The O. Zone

Fall offers unbeatable hiking, biking in Vail Valley, but be prepared

By David O. Williams
Real AspenSeptember 9, 2011
There was snow above 12,000 feet in Colorado's high country Tuesday, arriving right on schedule after the Labor Day weekend unofficially signaled ski season is right around the corner.

But this is actually my favorite time of year for two outdoor activities I consider the best forms of exercise to prep for skiing: hiking and biking.

First of all, the trails are a lot less crowded after Labor Day, and second, the weather is often unbeatable. Yes, it's been drizzling the last couple of days in the Vail Valley, but forecasts call for a warming and drying trend toward the weekend. That means hiking and biking conditions will be optimal.

I'm a creature of habit who can't get enough of my favorite North Trail loop right outside my front door in West Vail. It starts at the end of Garmisch Drive and climbs up through the increasingly golden aspens to a high ridge where you can sit on a bench and observe the majestic Gore Range (now dusted with snow), the ski slopes of Vail and the northern reaches of the Sawatch Range toward Beaver Creek.

It's truly spectacular. And the brutal climb up is rewarded not only with that view but also a fast and furious descent on a bit single-track that links back into Davos Trail – in and of itself a very fun mountain bike track.
Holy Cross from Notch Mountain.
Dan Davis
All of these trails (see the Real Vail hiking guide) can be just as easily hiked, of course, but so can the towering fourteeners just a short drive from Vail. Mount of the Holy Cross (14,005 feet) is the northern-most fourteener in the Sawatch Range, which also contains the state's highest point (14,440-foot Mount Elbert). Holy Cross is the only fourteener in Eagle County near Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas.

This time of the year the snowfields on the high peaks – even after last winter's record snowfall – have shrunken to manageable proportions, the days aren't too hot for hiking and the streams aren't too swollen for crossing. Indian summer kicks in and keeps things absolutely idyllic.

The Beaver Creek Hiking Center provides one of the best guided services in the state for the uninitiated who have never attempted a fourteener, or even for experienced climbers who just want to go with a group. I've climbed about half the state's 52 fourteeners, two of them with the Beaver Creek crew.

There's one caveat this time of year. When the weather does turn, it often catches people off-guard. Be sure to always embark on major hikes or climbs with cold-weather gear, food and water, a means of starting a fire, appropriate trail maps, cell phone and even a hand-held GPS for the abundantly cautious.

Just last fall a Chicago hiker on a circuitous route around Mount of the Holy Cross was lost, and several others over the years have become disoriented on the mysterious and isolated peak. Some have never been found.

Generally, though, if proper preparations are made and common sense is engaged, hiking and biking Colorado's back country are low-risk, high-reward endeavors. That said, be sure to purchase the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) card for $3 for one year or $12 for five years.

That money goes into the Colorado Search and Rescue Fund and will reimburse highly trained personnel if for any reason you need to be rescued during a Colorado backcountry adventure. It's good peace of mind and a great cause in the highly probable event that you never need the card.

Mostly though, just get out there and enjoy yourself before the snow flies. This time of the year is the reason we live in Colorado.

Editor's note: This blog first appeared on

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Snow Report

  24hr snow mid dpth snow cond.
A-Basin n/a n/a
Aspen n/a n/a closed
BC n/a n/a closed
Breckenridge n/a n/a closed
Buttermilk n/a n/a closed
Copper n/a n/a closed
Crest. Butte n/a n/a closed
Eldora n/a n/a closed
Heavenly n/a n/a closed
Highlands n/a n/a
Howelsen n/a n/a closed
Keystone n/a n/a closed
Kirkwood n/a n/a closed
Loveland n/a n/a
Monarch n/a n/a closed
Northstar n/a n/a closed
Powderhorn n/a n/a closed
Purgatory n/a n/a closed
Silverton n/a n/a closed
Ski Cooper n/a n/a closed
Ski Granby n/a n/a closed
Snowmass n/a n/a closed
Steamboat n/a n/a closed
Sunlight n/a n/a closed
Telluride n/a n/a closed
Vail n/a n/a closed
WinterPark n/a n/a closed
Wolf Creek n/a n/a closed
More Weather Reports
Vail powder day snow snake
Airing it out at Crested Butte
Feb. 17, 2011 Surprise 14 inches of Fresh Powder