Editor's note: In light of COVID-19, Zach Miller said he is reevaluating the date he anticipated to leave Barr Camp, which was originally early April. He said the camp is a good place to hide out during the pandemic and he's in limbo as he waits to see what will happen. He will make a decision on a new date to come down later.
MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo. — The woods around the five-mile mark of Barr Trail have been quiet for hours, with the exception of chirping birds and an occasional woodpecker, when Zach Miller rounds a corner in a bright yellow jacket and snowshoes, thumping along the trail and spraying up snow as he runs downhill.
It’s not uncommon to find him on these trails. In fact, it’s more unusual not to see him out there as he trains for his next high-caliber race or tends to his responsibilities as caretaker of Barr Camp, the off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. Miller, a 31-year-old world-class ultrarunner, has been a caretaker at the camp for four and a half years. The job has included a range of responsibilities including late night rescues, cooking breakfast for dozens of eager campers, cleaning the compost toilets and making 13-plus-mile errands down to town.
That’s been his life for half of the past decade. But in early April, he’ll make a different kind of descent.
Because this time, the man who has called the mountain home all those years is coming down, for good.
Video by Denver7 Executive Sports Producer Jeff Howe
Leaving home in Barr Camp for the unknown
Barr Camp is nestled all in its lonesome at 10,200 feet in the Pike National Forest, just west of Colorado Springs. The grounds include a main cabin, yurt, upper cabin and a handful of lean-to shelters.
The campground is almost always covered in snow through the winter. In the thick of tree trunks and branches, you may not realize you’re there until you see the wooden fencing, which invites weary travelers across a short bridge, under a welcome sign, and to the front deck. After the climb to the camp — which is six and a half miles and 3,800 feet uphill from the main trailhead in Manitou Springs — the cabin somehow feels both out of place and perfectly put on the mountainside.
Continue onward and the Barr Trail would lead you another eight miles and 4,000 feet up to the summit of Pikes Peak.
It’s a route Miller knows well. He has served as a full-time caretaker at Barr Camp for the past four and a half years, plus an additional six months when he was in training for the role.
He still remembers thinking the cabin was a bit peculiar when he first stumbled upon it, which wasn’t long after he moved to the Manitou Springs area from Pennsylvania in 2014.
“Like, there’s this cabin and I think there’s people in there but what are these people like?” he said he remembered thinking. “They just live up here in the woods? It seemed kind of weird.”
He’d soon find himself in an ironically similar situation: Miller offered up his bedroom to his roommate’s parents while they were visiting, and made camp on Pikes Peak near the cabin. He’d run down the trail to work and then run back up at the end of the day. To him, it was a perfect set-up — he was knocking out his commute and training for his next race all in one.
During that time, he gradually became familiar with the Barr Camp caretakers. When he learned that the board of directors for the camp were looking for a few new caretakers in 2015, he jokingly asked his sister if she’d want to do it too. To his surprise, she was all on board.
“We applied and we weren’t sure we’d get it,” Miller said. “Then we did, and it took off from there.”
Miller started training for the position part-time in the spring of 2015 before moving up full-time in July.
He quickly learned that the job demanded a slew of skills.
“How do you define a caretaker?” Miller said, smiling. “Well, they’re a cook and janitor and a carpenter and a solar technician and a therapist and a psychiatrist and a mom. All in one. And you’re a woodsman and a trail steward and an educator. Kind of like an environmentalist. All wrapped in one. And the list could go on.”
It’s “basically a crash course in home ownership,” he said.
His sister left the post a couple years after, and Miller worked alongside several other caretakers.
Now that he’s set on leaving in early April – an announcement he first made on his blog on Jan. 17 — he will soon focus solely on running and the opportunities that arise from his sponsorships, he said.
“There’s a lot of options and a lot of good things I think I could get into,” he said. “And that’s really beautiful because I don’t really know what that’s going to entail.”
He emphasized that he’s not leaving Barr Camp because of anything bad. But it was a hard decision he had been mulling over for a while.
“It’s just time for a change,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”
After so many years in an isolated cabin, where the main mode of transportation was his feet, he’s hoping to become more mobile after leaving Barr Camp. He’s bounced around the idea of rigging out a small bus to live and travel in. At the same time, he said he sees the value of having a home base. And he may stay in Colorado, but is also considering moving to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where the rest of his family is rooted. There’s nothing specifically dictating where he should go after Barr Camp, so he’s still contemplating what’s next, he said.
It’s a big decision, but he doesn’t need all the answers right now.
“I think I’m learning lately, or trying to learn lately, to just be like, ‘It’s going to be OK,’” he said. “You just kind of have to keep following and taking it a step at a time and the right opportunities and things will arise. … The opportunities are coming. You just have to walk into them.”
Caretaking is ‘everything and anything’
In some ways, Barr Camp hasn’t changed since Miller first arrived to start his caretaker role in 2015.
Since it was built in 1922, Barr Camp has served as a refuge for visitors. According to the nonprofit’s website, each year more than 25,000 people visit and 2,500 people spend the night in one of the cabins, lean-to shelters, camp sites or yurt.
“As a caretaker, you don’t really get to choose your community — your community is whoever walks through that door,” Miller said. “Some days, that’s somebody who is here today and you never see again in your life. And then there’s people who come in and then they’re going to come in next week and next week and they’re going to come in when it’s snowy and when it’s windy. They’re just going to be this constant presence.”
Miller has befriended many of the visitors. There’s Nicole, who comes up twice a week. Kathy, who hikes up every Tuesday. The runner Jason. “Paperboy Pete,” who brings up the newspaper. “Pat from the Back” who always bushwhacks his way to the camp.
It’s hard to pass Barr Camp without wanting to stop in, even just for a brief rest. It’s a welcoming sight after an uphill climb.
A step inside the cabin is like walking into the camp’s own time capsule.
The walls are scattered with vintage posters, old photos of the camp and visitors from years past, and more. A bookshelf by the front door houses at least 100 books — all that appear to have seen much love over the decades — with titles ranging from the entire “Harry Potter” series to Cheryl Strayed’s book-turned-movie “Wild” to a novel titled “How Not to Die.” Miller said every so often he’ll meet a hiker who shows him pictures of Barr Camp during their previous travels, years or even decades before. Often time, it doesn’t look that different, Miller said.
Granted, part of the reason everything appears unchanged is because Miller, along with other caretakers, have actually worked on the camp quite a bit over the years.
“There’s a lot of upkeep that has to happen and a lot of projects we do behind the scenes to keep it looking the same,” he said.
For example, since he became caretaker, they’ve upgraded to lithium ion batteries that offer the camp much more electricity than the previous lead acid ones. They’ve added composting toilets. They’ve replaced the deck and rebuilt the bridge across the creek outside the front door. A caretaker constructed picnic tables around the grounds. Right now, Miller is working on building new bunk beds for the upper cabin.
“That’s kind of the goal of Barr Camp — we can change things without people ever knowing we changed anything,” he said.
In addition to big projects, there are the daily tasks that keep the camp operating smoothly. Dishes. Mopping the floor. Painting the walls. Shoveling compost from the compost toilets. Cleaning the bathrooms. Moving the wood stoves. Cleaning chimneys. Answering emails. Paying bills and taxes. Sending out W-2s and other forms. Filtering water. Managing overnight reservations. Making dinner and breakfast for visitors. Answering questions on conditions, gear and the trail. Search and rescue.
And when Miller isn’t fulfilling those responsibilities, he’s running.
‘A lot of miles and a lot of hours’
It’s hard to quantify the miles Miller has run around the Pikes Peak region.
“It’s a lot of miles and a lot of hours,” he said.
As an ultrarunner — meaning he regularly races distances longer than a marathon — it’s his outlet of choice, through the ups and downs of life, he said.
Miller, who was born to missionary parents in Kenya before moving to Pennsylvania as a child, picked up track in eighth grade and then cross country in high school. Running wasn’t an immediate love, but sports and outdoor activities were a big part of his early life.
After college graduation, he continued training, even after landing a job with a company on a cruise ship. He’d run hours on the treadmill and “hill” repeats up and down the stairwells while at sea, and then would explore ports when docked.
While training on the ship, he won the 2013 JFK 50-Mile in Maryland and the 2014 Lake Sonoma 50 in California — both extremely competitive races.
After his stint on the ship, he moved to Manitou Springs, where he could really stretch his legs.
At Barr Camp, there was so much more to explore. Some days were short and sweet, others included pounding dirt for 30 miles or more. It depended what he was training for.
Among other accomplishments on his resume, Miller is the back-to-back champion of The North Face 50 in California. He has unfinished business with France’s famous 106-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, which he plans to race for the fifth time this summer. He became the first-ever American male to win UTMB’s sister race, the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC) 101K, in 2015.
Races of this caliber and distance required several hours of running on a regular basis.
“Sometimes I tell hikers about things I’ve done and if they know enough about the area, they might question me,” Miller said. “They’re like, ‘That’s really far. You did that in a day?’”
He said he occasionally feels self-conscious talking about his runs with others. He outlined a route he did last summer that took him all over the mountains around Pikes Peak and then down to town to catch a flight.
“If I tell people that, they’re going to think I’m crazy,” he said, and paused. “I probably am, but I’m OK with that.”
With that many miles and that much time embedded in the mountain, it’s no surprise that he became quite familiar with the trails in the Pikes Peak region, though he still stumbles upon new ones every so often. He said even with all his worldly travels, Colorado Springs still boasts one of the best trail networks, in his opinion.
“The forests are endless,” he said. “And the trails are almost all connected. I tell people once you get on a trail on the west side of Highway 24, you can pretty much get to any other trail. And all you have to do is occasionally cross a road or run down a dirt road.”
After a run, he returns to Barr Camp and its endless lists of chores.
“You’re here to serve the people — to help the people,” he said. “You can want moments to yourself, but if somebody comes through that door, that’s your responsibility.”
Even after a 30-mile run. Even as he eats a meal. Even if he’s in the middle of another project.
“It’s what makes this place great — you get to have all these interactions and you get to be focused on people other than yourself,” he said.
In addition to his normal training, the “all-day endurance” required to run the camp helped his running too, he said.
“You just have to keep going,” he said. “Because that’s kind of how a race is. You just have to keep going. That’s the way Barr Camp goes.”
The thrilling, uncharted future for Zach Miller
For the last few weeks, Miller has been training Heather and Derek Timlin as they adjust to their new roles as caretakers.
The couple moved into the camp on Feb. 20 with about 60 pounds of personal items on their backs.
“I always wanted an informal education job, kind of like this, where I get to talk to people and share my love for the outdoors with them,” Heather said. “So basically, as soon as I saw the job opening for this, I called Derek at work and said, ‘We need to apply for this right now.’ And we applied for it and somehow magically got it.”
She said, at first, she felt intimidated training under Miller’s expertise — “He’s like a local celebrity around here,” she said — but she’s getting the hang of things. New lessons pop up every day and she knows they have big shoes to fill, she said.
As for Miller, he has started to put everything in order to leave the camp for good.
He hesitated when asked what he’ll miss most about his time at Barr Camp. It takes a lot for him to miss something or someone, he explained.
“I’m just weird like that,” he said. “My brain just kind of shifts and moves on. I don’t know if I’ll miss much, but the lifestyle is going to be very different after this and that’s going to be a big change.”
There’s the unbeatable backyard, the stillness that comes with living far from town, and the regular visitors, but he said those are all happy memories he’ll store away as he moves into a new chapter of his life.
More so, he’s eagerly looking ahead to whatever that entails. The exact trajectory remains unclear, but that’s the fun of it, he said.
As the saying goes, anything worthwhile is uphill. And Miller is bound to find his next mountain soon.