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The last hiking vacation of the year in Colorado.
We started in Crested Butte with some unexpectedly chilly fall weather. One minute puffy clouds floated through a cerulean blue sky and the next it was dark and gloomy with storms threatening. Confused (but unperturbed) by the weather forecasts which never bore any resemblance to reality, we drove out on the Kebler Pass Road for a hike on Woods Walk trail (last seen knee-deep in summer flowers in July last year). Expecting a storm – the sun came out. A couple of miles into the now warm, sun-filled valley we were suddenly surrounded by claps of thunder, bolts of lightning and heavy black skies. Mere minutes after we made it back to the Jeep it was pouring.
Lessons learned: (a) in fall in the Rockies prepare for every weather eventuality and, (b) don’t trust weather forecasters because they have no idea whatsoever when (or if) the sun will shine and when (or if) it will rain.
The following day the forecast was for sun so it rained hard all morning. It was so cold it felt like winter. Still, we headed north to see if we might find a break in the clouds in Gothic. The valley in which Gothic sits is surrounded by high mountains but we could barely see them for low cloud cover and mist. No sun at all. The final nail in the coffin came when it started sleeting so we headed back to Crested Butte for an early lunch at Secret Stash Pizza. Not an hour later the sun was breaking through the clouds so we drove back up to Gothic to hike the short trail to Judds Falls in a half-hearted attempt to burn off some of the entirely unnecessary pounds we had gained in testing out Secret Stash’s “crack fries”, margaritas & Irish coffee.
When we arrived in the Gothic valley we were delighted to discover a quite spectacular silver-lining to our previously gloomy clouds. The sleet which had earlier dampened both our spirits and our clothing had settled high up on the mountaintops as snow. The mountains were now dusted with brilliant white snow which gleamed against the bright blue sky.
Judds Falls is a popular hike – short at a round-trip of 2 miles. It affords great views of Gothic Mountain and promised a waterfall at the end of the trail. The waterfall was unspectacular at best – proportionate to the relative lack of effort invested in reaching it – which was minimal. If you have a 4 wheel drive Jeep (as we did) you can invest even less physical effort by bouncing up the rough dirt track in your vehicle which cuts off another half mile of uphill clambering from the car park at the base of the mountain road.
The trail passes through open meadows grazed by many, many very large cows chewing the cud. The intrepid hiker was forced to dodge around both the cows (who wouldn’t budge off the trail for anyone) and skip over a multitude of sizable cowpats splattered liberally across the narrow pathway. The views across the valley were impressive and dainty, wintry wisps of cloud wound around the mountains. It was worth getting the sticky boots for the mountain panoramas alone (especially since I am not designated cowpat-encrusted sticky-boot cleaner 😉).
When the sun shone it was positively fluorescent in the mountains surrounding Crested Butte. We were visiting during the last week of September and had (part by careful planning and part due to the luck of nature) timed our vacation perfectly to catch peak fall colors.
Just outside of town, the Kebler Pass was resplendent in all of its autumnal glory. The views driving through the Pass were some of the most beautiful autumnal scenes we have ever seen.
The first of two hikes in the Kebler Pass region was Three Lakes Loop which is an easy 4 ½ mile loop hike in Somerset starting at Lost Lake Slough/East Beckwith reservoir at a campground popular with fishermen. Somewhat conveniently there wasn’t much serious navigation required past following the wooden signposts. Our GPS satellite signal died on us at the very start of the trail so other than the sporadic signposts, all we had with us to guide our route was a very small map photographed from another hiker’s phone. No paper map – no download from Alltrails – I don’t know what I was thinking when we left the apartment but I was in big trouble for failing to be a properly prepared girl guide 😉
The trail weaves up through thick forest and aspen groves and circumnavigates Lost Lake and Dollar Lake. Every corner turned, there was another fabulous view of crystal-clear alpine lakes. The golden-yellow leaved aspens shimmered in the autumnal breeze in that way that only aspen leaves can do.
The following day we returned to the same area via Kebler Pass to hike Dark Canyon at Horse Park Ranch. Yes – there were horses … many horses … and the air was filled with the heady aroma of dumpster quantities of horse poop shoveled up and piled high at the parking area for the trailhead.
On a more positive note, beautiful golden aspen leaves (as opposed to horse poop) carpeted the trails – which was a relief for one’s olfactory and visual senses alike. It seems that the horses take an alternative trail. We were running out of puff at 1100 feet elevation gain and at the halfway point we decided to return along the same route rather than continue around the 6 mile loop.
Another of Secret Stash’s vegetarian “You’re Driving me Caprese” pizzas awaited us back at the town so we were well-motivated to head down the mountain with a spring in our step.
Whilst in town we revisited Camp 4 Coffee – far better than Rumors (in the book store) – for future reference. We also tried out Coffee Lab in Pioneer Square at Crested Butte Mountain which took longer to locate than it took to drink one of its lattes! Secret Stash Pizza featured heavily this trip – and Sunflower Deli is still the best restaurant in town. We tried the popular Sherpa Cafe for lunch but couldn’t really understand the glowing reviews.
Time to head 3 hours northeast to Breckenridge to see if the local weather forecasters were any better at their job than Crested Butte’s forecasters!
Our route took us over four famous passes in one day – all crossing the Continental Divide at various points. It was quite a spectacular drive.
In early fall the long, steep and winding Cottonwood Pass heading from Crested Butte towards Buena Vista was still open. It crosses the Continental Divide at 12,126 feet where an icy wind blew and the air was heavy with impending snowfall. Between Alma and Breckenridge, State Highway 9 snakes through the Hoosier Pass at 11,542 feet. The third pass we took crossing the Continental Divide was an unexpected side-trip.
When we arrived in Breckenridge our room wasn’t ready at Valdoro Mountain Lodge so we drove up to the Boreas Pass which we have only ever seen in winter when it is closed to traffic and neck-deep in snowdrifts. I had no idea that the pass is 22 miles long and reaches an elevation of 11,493 feet. We have hiked the early section of it many times in snow boots and clamp-ons but we have, it seems, not even scratched its surface.
On a beautiful weekend in fall, the traffic was understandably clogged and very chaotic for a narrow road. The leaf-peepers were out in force and it took forever to drive the length of its 22 miles. We likely could have walked it quicker. Compared to the magnificent fall colors and scenery we had left behind us in Crested Butte, the relative beauty of Boreas Pass somewhat paled into insignificance. Still, with time to kill we finished the entire loop and ended up back on the Hoosier Pass – once more heading into town.
Four tiring Continental Divide passes driven in one day – no wonder Geoff needed a very stiff drink (or two) with dinner 😊
The town of Breckenridge looked fabulous draped in autumnal colors. We are so used to seeing it covered in snow with enormous icicles dripping from the eaves of the immaculately-preserved Victorian houses – but the town itself is as equally lovely in fall in early October as it is in the depths of winter.
First hike – Crystal Lake Trail – back towards the Hoosier Pass again where the surrounding mountains were dusted with fresh snow. We were a little late in the season for autumnal color at these elevations but it was worth hiking the easy 3 mile loop – at least until Geoff decided to take the long route back to the car park by adding a section of ball-busting elevation gain for no apparent reason.
No doubt there are many worthy hikes in the vicinity of Breckenridge but the local authorities seem to be hell bent on keeping the bulk of tourists away from their top spots. I would have liked to visit McCullough Gulch Waterfall but I really couldn’t be bothered to get embroiled in the hassle of making online parking reservations or booking a shuttle … so I didn’t …
Consequently, the notable hike of the week in Breckenridge was the Spruce Creek Trail to Lower and Upper Mohawk Lakes. It barely took 10 minutes to reach the trailhead from town. It was only just above freezing when we arrived at 8am to avoid the anticipated crowds (which never came).
I am constantly amazed at how fit and healthy the residents of Colorado appear to be. We were shivering and delaying and procrastinating in the car park. Geoff was layering up as if for an Arctic expedition when an elderly man (at the very least in his mid-80’s) sauntered towards us. He stopped for a friendly pre-hike chat before bounding off in the direction of Peak 9 – one of the 13’ers. For those not “in the know” this means he was off for a morning stroll up to 13,195 feet – just for kicks.
Our hike up Spruce Creek Trail would take us to 12,089 feet – the highest hike of the vacation. We were starting at 10,390 feet. Hence, even in his 80’s, he was likely in far better physical shape than we are at 55 (although undoubtedly our teeth are in far better condition).
To reach the Upper Mohawk Lake is a round trip (out and back) hike of 7 miles which, give or take all of the ups and downs, has an elevation gain of a little more than 1800 feet. The trail runs initially through a cold (certainly chilly at 8am in October), dark spruce forest. It passed open marshland where the frost lay thick and crunchy underfoot and the edges of the ponds were frozen. Eventually, it opened out and up (mainly up!) through rocky outcrops and dry creek beds. The higher you climb, the more you are afforded expansive views across the mountain ranges surrounding Breckenridge. We took the intersecting trail for a brief side-trip to Mayflower Lake which didn’t enthrall us for long since the lake was filled with fallen trees and plant debris. It could easily have been missed. Continental Falls is another popular stop – we sat on a granite rock watching the water cascading down the mountainside. There are dilapidated, abandoned hiking cabins and historic mine shafts to navigate around. At times it was anyone’s guess as to where the trail was actually located. The GPS satellite link was (at least) working this time but, even so, there were plenty of confusing alternative routes – some infinitely more treacherous than others. It wasn’t an easy hike, but the good ones never are ….
A few more low-lying waterfalls and eventually (at around the 3 mile point of mainly uphill rock clambering) Lower Mohawk Lake came into view. The lake is dotted with rocks and surrounded by rugged peaks. I would have happily collapsed on a sunny rock for lunch but the human packhorse carrying the picnic in his rucksack persevered onwards and upwards insisting that we make it to Upper Mohawk Lake as a matter of principal, if nothing else. Like one of the Pied Piper’s rats I scuttled behind him following my lunch uphill.
It turns out he was absolutely justified in pushing us onwards. Upper Mohawk Lake was even more striking in its beauty – glacial teal water encircled by snow-capped peaks. It was worth every heel blister and battered toenail to picnic in the tranquility of the lake watching the reflections of the drifting clouds dance across the water.
On our penultimate day we headed to Colorado’s version of a European ski resort. When you can’t hop on a plane for a quick visit to Austria – there’s always Vail!
Caffeine-fuelled at Two Arrows Coffee and second breakfast consumed (their bagels were excellent!), we headed uphill on the iconic Strawberry Lane to Berrypicker Trail – a moderate to difficult-rated trail with a steep start. We passed through brilliant, iridescent yellow-leaved aspen groves with hints of orange and pinks, we crossed creeks, traversed meadows and passed under chairlifts redundant during fall.
We headed south downhill towards Lionshead Village at the intersection between Strawberry Lane and Berrypicker Trail but lunch was yodeling to us from across the valley so we passed up the opportunity to continue down to Lionshead Village and took a cut-through back to Vail where we ate at the excellent Fall Line restaurant.
The aspens were glowing all over Vail and the town is pristine. Ornate, decoratively painted trims surround the windows and door frames in typical Bavarian style and the facades and balconies of the buildings were draped with trailing plants and colorful flowers in hanging baskets.
We loved Vail … guess we’ll have to come back in winter to check out the authenticity of the gluhwein 😉
On our final hiking day we chose an easier hike running alongside the gently flowing waters of North Ten Mile Creek in Frisco. The trail runs under the watchful eye of Wichita mountain. There were relatively few opportunities to marvel at the aspens here – much of the trail is up through dense pine forest. There are some steeper rocky sections and a couple of open meadows but the few aspens that there are, were largely past peak color. The prettiest section of the river is towards the start of the hike but we persevered for the whole 7½ mile (out and back) return trail which pretty much dead-ends at the intersection with Gore Range Trail – a relative anticlimax in comparison to all of the other trails of the vacation. Having made it that far, it was worth taking a few extra steps down to the river bank to picnic.
There was a brief moment of excitement as we hiked back along the trail and bumped into a cluster of anxious-looking hikers. It transpired that one couple had just walked into the path of a large black bear intent on not being disturbed from his berry gathering. They ran back along the trail where they bumped into 4 other hikers at the same time as we appeared from out of the forest. So all 8 of us stuck together like glue singing and clapping loudly so that none of us became the tasty main course after the berry appetizer 😉
Touching on human food as opposed to bear food – the usual selection of Breckenridge’s restaurants didn’t disappoint – Aurum, Relish, Piante Pizza, La Francais bakery. We tried coffee at Amazing Grace but it was hit or miss as to whether or not they had espresso each morning (certainly there was no chance of getting oat milk there so I had to go to Mom’s Baking Company which was better than expected). Better still for coffee was The Crown on Main Street which also served delicious warm breakfast bagels.
I don’t think Geoff was as delighted as usual with our annual pilgrimage to Crepes a la Carte. To be brutally honest even I thought that the 90 minute wait standing in line in the cold out on the street to place a take-out order for a couple of crepes was a touch too long! The trouble is, once you’ve started to invest precious time in waiting to place an order, it’s hard not to persevere and, the longer the wait, it gets even harder to walk away. To make matters worse, having endured 90 minutes in line to finally reach the counter there was a new handwritten sign saying “Credit Cards Only” which has never been there before. In all of the years we have been buying their crepes they have only ever accepted cash – so we took cash as usual. (For reasons unknown we didn’t have our credit cards with us – they were back at the hotel.) Imagine my dismay to suddenly find that we’d lined up for 90 minutes in the blustery breeze only to find that I couldn’t buy a Chunky Monkey crepe after all! Thank goodness we’d struck up a conversation 90 minutes earlier with the people in line behind us since they ended up offering to buy our very late lunch on their credit card … which was kinda nice of them …
New England receives all of the accolades for autumnal color in the USA but Colorado is equally fabulous in the fall. We would go hiking there every year if there weren’t a wider world which still needs exploring once the world’s borders are fully open again!
Categories: Breckenridge, Colorado, Crested Butte, Hiking, Travel, USA, Vail
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