WHITE RIVER NATIONAL FOREST
We’re just a few miles from Interstate 70 and Colorado’s largest ski area, but you wouldn’t know it. These are the Gores, in the heart of ski country and yet a world apart.
Millions see these mountains each year from the front sides of Vail ski area and Copper Mountain or from Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Beautiful and imposing, they are a spiny ridge of 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks running 60 miles northwest from Frisco and Silverthorne.
During the brief summer, it’s a landscape of wet forests, flower-strewn meadows, rushing creeks and mirrorlike lakes, presided over by jagged peaks. During winter, it’s an all-but-impenetrable fortress, where steep alpine walls shield the snow-choked valleys from light and threaten to send avalanches pouring down on trespassers.
But natural obstacles have not always protected this area. Denver Water, timber companies and Colorado highway officials have all tried to utilize this terrain, threats that were eased when it became wilderness 35 years ago.
“It’s just a shark’s tooth ridge. It is rough. It is beautiful. It’s extremely evocative,” said John Currie Craven, president of the Friends of Eagles Nest Wilderness, the wilderness area that encompasses most of the range. “It’s so close to ski resorts and I-70, but you can really disappear into what is historic Colorado that doesn’t have a whole lot of impact (from humans.)”
We have come, trudging up long marshy valleys, clambering over downed trees and tromping through icy creeks with full packs, to experience this unique area, to see what makes it so beloved among mountaineers and backpackers, and why some have fought so hard to protect it.
A cabin in the woods
This was once known as “Forest City.”
The Recen brothers came to the frontier from Sweden to seek their fortunes, arriving in Summit County in 1874. Daniel, Henry and Andrew were husky lovers of the outdoors, whose mining skills were behind the Queen of the West mine near Vail Pass and the Excelsior mine in Frisco. They grew rich but always returned to this valley, where they built a cabin about four miles up Gore Creek from what is today east Vail.
Andrew died along the creek in 1913 and was buried near the cabin. Henry died in Breckenridge the next year. Daniel continued to come to what he called Forest City once or twice a year, wrote the Summit County Journal newspaper, “taking great pleasure in the short periods of isolation surrounded by the grandeur of the mountains in that section.”
When Daniel was found half-buried in snow outside the cabin in 1919, he was also buried here. Their grave is our first stop on a 23-mile loop that will take us from the east side of Vail, past numerous alpine lakes and over three mountain passes to Copper Mountain.
Despite their knack for finding gold and silver, the Recens never mined the Gores. Neither did many others. Thanks to geology and topology, the area was never considered suitable for mining, so few old roads intersperse the wilderness. Most trails are in-and-out affairs, leading up long valleys to isolated alpine lakes towered over by the peaks.
Only two trails, including ours, cross the spine of the range. Many basins have no trails at all. Many peaks have no proper names, referred to by letters.
It is tempting to stay here and relax in a lovely campsite before we proceed up the drainage the next day, but somewhere above us is Gore Lake, renowned as one of the loveliest in Colorado.
Two hours, 2 steep miles and 1,200 feet of elevation later we stagger onto the shores of Gore Lake, a crystal-clear lagoon at 11,400 feet ringed by dramatic shards of rock. Words do little to describe the beauty.
We sit by the lake for a while, sharing this Eden with three other groups of campers, until a chill in the air reminds us it will be a cold night and we should set up camp. It may be August, but a cold breeze carries the promise of winter, never too far off here.
Listening to locals
This seems a funny place to build a highway.
Atop Red Buffalo Pass, a broad, grass-covered ridge with plenty of lingering August snow at 11,700 feet, you can see the Gore Creek drainage we ascended to the west and Silverthorne to the east. On both sides, steep walls line narrow canyons, ideal spots for avalanches.
Still, in the late 1960s, the Colorado Department of Highways wanted to ram the new Interstate 70 through a tunnel deep beneath the pass.
The Gore Range-Eagle Nest Primitive Area was created in 1933, but protections were slight compared with modern wilderness areas. The area was reduced in 1941 for the construction of U.S. Highway 6 over Vail Pass, and highway engineers determined that a route through the Gores would be 11 miles shorter.
The idea was wildly unpopular with locals, and in a move that showed the nation’s changing attitudes toward its natural resources, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman denied permission.
“Economics alone is not a sufficient basis for determining whether wilderness shall survive or die,” he wrote in 1968. “We have all the land now that we will ever have. As administrators of these lands, we must resolve conflicts in the interest of the greatest number of people in the long run, which is what I have attempted to do today.”
The highway department’s loss is our gain. Today, this basin is popular as a day hike from Frisco and Silverthorne. As we cross the treeless valley toward our next goal, Eccles Pass, we see plenty of day-trippers enjoying a cloudless Saturday above timberline.
We crest the next pass, and the Meadow Creek drainage sprawls before us, a sea of green. In the 1970s, the Forest Service sold the rights to log this area to a major timber company, and only a lawsuit by citizens prevented it from being cleared.
The battle over the future of the Gores was coming to a head.
Decision for wilderness
That night, one of the range’s many creeks roars down the valley near our campsite. A month ago, this crossing would have been perilous. Now, with most of the snow melted, it is merely frigid.
Denver Water had long cast a covetous eye on the creeks gushing out of the mountains, and when the U.S. Forest Service proposed the area for wilderness in 1972, it excluded the drainages that Denver wanted to dam and transport by canal to Dillon Reservoir. The local mood was against the project and in favor of protecting the area as wilderness, and despite major opposition, in 1976 Congress created the 132,906-acre wilderness.
Toiling up the final obstacle of our trip, Uneva Pass, we leave the lush heart of the Gores behind. The grass-covered ski runs of Copper Mountain pop into view as we make our descent toward civilization. We see more day hikers, coming up from the interstate to get a glimpse of the splendor at Lost Lake or the Wheeler Lakes.
Finally, cresting a hillside, the distant din of I-70 is audible. The air grows hotter, the highway louder as we drop into the valley, and as we walk the final half-mile along the road to our shuttle car, the quiet and solitude above seem like a dream.
Few areas in Colorado have survived such development pressures yet remained so wild and free, a testament to the rugged character of the terrain and the strong support among locals for keeping it so. While mining, the growth of skiing, water development, timbering and national transportation have transformed the surrounding areas, this preserve remains, close enough for a quick visit, but protected from the impulses that could forever alter the landscape.
HIKE TO GORE LAKE
3 boots; 12 miles; 3,200 feet elevation gain
Not quite ready to slap on a backpack for a multi-night trip? Here’s an exhilarating hike that can be done as a long day trip or a one-nighter at the prettiest mountain lake you’ve probably ever seen.
Take Interstate 70 west from Denver to the east Vail exit (Exit 180) and turn left at the bottom of the ramp. Take another left onto Bighorn Road to the trailhead after 2.5 miles. If you’re around Colorado Springs or Teller County, take U.S. 24 west to Colorado 9, go over Hoosier Pass and get on I-70 in Frisco.
Take the right turn at an intersection shortly into the hike and follow the trail gently through wildflower meadows along Gore Creek for about 4 miles. The trail is frequently boggy, so be sure to wear good boots.
At a spot where the trail branches to the left, stop and take a look at the grave of the Recen brothers. The main trail crosses the creek to the right. Instead, take a deep breath and go left, as you begin to climb the side of the mountain.
The trail gains 1,200 feet in 2 miles, and you will frequently have to duck and hop over downed trees.
You’ll continue through numerous meadows — each one disappointing your tired legs because you are not yet at your destination — until you burst out of the trees at 11,400 feet.
And there lies a stunning alpine lake.
Great camping can be found along the south and east sides of the lake. Day hikers can catch their breath, have some lunch and bask in this beauty awhile before the knee-crippling descent to the main trail.
The hike is in Eagles Nest Wilderness, so no bicycles or vehicles and dogs must be leashed. Because of heavy snow in the Gores, it’s usually inaccessible until June, and remains wet all summer. For current conditions, call the Holy Cross office of White River National Forest: 1-970-827-5715.
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