Groovy in the Gore

Tom Winter

More flowers than Woodstock without the mud or crowds

The trail was rocky.
And steep and nasty and hard. And my pack was heavy — too heavy. It
might have been the two bottles of wine stuffed in there, but the wine
was essential gear. And everyone knows you shouldn’t go heading into the wilderness without taking all the essentials.

The Gore Range divides Summit and Eagle Counties and the resort towns of Dillon and Frisco on the eastern side of the range along with Vail on the west. With convenient trailheads, easy access from Boulder and Denver and mountain locals who rank as some of the most active in the nation, you’d expect the Gore to be crowded. After all, the FREE hiking and backpacking are $25 Team Hat spectacular, and most of the range has been protected with a federal wilderness designation. Meaning, of course, that the Gore is about as close to pristine as any place on the planet.

But the reality is that as spectacular as these mountains are, they get surprising little use compared to many recreation areas in the state. Because of this, it’s worth taking a second look at this jagged and spectacular range, a mere two-hour drive from Boulder. And the best way to get up close and personal with the high peaks, alpine lakes and babbling streams of the Gore is to throw on a backpack and make a night, or two, of it. Add in the opportunity to hike across the range from Summit to Eagle counties (using a car shuttle), and you have
a moderately challenging weekend trip that can be done by those who
haven’t spent much time backpacking in Colorado’s great outdoors.

started our journey by leaving a car in Vail (and booking a cheap condo
for the Sunday evening when we expected to wrap up our backpacking with
a return to civilization and the charms of a hot shower and fine
dining). A short trip over to Vail Pass and Frisco to the
Lilypad/Willow Creek/Buffalo Cabin Trailhead in the Wilderness
neighborhood of Silverthorne set the trip in motion. We’d leave a car
in the parking lot here and pick it up on our way back to Boulder on
Monday morning.

Tenmile Trail is one of several that start in Summit County and plunge
deep into the Gore. Some, like our choice, lead to easy connections
over high-mountain passes and connect with trails that end up in East
Vail. Others, particularly those north of Silverthorne, like the Gore
Range and North Rock Creek trails are more committed and involved, with
route-finding and difficult off-trail alpine slogs over severe ridges
to get to the other side. But that’s the beauty of the Gore. There’s
something for everyone here, from relative novices to hardcore
backcountry enthusiasts. And with easy access to trailheads on both
sides of the range, your adventure is yours to choose.

the first part of our hike, the miles seemed to go quickly, but as the
elevation gained, our packs became increasingly burdensome. Still, the
wildflowers served to keep our minds off the strain, and the views
unfolded in waves of panoramic bliss.

first part of the trail was relatively straightforward and easy as we
worked our way around the flank of Buffalo Mountain. This 12,777-foot
peak is notable for its classic shape, and is easily visible from the
long descent down the hill from the West Portal of Eisenhower Tunnel.
The mountain looks as though it has had a large bite taken out of it,
the cirque the dominating element of the rounded peak. While we’d
climbed the mountain in the past, the summit wasn’t on our agenda today.

around the side of the peak, the trail gave up precious elevation,
dropping to the South Willow Creek to rendezvous with the Wheeler
Dillon Trail. As a side note for those who hate going down, it’s
possible to forego traversing Buffalo and start lower down the valley
where this trail exits civilization north of Silverthorne. The option
is an example of how hikers and backpackers are spoiled for choice in
the Gore, and how motivated individuals can link multiple trails and
hikes to create loops, multi-day trips and other adventures.

saw our first — and last — people at Willow Creek Falls, and after
fueling up, it was game on to the high alpine meadows below Red Buffalo
pass. The wildflowers and small brooks were too enticing to pass up, so
we set up camp, opened a bottle of wine (much to my aching back’s
relief ) and watched the sun set while dinner bubbled away on our stove.

planned the next leg to be the shortest and easiest of the trip, a day
for wandering through meadows stuffed full of wildflowers, napping in
the sun and, of course for a “city cowboy” start on the trail. The 10
a.m. start didn’t disappoint, and while the short trudge over Red
Buffalo pass at the rarified elevation of 11,800 feet did get our
hearts pumping, we knew that it would be all downhill on the Gore Creek
Trail from there as we headed toward Vail. The western slope of the
Gore is, if anything, more spectacular and empty than the Summit County
side. It’s lusher and greener, with enough wildflowers to please the
most discerning botanists. It’s also home to several attractive peaks,
including Mount Valhalla and Red Peak. These and the other thirteeners
in the Gore don’t see the traffic that Colorado’s fourteeners do, but
they’re just as imposing, crenellated rock spires that pierce the sky.
True to our dude ranch-style on the day, we didn’t attempt any of them,
preferring to set up camp in their shadows and admire them from afar.

next morning, after wading through more waist-deep wildflowers, we
descended the rest of the way to civilization. The wine was all gone,
our packs were much lighter, but the smiles on our faces were as large
as the mountains we’d just crossed.


Details, details

Topographic maps,
trail conditions and more information can be obtained from the U.S.
Forest Service’s regional offices. For the east side of the Gore,
contact the Dillon Ranger District. For trails on the west side of the
range, contact the Holy Cross Ranger District.

Dillon Ranger District: 680 River Parkway Silverthorne, CO 80498 — 970-468-5400 Holy Cross Ranger District: P.O. Box 190, 24747 US HWY 24 Minturn, CO, 81645 — 970-827-5715