Rocky Mountain High
“He was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year, coming home to a place he’d never been before…” – from “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver
It was July 1997, the summer of my twenty-seventh year. I had dropped my wife off at the Denver airport a few hours earlier, and I was alone at the Glacier Gorge trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. The names Lake of Glass and Sky Pond were alluring, and up to those tarns I went. It was not my first time in Colorado or in the high mountains, but it was my first solo hiking experience in the great alpine ranges of the American West, and suddenly I felt those John Denver lines coursing through my mind and spirit. Standing all alone at the rocky shore of Sky Pond, staring at the jagged pinnacles on one side and the Continental Divide on the other, I felt I was home.
I love Colorado. Okay, that’s nothing profound or original, I know, but it’s true all the same. People can argue all they want over what the most beautiful mountains in the United States are, but the Colorado Rockies, with their colors, height, breadth, and forms certainly have a place in that discussion.
As many others have, I once fell under the spell of Colorado’s fourteeners. That spell has since left me and been replaced by a yearning to seek out the quieter side of the Centennial State’s rugged grandeur, but I managed to ascend 24 of them before losing all real interest in doing them all (no offense or judgment intended; I just realized that I’d be happier exploring the less-trodden ways). There are still a few I’d like a go at—Capitol, the Maroons, Crestone Needle and Peak, and Wilson Peak, but I’d like to climb those for their beauty and their challenge, not simply because they’re 14ers.
Along the way, I have learned a little bit about Colorado’s challenges, crowds, wilderness, and, above all, its rewards:
•Challenges: Some people malign Colorado, I suppose because it isn’t the North Cascades, the Wind River Range, the Sierra Nevada, or the Canadian Rockies and largely lacks the glaciers and/or the world-famous climbing of those places. But great and challenging climbs are all over the state; a little time spent on SP, or, better yet, in Colorado itself, can attest to that. Longs Peak and the Crestones are well-known examples of classic climbing sites, but there are so many others that aren’t nearly as famous.
•Crowds: Sure, they’re in plentiful supply on most of the walk-up 14ers and some of the popular summit trails in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks, but it becomes an entirely different story once you move beyond those destinations. And remember that MOST people you meet on most of the really busy mountains are good people who love the mountains and the outdoors in much the same way that you do. But if you still want a shot at solitude in the popular areas and can only go in the summer, just remember to start nice and early. That way, you’ll have little or no company while going up and while at the summit, and those are the best parts.
•Wilderness: It’s not what parts of Wyoming and Montana have, with their state-size tracts of country crawling with grizzlies and wolves and a taste of the world before machines tore through it, but it’s out there. Again, head away from the busiest places, deep into the San Juans or the Elks if you can, and you’ll get that feeling that you’re standing where no one else has before.
•Rewards: If you can’t come away from Colorado’s mountains having found something to stir the senses and the soul, chances are the mountains really aren’t the place for you, anyway.
Colorado has enthralled and inspired me over and over again. And I return to it again and again. I made this page as a place to express some personal thoughts on this beautiful state and collect my trip reports detailing my best and/or most meaningful summit experiences there. Hopefully, some of my experiences and reflections will resound or even inspire. At the very least, please enjoy.
“I guess he’d rather be in Colorado…” – John Denver