The beautiful Harrigan Creek trail is one of the new hikes featured in the all-color 2013 edition of “The Summit Hiker.” The half-day trek is a hike into history, traversing mellow pastureland reminiscent of Summit County’s ranching heritage.
The land “down the Blue” runs north from today’s Silverthorne to the county line. It stretches long and lean as the Summit County cowboys who once lived in this pastoral, mountain-rimmed grassland, ribboned by rushing creeks such as Harrigan.
The U.S. Homestead Act allowed settlers to work, and eventually gain ownership of, 160 acres of government land. Miners fed up with the bone-wrenching labor and bone-crunching accidents in the tunnels and shafts of Breckenridge mines said “humbug” to mine labor in increasing numbers after 1900. They moved down the Blue to homestead ranches. Log cabins with sod roofs and dirt floors characterized the earliest ranch homes. Hard work from dawn to dusk characterized the lives of ranchmen and their wives. They ran cattle, raised dairy cows, trained horses, grew hay and tended vegetable gardens. They fed chickens, picked wild berries, hunted game and fished in streams such as Harrigan Creek.
Drive 10.2 miles north on Highway 9 from Silverthorne Interstate 70 exit 205 (or 7.7 miles north from Silverthorne Elementary School) to the Columbine Ranch. Continue past the Blue River Campground. Be watching for a driveway at left just before mile marker 112 and across from the Acorn Creek Ranch entrance. Turn left into the flat, open meadow, and park in the lot. Do not block ranch road access.
The trail begins on a footpath from the parking area and heads northwest to meet the old ranch road at 0.7 miles. Here, the route turns southwest, climbing through aspen and brush. A pleasant uphill walk takes you to pastureland punctuated by relics of ranch history — wagon remains, rusty haying equipment and irrigation ditch-digging tools. Later, a windowless log building anchors a hub of former ranch activity.
On the gentle upper slopes of the meadowlands, find a good perch for a picnic lunch. This is trail’s end for this hike, a 2.3-mile walk.
Notice the richness of the luxuriant grasses, once grazed by buffalo, which crowded the Blue Valley before settlers came. Later, these grasses made a nutritious munch for cows during Summit County’s ranching era, 1905-60. In September, when the aspens turn gold here, the rich grasses are tinged with red, creating a colorful fall display.
Above, the grassy slopes give way to lodgepole pine forest. There, a trail penetrates the trees to climb a hill and meet the Gore Range Trail (GRT). Hikers who wish to extend their trek can ascend the trail west another 1.2 miles to the Gore Range Trail. From there, you might choose to travel to Boulder Lake by taking a left turn on the GRT (south) and walking 1.3 miles to the Boulder Lake Trail. Then, a short 0.3-mile climb brings you to the lower lake.
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,” are available at local book and sporting goods stores or online at summitandvailhikes.com.