Find alpine serenity hiking the Oh-Be-Joyful Trail near Crested Butte
August 18, 2016
Don't stop exploring: Hiking guru Kim Fenske lives the unorthodox life of a bus driver by weekday and solo adventurer by weekend.
The Raggeds Wilderness Area is 65,393-acres of national forest lands located northwest of Crested Butte. Fifty miles of hiking trails penetrate the wild lands surrounding a jagged group of mountains in the Ruby Range west of Slate Creek. Kebler Pass Road runs adjacent to the southern boundary of the wilderness area and divides the Raggeds Wilderness from the West Elk Wilderness, found farther to the south. Kebler Pass Road provides access to the primitive national forest campgrounds at Lake Irwin, Lost Lake and Erickson Springs, as well as the dispersed camping area at Horse Ranch Park.
In early July, I traveled west from Buena Vista to Crested Butte over Cottonwood Pass to explore the Raggeds Wilderness. Cottonwood Pass (12,126 feet) forms the Continental Divide about 20 miles west of Buena Vista. From its heights, I looked north across the valley to a wall of mountains forming the border of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness.
As I descended into the watershed of the Taylor River, I drove along a winding gravel road to the edge of Taylor Reservoir. On the southern shore of the reservoir, I passed Lakeview Campground of the Gunnison National Forest, covered in a carpet of yellow cinquefoil and the pastel blue blossoms of common flax. I descended further through open rangeland beside the Taylor River, patiently waiting for cattle clusters to clear the road. Then, I passed more grazing cattle herds along the road north from Almont to Crested Butte.
For dinner, I stopped at Donita's Cantina for a chimichanga filled with cheese on a platter of rice and beans with a delightful margarita — my backcountry fare rarely tastes so good.
Exploring Kebler Pass Road, I bypassed Lake Irwin Campground and drove amidst meadows glowing with blooms of paintbrush, penstemon, cow parsnip and arrowleaf balsamroot. Twenty miles west of Crested Butte, I assembled my tent in the remote horse camp at Lost Lake Campground. As sunset approached, I hiked along the shore of Lost Lake Slough at the base of Beckwith Peak.
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The next morning, I returned to Crested Butte, drove north of town and turned left on Slate River Road. Negotiating the rough dirt road down to the shore of the river was possible even in a low-clearance vehicle, but the river crossing to the Oh-Be-Joyful Trail required getting my feet wet in the chilly rapids of Slate River. Once across the water, I found a large rock and put my feet back into dry socks and hiking boots.
I ascended the remains of a rough mining road that follows the tumbling waterfalls of Oh-Be-Joyful Creek. After two miles, the traces of road vanished as a narrow path penetrated the dense fir forest at the eastern boundary of the Raggeds Wilderness. Scarlet gilia, tiny blue Aspen asters and great golden asters filled the open meadows beside the turbulent cataracts descending east from Democrat, Dippold and Little Silver Basin.
I continued westward through the long valley, with Schuylkill Mountain (12,146 feet) on my right and snow-covered Oh-Be-Joyful Peak (12,420 feet) rising over the center of the expansive view. Only a gathering lightning storm over the Ruby Mountains persuaded me to turn back from the tundra beyond the trees where Blue Lake (11,055 feet) lies hidden in the tiny basin below Purple Peak (12,812 feet). It was a full day — the Oh-Be-Joyful Trail provides a plethora of surprises to fill one or more.
Oh-Be-Joyful Trail begins at 8,960 feet, with an ascent of 3,000 feet to Daisy Pass below Schuylkill Mountain or Oh-Be-Joyful Pass north of Hancock Peak (12,410 feet). The day hike is about 10 miles in length, while other trails can be joined together for a multi-day shuttle backpacking trip to several trailheads along Kebler Pass Road.
How to get there
The Raggeds Wilderness is about 150 miles from central Summit County and there are several possible approaches during the summer season.
Head west on Interstate 70 to Glenwood Springs, then bear south on Highway 82 to Carbondale and continue further south on Highway 133 to Kebler Pass Road, a gravel road that approaches Crested Butte from the west.
Alternatively, take Highway 91 south past Copper to Leadville and continue south on Highway 24 to Buena Vista. At the center of Buena Vista, turn west onto Cottonwood Pass Road and descend from Cottonwood Pass along the winding gravel road, and then proceed southwest along the Taylor River to the junction of State Highway 135 at Almont. Then, turn north for the final 17 miles to Crested Butte.
The third way to reach Crested Butte follows paved roads from Highway 24 south to Poncha Springs, then west over Monarch Pass on Highway 50 to Gunnison. From there, take Highway 135 north for 28 miles.
The Oh-Be-Joyful Trailhead is found by driving five miles north of Crested Butte on Slate River Road, then turning left onto Bureau of Land Management land to follow a steep and rough dirt road down to a parking area beside the Slate River. The Oh-Be-Joyful Trail is accessible by crossing the icy waters of Slate River, after the spring run-off has subsided, in an area of knee-deep shallows. The river is best forded wearing kayak booties, thongs or other foot protection because the gravel bed is sharp.
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