Time Out

A summer backpacking trip to get away from the crowds

Ted Mahon
The west side of Wetterhorn Peak at sunset.
Ted Mahon

It’s been pretty hot around town lately. The thermometer has been hitting highs that can make you wonder how we get any snow at all here during the winter months.

Figuratively speaking, the temperature around town has been quite elevated, as well. It’s that time of the season when our little ski town feels maxed out. Downtown is packed. There’s traffic everywhere. Tempers can run high and patience low.

Outside of town, the trails are crowded, as well. Cars with out-of-state plates cram into every available nook at the popular trailheads. Independence Pass is so busy; the temporary stoplights installed for emergency Glenwood Canyon closures operate 24/7, and they’re beginning to feel like permanent fixtures.

Summer crowds and the intensity of peak season are understandably stressful. The impatience of the visiting tourists only exacerbates the problem. Sometimes it feels as though the only recourse is to take a deep breath and look ahead to the eventual arrival of the off-season.

But it’s only July, and the off-season break is a long way off. In the meantime, when the town’s temperature hits fever level, an escape to the mountains can help you regain your sanity. Find a couple of free days in your schedule, pack up a few things and head somewhere to spend a night or two under the stars.

But where to go, and what’s essential for planning a quiet getaway?

If you’re seeking solitude and a reset, then it’s all about location. The goal should be to find a quiet place off the beaten path. Forget about that famous backcountry spot in the local magazine’s list of top 10 places to camp. That isn’t where you want to be.

Stay away from the Four Pass Loop, Conundrum Hot Springs and other local attractions shared on Instagram daily. Of course, it’s nice to be in a location that graces the postcards at the pharmacy, but you probably aren’t the only person with that idea.

Avoid any areas that access 14ers. They’re generally the busiest trails you’ll find in the summer months.

Managed campgrounds are usually all booked up this time of year and should be taken off the list, too. They’re optimized for maximum guests and can feel more like a camping subdivision than an authentic outdoor experience.

Anything that allows easy vehicle access is bound to be overrun with people. You won’t find solitude in the presence of enormous RVs, humming generators and barking dogs.

If it’s an option, I find it’s best to throw all your things in a backpack and walk somewhere.

Think about locations you’ve seen before that are away from the crowds. Maybe you cruised by a cool little spot on a mountain bike ride or noted a quiet valley while on a hike somewhere.

If you have the time and need a more substantial change of scenery, look beyond our local Elk Mountains. Hop in the car and head somewhere farther. Along the way, stop at another mountain town as a visitor. It feels different being on the other side of things.

My wife and I recently embarked on just such an escape to the San Juans in the southwest of the state. We love the vast mountain region because it has a lot of space, and it’s easy to find a quiet spot. It’s even farther from the Front Range than Aspen, so it sees fewer people from that group than we do at home.

For this trip, we opted to check out some new spots in a region near two prominent 14,000-foot summits in the region: Wetterhorn Peak and Uncompahgre Peak. These mountains are extremely popular and would likely be crowded. But in our various trips to the area, we had taken note of some adjacent valleys that we thought could be quiet.

We noted how pretty they looked from afar — green valleys with flowing creeks and wildflowers. Then, after consulting a map for a closer inspection, we noted an old network of trails through the area. As a bonus, the skyline included numerous unnamed 13,000-foot peaks that we could climb if the weather cooperated.

Our approach started with a hike up an old miner’s trail that was overgrown and hard to follow. And that was actually what we wanted. The faintness of the trail was an indication of the lack of people that visited this particular spot.

We followed the obscure route through meadows of wildflowers up to a pass. We left the trail to hike up and over an unnamed 13,000-foot summit we had never stood atop before. There was a lot of rain in the forecast for our trip, and the clouds were building. As we descended the far side of the mountain into another valley, some light rain began to fall.

Another faint trail led us down through the quiet valley to the tree line, where we found a nice place to pitch our tent. It would be our home for the next two nights. As far as we could tell, there was no one else around.

A few minutes later, we were in the tent, relaxing. We read, looked at maps and napped to the light pitter-patter of drizzle falling on the tent’s rainfly.

The rain continued on and off through the night and into the morning. After making some coffee in the tent, we emerged to clearing skies and started on our planned hike. We reached a saddle near Coxcomb Peak, a summit we had climbed years earlier. Always searching for new experiences, we headed in a different direction, hiking along an airy ridge that included two additional unnamed 13ers.

Clouds were all around, but there was no rain at this point. We could see people milling about on the busy summit of Wetterhorn Peak in the distance, but no one was around us. After reaching the two new 13er summits, we pioneered an off-trail route down from the ridge. Soon, we were back to the tent, just as some afternoon showers began.

Later that afternoon, after a post-hike siesta, the skies cleared again, and we hiked up through another new valley. The recent rains seemed to enhance the green hues of our surroundings, which contrasted against the colors of the wildflowers. We felt as if it was a peak summer flower moment.

In the distance, we saw two hikers looking for a spot to set up a tent. We acknowledged how special it was to have found ourselves in an enormous area, only seeing two other people. We made jokes about how they were ruining our experience. We imagined they were probably thinking the same thing.

The following day, we packed up and exited the valley, proud of what we pulled off. After two nights out, it was time to head home. And we were ready.

We got the reset we sought. We were relaxed and happy. It’s amazing what a difference a couple of days in the mountains can make.

Ted Mahon moved out to Aspen to ski for a season 25 years ago and has been stuck in the Rockies ever since. Contact him at or on Instagram @tedmahon

Looking out at a serpentine ridge from the summit of an unnamed 13,000-foot peak.
Ted Mahon
On one of the many quiet summits in the area.
Ted Mahon
The view of Coxcomb Peak and surrounding summits from above camp.
Ted Mahon
Hiking through a wildflower-filled valley below Wetterhorn Peak.
Ted Mahon