Mountain Equine - Courtney S. Diehl, DVM / Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Winter Camping on Spring Break

So most people who live in the mountains go south for Spring Break, as most of us need, well, a BREAK from winter. Sounds like a wise thing to do when you live in a place that typically gets 6-7 months of snow, cold, sleet, ice, blizzards, two-foot powder dumps- you get the picture. So what did my family do for this Spring Break? We went North.

When you look at the place where we were headed, you might not initially shake your head at our silliness in going north. It was an idyllic mountain retreat- a yurt on a beautiful river with electricity and HEAT and BEDS- three things I’ve never had access to while camping. Plus, I did check the weather (when I booked the yurt- four weeks prior to the trip and it looked just fine.)

I doubt my husband would have even agreed to the location had I not been only two months out from spinal fusion surgery, as roughing it is definitely more his style. Put it this way- if Jim deems the ideal campsite to be on the side of a cliff after a four hour uphill hike through black timber, guess where you’ll find our family. But even he admitted to being grateful for the warm yurt when the snow arrived.

“When the snow arrived.”

This is not a sentence I was hoping to include in my description of our spring break. It is not a sentence that belongs in any description of a spring break in my opinion- however when you’ve chosen to head north into the wilds of Wyoming, rather than south into the warmth of the deserts, you get what you get. In the form of blizzards.

We woke on day one to howling winds, sideways sleet which quickly turned to snow, and by lunchtime several inches had accumulated. My husband was merrily cooking breakfast in the maelstrom, perhaps feeling that enduring the elements in the outdoor kitchen somehow appeased the camping gods who had to be disgusted with our cushy accommodations, and he came in beaming, bearing sausages, hot tea, coffee and scrambled eggs. I ventured out to help cook the eggs, but was delighted to retreat to the warmth of the yurt.

My older daughter and I headed into town for supplies, and were chagrined to discover that only a few short miles from our camp, there was no snow at all. We took our time running errands, and after a few anxious texts from my youngest, headed back, armed with long underwear, thick gloves and camping pants for me, as foolishly I’d only brought shorts and flip flips. The sound of the Popo Agie River (pronounced “Puh-PO shuh”) and the beautiful burnished canyon walls greeted us, and we admired our surroundings and decided that the snow had just been a fluke event.

By afternoon, the storm had subsided and there were even a few glimmers of sun peeking through the cloud cover. The snow melted off as quickly as it had arrived, and encouraged, we planned our itinerary for the following day.

The sun was out when we emerged from the yurt early the next morning and the day remained clear and beautiful. We hiked the canyon and viewed the Sinks and the Rise- a cool area where the Popo Agie river disappears completely underground into a series of limestone caves, then emerges far down the canyon in a series of ponds called the Rise- home to massive and very spoiled enormous trout which bump impatiently at the surface of the waters waiting for the silly tourists to throw food to them (which we did). Some entrepreneurial-minded person installed a trout food vending machine at the Rise, and guess what the girls fed quarters to for almost 45 minutes.

Scientists once did a dye test to see where the waters of the river went as they disappeared into the Sinks, and learned that the dye took almost 2 hours to appear in the Rise. This fascinated both of my girls. In fact, my youngest came home from school recently insisting that her Spanish teacher had “snorkeled” down into those caves. You can hike right up to the mouth of the cave where the water disappears underground, and the thought of how far underground it goes is enough to make you recheck your footing multiple times and keep a close eye on your little ones.

Encouraged by our beautiful day, we cooked an awesome dinner at the yurt in our outdoor kitchen, made S’mores with the girls, read a story and hit the sack. The next morning, the snow returned. We watched it through the window for a while, then decided to just embrace it and bundle up and go outside. Jim went fly-fishing and I went for a long hike in the quickly-accumulating white stuff while the girls played around camp.

By evening, it was clear that the snow was there to stay and the weather forecasts for the next day was a lot more of the snow and a lot less of the sun. And sure enough, it was a full scale blizzard when we awoke and we had to break camp in the maelstrom. The wind was swirling and howling and the snow covered dogs wrestled and chased each other as we ran our gear uphill in multiple trips to the truck.

When all were safely stuffed into the loaded Tundra, we headed for home, only to learn that the route we’d planned to take was closed, forcing us to take a much longer detour. We drove in a white out for over an hour, then suddenly were clear of the storm and the remainder of the trip home was uneventful.

After the truck was unloaded and all the gear dried out and stowed, we rehashed the trip with the girls. I was braced for complaints, but they just hugged me tight and said it was the “best spring break ever!”

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Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Since 2000, Dr. Diehl has provided mobile equine veterinary services in the Rocky Mountains.