We were hiking the slopes of Peak 8 in Breckenridge, Colo., past treeless chutes that in a few months would reclaim their identities as Psychopath, Adios and Devil's Crotch, luring thrill seekers with two slats of wood and the optimism of a loan officer's handshake.
But on that August day last summer, the Blue River burbled with snowmelt, and Lower Psychopath was a sunlit meadow covered with blue gentian, pearly everlastings and golden yarrow. Our guide stoically pointed out the prolifically blooming fireweed: When the tippity-top blossom on its flowery stalk finally opens, it means summer is coming to an end.
For a few months each year, Colorado's high peaks region emerges from its legendary snow cover -- and at bargain rates as businesses tempt visitors to consider a ski resort for their summer vacation. Each locale has a particular vibe: Luxurious Vail offers dance festivals, llama trekking and credit card polishing. Trendy Aspen's events calendar revolves around music and intellectuals. Funky Keystone has a bacon festival.
Breckenridge, the loftiest resort at 9,600 feet, is geared to families with its Peak 8 Summer Fun Park, where activities include pony rides, mini-golf, panning for gemstones and navigating mazes, plus all-ages diversions such as the Alpine Slide, a sort of concrete bobsled run, and the Alpine Coaster, which sends you down 2,500 feet on a steel rail.
A ski resort in the summer offers sights you'd never glimpse while schussing, such as the spectacular vistas from the 11,492-foot Boreas Pass, which closes to traffic from Nov. 1 until spring. Or, for that matter, the town itself. Breck (as everyone calls it) remains manageable, i.e. navigable, when the grass is growing and the inhabitants number 3,500, compared with the up to 30,000 visitors who clog its streets at one time or another during the peak skiing season.
Vistas, with soundtrack
Arriving after a two-hour drive from Denver, my husband and I grabbed the fixings of a picnic lunch, hopped back in the car and headed for the pass. After about 4 miles of climbing, the pavement ended -- as did the shoulders.
For the next 5 miles, the red dirt road narrowed, with some of the turns necessitating a "you first; no, you first," when meeting another vehicle. We were grateful that the rental car agent, learning of our plans, blanched a bit and recommended an upgrade to a Jeep from the cheapie I'd reserved. For about $10 more a day, the power and clearance were worth the cost.
Boreas Pass was named for the Greek god of the north wind, an all-too-familiar force to those building a railroad line through the mountains in the early 1880s. Today, the views are immense, endless and Rocky Mountain high. At the summit, some reconstructed buildings that once housed workers now offer shelter to intrepid back-country skiers.
Hiking over the first ridge, we sat on a log in utter silence. Mostly, we were catching our breath, since we now were more than two miles higher than the Twin Cities' 830 feet. Through a cut in the mountains, we glimpsed the vast ranchland of South Park. Even after our lungs had forgiven us, we could have sat there for hours, picnicking and pondering.
But we had reservations at one of Breckenridge's hottest restaurants, so back to town, which we soon grasped is all about mosts and highests and longests. A shop called Canary in a Clothes Mine touts itself as "the highest boutique in America." The next day, we'd be riding up Peak 8 on the Colorado SuperChair, "the highest chairlift in North America."
So of course we had to grab a beer at the Gold Pan Saloon, which has "the oldest continuously held liquor license west of the Mississippi," opening in 1879. We were quickly befriended by the local expert on the next bar stool, along with his dog. After trying an Avalanche Ale (locally brewed) and a Mojo IPA (brewed in Boulder), we headed to dinner at Relish, where the menu offers truffle honey-glazed ruby red trout or elk carpaccio.
Fortunately, this took no great effort. Like many mountain towns, Breck is exceedingly compact. Every destination was within walking distance of our motel. We were, in fact, feeling so sparky that we ordered some wine. Big mistake. High altitudes increase alcohol's effects. Words to the unwise: If you fancy a cocktail, then wine with dinner, choose one or the other, at least for the first night of your stay. And drink plenty of water.
Strolling the ski runs
The next morning dawned on what locals call "a bluebird day" -- no big deal given that Breck averages 300 days of sunshine annually. After breakfast at the quirky Daylight Donuts -- great combos, killer doughnuts, Darth Vader mask atop a Christmas tree in the rafters -- we headed for the mountain.
Through BreckTreks, we'd reserved spots on the Tiger Edge Nature Hike, which, for $40 each, included rides up on the SuperChair and down on the Alpine Slide, plus hiking poles, water and granola bars for the two-plus-hour hike. (A day pass covers all activities, but you also can pay à la carte for how much or how little you want to do.)
Free, enclosed gondolas took us from the village to the base of Peak 8, where we met up with our guide, Lori. From there, we slipped into the swinging, open benches of the SuperChair. If you're not a skier, this is not a routine mode of transport, but pretty cool once you commit. (Goes without saying, perhaps, but this is not for folks who fear heights.)
Halfway up the mountain, we passed a huge evergreen festooned with Mardi Gras beads. Lori said it's a February ritual to fling the metallic necklaces at its branches as you glide by.
Lori proved a striding encyclopedia of wildflowers, pointing out more than we'd imagined possible, along with tidbits like learning how to identify mushrooms or that mashing up some yarrow will help stop bleeding. As we crisscrossed the now-verdant ski runs, we discussed mining practices, water rights issues, the mindset of a skier attempting a run down the Devil's Crotch, and why the magnificent mountains merit names no more colorful than Peaks 7, 8, 9 and 10. Turns out they're part of the Tenmile Range.
We arrived at the Alpine Slide invigorated, smarter and ready for lunch.
They ride bikes, don't they?
I haven't mentioned biking. I probably should.
You can't finish a go-cup of coffee without passing several bike rental shops, and every clerk, bartender and concierge seems to commute on two wheels.
The village has 40 miles of paved trail, and many more off-road. Main Street has bike lanes on both sides.
Last August, the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge tour brought an estimated 50,000 people to Breckenridge for the conclusion of the race's fifth stage.
The more ambitious bicyclist can pedal up Hoosier Pass to the Continental Divide, while lesser mortals can ride the gondola up Peak 8, rent a bike and team up with gravity.
If you want advice on rentals, where to pedal, or even some companionship on a ride, just bring up the topic with any clerk, bartender or concierge. You'll find that Breckenridge is full of experts of one sort or another, all year long.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185