When Mary Ellen Gilliland arrived in Summit County 43 years ago, it was quite a different place than it is today. It was “before there was I-70 or a stoplight or a grocery store or anything,” she said. “It was wonderful, so much open space and so much untouched beauty.”
While a lot may have changed since then, the beauty of the area has not, and it continues to draw visitors from all over the world. It’s no wonder, then, that Gilliland’s “The Summit Hiker,” a guidebook for trails and fishing spots, consistently ranks as the best-selling book in the county.
Gilliland published the first edition of the book in 1980. Since then, she has done various revisions and extensions. This year, it has improved even more.
“This book is more than a revision — it’s a complete re-vamping,” Gilliland said.
In addition to adding some new trails and removing some that were no longer relevant, the book has been completely re-done with new photos and maps, all of which appear in full color. She also spent her winter interviewing local fishermen, learning tips and favorite fishing spots, and included all that information in a new section for anglers.
Changing and updating her book is important, Gilliland said.
“Guidebooks need to be updated. … Even into the backcountry, it’s amazing,” she said. “Trailheads have moved, trails have been rerouted, a landmark that you might mention, say a cabin, maybe it got struck by lightning and burned, … so you have to do that.”
Gilliland strives to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information for her readers. She has hiked every single trail in the book multiple times, a fact which can be verified by the detailed and familiar tone of each description.
“I’m very familiar with the trails,” she said. “If I close my eyes, I can kind of follow along.”
Hiking runs in the blood for Gilliland, a native of Minnesota. She remembers trips to her family’s lake cabin and time spent exploring the wilderness.
“Tromping through the woods was something that I grew up with and being on the lake and all of that, the outdoors, from when I was tiny,” she said. “The outdoors was huge with our family. I have been a hiker since I was a little girl.”
Gilliland met her husband Larry, a Colorado native, while living in New York City. She followed him back to the mountains and fell in love with the scenery. After discovering the trails and opportunities for hiking all around, she decided to share her knowledge with others by writing a book.
“When I first wrote ‘The Summit Hiker,’ people couldn’t find the trails,” she said. “People in neighborhoods knew where the local trails were, but people didn’t know where the trails were and spent half a day looking for a trailhead. The basic idea was to help people find the trail and find their way.”
In addition to detailed descriptions about the hiking trails, Gilliland’s book also offers an insight into the history of the area. Stories of mining camps, gold rushes and local characters accompany each chapter. As the author of 16 books, many of which delve deeply into the history of Summit County, Gilliland knows what she’s talking about.
“I’ve been researching the history for years and, before they all died, I talked to the old-timers and interviewed them, not just for an hour but days with them,” she said. “Over the years, I have absorbed and researched almost continuously.”
Knowing the history of the places they’re hiking through helps people form an understanding of what they see. When stumbling across a gathering of abandoned cabins, for example, hikers might wonder, “Where did they come from? Who lived here? What happened here? You see these cabins, and it’s just puzzlement,” Gilliland said.
If hikers have her book, they can then answer those questions.
Gilliland said she’s looking forward to her book signing, which allows her the opportunity to connect with her readers and other hikers.
“I get to know my readers and their take on certain things,” she said, which includes both compliment and criticism. “They’ll say, ‘You know, I dispute this mileage,’ or something like that. I write that all down and take it into consideration.”
Later, she’ll take those notes with her along the trail to re-evaluate. Most often, she said, she receives compliments and stories of great experiences within the mountains.
“They’ve used ‘The Summit Hiker’ as a way to discover the splendid beauty of the area, and they focus that gratitude on me,” she said. “It’s not me — I didn’t make what’s out there — but they share the joy that they’ve had and I just feed off of that. People just love getting out and discovering these trails, and they need something to guide them and are so full of happiness from having had these wonderful experiences.”
Gilliland added that she’s been amazed at the success of “The Summit Hiker” and also “The Vail Hiker,” her guidebook on trails in the Vail area. She’s enjoyed combining her love of hiking with her love of history.
“The reason that I write hiking guidebooks and the reason I’m outside in Summit County all the time is because this is such a rare and special place of unusual beauty, and to be able to discover that myself and to help other people discover it has been a source of great satisfaction for me.”