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Adventure in Colorado: Ski terrain, canyons, wilderness

By Seth Boster, The Gazette
Published: January 20, 2024, 5:14am

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — How about this for a New Year’s resolution: to explore sides of Colorado you’ve never explored before, feeling your gratitude grow and your physical, mental and emotional health improve as you do. We tend to think a bucket list can set us down that path. Here we offer some ideas:

Feast on new terrain

Steamboat Resort is celebrating its first season holding claim to Colorado’s second biggest ski area, behind only Vail. That’s thanks to 650 acres that have been brought in-bounds, to be patrolled, avalanche-mitigated and accessed via the new Mahogany Ridge Express.

A warning: You’ll only be checking this off the list if you’ve got what it takes. The resort likens Mahogany Ridge to Closets and Shadows, among the mountain’s premier, powder-packed glades.

Aspen Mountain is also debuting new goods. The terrain — representing Ajax’s largest expansion since the 1980s — is called Hero’s and boasts chutes and trees on north-facing slopes above 10,000 feet. Reached via a new high-speed quad, the 153 acres mostly benefit experts, but the resort promises “a nice helping of intermediate glades and groomed runs.”

When to go: Open now.

Tour top of the world

At least, the Grand Mesa can feel like the top of the world — an endless expanse of land and sky. It’s regarded as the world’s biggest flattop mountain. And while viewed from just about everywhere in western Colorado, many regard it as a hidden gem.

That includes folks with Grand Mesa Nordic Council who groom ski trails off the paved, scenic byway over the mountaintop. The road stretches 63 miles between Cedaredge toward Interstate 70 by De Beque, near Palisade.

It’s all about cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter and in the summer hiking and fishing across hundreds of lakes spotting the mesa. In the fall, it’s a super-colorful drive. The Forest Service maintains campgrounds along the road, while a few lodges also offer overnight cabins.

When to go: Pick the season based on your activity interest.

Crawl through caverns

The U.S. Department of Interior last month named a new national natural landmark in Colorado, adding to a short list of sites “bringing illustrative character, rarity, diversity and value to science and education.” Glenwood Caverns was deemed worthy, noted as “one of the most decorated caves in the state.”

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It also happens to be the most accessible.

The glittery, dream-like passages and chambers are reached by guided tours at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. The website lists options from King’s Row, known as the most dramatic room, to the Fairy Caves walking tour, to the “wild tour” for those comfortable with the uncomfortable. After wriggling and writhing your way through the tight network, you might understand why Colorado cavers pride themselves for exploring the state’s last great frontier.

Iron Mountain Hot Springs help tell the ancient story of the formations and colors we see in the caves. The nearby destination was named a national natural landmark with Glenwood Caverns. Make the pools by the banks of the Colorado River your next stop after your subterranean tour.

When to go: Caves said to stay 52 degrees year-round; hot springs best enjoyed in winter.

Explore curious canyons

We all too often train our gaze on the mountains while missing intrigues on the plains. This past year we connected with Laneha Everett, who through a small outfit, Canyon Journeys, has long led guests on foot and horseback to rocky realms south of La Junta.

“When you drop off the prairie into the canyonlands … you see that look of awe,” Everett said of those guests. “Their eyes get a little bigger.”

It’s not all prairie across Comanche National Grassland. Rugged canyons called Picket Wire, Vogel, Picture and Carrizo keep the history of Indigenous hunter-gatherers, Spanish explorers and pioneer homesteaders. And did we mention dinosaurs?

Picket Wire is the largest of the canyons, home to Jurassic-era tracks. The Forest Service’s seasonal, all-day tours are the only way to get there by car. Others venture on foot or bike from Withers Canyon trailhead — an 11-mile round trip detailed on a Forest Service webpage.

The agency also lists information and tips for the other canyons.

When to go: Extreme heat in the summer. Forest Service recommends May, June, September and October; guided auto tours to Picket Wire Canyon on Saturdays.

Journey to Trappers Lake

In a far, remote pocket of northwest Colorado, Arthur Carhart once found himself around this lake framed by craggy, tabletop mountains. Carhart reportedly penned a rumination on the beauty, remarking on places like these “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The words inspired the 1964 Wilderness Act. In the 60th-year anniversary of the protection act, what better time to visit the place where perhaps it all began?

Indeed, Trappers Lake is known as the “Cradle of Wilderness.” And indeed, you’ll feel far removed from everything here in the Flat Tops Wilderness. A Forest Service webpage offers detailed directions to Trappers Lake, along with information on camping.

When to go: Summer, early fall.

Wonder the Weminuche

If we’re talking about an anniversary year for the Wilderness Act, we need to talk about Colorado’s largest wilderness area. That’s the mighty Weminuche, refusing to be tamed across 499,771 acres.

It’s a vast, silent land of imposing peaks and glacier-cut valleys, a pristine country keeping the headwaters of both the Rio Grande and San Juan rivers. The wilderness spans over the Continental Divide, where we might find the spirit of John Fielder. The legendary landscape photographer and explorer who died in 2023 spoke passionately of long, grand days along the Continental Divide Trail across Weminuche alpine.

That’s quite the backpacking proposition. With hundreds of miles of trails and loop options, where to begin?

From a stop on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, many embark to Chicago Basin, pitching their tent in the pocket of fourteeners. Many others head to Emerald Lake, doable in a day. Do your research and chart a course that suits you.

When to go: Summer, early fall.

New mountain to climb

If you’ve long gazed at Fishers Peak — Colorado’s highest point east of Interstate 25 — and wondered what awaits at the top of the chimney-like summit, 2024 could be your year to find out.

A trail to the top opened this fall, just a few years after the formerly private mountain became the centerpiece of a state park in Trinidad. No need to wonder anymore: After a final stretch over the ancient, volcanic cliff face, you find yourself at a grassy plateau overlooking the Sangre de Cristo range, Spanish Peaks and promontories rolling out to New Mexico.

You’ll have to earn it. While the trail trends over gentle aspects, never steep for long, the trek covers about 16 miles out and back. The park’s manager suggests approaching Fishers Peak as you would a fourteener — an early start, equipped with essentials and prepared for weather changes.

When to go: Late summer, early fall; uppermost part of trail closed for raptor nesting March 15-Aug. 1.

Flock to the flowers

So you’ve heard Crested Butte is Colorado’s wildflower capital but haven’t seen why. Make this the year you go to admire the kaleidoscope of color.

The soils are said to be blessed in this geologically rich valley — the nutrients for more than 1,000 species to pop across idyllic hills and meadows. Of course, the variety and vibrancy depend every year on moisture. Enthusiasts will again hope for the “super blooms” of 2023.

Crested Butte Wildflower Festival is the ultimate, annual celebration, offering guided hikes, seminars and workshops. The festival website offers a handy guide for scenic trails close to town, including Lower Loop, Snodgrass and Brush Creek trails.

When to go: Festival typically in mid-July, when flowers are known to peak.