Hell Canyon


Up High in the Colorado Rockies

It wasn’t the easy way out of the predicament, but we chose the more physically painful of the two options and climbed up the steep saddle that led us out of Paradise Park and down into Hell Canyon.

This is how we got to that point:As the group went about the task of setting up the tents and otherwise creating a campsite in in the midst of Paradise Park and at the theoretical end of a long day of backpacking, I did one of the more important things that I should’ve done as the leader before we’d ever even gotten there. I pulled out the guidebook to Rocky Mountain National Park and environs and read about the area where we were currently setting up camp. There was no ambiguity in what it said, which was simply that “there is no overnight camping allowed anywhere in Paradise Park”. I was sure that I was just reading it wrong the first time that I read the words, but they were identical the second time around and I realized that besides violating federal regulations if we stayed, we would probably be doing something really negative to the location if we went ahead and camped there.

I looked around at the teenagers who were slowly, but eagerly getting things ready for supper and the night ahead and noted how physically wasted they all looked, before I yelled, “oh, shit!”. It suddenly didn’t matter that we’d backpacked and bushwhacked for 6 hours in from the eastern boundary of the national park to get there, that our legs were tired, we were ready to eat, it was late afternoon quitting time or that we thought we were at our base camp destination for the week because we simply needed to move on.

Thankfully, we were only a half mile or so away from the southwestern Park boundary and there was what appeared on the map to be a pass on the ridge to our south which looked to be non-technically crossable. On the topo map that I was carrying, it all looked to be doable and I could see that once we crossed over to the other side we’d be in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and even more specifically the high mountain backcountry basin known as Hell Canyon. While the name of the place didn’t sound particularly inviting, I was just pleased that there was somewhere we could get to that was relatively nearby and would get us out of the Park.

The brakes had been almost instantaneously applied to our campsite set up operation when I’d screamed, so that for the moment there was something of an activity pause as everyone waited to find out what all of the commotion was about.

After my initial attention-getting blurt out, I said in a somewhat calmer tone, “We can’t stay here, there’s no camping allowed”. I knew that I should’ve figured all of this out before traipsing 15 miles out into the backcountry with them, but soon realized that worrying about it was not going to help the situation. So, I went into problem solving action mode. Since it was 5 o’clock in the afternoon, I figured that we had about 3 more good hours of daylight left and I could only guess that we just might need every bit of it before we were somewhere where we could actually set up our tents, have a good supper and settle in for the night. And so, the first thing I did was to accept the reality that we needed to get going and that it needed to be sooner than later.

I looked around at the various group members, who were in-turn looking out at our nearby surroundings attempting to figure out where the actual Paradise Park boundary might be and where we were going to go. As I began explaining, I could see that most of them were mentally preparing themselves for the irritation of having to pack their stuff back up, move a few hundred yards in one direction or the other, find another good camping area and start the whole campsite preparation routine over again before they could eat supper. Little did they know…….

After a few extended moments of looking around, one of the guys in the group simply said “where to”. I didn’t say anything initially, because I just didn’t have the heart to. But, I did look up at the not so distant pass. Everyone turned and looked up where my eyes were pointing and there was a profound moment of silence as it all began to soak in.

And so, I verbalized the new plan. While pointing up toward the pass, I said,“The boundary of both the National Park and Paradise Park is along that ridge. If we climb up over this pass just above us, from the looks of it on the topo, we can just walk on down from the top of it into a place called Hell Canyon. It looks to me like there’s all kinds of climbing down there, some lakes, a creek and a trail that’ll take us back pretty close to where we started. We ought to be able to get down there and get set up before dark if we get moving”.

Silence continued even after I’d finished speaking. While I wanted to think that it was because everyone was trying to figure out what they each needed to do in order to make the move to Hell Canyon as smooth and quick as possible, it was probably mostly because they were attempting to process their disbelief. I don’t think that any members of the group were all that interested in what the fishing, climbing or backcountry options in Hell Canyon were. I do think that some of them were certain that there was a punch line to some sort of joke that I was playing, assuming that climbing up and over a thousand foot ridge after what they’d already been through was a ridiculous and hilarious thought that only a fool would fall for.

It took a few minutes, but eventually everyone came to grips with the reality of the moment and began re-packing. I felt bad about the situation and was plenty tired myself and knew that everyone else was, as well. But, by the time we were packed up and ready to start moving, instead of the lethargy and fatigue I expected to see and feel, I watched 12 normal/average/run-of-the mill people head out toward an unknown place with an obvious energy that seemed to have been almost miraculously tapped from somewhere that I couldn’t see. In an instant, each became an unassuming superhuman. I realized, probably for the first time in my life, just what astounding things the human mind and body are truly capable of.

With the sun slowly and persistently creeping down in the western sky, but still high enough to light our way, we crossed the pass and soon began the descent down into a place that we’d known nothing about a few hours before. Mount Hiamovi dominated the eastern sky and Upper Stone Lake shone like a mirror to our south and a thousand feet down below. A pleasant tundra covered grassy slope cut through massive rock outcroppings to either side, and provided straightforward and simple access to our new world. We walked out on a boulder and saw only clear sailing ahead as we transitioned from going up to going down.

It turns out that where we went is known to be one of the wildest and most spectacular places in North America. Few people ever get there, because it’s so remote and hard to reach. There’s an intriguing sort of power and wild spirit that I witnessed that late afternoon, both in the place and the people. And to think—it wasn’t even somewhere that any of us had planned to go.

Wild Backcountry


Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.