Roads Rivers and Trails

Dream. Plan. Live.

Tag Archives: Colorado


The trails that make up the National Trails System, including these moderately long walks, provide ample thru-hike opportunities for adventurers.

5 Short Long Trails: Lesser-Known Thru-Hikes for the Everyday Adventurer

The long trails of America catch our imaginations: the Appalachian Trail with its steep rolling mountains, the Pacific Crest Trail with its alpine beauty, and the Continental Divide Trail’s rugged wilderness.  These trails span thousands of miles and multiple states, as do most of the other routes in America’s National Trail System.  They are serious undertakings that require money, equipment, and most of all, time. What if you’re short on one or even all of these? These are five lesser-known thru-hikes in the US, all one hundred miles or more, that can get you the taste of a long trail without 4-5 months of walking.

Trail #1 – John Muir Trail (JMT)

State: California

Length: 211 miles

Duration: 16-21 days

Northern Terminus: Happy Isles, Yosemite Valley

Southern Terminus: Whitney Portal/Mt. Whitney

Best months: Late May – Mid July

I’ll start with the well-known and obvious on this list and then move to the more obscure. The JMT traverses 211 miles through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks as well as multiple national forests and wilderness areas. You climb almost a dozen alpine passes, spend your evenings enjoying beautiful alpine lakes, and see some of the best mountain landscapes the US has to offer.  Hiking from north to south, as most do, the trail culminates with a climb of 14,502’ Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 states.

I had the pleasure of hiking the JMT overlap of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2021 and it was an incredible experience that I would happily do again. In the early season (May-Mid-June), snowpack and raging rivers can be of concern to unprepared hikers. In the late season (end of July-August), wildfires have closed trails the past several years. It’s best to look at this trail months in advance so you can evaluate snowpack, drought conditions, logistics, and the competitive permit system before booking your hike.

California's JMT is a short thru-hike that's sure to provide challenge and beauty.

Trail #2 – The Long Trail

State: Vermont

Length: 273 miles

Duration: 21-30 days

Northern Terminus: US/Canada Border near Jay, Vermont

Southern Terminus: Clarksburg, Massachusetts

Best Months: May – October

This trail winds through the beautiful Green Mountains of Vermont and shares its southernmost 100 miles with the Appalachian Trail. Completed in 1930, it’s one of the oldest trail systems in the United States and was the inspiration for other long trails like the AT and PCT. The trail traverses six wilderness areas in Green Mountain National Forest and ascends Vermont’s highest peak, 4,395’ Mount Mansfield. In spring and late fall, the trail can be muddy and treacherous, and in the summer the ridgelines can be parched of water. If you’re lucky, you can hit the Long Trail at the perfect time, catching summer wildflowers or amazing New England fall colors.

The nation's oldest long trail is a thru-hike teeming with history, scenery, and mud.

Trail #3 – Colorado Trail

State: Colorado

Length: 486 miles

Duration: 30-40 days

Eastern Terminus: Waterton Canyon (near Denver)

Western Terminus: Durango

Best Months: June – Late September

The Colorado Trail (CT) is the longest on this list and as close to a long thru hike as you will get without being gone for multiple months. The trail crosses vast alpine landscapes; even in late spring snow can clog the trail at higher elevations. During the summer you have afternoon thunderstorms to contend with; in the fall, snow can sneak in as soon as late August.  The trail reaches a high point of 13,271’ as it traverses eight mountain ranges, six national forests, and six wilderness areas. The CT shares over 200 miles of trail with the Continental Divide Trail, meaning you’ll probably cross paths with longer-distance thru hikers that can share wisdom.

The Colorado Trail is a thru-hike that won't disappoint, showcasing the splendid Rocky Mountains across its 486-mile length

Trail #4 – Uinta Highline Trail

State: Utah

Length: 107 miles

Duration: 10-11 days

Eastern Terminus: McKee Draw

Western Terminus: Hayden Pass

Best Months: June – Late September

The Uinta Highline Trail is the shortest trail on this list, but it has its own set of challenges.  The first 21 miles of trail from McKee Draw to Leidy Peak can be devoid of water in the late season, creating a challenge right off the bat as hikers try to gain their trail legs while hauling two days’ worth of water. Once you reach the water, the real fun starts. Nine alpine passes stand between you and the finish line. The trail can be incredibly rugged and remote, with much of the eastern portion unmaintained and sometimes poorly marked. The Uintas offer amazing views and a great opportunity to test your skills in the mountains. I attempted this trail in 2020 but had to bail due to poor planning and injury, although it is on my list to go back and try again.

This lesser-known thru-hike of Utah's Uinta Mountains should be on every hiker's bucket list.

Trail #5 – Superior Hiking Trail

State: Minnesota

Length: 310 miles

Duration: 21-30 days

Southern Terminus: Wild Valley Road Trailhead

Northern Terminus: US-Canada Border near Grand Portage

Best Months: June – Late September

The Superior Hiking Trail is a hidden gem of the Midwest. It traverses rocky ridges overlooking Lake Superior and wanders through lush pine forests. This is least primitive of all the trails on this list with 93 developed backcountry campsites available fee-free to hikers.  The trail is incredibly well marked in most parts, but there are rugged sections of trail near the northern terminus.

One thing to be aware of is black fly season, the scourge of the upper Great Lakes. Black flies typically infest beaches, inland lakes, and anywhere without a steady breeze from late July to early August, when the temperatures drop and they die the death they deserve. You’ll want to pack a bug net, Deet, and thick clothing if you plan to hike the trail during that time of year. Other than that, the trail is incredibly accessible off Highway 61 with frequent spurs leading to trailheads and towns.

What it lacks in elevation the Superior Hiking Trail makes up for in beautiful forests and lakes.

by: Ben Shaw

Exploring the Krummholz

The alpine zone is a magical place. The region above the treeline, whether by latitude or altitude, is a delicate dance of life spurred by abundant sunshine and haunted by howling winds. Known as the krummholz zone, the alpine is its own ecosystem, clawing and fighting for a firm hold of survival. It’s impossible not to be impressed, awed, and enamored by the organisms that eke out a living across the steep expanse of barren, loose rock, pummeled by never-ceasing winds, battered by afternoon storms, thriving where the hardiest of trees cannot, and surviving in what should be a lifeless zone. It is ironic, then, that in this region of dedication and toughness, where plants grow out of rock and not soil, a single human footstep can destroy the same plant that weathered each of nature’s assaults.Stunted trees growing on rocky, snow-covered slopes define the krummholz.

Among the lofty, celebrated peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park the alpine begins above 10,000 feet. Here, the few trees that survive are stunted and windblown, hanging on to life by a thread. Trees grow so slowly up here that a century-old tree might be barely taller than you or I, its rings packed tightly together. These beacons of strength fade at 11,000 feet, growing sparser and smaller until with a frightening suddenness the climber is left alone with the wind and rock. Here is where the true magic happens, that tiny web of life that is so easily overlooked but deserves far more admiration than the stately pines of the lower slopes.

As with any food web, life begins with the sun. It is this celestial energy which feeds the alpine plants that thrust their roots into rock. From afar, the upper reaches of the mountain are devoid of greenery and color, a gray mat of rock. But upon closer inspection these rocks are home to life, where alpine lawns emerge from boulder fields.

The foundation here is lichen, part fungus and part plant, but wholly living and important. From the dull greens and faded colors of the lichen arise the tiniest of plants. Among the plants are a variety of wildflowers too proud to give up their existence. These flowers coat the mountains in splendid hues of yellow, purple, and blue to match the skies at dusk and dawn. Here grow the petals of alpine sunflower, the pistils of dwarf clover, and the anthers of my personal favorite, and Colorado’s too, the columbine.

Rocky Mountain Columbine

 

The complex web of life continues up the food chain to the pollinators that rely on these flowers. Upon closer inspection, these flowers sustain insects of every variety. Ants and beetles crawl across the lichen-coated rocks. An astounding diversity of bees buzz in and around the petals, and delicate, intricately decorated butterflies like the American Lady rest on them too. These winged beauties somehow navigate the biting winds that chill bipedal visitors and threaten to blow hikers off the peak, floating gracefully where one would never think it possible.

 

Alpine Sunflowers thrive in the krummholz zone.

Alpine Sunflower

 

Dwarfing the butterflies, but still a tiny pollinator, a mountain classic hovers above alpine gardens. The Broad-tailed Hummingbird calls the harsh krummholz region home. Given the abundance of them and the frequency of their high-pitched chatter, I wouldn’t hesitate to claim they are thriving in this fragile ecosystem. If one has sharp eyes they might notice a White-tailed Ptarmigan, the only ptarmigan endemic to North America. The changing plumage of this incredible bird mirrors the landscape around them. This bird prefers high elevations and northern latitudes, being well-adapted to the cold. Equally fascinating is the songbird adapted for life on rocky alpine slopes, rosy finches. Rocky Mountain National Park is home to the Brown-capped Rosy Finch, a small passerine tinged in pink often seen skylarking above the slopes.

 

White-tailed Ptarmigans blend into the background of the krummholz.

White-tailed Ptarmigan

Brown-capped Rosy Finches are restricted to krummholz habitats in the central Rocky Mountains.

Brown-capped Rosy Finch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On another strand of the food web, the energetic Rocky Mountain Pika exudes positivity despite the harsh environment where it scurries around, beneath, and over rocks, daintily collecting alpine sunflowers in its mouth. The shrieks of the pika drift across the slopes as this tiny, mouse-like mammal cheerfully works to thrive where few species can. Pikas are well-adapted to the krummholz, and their sensitivity to changing environments makes them an indicator species of climate change. Alongside the friendly pika is the much larger marmot, more commonly seen lazily lounging on boulders than scurrying like the pika. The daily delight of visitors, Yellow-bellied Marmots take life at a slow pace with quizzical expressions, but they too have a place in the ecosystem.

Hoary Marmot

It frightens me to think of the crowds of passerby that traverse the alpine zone to summit and back without a second thought for the life beneath their feet. In the krummholz, a careless footstep has a cost, but there is reward for those that tread slowly and take note of the rhythm of life tucked between rocks. There is more to these peaks than tagging summits, a whole ecosystem more. Whether it’s the sheer peaks of the Rockies, the staggering High Sierra, or the remote Chic-Chocs, the krummholz offers ample exploration and infinite learning for those that greet the rocks, lichens, butterflies, and birds with slow footsteps and thoughtful gaze.

 

by: Will Babb

Peak Bagging 14ers

By: Ben Shaw

*For more on this story join us February 13th at 7PM at Roads Rivers and Trails in downtown Milford for a more in-depth presentation by the trip participants. (2020)

Going on the first adventure of 2020, only took me a few days…  I’d been planning this one for months though, getting out to Colorado again and climbing some snowy mountains has been in the back of my mind for years now.  The weeks leading up, I obsessed about routes, weather, avalanche conditions and all the other things you actually have very little control over. When the week of the trip hit, I oddly found myself in a funk.  The most experienced climber of the group bailed out on Monday and I started having weird shoulder pains on Tuesday.  I shrugged it off, still excited, celebrated New Years and packed for the trip.  As I got closer to leaving that Saturday I could feel my “funk” start to go away, but unfortunately some of it was still hanging on.

 

“In the mountaineering parlance of the Western US, a fourteener is a peak with an elevation of at least 14,000′. There are 96 fourteeners in the United States. Colorado has the most (53) of any state”

 

We left at 3 AM on a Saturday morning with the intent to be in Colorado Springs in the evening. The plan was to spend the night with our friends Olivia and Ike, who would then join us on our trip.  On the car ride out, I started to notice the conditions on Bierstadt were already changing, with high winds, colder temperatures and potentially snow forecast for our prospective first summit day.  Joining me on the trip were friends Dalton and Toren. I tried to put my thoughts to rest with a combination of laughing at shared stories and playing “My Cows”, but that didn’t help much.  I made the call to push our summit day up, our plans were already changing.  On top of that, an hour outside of Colorado Springs I got a fever and almost passed out, the trip was going swimmingly…  After getting to our friend’s house and throwing down a few slices of pizza we all got to bed early for our 4 AM start the next day.

In the morning, the sky was clear, and after a windy, restless night, the air was calm.  Our group quickly covered the two-hour drive to Guanella Pass​ and before I knew it, I was standing at 10,000′ putting on snowshoes and heading up the snow-covered road.  We gradually hiked up, making it to the top of the pass in just under an hour.  Toren, Dalton and I setup camp, planning to stay the night after summiting to acclimate at near 11,500′.

Mt. Bierstadt: After we setup camp, and gathered our summit packs we started into the willows up the west slope.  As you head up Bierstadt in the warmer months, you travel through about a mile of thick willows and mushy marshland.  Luckily, as we headed up, the boggy ground was frozen stiff, and the willows had a clear trench worked in by other climbers.  We quickly progressed up above the swamp to 12,500′.

I could feel the altitude wearing on my body.  My chest was tight, it was hard to breath, the cold winter air bit at my lungs but upward we went.  Gradually we closed in on 13,500′ with a final 500′ vertical push to the summit.  This would be the only semi-exposed part of the climb; the east face was shear and the final pitch was blanketed in two small snow fields.  As we rested behind some rocks before the push, a pair came down and said it was brutally windy up there.  We weren’t discouraged being so close, but we knew it would be a quick up and down.  Toren and I set off, climbing up, I felt like he was sprinting ahead of me, excited for the 14,060′ summit.  After a few short minutes we reached the top and took in the panoramic views of nothing insight but an endless expanse of mountains. Quickly, we were chased down by the wind as our friends made the final push up behind our descent.


We trotted down the mountain.  I could feel the air warm, and my body slowly regaining its posture.  I was still exhausted.  Having not felt well the day before, I was at a major calorie deficit and dehydrated, not good things for being in the mountains.  The lower we descended the more I could feel muscle fatigue and the other effects of the past 48 hours setting in.  I needed a nap…

Eventually we all made it down to 11,500′ where we had setup basecamp.  We traded stories of our somewhat separate trips up and down as we got a much-needed snack.  Eventually Olivia and Ike continued down the mountain, back to their car and headed home to Colorado Springs.  Dalton, Toren and I got that much needed nap.  After brushing off our alarms for close to an hour we finally arose from our slumber.  I sat up, threw up and continued heaving out the tent door…  I either had altitude sickness, or food poisoning or a combination of the two.  Even if it was just food poisoning, being up at 11,500′ was not making it better, both ends of my body felt like they wanted to explode…

We made the smart call to go down.  As we packed camp, I was furious at my body for not keeping up.  Once back at the car, I sank into my seat, defeated and feeling like trash.  We started off towards Colorado Springs.  About halfway down Guanella Pass we ran into some skiers that had locked themselves out of their car and needed a ride to their key.  Dalton and Toren obliged and helped them with a ride.  I like to believe that that was our payment in good karma for the rest of the trip.  After a few hours shuttling and then being stuck in Sunday ski traffic we arrived back in Colorado Springs and I was quickly in bed.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) “The negative health effect of high altitude caused by rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen at high elevation. Symptoms may include headaches, vomiting, tiredness, trouble sleeping, and dizziness.”

The next day I had a decision to make, pull it together and head towards DeCaLiBron for our 4 summit day or wimp out and give into my body…  I told my body to shove off.  Dalton and Toren, as they would many more times on this trip, encouraged me to go for it.  By sunset we found ourselves at 12,000′, snuggled up in our 4-season mountaineering tents and 0-degree sleeping bags as the wind whipped off the summits outside.

Around 9 PM Ike arrived at our camp, waking me up from what had been a pretty good nap.  I was happy though, him being there gave me a bit of comfort, after all, he’s been there on most of my biggest trips.  After getting settled in, we again dozed off to sleep to the sound of howling wind outside. ​My watch began to vibrate at 6:30 AM, it was still dark.  I began moving around looking for breakfast and water, knocking frost of the top of the tent.  The wind had settled, but it still kicked up here and there.  As the sun started to rise up through the gulch we reluctantly put on our cold boots and started up the south slope of Mt. Democrat from Kite Lake.

Ben8
Ben999
Ben99
Ben9
Ben7
Ben6
Ben5
Ben4
Ben3
Ben2
Ben1
previous arrow
next arrow

Mt. Cameron: After losing the saddle back towards Cameron, we grabbed a snack and felt rejuvenated by our speedy pace.  As a group we agreed to push on to the other summits back above us.  Again, we quickly regained the ridge going up to Cameron and bagged the sub-peak at 14,238′.  Dalton and I were beginning to feel the effects of the wind and the day, we were becoming sluggish as Ike and Toren continued to push on.  As we traveled across the flat saddle towards Mt. Lincoln, Dalton and I started to doubt ourselves.  We could see the peak in the distance, but we were worried about getting too fatigued after our long ascent and knew we still had the journey back.  Halfway up the summit push we were deterred by the wind and Toren and Ike carried forward.  We found shelter as they bagged the summit and we were already beating ourselves up.  Dalton was trying to think when he could come back here next when Toren got back to us and said it wasn’t that bad and that we should have gone for it.

Mt. Democrat: Ike had been smart and brought snowshoes, Toren, Dalton and I thought we were better off without the weight.  For the first mile we post-holed up the slope, trying to gain the high ground.  Ike moved like a superhuman and we moved like sloths.  As we progressed up to the ridge between Cameron and Democrat, we crossed a few different avalanche zones.  We always made sure to spread out and take it slowly, one at a time, but the suspense as each one of us would cross was palpable.  Eventually, we made it up onto the saddle and excitedly started up the east ridge of Democrat.  It was a windy push, with strong gusts coming over the north ridge.  We were completely exposed since we didn’t want to go over to the snow-covered south slope.  The wind was punishing and after we would all talk about how this was the first time we all collectively thought to ourselves about abandoning the day.  The group persevered though, and we reached the 14,152′ summit before 10 AM, we still had a full day ahead of us.

Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Bross: Full of excitement, Dalton and I dropped our packs and pushed over to the 14,286′ summit of Lincoln as well.  It was surprisingly easy, and it was also extremely rejuvenating.  We crossed over the furthest part of our route, we had all bagged 3 of the 4 and we were about to be on our way down.  Slowly, we crossed another avalanche zone before continuing on to Bross at 14,172′.  At the top, we sat for a second and celebrated.  Something we had doubted doing that morning had just been completed.  The group began down the summit back towards Kite Lake, all feeling tired, but happy.  We did a combination of rock hopping down the scree slopes and glissading down the couloirs to get back to camp.  After an uneventful descent, we were back.

Our original plan was to do Quandary the following day but I knew I would probably be too tired still and severely wanted some rest.  I convinced Dalton and Toren to go to Leadville that night and stay at the Inn of the Clouds Hostel for the next two nights to rest up before we finished our journey.  Out of all the decisions I made I think this was the only one I regret.

Glissade: “The act of descending a steep snow- or scree-covered slope via a controlled slide on one’s feet or buttocks.  Typically done with the support of an ice axe.”

We spent the night in Leadville getting delicious food at Tennessee Pass Cafe, enjoying a beer at Periodic Brewing (the highest microbrewery in North America) and relaxing at the hostel.  The next day we poked around the local gear shops, played in the snow, had some great pizza from High Mountain Pies and took full advantage of a much needed day off.  On Thursday we were going to be heading up Quandary to bag our 6th peak so we got to sleep and prepared for an early morning.

Quandry Peak: As we woke up in the morning and went out to the car there was a light dusting of snow and the air was bitterly cold.  We had an hour car ride, so I was hoping that as the sun came up it would reveal clear skies, it did. Sitting in the parking lot just before 8 AM, we geared up, and got out and started up the easy but steep slope.  The trail was well packed below treeline, the group made great time.  Before I knew it, we had reached tree-line and were heading up slope with no signs of a trail, everything was windswept.  As we pushed onward, it became a post-hole fest up to 12,500′, but we did it.

We continued to gain the ridge, closing in on 13,000′ and the final summit push.  On the other side of the mountain, we could see a massive cloud blowing in.  The winds were 50-60 mph with higher gusts and the light powder from the night before blew against the smallest bit of exposed skin like shards of glass.  It was a brutal and dangerous slog.  Every time we stopped, I thought about how long we could continue up into the -36°F weather with this kind of wind and what would happen if we found ourselves in a whiteout.

I made the hard call and turned us back.  Dalton understood what the issues were, Toren wanted to go on but reluctantly understood and I felt defeated by my own decision.  I honestly believe the hardest decision you can make when mountaineering is to turn back.  You abandon the summit; you abandon your goal and you go down.  It takes a lot out of you to put in that kind of work and quit. As we drove off, I thought of all of the things that could have gone differently.  Would the conditions have been better the day before?  If we got a later start, would that have helped?  Should I just have kept pushing onward?  It sits on your mind…

We left central Colorado and headed towards Rocky Mountain National Park in the Front Range for an overnight snowshoeing in the backcountry.  When we got there the Rangers said we’d be the only people out, it was the height of the slow season.  It was a fun couple of hours as we headed up to Glacier Gorge, enjoying the winter weather and making the most of the end of our trip.  The snow blanketed everything and made the valleys beautiful.  Longs Peak was socked in by snow, but it loomed above us as the night set in.  It was an enjoyable end to a very memorable trip.

After RMNP we got food, went back to Colorado Springs, visited Garden of the Gods and had one last night in Colorado before heading home.  I was proud of our successes, with 5/6 peaks bagged, and being able to make the smart calls when we needed to make them and keeping the whole group together.  I had dreamt about this trip for so long and then spent months planning it.  It took a lot out of me and definitely didn’t go completely according to plan (but nothing ever does).  I was finally excited to live it though, to get the experience in the mountains and push my limits on what I can do and what I know how to confidently do.

 

X
X
X