Hiking the Never Summer Wilderness

Never Summer Wilderness
Article by Alexander Moliski
February 19, 2019

The Plan

Taking my mom on her first backpacking trip, I wanted to make sure she was going to have fun, and make it back. We decided on hiking the Baker Trail to Parika Lake starting from the Bowen/Baker Trailhead Parika Lake It ended up being a little tough on my poor mom’s knees, but she made it and we enjoyed the views together.

Please note that the Caltopo map below isn't 100% accurate. The software didn't have the trail in the system, so I mapped close to what we hiked. The trails are very easy to follow, you'll know where to go when you are there, but for this particular hike, the map below is more of a reference.

Wilderness areas in Colorado

Colorado is blanked in beautiful state parks and national parks and monuments. Each area is packed with campgrounds, visitor centers, and of course, the visitors themselves. Each of Colorado's national parks are well worth visiting, but sometimes what we might be looking for is an escape from all of that. I've found that while national parks offer the most accommodating camping experiences they may lack the seclusion so many of us seek. Wilderness areas offer sanctuary from civilization, they are rugged and tough, but more than likely, you'll be alone.

The Maroon Bells in Colorado are a well known wilderness haven, and one of the premier wilderness areas for backpacking in the state. Maroon Lake is possibly the most photographed spot in Colorado, being close to Aspen, having fairly accessible trailhead, and having a number of icon peaks, leaving no doubt that the area is worthy of every accolade it receives. In fact, a few years prior I had one of my most amazing adventure at Capitol, in the heard of the Maroon Bells.

But what happens when you drive across the country with your mom to hike the Maroon Bells Loop, and it's on fire. That’s right, the area was closed due to forest fires, and we didn't know until we hit the roadblock just a few miles from the trailhead. We had two days to make a plan before being forced to turn around and drive all the way home without a single mile under our belts.

So I looked at a map and found a wilderness area right outside the Rocky Mountain National Park. It was just over the beautiful route 34 that drives right through the park. On the other side of the Iceberg Pass there is a long stretch of road through the valley below. Just west of Rocky Mountain National Park is the Never Summer Wilderness. Being in close proximity with the national park, the Never Summer Wilderness is usually overlooked, but it shouldn’t be, because it offers many of the same opportunities - full of alpine lakes, backpacking trails, and snowy peaks. I was ready for an adventure with my adorable mom.

The Bowen/Baker trails are a great option for a perfect distance backpacking loop, now my mom has impressed me before, but I wasn’t about to put her through a week a backcountry hiking, so we agreed on a 16 mile overnight to Parika Lake.

The hike embarks in Rocky Mountain National Park, but within a mile of starting, you’ll come across the wilderness sign and a self register kiosk indicating you are leaving the national park and entering a wilderness area. Make sure you sign in to let the rangers know that you are out there.

Hiking the Baker Trail

As far as wilderness hiking goes, the Baker/Bowen was one of the finest I’ve traversed. The trail was well maintained, the wildflowers were in bloom, birds were singing, snow was melting, my sixty year-old mom was smiling, and I was enjoying every step.

I was worried about having to pass up hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, but with each mile I was becoming more confident with the Never Summer Wilderness. It goes to show that for a naturally competitive area, there’s more to the state than it's national parks.

The trail continued to gain elevation while passing through mountains meadows, each meadow housed different plants and flowers. My mom, being an avid gardener, jumped from patch to patch detailing every species and pedal. She reminded me of the stories I've read of John Muir, the mountains biologist who stuffed his pockets full of alpine flora on each of his adventures.

Humming birds curiously buzzed about our heads as we quietly walked through their gardens. The fairy-like, shimmering green and pink forest pixie darted from flower to flower, curating their lawn with the help of the bugs and bees. They were as sweet as their nectar and childishly cheerful.

Eventually, we found ourselves staring at our reflections in the pristine elevated waters of Parika Lake. This was the first true backcountry adventure my mom ever experienced, and I was witness to the magic that she was seeing for her first time. I asked her what she thought, and she breathlessly uttered one word “beautiful”.

There were a few other groups at the lakeside by the time we got there in the late afternoon. Each group was hiking the full loop and was resting at the lake for the night. Though there were some other hikers, the area wasn’t crowded and there was plenty of space for everyone to find their own quiet spot of the mountain slope.

Being on the hill left us slightly exposed to the elements, on a warm, bright day, it's well worth the view, but dark clouds were rolling in, and the temperature dropped - a storm was coming in. We watched the winds blow in a thunderstorm that spared us entirely, we were above the clouds and could see the action and violence of the storm and rain in the valley below. After the storm passed, a mighty double rainbow stretched across the sky, right over our tent.

To this day I have no seen a more beautiful sight. My wonderful mother looking into the distance with a magnificent double rainbow over her head like the vibrant halo over a canonized saint. I’m glad I got to share that moment with my mom, you don’t get something like that everyday.

She was tired and cold so she went to take a nap in the tent which gave me time to summit Parkia Peak (one of the most eloquent mountains names I’ve heard). I went with another group who was also about to head up while I was. They were all from the immediate area, not too far from Fort Collins. The confided in me that the Never Summer Wilderness is one of their favorite places, and that’s coming right from the locals. They loved that I had come some 1,600 miles with my mom to see their favorite place.

The summit to Parika Lake was completely exposed, leaving 360 views the entire way to the top. We brought along Leia, the groups lovely pup. One nice thing about wilderness areas is that some of them allow dogs as hiking companions.

I climbed down the side of the grassy slopes of Parika Peak, and back to my mom who was awake and reading by flashlight. The sun was setting and it was a perfect alpine evening up in the Colorado mountains.

The hike out was easy, it was entirely downhill the exact same way we had come up the day before. It was a perfect day, and the downhill was much easier going than the uphill on my mom.

The Never Summer Wilderness adds yet another option to the already massive list of beautiful backpacking areas in Colorado. I still think I prefer the Maroon Bells over the NSW, but each year the Maroon Bells gets more well known and popular - there are certainly other places to visit to take the strain off of that particular area. I still have a lot to explore in Colorado, but I am beyond thrilled I got to adventure in the mountains with my mom.

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