When I decided to come back to Denver for the summer, my coworker and good friend, Courtney, mentioned she was signing up for backpacking school with the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) and I should join her. Sold! I feel very comfortable with my backpacking skills but I was not passing up an opportunity to have a few guaranteed trips built into my summer with the chance to meet new people who like getting outside (and who could teach me a new trick or two along the way).
The goal of backpacking school is to teach students about gear and how to pack for backpacking, how to navigate and route find and, most importantly, how to stay comfortable and enjoy the trip. Backpacking school follows the same format as all CMC schools: mandatory classroom sessions paired with ‘field’ sessions. In our instance, there were 3 classrooms sessions, held the the American Mountaineering Center in Golden (CMC HQ) and 3 overnights (2 single night, 1 multi-night).
For our first overnight, we ventured outside Breckenridge, CO, to the Spruce Creek Trailhead, destination Lower Crystal Lake.
Full map here. The flag = camp.
We left the CMC early Saturday morning to carpool to the trailhead as we knew parking would be tight. Plus, less cars driving = less Sunday highway traffic and less environmental impact. Winning!
When we arrived at the trailhead, we were very surprised to find the small parking lot completely full and parking along the road full for at least 1/2 a mile; it was popular weekend in the Arapaho National Forest!
Lower Crystal Lake is a great overnight backpacking trip with easy access to water, a short but steep hike in and stunning views. Our CMC instructors had outlined our route and expected campsite in a classroom session but on Saturday at the trailhead, it was up to we students to ensure we navigated ourselves correctly to our meadow campsite. Fortunately, our route was on a clearly defined trail with only one tricky turn.
The trek in was approximately 2 miles and we reached our campsite destination just east of Lower Crystal Lake around lunch time, delighted to find no other backpackers had found the beautiful meadow before us.
Because this was many students first ever backpacking experience, our instructors outlined how the afternoon and weekend would be structured: first, lunch/setting up camp, then a field trip to the nearby stream to refill water, followed by navigation exercises and finally, dinner and s’mores around a campfire.
(IMPORTANT NOTE: typically campfires are not a thing for backpacking. This meadow had a clearly defined fire ring and the county/forest was not under an open fire ban. When in doubt, check with the ranger station where you’ll be camping to see if fires are allowed and where.)
We ended our evening with stargazing the clear sky above before retiring to our tents for the night.
Honestly, I was excited for this part: in all my years, I have always shared a tent but this night would be my first solo-tent experience. In fact, this whole trip was the first time I was 100% self-sustaining and it was incredibly liberating. All of my previous backpacking trips have been with Alex and we have always split the tent and shared gear but in backpacking school, I would be carrying all of my own stuff.
Turns out, sleeping in a 2 person tent alone makes for a slightly cooler night but nothing adding an additional layer and sleeping in my rain pants to keep my body warmth in couldn’t fix.
Sunday morning dawned as our group roused, sleepily making our way to the ‘kitchen’ for breakfasts. Sunday’s objective was to hike the mile(ish) to Lower Crystal Lake for more navigation practice before returning and breaking down camp and hiking back out.
The weather was on our side all weekend; no rain and barely a cloud in the sky. After breaking down camp, we enjoyed a leisurely snack before trekking out; we reached the cars just after 2p and were on our way back to Denver shortly after.
In total, we hiked ~6ish miles for the weekend, 4 of which with heavy packs on our back. All students and instructors had fun (surprisingly, our group hit it off incredibly well and laughed the entire trip – rare for a group of 10 people who just met!) Not too shabby!