Don’t let another year pass wishing you’d achieved more in Colorado’s great outdoors. Add these to your bucket list:
1. Feast on new terrain
Maybe you’ve known Leadville’s Ski Cooper as the humble, backyard getaway for locals, an affordable place to learn, family-friendly.
Add this to the picture: 19 double-black diamond runs shooting fast between glades from the highest reaches of the mountain’s backside.
Cooper this season adds a fifth lift, Little Horse T-Bar, whisking bold skiers and boarders to the untrammeled Tennessee Creek Basin. The acreage expands the skiable terrain by 20% and puts a new kind of clientele on notice.
When to go: Terrain open with ample snow.
2. Heed the call of the cranes
A peculiar, migratory creature adds to the mystique of the San Luis Valley. The big and beautiful sandhill cranes are a sight to behold.
For a brief but glorious period, thousands of them flock to the quaint valley, the Sangre de Cristo mountains the majestic backdrop for their majestic flight. They take to the fields to perform their ancient dances, to sing their ancient songs. Birdwatchers near and far flock, too, taking to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge with cameras and binoculars in tow.
When to go: Migration between early February and late March. Annual Monte Vista Crane Festival set for March 6-8.
3. Raft the Dolores
This one comes with a caveat: It’s anyone’s guess if the Dolores River will actually be raftable this year.
Part of what makes this trip to the state’s far southwest corner so alluring is the fact that water levels rarely allow for action. That’s been the case since the 1980s, when a dam was built, compromising flows.
But the river ran strong in 2019 thanks to a historic runoff. How good is the Dolores? Don’t take it from us. Take it from Bill Dvorak, a longtime Colorado river rat who’s boated the world’s finest corridors.
“It’s up there with the Grand Canyon and Middle Fork of the Salmon,” he told us. “It’s right up there with the best in the country.”
You’ll just have to hope for heavy snowmelt to bring the Dolores to life. Within the astonishing slick-rock canyon, there are long stretches of Class II and III rapids manageable for the well-practiced. Otherwise, check with guiding outfits around Durango.
When to go: Late spring.
4. Quadruple the thrill
The Four Pass Loop is an ambitious, unforgettable backpacking journey through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
The 28-mile route starts from Maroon Lake, a classic prelude to astounding beauty. Most opt for the clockwise direction, avoiding the long slog on Buckskin Pass, one of the trail’s four passes above 12,000 feet.
The altitude and hard ascents factor out some. But those up to the task will discover the vast sanctuary of the Elk Mountains: sweeping views, pristine lakes and forests, and meadows bursting with wildflowers.
Be sure to register at the trailhead kiosks and carry the registration tag with you.
When to go: Mid to late summer to avoid snow and catch flowers blooming. Early fall for smaller crowds.
5. A walk on the wild, iron side
For anyone who hasn’t worked up the rock climbing courage but still craves adrenaline, a via ferrata will do the trick.
In Italian, that means “iron path.” World War I soldiers hammered hand- and foot-holds into the Dolomites they were trying to navigate. Now the concept has taken off within Colorado tourism.
Last year saw several via ferratas added to the scene, including at the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. Guides there have been leading visitors of all shapes, sizes, and ages on epic rope tours through the iconic, granite walls.
You can also find guided trips in Buena Vista, Estes Park, Idaho Springs, Telluride and right here in Colorado Springs at Cave of the Winds.
When to go: Summer, fall.
6. Joyful penitence
In little Del Norte, a trail revolution has been brewing. It’s centered around Penitente Canyon, long known for climbing but more recently for a series of wild, singletrack loops.
So here’s a call-out to you unknowing mountain bikers: Get here before it becomes the next big thing. For the past five years, racers have cranked out laps in the 12 Hours of Penitence, and you, too, can rack up mileage on the system traversing curious desert canyons and high alpine terrain.
Local advocates didn’t stop at Penitente. You’ll want to stay a while, checking out also what they’ve done with the Stone Quarry and Pronghorn trail networks.
When to go: Cooler temperatures in fall. Race date to be announced; Sept. 14 last year.
7. Uncover arches
Colorado happens to be home to the world’s second-largest concentration of natural arches. A certain national park in Utah boasts the first. The difference here: much smaller crowds. That’s because Rattlesnake Canyon requires some will and determination.
One option is on the Black Ridge access road west of Colorado National Monument. You’ll need a four-wheel drive, and don’t bother trying in rain or snow. The road leads to the short path to the arches. The other, wilder approach is from the Pollock Bench trailhead, where begins the 15-mile round trip.
You’ll want to do your research ahead of time and be prepared for the dry, rugged trek. Geologic marvels greet you along the way, leading to the ultimate sandstone prizes.
When to go: Cooler temperatures in fall.
8. Step back in time
It’s easy to look at the crumbling cabins, storefronts and mine shafts of abandoned Colorado and think they won’t be around for long. Which reminds us to get these glimpses of the past while we can.
Hundreds of ghost towns lurk deep in the mountains, the broken remains of shattered dreams. Some are easier to get to than others. Take, for example, St. Elmo. It’s a straightforward, 20-mile drive from Buena Vista to the buildings of a once-bustling center of commerce.
Others to consider: Ashcroft, outside of Aspen; Animas Forks, along the breathtaking Alpine Loop; and Tomboy, above Telluride.
When to go: Summer or early fall, when snow is off access roads.
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