A Brief and Shining Season

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, August 1998

A Brief and Shining Season

Summer is short in Colorado's highest wilderness. Better hurry.
By Stephanie Gregory

Geographically, the north park region of Colorado couldn't be much closer to the state's megaresorts. Steamboat Springs lies just 65 miles to the west; Summit County is but a straight two-hour shot to the south. Conceptually, however, North Park could hardly be further removed. Though this austerely beautiful, 1,628-square-mile parkland of sagebrush meadows and willow-lined creeks sits only 120 miles northwest of Denver, it's been spared Aspenization by being too Colorado, in the old-fashioned sense: too remote, too harsh, too isolated.

Indeed, North Park is bounded on all sides by mountains, between which lie only tough, spare, self-serve wilderness with little in the way of amenities. North Park sits perched at an elevation of between 8,000 and 12,900 feet, so high and so cold that native tribes actually migrated north in the fall. But in August, there's a softness, a brief greening-up, a purity of air, and grandeur of space that reminds one of the African veldt or the Scottish highlands.

The boundaries of North Park are roughly the same as those of Jackson County in north-central Colorado. From Denver, take I-70 west to U.S. 40 north. Then pick up Colorado 125 north and follow it to Walden, North Park's epicenter. The region's most accessible section is its eastern edge, where dozens of paths crisscross the area, allowing for short, easy day hikes or weeklong treks into silent, bear-rich backcountry. One way to choose your route is to settle on a campsite and strike out from there. A favorite is Pines Campground in Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, 25 miles southeast of Walden on Forest Road 740 (sites, $10; call 970-723-8204 for reservations). Set up camp beneath a 300-year-old spruce, and then get up early to catch your lunch: The brookies fry up beautifully.

Later, get into the true spirit of North Park by setting out on Trail 1141, which starts six miles away on Silver Creek Road. The August morning should be glorious, with temperatures around 70 and a scattering of clouds. Such conditions are rare here most of the year, a fact you might ponder as you hike the path, aka the Never Summer Trail.

For more information about North Park, call the Sulphur Ranger District at 970-887-4100.

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