Good Hiking Places near Summit County: Dark Canyon of the Raggeds Wilderness
The Dark Canyon is one of the many hiking trails Colorado has to offer at an intermediate level
August 18, 2016
On my return from the Lizardhead Wilderness Area in the San Juans a while ago, I stopped near the summit of McClure Pass (8,755 feet) and made camp at the base of a few massive evergreens in McClure National Forest Campground.
In the morning, a Forest Protection Officer visited. When she heard that I had passed through without exploring the Raggeds Wilderness Area, she was upset and thrust a packet into my hand describing the Dark Canyon on Anthracite Creek, one of the best hikes in Colorado. Before I left camp, I promised to return and explore this good hiking place located in the forest north of the West Elk Wilderness Area for myself.
Departing from Copper Mountain on a late afternoon in mid-June I decided it was time to experience this good hiking place for myself. I made sure I had all my hiking essentials and drove west to Glenwood Springs, south to Carbondale and turned onto State Highway 133, passing Redstone and over McClure Pass. Descending on switchbacks, I wound around Paonia Reservoir and, three hours and 138 miles from Copper Mountain, turned east on Gunnison County 12 toward Kebler Pass. I continued for six miles, passed over Anthracite Creek and arrived at Erickson Springs National Forest Campground.
The campground was empty, giving me plenty of space for my base camp. In early morning, I hiked north to the Dark Canyon Trailhead and began hiking upwards through the narrow canyon. The trail is 14 miles in length, often taken from Horse Ranch Park near the top of Kebler Pass at around 9,000 feet, up to the base of the Ruby Range at 10,300 feet, and then down to Erickson Springs at 6,400 feet. I decided to ascend the canyon instead, knowing that enough snow could prevent passage in the upper forest. Thus, I set out on a hike that could be 28 miles in length.
In the canyon, I was surrounded by steep cliffs stained in black ribbons, and I just knew this would be a good hiking place. Among the broken rock strewn beside the path and roaring, dark Anthracite Creek, I found clumps of the white variant of blue columbine, lupine and larkspur.
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A few hours later, I ascended the switchbacks of Devil's Stairway, a few hundred feet of an easy climb out of the canyon. At the top of the incline (8,400 feet) the forest opened up to a view of the Buck Creek and Middle Anthracite Creek watersheds, with Augusta Mountain (12,559 feet) and Richmond Mountain (12,501 feet) of the Ruby Range rising above the valley. I was surrounded by a brilliant field of golden banner bursting from the fertile ground on the north face of a minor ridge. In the dense fir stands above me, Oh-Be-Joyful Trail wiggled around the base of Oh-Be-Joyful Peak (12,420 feet) and Hancock Peak (12,410 feet) to top the ridge and drop east into the Slate River watershed near Crested Butte.
After passing a harem of elk led by a felted bull in an aspen stand, I continued southeast along the ridge. Across a dry, open plate of rock, I passed the junction with the Silver Basin Trail that led east to the Oh-Be-Joyful Trail. Entering the evergreen forest 8 miles into my ascent at 10,000 feet, I began stumbling through drifts of soggy snow. To the south, I had splendid views of East Beckwith Mountain (12,432 feet), marking the West Elk Mountains and, beyond, Lost Lake.
A mile farther, I reached an impasse of deep snow at 4,000 feet above Erickson Springs after crossing a tributary brook of Ruby Anthracite Creek. I retreated into the Dark Canyon, arriving at my base camp for dinner, 13 hours after I had set out on this beautiful hike.
Kebler Pass Road
Next day, I drove eleven miles along the packed gravel Kebler Pass Road, turning south toward Lost Lake Campground and passing through a massive field of avalanche lilies that seemed like yellow stars on a green carpet of grasses. The campsites were neat pads across from the sparkling waters of Lost Lake Slough, with trailheads for the short Three Lakes Loop and Beckwith Pass Trail. A horse camp west of the lake provides a debarkation point for long trips into the West Elk Wilderness Area.
Returning to the Kebler Pass Road, I continued a few miles to Horse Ranch Park, the high-end trailhead for the Dark Canyon Trail and Dyke Creek Trail to Oh-Be-Joyful Pass. On the east side of Kebler Pass was the road north to Lake Irwin Campground.
The last eight miles to Crested Butte was on paved road. Before noon, I was heading south to Gunnison, completing my 350-mile loop over Monarch Pass and through Buena Vista to arrive at Copper Mountain for dinner.
Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger and the author of "Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness Area" and "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties," available from Amazon Kindle books.
Originally published in the May 28, 2016 issue of the Summit Daily News and regularly vetted for accuracy.
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