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Going Wild Series (Part II)

Planning Your Trip


          Do you know how many designated wilderness areas there are in Colorado?  The answer is 48.  Now add the great wilderness areas just across the boarder.  Together, the areas equal more breathtaking scenery and unspoiled nature than you can explore in 3 lifetimes.  Most folks have no idea what they are missing.  And, there are only 2 ways to see it - on foot or horse - horse is better (trust me).


                We are not Colorado natives, so when we discovered Pasos and decided to explore the wilds we were heading into unknown territory (at least to us).  This article goes through the steps we follow to plan a wilderness trip.


                We draw many trip ideas from, The Complete Guide to Colorado’s Wilderness Areas, by John Fielder.  This book has a chapter for all 48 wilderness areas with maps, photos, trail descriptions and recommended trips.[1]  Start with Fielder’s book (or one like it for your state) to get a feel for the possibilities.


                The first step is to define your trip parameters.  What kind of experience are you looking for?  What are your constraints?  I will show how we do it by pre-planning a trip we have placed on our list for next summer.  Here we go!


1. Objectives and Parameters for the Trip: 


Ø       4 full days (3 nights)

Ø       Any time after July 15 (high-country clear of snow) and before the girls start school

Ø       Close enough to drive, pack in and reach our 1st campsite well before dark

Ø       Lakes and/or steams with good fishing, good water and nice meadows

Ø       No horse rides of more than 3 hours (continuous riding)

Ø       Spectacular scenery, watchable wildlife and wilderness solitude


2. The description of Rainbow Lakes (Mount Zirkel Wilderness) in John Fielder’s book looks very intriguing to me – let’s give it some study.


3.  I go to my Colorado Road Atlas (1:160,000 topographical) and see that that Rainbow Lakes is just east of the continental divide located in the Routt National Forest due east of Walden, Colorado. [2]  I see that there are 3 lakes (Rainbows Lakes) and 2 more lakes (Slide Lakes) farther up the Norris Creek drainage.  Now I can plan the first day:


Ø       Up early (4:00 AM) – good breakfast            

Ø       Feed/load horses & gear (5:00 – 6:30 AM)

Ø       Drive time, Lakewood to Walden – (6:30 – 9:30)

Ø       Dirt roads, Walden to Trailhead 15 miles (9:30 – 10:15)

Ø       Saddling, loading packs, lunch and some flex time (on the trail by 12:00 noon)

Ø       5 miles to the main lake plus time to look around for an ideal camp (2 hours)

Ø       Set up camp at a relaxed pace (1 hour)

Ø       Swimming, fishing or taking a nap by mid-afternoon


                The timing and logistics for this trip work with room to spare!


4.  Fielder’s book has an important comment.  He mentions that the short easy hike to the first Lake is popular.  So, we will probably go in on a Thursday (fewer people), make our first camp somewhere in the Rainbow Lakes area, then move up to Slide Lakes on the second day where there will be more solitude.  I can see from the map that we can travel all the way out from Slide Lakes on the last day in less than 3 hours.  Traveling downhill with lighter packs goes pretty fast.





5.  What’s the fishing like?  For this, we go to the “Fish Bible,” Official Colorado Fishing Guide, by Kip Carey.  This is an amazing book!  It has information about every river, stream and lake in Colorado down to the smallest pond.[3]  According to Kip, the fishing in Rainbow Lakes is “fair” for cutthroat trout up to 16 inches.  He rates the Slide Lakes as “good” for cutthroats, “especially with dry flies.”  This provides another reason for spending 2 days at Slide Lakes.


6.  Now I go to “Google Earth” on the computer and zoom in on satellite images of the Rainbow Lakes area.  Google Earth is free software you can download from the web that allows you to look at any place on earth in amazing detail.  You can tilt the image and study the terrain in 3D.  It’s like flying over the route of your trip in a helicopter.  You can see where the grassy meadows are located and get a pretty good idea of where you want to camp in advance.


7.  Sometime before the trip, I will go by REI and purchase a National Geographic Trails Illustrated map for the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area ($8.00).  These are the best wilderness trail maps available and they are waterproof.  This is the map we will take with us on the trip.


8.  Lastly, a week or two before we go, I will call the Walden Office for the Routt National Forest and ask to speak with the field ranger in charge of Rainbow Lakes area.  These rangers are very friendly and anxious to help.  I will lay out my trip plan and ask for advice and updates about trail conditions.  The local field ranger has usually been over the trail recently and can tell you exactly what to expect.  They can also tell you about any fire and/or stock regulations that may apply.


                Our pre-planning is done.  Rainbow Lakes is a go!  We will have pictures for the Great Western website next fall.


                The final article in this “Going Wild” Series (Part III) will be “On the Trail.”  We will share things have learned for managing the horses and making the trip safe, fun and easy.       



[1] We have now found similar reference books for Wyoming, Idaho & Montana.

[2] This is a large Atlas with 100 detailed topographical maps covering the State.  They are available at any sporting goods store and most travel convenience centers.

[3] You can find Kip Carey’s Official Colorado Fishing Guide at REI.