White River National Forest

Let the tranquil perfume of juniper and blue spruce fill your lungs as you take your first step down the trail into White River National Forest. In the spring and summer, the wildflower displays and butterflies will surround you with rich, brilliant colors. Hot pink flameweed, baby blue harebells, and cream white yarrow line the paths. In autumn, the aspen woods wrap you in a golden blanket of bell-shaped leaves as the evergreens continue to hold the deep emerald beauty of their delicate needles. Winter sees the height of ski season as snow gently coats the land in layers of white crystalline powder.

View of Breckenridge ski slope in White River National Forest
Ski slopes in White River National Forest – Photo by Laiton Barbo on Unsplash

For obvious reasons, White River is one of the top most visited national forests in the United States. 

About White River Forest 

White River National Forest spans over 2.2 million acres in northwest Colorado. Nearby are the towns of Glenwood Springs, Basalt, Aspen, Gypsum, and Eagle. You may contact the supervisor’s office at (970)-945-2521. The office is located in Glenwood Springs. Give them a call to gain information on trail conditions, permit requirements, volunteer opportunities, and educational events. 

White River has such a high visitor rate due to the twelve ski areas the forest provides (so don’t get too worried about the hiking trails being packed, there’s actually plenty of space for solitude). With its incredible views and great weather, the forest is often referred to as a paradise. The average high for July, the hottest month of the year, is a pleasant 78 degrees with low humidity. Even if you do run into a hot day, there are plenty of crystal clear mountain lakes, rivers, and streams to get your feet wet! 

Brief Background Story 

The forest is named after White River, which flows through the topmost section of the forest. The White River Plateau Timberland Reserve, as the forest used to be called, was designated by President Harrison in 1891. In 1905, when President Roosevelt transferred administration of all forest reserves to the USDA, the name changed to White River National Forest.

Fun Fact: President Theodore Roosevelt himself had great luck hunting in White River forest, bagging a large mountain lion weighing over 220 pounds.

Recreation in White River National Forest

Skiing

Are you planning a ski trip? We’ve laid all your options out for you! Follow the links below to each ski area’s home site where you can check on conditions, pricing, and lodging: 

 ● Arapahoe Basin● Aspen Mountain ● Aspen Highlands● Beaver Creek● Breckenridge ● Buttermilk● Copper Mountain● Ski Cooper● Keystone● Snowmass● Sunlight ● Vail

 Keep in mind that many of these vacation resorts don’t limit themselves to winter sports, there are a host of summer activities awaiting visitors as well!  

Ski tracks in the snow
Vail Ski Resort in White River National Forest – Image by VladoZg from Pixabay

Hiking

Hiking in White River can be as challenging or lax as you like, you just have to know where to go. For a challenge, try any one of the forest’s ten fourteeners, the tallest of which is Castle Peak in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. (Castle Peak is only taller than Grays Peak by one foot, with Castle being 14,279 feet and Grays being 14,278, but who’s counting?) 

A complete list of White River’s day hiking trails can be found here. The USDA has linked each and every trail to a detailed description of its topographical features, location, and difficulty. A similar list has been created for all backpacking trails, which you can access here.  

The top 5 rated trails according to AllTrails.com are as follows: 1. Quandary Peak (This is one of the easier fourteeners.)2. Hanging Lake (Rough and steep. Reservation required.)3. Spruce Creek (Mohawk Lake. Views of Mt. Helen. Heavy traffic.)  4. McCullough Gulch (An old mining road. View of White Falls.) 5. Mayflower Lake (7.9 miles, heavy traffic. Moderate difficulty.) 

Looking for the easiest trails? Here are a few with more accessibility than the average trail. Don’t like any of these options? Don’t worry, give that supervisor’s office a call and ask for a longer list of accessible options.   

 ● Carhart● Maroon Bells● Lily Pad Lake

Wildlife in White River National Forest 

White River is home to many fantastic animal species such as lynx, mountain lion, black bear, coyote, fox, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, pronghorn, deer, and eagle. Endangered species include the black-footed ferret, kit fox, river otter, peregrine falcon, townsend’s big-eared bat, and burrowing owl. Those are all animals you may already recognize, but the forest is also home to less well-known endangered species, such as the midget faded rattlesnake, humpback chub (that’s a fish), Colorado pike minnow (another fish), long-nosed leopard lizard, and Gunnison sage grouse. 

Gunnison Sage Grouse

The Gunnison sage grouse (named for its primary population in Gunnison, Co.) has quite an interesting story. By the late 20th century, everyone was sure that all bird species in Colorado had already been identified. However the Gunnison sage grouse went unnoticed until 1990, and by then it was already in dire need of protection. How did this happen? 

There is a similar species to the Gunnison sage grouse called the greater sage grouse. The two birds look similar enough that everyone assumed they were the same thing. Because greater sage grouse populations are not threatened, their slightly smaller cousins slipped under the radar. 

Gunnison sage grouse are about a third size smaller than the greater sage grouse, and they also exhibit different courtship behaviors and slightly thicker, showier plumage. In addition to these differences, the two don’t interbreed with each other, confirming the suspicion that they are in fact different species altogether. 

Once the Gunnison species was discovered, it was quickly surveyed. Unfortunately, it appears that the birds now inhabit only 10% of what their native range once was. They used to span from Colorado down through Utah and New Mexico. The good news is that the birds are now a known threatened species and measures have been put in place to ensure their numbers can rise again. 

Would you like the chance to glimpse a rare animal in White River National Forest? The USDA encourages visitors to be invested in these precious species and has compiled a list of the best trails to take in order to view wildlife. You can find this list here

A male bighorn sheep
Bighorn sheep are commonly sighted in White River National Forest – Photo by Pete Nuij on Unsplash

Wildlife Warning

When people think of wildlife safety, most people think of bears or rattlesnakes (and you should be conscious of safety tips for both of those), but people often overlook dangerous plants. Poison hemlock, a tall cluster-flower on a green and purple stalk, has many harmless lookalikes such as wild carrot and yarrow. 

Ingesting any part of this famously deadly plant will certainly result in death within hours (there is no known cure or treatment for hemlock poisoning). Visitors have to be careful about what they touch, as even coming into contact with this plant can cause skin issues. Poison Hemlock is currently part of Eagle County’s Noxious Weed Program. 

Know Before You Go

Don’t you wish there was just a page on the internet that could tell you everything you need to know about conditions in White River right before you head out? Well, there is! The USDA’s Alerts and Notices page is where you will find the latest announcements for the forest. 

Save The National Forests.com to your reading list so you’ll always have a connection to America’s forests. 

Have fun, be safe, and leave no trace!

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