Andrew Terrill

The outdoor diary of a writer, photographer, and wilderness wanderer

The Most Spectacular Single Night Camp I’ve Ever Had…

TODAY, ON MAY 11, 2023, the rain here in Golden, Colorado is fabulously determined. It’s been cascading from the sky since late last night; the creeks are running high and are stained brown with earth; trails are muddy and gushing; the soil is saturated, with puddles spreading ever-wider; hilltops are lost within mist and sodden clouds. For a landscape of the American west that is so often parched, a day such as this is both a rare treat and a genuine relief.

Long may water pour from the sky in torrents! Long may the fire risk and summer heat be held at bay! Not everyone loves rain. But I adore it!

I went for a run in it just now – a ninety-minute splash alongside Clear Creek and onward up the Canyon into the foothills of the Rockies. The drenching I experienced took me back to my prior life in Britain. I used to love running in the rain, getting soaked, feeling the soft moisture on my skin, getting my legs caked in rich molten-chocolate mud, my hair plastered flat, having the dripping woods and squelching fields all to myself. Today, it was a little harder to force myself outside – middle-aged reluctance argued that comfort and work were preferable! – but I did it, I overcame the limiting voice of reason, and I’m so glad I went. Middle-age slipped away amid the joy of motion and the blissful kiss of the elements as they stirred every sense, and now, post-run, I feel invigorated, alive. I came home soaked to the skin, in clothes cold and clinging… but also buzzing with happiness and energy and life.

During the run through this exceptional May rainstorm I found myself thinking about another exceptional weather event that took place on this very day, May 11, two years ago now. The spectacular conditions I encountered on that occasion made the brief outing one of the most memorable I’ve ever had.

The outing was a camp – a single night out – and it was very much a spur-of-the-moment thing. I only decided to go early in the afternoon. I noticed, by chance, a forecast that called for heavy snow then clearing skies. A late season snow, I thought, that would be fun to camp in. And dawn sunlight striking snow-laden pines? Even funner. It might even lead to some worthwhile photos, if I’m lucky…

After hastily throwing gear into my rucksack, collecting the kids from school (oops, can’t forget them), making certain that dinner was set for my family, I drove 45-minutes to the trailhead I’d chosen… never once guessing at the magical twelve hours that lay ahead…

snow drift and snow covered pine trees may colorado 2021

At the trailhead, the snow lay far deeper than I’d expected. Far faaaar deeper. In fact, at no point during the preceding winter, had it been deeper. Flakes were still floating down, too, drifting lazily from a misty sky. Pulling on my pack, I began plowing uphill, giggling like an irresponsible juvenile delinquent at the wonderland conditions I’d lucked upon.

footsteps trail in snow through forest in cold snowy weather

The easing of the snowfall that was forecast for later hadn’t yet begun. Large flakes still filled the sky. But I continued uphill full of optimism. I wasn’t going far – only a mile and a quarter – and I didn’t need to rush. I planned to camp close to treeline. I wanted a spot that would give views IF conditions cleared, but that also offered some shelter. The forecast had also mentioned thunder and lightning. Instinct told me neither were likely, but I had to pay the forecast some heed. The threat of it added an element of doubt and trepidation, and all adventures – even micro adventures – are improved with that.

snow covered pines and clearing clouds in forest

As I climbed through the forest I noticed that the clouds were starting to break. Holes appeared below, along with distant mountains that were now lower than me. The rents in the sky kept coming and going, opening and closing, appearing, vanishing. It was all rather exciting… and definitely promising.

clearing winter storm and snowy forest colorado

As I neared treeline the holes began growing larger, the storm clouds breaking apart in a way I hadn’t expected. The forecast had shown clouds and light snow lasting until midnight, and only then a gradual overnight clearing. What was happening now had not been mentioned. Unable to believe my good fortune, I dropped my pack and dashed about like an over stimulated puppy, gaping and photographing the rapidly-changing scene.

clearing winter storm and snowy forest colorado

Because of the forecast, I fully expected the clouds to close up again. I thought it was a fluke, soon to pass. I wanted to make the most of the moment while it lasted.

clearing winter storm clouds and snowy forest colorado

Eventually, a massive bank of cloud wandered in from the west, enclosing me in a vaporous murk, obscuring the view. But I couldn’t complain. No matter what else happened now, the outing had already been worthwhile.

winter camp on snow covered mountain in colorado

I chose my campsite on a steepish slope, trying to line up the open ground with a straight shot to the morning sun – should I be fortunate enough to get one. After stamping down a flat platform I pitched ‘Auld Leakie’, my trusty shelter written about in On Sacred Ground. (PS: if you haven’t yet read The Earth Beneath My Feet and On Sacred Ground, what are you even doing here? 😉 )

As I stood for a while considering my chosen spot, still wondering a little at the wisdom of camping here with lightning in the forecast, the fog suddenly grew brighter… brighter… brighter…

 winter snow on mountains and forests in colorado above clearing storm clouds

…and then the clouds suddenly dropped away altogether, shifting in seconds, filling the valley beneath. I simply stopped and stared. Mouth probably open wide. It took a minute or two before I remembered my camera.

After that, for the next couple of hours, life was a dream….

snowy winter mountain in colorado above the clouds

winter wild camping with tent and figure looking at view in snow with clearing storm clouds over rocky mountains in colorado

It’s not an understatement to say that I’ve wild camped A LOT, more times than I can count – well into four figures. But not one other camp from that uncountable number has looked  like this.

clearing winter storm clouds over rocky mountains in colorado

Despite the clearing, small ice crystals and snowflakes were still falling, spiraling and sparkling in the evening sunlight, adding yet another layer of magic to the moment.

tent on mountain in colorado winter camping 2021

Slowly, shadows lengthened, and the evening light grew warmer as the temperature grew colder. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and barely any sound. It felt otherworldly… heavenly…

footprints in snow leading to tent colorado at sunset

After a leisurely dinner – spent feasting as much on the view as on my food – I left camp and ambled slowly uphill, seeking an elevated above treeline vantage point for sunset.

snowy forest and mountains above the clouds in colorado at sunset

With clouds hiding everything below, I might have been in a world apart – a world utterly detached from everything that is busy, loud, demanding, ugly. A short drive, a mile or so walked, a belief that camping in a snowstorm with thunder forecast was a good idea, and this was what I’d earned. It was some reward. It could so easily have been missed.

evening light on snow covered pine trees above the clouds in rocky mountains

frozen trees on cold snow covered mountain after sunset in colorado

It was soon pretty chilly up high – fingers and face demanded attention and care. But there was nowhere else I would rather have been. Home didn’t seem like somewhere I’d been only a few hours ago. It seemed a lifetime away. Or hundreds of miles. Some moments in nature can really take one out of oneself, transport, suspend time, elevate. I’d come seeking on ‘elevated’ vantage point, but I found an even greater kind of elevation than I’d sought…

frozen trees on cold snow covered mountain above sea of clouds after sunset in colorado

Time itself seemed frozen!

frozen trees on cold snow covered mountain above sea of clouds after sunset in colorado

deep snow on mountain after sunset in cold frozen light

deep snow on mountain after sunset colorado

hiker sitting on mountain summit in winter in snow above the clouds

I sat for a long while, soaking the moment up, wallowing in it. But eventually, deepening cold drove me back to camp. But I descended as though floating, awash with gratitude, appreciation and awe. I treasured every single step I took through the pillow-soft snow in that magical otherworldly paradise.

winter wild camping with glowing tent in snow with clearing storm clouds over rocky mountains in colorado

Some camps have meant more, I’ll be honest. Single nights out are too fleeting to have the value that the 100th night of a trip has, or the 500th! But still… this remains the most spectacular single night camp I’ve ever had… by a fair margin!

Winter sunrise with snow covered pine trees

The night delivered a hard tent-coating frost, but I slept really well, contentment overcoming any discomforts. By dawn, the cloud sea had slipped far to the east, lingering only down in the plains. Sunrise approached long before six.

winter sunrise alpenglow and snow on grays and torreys peak colorado

Soon, the rosey-hue of May 12 added a blush of warmth to the Colorado landscape. Spring here isn’t like spring where I grew up in London!

winter sunrise with alpenglow on frosted tent wild camping in colorado

A hard frost coated Auld Leakie and the entire spread of the Front Range foothills. The air felt sharp and painfully cold. But… there were no complaints from me.

winter sunrise with alpenglow Front Range colorado

It was a morning to stand and gape, a morning like few others.

winter sunrise with alpenglow snow covered pines and mountains Front Range colorado

winter camping in colorado rocky mountains morning dawn cold frozen

Winter sunrise with sunbeams and rays of light through snow covered pine trees

Colorado Continental Divide In winter Front Range

Eventually, I retreated into Auld Leakie for hot cereal and coffee. By the time I was done with breakfast the sunlight was stronger and the day was rapidly warming – winter’s cold failing before the bright May sunshine. Leaving camp again, I climbed back uphill, aiming to feast on the wintry scene while I could before it thawed away, and also to treasure the softness, the quietude, the expansive greatness of isolation, the big views across big hills, and the simple but raging pleasure from being where I was. There was no rush to do anything but wander about, grinning.

Winter front range colorado snow rocky mountains clear creek county morning
Bard Peak



Winter front range colorado snow rocky mountains clear creek county james peak morning
The Continental Divide, with a hint of a breeze picking up


Winter snow covered trees forests and mountains in colorado rocky mountains
Pikes Peak on the horizon far to the south


Grays Peak and Torreys Peak Colorado Front Range winter snow
Grays and Torreys Peaks


James Peak Wilderness Front Range Continental Divide Winter Snow
James Peak
clearing clouds Longs Peak Rocky Mountain National Park winter snow
Storm clouds still clearing from Longs Peak


clearing storm clouds Longs Peak Rocky Mountain National Park winter snow
And they clear!
arapaho peak and lonely cabin in winter forest
Arapaho peak, plus a lonely homestead in the woods!
North Table Mountain seen from Rocky Mountains in spring
East, lay the familiar flat-topped shape of Golden’s North Table Mountain, known well to me now from thousands of visits.

Winter camping in snow colorado rocky mountains staring at view

After a magical morning the time finally came to return to camp, pack up, and leave. But, honestly, each of these activities were hard to do.

Colorado Continental Divide In winter Front Range James Peak Indian Peaks Wilderness

Leave a view like this? A place apart like this? How could I?

Colorado Front Range Continental Divide and snow covered pine trees

Except, of course, I didn’t – not fully. I carried it with me, as I still carried it with – as I carried it today, two years later, in the teeming rain. This is the beauty of time in nature. It becomes us. Afterwards, we are never the same.

winter forest and mountains in colorado in deep snow front range

Soon, I was down in the trees, making fresh tracks through the almost-silent forest, with a few birds chirping, a woodpecker drumming, and the swish of clumps of sun-thawed snow beginning to avalanche off pines.

tracks in snow through Colorado winter forest

andrew terrill hiker in forest in snow colorado

And knowing that the odds were high I’d one day return.

forest and pine trees in deep snow colorado


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