Bootprints Hiking Guide: The mysteries of the Gore Range, Part 1
By the numbers:
Mileage: roughly 28.8 miles from Copper Mountain trailhead at Wheeler Flats to Rock Creek trailhead north of Silverthorne
Time: two full days (a total of around 16 hours)
Getting there: From I-70 take Exit 195 at the scenic overlook. Park in the spaces provided. Hike on the Wheeler National Recreation Trail for about a mile until it intersects with the Gore Range Trail. Or, from Copper Mountain Ski Resort’s Alpine Parking Lot, walk 0.35 miles east over the I-70 pedestrian bridge to a sign marking the Gore Range Trail on your left.
Day Hikes in the Gore:
North Tenmile to Wheeler Flats: 7.29 miles, rated moderate
Meadow Creek to North Tenmile: 2.6 miles, rated moderate to more difficult
Buffalo Cabin to Meadow Creek: 3.43 miles, moderate to more difficult
Rock Creek Road to Mesa Cortina: 8.04 miles, easy
aLPINE lAKE Hikes:
Salmon and Willow Lakes: 13 miles, rated as moderate; Start at Willowbrook trailhead or Mesa Cortina trailhead to the Gore Range Trail intersection, bear right, eventually running into the Salmon Lakes turnoff; Follow Rock Creek Trail to the Gore Range Trail and bear left, eventually running into the Salmon Lakes turnoff
Upper Boulder Lake: 11 miles, rated as more difficult; Start at Rock Creek Trail, bear right on the Gore Range Trail, eventually running into Boulder Creek Trail
Upper Slate Lake: 22.4 miles, rated as difficult; Start at the Rock Creek trailhead, bearing right on the Gore Range Trail, eventually running into the Slate Creek Trail
Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a two-part series. Read on for Part Two on the northern stretch of the Gore Trail.
I have been drawn to the harsh peaks of the Gore Range since visiting Summit County in 2014. Since moving here in 2015, I’ve been intrigued by the way its ruggedness stretches across nearly the entire horizon line. Aside from backpacking a brief loop around Tipperary, Surprise and Lower Cataract Lakes in the fall of 2016, I hadn’t had many experiences there. I had, however, formulated an idea of what its trail would be like.
From the little information available online about the Gore, I believed it to be a wild beast of a trail — a trek that would require physical strength, research and preparation, good gear and certainly the right hiking companion. I’d envisioned extreme solitude, plenty of wildlife and difficult pushes. I expected assuredly that route finding would be involved. And some of what I had predicted, I found to be true.
WHO’S COUNTING ANYWAY?
I looked back about a mile behind us at my friend Oliver’s red Subaru parked at exit 195 off of I-70 near Copper Mountain. We had set shuttle, leaving my car 28 miles away at the Rock Creek trailhead just north of Silverthorne. This was roughly the halfway point.
Depending on where you look for intel, the Gore Range Trail is roughly 50 miles in length, running north to south from Green Mountain Reservoir to Copper Mountain Resort. The Dillon Ranger District says the trail is 45 miles; HikingProject.com says 48.5; AllTrails.com says 41.7; by my own calculations it is something like 51.7.
The roughly 52 miles I calculated by map doesn’t even include the numerous trail intersections that lead hikers to high alpine lakes and into deep, remote valleys.
To shave off a few initial miles, we took off on the trail Friday afternoon and pitched camp about a quarter mile before Wheeler Lakes.
THE EARLY MILES COUNT
Saturday morning came quickly — a tent only shields the elements to a certain degree. You can’t pull the curtains tight to shut out light and you can’t wiggle further under the sheets. Tent life is early life. You rise with the sun.
With 16 miles to bag, we hit the trail by 7:30 a.m. and by 7:45 a.m. we’d reached Wheeler Lakes. This was our first water source stop of the trip. Normally running water is preferable, but this water wasn’t completely stagnant, nor did it appear to be dirty. This is where trust in your gear comes into play. If you have a good system (we used a Katadyn water filter), you should be safe.
Although we’d only gone roughly 3 miles at this point, we filled our Camelbak bladders and Nalgene bottles. We had a long day ahead, which would require hydration. And, plenty of it.
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MEASURING UP TO EXPECTATIONS
From Wheeler Lakes, we maneuvered through alpine meadows, eventually losing sight of Copper Mountain and the Tenmile Range. So far, the trail surprised me. It was well maintained singletrack that was easy to follow.
Between Wheeler Lakes and North Tenmile Creek there are 10 miles of trail. Most of it was a blur. On the uphill sections, we pushed hard. On the downhill we moved hastily.
From where we began to lose sight of the Tenmile Range to the top of Uneva Pass there is roughly 1,000 feet of gradual elevation gain. There were unnamed, yet sizeable, ponds scattered on either side of the trail. The valley floors were topped with streams that roared with snowmelt.
When we reacehd Lost Lake — a crystal clear alpine lake — we knew we were nearby Uneva Pass. The beauty and the surprises around each bend in the trail kept us on pace through this steep section. And in under two hours, reached Uneva.
Goodbye tenmile, hello gore
There were still huge pockets of snow atop Uneva Pass and on both sides near its summit. The Gore Range opened up for us as we descended Uneva — we could see exactly where we were headed.
Our goal was to make it somewhere in the valley between Red Peak and Buffalo Mountain, two of the Gore’s most prominent peaks. We still had about 5 miles until we reached the North Tenmile Creek intersection and another 4.5 until the valley below Buffalo Mountain.
Just a mile from the summit of Uneva, we reached an unnamed lake. Sunbathing marmots and boisterous pika were the rulers of this domain.
For the next roughly 4 miles, until the intersection with North Tenmile Creek, the trail remained in a heavily shaded forest. These were easy downhill miles, a great time to regain energy.
ONE PASS DOWN, ONE TO GO
Tenmile Creek was our second water stop of the day, and one of the first places I had taken my pack off that day. Taking your pack off after hours of hiking feels like taking off ski boots after hours on the slopes or walking on the moon for the first time. You feel incredibly light weight, as if you just float through air.
Tenmile Creek’s water was clean tasting and incredibly cold. After fording the creek, we began a series of steep switchbacks on an exposed hillside. In 20 minutes we could see the thread of Tenmile Creek far below us.
As the trail plateaued, we welcomed the shade. The closer we got to Eccles Pass, the more rocky the scenery became. Just paces before the approach to Eccles, the trail opened up completely. Eight mountains along the two ridgelines on either side of the approach were above 12,000 feet, some just under 13,000 feet. At this intersection with the Meadow Creek Trail, we saw the most people we’d seen all day.
Mountain topping, feeling high
The view from the top of Eccles is some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on: rich meadows sprinkled with wildflowers, waterfalls, numerous turquoise alpine lakes, the jagged backside of the Gore Range, Red Peak and Buffalo Mountain. I’d never seen Buffalo from this side — only looking up from Silverthorne and Frisco. Buffalo is much more rough and craggy up close than the soft dome it presents from afar.
With more storm clouds overtop the summit, we were up and over Eccles as quickly as we tackled Uneva. For the first time all weekend, it began to rain gently. We attempted to run down the pass as fast as we could considering the 35 pound packs on our backs and slick trail.
Despite having hiked close to 16 miles at this point, I was propelled on by the absolute beauty of my surroundings. Deliriously tired and elated to have reached our destination, we ran through the valley laughing hysterically.
Buffalo’s Bad Side
It’s always smart to sleep next to a water source, because you use more water at camp than you might think and there’s nothing better than to have fresh water to start a day’s trek. We set up camp on a flat slice of land beside the stream, and seemed to have the entire valley to ourselves. If you look at the Gore from Silverthorne, you can see an opening between Buffalo Mountain and the series of peaks to its right. That is where we camped.
Buffalo is a nasty mountain — in the best way possible. Its backside edges extend straight out, like the point of a witch’s hat. The first 2 miles were an easy downhill grade that led us to the intersection with South Willow Trail, which would be the busiest section of the entire thru-hike. There were dozens of hikers from the Mesa Cortina, Buffalo Cabin and Willowbrook trailheads.
Gore as a Means of Access
From Willowbrook to Rock Creek trailhead — roughly 7 miles — we saw only two groups of people. For the majority of the day, we had the entire trail to ourselves. Although, it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as our first day. There were three openings in the trees for views of the Gore Range, one looking up at Mount Silverthorne (the monarch of the central Gores), another at a beaver pond with a mountainous backdrop and another as we crossed Rock Creek.
For the most part, the trail was tedious and tiresome. For miles we hiked without any shade through dead pine forests. I tried counting how many dead logs I had stepped over, but lost count near 50. I can say with confidence that I would not recommend this part of the trail as a thru-hike. I was starting to understand that the Gore was intended to be more of an access trail to high alpine lakes, to meadows, to rugged peaks. Near Rock Creek the trail improved slightly with dense forests again, plenty of shade and views, but for nearly 6 miles we suffered back to our halfway point. We would resume the following weekend at Rock Creek trailhead to finish the second half of the Gore Range not knowing what to expect.
This story originally published July 28, 2017. It appeared in the Explore Summit 2018 summer magazine.
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