Meet Your Mountains: Colorado’s Buffalo Mountain hiking guide
by the numbers
Mileage: 2.8 miles one way
Time: 4-6 hours
Elevation gain: 9,774-12,777 feet (roughly 2,996 vertical feet)
Getting there: From Interstate 70, take Exit 205, Silverthorne/Dillon, and travel north on Highway 9 to the first traffic light. Turn left on Wildernest Road. In roughly 0.2 miles, turn left onto Wildernest Road (again). Travel 3.6 miles on Wildernest Road, which turns into Ryan Gulch Road. Passing many condos, keep on this road until you reach a large trailhead parking area on your left. There are two trailheads. Be sure to take the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead.
Welcome to Meet Your Mountains, a hiking guide series covering four iconic peaks found just outside your back door in Summit County. Read on for local’s route guides to: Peak 1 in Frisco, Buffalo Mountain near Silverthorne, and Bald Mountain (aka Mount Baldy) and mysterious Mount Guyot outside of Breckenridge.
With the monsoon-like weather in Summit County this August, my hiking partner, Oliver, and I decided to hit the Buffalo Mountain trail as early as we could. Our boots hit the ground right around 8 a.m. in the hopes that leaving then would be enough of a cushion between us and any afternoon storms.
Begin on Buffalo Cabin Trail
The trail begins by winding through a lodgepole pine forest without much elevation gain. In a quick 0.4 miles, we reach the remnants of two old log cabins. Just before the cabins, there is an intersection with four splits to choose from — here, you want to take the Buffalo Mountain Trail.
For the next mile the trail gains elevation rapidly. The once-close condos on Ryan Gulch Road begin to recede before our eyes. We stop every 10 minutes to see how far we’d climbed, and although the elevation gain on this hike was nearly the same as that on the Peak 1 Trail, it felt much more gradual, gentle.
As we worked our way through the pine forest, large pieces of scree began to make appearances here and there, foreshadowing just slightly what was to come. There were a couple stretches while still in the woods where using our hands became necessary, as we moved over pieces of rock larger than living room furniture.
What the Peak 1 Trail didn’t have was switchbacks. Buffalo Mountain’s trail had plenty of them, which we were extremely thankful for. It helped round out the serious elevation gain.
Into the high alpine
In less than an hour, we left tree line and entered the boulder yard. Pointing our fingers at what we thought was the summit, we exclaimed at how “easy” the trail was and how near we were to the summit.
The boulder yard is where the fun begins. It’s a free-for-all, an invitation for creativity on the trail. Though there are plenty of rock cairns for guidance in one’s general direction, it’s just a loose interpretation of the path of least resistance in my opinion.
Cairns are a source of comfort on less-than-obvious trails and remind hikers that they are still on course. They’re backcountry support from your fellow hikers. Yet, on Buffalo Mountain’s trail, the rock cairns were scattered on both the left and right sides of the boulder yard, just solidifying the flexibility of this hike.
We preferred to hang right, as it seemed to be the most efficient path up the boulder yard and to what we thought was our summit. Looking right, one can see Red Peak and the jagged mountaintops that ripple along its ridgeline deep into the Gore Range. Looking left, one can see toward the Tenmile Range, with Peak 1 in clear sight, as well as Mount Royal and the jagged stretch of the Tenmile Canyon alongside I-70.
Looking uphill from the bottom of the boulder yard is daunting: nearly a 45-degree angle of intensely steep rock scrambling. For this portion of the trek, we actually put our poles away, as it became much easier to use our hands.
So, follow the cairns if you so desire, or just scramble your way in a general upward path. We did a little bit of both. The scree underneath my feet sounded like a construction site to me, like two-by-fours being dropped to the ground.
Buffalo’s scree-field puzzle
Moving through scree was truly an inventive portion of the trail. It was a 30-minute-long puzzle of what rock to step on and where to place your hand for balance — over and over again, these alternating motions. It was easy to find rhythm here.
With a rising surge of satisfaction, we topped out at the boulder field, only to find a huge alpine meadow — several football fields wide and several long — leading up to the actual summit of Buffalo Mountain.
We stood in the alpine meadow laughing: Buffalo had beguiled us. Just when we thought she’d be an easy feat, Buffalo reminded us of her size. This mountain is massive. It puts up this façade from afar that it’s a gentle mountain with easy, rolling slopes, but Buffalo proves to be just as craggy and rugged as the rest of the Gore Range.
In the alpine meadow we spotted tufts of mountain goat fleece stuck to low-lying brush. We knew it was just a matter of time before we saw a herd. Nearly a half-mile before the summit, we finally spotted a pack of goats — more curious of us than anything else.
From meadow to summit
During the push from the meadow to the summit, we once again returned to scree, yet this scree wasn’t nearly as substantial as that in the first boulder yard. It required less hand placement and balance, and the incline wasn’t nearly as acute.
When we finally reached the summit, I felt the greatest sense of delight. As we scrambled along Buffalo’s spine, we came to an extremely rocky chute, at the bottom of which there is an alpine lake. This is the craggy divot one can see below from Frisco or Silverthorne.
Looking down from Buffalo’s summit, I saw a familiar landscape. The valley behind Buffalo to the west is vast and lush. The Gore Range Trail takes hikers over Eccles pass, dropping them into the valley below Buffalo.
Lakes, streams and vistas
In this valley one walks beside the most clear, peaceful streams imaginable. There are alpine lakes scattered along the valley floor and walls of vibrant red rock. The ridgeline that Red Peak rests in contains some of the most jagged, pinnacle-like mountaintops I have ever seen in Colorado.
From atop Buffalo, you see this expansive valley and the cradle of mountains that ripple around it. It wasn’t even a particularly clear day, yet we could see the mountain ranges near Vail, and even farther into the distance. On one side of Buffalo’s rocky spine are incomprehensible mountaintops and lush forestry, and on the other side of it traffic, houses and people galore.
What a nice juxtaposition and a glimpse into the power a mountain range holds — to be able to transport hikers from the busy lives they know down below into some of the most remote, quiet spaces imaginable.
Buffalo is a point of separation between the wild spaces and the civilized places, and it holds much more than what meets the eye from afar. Just another reason to go and climb it.
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