Photo essay: Explore the beauty of Colorado’s Continental Divide wilderness

The pre-dawn sky reflects in Upper Blue Reservoir in central Colorado’s breathtaking Continental Divide area. The Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act would provide important protection for local watersheds, helping safeguard drinking-water supplies for communities in Colorado’s Front Range. Photo by Jon Mullen.

Editor’s note: Jon Mullen is a Boulder-based photographer working to document and preserve our threatened wild places. In this photo essay, he explores a breathtaking area of central Colorado (near the Vail and Breckenridge ski areas) that Coloradans are working to protect through the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act. If passed in Congress, the act would permanently protect about 70,000 acres of national forest lands in Colorado’s beloved Summit and Eagle counties. The act would designate new wilderness around the Holy Cross and Eagles Nest wilderness areas, as well as in the Tenmile Range and Williams Fork Mountains. It would also designate special management areas to protect key wildlife habitat and support recreational activities, including mountain biking, hiking, hunting, skiing, fishing.

You can view more of Jon Mullen’s work at www.jonmullen.com.

A snowy sunrise in the Spraddle Creek drainage, directly across the valley from Colorado’s Vail ski resort. Photo by Jon Mullen.

By Jon Mullen

The roar of snowmaking across the valley fades, leaving only the squeak of my skis on cold snow. Until now, the faint, purplish glow reflected from low clouds has been enough to navigate by, to keep an eye on terrain and avalanche exposure. Now in a dense stand of tall firs, the darkness is unbroken. Pausing to listen, it’s so quiet that I can hear the impact of snowflakes. I drop the pack, click my headlamp on, and reveal a maze of snowshoe hare prints in a sparkling surface of crystalline ice. Taking a sip of water, it’s tempting to stay to try to read meaning into the tracks. To interpret the story of how life finds a way, even here among towering drifts in the dead of winter, but needles of cold are already finding their way through my light layers. I swing the pack back around, grip the poles where they stand, and lean again into my skis and the steep climb that keeps me warm.

I’m here ostensibly to take photographs; to attempt to communicate what’s at stake in these places and help advocate for their protection. The truth is, at the heart of this work is my own need for wildness. That I need these places just as much as they need me. Without roads, mechanical conveyances, or the other advantages and encumbrances of society, what remains here is timeless indifference. The wilderness doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, or how much status or arrogance you bring. The standards it tests against are universal and incorruptible.

People come to the Continental Divide to hike, camp, ski, kayak, raft, hunt, fish, mountain bike, horseback ride, ATV, and snowmobile. Areas in the bill are located in the White River National Forest, which draws more than 9 million visitors a year. Photo by Jon Mullen.

While there is a tendency to think of the term wilderness as applying only to the expansive and remote, some of the areas designated in the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act perhaps fit those two definitions better figuratively than literally. Although rugged and untrammeled, it takes no more than the better part of a day to hike across any section within it. Standing on the crest of the Tenmile range, you’ll find the popular ski town of Breckenridge below your feet to the east and the village of Copper below to the west. Between them lie peaks and valleys, snowfields and waterfalls, alpine lakes swimming with cutthroat trout and meadows saturated with wildflowers. Because of this uncommon intimacy with modern society, every acre within the proposal area is precious to someone. I’ve met trail runners, fishermen and backpackers in summer. In autumn it’s been day hikers and hunters. In winter, snowshoers, backcountry skiers and hut trippers.

Sunrise from Crystal Peak in the proposed Tenmile Wilderness. Peak 10, to the left of the frame, and Crystal Lake, in the foreground, also fall within the proposed Tenmile Wilderness boundaries. Lower Crystal Lake, in the distance would fall within the Tenmile South Recreation Management Area, south of the Breckenridge Ski Resort. Without permanent protections, these public lands in central Colorado could be threatened by energy development, mining, logging, privatization and unnecessary roads.
Wildflowers bloom below the peaks of the Tenmile Range in the proposed Tenmile Wilderness, southwest of Breckenridge, Colorado. If passed, the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act would permanently protect and preserve about 70,000 acres in the renowned Summit and Eagle counties in central Colorado. Included in the proposal are additions to the Holy Cross, Eagles Nest and Ptarmigan Peak wilderness areas, as well as new standalone wilderness areas for the Williams Fork Mountains, Hoosier Ridge, and the Tenmile Range. A recreation management area for the Tenmile Range would be established to maintain important access for hikers, mountain bikers and others who enjoy the beauty of this area. Wildlife conservation areas would protect sage grouse, mule deer, lynx and other animals that depend on these mountains for survival. Photo by Jon Mullen.

Even those who never set foot within the protected areas gain their benefit. With their natural resources left intact, these wild places provide clean water for Colorado’s Front Range and Western Slope communities. These lands also support sustainable growth and economic diversity both in the surrounding communities and within the broader Colorado economy. Local businesses in Breckenridge and other nearby towns are supported by the year-round inflow of recreationists and tourists. Property values and resort cachet are bolstered by unspoiled views. The benefits of wilderness protections extend beyond Colorado’s borders as well, with recreation equipment sales contributing to 6.1 million jobs in the nation’s $646 billion outdoor industry.

The communities most affected by the proposed wilderness designation were built on the outdoor economy and have decades of stable growth to show for it. This is in stark contrast to municipalities just down the valley where public lands were extensively leased to private interests and fluctuating commodity prices left all but ghost towns in their wake.

I-70 carves its way from Silverthorne, Colorado, to the Eisenhower Tunnel. The hillside to the left of the frame would be part of the Porcupine Gulch Wildlife Conservation Area and provides wildlife with critical access to the land bridge across the highway. In addition to protecting key migration routes, the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act will help preserve Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy, which brings hundreds of thousands of tourists out I-70 each year to reach ski resorts like Vail, Copper Mountain, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, and Breckenridge. Photo by Jon Mullen.
Juvenile marmots wrestle in the rocks of the proposed Tenmile South Recreation Management Area. The Continental Divide proposal would preserve wildlife habitat by limiting road building, new mines, commercial logging and other development. Photo by Jon Mullen.

The Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act is clearly framed in the greater public interest, recognizing that the value of these wild places far exceeds what can be extracted with machinery for the benefit of an already wealthy few. The need to preserve places like these is not arbitrary sentimentality. It’s the imperative of any society intending to cultivate a future better than its past. I urge Congress to follow the lead of Colorado’s Representative Polis and Senator Bennet and pass the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act this year. The landscapes and ecosystems that would be preserved are some of the best examples we have that wilderness designation exists not to protect our natural resources from society, but to protect them for society.

Learn how you can help support the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act at http://continentaldivide.org/

See more of Mullen’s photos of Colorado’s Continental Divide wilderness:

The Spraddle Creek area and the Gore Range as viewed from Vail Ski Resort. If passed, the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act would protect more than 2,300 acres of the Spraddle Creek area (in the foreground) by adding it to the nearly 135,000-acre Eagles Nest Wilderness (in the background). Photo by Jon Mullen.
Wildflowers grow through the fallen floor boards of the field house at Camp Hale. The former home of the Army’s renowned 10th Mountain Division, the area is slated for protection and restoration under the proposed Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act. Photo by Jon Mullen.
Mountain goats in the proposed Tenmile South Recreation Management Area. Without protections, ecologically important, mid-elevation areas of the White River National Forest may be at risk to encroaching development. These areas provide vital wildlife habitat to bighorn sheep as well as to mountain goat, black bear, elk, mule deer, moose, lynx and wild turkey. Photo by Jon Mullen.
Like the greater sage grouse, many species inhabiting the imperiled sagebrush-steppe ecosystem can survive nowhere else on Earth. Unique to the western US, 44% of this ecosystem has already been destroyed through human activity. Through wilderness designation and wildlife conservation areas, passage of the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act would provide permanent protection for this important habitat in areas such as the Williams Fork, pictured here. Photo by Jon Mullen.

Learn more about the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act at http://continentaldivide.org/

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.