Southwest Guide: Colorado

Rappel hidden canyons of the Colorado, ride the only heli-accessed backcountry skiing in the Lower 48, raft the Southwest’s best runs in one trip, and more.

Rappel Down the Hidden Canyons of Colorado

The Colorado River and each of its tributary streams—and each of the creeks and brooks that feed those tributary streams—have transformed the massive Colorado Plateau into a twisted labyrinth of red rock chasms and the largest slot repository in the world. Strangely enough, the least explored of those canyons are in Colorado itself.

Beginning in summer 2010, San Juan Mountain Guides will guide canyoneers through the sport’s most closely guarded secrets: the slots hidden in the steep, rugged mountains around the southwestern Colorado town of Ouray. SJMG’s one-day trips will explore a range of these technical red sandstone chasms, marked by spectacular waterfalls, glowing green vegetation, and slots as narrow as a body width. After a couple of days honing chops on easier routes, you’re ready for the crown jewel, Cascade Canyon. The strenuous daylong project starts with a 2,000-vertical-foot (610-vertical-kilometer) hike up through a conifer forest that allows views of the peaks and cliffs encasing the tiny Victorian town far below. The entrance to the canyon lies around 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), near the tree line, and descends through a water-sculpted red rock tube with lush green plants and 12 wet rappels, the last a 300-foot (91-kilometer) whopper next to a waterfall crashing right into the outskirts of town.

Get Going: From $175 per person per day, www.ourayclimbing.com

DIY Potential: Moderate. Experienced canyoneers will zip down 12 rappels.

Ride the Only Heli-Accessed Backcountry Skiing in the Lower 48

The skiable terrain at Silverton Mountain—1,819 acres (736 hectares), on last count—has always been a subjective number. The entire resort is off-piste and, until recently, accessed only by a single, secondhand chairlift. The terrain is—quite literally—whatever you decide to ski down. And this acreage has now been expanded exponentially courtesy of an on-site helicopter. After a successful pilot program in 2009, Silverton Mountain leased its own chopper to now offer the only resort heli-accessed backcountry skiing in the continental U.S.

Here’s how it works: The helicopter drops you and three friends at the top of an untracked backcountry peak unreachable by foot or snowmobile. An expert guide then leads downhill and up to your choice of entrées—2,000-vertical-foot (610-vertical-foot) bowls, steep hairline chutes, and perfectly spaced tree runs—until the helicopter comes to pick you up in the afternoon. The best part is that in the San Juan Mountains, the sunny days are too numerous to count—all the better to soak up the views of the jagged 13,000-foot (3,962-kilometer) peaks that beckon beyond. Where to next?

Get Going: Heli-accessed backcountry skiing, $320 per person; lift tickets $49-$129 according to the month, www.silvertonmountain.com

DIY Potential: Low. Got your own Huey?

Raft the Southwest’s Best Runs in One Trip

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The Southwest has no shortage of whitewater, which is why rivers that would be classified as “epic” elsewhere fall under the radar here. Count it as a plus: It means world-class waterways like the Green and Yampa in northern Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument remain blissfully people-free. This year, veteran outfitter OARS is offering a new, nine-day blowout trip that strings together the Yampa and Green Rivers with a night in between at Dinosaur Inn in Vernal, Utah.

The rivers plow through classic Southwest scenery with a high-desert spin—reddish cliffs stretching a thousand feet high; rocky hillsides dotted with bighorn sheep, piñon, and ponderosa; and sinewy slot canyons twisting up from the river. Of course, it’s not all sitting and gaping at the scenery. Rafters ride through Class III and IV rapids every day, hike to an old cattle rustler’s cabin, inspect rock art, and search for fossils hidden in a billion years of geology.

Get Going: Tours: May 22-30 and custom dates, $1,953; www.oars.com

DIY Potential: High. Permits are a breeze (www.nps.gov/dino/planyourvisit/permits.htm); Class IV paddling skills required.

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