Free Range

One of a few fun rides around Crested Butte, Colorado before heading on to Silverton. Our spirits were high on the way back to camp after a nice flowy ride—the kind where the scenery blurs and the smiles grow wide.

Free Range A Family's San Juan Sanctuary

Almost 20 years ago, my wife Allison and I started a lifetime of family adventures in the mountains while the eldest of our three children was still in the womb.

We were living in Austin, Texas, and much to the chagrin of our midwife, we headed out on a road trip to Colorado in our old VW Synchro Westy. Eight months pregnant with sprouting plant jars on the dash and the phone number of a midwife in New Mexico (just in case), we took an amazing monthlong journey of hiking, climbing and hanging out as a twosome. It was our last trip before family life, but in many ways it set the tone for our next 20 years.

We’ve wild-schooled our three kids their entire lives, as they spent their formative years on our organic farm in the Colorado Rockies. Barefoot and fancy free, they learned the fine art of living and recreating in the quiet, wide-open spaces of their backyard. Mountain biking, climbing and feeling comfortable in the wilderness became second nature to them.

The morning’s first warm rays of sun, French press coffee, breakfast cooked on the two-burner stove—camping in the mountains is all about enjoying the simple things in life.

Recently, after two weeks spent hosting relatives from the Deep South left our little nomadic family hungering for some of nature’s medicine, we started looking for an opportunity to escape. As the southern charm wore thin, I quietly snuck away for little bits of time to stock up the van. It was nearing time for this hippie liberal cat and his family to head deep into some purifying mountains.

As the southern charm wore thin, I quietly snuck away for little bits of time to stock up the van. It was nearing time for this hippie liberal cat and his family to head deep into some purifying mountains.

As we pulled into Silverton, Colorado in search of a spot to sleep for the night, my mind wandered to those transformative days of our pre-family trip. We decided to push up the pass toward our destination ride on the Colorado Trail near Molas Pass. After a couple of hours passing one occupied camp spot after another, we finally landed at a highway pull-out for the night.

The next morning dawned with a cloudy sky and the smell of rain, so we cooked breakfast and got moving as quickly as we could. The day’s ride was on the Colorado Trail Segment 25, an absolutely gorgeous stretch of singletrack rolling and climbing right above tree line, hovering around the 11,000-foot mark the entire way. We played leapfrog with a super cool couple from Durango who recommended other routes in the area, but they quietly disappeared behind us as the weather grew more ominous.

Pre-storm grins on Section 25 of the Colorado Trail. The San Juan Mountains are infamous for their ever-changing weather and, in true fashion, released an afternoon alpine deluge a few hours into the ride.

Our senses were on high alert given our exposed position under an ever-darkening sky, and after getting chased by a wild-looking Great Pyrenees guarding his flock of sheep, we made the difficult choice to turn around. Almost on cue, the thunder and rain started in earnest as we slipped in and out of the sparse patches of pines, finally hitting the last downhill ridge and the safety of trees.

The next morning, we headed for one of the routes the Durango couple had recommended, starting at the top of Coal Bank Pass, up the Pass Creek access to a screaming downhill on the Engineer Mountain trail. Roughly 1,200 feet of climbing in two miles yielded seven miles and 3,000 feet of descending on one of the state’s nicest high-alpine downhill sections. We got lucky and hit this trail just two weeks after it had finally opened up from an amazingly wet spring.

It felt like we were riding through an Alice in Wonderland field of dreams, with over-sized flowers in all the colors of the rainbow. Our smiles were almost as wide as the panoramic views this magical place offered. The San Juan Mountains are unlike any other range in Colorado, sparsely populated peaks looming like quiet sentinels over the high desert beyond. By the time we finally packed up and started our journey home, our hearts were full and a pure Rocky Mountain high coursed through our veins.