Peak Experience

Hitch on to an exclusive, rugged and unforgettable backcountry pack trip between Vail and Aspen.

By Stephen Lloyd Wood Photography by Steve Sunday June 1, 2010 Published in the Summer/Fall 2010 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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It’s just after noon when our entourage—seven people, eight horses—emerges from thick forest on a high ridge somewhere east of Crooked Creek Pass, south of Fulford.

Today, the second of four days in this vast stretch of Colorado high country between Vail and Aspen, we’ve already successfully negotiated what our guide, Gavin Selway, calls “Rebel Yell Drop.” But we continue to ponder the meandering route he’s leading us on, cutting through long stretches of pine and aspen forests, across meadows exploding with wildflowers and over more than a few sparkling streams.

My five fellow guests and I are on the first Vail to Aspen Ride of the season. That fact impels Selway, the owner of Bearcat Stables, to occasionally dismount Tilly, the lead horse, grab his chain saw and clear the little-used trail of fallen logs and other debris left over from winter. The periodic pauses, however, only afford us more opportunity to marvel at the rich variety of these landscapes.

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'This ain't no trail ride... It's an adventure.'

Soon, a dramatic vista presents itself out across Lime Park, an enormous alpine meadow in the Lime Creek Valley, past Woods Lake and on up to the rugged peaks of the Sawatch Range. And it occurs to me—from atop Willy, my trusty-but-not-so-humble steed—that relatively few people ever get to see these mountains from this vantage. Most of us are satisfied with glimpses of a couple of the range’s lesser crests from the increasingly populated floor of the Vail Valley. Believe me, the Sawatch Range, which includes the 14,005-foot-high Mount of the Holy Cross, is something entirely different from the other side.

“I told you this ain’t no trail ride,” Selway says in his endearing, if not exactly booming, cowboy voice. “It’s an adventure.”  »

Bearcat began operations 12 years ago “with six horses, a phone number and a prayer,” Selway explains. Since then, the outfitter, based at the former Bearden Homestead in what now is the mountain resort community of Cordillera, has expanded tenfold. Eight years ago, Bearcat acquired the only existing joint permit from the White River National Forest and the 10th Mountain Hut Division to conduct this 55-mile ride through one of the largest remaining stretches of Colorado Rocky Mountain rangeland and wilderness. To date, Bearcat has completed its signature equine journey approximately three dozen times, with a flawless record.

We ponder all that, too, with a collective eye toward lunch—and a few precious moments out of the saddle. Following a gourmet picnic amid millions of wildflowers, we’re off on the afternoon’s journey, up and over Montgomery Flats before a long descent to our second night’s accommodations: the lodge at Diamond J Ranch, a luxurious private guest ranch on the upper Fryingpan River.

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Willy, or won’t he?

This particular Vail-to-Aspen excursion began directly from Cordillera’s Bearcat Stables, in the lower Squaw Creek Valley west of Edwards.

“Today’s a long, long day; we won’t be stopping a lot,” wrangler Hillary Peters told us before departure. “Please try to keep the horses from eating the tall grass. If you have to, snap the reins up to give them a nice pop, followed by a nice, big kick—like this!

“Ride ’em like you own ’em,” she added.

From there, it was up through the lush foliage, ferns and wildflowers of the Squaw Creek Valley, across pine and aspen forests flanking New York Mountain and Gold Dust Peak, down through the heavily logged hillsides above the former ghost town of Fulford, past the Yeoman Caves and, finally, up another long climb to Peter Estin Hut, our first night’s destination.

The deck of this hut—actually a three-story log cabin—offers massive views south to the mighty Elk Range, including Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells, over the vast tracts of undeveloped public land through which we’d be passing the next three days. After dinner, as the horses rested in a nearby corral with more than a few curious deer and elk for company, we gathered beside the campfire to talk about tomorrow’s journey. With no lights in the valleys below and no moon in the sky above, we felt like part of the Milky Way. We then retired upstairs in the common sleeping areas to which our bags had been delivered earlier in the day.

I hadn’t been on a horse much before the trip. The last time I’d seen the upside of a saddle was as a kid in grammar school. Following the advice of Bearcat’s managing partner, Leeds Butcher, I did take a few afternoon trail rides just before this journey began. Those brief forays went a long way toward preparing me for Willy, a handsome, spirited, 12-year-old quarter horse/thoroughbred mix.

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Through thick and thin, Willy earned his share of granola bars, loving pats on the neck and scratches on the forehead. He was a dependable ride, but also a worthy opponent, a sly tactician and a best friend. Forward progress was possible only if and when I allowed him to score regular, prodigious mouthfuls of tall grass, thistle and wildflowers along the trail, hopefully without stopping too long.

It didn’t take this old-school news reporter long to realize that it’s virtually impossible to take notes, expose photographs, swig water, chew gum or do anything else requiring fine motor skills while commanding a horse. These magnificent animals demand attention, and when they feel the reins go limp, expect a jerk of the head, a lunge for grass or, worse, a sudden surge into a trot or gallop. More than once I wondered whether Willy was insane.

“Horses are like third-graders in the lunch line: kicking, biting, scratching, stealing others’ food,” Selway told us over dinner the next evening at the Diamond J. “They’re naturally competitive, and you just gotta stay on them all the time.”

All of this meant I couldn’t anticipate many opportunities for casual discussion with my fellow equestrians on the trail, the sort of conversations that are grist for the writer’s mill. So I passed out pens and blank pages from my notebook, prodding the other guests to jot down observations when possible. By this second evening, I’m sure, the impressions of Lisa Westheimer, an artist from West Orange, New Jersey, had already coalesced:

“This riding vacation was the experience of a lifetime for me,” she wrote. “The terrain tested my endurance and showed me what a spectacular country we live in. It’s life’s simple pleasures that create the most cathartic moments.”

A Colorado Postcard

Oh, the wildflowers. I tried to record the names of the seemingly thousands of varieties that appeared before us nearly every step of the way: lupine, larkspur, fairy trumpet, hot pink paintbrush, cow’s parsnip, wild geraniums, wild strawberries, yarrow and many more. A wet spring and an early summer made them more plentiful, more fragrant and even more photogenic than usual, I thought.

“Serpentine trails through knee-high wildflowers; companionship with horses and friends,” was how Westheimer’s husband, Bill, a fine art photographer with a penchant for sweeping panoramas of the highest resolution, described the trek. “And every call to nature has a wonderful view.”

For many of us, the highlight of the trip was reaching the rocky summit of Mount Yeckel near the end of the third day. The unassuming crest, just above the tree line at 11,765 feet, is an alpine island with wraparound views back to the Sawatch Range to the northeast, including Colorado’s highest mountain, 14,433-foot Mount Elbert, and its 14,421-foot cousin, Mount Massive; the Collegiate Peaks to the south, hiding behind the Williams Mountains; and the spectacular Elk Mountains to the southwest, including the dramatic Capital and Pyramid peaks, the Maroon Bells and Mount Sopris. The Roaring Fork Valley, just visible, offered glimpses of the lush, green summer slopes that host the Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass ski resorts in winter. The town of Aspen, our final destination far below, beckoned from just out of sight.

“On a ride like this, each day is like living in a Colorado postcard,” wrote Kitty George, a Vail Valley mortgage consultant on her second Vail to Aspen Ride. “When we got to the top of Yeckel, I broke down in tears. Spectacular, 360-degree views. It truly was like being in an IMAX movie.”

If so, it was a movie with the best replacement for popcorn I’d ever tasted. Thanks to the talents of Danielle Carrillo, Bearcat’s chef on the trail, meals on the ride were delicious. Her lunch fare, carried by a dedicated packhorse, hit the spot each midday: sandwiches and wraps, fresh salads, chips and cold sodas. And her dinners—herb-roasted pork tenderloin the first night and wild mushroom pasta with white thyme sauce the third, both prepared hot on wood-burning stoves—were out of this world.

We found still more to savor in the lodgings. The huts from the first and third nights, built to memorialize World War II soldiers who had trained nearby, provided spectacular shelter under the stars at Colorado’s rooftop. And we barely knew what to make of the Diamond J Ranch, a 27-acre spread with a lodge and private cabins that was our home on the second night. “What a treat, like checking into a five-star hotel in the middle of the wilderness,” I scribbled in my journal. “Air conditioning, Internet access, private bathrooms with hot showers and a hot tub. It just doesn’t get any better than this.”

Absolutely Unforgettable

Over the course of these four days of sunshine, 55 miles of backcountry trails and countless hours together enjoying the scenery from the backs of our equine companions, the entourage bonded tightly. Particularly touching was the interplay between Kathy Brendza of Gypsum and her 17-year-old son, Will. A junior at Eagle Valley High School hoping to study journalism and film in college, Will displayed a knack for reproducing the licks of some of the best guitar players alive (Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton) on his own steel-stringed acoustic, providing the perfect soundtrack to our stargazing campfire conversations.

The last day of the journey continued to amaze. From Margy’s Hut on the flanks of Mount Yeckel, we rode down the Johnson Creek Valley to the peculiar “squatters” community of Lenado on Woody Creek, up the Tea Pot Trail and around the back side of Red Mountain to the Hunter Creek Trailhead at a parking lot in one of those glitzy neighborhoods overlooking Aspen. Willy and the other horses, all of whom had completed this journey many times before, acknowledged that the end was near with a noticeable spring in their step—looking forward, perhaps, to the ride back home to Cordillera in a trailer.

Now, as the Vail to Aspen Ride fades into memory, I realize there’s just no way to truly describe the experience. But I always will remember those four days hoofing it through the Colorado high country on Willy, with great support, lots of laughs and the camaraderie of new friends.

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'On a ride like this, each day is like living in a Colorado postcard.’

Equestrian Excursions

> AJ Brink Outfitters at Sweetwater Lake Resort

Sweetwater Lake Resort is located on the edge of the scenic Flat Tops Wilderness. Bring your own horse or take one of the resort’s 50 gentle steeds on anything from an hourlong to a daylong ride. The resort has its own campground, western cabins, and comfortable motel and restaurant for longer stays. Lake fishing, canoeing and rowboating are available, along with dining on buffalo or trout at the lakeside restaurant. The Brinks also outfit and guide custom riding or fishing trips. 970-524-7344, brinkoutfitters.com

> Bearcat Stables at Cordillera

Experienced wranglers lead buckaroos on rides lasting from one hour to four days. Shorter rides explore the historic Bearcat Bearden Homestead, now part of Cordillera. Longer trips wander farther afield, and advanced trips venture into the backcountry. Fly-fishing horseback trips are also available, as is the four-day Vail to Aspen Ride described in this story. 970-926-1578, bearcatstables.com

> Beaver Creek Stables 

Riders leave the stable at 8,000 feet on the slopes above Beaver Creek, winding up to over 9,000 feet, where the scenery is fantastic and the views unlimited. Take a one- or two-hour ride, a three-hour picnic ride with gourmet lunch or a half-day ride to Beaver Lake with lunch, fishing and hiking. Dinner rides to Beaver Creek’s onslope Beano's Cabin also are popular. 970-845-7770, beavercreekstables.com

> Kip Gates’s River’s Bend Outfitters

Since 1978, veteran Burns rancher Kip Gates has led pack trips and trail rides for groups of family and friends to fit their interests, be they photography, fishing, hiking, hunting or the true cowboy experience of driving the Gates cattle in the high country. Mountain home base camps are comfortably equipped, and Gates and his staff are experts at cowboy cuisine. 303-710-6653, riversbendoutfitting.co

> School House Ranch

This all-around ranch in Brush Creek Valley offers hands-on ranch fun for kids (plus chores!), riding camps, lessons and clinics for children and adults in western or English, and trail rides into the nearby mountains. 970-328-5452, schoolhouseranch.com

> Triple G Outfitters at 4 Eagle Ranch

Expert wranglers lead trail rides from the 4 Eagle Ranch near Wolcott into the surrounding mountains, mesas and sagebrush plains. Cowboy up with a cattle ranch roundup or a combination horse adventure and river raft trip. One- to five-night trips into the backcountry for fishing and wildlife sighting are also popular. 970-926-1234, tripleg.net


Part of the original ranch that became Vail, Vail Stables offers one- to two-hour rides for those ages 6 and up, plus summer camp. Camps teach horsemanship, safety, horse behavior, ground handling, grooming, saddling, trail riding and arena games, in English or western style. Horses are well mannered, and there’s an instructor for every five kids, helmets provided. Single-day and multiday programs fit nearly any vacation schedule. 855-743-3824, vailstables.com

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