Adventures in the Rockies: Worth the Weather Risk

It’s risky business planning a backpacking trip in the Colorado Rockies during the month of November. But as the saying goes, “with high risk comes high reward.” The reward is of course the epic views with the trails all to yourself and the most sought after sites available. However, there’s a reason this time of year is called the off-season. Skiing hasn’t quite kicked off for the season yet, and the first few snows typically cover trails in the higher elevation. And let us not forget how cold it can be for camping outside this time of the year. One can dream though.

After looking at the forecast, my wife and I realized we were going to have to enact our back-up plan. Our original plan consisted of a backpacking loop in southern Colorado called the Lost Creek Wilderness Trail. To no surprise, the forecast called for temps to be down below zero overnight. It was an easy decision to change our plans to somewhere warmer, so we redirected our trip to the “warm” deserts of Southern Utah. While temps certainly weren’t going to be subzero, they were still going to be downright COLD for camping.

Thinking outside the box, we came up with what we thought was the perfect plan. My wife and I would land in Denver and have a very comfortable stay in Breckenridge before road tripping to Moab to begin our camping excursion out across the desert. After braving two nights of cold, we would still be able to backpack across the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Instead of sleeping in our tent, we would hike to a remote cabin high in the mountains. It sounded amazing to both of us, so with careful planning of details, we began our journey to Colorado.

Aside from a very delayed flight and a little bit of altitude sickness, we managed to get a few hours of sleep in before exploring Breckenridge and stocking up on food and camping supplies. Then off to the desert we went!

Watching the thermometer on the car as we cruised closer to our destination was thrilling and even scary at times. For the longest time it wouldn’t get above 20 degrees but as we finally dropped in elevation, the snow disappeared and the temps finally climbed up into the 40’s as we crossed into the Western Slope. My wife and I were both encouraged and smiled, thinking we were in the clear. We jammed out to Christmas music and made it to our campsite, and like I said earlier, were the only ones around. The place was completely empty with the exception of a couple of camper vans. But being the brave souls that we are, my wife and I set up the tent, built a fire and cooked dinner in anticipation of a “good night’s sleep.” Upon setting up, the temperature had plummeted to 28 degrees and it was only 8pm. We bundled up and huddled around the fire thinking that it didn’t feel too cold. But after settling into our sleeping bags and trying to fall asleep, we knew it was going to be a long and frigid night. By morning any liquids we had were completely frozen, and so were we. Though we didn’t get much sleep (again), we did what any good adventurer would do. We made breakfast, packed up our stuff, and headed out to the trails.

We decided to visit some new scenes as well as rehash some of our old favorites. We got up just in time to get a permit for Fiery Furnace—a new favorite of ours. This is where the fins in Arches National Park are the closest together, forming tight walls, slot canyons, and maze-like trails. It makes for quite an exciting hike—like nature’s playground if you will! We made it out just in time for a sunset hike to Delicate Arch. It’s one we’ve done a handful of times, but each time seems to get better and better. It’s an iconic hike that really never gets old!

For our second night of camping in Moab, we applied a bit of basic meteorology and found a warmer spot right along the river. From a meteorological standpoint, being in a narrow canyon compared to the exposed open desert would surely provide some extra warmth. Plus having the river water as a temperature stabilizer of sorts and putting the tent under a canopy of trees definitely made for a much better night’s sleep. In fact, compared to the first night when the temps dropped well down into the teens, it actually only got to around freezing the second night by applying these helpful tricks. And while it may not have been the most restful night’s sleep, we certainly were thankful for warmth and some shuteye.

Our next day would certainly be a long one, but neither of us knew exactly how long we were talking.

The idea of staying in a cabin was to stay warm and stay out of the extreme temperatures. All we needed was a warm bunk to sleep in and a wood stove to keep us nice and toasty. And this is exactly what we planned for when starting our journey the next day. Our plan was to hike to the first cabin on a traverse that goes from Telluride to Ouray, otherwise known as the Sneffels Traverse. A flat tire set us back a few hours from our departure from Moab, so we didn’t get to Ouray until 3pm. By the time we had our packs ready to go, it was already 4:30pm. By 5:30, it was pitch black. And cold! And snowy! We hiked, and we hiked, and we hiked some more. As a side note, we didn’t go the minimalist route for this trip as we sometimes do. Our packs were full of warm winter clothes, sleeping bags, books, coffee, JetBoils, but most important was the 8 lbs of sausage and bacon that we brought along with us. After all camping doesn’t have to mean skimping on food! By the time we reached the cabin (which we felt fortunate to find in the dark, snowy conditions), we were exhausted. We’ve done quite a few hikes over the years, but this one was one to write home about. It was steep, cold, dark, and grueling, but the reward was well worth it.

We woke up the next morning to a view of Whitehouse Mountain and the wood stove still heating the house from the night before. After marveling at the incredible views, stoking the fire, and brewing our first cup of coffee, we set out to explore the area. As we climbed the ridge behind us, the cabin looked like something from a postcard. We got up to the top of the ridge, and to our surprise there was a storm rolling in. We say “to our surprise” because while we knew there would be a chance of seeing a few snow showers we didn’t really count on a raging snowstorm. We hadn’t had any service for a full 24 hours, and mountain weather is always changing, so as expected, the meteorologist that I am, couldn’t check the latest radar. But this is also why I absolutely LOVE mountain weather! It is always full of unexpected surprises. As we sat on the ridge admiring the beauty of Colorado, the blue skies that we had during the morning turned gray within minutes. With the little service we could get, we turned on some Christmas music and after doing so the first snowflakes began to fall. I really don’t think you could have planned for a more perfect moment!

The cabin stayed warm all afternoon and into the evening, and the snow continued to fall. By sunset, our tracks were sufficiently covered. We made our way out of the cabin (thankfully we packed ski pants) and retraced our steps back to the main trail to prepare for our trek out in the morning, just in case it kept snowing all night. We wanted to make sure we had some track to follow to get us to the main trail.

5am came early, and we were up and hiking out within an hour of waking up. We were amazed at how much snow fell with such little warning—easily over a foot. Thankfully we made it back to the main trail, and only lost it once on the way down. One mile in to the hike down, we detoured about a hundred yards before realizing that this wasn’t the way we had come. It turns out that retracing your steps is much easier when you actually saw the trail the first time you hiked it. We were relying on sticks and shrubs as markers that we thought we remembered from our hike in. We made it back to the town of Ouray, which had hardly even seen a dusting of snow. It really is amazing what a difference 2,000 feet of elevation can be!

After making it back to Ouray and warming up, we began the drive back to Denver. We recounted the joys and mishaps of our adventure, and commented about how our vacations are hardly relaxing. Then we vowed to adventure just as hard on our next one! What we knew to be true remained true—backpacking in the Rockies in November is risky but well worth the reward!