When you live in Kansas, an obvious and popular summer vacation destination is Colorado – one state over and a straight shot on I-70. I mean that literally. You only need to turn your steering wheel twice. Once as you veer northwest past Oakley and then again as you turn left at Colby. OK, I’m already off topic.
We wanted to share just a couple of Colorado hikes we’ve been on recently, just in case you are headed that way this summer or if your future plans take you there. I (Phil) grew up going to Manitou Springs almost every summer and fell in love with Pikes Peak, the Barr Trail and the history in that area. As a teenager, I also spent a month at Cheley Colorado Camps just outside of Estes Park. We hiked/backpacked almost every trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. I will save that post for another day as you can certainly find multitudes of guides on hiking in the park. For a few years in college and immediately after, my Dad I took annual backpacking trips out to Colorado and I’m sharing one of those hikes below (Pawnee Peak). It was so good we did that one twice!
More recently, as empty nesters, we spent some time in Breckenridge last summer where we were joined by our two sons and their girlfriends as well as our dear friends (aka “hiking pros”) from Salt Lake City. The first four hikes listed below are all in the Lake Dillon/Breckenridge/Keystone area and are all awesome. They were all great and very different in their own ways. I’ve listed them by degree of difficulty, but only in my opinion. If you find yourself in the area and want to get out for a hike, check these out!
BRECKENRIDGE/KEYSTONE/DILLON AREA HIKES
Lower Cataract Lake Loop Trail – Lower Cataract Loop Trail is a 2.4 mile moderately trafficked loop trail located north of Silverthorne. The trail is mostly flat and circles the lake. It’s great for all skill levels including children. There are views of the lake the entire time. Along the west end of the lake, a small stream wanders down and spills into the lake and we found that to be a great place to sit for a while. You’re in the shade of tall pine trees and the babbling brook is an instant nap inducer. Depending on the time of year, wildflowers are abundant so take your time and stop to smell the roses (or the columbine at least).
McCullough Gulch Trail – McCullough Gulch Trail is a 2.8 mile out and back trail located near Blue River (just south of Breckenridge) that features multiple lakes and waterfalls and is rated as moderate. As the name suggests, the trail climbs up through a narrow valley that is surrounded on both sides by rugged, above tree-line ridges. It was misty and cloudy the day we went, but that only added to the power of the majestic surroundings. We stopped at the big waterfall, took a nice break, and then headed back down to the car. Beautiful scenery and a fairly short hike makes this a recommended outing!
Mohawk Lakes – Mohawk Lakes is a 6.8 mile out and back trail and is also located just south of Breckenridge. This is a longer hike than the previous two and is definitely a good climb. It’s a bit crowded since it’s close to town, and we saw people of all ages and abilities, so don’t worry too much about the climbing. It’s steady and not crazy hard. The views along the way are amazing and the payoff at the end is always worth it. We stopped at the first of the Mohawk Lakes (Lower Mohawk Lake), sat on big boulders along the shore and enjoyed scanning the peaks that surround the upper valley/lakes. If you are more adventurous and strong hiker, keep going and explore Mohawk Lake and you’ll find a bit more solitude.
Lenawee Trail – Lenawee Trail is a 6.7 mile lightly trafficked out and back trail located a bit east of Keystone that features beautiful wild flowers and is rated as difficult. The trail offers a number of activity options and is best used from July until September. I have to say this is one of my favorite hikes of all time. Personally, I wouldn’t be scared off by the difficult rating. It’s a climb, but it’s steady. As is often the case in Colorado, it starts in a dense forest and climbs along the side of valley wall. As you get a bit higher and round the west side of the ridge, the views back towards Lake Dillon and beyond are spectacular. You are just below tree line here so if you’re tired and/or storms are threatening, this is a good place to turn around.
We kept going, looped back around and climbed up to the east and found ourselves well above timberline. Unfortunately, some thunderheads were forming and the wind picked up. It was a hit-or-miss storm cloud, but our brains convinced our hearts to descend in order to avoid any potential lightening strikes. That’s always a wise choice in the mountains. The hike down was quick, but just as enjoyable. We did this one with our Salt Lake City “hiking pros” friends and we all raved about this hike. I would not suggest taking little children on this one. We were also warned of bears in the area (mostly raiding food leftovers in campsite trash cans), but we did not see any on our hike.
A COUPLE OTHER FUN HIKES/CLIMBS
Pawnee Peak (12,943′) – Here’s the description from the link: This is probably the easiest to hike of all the Indian Peaks, but you’ll be rewarded with great views of it’s neighbors, as well as major peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. At the Pass and summit, you’ll be on the Continental Divide. The hike begins at the Long Lake Trail-head, and ascends the gentle slope to Pawnee Pass (12,541′). Once at the Pass, it’s a moderate 400′ (vertical) hike to the summit. On the summit, you’ll be amazed at the panorama this 12er offers you. I will add the trail up to the peak is great for a day hike. It follows a beautiful stream thundering down from the peaks and high lakes. You can go as long or as short as you’d like and it’s still a great hike. My Dad and I would backpack up to the lake below Pawnee Peak, spend the night there, and then climb up to the top of Pawnee Peak on day two. We would spend another night at the lake and then hike back down to the car the morning of day three. There are two other things I love about this hike. 1) You have a great view of Long’s Peak and a lot of Rocky Mountain National Park from the top of Pawnee Peak. 2) This trail is not in RMNP, and therefore, you don’t have to hassle with permits and fees and whatnot and it’s just as good as being in the park. Just my humble opinion!
Barr Trail to Pikes Peak – If you are in the Colorado Springs area and want to explore Pikes Peak by foot, then the Barr Trail is a great way to get up close and personal. I’ve made this climb three times and each time it’s been challenging and different. The first section coming out of the trailhead at Manitou Springs is a bit dry and switches back and forth up Mt. Manitou. After a few miles, the trail flattens out a bit as you approach the real base of Pikes Peak. Again, you can go as far or as short as you’d like. You don’t have to summit to make this a fun hike as the views, the boulders, and the trees along the way are great. If you do plan on going to the top, get in shape, get acclimated a few days before your climb, read all of the guides and figure out your descent (whether you hike back out, take the cog railway, hitch hike or have someone meet you at the top). I love the climb, but the summit experience is certainly unique. The views, on a clear day, are amazing. But, for a solitude hiker, having tourists and a “summit house” (also known as greasy cheeseburgers and fries) is a bit defeating. Although I will admit on my first summit climb with my very good friend, Troy Bower, the hand dryers in the bathroom saved our lives. OK, not really, but we were darn cold as it was sleeting/snowing the last few miles of our climb, so the warmth was appreciated. Anyway, the Barr Trail is awesome no matter how far you choose to go.
If you find yourself in Colorado, especially in the Summit County area, I hope these suggested hikes are helpful and of interest. Please let us know about your experience and if you have any great hikes you’d like to share! Take only pictures and leave only footprints! We’ll be heading back out there again just as soon as we can.