Watch: Bootprints Hiking Guide, Buffalo Mountain is a deceptively hard, quintessential Summit County hike
WILDERNEST — With a steep elevation gain of 3,000 feet over three miles, Buffalo Mountain in Silverthorne is the quintessential Summit County hike — even if it isn’t a 14,000-foot peak.
For so many Summit County locals, including myself, Buffalo Mountain’s volcano-like couloir amid its rounded-dome top is the first view you get on your first time driving into Summit County. The sight of Buffalo coming out from the western-bound Eisenhower Tunnel at the Continental Divide truly is a welcome-to-the-heart-of-the-Rockies moment, which makes summiting it all that more rewarding.
The standard hiking route up Buffalo Mountain starts from the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead at the top of the Wildernest neighborhood. The limited parking spots across the road from the trailhead can fill up early, especially on weekends, so plan the start of your hike accordingly. From the trailhead, the route climbs moderately and will get your blood pumping right away. Soon the trail will lead you directly through the burn zone from the 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire. The wildflowers blooming amid the scorched trees are a reminder of how Mother Nature can recover with beauty in the face of destruction.
At the 0.35-mile marker, after 200 feet of elevation gain you’ll come to the Eagles Nest Wilderness boundary, beyond which dogs must be leashed. The trail will flatten out some until, at the 0.6-mile marker and 260 feet of elevation gain into the hike, you’ll reach a four-way junction. You’ll want to take the Buffalo Cabin Trail, the trail to the left with the steepest ascent from this vantage point, to head your way up the mountain.
I hope your Wheaties have kicked in by the 1-mile mark of the hike, as at this point the trail through the wooded switchbacks will get steeper and stay steep.
At the 1.25-mile marker, you’ll have gained about 750 feet to around 10,500 feet above sea level. Continuing to climb, 57 minutes into my hike and just over the halfway point of the total distance of the trek, you crest the 11,000-foot mark after 1,200 feet of elevation gain. A few hundred more feet of climbing later, the steep wooded trail will give way to tree line, where a huge cairn with a tree limb sticking out of the top of it signifies where your ascent through the scree-filled boulder field on Buffalo’s east slope will begin.
If you’re attempting a sunrise hike, plan your ascent to reach here right around the time there’s enough morning light to help you find cairns that mark the route.
From here expect a steep climb of 1,400 feet over the final mile. Also, take note of this cairn and tree limb, as when hiking back down it’s crucial to spot this landmark to find the wooded trail back down from the boulder field.
Though the climb up Buffalo most certainly is a boulder-hopping, scree-climb experience, previous hikers have done a great job marking the best switch-backed route up the mountain with cairns. Be sure to secure your footing while keeping your head up throughout the vertical scramble to find the next cairn, as consistently spotting one rock pile ahead and one behind is crucial to maintaining your bearings. The climb isn’t as steep as it otherwise would be, thanks to the cairn-marked switchbacks in the rock field.
Difficulty: More difficult
Distance: 3.1 miles to the summit ridge
Elevation gain: 3,008 feet
Elevation loss: 26 feet
Starting elevation: 9,769 feet
Summit ridge elevation: 12,777 feet
Elapsed time: 2:23:55 to summit ridge
Average speed: 1.3 miles-per-hour
Average pace: 46.26 minutes-per-mile
Parking: Roadside spots across from Buffalo Mountain trailhead at top of Wildernest neighborhood
Ideal for: Alternative to 14er, sunrise hike, scree scramble, views of Gore Range, wildlife viewing
About 2.3 miles into the hike, in the middle of the boulder field, you’ll approach a bigger rock formation from the left. Here, you may struggle to find the next cairn. Hug the formation and walk around the trail at the right, where you will spot the next cairns.
It’s about 700 feet of gain through the scree field, until 2.5 miles into the hike, when you’ll exit the scree field via a singletrack trail at right of a rock tower. From here, the trail flattens out and meanders through mountain goat territory, evidenced by the tufts of white hair you’ll see clinging to the Alpine vegetation.
Exiting the scree field, be ready for the final hike to the summit to stay steep despite mostly taking place on a trail, not rock. With view of the craggy Gore Range coming into view to the north and west, the ascent will flatten out at the somewhat knife’s edge-like Buffalo Mountain summit ridge. To the first couple summits on the ridge, no technical traversing skills are required, though if you want to scale across the saddle to the final summit, Class-III climbing skills will be necessary.
After taking in 360-degree views of the civilization and wilderness all around — including the imposing view down into silver couloir, one of North America’s 50 classic ski descents — en route back down the mountain, I ran into the local herd of mountain goats meandering along the high-Alpine meadow while enjoying a lunch of wildflowers. Though they are familiar with hikers walking by, be sure to keep distance from the goats out of respect and care. That said, this is their territory, so be ready for them to traverse up or down the trail around you.
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