Chasing Gold in Colorado’s Backcountry

A trip to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains is always enjoyable, but there’s something about trekking through alpine meadows at the end of the season that make it especially memorable.

The throngs of summer tourists depart as summer turns to autumn. So if it’s solitude you seek, you’re more likely to find lonely trails and empty vistas in September and October.

There’s also a sense of haste and impermanence that make these adventures all the more alluring, knowing that the golden aspen and auburn meadows are fleeting —the first dusting of snow could happen any day. 

Earlier this month, I set out on a three-day, two-night backpacking trip to American Lakes with my wife and dog in tow. It’s a backcountry excursion that can be easily packed into one day or a weekend, depending on your planned activities.

Located in Colorado’s State Forest State Park, the 6.8-mile American Lakes trail winds its way through stands of spruce and pine and groves of aspen before reaching a series of alpine lakes. Even as the aspen prepared for their golden finale, the bright crimson flowers of Indian paintbrush and blue and white columbines still lined the edges of the path. As the trail nears 11,000 feet, the fields of flowers give way to hardy tufts of orange and yellowing grasses.

Backpacking and Hiking in ColoradoThe best camping spots sit just below the tree-line in small clearings. They are sheltered by bristlecone pine trees that have been twisted and bent by high winds and heavy snowfalls. Backcountry etiquette applies here: open fires are not permitted, food should be kept out of your tent, preferably in a sack hung between trees, and you should be prepared to pack out everything you pack in.

Upon making camp, I set out to filter water. The most accessible source of water comes from Michigan Lakes. Depending on the season, it’s one lake or two with a small channel connecting them.

Sitting high above these shallow lakes is Snow Lake. It’s the snow-fed headwater for Michigan Lakes and the Michigan River. It’s more remote and requires a scree field scramble to reach its rocky shores. The hike is worth the effort. From here, you have a commanding view of the alpine valley below, and a front-row seat to take in the craggy spires that line the opposing bank. These jagged rock formations are the Nokhu Crags that form the northern edge of the Never Summer Mountain Range. This is a great place to sit back, enjoy a meal, and watch the local marmot population dart in and out of the rocks.

The next morning, we rose early to hike from our campsite to Thunder Pass. This mile-long trail takes visitors to the northern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park.  From the Thunder Pass saddle, you can look down into the park, or even hike in. Keep in mind that dogs are not permitted on trails in many national parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park.

Since our dog was along for the trip, we opted to stay outside the park boundaries and ascend Mount Lulu. Topping out at 12,228 feet, it’s not exactly the sort of summit 14er hunters and peak baggers will brag about. However, it is a steep, rocky climb that’s seldom trafficked and provides sweeping views of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Never Summer Range. It’s an energetic hike, and not recommended for those with a fear of heights.

Mt Lulu, Colorado

 

The remainder of the day was spent casting along the shores of Michigan Lakes. The lakes are stocked with brook and cutthroat trout. Though it was late in the season, we had good luck with grasshopper imitators and pulled in several good-sized cutthroat.

As mentioned, open fires are not permitted. Admittedly, not having a fire to gather around can take away from some of the romance associated with camping, though it also gave us an opportunity to turn our gaze skyward and take in an expansive view of the Milky Way. Clear skies, free from noise and light pollution, aren’t easy to come by these days.

We awoke the next morning to frost on our tent, blustery winds, and dark clouds creeping in from the north. We had pushed our luck with the weather and it was time to head down, thankful in the knowledge that we were able to sneak in one last alpine backpacking trip before the season turned. Wildlife know the ephemeral and often capricious nature of fall in the Rockies better than any human. On our return hike, we observed herds of elk and moose foraging for the last of summer’s buds and berries in preparation for the long winter season that would soon be upon them.

Whether in Colorado’s high country or elsewhere, chasing the colors of fall in the mountains is always a worthwhile pursuit. As Robert Frost so aptly wrote, “nothing gold can stay.”

Sunset in Colorado Mountains