To be a Colorado backpacker is to know your days in the sun are numbered. Sometime in September or early October, and seemingly overnight, the wildflower-speckled meadows and trout-filled alpine lakes you coveted in summer will disappear, buried beneath a thick blanket of white. Trail trompers then face a basic choice: Hunker down like a hibernating bear until the high country reemerges in June, or trade boots for snowshoes or skis and keep on exploring.
Where I once used to hang up my backpack for a good chunk of year, I now consider winter the rival of summer as the prime backcountry season. Cold and the avoidable risk of avalanche strike me as fair trade for the delight of no bugs, lightning, bears, or crowds. So ditch the gym or couch this weekend, strap on the webs or wax the boards, and discover the milder side of winter at the following wilderness getaways carefully chosen for winter novices.
Colorado Trail, Lost Creek Wilderness
Lost Creek Wilderness isn't your typical Colorado beauty, all staggering summits raking the sky-and that's a good thing. When arctic conditions blast other parts of the state, Lost Creek's lesser granite domes and dense stands of ponderosa pine create a protected enclave for winter trekkers.
The Colorado Trail south from Kenosha Pass is the gateway for exploring the northern flank of this wilderness. A 12-mile out-and-back to Rock Creek begins as a gentle climb through thick aspen. Uphill from Johnson Gulch are small tree-ringed "parks" perfect for camping or snowshoe romps. Soak in the expansive view of South Park before the final leg to Rock Creek, where the Ben Tyler Trail breaks north 9 miles and decends to Highway 285.
THE WAY: From Denver, drive south on US 285 about 65 miles to Kenosha Pass. There's pull-out parking on the south side of the highway. Trailhead parking is 100 yards in, but may be inaccessible due to snow.
MORE INFORMATION: South Platte Ranger District, Pike National Forest, 19316 Goddard Ranch Court, Morrison, CO 80465; (303) 275-5610.
St. Vrain Glaciers, Indian Peaks Wilderness
Besides laying claim to a magnificent swath of the Continental Divide, Indian Peaks Wilderness is infamous for its summer crowds. But winter brings a snowy silence, especially in the upper reaches leading to the St. Vrain Glaciers. Plenty of snow, dramatic, chiseled peaks, and 2,500 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead at Camp Dick to Gibraltar Lake at the foot of the glaciers make for an exquisite, 18-mile out-and-back tour.
From the entrance at Peaceful Valley campground, journey west into a broad valley toward 12,304-foot Sawtooth Mountain. The easiest path is Forest Service Road 114 on the south side of the St. Vrain, but beware of the occasional snowmobile. If your tastes run to the steep and technical, then push your way up Buchanan Pass Trail along the north bank of the creek. This route takes a sinuous, forested path into the wilderness, and it's off-limits to exhaust-belching machines. The best campsites are tucked up in the trees well below the glaciers and avalanche zones.
THE WAY: From Boulder, take US 36 north to Lyons, then go west on CO 7 to CO 72, then south 5 miles to Peaceful Valley. The pull-off to Peaceful Valley and Camp Dick Campgrounds is on the west side of the highway.
MORE INFORMATION: Boulder Ranger District, Roosevelt National Forest, 2140 Yarmouth Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301; (303) 541-2500
Deadhorse Creek Loop, Arapahoe National Forest
From the depths of Byers Peak Wilderness and the surrounding forests you'd never guess a major ski area is near. Here lies a sizable chunk of backcountry hemmed in by the imposing peaks of the Continental Divide and the Vasquez Mountains. When it comes to trails, few areas this close to Denver can compare. The area is laced with a trail system that offers countless possibilities for skiing, snowshoeing, and camping.
St. Louis Creek Road is the main point of entry to the Fraser Experimental Forest and Byers Peak Wilderness. For an exhilarating tour, follow the Deadhorse Creek/Spruce Creek loop that climbs above the St. Louis Creek drainage. An easier cruise navigates nearby Zoom Flume and Creekside trails, which offer numerous flat, protected areas for camping. Be aware that Fraser Experimental Forest is closed to camping, so make sure you camp outside its boundary.
THE WAY: Drive I-70 west from Denver to US 40 north at Empire. Continue to Fraser, then west on County Road 73 to Deadhorse Loop trailhead at the Fraser Experimental Station.
MORE INFORMATION: Sulphur Ranger District, Arapaho National Forest, P.O. Box 10, Granby, CO 80446; (970) 887-4100.