Hike Breckenridge in that perfect autumnal lull between summer and winter, and no matter what direction you choose, you’re golden.
You’d like to think you can always depend on a local cowboy to point you in the right direction.
Better yet, three of them. Idling together atop a wooden fence in a picture-perfect pocket of Rocky Mountain country on a fine fall day — each extending a casual finger or thumb toward the trail.
The problem is this: They’re all pointing in different directions.
In Breckenridge, Colorado, you’ll find this jocular trio kicking back at 309 N. Main St. in front of a historic log cabin that’s now the administrative headquarters of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. The three of them have been sitting here like bronze statues (which they are) since 1997, when artist Stephen Hansen’s Three Cowboys sculpture was installed alongside a commemorative plaque that reads “They all agreed, the trail is that way.”
Someplace else this might be a confusing message. But in the heart of Summit County during fall hiking season, it’s accurate enough. Pick any direction and you’re golden.
Perched at nearly 10,000 feet at the base of the Tenmile Range, the storied town of Breckenridge — best known for its lofty ski hills, summer offerings, and Old World resort town steeped in modern comforts and gold-mining lore — is high among the finest spots west of the Northeast to witness mass chlorophyll breakdown before all the powder arrives. Autumn color at these elevations generally peaks in early to mid-September, lending Breckenridge the semiplausible if totally unverifiable claim touted by many a local shoulder-season copywriter of being “the first place in the Lower 48 to see the leaves change.”
The point is, you do need to time it right. One premature storm here and — whoosh. Show’s over. All those amber waves of granite are bare.
“You’re still good,” I’m reassured by the check-in clerk in the empty lobby of Mountain Thunder Lodge, a modern-rustic compound of condos plunked at the base of the ski resort’s Tetonesque row of numbered peaks. Soon enough, this place will be abuzz with clunking ski boots and hot-tub traffic. On October 1, arriving for three days of hopefully still-magical-ish autumn hiking, I appear to have the whole place to myself and wonder if I’m pressing my luck timewise. Have I missed it? The lodge’s leafy grounds look promising enough, dotted with rustling yellow aspens. From a distant glance, strands of autumn color are still strewn through the valley and surrounding hills. “Right now is the best time to be in Breck,” confirms my front-desk authority, whispering with faux secrecy even though there’s zero risk of our being overheard at the moment. “Just keep it to yourself.”
You’re in the best place at the best time — but please do us a favor and don’t tell the whole world about it. It’s a local Breckenridge refrain I’ll hear repeatedly during three near-perfect days in early October with autumn hanging on by a kazillion or so tenacious stems. Here are three easy pieces of fantastic fall hiking.
But mum’s the word.
If you’re arriving in Breckenridge from significantly lower elevations (and who isn’t?), trekking up two flights of stairs can be a mild enough shock to your hemoglobin-starved system on Day 1.
The three-part remedy before delving into miles of hiking trails starting at 10,000 feet: acclimatization, hydration, and leisurely circumnavigation through the town’s compact historic district and scenic mountain roads to get your bearings, adjust your lungs, and satisfy any cravings for locally made candles and soaps, loose teas and hemp & CBD products, spa services, homemade ice cream and jerky, yoga classes, elk medallions, Vietnamese pho and virtually any cuisine in between, plus enough Old West footnotes sprinkled across nine museums to fill half of Denver.
The five-block walk along Historic Main Street Breckenridge, with its rows of preserved log and clapboard facades and sleepy bungalows — home to myriad galleries, eateries, whimsically named indie shops (“The Joy of Sox”), historic saloons, and some of the most uncorporate-looking North Face, Marmot, and Starbucks outlets in hiding — can easily take a few hours at a solidly relaxed clip.
My Main Street tour includes an edifying stroll through the Breckenridge Welcome Center & Museum, where the town’s gold-excavating origins and 1960s resort rebirth are thoroughly mined, and the complex history of settlers' arrival to the Native land of the Ute people is explored. Across the street is the Barney Ford Victorian Home, commemorating the extraordinary Barney L. Ford (1822-1902), an escaped African American slave from Virginia turned successful Western entrepreneur, civil-rights pioneer, and distinguished Breckenridgean, who is also now honored at the Colorado State Capitol. Hiding a few blocks from here is the town’s nascent arts district, where I sign up for an evening herbal apothecary class offered through BreckCreate, a multidisciplinary nonprofit organization designed to promote art, culture, and creative experiences with local artisans. Enough said. For a tiny town, Breckenridge is plenty expansive.
When it’s time to yank yourself out of Main Street meandering mode, Boreas Pass Road awaits at the south end of town for that classic scenic mountain drive and optional warm-up walk with phenomenal bird’s-eye views of the valley and beyond. The historic route — once plied by old prospectors and a long-gone 1880s narrow-gauge railroad — climbs nearly 2,000 feet to the Continental Divide, straddling a pair of national forests and offering unbeatable autumn alpine valley vistas along the way.
Pulling over somewhere on the Pacific side of the Divide in White River National Forest, I log my first Breckenridge fall “hike” — a mellow roadside stroll through a lightly falling confetti of golden aspen leaves. Groves of the iconic Colorado autumn tree flank the route, almost tunnellike at certain points, interspersed with panoramic views of the Tenmile Range framed by glassy alpine lakes, thick swaths of yellow, the occasional dab of ambitious orange, and a miniaturized Breckenridge thousands of feet below, about the length of an index finger from up here.
On any given glorious fall afternoon hanging in the mid-60s, you won’t be alone on Boreas Pass. Locals and visitors alike stream by in various modes of conveyance. How can you tell who’s who?
The old Winnebago with Arkansas plates skidding past, kicking up a brief storm of dirt road, is an easy enough call. Thank you, visitor.
“Afternoon!” bellows a voice from a posse of bicyclists with bionic Colorado quads, pedaling uphill without breaking a sweat or showing any acknowledgement whatsoever of pushing 11,000 feet of elevation. Locals, I’m safely betting.
“Whhoof,” huffs a guy, taking a load off beside an old 19th-century water tank perched near the confluence of Boreas Pass Road, a burbling stream, and some single track. A moment later, he lies back and stares into the deep blue Colorado sky with glazed contentment. Visitor, I conclude, briefly closing my eyes. But I sure wouldn’t mind pretending to be a local in this spot. As we all share the trail, it seems a solid sense of respect for the environment and each other is all it really takes to blend in. Enjoying the golden days while we have them is something everyone in Breckenridge has in common this time of year.
Back in Breckenridge’s gold-fever hey-decades (1880s – 1920s), when a million troy ounces — nearly 60 tons — of paydirt were coaxed out of the ground with riverbed dredges, hillside hydraulics, and whatever other emerging corporate mining ingenuities could crush pristine Rocky Mountain terrain into lucrative rubble, it’s safe to say that very little attention was paid to serving the future needs of 21st-century hikers.
That’s just one of those happy silver linings in French Gulch.
The former mining hub tucked in a neighboring valley just east of Breckenridge is now outfitted with what must be one of the finest inadvertently created trail systems in the Rockies — compliments of a bygone mining effort inspired by a staple corporate motto back then that industry is always to be preferred to scenic beauty.
“It was very beautiful what they destroyed, but look at what we have now,” says Leigh Girvin, guiding me on a five-hour foot tour through a network of mining roads and burro trails reclaimed by hikers, winter cross-country skiers, and lush yellow hillsides right now. “All of these aspen groves moved into the open hills that were completely demolished, so the forests were essentially remade by all the mining activity. And there are now tons of repurposed trails to choose from thanks to our mining legacy,” Girvin adds, “because miners certainly knew how to build trails. So, hey, not too bad in the end.”
Girvin, a Breckenridge Heritage Alliance docent, cultural preservationist, and wealth of local knowledge past and present, knows this richly textured valley stuffed with history, colorful characters, and dogged natural beauty like her own backyard — which it basically is.
Looping through old forested roads, riverbank trails, and hilly footpaths with playful names like B&B, X10U8, and V3 (as in Veni Vidi Vici), we pass solemn mining relics at almost every turn. Rusty buckets dating back to the 1930s — during last-ditch gold-digging efforts here — hang on tree branches like Depression-era decor. Giant pieces of corroded hose pipe, designed to water-blast forested hills into unforested ones, lie beside the trail like metal bones, dry and dormant for over a century, overtaken by forested hills again. At one point, Girvin spots some shards of white fragments and rusted empty tin cans strewn in the trees just off of the trail. No, not junk. History.
“Chinaware,” she tells me, as we pull over to take a closer look. “This is over a century old. And these cans date back to the 1880s — probably evaporated milk to make that dreadful coffee they drank back then slightly more palatable. You can tell their age from these lap seams,” Girvin adds, running a finger over a strangely rounded-looking edge of the tin. “That’s how they designed them before the modern-day can opener was invented around World War I.”
Some small bits of purple glass (“perhaps from a perfume bottle”) turn up in this mix of 140-year-old domesticity, just lying there in the woods like 1880 was last week. Then a piece of an old stove appears a few feet away. What was this place?
“We’re likely standing on the site of a former crib or even a community of cribs,” Girvin surmises.
What’s a crib?
Girvin was waiting for me to ask.
“It’s the home of an independent prostitute,” she says. “A little older. Working for herself. A rugged independent amidst all the mining crews stationed out here. We’ll call her Rattlesnake Butte Mary,” Girvin decides, leading us back to the trail and leaving the remains of Mary’s cozy crib to woodsy eternity.
Breckenridge’s trademark mining leftovers are its dredge piles — giant mounds of broken granite carved up by dredges that occupied the area’s gulches and river valleys for nearly half a century of unregulated gold scouring. By the 1940s, these rocks would nearly entomb a mined-out town practically buried in rubble before Breckenridge’s successful resort revival and its extensive environmental reparations began decades later. In French Gulch, dredge piles still cover vast sections of the valley floor like heavy reminders.
“This is what we call ‘the rock garden,’” says Girvin, leading me along a thin gravelly trail winding through massive dunes of crushed detritus that will one day be as puzzling as Stonehenge.
The technical name for these lifeless gray piles, I’m told, is swales.
“Each swale was an eight-hour shift,” Girvin says as we swale-hop past the preserved remains of the Reiling dredge, decaying in a shallow pond like a strangely designed ship built in precisely the wrong place. In fact, it was an ingenious carving contraption of its day. A floating gold mine and processing plant in one, it would efficiently slice off multiple square yards of riverbed in one fell scoop and sluice it into giant profits. One of nine dredges operating throughout Summit County from the 1890s until WWII (collectively known as the “Breckenridge Navy”), the Reiling sank here in 1922 — but not before pulling an estimated $7 million in gold out of French Gulch with its long-gone sister dredge the Reliance.
Ascending from the river along a spruce-lined trail, we pass abandoned “hippie cabins” hiding in the pines — old mining shafts reclaimed by later 20th-century squatters up into the 1990s. Along the way, Girvin tells me about other cabin-dwelling figures of yore who once roamed this gulch. There’s Buck’s Cabin, named after a local recluse who dressed in buckskin and ended up in jail for attempting to blow his place up when a realtor dropped by to evict him. And Floyd’s Cabin, named after a local backwoods rent collector for legions of hippies camping out on private land. All of them checked out years ago, one way or another.
Eventually we reach the crest of the forest, where the skeletal remains of a deep mine shaft named after a certain Sallie Barber are perched on a hillside of lifeless gray rock tailings spiked with bits of iron pyrite (fool’s gold) sparkling in the sun like a lousy old joke. Below us is a spectacular panorama of pine and aspen-studded hills. Off in some nearby trees, Girvin points to another cache of century-old lead tins (“because people didn’t know any better back then”) strewn among the pine cones.
So who was this Sallie Barber character that the mine shaft is named after? I ask Girvin, preparing myself for the best French Gulch tale yet.
“I’m so glad you asked,” she says. “I have no idea. Probably somebody’s mother.”
“During the summer, you won’t find a parking spot even if you get here this early,” Nate Penney tells me, pulling us into an empty lot at the Mohawk Lakes trailhead in an old Subaru Outback with a cracked windshield and a baby seat in the back (instant mountain guide street cred). “In July, you’ll be parking way down the road and hiking with a crowd of people.”
Not in early October.
At 8:06 a.m. on a Wednesday, one of the most popular hiking routes in the area — Spruce Creek Trail to Mohawk Lakes — will be all ours, Nate assures me.
“We may run into a moose at some point along the way,” he clarifies. “They’re everywhere around here.”
A laid-back, instantly likable hiking, backpacking, and rock-climbing guide sporting the requisite beard and formal beer brewing pedigree (his other career), Nate is exactly the type of guy you want taking you on a gold-standard hike to some picturesque alpine lakes hiding in the hills just a few miles south of Breckenridge.
“It may get a little gusty up top by the lakes, but it’s awesome here around this time,” says Nate, who leads trips all over the area for Colorado Adventure Guides.
Today’s hike is a 7-mile roundtrip walkabout up a subpeak along the Spruce Creek Trail — a bouldery mountain path furnished with bulging tree roots, leaning canopies of Sitka spruce, and little wooden bridges over trickling creeks and moss-covered logs straight out of a Grimms’ Fairy Tale set piece.
And, as promised, no crowds.
“This is my favorite month in Breckenridge,” Nate notes, right on cue, which I’ll never tire of hearing during this trip. “You’re in the best place at the best time — just this perfect lull between all that summer and all that winter.”
Passing a broad alpine meadow covered in tall yellow grass and presumably at least one camouflaged moose named Waldo hiding somewhere in this picture, we hear the faint inviting sounds of thundering water. Another mile or so of uphill tromping and the payoff appears near the treeline: Constitution Falls, rumbling down a long tiered cliff before vanishing into the pines.
Theories abound about why encountering a wild cascade of water almost anywhere other than a shopping mall can inspire sneaking feelings of pure happiness and serenity just like that. One recent explanation breaks it down to molecular science — specifically, negative air ions. Being in the presence of negative (but otherwise very positive) charges retained by air molecules in highly humidified natural pockets like waterfalls produces a natural mood-reviving effect without the aid of a dry ion-deficient pharmacy. Or so the happy theory goes.
Grabbing a quick breather and some euphoric ionization by the edge of the falls, I take in the whole scene. All joy-inducing molecules aside, it’s hard to imagine even the crustiest mood being a match for this gorgeous fall mountainscape under a deep-blue Colorado sky with a meditative aqueous soundtrack to boot.
“It’s even nicer at the top of the falls,” promises Nate, leading the way up a rocky scramble, past yet another abandoned mining cabin, to the source: Lower Mohawk Lake, an alpine oasis rippling above the valley like an infinity pool. Just one more spectacle out here that’s tough to tear your eyes and feet from.
“Wanna stop for lunch?” Nate asks.
Well, we could. But, on the other hand, it’s just a short climb to Upper Mohawk Lake. Maybe even more negative ions and even greater picturesque sandwich-eating potential await just over the next ridge.
Impulsively turning away from the lake and heading back to the trail, I’m halted by a rogue gust of mountain wind that suddenly snatches my hat right off my head like a giant hand and sends it tumbling toward the water’s edge.
I dash back to the lake. I grab my hat in the nick of time. I trot back to the trail. Then I stop when something hits me. The perfect place at the perfect time. Right here, right now, in the ever-fleeting but always available present moment. Look no further.
Sure, let’s stop for lunch.
Check Out Fall in Breckenridge HERE!
Photography: (All images) courtesy Breckenridge Tourism Office