Summer Morels and High Altitudes in Colorado

Shoulder Season, Wha Wha

June can be a tough month in Colorado for mushroom hunters. It’s the shoulder season: spring morels have run their course and the summer heavyweights, porcinis and chanterelles, won’t show up until late July if we’re lucky. This year has been especially tough – low snowpack and not much rain over the last six weeks. Pretty much unmitigated sun and heat. 

The antsy Colorado mushroom hunter needs to get crafty on the second day of summer. For us this translated to high altitude burns. Hoping for a bit of luck, we set out to check a burn near Vail for a few last summer burn morel stragglers. After trekking to about 9,600′ we were thrilled to find enough morels to keep us smiling. A first for us – we have never hunted burns in our home state. Crazy right? Happy Solstice!

Colorado Burns

The Colorado high country is stunning!

Having just returned from hunting Oregon burns, it was a given that we’d compare and contrast the Colorado environment. The first and most obvious difference in CO is the roads. You’d better have a 4WD vehicle, a chain saw, and some mudder tires to successfully navigate CO forest roads. We nearly kissed the side of a tippy Jeep while ‘sharing’ a burly road made for one.

When we arrived at the burn, mosquitos assaulted us in cloud formation. It seemed crazy because it’s pretty dry in these parts. And if there is one thing we love in Colorado, it’s our general lack of blood thirsty bugs. Today deet was a blessing, we are always packing.

This burn was steep and wily, the forest dense with plenty of charred obstacles to navigate over, under, around and through. And the mushrooms seemed to follow suit – they were giant, unusually bendy, and often buried. With different conifers, the forest had a uniquely crisp, dry and piney smell.   

The Details

Big, burly and surprisingly fresh

This foraging trip was quick – we left our house at 3pm didn’t start hiking the burn until close to 5:30. This provided a 2 hour window to hunt and still drive out of the forest before dark. We visited the 960 acre Gutzler burn, north of Vail in the White River National Forest. Parking around 9,200 feet was not a problem. We hiked up hill to 9,600, walking through burned conifers the whole way. We found a few mushrooms as we worked our way up the hill – enough to set the morel vision and keep us focused. At around 9,500 feet good things started happening. First of all, the mosquitos became slightly less ferocious. And then, viola, more mushrooms! By the time we got to 9,600 feet we each had a gallon and it was time to head home. Success.

Even with this dry weather, the mushrooms were still kicking. They had been around a few days or a week, and were not super fresh. Many of the shrooms were covered in a webby sort of cotton likely from flowering cottonwood trees – very tough to remove (hoppers may have also contributed to the webbiness – we saw a few). After sorting and cleaning our bounty, we were happy to discover quite a few edible shrooms. We did end up tossing out about 40% of the basket because they just weren’t quite fresh enough. Some of these giants had been around awhile.

Tips for Success

The Gutzler Fire

The secret to success here was studying our Colorado Burn Map and selecting 2 different routes into the fire. The first route we had earmarked was too burly for our truck, it was little more than an OHV trail. Thankfully the backup route worked and got us right to the base of the burn. To assist on the backcountry drive, we downloaded the maps to the GaiaApp on our iPhone (so we didn’t need cell service). Using USFS map layers, we created a few alternative routes to the fires. In this case, we used the app to navigate forest service roads into the burn as well as chart terrain and elevation inside the burn.

The plan was to hike all the way up to 9,800 feet and focus on north facing hillsides. We ended up not making it the final 200 feet. While picking probably would have been better up there, the wind was howling and time was running out.

What a thrill to find Colorado burn morels on the second day of summer! We learned a few things on this trek – 1. Colorado forest roads are very unpredictable, be prepared; 2. despite our dry environs, morels do grow in high altitude burns; 3. mosquitos are everywhere, even Colorado. How high will those burn morels go? Sooner or later we will find out.

 

 

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