Don't Need No 14'ers: Colorado's Best Mountain Hike
By David Rich
I was impressed, asking the slick looking chap chugging a Coors at the front door of the Silverton Saloon, What’s the heck’s the party for?
Music blared out the swinging doors and short-skirted women hung around the guy like Hugh Hefner had left the country and moved abroad.
A smile split his face as he said, "Grab a beer ‘cause it’s a celebration. I’m the newest real Coloradan. Climbed the last of the 14ers, yes-ter-day." He drawled out the last word as he grabbed a Coors longneck from the icy tub at his feet and tossed it in my approximate direction.
Sincerest congrats, I said, snatching the Colorado Coors in mid-air. A free 3.2% beer is still a free near-beer and I knew full well the club he’d just joined: a club reserved for those who’d climbed all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.
I’d only bagged the highest 14er, Mt. Elbert, skipping the rest, not only to concentrate on mountain peaks such as Kilimanjaro but because having grown up (debatable according to my wife) in Colorado I know it offers hiking far superior to the loose scree scramble up many 14ers that often ends on gravely balding tops obscured by clouds.
These mostly ever-present clouds shroud the summer lightning storms that provide copious custom for Colorado’s lower altitude mortuaries.
Best Colorado Hikes
Based on a consensus of people I’ve discussed the best Colorado hikes with (3) the most spectacular hike in Colorado beckons a mere seven miles from Silverton: drive two miles west on the Million Dollar Highway, so-named because the fill dirt for the highway is reputed to contain over a million dollars of gold dust for every mile.
Then take Mineral Creek Road five miles to its namesake campground where the Ice Lake Basin trailhead begins. An investment of a mere four to six hours offers the most spectacular tramp in the state; four of us agreed unanimously.
The trail winds up wild-flowered meadows carved by glaciers over hundreds of thousands of years, now etched by several lazy streams. It continues past several silvery waterfalls and after slightly over three miles culminates at two spectacularly colored lakes surrounded by jagged 13ers that include the Golden Horn, a spike jutting into an azure sky.
The lower lake is deepest blue and turquoise, a technicolor affair, providing perfect reflections of surrounding rainbow-colored mountains; the upper lake’s shores are blanketed by brilliant green tundra a n d wildflowers including multi-dozen bouquets of columbines, Colorado’s gorgeous state flower.
A third hidden lake named Island for the rocky prominence in the middle can be reached by a faint trail leaving the northwest corner of the lower lake, heading basically straight up for a few hundred feet. Resist the temptation to swim a hundred feet to the island in the center unless you’ve toted along your own defibrillator.
Still, the macho men (and macha women) bent on conquering a half a hundred 14ers would consider Ice Lake Basin a trail for pansies, to which any sane person would reply, baloney patooie.
With a 2500+ feet elevation gain in a little over three miles Ice Lake Basin is NOT an easy trail. However, there are spectacular trails in Colorado requiring much less effort.
One such trail was carved by gold miners, who refused to pay the Million Dollar Highway’s originally hefty toll (now free), into sheer cliffs 20 miles further west and north up the Million Dollar highway, two miles from Ouray along precipitous Bear Creek.
Too cheap to pay a toll they instead spent hundreds of hours carving this trail from solid rock walls, forming narrow ledges meandering gradually higher for miles.
The start of the Bear Creek Trail winds up and over the only tunnel on the Million Dollar Highway, switchbacks stretching the imagination onto miles of ledge above Bear Creek with sumptuous views of Red Mountain Pass (not orange but truly red).
I’ve always been fascinated with ridge trails and trails that hug precipitous ledges, Bear Creek is the archetype for the latter. I parked sideways on the trail with my toes hanging over the edge and watched Bear Creek gurgle a 1000 vertical feet between them thar toes.
Bear Creek trail connects with others that go on seemingly forever but I stopped at the first abandoned gold mine, a mere two miles from the trailhead, a yesteryear of equipment and hardware strewn across the trail above Bear Creek, at that point only a few hundred feet below. Don’t miss this fun little hair-raiser, a mere two hours roundtrip with an elevation gain of 1500 feet.
For a truly easy and dramatically special hike drive to Loveland Pass, 40 miles west of Denver, for the grandiose track up Mt. Sniktau that takes a measly two hours roundtrip with only 1300 feet of elevation gain.
These few hundred feet of easy climb provide stupefying views of the continental divide stretching a hundred miles north and south, purple mountain majesties along a horizon of snow-capped peaks. At least twenty 14ers stretch to infinity and they don’t have to be climbed to be enjoyed to the max.
Dozens of other easy hikes explore a cornucopia of unique terrains ranging from Florissant National Monument’s petrified sequoia stumps 8 miles west of the Crags hike on the western slope of Pike’s Peak to a stroll around Georgetown’s World Heritage downtown, the sprawling sand dunes north of Alamosa in the shadow of 14er Mt. Blanca and the moose meadows near Walden.
But beware: those who fail to climb all fifty-four 14ers can never join the elite club that makes a true Coloradoan, hung all over by bounteous babes, a pickle perhaps happily avoided by most female readers.
David Rich is GoNOMAD’s most intrepid writer, braving blizzards, monsoons, desert heat and State Department travel advisories to visit the world’s most out-of-the-way places from the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan to the wilds of Borneo to the Harley-Davidson Rally Week in Sturgis, South Dakota. He lives in Glendale AZ where his latest passion is flying his own plane.