boulderweekly.com/elevationMore 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.
We 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.
North 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.
During 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.
The 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.
Once 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.
We 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.
We’d 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.
The 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.
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