Hike Summit: A snowy June trip on Wheeler Trail in Breckenridge
Hike Summit County
I am slogging through four-foot drifts of saturated snow and realize that I will need to start out on the first leg of the Wheeler Trail a fourth time in order to ascend the Tenmile Range, and then drop down into Miners Creek to complete the link with the Peaks Trail that leads to Gold Hill Trail en route to Breckenridge and the Blue River Valley.
Even some long-time residents of Summit County may be confused by my complex objective, so I will proceed a little slower.
In the Far East parking lot at Copper Mountain is a trailhead for the Wheeler Trail. Across from Tenmile Creek, the trail climbs south at the base of Peak 6 to the gulch between Peak 7 and Peak 8. For the past month, I had been repeatedly hiking up the Wheeler Trail, attempting to bust through the snowdrifts to reach the ridge of the Tenmile Range.
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Now, I realize that I am pressing for an early start to the hiking season in the central High Country. After all, I am the one who gets to chuckle over the early through-hikers who set out on the Colorado Trail to cross Summit County in June, when a massive cornice of snow blocks the east face of the Tenmile Range. I have met hikers in tennis shoes, without water, a coat, or other provisions, who tell me that they are heading west up Gold Hill to cross over the Tenmile Range during the afternoon. On my attempts, at least I was wearing leather hiking boots protected by gaiters, plus a day pack with a fleece, down jacket, mittens, wool cap, GPS, topographical map, two liters of water, headlamps, along with my camera and journal.
Summer to winter
The day is sunny and 70 degrees as I set out from the trailhead at 9,800 feet. After an hour of hiking, the wind picks up and the snowdrifts begin to block the trail at 11,000 feet. I put on my fleece and gaiters.
A half-hour later, I am at 11,230 feet (2.3 miles from the start) and reach the junction of the southbound Wheeler Trail with the northbound Miners Creek Trail. I turn north to follow the path along Wheeler that is also part of the Colorado Trail. The Miners Creek Trail proceeds on an intermediate grade through dense fir and spruce forest until it breaks into open tundra at 12,000 feet, crossing east over the Tenmile Range before dropping into the Miners Creek watershed.
Two hours into the hike, the trail curves into the north face of Peak 7 at 11,550 feet. I am confronted with snowdrifts almost as tall as me. I decide to go off-trail and try climbing vertically along the southwest-facing line of the ridge above me. I knew that the snow was sparse, if I could get through the forest to the wind-swept tundra beyond.
I hike up through a clump of trees until the ridge falls away to an exposed slope of loose rocks, a few clumps of junipers, tundra turf and rock outcroppings. I begin making mountain goat steps from one firm footing to another, studying a couple of groves in the knob of rock above me. As my path continues to roll around to the southern exposure, the clumps of vegetation dissipate and become a steep slide of small, broken talus bits. I reevaluate the terrain and sit down in a controlled rock glissade to surrender my gains and walk the edge of a snowfield for a return to the trail.
I begin breaking trail, often taking several repeated steps to knock down the drift ahead of me before tamping a knee-deep walkway below the soft crust of snow above me. An hour passes while I gain a half-mile and reach the open tundra above the forest, four miles from the trailhead, at 12,000 feet.
Breaking into the open, the scene around me is beautiful. I can see Highway 91 rising up through the valley to approach the Climax Mine and Freemont Pass south of Copper Mountain. Resolution Bowl on Copper Mountain is directly across from me. Looking to the wide expanse of snow-covered peaks to the east, I am near the ridgeline of the Tenmile Range with Peaks 7 through 10 on my right side. To the northwest, I look down on the Gore Range in the Eagles Nest Wilderness. To the west, Vail Pass rises out of the valley from Copper Mountain.
I enjoy the specter of the heavy clouds approaching through the evening sky and begin my retreat from the heights. Somewhere in the rock field, a pika chirps a warning to me as I become swallowed by the forest. In a sudden burst of clapping feathers, a blue grouse flees to a safe distance and stares down at me from the branches of a pine above the trail. Then, nearly seven hours from my start, I complete the seven-mile adventure and cross Tenmile Creek to return home.
How to get there
From the Copper Mountain Village entrance, head south on Highway 91 and turn left into the Far East parking lot. Proceed south and east across the lot to find the trailhead at a bridge crossing Tenmile Creek. The Summit Stage bus system can drop you at the Copper Mountain Village entrance on the Copper Mountain route.
The Wheeler Trail can also be approached from the Frisco Community Center across from Mount Ophir by heading south on the gravel road that leads to the Miners Creek Trailhead. From the east, Tiger Run Campground Resort is across from the Gold Hill Trailhead parking area, mid-way between Breckenridge and Frisco on Highway 9.
Author Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails throughout Colorado. His writing includes “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties” and “Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness,” available from Amazon Kindle Books.
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