We Hiked to the Most Remote Spot in Colorado - And You Can, Too
MILES FROM NOWHERE - Returning from the most remote point in El Paso County, we ran into Dave Overland, a cowboy at the Chico Basin Ranch.
“Why are you writing a story about nothing?” he asked.
You climb the highest mountain. You cross the deepest ocean. And you go to the most remote point. You go because once you know such a spot exists, how can you not?
Michael Moon, the ranch manager at Chico Basin, offered directions: Head up the road to Duke and Janet’s house (Duke and Janet Phillips run the ranch), turn right and go. And go. And go. Keep your speed up, it’s sandy. If you get stuck, Dave and Horacio are out that way checking on the cattle — they’ll probably find you.
We found the spot thanks to Ray Watts, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey in Fort Collins. Watts’ team devised a novel technique for mapping roadless areas: On their maps, the farther from a road a point is, the higher it is. So the barren prairies of eastern Colorado show up as peaks, while the hilly suburbs of Denver are as flat as Kansas.
In a paper on the technique published in the journal Science, Watts mentioned that the area with the most roadless volume per capita in the contiguous United States is Hinsdale County, around Lake City.
So if Hinsdale County is the leader per capita, it begs the question: Where’s the farthest place from a road, period?
“A whole lot of really remote spots occur along the coast of Louisiana,” Watts said.
Swamps and bayous? Count us out.
Literally speaking, Watts said, the farthest point from a road in the lower 48 is Fort Jefferson, located on an island in the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West.
FAR AND AWAY
Crossing an ocean to avoid a road feels like cheating, though.
How about the most remote landlocked spot in the U.S.? That’s a little closer to home: It’s in the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, about 20 miles from the nearest road. Ironically, the spot is called The Thoroughfare, although the name comes from elk herds, not traffic jams.
We’re getting warmer here. How about the most remote spot in the great state of Colorado? It’s in the Weminuche Wilderness, north of Durango and then a dozen miles up Vallecito Creek. The precise point is 720 feet above the valley floor atop a cliff band coming off 13,575-foot Greylock Mountain — and 10.2 miles from the nearest significant road.
“The Weminuche Wilderness is basically roadless, and it’s more than half a million acres,” said Ann Bond, a public affairs officer with the San Juan National Forest. “It’s very unforgiving terrain. It’s up and down.”
Funny thing about the most remote point in the state: It’s pretty crowded. In early September, the campsites in Chicago Basin — just southwest of Greylock — were filled with climbers aiming at the area’s three fourteeners (Mount Eolus, Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak), while hardy groups of hikers attempted a vast loop around the basin connected on the west by the Durango & Silverton Railroad.
David Baker, the San Juan forest’s recreation and wilderness coordinator, was a few miles south of Colorado’s most remote point a couple of weeks ago, clearing an avalanche off the Vallecito Creek Trail.
What does he think of the most remote point?
“I might have pushed it further east — over Rock Lake, Ute Lake. Just because, to me, that’s more of a remote feel,” Baker said.
That raises a tough question: Is distance from a road the best way to measure remoteness?
“Sheer distance is such a flawed way to measure remoteness,” said the USGS’ Watts.
Watts is trying to up the remote ante by devising a system to weigh terrain factors, making it possible to calculate how long it would take to drive or hike to an area.
“When people are looking at wilderness areas and how wild they really are, that’s one of the factors that you could count — an estimate of places you could only get to if you were willing to spend the night,” Watts said.
So then, what feels like the most remote place in Colorado?
Mark Pearson literally wrote the book on Colorado wilderness (“The Complete Guide to Colorado’s Wilderness Areas,” with John Fielder), so he’s got some ideas.
“There are certainly a number of very remote spots in far western Colorado, particularly in the Dolores River watershed near the Utah border,” Pearson wrote in an e-mail. “The Dolores River country is 100 miles or more from most any significant population center. Then throw on top of that the access roads that exist are often crumbling, decades-old uranium exploration roads, so it takes a substantial effort to just get near to the point where you can hike the few rugged miles into a remote nook and cranny.”
Lou Dawson is the first person to ski every fourteener in Colorado and author of “Dawson’s Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners” — Volumes 1 and 2. If there’s a remote spot in Colorado, he’s been there. Repeatedly. His pick?
“If you go to Gunnison and then you go west, you’ll hit an area called Cimarron,” Dawson said. “There’s some drainages that lead from the San Juans down to this area. One of them is called Difficulty Creek.”
“We did some canyoneering in those creeks,” Dawson said. “If you want to offer people somewhere they can go and not see anyone, that’s incredibly difficult terrain.”
ESCAPE THE ESPRESSO
Now, not everyone needs to go canyoneering to feel as if they’ve escaped civilization. For some, it’s when they can’t see their car anymore. For others, it’s when they lose cell phone reception. And for a lot of folks, civilization ends when they can’t find a decent cappucino.
If you’re in the last group, you might wonder where the farthest spot in the state from a Starbucks is. Colorado is home to 391 Starbucks. Sounds like a ton, but roughly 350 of them lie clustered on the Interstate 25 corridor, and most of the rest are along Interstate 70.
The spot farthest from them all? That’s down in the extreme southeast corner of the state, 156 miles from the nearest double tall in Trinidad (but only 120 miles from a cafe au lait in Amarillo, Texas).
If you really want to get away from it all, you’ll need more than a macchiato. You’ll need a tent, hiking boots and a backpack.
Where can you get all that? Wal-Mart.
Where, then, can you escape from Wally World? It turns out that the place farthest from a Wal-Mart lies in the opposite corner of the state as the spot farthest from a Starbucks — draw your own conclusions — in a region along the Wyoming border called Powder Wash. It’s a mere 78 miles as the crow flies from Wal-Marts in both Vernal, Utah, and Steamboat Springs.
ROADS LESS TRAVELED
There’s no need to drive to the far corners of the state to find someplace remote. Watts’ data is plotted county by county, so there’s a “most remote point” in El Paso County, too. Any guesses where?
“In your county, if you didn’t have that road going up Pikes Peak, that would probably be the spot,” Watts said.
Instead, the spot farthest from a road lies on the plains in the county’s southeast corner amid Chico Basin’s 87,000 acres of cactus, sagebrush and antelope. The exact spot is unremarkable: a patch of sand dunes covered with cow patties, sage and tiny pink and yellow flowers.
A few power lines mark the southern horizon, while the nearest ranch house is barely visible to the north. Pikes Peak rears up from the west, a reminder that it only looks like you’re in Kansas.
It’s ironic, of course, that it’s possible (with a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a heavy foot) to drive to within 700 feet of the spot in the county that’s supposedly farthest from a road (3.3 miles, according to the USGS).
“There are just lots and lots of places you can drive to that aren’t in the data,” Watts said.
The state’s most remote point suffers from the same problem: A four-wheel-drive road that leads to an old townsite called Beartown, only 6 miles up Vallecito Creek.
“There are all these interpretive calls,” Watts said. “What’s a road?”
Fair question. At Chico Basin, they call it Twin Mills road. Honestly, it’s closer to a sandbox. Plus one of the titular windmills is long gone.
Still, when you reach the end of the line, passing by a cow skull and a jillion or so jack rabbits, it feels darn remote.
The cowboy, Overland, wanted to know, “Why write a story about nothing?”
Easy. Because it’s there.
“Did you check cattle while you were out there?” he asked. “You could have saved us a trip.”