18 July 2014

Buffalo Mountain loop

White River National Forest

Locate the trailhead.


I want to be in the Denver area in the evening, but until then, I can enjoy most of the day hiking. Two trailheads leave off from the road near each other to circle around the 12,777 foot peak of Buffalo Mountain via an 11,900 foot pass at the far end. Taking the loop clockwise allows the option of heading up to the top of the peak at the end if there is time. The total length is just under 12 miles, if I believe the map mileages that are often a little short. (Actual length: 14 miles.) The spur up the mountain is 2.1 miles. Arriving at the parking, the two trailheads turn out to be on either side of it. There is even a stop for the Summit Stage, the free bus service that Summit County runs.

Lily Pad Trail and the Summit Stage stop
The start of Lily Pad Trail. The Summit Stage provides opportunities for one way hikes as it stops by many trailheads.

The trail starts off on a wide roads next to some houses, but soon comes to some utility infrastructure and shrinks to the usual dimensions for a well traveled route. The trees have been clear cut and removed near the houses. This too shall pass quickly. None of the trees seem to be wider than six inches and looking up, quite a few seem to be dead. These give way to somewhat healthier looking, but still quite young, forest with more patches of close growing and often dead skinny trees.

lump of granite behind a line of trees that look like they have their pants down
A first look at Buffalo Mountain across the defensible space clear cut of young trees.

purple hoods spaced along a stem
A few of the multitude of unfamiliar and familiar wildflowers.


wilderness sign in the young woods
Entering Eagles Nest Wilderness.

A wooden wilderness sign greets visitors passing into Eagles Nest Wilderness. The trail continues on, wide and well traveled, in a generally flat and sometimes downward route toward the lake. Although in wilderness, helpful structures like bridges have been constructed. Many people of all ages are out on the trail, often in big groups. After trees and meadows, I spot a pond choked with lily pads. Below it is a much larger lake with only a few lily pads in it. Signs warn against having campfires.

a long bridge of built with round logs for the planking
A bridge across a creek helps make the way easier.

wild rose with a polinator
A simple wild rose by the side of the trail.

lily pad choked pond
The higher pond is filled with lily pads.

lily pad lake with few of the pads
The lake below has much more clear water although a few lily pads are making their way in it.

After the lakes, the trail drops a little more quickly toward its end at Meadow Creek. This section gives a number of views over the Dillon Reservoir and the cities that cluster around it. A number of beautiful mariposa lilies occupy the meadows with the other wildflowers.

Frisco and the Dillon Reservoir
Looking down on a muddy pond, then Frisco at the edge of the Dillon Reservoir.

The trail drops out of the wilderness briefly before the junction, then climbs quickly back into it after. There are fewer people along this trail and they tend to be in smaller groups. The built portions of this trail are simpler, but still quite sufficient to keep the feet dry. An old road off to the left is tempting to check out, but I leave it. It climbs in a slow and easy way. There are more stands of young and often dead trees. Crossing the creek and climbing up above its banks eventually brings on some good views of the surrounding mountains. A bit of discarded metal draws me off and then popping over a few foot hill, I find a jumble of old iron rails. Looking back shows the hill to be tailings from a shaft that is now just a depression beside them. Bones off to the other side look big enough to have been a bear, although moose are also in the area.

a couple logs up high bridge Meadow Creek
A simpler bridge set up above high water to cross Meadow Creek.

tall stumps beside the trail
Grassy slopes crowned with rock start to become visible as the trail climbs and the trees thin. There are numerous tall stumps in the area as though some homesteader was superstitions about the bottom four feet of the tree.

Meadow Creek flowing through a meadow
An open space covered in willows along Meadow Creek.

trail separated from Meadow Creek by a line of trees
A line of trees provide a thin barrier between Meadow Creek and the trail.

It clouds up and starts to rain and suddenly there are a lot more people on the trail, all traveling quickly downhill. I greet one man who stops under the same tree as I am sitting to get out his jacket and startle him since he had not realized there was someone on the other side of it. I still have the pass to climb, but do not think about joining them rushing downhill. I figure it is generally correct to assume the weather will be like yesterday even where people are ever so proud of "having" weather. This is especially true if tempered a little with what it did the day before and the day before that. Yesterday was sunny, but the day before kept clouding up and raining hard, even hailing. Ten minutes later, it quit and cleared up. I figure by the time I get to climbing the pass, it will be clear again. If it is still rumbling a bit above, I can always turn the other direction on Gore Range and follow North Tenmile Creek down to grab the Summit Stage back to the car. I am fairly sure it has a bus stop since it is at a freeway entrance and the end of Main St. in Frisco.

rain coming down in a wide spot of the creek
The rain is coming down, but not too hard.

purple flowers with more purple flowers
The wildflowers are nice at the bottom and better high up, but not as good in the middle. This is mostly a variety of paintbrush. The purple stalks are elephant flowers.

As expected, it is clearing up by the time I am getting out from under at least a few trees and looking at the pass. At the signed trail junction, the route I am following is very clear, but I cannot see where the other side of Gore Range Trail goes. There are a few trees along up the pass, but none of them seem to be lightning struck.

trail leading off to a low point on the ridge ahead
It looks fairly certain that that low point up ahead is the pass.

marmot on a rock near the trail sign
A marmot looks on as I approach the end of Meadow Creek Trail.

big U shaped valley
Looking back down the valley which was probably scraped out by a glacier.

At the top of the pass, trails follow the ridge in either direction. The first look into the valley on the other side is wonderful. I have finally found a few pointy peaks. Even more lakes dot the landscape. Buffalo Mountain is no longer hidden behind low, close hills and rises as a rounded granite lump at the end of the ridge with a couple minor peaks in between. Heading down, there are a few spots with snow on the trail, but the obscured trail is not sufficient to cause it to be lost.

South Willow Creek valley
Looking down over the source of South Willow Creek. Red Buffalo Pass is on the far left side. Past the pass, there is a ridge line that does not look as welcoming to the casual climber.

the lump of Buffalo and the ridge route to it
The rounded peak of Buffalo Mountain and a bit of the ridge that could be taken to its top.

I can see the trail up over Red Buffalo Pass as I make my way down. It would be a short and easy side trip to the top to look out over the Gore Creek drainage, but it does not happen. Passing very close to one lake, I notice it was once a little bigger due to a rock dam that has fallen in the middle. All the lakes are free of snow until the one near the junction. This one seems to be half covered in snow. The junction itself is indistinct and not signed. Looking down, I see another trail, and suspecting I am actually on the pass, I head back to grab the lower trail.

ice covered lake with Red Buffalo Pass in the background
A sheet of snow covering a large section of one lake just before the junction with the Gore Creek Trail.

red beatle with black spots
A ladybug among the leaves.

yellow flower pointing downward
Avalanche lilies burst out in bunches over the hillsides.

The second trail leads downward truly. A few creeks come in from the steep slope on the left. This far up into the wilderness, there are no bridges, but none are needed. This side seems more rugged and in greater need of maintenance. Trees lay across the trail, sometimes a half dozen at a time, to make progress difficult at times.

short whitewater in a creek that crosses the trail
One of the creeks of snow melt crossing the trail.

trail high on the side of the valley
The trail stays high on the side of the valley for quite some time.

many trees across the trail
A particularly bad section requiring much hopping over tree trunks that are not all that easy to hop over.

Eventually, the trail finds the bottom of the valley at a large rock slide. Columbines cover the area. It loses the bottom again for a short set of switchbacks, then comes to a junction that is not on my map. The sign promises a waterfall, so I go for it. Past a large campsite, the waters roar. The spur dissolves into a use trail before the waterfall, but is well traveled. The main part of the trail goes to a rock in the middle of the roar and a smaller trail climbs down to view the bottom section from below. It is more of a cascade, but still good.

rock slide below a rugged bit of ridge line
A large pile of scree at the bottom of some steep granite.

cliffs on the side of Buffalo Mountain
Looking up at Buffalo Mountain as it gets closer and more rugged.

top tier of the waterfall
Out on the central rock, taking in the top tier of South Willow Falls.

bottom tier of the waterfall
Below South Willow Falls to take in the lower section.

It clouds up again for a little more rain, but a bit lighter than before and even shorter duration. With light rain off and on, I reach the connector trail to Buffalo Cabin. It crosses the creek in many pieces over a series of broken and missing bridges. It starts to climb and is very faint in places. At one point, it seems to be following a ditch, then suddenly climbs steeply up from that. Things do not seem quite right as the trail suddenly goes directly up the mountain side after flattening out. Chalk marks on every trunk in a line try to assure the hiker to take the steep climb, but faint trails to the side hint at a nicer way. The trails must be what is left of some abandoned shore switchbacks, as the rest of the trail is at the top of the steep slope. After this, it is generally better, and a little further than advertised there is the junction with the trail up to the peak.

chalk dots o small tree trunks
Playing find the trail as it goes steeply up the hill past trees marked with white chalk dots.

distant mountains over the trees
Well down into the trees again.

There is not time to go up to the peak, in fact I am about two hours late of when I wanted to finish. The trail is wide and well maintained again after the junction. I quickly pass out of the wilderness and into cut trees around more houses and back to the parking area.




©2014 Valerie Norton
Posted 1 August 2014

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