There is a string of mountains in Colorado I hold near and dear to my heart, where green high-alpine valleys dotted with wildflowers like confetti meet dizzying rock spires, and steep, grassy hillsides tumble into the shimmering waters of untouched lakes. The effort to reach this pristine wilderness is not for the faint of heart: Getting there often involves steep elevation gains, poorly maintained trails, or sometimes, no trail at all. It took me four years to find these spots, and I could spend a lifetime discovering every valley, ridgeline, and high alpine creek among them.
This glorious sense of discovering something new is at the heart of exploring the wilderness, but it’s getting harder and harder to do these days. People are getting outdoors in record numbers, which is generally a positive, but one downside is the increasing difficulty of finding that "secret" spot that no one knows about. But it’s these very places that keep the adventure alive. Here, a few tricks to finding your secret wilderness spot.
Generally speaking, the more secret the spot, the more shape you’ll need to be in to find it. So before starting your quest to discover your wilderness hideaway, you’ll want to be prepared for longer distances and tougher terrain. As unromantic as it sounds, finding a great hideaway is a numbers game in many ways. If you’re able to hike longer, tougher trails, you’ll open up more terrain. Furthermore, you can outhike the crowds that plague many of the easier routes.
Starting a training regimen can often feel tougher than the hike itself. Whatever method you choose (running, the gym, swimming), be sure to include plenty of hiking in the mix. Load up a heavy pack and hit the trail or treadmill. If you are confined to a treadmill, be sure to put the incline as high as possible to simulate those tough hills in the wilderness. Integrate this technique into your weekly training routine, and you’ll start seeing results in four to six weeks.
You aren’t going to find your wilderness Shangri-La from the confines of the couch. The more you explore a wilderness areas, the more apt you are to find that perfect camping nook or undiscovered mountain vista. A good place to start is an area that has a lot of hiking trails, such as a National Forest. Try creating your own custom route by connecting various trails.
Investigate the road less traveled by hiking lesser-trafficked trails. This doesn’t always pay off, as some trails simply suck. However, you may discover a gateway to an idyllic perch or a secret fishing spot. Scouting trails not only helps you get a lay of the land, but it lets you keep tabs on a particular area. For example, my favorite wilderness area is well-known for its brutal elevation gains and downed trees. But those obstacles also work in my favor a bit by deterring less determined hikers. It also means I can count on a bit of suffering to explore new trails.
Hone a Keen Eye for Clues
You aren’t going to find pristine wilderness on a local Facebook group—these idyllic nooks and crannies are everyone’s private stock and they aren’t about to shout it over the internet. So you’ll have to do your own homework, starting with a good old-fashioned pen and paper. While you are out and about, keep tabs on backcountry campsites you find. Jot down important notes such as mileage, difficulty, and a description of each site. If you travel with a digital GPS, you can mark your position on a map.
Keep your eyes peeled in unlikely places, such as Jeep roads and remote destinations. Sometimes a great camping spot is right near the road, but you have to walk in for a bit. Instead of passing an area by, get out of your vehicle and sniff around. With a little practice, you’ll learn how to spot a potential site by using your instinct.
Don’t be afraid of using a topo map. Topo maps give valuable insight into terrain and navigation. When you’re planning your trip, be sure to spend plenty of time examining terrain using tools such as CalTopo and Google Earth.
The Best Spot May Be Around the Next Bend
I’ve found beautifully secluded peaks right in plain sight. Sometimes, all you need to do to find them is be willing to keep going. For example, after you set up camp, do a little exploring around your campsite. You may be sharing that gorgeous high-alpine lake, but you just might be the only one climbing that steep ridge for the better view. With a little extra effort, you discover stunning landscapes that everyone else is missing, right under their nose.
Get Off the Trail
Sometimes, the best spots aren’t near a trail at all. With a little compass know-how and navigation expertise, you can explore virtually any point on the map. Use your navigation skills to plan a cross-country or off-trail route to discover truly unspoiled terrain.
This technique requires a healthy bit of backcountry know-how and plenty of safety preparation. Always leave your planned route, with a GPX file if possible, with someone you trust. Be sure to let them know where you are going, what you are doing, when you plan on being back, and what to do if something goes wrong.
You can also try starting with an area you are extremely familiar with. Plan your route in an easy-to-navigate area, such as a place with a predominant land marker so you can orient yourself quickly.
Wherever You Go, Leave No Trace
Remember, always follow Leave No Trace principles when traveling over backcountry terrain. Don’t disrupt the environment and be sure to camp on durable surfaces, such as dirt patches, rock, sand, and gravel. Avoid stomping or camping on vegetation. If you are in an area with lichen or other bio soils, be sure to not tramp or camp on them. Lastly, if you are in a larger group, fan out over delicate terrain in order to avoid tamping down a trail.
With a some effort and a sense of adventure you can uncover your perfect wilderness hideaway. Get out and start exploring—you never know what you’ll discover, and where.
Written by Meg Atteberry for RootsRated.