Picketwire Canyon south of La Junta in Otero County, Colorado (Mark Byzewski / Flickr)

Ending Colorado’s “Mountain-First” Hiking Hierarchy

Much of Southern Colorado, including Pueblo, gets a bad rap for being flat. That is, the generally static topography edges this region out of being considered ideal hiking territory. Colorado’s image is built on its mountains. When people think of Colorado, they think: “fourteener country” – the place you go to walk amongst the peaks. But just like most constructs of identity, this idea of Colorado is overgeneralized and limiting.

Anyone who inhabits the easternmost region of the Colorado/Kansas border can attest to that. As can we, the residents of Colorado’s southern region, who are often made to feel like our desert-y corner of this vast and dynamic state doesn’t align with the majority’s perception of Colorado as an outdoorsperson’s mecca. While its alpine lakes, lush forestry and snow-capped summits are token elements that characterize our “Colorful Colorado,” they are only one part in the broad scope of this state’s natural beauty.

Alas, the images of Colorado that stick in the minds of most are those they see on social media of Maroon Bells or Rocky Mountain National Park. Tourism is one of Colorado’s biggest industries. The increased exposure of popular landmarks in Colorado on social media has caused a marked increase in tourism, as visitors are attracted to the recreational opportunities afforded by the Rocky Mountains. The population in Colorado is one of the fastest growing in the nation right now. But where do we see most of that growth? Mainly in the Denver metro area and the surrounding counties – in reach of popular points of interest as seen by many online.

Consequently, however, the hyper-focus on Colorado’s mountainous regions in particular has created an expectation of what the outdoor experience is here. And in doing so, negates the experience of many who share a passion for the outdoors, but may not live in close range of the rugged backcountry wilderness that has become the face of “true” or “real” hiking in Colorado. It seems as a result, there has developed a sort of hierarchy mentality in regards to what “counts” as being characteristic of Colorado in general. And this concept has painted a vivid albeit restrictive picture of what outdoor recreation looks like in Colorado.

Having grown up on the Western Slope, I have been witness to arguably some of Colorado’s best. The jagged San Juan Mountains cast their shadow across my backyard. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was just down the highway from me. The famous ski-town of Telluride and Ouray, “the Switzerland of America,” were both no more than an hour’s drive from my front door. The notorious “Million Dollar Highway” was a part of my regular commute.

When I moved to Pueblo, the mountains were suddenly farther away than I was used to. When my friends from home would visit, they would say: “Why did you move here? There’s nothing out here.” It was then that I was made suddenly and acutely aware of the stigma that Pueblo and other towns carry of not being “Colorado enough.”

Colorado has been equated with its mountains for so long, people forget that not every inch of this state is covered in them. In fact, according to the Western Regional Climate Center, close to 40 percent of the topography in Colorado is made up of its eastern plains. The majority of mountains in Colorado extend north and south in the middle part of the state. The rest is comprised of desert and foothills and rolling prairie. Still, show someone a photograph of the sprawling, gritty, cholla-dotted plain extending from Trinidad into New Mexico, or the seemingly endless sea of wild grassland spilling into Kansas along the eastern border – and they probably wouldn’t guess the picture they were looking at was taken in Colorado.

It may be time to rethink our perceptions and expectations when it comes to what comprises the natural beauty of Colorado. And that includes ending the stigma that “real” hiking has to involve climbing a mountain. After all, isn’t hiking supposed to be less about the “reward” than it is about the physical exercise and engaging with the great outdoors (which isn’t limited to strictly forests and mountains)?

While Colorado’s mountains may be its crown jewel, sensationalizing them discredits the unique beauty of the rest of its parts. Colorado’s landscapes are as diverse as its weather, its desert plains just as worthy of our awe as its high-altitude Aspen groves. One without the other wouldn’t be the Colorado we all know and love. Instead of criticizing how much or how little of mainstream Colorado the places we live resemble, we should make the effort to see firsthand all the corners of our home state in order to garner a greater appreciation of the many facets of its undeniable natural beauty.