Patiently Waiting: Summer Hiking on Winter’s Snowpack

The summer solstice is a week away, and a swath of the Southwest is under an excessive heat warning, but here in Summit County we still patiently await summer. Temps have barely topped 70 degrees, and ski lifts will spin until at least June 23 over our snowpack that currently sits at 332% of average. Locals feel antsy to hike or mountain bike on a trail other than one of the half-dozen that are currently dry, but overall we appreciate the reduced wildfire danger and the unique opportunity to ski, hike, run, bike, paddle, and sun bathe in the same day. If you’re planning a hike on your summer vacation to Summit County, however, you’ll be in for a surprise if you’re expecting to hike up a mountain on dirt anytime soon. Hiking in our unique “summer” conditions can be a blast, so long as you know what to expect.

 

winter 2018-19’s impressive dark blue line shows the volume of snow still hanging around here in the Colorado River watershed (graph: Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture)

 

To love your June adventures in Summit County this year, it’s important to tune your mindset: trail conditions are different now than in many other Junes, but not necessarily worse.  One year ago, our emergency responders were fighting the Buffalo Mountain fire, a blaze that came within feet of homes in a local neighborhood. Though it will take a while yet for many of our trails to be snow free, consider what a special place to play this county is. From our window here in the Colorado Adventure Guides office, we look out at the snow-covered Tenmile Range, but we can still hit dirt trails for an after-work run or ride. While the snow inconveniences some of the things we love to do in a Summit County summer, it’s a gift, too. Those Labor Day ski turns will be a lot of fun.  

 

But if you’re eager to hike at high elevation, don’t worry–there are plenty of places to explore right now. Just bear in mind that hiking in current conditions requires an adaptable attitude and specific practices to protect our beautiful mountains. Following Leave No Trace principles means we travel and camp on durable surfaces to minimize our impact on fragile terrain, and snow is a very durable surface! Unless we leave trash behind, evidence of our passing disappears once the snow melts. Traveling on snow without the ideal equipment or in certain conditions, however, can be slow going and demoralizing. Warm, wet spring snow is heavy, and each step requires far more effort than on clear, dry trail. Expect to work hard on a June hike! To make the going easier, hike in the morning before the sun warms the snow. Firm, pre-dawn snow could call for added traction from microspikes or similar equipment. Consider using snowshoes to increase your ability to stay on top of the snow. Hike on well-traveled trails; the more traffic a trail receives, the more packed out the snow generally will be. Use trekking poles to help maintain balance across uneven snow surfaces. And remember that even though hiking to the top of a peak is currently doable, sometimes the snow is too deep, wet, and heavy for a hike to be fun. In such conditions, there’s not a pair of skis or snowshoes that could allow you to proceed upward enjoyably. In such situations, prioritize the fun factor and retreat to lower elevations…maybe after a mid-summer snowball fight.

 

Quandary Peak Trail, June 14, 2019

Often trickier than snow travel are the transition zones between snowfields and dry trail. In these zones, runoff saturates the ground. A trail that is clear and dry in September can be a muddy mess or chilly flowing stream under current conditions. Though it’s tempting to detour around muddy or wet sections, please stay on the trail! Squish your way through the mud, and splash through the streams. Hiking this time of year requires a willingness to get your feet wet and shoes muddy. The zones where snow will soon melt are alpine tundra; these delicate places are the home of plants that fight to survive in the harsh conditions near and above treeline. Detouring around a muddy spot in the trail causes damage to the tundra that takes years to heal. Such tundra is perhaps the least durable of all surfaces to travel on. If a trail is so muddy that you cannot hike on it without leaving deep footprints for a significant distance, consider again retreating to lower elevations. On all trails, there is a window of time when the trail is neither completely snow-covered nor completely dry. During this period of time, it’s often impossible to travel a trail without damaging it. This period is the one time when conditions call for avoiding a trail altogether. These are the times of year when I’ve been forced to discover new trails that I now frequent.

 

When planning a Summit County outing, there are several great resources to consult for up-to-date trail conditions. The Town of Breckenridge posts trail conditions for its extensive town-maintained trail system here. The Summit County Trail Conditions public Facebook group offers crowd-sourced information on current conditions. The guides here at Colorado Adventure Guides love to explore local trails; give us a call with questions about trail conditions, as there’s a good chance we’ve been on the trail you’re curious about recently.

 

Yes, it’s summer here in the Northern Hemisphere, but don’t pack away your skis, snowshoes, glacier goggles or microspikes yet. The long days and relatively stable weather of June make for wonderful adventure days, but remember that this June, a mindset willing to adjust expectations is your friend. Here at Colorado Adventure Guides, we’re already hiking up 14ers with our inspiring guests as we bear in mind how to travel well in the mountains while we await summer conditions. Plan wisely, hold your mountain objectives loosely, and be willing to change plans as the snowpack requires. Embrace muddy shoes and the chance to build a snowman all summer long here on the continental divide.

 

Quandary Peak conditions, June 14, 2019