Hiking the Colorado Trail: A day hike from Gold Hill Trailhead to Copper Mountain
Explore one of the hiking places along the Colorado Trail that winds through Summit County
Special to the Daily
Colorado Trail — Segment 7
Distance: 12.5 miles, depending on variations
Elevation Gain: Approximately 3,600 feet
Parking: Gold Hill Trailhead on Highway 9 between Frisco and Breckenridge; Far East parking lot at Copper Mountain
Variations: Because the CT shares the trail with the Peaks, Miners Creek and Wheeler Trails, you can use alternate entry or exit points, adding or subtracting distance.
Editor’s note: This is the fist installment in a two-part series on hiking the Colorado Trail. Click here for Part 2: A journey to Janet’s Cabin.
For about 500 miles from Denver to Durango, the Colorado Trail snakes its way along streams, through forests and over mountain passes. And this was going to be my summer to do it.
However, two recurring injuries put my body in recovery mode. Worried about carrying a heavy pack, I decided to seek out alternatives to hiking the whole trail.
Long, multi-day routes and National Scenic trails are best known for their “thru-hikers,” but many “section hikers” decide to complete the trail section by section. Some folks without a label choose to hike parts of it without any intention of finishing.
Day Hike — Segment 7
The Colorado Trail is divided into 28 segments. While some are short enough for a day hike, others must be broken up into smaller chunks.
Of the 45 miles in Summit County, there is only one reasonable day hike on the Colorado Trail: a local hiking trail route between southern Breckenridge and Copper Mountain. The official guidebook refers to this as “Segment 7.” It’s more than manageable at 12.5 miles, but if that is too long, there are ways to shorten it and plenty of locations to camp halfway. This one-way hike requires two cars, or a loyal friend to shuttle you.
The day begins early at the Gold Hill Trailhead off Highway 9 9 between Frisco and Breckenridge. Make sure you have good weather, since you will be above tree line and traversing the Tenmile Range for part of the day.
Almost every Colorado Trail thru-hiker or cyclist starts in Denver because the trail gets progressively harder as it enters the mountains. Such is the start of this route. The first part of the trail is flat and relatively open, which is a great way to stretch your legs before crossing the Tenmile Range.
Because this section of the Colorado Trail traverses several local trails, you may encounter hikers and bikers with varying itineraries. I met two groups either biking or hiking the Colorado Trail, a couple hiking the Gold Hill Trail and a Copper Mountain employee taking the scenic route home. I chatted with volunteers from the Colorado Trail Foundation. Coming from as far away as New York, these generous folks had come to swing pulaskis and shovel dirt on the trail for a week.
Delights, big and small
In the first section, be aware of potential logging operations, but notice wildflowers springing up in the clearings. Soak up the scent of pine warming in the sun. On a hot day, you might even see heat waves coming up from the ground.
After about 3 miles, turn left onto the Peaks Trail, toward Miners Creek Trail. Look for wild strawberries in the short distance toward the junction with Miners Creek. Turn right at the junction and begin to start hiking upward slowly.
This section is quiet and peaceful, with the sound of Miners Creek to keep you company. You will cross several creek tributaries over solid footbridges. After the second stream crossing, the trail contours around the curve and offers a view of Lake Dillon through a clearing. Before the next stream crossing is a hand-carved wooden chair to take a break and admire the bluebells, if you are so inclined.
The Miners Creek Trail sidesteps a rocky dirt road, which provides another trail access point if you have a good four-wheel drive vehicle. Continue on the wooded trail, and pause in these clearings for both macro and micro-level delights, from the mountain peaks above to the larkspur at your feet. As the grade increases and your pace slows down, the views improve.
At this point, I ran into some mountain bikers pushing their bikes toward tree line. They had spent four days on the trail so far and were headed past Copper Mountain.
“Georgia Pass was difficult, too,” Jordan Smith said. “The grade wasn’t as bad, but we weren’t able to ride, either. It was all roots, rocks, and reggae.”
When I asked the 40-year-old what made him want to bike the trail this summer, he said, “Stupidity. … It’s been on my bucket list. I’m not getting any younger. I said, ‘Just do it, just commit.’”
His group was planning on a two-week ride to Durango. Smith’s bike weighed 50 pounds with all his gear — no wonder I was hiking faster than he could push.
Above tree line
After a steady uphill, you reach a gorgeous, snow-studded cirque. From here, the trail dips in and out of the krummholz region, with its gnarled trees and shrubs. Upon reaching the saddle, contour right along the east side of the Tenmile Range. It can be disorienting to see Breckenridge in front of you and Lake Dillon behind you, but follow the well-marked trail along this easy pitch — there’s no getting lost.
Soak up the alpine scenery, too. Columbine and cinquefoil abound before giving way to tiny Forget-Me-Nots. There are still stubborn snow cornices hanging on to the ridges above.
Off in the distance, the mountain bikers sang together as they made their way up the final switchbacks between Peaks 5 and 6. When I finally joined them on the crest of the ridge, wind whipping all around, I heard them crack open some celebratory beers.
“What would you call this?” asked one.
“How about awesome?” said his friend.
I agreed, with or without a can in my hand.
Back to the trees
From the top of the Tenmile Range you can drop right into Peak 6. Copper beckons from the other side, with the Gore and Sawatch ranges off in the distance. Even the Climax complex acquires a pleasant glow from up here.
For mountain bikers, it’s all downhill. For us who are hiking the Colorado Trail, our feet still have a lot of work to do.
Luckily, the views remain, and multi-colored paintbrushes dot the path making this an enjoyable Colorado hike. Just when you wonder if you’re going too far south on the gently sloping contour, a cairn marks a westward turn downhill. Say farewell to the alpine wonderland as you dip into the trees and begin descending on switchbacks. Back in the pines and, the air warms up. Reality starts to set in as you hear the traffic of Route 91.
On my way down I met thru-hikers, Anna and Jake, two college students from Albany, New York, trying to hike the trail in 36 days. Jake, whose “trail name” is Miles, said he was happy to be in Summit County. He and Anna found it to be the most beautiful section so far.
Warmed by their story, I gave them my remaining chocolate bars.
“Trail magic,” Miles said.
Feeling my own sort of trail magic, I descended down to the Wheeler Trail and made my way to Copper, where my friend’s chariot whisked me off into the sunset.
Originally published in the August 7, 2015, issue of the Summit Daily News and regularly vetted for accuracy.
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