Summit Hiker: Wilder Gulch
Ryan Summerlin July 19, 2013
Time: 3 hours
Distance: 3.1 miles one way
Elevation gain: 1,000 feet
High point: 11,500 feet
Usually open: July-September
Topo: Trails Illustrated Vail, Frisco, Dillon
Vail Pass wildflower bloom bursts into its colorful profusion a bit late when spring snows last into May — like they did this year. That’s why this week will provide great flower viewing in Wilder Gulch, a hike from the full-color 2013 edition of “The Summit Hiker.” The blossoms, just coming into full bloom, will be at their freshest all season.
July 15 to Aug. 1 is peak wildflower time on Vail Pass. Both Shrine Pass above and Wilder Gulch just below offer sun-splashed meadows with many sub-alpine zone flowers. Look for purple larkspur, white snowball saxifrage (kitten’s paw), rosy queen’s crown, Indian paintbrush in a palette of pinks and fuschia elephant head. Take a picnic to this valley, and enjoy the blossoms on a warm day.
Drive Interstate 70 west past Copper Mountain to the Vail Pass summit. (Look for Wilder Gulch, a valley on the left just below the pass summit.) Turn off at exit 190. Cross over the interstate, and park in the roomy rest stop parking area. Ute Indians used the Vail Pass summit as a hunting campsite for 7,000 years, according to carbon-dated evidence found here during I-70 construction.
The trail begins at the south end of the parking lot and crosses delicate wetlands, then cuts across a brushy slope and a grassy rise. At 0.5 miles, hikers drop into Wilder Gulch. Now reach the main footpath, go right, and hike uphill on the north-northwest creek bank (right side) along a meadow. The route is an old road, but the gulch remains closed to motorized vehicles in summer, except at the pass summit. Hard-working crews regularly toil to rebuild this trail and protect fragile vegetation. Please help preserve their work. One way to do that, and protect fragile alpine vegetation, is to stay on the trail. Walk single file on the footpath.
The track stays in the meadow for two-thirds of the hike and then enters forest. Curving through the conifers, the path heads uphill on road, first moderately and then in a steep climb.
In a meadow up high, the trail divides. A right fork follows Wearyman Creek and Turkey Creek to Red Cliff, while a left fork goes over Ptarmigan Pass and drops into Camp Hale. Your path goes left. You may encounter vehicles on this road to the pass.
Soon, you emerge from the trees to view Ptarmigan Hill, a rounded, 12,143-foot bump, and Ptarmigan Pass, 11,765 feet. This hike ends on the saddle north of Ptarmigan Hill.
A dirt road winds up to the pass summit, your turn-around point. There are two Ptarmigan Passes in Summit County, one here and one near Dillon. This Ptarmigan Pass offers great views of the Saguache Range and the jagged Gore Range-Eagles Nest Wilderness north-northwest. Add-ons to this hike are the short scramble up Ptarmigan Hill (right) or the more advanced climb to the 12,200-foot ridge and higher promontory beyond left.
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. The guidebook, and its companion, “The Vail Hiker,” is available at local book, grocery and sporting goods stores or online at summitandvailhikes.com.