FROM THE TOP of the Carter Park Trail, Breckenridge looks like one of those perfect little mountain towns trapped in a snow globe. When I saw it in the late September off-season, the reds, golds, and oranges of fallen aspen leaves still carpeted the sidewalks, though recent storms had been leaving a dusting of snow on the peaks.
My rented Specialized 29er rode well, but the climb up the steep switchbacks quickly reminded me I was at 9,600 feet. That and my stomach was definitely feeling the elk burger and flight of beers I had for lunch at Breck Brewery a few hours earlier. (The agave wheat was so good I’d ordered seconds.)
The Carter Park trailhead is on the south side of town, from which you can link a network of trails and a few roads that climb up and around the backside of the hill to create a nine-mile loop. I’d connected the Hermit Placer Trail to Sally Barber Road and finally reached the top of the Barney Ford Trail just as a storm hit. Dark clouds dropped a mix of snow and hail, which turned to rain as I descended back to Carter Park.
“Hello Summit County,” I thought.
I raced back to the hotel, just short of losing the feeling in my fingers and toes, changed into warmer clothes, and headed out to grab a bite to eat.
Breckenridge is quiet in the shoulder season. The transition of seasons brings crisp blue skies, snow-capped mountains, and golden leaves, which makes me wonder why more people don’t visit in the fall. But I like the quiet, and locals seem to enjoy the great outdoors and an adult beverage as much as I do.
The bar was half full at Mi Casa. The margaritas here are hand-shaken with fresh lime, and patrons have 100+ choices of tequila. The menu features standard Mexican dishes like chile relleno, plus some with a Colorado influence: elk enchiladas, duck quesadillas.
The night before, I’d stopped into the Breckenridge Distillery for a tour and tasting. The walls were lined with bourbon aging in American oak barrels; AC/DC blared from the speakers as volunteers worked a bottling party. They washed, filled, labeled, and boxed the latest batch of Vodka “with altitude,” throwing back beverages from the apothecary. The distillery claims to be the highest in the world and makes bourbon, whiskey, vodka, and seasonally flavored spirits from American sweet corn and Rocky Mountain water.
A few nights later, it was dinner at Southridge Seafood, packed with locals. Off-season or not, if you pop in at 7pm on a Friday, you’ll likely have to wait to belly up. The wine list is nicely organized with fish-friendly options, though the happy hour cocktails seem to be most popular. The jumbo shrimp and crab cake was delicious; mussels in red coconut curry sauce are the house favorite. The restaurant is located in an old Victorian-style building on a quieter street in town — easy to miss. Sad for you if you do.
Along with food and booze options, there’s plenty to do in Breckenridge in the shoulder season. On my first morning in town, I went for a summer sled dog ride with Snow Cap Sled Dogs, a year-round operation whose kennel is home to 140 working Siberian Huskies.
“Siberian Huskies are, pound for pound, the hardest pullers in the world,” guide and assistant manager Blake Hand told me. “They can pull up to five times their weight.”
That’s more pull per weight than horses, elephants, and oxen, according to Wikipedia.
Magnus, the senior male, and brothers Benji, Spot, and Rover howled, jumped, and barked. They were tied to a lead and waiting to run.
“This is already the coolest thing I’ve done all summer,” said Jessie Unruh, GoBreck’s marketing and social media coordinator, as we pushed our digglers (scooters with big off-road tires and suspension) up the hill for a test ride. After the practice run we were ready for the full tour and set out, each led by a two-dog team.
We were suited up in helmets, kneepads, and gloves like downhill mountain bikers — just in case. The dogs pulled us up a trail behind the kennel before dropping into a ripping fast descent. After a few ups and downs on the road, we reached a smaller trail more akin to mountain biking, which is where the real ride began. A mix of dirt, grass, and rocks, a nice downhill grade, and a few turns — we were really flying. I’m not sure who was having more fun — Jessie, me, or the dogs. Our adrenaline grins were matched by their tongues whipping out the sides of their mouths.
Back at the kennel, we had a chance to meet the rest of the animals.
“It’s fun naming the dogs because we can call them silly names you might not want for your house pet,” said Sarah Spalla, guide and operations manager. There’s the breakfast litter: Bacon, Sausage, and Grits; the Super Model litter: Heidi, Gisele, Naomi, and Tyra; the Reggae litter: Rasta and Marley; and the Natural Disaster litter: Riptide and Tsunami.
Snow Caps Sled Dogs is the largest Siberian Husky kennel in North America and is located in the Swan Valley just outside of Breck. Each dog runs two trips a day, every day, and they’re fed a soup of lamb, fish, beef, and pork scraps from local restaurants like Mi Casa and Hearthstone, with rice and hot water.
The next day I set out to feed the trout of the Middle Fork South Platte. I met my guide, Matt Krane, at Mountain Angler on South Main just after sunrise. We drove south, past the headwaters of the Blue River, and up the tight switchbacks and over Hoosier Pass (11,542 feet) on the Continental Divide. The previous night’s storm had left another dusting for us. Quandary Peak, at 14,265 feet the tallest in the Tenmile Range, was still socked in the clouds.
At the Badger Basin State Wildlife Area outside Fairplay, we rigged up two four-weight fly rods — one with a dry fly to imitate a hatched bug on the water’s surface, and the other a nymph rig: two emerging flies below the surface that mimic hatching bugs.
The section of water we fished, with its bends, deep shelves, runs, and riffles, was an ideal habitat and feeding zone for trout. The river is home to brown, rainbow, brook, and cutthroat, and on any given day a fly fisher could catch and release all four species for a South Platte Grand Slam, though it doesn’t happen often.
We shared the stretch of water with only a few cowboys wrangling their cows.
Dressed in Patagonia waders and sporting a guide pack full of tippet, flies, and fishing tools, Matt peered through his magnifying glasses, which were clipped to the brim of his hat. He changed the bugs on the end of my line constantly, handing me a new rod and taking the other to switch up the offering.
The bite started slowly. As the sun peaked through the clouds, warming the air and bug life, trout started to feed and we started to hook up. Numerous 6 to 12-inch trout tasted our bugs, bending the rod tip and arching my line.
“It all comes down to one of two things,” he said. “The jerk on either end of the line.”
Matt, who’s been a fly fishing guide in Breck for 15 years, was full of “Colorado guide humor.” He’s a ski patroller in the winter, a guitarist in a local bluegrass band, and an architectural photographer. And apparently a part-time comedian.
“You have to wear a few hats to make an existence in the high country,” he said.
The next morning at Cuppa Joe, looking out towards the ski area from its second-floor windows, I fueled up on the most massive breakfast burrito I’ve ever seen before heading out for another bike ride.
A few days of variable weather had finally given way to a sunny and warm autumn day, so I met up with GoBreck’s PR manager, Rachel Zerowin, for a pedal on the Peak’s Trail. It’s a local favorite and was in great condition, the dirt firm and fast from the recent weather having frozen the ground.
The singletrack starts at the top of Ski Hill Road and heads uphill for a few miles. There are a few technical climbs and bridges, and the trail winds through dense pine forest before the views open up. From there it traverses the mountainside and eventually descends to Frisco.
The sky was the kind of brilliant blue I’ve only found in high mountains; the aspen trees had turned bright gold and their leaves carpeted the trail. Along the way, I spotted a red-tailed hawk bathing in a little gully stream created by the week’s precipitation. I tried to approach quietly on my bike, but the bird took flight.
Still, it was the closest I’ve ever been to a red-tail. As the hawk soared higher, the sun highlighted the red in its tail feathers. It circled slowly, finally lighting in the tallest lodgepole pine on the slope. I tried to imagine the view it had of the Tenmile Range.