Into the Great Wide Open
Five backcountry adventures not to miss
My first view of Summit County was from the Continental Divide on Highway 9. I remember leaning in close to the dashboard and looking up at the massive ruggedness of Mount Quandary. In the backseat of my car lay the remnants of my life in New York City—collared shirts, dress shoes, hair gel—all of which seemed ridiculously out of place in a landscape where peaks like Quandary outnumbered skyscrapers 22 to zero.
As I descended onto Main Street in Breckenridge, I was convinced I had landed in the heart of the backcountry. But then, as I got settled into life in Summit County, I began to open my ears. “Let’s ride the backcountry outside of Keystone,” I’d overhear while working at the Breckenridge Brewery. Or, “How about we camp out at Wheeler Lakes? It’s some of the best backcountry around.”
For locals, it seemed, being in Summit was about as urban an experience as living in Manhattan was for New Yorkers. The backcountry lay somewhere else, somewhere within county lines but beyond the main streets and resorts of the five towns. And there was a tacit understanding that if you wanted to indulge in the high life, the backcountry was where you had to go.
Here, then, are five opportunities to get outside the ropes into the real outdoors.
“It’s a feeling of remoteness, a feeling of being away from the congestion of the resorts, a feeling of self-reliance,” says Jack Wolfe of alighting in the backcountry. “You have to melt your snow to make water. You have to use the water you create for all of your cooking and washing needs. It’s kind of a fun sort of simplification of life.”
As the president of the Summit Huts Association, Wolfe ought to know. Summit Huts operates four cabins in the county: Janet’s Cabin near Copper Mountain, Francie’s Cabin south of Breckenridge, and the Boreas Pass Section House and Ken’s Cabin, both of which stand above the tree line at Boreas Pass. Each offers a place to pad down in the heart of Summit’s outdoors.
Winter is hut high season, when all of the cabins are open and guests usually snowshoe or ski in for overnight use. Francie’s Cabin and Janet’s Cabin stay open during certain nonwinter months for visitors intrepid enough to bring their own food and living supplies—but they’re repaid with often stunning views.
“The summer is a great time to go up to the huts,” Wolfe says, “because the wildflowers are spectacular, the weather is not nearly as severe, and the views of the Continental Divide, Crystal Peak and Father Dyer Peak are terrific.”
Not every trip into the backcountry has to be an independent wilderness adventure. Visitors who prefer to have the planning done for them can book an outfitter that knows the routine.
“We’re giving our clients the opportunity to call us up, and everything’s taken care of from start to finish,” says Byron Swezy, owner of Colorado Bike and Ski Tour Adventures (CBST), which operates year-round out of its base in Frisco. “The majority of our clients are folks who want to get an introduction to backcountry experiences without a whole bunch of preparation.”
Much of CBST’s backcountry work centers on corporate team building, in which business types shed their suits for a few days of rock climbing, rappelling or orienteering. But Swezy says most of the tours his company organizes still give novices (often families) a nice day of hiking, mountain biking or rock climbing with experienced guides.
“For an average suburban dad,” he explains, “a flat tire can be a hazard, and they don’t want to get caught 10 miles off the trailhead. Something as simple as a flat tire or a shift failure can turn into a catastrophic situation for a family vacation. So we help prevent that from happening.”
Fish on the Fly
Some people like to float on top of rivers; others like to wade through them with a fly rod in hand and a beautiful mountain trout on the end of the line. As the wellspring of three of Colorado’s largest rivers—the Arkansas, the South Platte and the Blue—Summit is also home to hundreds of high-mountain lakes and streams. It’s no surprise, then, that fly-fishing borders on obsession in these parts.
“Whether you want to stay close to town or park and hike for hours, there are trout everywhere,” says Ned Parker, who owns local fixture Breckenridge Outfitters with his wife, Tracy Ma. “With our service and knowledge of the waters, we’re able to send people out into the backcountry to catch fish by themselves, camp, and rely on the wilderness to provide their vacation experience.”
The season for locals is year-round. The end of February is one of the best times to fish, as that’s when rainbows and cutthroats begin to spawn and blue wing olives hatch. High season for tourists, however, is June 15 through September 15, when there are still plenty of trophy trout left to be caught—especially in the backcountry. Popular guided trips with Breckenridge Outfitters, which can outfit anglers of all skill levels whether they join a guide or venture out on their own, include the Blue River and the Arkansas and float trips on Spinney Mountain and Eleven Mile reservoirs.
“The high-mountain lakes feeding the major rivers are teeming with fish, brook trout and cutthroat that are very naïve to fake flies,” says Parker. “The chance of your going out by yourself and finding a small creek where you catch a lot of fish is very likely.”
Running the River
“An overnight river trip is definitely a great way to experience the river, and you get more than just the raft trip,” says Christy Campton, co-owner of KODI Rafting in Frisco. “You get to experience camping by the river, sleeping under the stars.”
Although KODI offers day trips down Summit’s home river, the Blue, to get the real backcountry experience, Campton recommends looking to rivers outside of Summit. The company conducts overnight trips on the Dolores River (which snakes through the rugged landscape near Cortez), the Colorado River up near Kremmling and the Arkansas River through the fabled Browns Canyon near Buena Vista. On multiday excursions, rafters are usually off the river by 3 p.m., which gives them ample time to relax, take in the beauty of their surroundings and, of course, indulge in a fajita dinner followed by a hearty breakfast of French toast, bacon, fruit and coffee the next morning.
“Once you get into a raft and down into a canyon, you’re pretty much in the backcountry,” Campton notes. “No cars. No cell phones. Colorado’s backcountry is absolutely beautiful, and when you’re seeing it from the perspective of the river or the bottom of the canyon, it’s all the more so.”
The White River National Forest spreads across nine Colorado counties and provides 56,000 acres of backcountry near Vail Pass for Summit locals and visitors to play in. Colorado Backcountry Rentals makes far-flung excursions accessible with unguided snowmobile rentals in the winter and ATV rentals in the summer, complete with maps, trail information and any relevant alerts about backcountry conditions. Once the company drops you off in the forest, it’s carte blanche as to which way you go.
“You get to explore the forest and the Rocky Mountains on your own,” says Tina Wilson, owner of Colorado Backcountry Rentals. “It’s not a planned activity, something that you have to do. You just get to go out and choose your own adventure.”
ATVs and snowmobiles have a reputation for being loud, polluting, and counter to the spirit of true backcountry adventure. Sometimes that view is merited, says Wilson, but her company has a fleet of snowmobiles with quiet, four-stroke engines that produce lower levels of emissions than conventional two-stroke engines. Plus, the company reaches out to the disabled and those with injuries so they can experience the essence of the outdoors.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” says Wilson. “Anyone can get out there and experience the thrill of saying, ‘Wow, I’m really on my own.’”
Andrew Tolve is a former Frisco-based writer now based in Atlanta and traveling the world in search of stories.