Snowshoeing the Colorado Trail

Coloradotrailheidi062By Heidi V. Anderson
To some, snowshoeing conjures up images of peacefully making one’s way through serene forests and blissfully getting in touch with one’s inner self. Not me. To me, snowshoeing means one thing: work. Having never been on snowshoes, I pictured myself struggling along, feet clamped in oversized tennis racket-like contraptions, cursing as I fell yet again into deep powder, while sweat trickled from my stinky armpits all the way down onto my frostbitten toes. Not what you might call an encouraging image.

But when my editor suggested a “Snowshoeing along the Colorado Trail” story, I thought, why not? I’m athletic, I know people who love it, and I’d be able to get my dog out for some exercise while trying something new. So here’s how a reluctant snowshoer-to-be actually learned to enjoy her first trek.

Coloradotrailvista057A Trail For Everyone

In 1973, the United States Forest Service gathered groups devoted to the Colorado outdoors and recommended a trail of 468 miles stretching from Denver to Durango. The Colorado Trail would challenge devoted hikers but also provide shorter segments for families and less avid enthusiasts. The project gathered steam, run mostly by volunteers. By 1987 trails were linked into a continuous hike.

The Colorado Trail is divided into 28 segments. Some intrepid hikers cover the entire route that spans national forests, wilderness areas, mountain ranges and rivers. Many choose one segment, perhaps a section most conducive to the weather or natural beauty of the area.

I started, appropriately enough, at the bottom: finding a pair of snowshoes. I told my housemate about my assignment, and two days later I received an email from one of her friends. Her friend is a rep for Atlas Snowshoes, and she had heard that I was writing an article for Front Range Living. Would I be interested in demoing some snowshoes?

Coloradotrailshoes044Now, I’m not a gear hound, but the idea of using some super-duper fancy titanium or whatever material intrigued me. But as it turned out, the point was moot, because the shoes weren’t available the day I ended up going. So I called my editor, who said I could use her husband’s shoes. I learned that snowshoes go by weight, so it didn’t really matter that they were a man’s shoe (although the Atlas rep would probably be able to argue convincingly otherwise). And while maybe it’s a little embarrassing to tell my weight, I also learned that I could blame it on an 80-pound pack (okay, slight exaggeration) and heavy winter clothing. So I stopped by and picked up a pair of snowshoes, some ski poles in case I needed them, and some gaiters. Great; I could check that off the list.

Next, it was on to companionship. My border collie, Poe, goes almost everywhere outdoors with me, but I figured I’d probably enjoy snowshoeing with a human companion as well, so I called up my friend Sara. Sure, she was game, and she even had her own snowshoes and her own dog. Along with someone to talk with, it was nice to know that Sara could show me the ropes in case of disaster.

Then we had to decide where we’d go. Part of the goal of the assignment was to explore the Colorado Trail, so I picked up “The Official Guide Book” by Randy Jacobs and dived right in. The book is written under the auspices of the Colorado Trail Foundation, and it is packed with maps, directions, and detailed descriptions of each section.

Coloradotrailmountainview037After scouring through the book, I decided upon Segment 8, from Copper Mountain to Tennessee Pass. We weren’t planning a long trip – a few hours on a sunny afternoon – and this segment appeared to have interesting views and landmarks near the beginning, so we’d still be able to enjoy our experience even if we were simply following the trail a couple miles up and turning around.

The book had great directions, and after reading it we were almost ready to hit the road and drive to the trailhead. But I had learned from my friend Joy about the importance of talking with someone who knows the area. See, a few years ago, Joy flew out here from New York City for a winter ski trip. She had done her homework and looked at a map, so she knew the shortest route to Aspen. She landed at DIA, got in her car at 11 pm at night, and at 3 am, just a few miles from Aspen, she came to the sign “Independence Pass Closed.” She backtracked and drove up and around through Glenwood Springs–not a great way to start a vacation.

So I gave a call to Steve Lipsher, the reporter for the Denver Post mountain bureau and a good friend. I ran our suggested route by him, and while at first he thought that was a fine idea, upon reflection he realized we might want to snowshoe a different segment. The Copper Mountain segment crosses – surprise, surprise – Copper Mountain, and during the winter with dogs in tow and skiers racing down the mountain, it might not be a great idea to mix the two. He suggested Segment 7, Goldhill Trailhead to Copper Mountain.

The book confirmed his belief that this was a better trail for us. For one, it is slightly closer to the Front Range, and the trailhead is five miles south of I-70, off Colorado 9 heading from Frisco to Breckenridge. It’s somewhat deserted in the winter, especially on a weekday afternoon, and we were sure to see some fantastic views. Plus, Steve added offhandedly, there’s less chance of avalanche danger.

Uh-oh. Did he say “avalanche”? I hadn’t even thought about avalanches. Was this something else I should worry about, along with using someone else’s shoes and keeping my dog close to me at all times? No, not where we were going. While it’s always wise to be aware of avalanche danger in the High Country, the conditions in that area at that time weren’t conducive to avalanches. Phew.

Okay, I had it all together: a plan, the right equipment, and the necessary background information. I was ready to hit the trail.

Coloradotrailtrees048Finding the Trail

Sara and I hopped in the car one Thursday morning in the end of January and after a quick, nutritious lunch at the Mountain Lyon Café, we drove over to the trailhead. The weather was ideal; warm and sunny enough to see some great scenery, not so hot that we’d be sweating and uncomfortable, and not so cold that we’d be shivering and uncomfortable. It was in the 40s, with sunshine and a few flurries.

We strapped on our gear after a few miscues on my part. Apparently you don’t need special boots – I was in hiking boots – but it helps to have gaiters, which keep any determined snowflakes from finding their way inside your shoes. I put on the gaiters, not realizing until we were on our way that I had them on the wrong way. (FYI, zippers should go on the inside of the leg, not the outside.) It didn’t seem to matter, though, as they kept my feet dry just the same.

We shuffled across the snowy, icy parking lot, with the dogs on leashes, while I got used to the feel of the shoes. I ditched the ski poles at the start of the trail, because it was flat enough that I didn’t need them. I was surprised at how easy the snowshoes were to walk in; I had expected to be as graceful as an elephant, but it really was more gliding than lumbering. Hey, this is going to be fun, I thought.

I was right. After the first few steps, while I didn’t exactly forget that I had snowshoes on, I was able to stop thinking about what I was doing and enjoy the scenery. And wow, it was amazing. A few minutes into the trail and we were far enough away from Route 9 that it didn’t exist. The world shrunk down to two humans, two dogs, and the mountains.

Coloradotrailwickiup021The trail starts off relatively flat, but there is nothing boring about it. The first mile or so is what Jacobs calls “an alternating landscape of sagebrush meadows and lodgepole forest with an understory of lupine.” I wasn’t sure what that meant when I read it, but when I experienced it, I discovered it meant open views alternating with skinny trees so tall I felt like I was in the middle of a Tolkien novel. The forest was full of surprises; a human-built teepee here, raccoon tracks there, a tiny pine tree no larger than my pinky growing right next to the trail.

And then suddenly through a clearing we saw the Breckenridge ski area, close enough that we could count individual runs, but far enough away that we couldn’t hear any of the traffic or other sounds of human civilization. We admired, and continued on.

About a mile into our journey, we came to a clearing where several trails seemed to intersect. The Colorado Trail is well marked with small blue triangles, however, so we weren’t misled by the logging trail and instead continued along our way. Sara and I will hike two and a half miles of the 13-mile segment and loop around for a total of five miles.

Coloradotrailmistymountains054We “climbed” (much of the trail was a gentle incline) for about two hours or so, stopping occasionally to catch our breath, step off the trail for some awe-inspiring views, and take a few photographs. As a writer, I hate to admit it, but sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words and does a better job of describing the scene than my words can. So all I can say now is, take a look at the photos we captured, and you’ll have a great idea of what surrounded us.

At the top of a small hill – what the guidebook called a rocky summit, but the rocks must have been covered with several feet of snow – we rested, ate a snack, and turned around. Heading back down the trail was much quicker than going up, and it surprised me how different the trail looked. Sure, we saw the same views as we did on the way up, but because it was a quicker journey, the feeling wasn’t the same. The change in scenery didn’t exactly rush at us, but it was a different pace. The feeling wasn’t better or worse, just different.

Coloradotraildarktrees045When we got back close to the trailhead, we picked up the abandoned ski poles and I took off my snow shoes to see how different it was to step on the snow without them. I immediately sank through snow I had easily walked on before, proving that yes, snowshoes really do work.

“Thanks for getting me out today,” Sara said, “That was really fun. Are you going to do this again?”

Yes, it was fun. I don’t know that I’m ready to rush out and buy my own super-duper special titanium gear, but the next time friends invite me out on a snowshoeing trip, I’ll be ready to join them. As long as I can borrow some equipment without disclosing my weight.

Recommended Reading:

  • “The Colorado Trail: The Official Guide Book,” by Randy Jacobs and photos by John Fielder, Westcliffe Publishers, 1994.
  • “The Colorado Trail: The Official Guidebook, Sixth Edition” by The Colorado Trail Foundation, The Colorado Mountain Club Press, 2002.
  • “The Colorado Trail: The Trailside Databook,” The Colorado Mountain Club Press, 2002.

Helpful websites:

Directions: Go west from Denver about 73 miles on I-70. Take the Frisco/Breckenridge/Colorado Highway-9 exit. Continue about five miles south of Frisco on Highway 9 heading to Breckenridge. Goldhill Trailhead is on the right at the intersection with Summit County Road-950.

Photo credits: top by Sara Tucker, all others by Heidi Anderson.