White River National Forest Overview
Perhaps more than any other national forest, White River is dedicated to outdoor recreation. Aspen and Vail, two towns that exemplify basecamps at their most glamorous, nestle in its rugged folds. Trapper Lake and the surrounding Flat Tops Wilderness, is widely recognized as the birthplace of the modern concept of wilderness. The Maroon Bells, a collection of granite peaks near Aspen, signify the Rocky Mountains in the same way the Eiffel Tower does Paris.
The two-million-acre White River National Forest is one of the largest and oldest national forests in the Rocky Mountains. It's located in north central Colorado, west of the Continental Divide. Interstate 70 splits the forest into north/south sections. And guess what, I-70 is a major corridor for ski resorts.
White River is the recreational heart of Colorado. The area is surrounded by other national forests and wildlands. San Isabel, Grand Mesa, Araphao, and Gunnison National Forests border the White River. Denver is a half-day's journey from the major ski and mountain bike areas.
Much of the White River is designated wilderness—and there's a history to this. In 1920, Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect for the Forest Service, balked at his assignment of surveying property along Trappers Lake for vacation homes. He wrote a memo to his superiors that recommended leaving the area wild. The eventual result was the fabled Flat Tops Wilderness. The southern section of the forest has even more wilderness, most notably Maroon Bells-Snowmass and Holy Cross, which at one time was on its way to becoming a national park.
More wilderness may be in White River's future. A recent land inventory of the forest revealed many roadless areas ripe for wilderness designation.
You would have to be a vacuum-skulled zombie to be bored in the White River National Forest. The region is calculated to get you outdoors.
Backpack an Aspen Classic
The Maroon-Snowmass Trail is the classic Aspen backpack. You get views, wildflowers, lakeside camping. This trail crosses over Buckskin Pass to Crater Lake, with heart-thumping views of the Maroon Bells, alpine lakes, and meadows all along the way. No time for a backpack? The forest offers a dizzying array of day hikes. If you're near Vail and don't mind sharing a trail with mountain bikers, tackle the Two Elk National Recreation Trail, which offers spectacular views of the Gore and Wasatch Mountain Ranges. If you're acclimated to the altitude and want to take on a 14'er (one of Colorado's 14,000 and higher peaks), Snowmass Mountain is a fairly friendly first ascent.
Bike the Government Trail
West of Aspen, the 12-mile Government Trail is one of the most popular singletracks in the region. This baby has more than 1,000 feet of vertical give and take. Most people ride the trail one way from Snomass Village to Aspen. The terrain along the way includes aspen groves, lodgepole pine, and flowered meadows. The meadows are especially full of wildlife. In fact, the trail gets shut down during elk migration and calving season.
Paddle the Colorado
Glenwood Springs is Colorado's most popular river rafting center. The Roaring Fork flows into the Colorado River near here, opening up an enticing array of possibilities. The Class IV run from Shoshone Powerhouse to Grizzly Creek is notoriously fun: short (1 mile) but wildly popular. Nearer Breckenridge, the Colorado River is tamer: a good spot for an afternoon float.
Ski the 10th Mountain Division
The famous 10th Mountain Division put skiing on the map in the White River National Forest with the system of backcountry huts it built during World War II. Actually, there are three systems of huts: 10th Mountain Division, Fred Braun, and Summit. The huts allow multiple day backcountry tours with a warm room and a soft bed waiting at the end of the day. Downhill more your thing? Two words: Aspen and Vail. Not to mention, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin... the list goes on and on.
Fish the Flattops
The backcountry fly fisher will enjoy the Flat Tops wilderness. While fish may not be endemic to most of the lakes and streams here, many of them have been stocked (and continue to be stocked). Half the fun of fishing here is figuring out which lakes have fish—and which don't. Trappers Lake is a blue-ribbon trout fishery, and an important spawn-taking site for a strain of native cutthroat found only here.
Camp Gore Creek
Why pay Vail hotel prices, when you can camp in a national forest for less than $15 a night? Camping in a national forest can be a mixed bag, but some tent sites offer more privacy since you're required to hike in. Many other excellent campgrounds, including Camp Hale Memorial, the site of the training grounds for the 10th Mountain Division, the Norwegian-speaking commandos.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication