James Dziezynski is a hiker. He's put in the miles, from easy cruises on soft dirt to scrabbling, fumbling, don't look down here traverses on loose scree to a bit of everything in between. The result of his efforts? One of the most comprehensive hiking guidebooks to hit the stands in years, Best Summit Hikes Denver to Vail: Hikes and Scrambles Along the I-70 Corridor. We caught up with him to talk about his book and some of his favorite hikes in the Vail area.
You’re a hiker, how’d you get so serious about the sport?
Starting at a very young age, being in the wilderness has been an essential part of my life. From a practical standpoint, hiking requires a very objective skillset to succeed: navigation, preparation, physical fitness, nutrition, and knowledge of proper equipment. But it’s the emotional and sensory side of hiking that fulfills a vital part of my being: the companionship, the pristine beauty of the land, the humbling power of rivers and storms, the mental courage and stamina to make wise choices, and the pure visceral experience that awakens senses that would otherwise remain dormant in the frontcountry. As my writing career evolved, hiking brought me to the places that provided personal fulfillment as well as the professional theater where my words were their most meaningful.
Tell us about some of your favorite hikes in the Vail area.
The Gore Range summits are among my favorite in Colorado, especially Snow Peak and Mount Vahalla out of the Deluge Lake Trailhead. There are many, many, others on my favorites list from the Vail area Gores: Peak C, Mount Powell, Eagle’s Nest, Peak G, and Mount Solitude all come to mind. For those who aren’t concerned with peak bagging, the trails into these hikes are just as rewarding. Deluge Lake and Pitkin Creek are great outings, even if you’re not in it for the summits.
Any others nearby that you like?
The hiking off the east side of Vail Pass in the Eagles Nest Wilderness is fantastic. The Uneva Pass / Uneva Peak area is a place I’ve visited many times from several different approaches, though the Gore Range Trail can’t be beat for ease of access. I’ve also really enjoyed connecting to the Colorado Trail from the west side of Vail pass and heading south towards Copper Mountain and the Tenmile Range.
What’s in your hiking pack? What do you always take with you?
Beyond the standard issue gear (first-aid kit, headlamp, compass, etc.) I’m a gadget guy, specifically with navigation technology. Even though I’ve been using GPS for over 20 years now, it still amazes me, so I always have the latest smartphone apps running alongside my traditional dedicated GPS units. In remote places like the Gores, I also bring an emergency communication device, in my case the DeLorme inReach. As far as other gear goes, I’m a fan of using arm warmers (like cyclists wear), as they are often the perfect layer to regulate comfort above tree line. I’m a huge advocate of hiking poles, since Colorado’s mountains are particularly hard on knees.
Any tips for novices, how can they get into hiking without all those pesky blisters?
The beauty of hiking is that it can be enjoyed in a very low tech way, but I encourage hikers (new and old) to invest in two key pieces of gear: high quality sunglasses and solid footwear. Note that in both cases, this doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive. Make sure you wear your boots / light hiking shoes for some time before you hit the trail. A perfect store fit doesn’t always translate to a good fit in the mountains. Also, some people prefer light hiking shoes (myself included) while others prefer the sturdiness of a full boot. One isn’t better than the other, but backpacking / trekking boots will take longer to break in.
You’ve got a new book out about hikes. What was the creative process like in creating it?
In a sense, this book came about from being stuck on I-70! The silver lining of being mired in traffic is that you are surrounded by these incredible, fairly unknown peaks. For the longest time, I assumed these mountains were overlooked because either they were not enjoyable hikes or they were on private land. It turns out, the majority of peaks along I-70 between Denver and Vail are public lands. And even better, the hiking for nearly all of them is wonderful.
Big hit lists like the 14ers are fun, but not everyone has time to for the long drives out to remote peaks — or the patience for the crowds that swarm the mountains in the summer. Personally, I prefer more time on the mountain and less time on the road and I like an element of the unknown in my adventures. This group of summit hikes turned out to be better than I would have imagined and it was a real pleasure to put them into a single collection.
How many miles do you think you hiked as part of the project?
Good question! While the tracking, hiking, photography, and research for this guide took about three years, many of these mountains are like old friends that I’ve explored over the course of 20 years. I’ve hiked Torreys Peak at least 20 times, for example. Just doing some quick math, I’d say around 800 total miles, estimating being out about 80 times with an average of around 10 miles per hike. Besides the hikes that make the book, there are dozens of other routes that I explore that don’t make the publication — it comes with the territory when a lot of peaks require off-trail navigation. As an author writing a guide for busy but motivated people, my goal is whittle down their choices to the best possible routes
What makes for a good hike? What are the key things for you?
I enjoy nearly every type of hiking, so I make a point to set my goals beforehand to go in with the best possible mindset for the day. For example, some days I enjoy a social hike with friends and dogs, stopping to photograph flowers or soak my feet in a cool stream — reaching the summit is a nice secondary goal. Other days, I want to push difficult routes at a strong pace and keep a laser-sharp focus on summiting. Choosing hiking partners with similar goals and a shared mindset is important. And there are days where I’d rather go solo and it’s better for me to acknowledge that beforehand, because sometimes I just head into the mountains and see what motivation is waiting there for me.
In terms of terrain and landscape, I really enjoy the rolling, rounded mountains for hikes with my dogs. The more wide open, the better! For my favorite non-dog hikes, I love solid class 3 scrambles on good rock, steep off-trail routes, and ridgelines that connect several peaks in a single day.
This guide was one of my favorite writing projects because it basically created a book I wish had been written. There were many times when I finished a hike and couldn’t believe that the peak I had just climbed was only climbed a few dozen times, or less, per year. When I started this project, there was no guarantee that the hikes were going to be great — after all, the unifying theme here is their proximity to I-70. It just so happened the peaks were not only wonderful, they showcased a variety of hiking styles, from easy walk ups to heart-in-your-throat ridge scrambles. I’m beyond excited to share this book with the Colorado hiking community.