Seven years ago, Sam, a sweet, adventurous black lab pounced into my life—she was a bonus of my falling in love with her owner Nick Watson, who runs the non-profit Veterans Expeditions. Peas in a pod who adored running, swimming, peanut butter, winter, cuddling and giving out and covering faces in wet kisses. Sammy and I treasured each other from the start. When she died suddenly a few years after we met, my heart fell out of my chest. Without her each day turned noticeably darker.
After a week of binge watching mind-numbing shows like “Friends” and “The Office” I peeled myself off the couch. A few steps into a five-mile snowshoe, sobbing, snotting, puking grief brought me to the ground. This was where I felt Big Sam’s loss the most. She made even the most mundane hike new again with her bounding ears aloft, exuding joy, mouth grinning. Though she had to wait so often for us—the slower, weaker species—she never complained. She just trotted back to make sure we were coming. Stomping through the snow without her was unbearable.
A year ago, Dixie, who shares Sam’s birthday, entered our lives. I swore to appreciate every moment and never to take her for granted. She’s a hilarious, two-year-old yellow lab who whines with excitement within a mile of the river or a trailhead she remembers. She is still growing into her body. She still runs sloppily, stumbling on the downhills, her long ears flopping comically. My belly hurts from laughing every day, because of her antics.
Sometimes we run as fast as we can for a stretch, and sometimes we stop to sniff every single piece of dirt for 100 yards, for no apparent reason. My spirit comes alive outside; it soars even higher if I channel my inner dog. Finding joy in the small things, playing wildly, never questioning my abilities, hugging complete strangers and acting out of love in every moment—it’s what Dixie (and Sam before her) does effortless each day. In that vein, the following guide (written by Dixie with a little help from mom) will help you get out and adventure with your dog. Adhere to these tips on trips and gear and bound through life together.
Colorado’s Best Dog Adventures
By Dixie, the Veterans ExpeditionS Dog
The Monarch Crest Trail is my favorite place to spend early summer mornings. There’s high, rolling alpine terrain and the freedom to roam amid fields of flowers while mom runs (and dad rides).
Insider Tip: Start from Monarch Pass and turn around at the Fooses Creek Junction for a 10-plus-mile adventure. Begin early and skip weekends to avoid throngs of mountain bikers.
Bonus: We usually have it all to ourselves!
Doggy drawback: There isn’t any water, but mom packs extra in her Osprey pack.
My favorite fourteeners so far are 14,197-foot Mount Princeton, 14,420-foot Mount Harvard and 14,196-foot Mount Yale. They’re gradual and not too scary or narrow. I have also enjoyed 14,005-foot Mount Holy Cross, 13,971-foot Mount Ouray near Salida and 13,223-foot Mount Audubon, a strenuous eight-mile hike that begins from the Brainard Lake area in the Indian Peaks. If you need a quick fix, try the South Boulder/Bear Peak link up, near the Flatirons and just a few minutes from downtown Boulder.
Insider Tip: My parents leave me at home for sketchy routes like the Crestones, Maroon Bells and many in the San Juans, including the Wilsons and El Diente. I miss the folks, but know it’s for my own good since I don’t like technical climbing.
Bonus: Periodic snow patches, which stick around all summer, help me cool off.
Doggy drawback: I especially enjoy boulder-hopping along the ridges of peaks like Holy Cross and Yale, but smaller dogs or those who aren’t into this challenge might not be suited for big peaks.
Living in Colorado means we get to play in snow much of the year. Hiking or snowshoeing a few miles of the Colorado Trail from Kenosha Pass (an hour and a half from Denver) gives us spectacular views of the lovely Mosquito and Ten Mile Ranges. For more of a challenge, we hit Quandary, Elbert or Shavano, fourteeners that are safe for me.
Bonus: Snow is my favorite thing in the world.
Doggy drawback: The elements up high can be tough on the eyes so make sure your buddy has some canine goggles like those made by Rex Specs.
When I first visited Crested Butte and Copley Lake, I couldn’t believe all the flowers. They were over my head and everywhere! My favorite adventure ended at a tranquil lake surrounded by lush, bloom-filled meadows, towering pines and some of the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen. Getting there was fun: We climbed a moderately steep four-mile roundtrip trail lined by amazing arrays of blossoms.
Insider Tip: The forest offers shade so this is a good one for warm, sunny days.
Bonus: We followed a creek most of the way so I could swim and drink! Heaven!
Doggy drawback: The trail is an old road—rocky and rough—so it can be tough on the paws.
I’m a lab, so clearly when my parents put me in a raft, I was psyched! My favorite run on the Arkansas River (Fisherman’s Bridge to Stone Bridge) passes through Browns Canyon National Monument, where magnificent pillars of pink rock, craggy eroded spires and immense granite walls tower above. I also enjoy floating the upper Colorado River from Pumphouse to Rancho del Rio. Both stretches are mellow (Class II-III), but dappled with enough rapids to keep me panting.
Insider Tip: Even if your dog’s a good swimmer, snug her into her PFD in the car and keep it on until she’s back in the car. You never know when she might jump in a stream that could carry her off.
Bonus: Both runs have flat spots where I can jump off the raft to swim.
Doggy Drawback: The only thing I like more than snow is water, so I can’t think of one.
No matter where you go, obey the law: Be sure dogs are allowed and follow leash restrictions. Be cognizant of and respectful to other people, dogs and the wildlife.
By Dixie, the Veterans ExpeditionS Dog
Mountainsmith K9 Pack
This comfy, streamlined pack with two zippered pannier pockets lets me haul my share of the load when we go out for a day or a few nights. Mesh panels keep me from overheating, and a metal d-ring and haul handle make it easier for my parents to give me a lift or leash me up. $65 | mountainsmith.com
Ruffwear Grip Trex Booties
When my humans first put these on me, I was a tad apprehensive, but now that I’m used to them, I appreciate the protection that these durable, yet comfortable booties provide. They keep my paws healthy and cut-free even when I’m running hard on gravel, sand, rocks or snow. And their robust Vibram sole gives me all the traction I need. $75 | ruffwear.com
Ruffwear Doubleback Harness
We never know where our adventures may lead, so my humans keep this strength rated harness on hand in case they need to safely lift or lower me over some technical obstacle. With a padded belly, leg loops and an easy rope tie-in point, it also comes in handy on steep slopes, glaciers or slippery edges where they want an added layer of security. $124.95
D’Lite Burley Trailer
Burley makes a specific trailer for dogs (the Tail Wagon), but my parents use this one since it’s compatible with Burley’s new 16-inch wheel kit. Thanks to the rugged, knobby tires on this baby, my humans can transport me safely to the trailhead or the river, regardless of weather or terrain. Plus, I feel safe and secure in the comfy, well-ventilated pod. Also, since I’m facing forward, I can keep an eye on my humans the whole ride. The weight capacity of the trailer is 100 pounds so it should hold all but those really big dogs. $689 (trailer), $189 (wheel kit); burley.com
Dixie’s mom, Chris Kassar, is senior editor at Elevation Outdoors and the winner of the North American Travel Journalists Association gold award. For dog questions, shoot her an email at email@example.com.