Gazillions of sparkling lakes, a mess of peaks higher than 12,000 feet, trail networks that would take three lifetimes to explore-the Colorado Rockies serve up enough summertime spoils to make any backcountry junky drool. Come fall, though, the drool freezes to your chin and stays frozen until well after the calendar says spring has sprung.
Obstacle: Early winters
Solution: Trade the snow-choked mountain trails for a 39-square-mile, solar-warmed sandbox. Great Sand Dunes National Monument and Wilderness, Colorado, is a no-man’s-land in summer, when 140°F surface temperatures can melt Vibram soles, but by fall, this otherworldly landscape is transformed. The contrasting beauty of the Saharalike Great Sand Dunes beneath the towering snow-clad Sangre de Cristo Mountains is wildly seductive to hikers.
Wander at will among these massive dunes, including a 750-foot behemoth that’s the tallest in North America. The sea of sand undulates along the horizon, convening into steep ridges that plummet to small, camp-friendly basins anchored by rice grass. You can use primitive sites on the eastern flanks near Medano Creek or wander headlong among the dunes and camp a couple of ridges in. There’s no water in the interior, and, thankfully, no noisy off-road vehicles-just you and the shifting sands.
Directions: Great Sand Dunes is in south-central Colorado, 38 miles northeast of Alamosa on CO 150.
Map: All you’ll need is the official map and guide that come with the free backcountry permit (address below).
Contact: Great Sand Dunes National Monument, 11999 Highway 150, Mosca, CO 81146; (719) 378-2312.
Obstacle: High country snow
Solution: Spring’s snowy grasp on the Rockies seems worlds away from the 75,800-acre Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Study Area in western Colorado, where mountains meet desert. A relatively low elevation of between 4,500 and 7,500 feet means any snow that falls here is usually spotty and melts quickly.
Laugh at winter along a remote, bushwhackable trek that starts at Dominguez Campground and follows Big Dominguez Creek downstream. For 14 miles, the creek carves through 600-million-year-old Precambrian schist and sandstone mesas topped with pi?on-juniper forests. You’ll wander along benches and lush canyon bottoms, where choosing a campsite is simply a matter of deciding which cottonwood alcove suits your fancy.
Directions: Dominguez Canyon WSA is in western Colorado, 15 miles west of Delta off CO 141.
Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quads Triangle Mesa, Jacks Canyon, and Keith Creek.
Contact: BLM, Grand Junction field office, 2815 H Road, Grand Junction, CO 81506; (970) 244-3000.
In spring and fall, there’s no topping the hiking in the southern mountains. You’ll encounter more species of flowers and trees than a veteran botanist could name, and the jumbled mountain ranges would take generations to explore. But in summer, even the most devout trail animals succumb to the overbearing swelter and head for the nearest air conditioner. Winter isn’t much better: drizzly gray days, with temperatures just cold enough to hover around the hypothermia zone.
Obstacle: Gloomy winters
Solution: In the panhandle of Florida, there’s a paradise of rare flora and fauna, and during the fall and winter months, it’s a mosquito-free, mild-weather wilderness haven.
Like any good Eden, Torreya State Park has something new and tempting-in this case, a wide variety of ecosystems-over every hill. The best way to appreciate all the land has to offer is along a 21-mile route that begins on the Torreya Trail. Cross the Stone Bridge, head up through the high pinelands, and trek to the edge of a 25-foot ravine. Hike west to the 150-foot bluffs and take in the view of the Appalachicola River. Finish the loop at Gregory House, then head to the Rock Creek campsite.
The next day, take the Torreya Challenge Trail to the south, hike through hardwood hammocks, and eventually camp at the Challenge campsite. Don’t miss the rare Torreya trees scattered along the trail’s ravines. This short, conical evergreen with dark green needles is just the type of tree an apple-bearing serpent might feel perfectly at home in.
Directions: Torreya State Park is about 65 miles west of Tallahassee, off County Road 1641, about 6 hours from Atlanta.
Map: Trail maps are available at the ranger station (address below).
Contact: Torreya State Park, Rt. 2 Box 70, Bristol, FL 32321; (850) 643-2674.