A FRIEND OF MINE FROM Colorado gives the following instructions for choosing a weekend camping destination in his nature-rich home state: Place a map of Colorado on a bulletin board, close your eyes, and throw a dart. Wherever it lands, he says, is bound to offer some of the best camping in North America.
It’s reasonable advice for anyone wanting to make a getaway to the Rocky Mountain State. After all, it has more than a thousand designated campsites, and that figure includes only the ones you can drive to. Still, my friend’s rudimentary strategy doesn’t take into account the swarming population of the Front Range, the geographic region encompassing the major cities—Colorado Springs, Denver, and Fort Collins—that line the foothills where the Great Plains run smack into the Rocky Mountains. On weekends, its nearly six million residents clog trailheads, snatch up available campsites, and congregate in flocks atop the state’s precipitous peaks. Pick the wrong destination, and you can feel as if you’re in the grandstand at the Daytona 500. So instead of a dartboard, consider this advice: Head to the Mount Evans Wilderness Area.
Like the more famous Rocky Mountain National Park, about fifty miles to the north, the Mount Evans area boasts a stockpile of peaks soaring above timberline, more than a dozen high alpine lakes that teem with trout, and a network of trails winding through verdant pine forests, across meadows laced with fireweed, dwarf clover, and mariposa lilies, and over waterlogged tundra. But unlike the RMNP, you won’t have to mount a four-day stakeout to land a decent campsite here, because it gets far fewer visitors.
On a Friday afternoon in late May, my girlfriend, Christian, and I headed an hour west of Denver to the West Chicago Creek Campground, which sits at the end of a three-mile dirt road just outside the 74,400-acre wilderness area. It’s a spectacular base camp for mounting forays into the surrounding terrain: Sixteen sites are spread out around a ring road atop a small ridge, West Chicago Creek roars twenty yards below, and Sugarloaf Mountain serves as a stunning backdrop.
We were greeted by one of the campground’s seasonal hosts, a sixty-something woman who chain-smokes Doral lights while patrolling the rough, rocky roads of the camp in a low-rider Mazda Miata. “Make sure you put your food away in your car tonight,” she said, before taking a wheezy breath of the thin mountain air. “There’s a mama bear and two cubs that have been coming through here at night, and one of them ripped a hole in them guys’ tent.”
After a star-filled night interrupted only by hourly whispers of “Did you just hear something?” we exited the tent around seven o’clock and discovered a giant paw mark on the car’s driver’s-side window. “Probably just one of the neighbors’ dogs,” I said to Christian, sounding completely unconvincing.
“There are no dogs at the campground,” she replied.
“Right. Should we go for a drive then, honey?”
We hopped in the car and zipped nine miles south on Colorado Highway 103 to the fee station for the Mount Evans Scenic Byway ($10 per vehicle). Known locally as “fourteeners,” 54 peaks in Colorado are more than 14,000 feet high, and 14,264-foot Mount Evans is one of two that can be driven all the way to the top. The road up its counterpart, Pikes Peak, outside Colorado Springs, is more famous, most likely because it was completed in the late 1800’s; the byway up Mount Evans dates only from the mid-1920’s.
Today it is still an engineering feat—and still the highest paved road in North America. After leaving the fee station behind, the road becomes a thin strip of shoulderless pavement, reaching timberline after just a few miles. There, the landscape is spotted like a dairy cow with patches of stubborn spring snow and sprinkled with groves of bristlecone pines, hardy, gnarled evergreens that can live to be three thousand years old. The craggy peaks surrounding us looked like giant incisors, which seemed to put our car in the middle of nature’s closest approximation of a giant scream.
Of course, that observation might just have been the fear talking. The road careens endlessly beside toe-curling drop-offs with no guardrail in sight. And then there are those damned twenty-foot-long RVs. More than once, my hands glued to the steering wheel in a white-knuckle grip, I said a Hail Mary while threading the minuscule needle hole between a Winnebago and a snowbank. Eventually, the road began a series of nine final switchbacks that climb the last five miles to the summit.
At the top, we emerged from the climate-controlled comfort of our car to find that what had been a warm, 70-degree day at the campsite was a wind-whipped 40 degrees at 14,000 feet. It was also hard to breathe. There’s approximately half as much oxygen up here as there is at sea level, and an hour’s drive had done nothing to help acclimatize our lowlanders’ lungs.
Nonetheless, we still had a little work to do. We wanted to go back home and boast that we’d climbed a fourteener, so we threw on some jackets and huffed and puffed 134 feet higher to the true summit. It was worth it: The uninterrupted, 360-degree views were spectacular. To the north was Longs Peak, the centerpiece of the RMNP; to the west, the world-famous ski meccas Aspen and Vail; to the south, the pointy crest of Pikes Peak; and to the east, the Great Plains, stretching all the way to the Mississippi. We definitely weren’t in Texas anymore.
A couple of hours later, after a stop for lunch and apple pie at the Echo Lake Lodge, near the fee station, and a hike around the lake, we arrived back at the campground. We lounged around for the afternoon, then cooked a simple feast of bratwurst and s’mores over a campfire before hitting the sack.
On Sunday morning we decided to stretch our legs on one of the area’s myriad hiking trails. It’s a frightening name, but Hell’s Hole is simply a giant mountain basin that serves as a dead end for those who hike the four-mile trail. I grabbed my fly rod and, several times along the route, dipped a woolly bugger in the riffles of West Chicago Creek but failed to land any lunch. Eventually the trail climbed out of the creek valley, up through an aspen grove, and began following the spine of a rocky ridge. When we finally reached the Hole, we were once again surrounded by grand vistas, though this time looking up. In front of us loomed Bierstadt, Sugarloaf, and Gray Wolf mountains, while four bighorn sheep patrolled the far side of the basin, scurrying up a scree slope.
Two and a half hours later we were on Interstate 70, heading back to the Denver airport. As we neared the city, the road was choked with weekend traffic—Front Rangers returning from their rock-climbing, kayaking, and mountain-biking playgrounds. Wedged bumper to bumper between an SUV and another damned RV, we marveled at the fact that on our eight-mile morning hike, we had seen only six other people. I’ll take those statistics over a game of darts every time.