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Hike 9/41 Continued: Vanquishing Vasquez Wilderness

Two attempts to enter the Vasquez Peak Wilderness before had been foiled, it would be three more before making it in. Sometimes the journey is the reward.

In two attempts at the Vasquez Peak Wilderness I had just scratched the surface. Despite nearly 17 miles hiked I had only ever been inside the Wilderness Area some several hundred yards. I just hadn’t done it justice yet. I needed to go back, but the two previous routes wouldn’t get me where I needed to go. It was back to the drawing board.

A Plan of Attack

Using resources like AllTrails I have to look for trails that are listed “in” the Wilderness. The problem with something like the Vasquez Peak Wilderness is that they don’t show up on all of the map layers used by the various hiking resources. You either have to make your own map or you have to use a multitude of resources and overlay the data yourself.

I determined through research that the Vasquez Peak Trail would come in from the back side of the Pass I’d hiked a few weeks prior. Unfortunately I’d have to deal with a road closure 3 miles from the original trailhead. I’m not keen on hiking Forest Service Roads, but it would be necessary to get to the Wilderness Boundary and explore the valley I’d only previewed from on high.

No Plan Survives First Contact…

I got up early, suited up with my merino socks, loaded my pack full of water and snacks, threw some tunes on in the truck and rolled towards Winter Park. I sailed past the original trailhead in Empire where I’d taken my first two attempts at the Peak and failed, or at least only partially succeeded.

The truck groaned as I motored up to Berthoud Pass, construction crews readying for the day by putting orange cones taking my half out of the middle of the road to pave. The sun had now risen and was glaring over the first set of mountains from the east. Throwing the truck in low gear I coasted down the other side of the pass. I relished the moment as the Jeep’s computer said I was making 99+ MPG, it never ceases to amuse me.

Making my turn in town onto Vasquez Road to the trailhead, almost there. The trail at the end would lead directly into the heart of the Vasquez Peak Wilderness. Only to find…

It. Was. Closed.

This meant that not only would I have to do a 3 mile hike to get to the trailhead on a gated forest service road, but would now have to tack on 2.1 miles each way to even begin a 15 mile round trip hike. A 19.2 mile round trip day with 10.2 miles of it on a roadbed was just not something I’d signed up for. I turned around, dejected. There was no estimated time of completion on the construction notice for the road closure, so I just had no idea when that trail would be open.

I pulled into a parking lot and scrolled through other trails in the area. Maybe there was another plan of attack here. What was I even here for? To scout for birds, to accomplish hiking another Wilderness Area? Both? Vasquez Creek trail looked to be close by, and another entry point to the Wilderness. The trailhead was some 3-4 miles away, so I decided to go check it out.

A Tight Spot

I pulled into a small lot big enough for about 3 cars some time after eight o’clock. The gate was swung open and I saw Jeeps were allowed. I proceeded with caution over the rocky ill-serviced Forest Road. Unfortunately less than a mile in, the trail became too narrow for my truck. Even though I’d put 10,000 hard miles on it in recent months I was not ready for the custom pinstriping that would occur if it got much narrower.

Initiating an Austin Powers 37 point turn I was able to use my backup camera and turn around in a wide spot. One thing the new Gladiators aren’t is dainty.

Time was ticking away on the best weather day I’d have all week, and I hadn’t even began to get on a trail. I was disgusted. I could go into town and lament my poor luck over some fresh coffee and Hungarian and Czech pastry or I could head back out of Winter Park and look for another hike.

Rocky Mountain High

I decided the next place I’d take a look is Berthoud Pass Trail. It was back towards home, so it wouldn’t take time from my scuttling off the mountain in time to pick up the little one from daycare, and I’d now encountered two sets of folks that said they’d hiked in from Berthoud Pass while hiking Vasquez. I wasn’t sure it even touched the Wilderness Area, but it was close, and it was a hike. That’s all I cared about now after two shutouts in a half an hour.

The truck climbed to the parking lot for the Berthoud Pass Warming Hut that was already getting somewhat full with section hikers of the Continental Divide Trail and folks just looking for a respite and view. I geared up, turned on my inReach and messaged my wife about my audible for the day’s hike.

The Continental Divide Trail medallion at the Berthoud Pass Trailhead.

Heading West from the lot I jumped on the Continental Divide Trail, now a familar sight to see the blue, black, and white placard in these high and wild places. Not a few hundred yards into the trail I saw what I’d hoped to see — my first informational sign for the Vasquez Peak Wilderness showing the Wilderness just a little farther on the CDT. Up until now the boundaries of the Wilderness Areas were only imaginary boundaries I’d seen on maps and GPS layers. This was the first time I saw it in an official capacity. It looked like this hike might just take me to, or at least adjacent to where I’d been hoping to explore for weeks now.

Tilting at Windmills

Now on my fifth attempt at bagging this Wilderness in a month I was worried that my quest to complete all 41 Wilderness Areas was bordering on Quixotic. The Wilderness Areas were immobile, and at times seemingly unreachable. They’d always been there, and I was a fool riding a Jeep into battle against mother nature.

Dodging some blow downs and negotiating a rocky trail I started in the now familiar lower conifers that should be teeming with blue grouse. However, with my late start there had no doubt been several sets of hikers through the trail already to have spooked birds and other critters nearby.

The trail in it’s first quarter takes you from the actual Berthoud Pass to treeline quickly, switching back as trees go from normal sized to diminutive to finally Linus’s Christmas Tree in stature. From there you stay above treeline for the duration, teetering on a 12,000ft crest that forms the Continental Divide.

Faced with another hill climb and 10 or so switchbacks I sighed and used the opportunity to glass for ptarmigan. After all, what was I really here for? The proximity to a paved road and the liklihood of birds made finding ptarmigan here a real possibility. I’m not in this for an “easy” hunt at all, but anything has to be easier than hunting them on a 14,000 ft tall mountain. Despite the clear weather day the thermals were whipping upward, the same type of activity that causes those popup thunderstorms hikers worry about this time of year.

No birds sighted I gulped and worked my way up the hill, catching my breath along the way. More rewarding than trying to nail down yet another Wilderness Area, if I completed this hike today I’d make 100 trail miles for the season so far. I crested the rise and saw a familiar and encouraging sight. Rising from a pile of stones appeared to be the rounded trapezoid of a Wilderness Area boundary sign off in the distance.

Fifth Time is a Charm

There’s a point during most hikes I’m on where any of your pain or anxiousness you’ve been experiencing simply slips away. The tightness in your legs melts even if you hadn’t stretched, and you’ve finally hit your stride. Seeing the sign for the Vasquez Peak Wilderness while walking at the top of the United States did that for me.

The border to the Vasquez Peak Wilderness is as beautiful as it is remote.

Sure there would be some more ridges with minor ascents, but I was there. Anything beyond this point I was exploring the Wilderness. It’d taken two attempts earlier in the month, and three this day but I finally got here. I can tell you, I was simultaneously able to see why no one would want to extract resources from the area, and why we as a nation needed to protect this chunk of rock.

The views in every direction are both panoramic and gorgeous. At the same time there is a minor touch of humanity. I’d not seen any litter on the trail, yet at some points during the hike you could see I-70 climbing to Berthoud Pass. It was both wild and tamed by man, rugged, and civilized.

An unnamed lake at the head of Hoop Creek, just outside the Vasquez Peak Wilderness.
The unnamed lake at the head of Hoop Creek.

Mission Accomplished

I ended up reaching the completion of the “Berthoud Pass Route” via the All-Trails map, but in reality it was a made up hike using the Continental Divide Trail — as I told another pair of hikers — go one way you head towards Canada, the other Mexico. That trail extends 3100 miles border to border, and this particular hike was deemed Grand County’s most grueling. I’d done 80% of the hike over a couple of days accidentally, and I can attest that if you’re doing it as an out-and-back in a day, you are a certifiable badass.

Stunning views in the Vasquez Peak Wilderness.

During the hike I ran into a number of other public sector employees. CPW Rangers on horseback were conducting a Bighorn Sheep Survey, USFS employees were just out enjoying themselves and the weather, and a couple of NIST employees were enjoying downtime during the pandemic.

With the wind high around me like invisble waves crashing at the top of the Divide I didn’t see much in the line of birds, just songbirds here and there. With one of my dogs casting loops I’d have likely had better luck locating ptarmigan, but there have been numerous reports of the birds being seen in the Vasquez Peak Wilderness. Birds just sometimes are were they are, and aren’t where they aren’t. Hard to know the reason, but I won’t stop looking for them.

Why am I doing this? I’m on a quest to hike, camp, hunt, or fish on all of Colorado’s federally designated Wilderness Areas. Check out all the articles here!
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Tags: , , Last modified: July 19, 2020