Splendid wildflowers carpet a deep valley notable for knockout views in this new trail from the revised 2013 full-color edition of “The Summit Hiker.” This fragile ecosystem above timberline needs your protection. Please walk single file, stay on the trail and tread lightly amid these lush flower fields.
What will you experience? Wade through subalpine wildflowers in a valley tucked high beneath the Continental Divide. Then climb to nonstop views from treeless alpine tundra. All this happens on a moderate trail in a half-day hike.
“The Flower Valley,” as this writer calls it, glistens with small streams. Biggest is the uppermost branch of Straight Creek, which slices the valley at its midsection and churns over boulders and rocks. Lush and lovely, the valley rises north to a bare rock headwall above Interstate 70’s Eisenhower Tunnel.
Drive I-70 east 8 miles from Silverthorne exit 205 to the Eisenhower Tunnel. As you approach the tunnel, stay in the right lane and slow down to allow a safe right turn into the generous staging area 0.1 miles before the tunnel entrance. Drive slowly east through this open area to find a paved roadway right of the tunnel structure. This road makes a half-circle loop up and around the tunnel portal. You will pass the trailhead for your hike and the highway department building. Leave your car in the large parking lot just below. Walk the short distance back uphill to the trail. It begins beyond on a paved road at a vehicle closure gate.
The trail climbs on pavement to a water facility. Along the road on the right, pass fields of red Indian paintbrush and blue columbine in July. A cute and curious marmot makes it his business to monitor hikers here. At the water facility, stay right to pick up the footpath.
The trail, always rocky and narrow, rises north in a spectacular deep valley. Coon Hill, a large rock knob to the west, blocks majestic views to mountain ranges beyond, but these will appear as you climb. A cirque at the valley’s end rises to a knife-edge rim. Above it and beyond, Summit, Grand and Clear Creek counties meet at a shared boundary. Flowers here include pink Parry’s primrose in streams in late June and early July, fuchsia-colored elephant head, Whipple’s penstamen in purple and white, Indian paintbrush in palette of pinks, yellow groundsel, ruby-colored kings crown and rosy queen’s crown and white bog orchid, to name a few. All bloom against a background of vivid green.
Don’t miss the right turn just past mid-valley, where the formerly straight-ahead-north trail takes a sharp jog right. Then it begins long switchbacks up the valley’s east wall. Be looking for this. You’ll see a small path continuing north here. Avoid it; it’s a false trail. Views to the sky-jutting Gore Range, with rounded Buffalo Mountain as its southern anchor, begin to emerge. Soon, look southwest for the Saguache Range, famous for its 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross. The Mount’s cross of snow for decades prompted pilgrimages to view it.
As you climb the old road, you leave the sub-alpine meadows to enter a true alpine zone, where blue sky pilot, purple alpine kitten tail, pink dwarf clover and blue dwarf columbine cling to a rocky precipice.
The road ends at a top-of-the world expanse of alpine tundra, a place to be extremely careful to avoid human damage to the fragile and vulnerable plant life. Here you will see a fell field, a dry, sandy alpine phenomenon, dotted with lichen-covered rocks. Amid the rocks, note the alpine cushion plants, dome-shaped clusters of tiny, gem-like blossoms such as pink or white Rocky Mountain phlox, blue alpine forget-me-not, white nailwort and bright-pink moss campion. The curved shape of the cushion plants allows icy wind blasts to flow over them. They also survive arctic temperatures and scouring snow. The cushion plants may be 75 years old, with a root growing three feet deep. But human trampling — your hiking boots and mine — will kill them. Please be careful.
At the top, you may see lift towers from Loveland Ski Area. And you may see mountain goats that travel this high ridge. The hike ends here at the fell field, where hikers see show-stopper views east across the Front Range. Views to the west are just as momentous.
Author-historian Mary Ellen Gilliland has revised and expanded “The Summit Hiker” to include new foot trails, plus Hikes for Tykes and Fishing Lakes for Anglers. It’s available locally or online at summitandvailhikes.com.