Trip report: Berthoud Pass backpacking

Our sole backpacking trip of the summer was short but sweet.

Our sole backpacking trip of the summer was short but sweet.

We camped one night near Colorado’s Berthoud Pass and did a day hike up to a vast, wind-swept plateau above 12,000 feet.

It was only about two miles from the trailhead to our campsite, though nearly all of that was a pretty steep uphill climb. We opted to leave the main trail and set up our tent near the Berthoud Pass Ditch, one of the earliest attempts to bring water from across the Continental Divide to Colorado’s Front Range.

It was a bone dry summer, but we were grateful to see plenty of wildflowers and make the trip before some terrible wildfires clouded Colorado’s skies for months, destroyed homes, and caused massive evacuations.

Our campsite was next to a large boulder field that had lots of pikas and marmots. Pikas, which are related to rabbits, look a little like a gerbil or hamster. These boulder bunnies are very sensitive to high temperatures. As a result, they’re vulnerable to climate change since they already live near the tops of mountains and can’t go up any higher to find cooler conditions.

Marmots are another common sight in the boulder fields of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. They’re much larger than pikas and related to ground squirrels. We’ve read about marmots raiding tents and backpacks, so we were extra careful about stashing our food. I spotted at least two of them around our campsite. They’re not exactly shy with their piercing chirp and a tendency to use rocks like pedestals for perching above their surroundings.

Two years ago, we did a similar backpacking trip, but we couldn’t travel far since our daughter was only four. On this trip, however, she was much speedier and had enough energy after the backpack to do a 4-mile day hike.

After setting up our tent and having a bite to eat, we set out along the main trail to see if we could reach the top of a ridge in the distance. Ginette had been up there once before and had enjoyed the expansive views, so we were motivated and blessed with fair weather.

At the top of the climb, around 12,000 feet, we were rewarded with a 360-degree view from a broad plateau close to the Winter Park resort, one of my favorite places to ski and snowboard. I could see the top of the Panoramic Lift and much of the route I’ve hiked to access the Vasquez Cirque, a steep, circular basin akin to a amphitheater that was formed by glacial erosion and now offers some amazing, ungroomed runs during a brief window in winter when there’s enough snow.

Our dog Phoebe enjoyed playing in some of the snowmelt that was leftover from last winter. She’s a Portuguese water dog living in Denver, so imagine her delight in swimming.

The clouds started building up on our way down and we felt a couple of drops, but the skies never threatened and we took our time getting back to the campsite. Once there, we were treated to a fantastic display of mountain convection, with the clouds boiling up above the Continental Divide on their way out to the Great Plains.

For dinner, we kept it simple and just ate some sandwiches we’d brought from home, thereby obviating the need to bring a stove, cookset, and utensils. The skies above us cleared up but the setting sun lit up the remnants of the cumulonimbus clouds that we’d watched build up above the peaks along the Divide: James, Parry, Eva, Flora.

We turned in early, but not before a beautiful sunset. While car camping, I tend to stay up late to do astrophotography, but the only thing I was carrying on this backpacking trip was an iPhone, so I was happy to crawl into my sleeping bag after a long day’s hike.

The next morning, we woke up in accordance with the wishes of the kid and dog, but thankfully not too early. The Divide to our east delayed the sun from cooking our tent and when I emerged, somewhat later than my compatriots, I was surprised by how warm it was, given our elevation around 11,500 feet.

We ate a simple breakfast of pastries brought from home and played for a little on the rocks while the pikas and marmots chirped and squeaked. Then we packed it in and headed down the mountain. Compared to car camping, the simplicity of backpacking is a real treat.

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