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Trails and taprooms: Drink 'em up

May 18, 2013
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One map never leaves the messy center console of my maroon, oft-mud-splattered Ford Explorer. The other sits beside my seat.

They sit there patiently. Always ready. Waiting.

One is a Gazetteer. The other, the Beer Drinker's Guide to Colorado.

And at 10:30 a.m. on a splendid Thursday morning in Durango, those maps led us here: Ska Brewing Co.

A mere 13 hours removed from my first shower in four days, a good friend and I sauntered into this fine establishment, occupied two stools and fixed our eyes ahead. A brown ale, one of nutty complexion. An India pale ale - a flagship brew, one hoppy to make you happy. A sturdy stout. Each tap served as our reward for backpacking the Chicago Basin north of Durango; each offered delicious pints for the mountains we'd enjoyed.

See, while it is one thing to travel across the state in search of pristine peaks, the adventurer easily can miss the real reason we live in Colorado: the people. And sometimes it's best to enjoy that company over a cold brew.

Is 10:30 a.m. too early to hit the taproom? For some, yes. A few years ago, I might have said the same thing. But lean a little closer, and I'll let you in on a secret.

Colorado boasts one of the world's better backyards: millions of acres of wilderness surrounding hundreds of peaks that sing their siren song every weekend. Granite prows and alpine lakes - the worthwhile ones accessible only by placing one leg before the other, sometimes for miles on end.

Fill those lungs a little bit. Breathe deep. Even those talus heaps of the Sawatch Range west of Buena Vista offer their own unique - might I say charming - qualities.

And along with those great mountains, Colorado boasts one of the better beer cultures in the nation. With at least 170 breweries peppered across the state, know that each is unique. Just like the mountains towering above, each has its own character.

And I've found that these two avenues - a splendid trail and a welcoming taproom - offer the best way to enjoy this great state.

That is why we spent four days in August studying rain-soaked maps in the wilds of the Weminuche Wilderness. We watched a half moon set over the craggy top of Jupiter Mountain. We conquered three 14,000-foot peaks - Windom Peak, North Eolus and Mount Eolus - all the while breathing crisp air unleavened by the stress of the city.

Windom, that boulder-topped beast, served as our first summit in the San Juans, a range that dominates the southwest portion of the state. North Eolus proved an easy hike, a quick surrender to our intrepid team. Mount Eolus offered something completely different: our first chance to serve as mountain guide.

Myself and two friends hiked it once that morning, returning across The Catwalk - a rather formidable ridge - to discover another person on the trail. This man, the last person on the mountain that day, could not face the peak's sweat-inducing exposure alone. So we did what seemed right. We hiked back across The Catwalk and again to the top, celebrating as he crossed off this peak as his 54th 14,000-foot summit in Colorado. Few could be sweeter.

After it all - four days of sweat and solitude, and finally a much-needed shower - we ended up at Ska Brewing Co. It marked the third brewery of our cross-state road trip.

On the train ride back from Chicago Basin, we visited Silverton Brewery, a rustic, simple place with simple beers - a brown, a red and a few other mountain standards, each delicious.

Off the train, we stopped by Steamworks Brewing Co. in Durango - a youthful, modern and lively establishment, one with a deceptively smooth double IPA (on nitro!) to weaken the knees.

The next day we arrived at Ska. And there would be more brew to drink later that day - at Pagosa Brewing and Grill in Pagosa Springs.

It's a summer tradition, these "touries" - tours of breweries across Colorado. They always begin with soul-cleansing trips into the wild. And they always end with sudsy stops in whatever towns we happen to find along the way.

Ours was a relatively tame trip last summer. The 2011 tour included seven breweries. Each time, we managed to find a few more side streets, a few more friendly faces and a few more reasons to stay in this beautiful state.

I plan on reaching for those maps once more come summer.


Rodgers is a military reporter for The Gazette. He's a native of Colorado Springs.

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