecca. Or for Denver’s happening nightlife. People come here to Colorado to bask under the stars and smell the Ponderosa pine trees.

Maybe that’s about to be you, and since we are writing about our favorite local things this week, I thought I jot down some of my favorite Colorado destinations you might check out:

Silverton

Silverton is my favorite Colorado mountain town! No, no really it is. Imagine the set from an old Western movie: one main road, about a dozen cross streets, a few restaurants and taverns, one hotel, and one tiny grocer where you can purchase some beer, ice, and s’more fixings. In every direction around the town, peaks jut straight into the sky. Silverton is the beauty of Telluride but without the glitz and tourists.

Silverton is set in the middle of the San Juans, which happen to be my favorite Colorado mountain range. No, really, they are! They’re dramatic, and they’re the deepest shades of green and even purple and red. The alpine lakes come in the most vivid blues and greens you can imagine. In July, you’ll be buried in wildflowers. End of September? The changing leaves will be at prime. Hike here and you’ll forget every single one of your worries.

In the winter, adventurous skiers come to get some thrills. But a warning about that: only excellent skiers can stay on their feet on even the least technical run on that mountain. So unless you went on a heli trip in Alaska last weekend, I wouldn’t plan on carving any turns. Save yourself and go snowshoeing instead.

If you want something a bit less physically demanding, try the train which runs between Durango and Silverton. It’s a bit pricey, but it’ll take you alongside the Animas River which is – you guessed it! – my favorite Colorado river. But seriously it is. I mean, the river is aqua!

I should mention: to reach Silverton, unless you come by train, you’ll have to drive the “Million Dollar Highway.” If you don’t like heights, make someone else do the work and pop a Xanax.

Stop in Ouray on your way out of Silverton. It is also quite spectacular, plus the hot springs located there will help ease the sore muscles.

Don’t come to Silverton if you are looking for anything other than a true, gritty outdoor experience!

Silverton, CO (sorry for the glare)
Hermatite Basin. #NoFilter, as they say.
The San Juans from inside an old mine

Aspen

If you insist on visiting one of the touristy towns – if you want a quality hotel and excellent restaurants –  Silverton might not be for you. But please, for the love, skip Vail or Breckenridge. Contrary to popular belief, Vail does not have any alpine mountains. Those things people ski are just hills, hills that don’t even top out above treeline, and also, Vail saddles the state’s largest highway. Breck, on the other hand, has legitimate mountains at least. But it is an extremely busy, extremely touristy town.

Aspen is touristy as well, but at least you’ll be in the Elks which are a phenomenal mountain range. (I’m going to resist saying they are my favorite. They’re only my second favorite). The Maroon Bells are unique, so definitely stop in for a quick visit, but don’t stay too long. Instead, hike to someplace like Capitol Lake or Snowmass Lake. You could go miles without seeing a single other person, especially on a weekday.

It seems East Coasters love Aspen, so don’t be too surprised if you feel a bit like you’re in crowd of Manhattanites who just discovered a Patagonia catalog. Despite that, the destination is still worth your time.

Capitol Peak. That’s a 2,000 foot solid granite wall.
The basin (with nearby lake) under Capitol Peak. Pictures can’t capture it, I assure you.

Lost Creek Wilderness

Let’s say you are willing to forgo all the modern comforts and you truly want to get away from people? Check out Lost Creek Wilderness. It’s much closer to Denver than Silverton or Aspen, but just to get there, you’ll have to drive for an hour or maybe even more on gravel roads. Because there aren’t any big alpine mountains in this wilderness – or ski resorts, or civilization of any kind, really – it hasn’t attracted the attention of either locals or flatlanders.

Lost Creek doesn’t boast any spectacular mountains, but it has awesome rock formations and sweeping views. Several years ago, a large portion of it burned in a massive wildfire, though it’s rebuilding and is gorgeous in its own way.

See? Cool rocks. Lost Creek Wilderness.

Never Summer Mountains

Here’s another idea if solitude is your thing. Never Summer Mountains are west of Fort Collins, so they’re a bit further away from Denver, though you can skip all the gravel roads. Never Summer offers a bit more of an alpine (above treeline) experience than Lost Creek.

I can’t remember the name of this basin in the Never Summers! I know, criminal. The first time I saw it was during a 100K race, and at the time I was super cranky because I thought we were done with the big climbs for a little while. Then the trail topped out here, and I stopped being crabby.

 

The Never Summers or Austria? You decide.

For both Lost Creek and Never Summer, there are options to car camp or to venture out on an adventurous backpacking journey. I can’t say there’s something for everyone (we’re talking about remote wilderness after all), but I can at least say there’s something for most.

 

Mt. Evans

Perhaps you’re coming to Colorado and don’t have the luxury of building an entire vacation out of the great outdoors. Don’t despair! My favorite family-friendly day trip out of Denver is a drive up Mt Evans, the highest road in America. The views are excellent, and you can stay in a cushy car seat the whole way. The driving gets a bit intense near the top of the 14,000-foot peak, but IMO not as bad as the Million Dollar Highway. The parking lot is about 250 feet below the actual summit, so bring good shoes if you want to tag the top (that’s about a 15-minute walk for most people). Evans is only an hour from Denver, so you could do this in a morning and still sneak back into a business conference by lunch time. I mean, I’m just saying.

Pro tip: go very, very early in the morning. No, not 10am; that’s not early, silly. I’m talking about six am or seven. Three reasons to pull yourself out of bed that early: 1) fewer crowds (can you tell I love my solitude?), 2) much better weather – we get storms in the afternoons, assuming you are going up there in the summer, and 3) you might have the opportunity to hang out with the mountain goats before the crowds arrive.

Mountain Goats on top of Mt Evans – not unusual!
The road up Mt Evans, taken during the annual Mt Evans ascent, a foot race to the top.

One last tip, no matter where you go: drink lots of water starting before you even arrive in state. Hydration will help with altitude sickness!

Oh, and if you are really coming to Colorado, hit me up. Telling flatlanders how to spend their Colorado vacations is one of my favorite things.

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Lynn Hall is a memoirist, activist in the movement to end sexual violence, ultra-runner, and crazy cat lady. Her memoir, CAGED EYES: AN AIR FORCE CADET’S STORY OF RAPE AND RESILIENCE, was published by Beacon Press in February 2017. Her writing has previously appeared in the New York Times, The LA Times, Hippocampus Magazine, The Sexual Assault Report, The Manifest-Station, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and elsewhere. In the summers, Lynn copes with publication anxiety by spending too many days in the Colorado mountains, and in the winters, with pans of brownies. She lives in Boulder with her partner and their 23 cats. Just kidding…she only has five.

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