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The Best Teen Wilderness Adventures

The older kids get, the easier it is to take them into the backcountry. This is even true for teenagers, who, despite getting a bad rap for being addicted to all things electronic, can be some of the best adventure companions. Removed from digital distractions, teens often share new sides of themselves in the wilderness. They connect more to each other in the backcountry, and to you. And they gain the practical, outdoor skills to eventually head out on adventures of their own.

No wonder, then, that teen outdoor programs are growing in popularity, ranging from short multi-day trips to summer adventures and semester-long leadership expeditions in almost every adventure discipline: sailing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, backpacking, climbing. There are large organizations like the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound, with programs across the country and world, as well as smaller, niche groups, like The Ocean Classroom, in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and Island Wood, outside of Seattle.

In my own hometown of Telluride, the Telluride Academy leads week- to month-long courses, and each year, Telluride Mountain School grabs kayaks, coolers, and backpacks and heads out into the Colorado backcountry for trips with its students. Last fall, the juniors and seniors completed a “Ride the Rails/ Hike the Trails” loop in the Weminuche Wilderness.

They say that getting there is half the fun. This was certainly the case for this five-day, all-girl adventure. There’s only one way to access the challenging 36-mile loop through the remote Needle Mountains: via train. In this case, students rode the Silverton & Durango Narrow Gauge Train to the trailhead at Elks Park. Five days later, after they backpacked the Needle Mountains Circuit and arrived at the Needleton Trailhead, they squatted and waved their arms—the signal for hitching a ride on the returning train—and caught a ride back to Durango.

“What’s great about the Needle Mountains Circuit is the wilderness,” says Jamie Salem, a teacher at the school and one of the leaders of the trip. “After a few hours in a train and only a brief time on the trail, we were surrounded by glaciated peaks and total silence.” During the course of the trip, the Telluride Mountain School group hiked sections of the Colorado Trail, over Hunchback Pass, and gained 8,300 feet. They saw elk, deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and countless shooting stars. And though the trip was challenging at times, with steep, sustained ascents and descents and unbridged stream crossings, it was balanced by great fun. Five girls, five days, 84 Snickers. You do the math.

One senior, Marina Marlens, summed up the value of these trips in this journal entry: “Yesterday afternoon I was really happy. I was happy in a way I haven’t been in a while. I was tired. I was warm. My feet didn’t hurt. I was laughing. I was dirty. I could hear the river. I could see the mountains in my head. I could feel the ground under my body, the dirt, the rocks. I let myself go. For a little while, happiness was simple.”


Distance: 35.9 miles one way
Elevation Range: 8,200-12,850
Trail Conditions: Everything from well-constructed and dry to wet, muddy, and loose.
Season: July-September
Trailhead: Elks Park or Needle Creek trailheads are only accessible by train or foot. Recommend starting at Elks Park and ending at Needle as you save 700 feet elevation and have a better train schedule for the return.
Guide Book: San Juan Adventure Guide, by Jeff La Frenierre, is a great resource for southwestern Colorado.

To send your teen on a wilderness adventure, check out the following programs: NOLS, www.nols.edu; Outward Bound, www.outwardbound.org, Chewonki, www.chewonki.org; High Mountain Institute,www.hminet.org; The Ocean Classroom, www.oceanclassroom.org; Island Wood, islandwood.org; Telluride Academy, www.tellurideacademy.org; and Telluride Mountain School, www.telluridemtnschool.org

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