Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Alan Wechsler: Comparing Colorado to the Adirondacks

I recently spent a few days touring around Colorado by bicycle. It was my seventh trip to the state, in both summer and winter.

The trip took me on a few parts of the Colorado Trail, a 450-mile hiking route that follows the spine of the Continental Divide from Denver to Durango. It also took me to some of Colorado’s old mining towns, most of which have been recast as a combination tourist attraction and burgeoning home to the young, artsy and outdoorsy.

The trip got me thinking about the differences between the Rocky Mountains and the Adirondacks, where I first learned to climb mountains and have spent the last 25 years exploring.

The first thing I noticed was how Colorado’s small towns are thriving. Salida, Durango, Leadville, Buena Vista, Silverton, Fair Play, Gunnison, Crested Butte — all former mining or farm towns, now big with tourists, outdoor shops, art galleries and the like. In fact, I didn’t see a single town that wasn’t overflowing with tourists, although I’m sure some of the off-the-beaten-track communities may still be a bit threadbare.

According to some of the locals I talked to — the new locals, the young folks, not the fourth-generation mining families still hanging on — making a living in these towns can be tough. But they’re willing to put up with the relatively low cash from, say, driving a bus in Summit County or running an outdoor store in Leadville in order to win the outdoor and small-town lifestyle that comes with it.

The Adirondacks have some successful towns, of course, but I don’t see the artists and outdoor enthusiasts flocking to live in the North Country the way they are out west. Perhaps it’s because Colorado has a mystique (along with better snow, no black flies and more predictable summer weather) that the Adirondacks can’t compete with. Or perhaps Colorado has marketed itself better. Or maybe it’s because Colorado’s libertarian values make it a lot easier for regions to change direction than under the Adirondack’s heavy regulations (although my understanding is that villages are fairly immune to the APA rules that tie up land in the forest preserve). Thoughts, readers?

Colorado also has a functioning Legislature, and much lower property taxes. On the other hand, the Adirondacks has hundreds of beautiful lakes. Try waterskiing on a seasonal river out west, and you’ll wind up with a face full of sand.

Both places have world-class hiking opportunities. The Adirondacks has the 46 peaks more than 4,000 feet high. Colorado has 54 peaks more than 14,000 feet high.

Colorado trails have switchbacks and are mostly smooth. Adirondack trails go straight up and are rocky as hell.

Colorado residents will warn you about the mosquitoes. But anybody who’s been to the Adirondacks in June will laugh at what Rocky Mountain residents call a bug problem.

Colorado has two major national parks (Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde) and a variety of lesser parks and monuments. It’s got more world-class ski resorts than I can count on two hands and some of the best powder in the world. The Adirondack Mountains, as great as they are, don’t really have the national fame that Colorado natural areas command. There’s some pretty good skiing here, but c’mon — Iceface versus Champagne Powder? No contest, sorry.

Colorado has hail. I got hailed on five times, with pellets as big as marbles, sometimes for as long as 45 minutes. I had to take shelter under trees or rocks. They say Colorado gets monsoon rains in July and August — afternoon thunder showers that allegedly last for an hour or so. But on my trip the rains came as early as noon and sometimes lasted all day.

The Rockies have world-class mountain biking. The Adirondacks has very little mountain biking to speak of — some nice trails near Wilmington, Old Forge, Shelving Rock, to name a few. What there is tends to be wet, rocky or rooty.

For rock climbing, Colorado’s Lumpy Ridge, Garden of the Gods and Eldorado Canyon are a little more user-friendly than Poke-O-Moonshine and Wallface. But I’d put some of the Adirondack climbing classics — Hesitation, Partition, Hard Times, Pete’s Farewell, Roger’s Rock, Gothic’s Finger Slide — against anything the Rockies have to offer.

The Rockies have a desert climate, and pine forests that disappear around 11,000 to 12,000 feet. The Adirondacks have lush vegetation that provides refreshing shade all the way up.

The Adirondacks also have something else the Rockies don’t have — plenty of water. Although there are some lakes out west, such as those pictured here, there’s also places in the Rockies where you can hike for 20 miles or more without seeing a drop. And out there the sun beats down on you like a whip — you’ve got to slap on sunblock every hour if you don’t want to feel like a french fry at the end of the day.

There is something else the Rockies have that the Adirondacks don’t — a massive ATV and four-wheel jeep network. There’s a hundred miles of these rugged roads that connect Silverton, Ouray, Lake City and other mountain communities — vestiges of the old mining history. The towns nearby are chockablock with Jeep tours and ATV rental shops.

Of course, what they don’t have out there is mud, which is something that would make a similar trail network in this area hard to sustain (or even advocate for). They also have a hell of a lot more open space to accommodate all user groups. Our six million acres are puny compared to it all.

Spending time in the Rockies was eye-opening. But I’m glad to live in New York. I like the change of seasons, the history, and our concern for protecting what limited natural resources we have. We’re not the Empire State for nothing.

But I wonder if there’s a way to bring some more of Colorado’s successes to upstate New York?

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Alan Wechsler writes about outdoor recreation and is a regular contributor to Adirondack Explorer.

Alan has been coming to the Adirondacks since his uncle took him on his first backpacking trip—with wet snow, followed by temperatures down to zero degrees—at age 15. He says he still hasn’t learned his lesson.

Today, his frequent adventures into the park include mountain-biking, skiing (cross-country and downhill), hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and climbing (both rock and ice). A long-time newspaper reporter and avid outdoor photographer, he also writes for a number of regional and national magazines about the outdoors and other issues. Alan’s piece for Adirondack Life, Ski to Die, is an International Regional Magazine Association first-place feature-writing winner.

16 Responses

  1. Dave/Towns and Trails says:
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