Hike Summit County: Hiking Upward at Red Buffalo Pass

Red Buffalo Pass is a fantastic intermediate hiking trail Colorado has located in Summit County

Kim Fenske
Special to the Daily
A snowmelt-fed stream is bordered by a carpet of avalanche lilies on the ascent ot Red Buffalo Pass high above Silverthorne.
Kim Fenske / Special to the Daily |

Red Buffalo Pass is located west of Silverthorne and east of Vail. The pass is named for the surrounding mountains of Red Peak (13,189 feet) and Buffalo Mountain (12,777 feet) and involves hiking upwards towards the summit. The pass itself is part of a ridge over the amphitheater bowl that lies west of Buffalo Mountain. Buffalo Pass (11,770 feet) is the ridge of the Gore Range that forms South Willow Creek watershed to the east and Gore Creek to the west.

This local hiking trail is intermediate in grade and strenuous due to the 5-mile trek from the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead to Red Buffalo Pass, with 2,000 feet of vertical gain. Expect to be hiking upwards for a lot on this trail! The dense evergreen forest near the trailhead provides opportunities to view wildflowers, including arnica, paintbrush, mountain chimes and columbine. The upper tundra meadows fill with avalanche lilies as soon as the snowfields melt in early summer. In the wetlands, globeflower and marsh marigolds line alpine brooks. The most outstanding scenery is found viewing the back slopes of Buffalo Mountain and sharp ridge of Eccles Pass to the south.

On a warm day, freeze 2 liters of water for this hike or carry one bottle with a water filter for this Colorado hike. Plan to be on the trail for six hours at a casual pace. If you become tired on the ascent to Buffalo Pass, then you should probably turn back early because the return does involve hiking upward back to the trailhead.

Beginning at the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead (9,850 feet), hike northwest for a half-mile to a junction where the trail turns left for the ascent to the summit of Buffalo Mountain. At the junction, proceed straight and descend a few hundred feet over the next half-mile. The trail follows an old water diversion ditch, subsequently dropping to the right to cross the several streams of South Willow Creek.

While the Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness group has worked with the U.S Forest Service packing gravel into an intact walkway through the wetlands, several bridges across the streams are broken. In high water, crossing requires nimble path-finding skills. Continuing north, the trail meets a junction with the Gore Range Trail at 1.5 miles (9,500 feet).

Turn left, climbing on switchbacks through the dense forest beside many tumbling cataracts of South Willow Creek. Begin hiking upward for the ascent of 2,000 feet over the next 3 miles to reach the treeless heights of Red Buffalo Pass. Along the way, enjoy magnificent cliffs and avalanche chutes on both Red Peak and Buffalo Mountain. Step across several snow-fed streams that you can tap for cool, refreshing water. Enjoy the lush wetland wildflowers growing in the rock-strewn meadows below the peaks. This is truley a magnificent hiking place.

From Red Buffalo Pass, enjoy views of the Ptarmigan Wilderness Area that lies in the Williams Fork Range to the east, across the Blue River Valley and beyond Silverthorne. The South Willow Creek watershed is a carpet of dense fir and spruce forest spread below Buffalo Mountain. Eccles Pass provides the Gore Range Trail with access to Meadow Creek, North Tenmile Creek, Officers Gulch and Wheeler Lakes near Copper Mountain. To the west, the Gore Creek Trail descends into Vail.

How to get there

From the junction of Interstate 70 and Highway 9 in Silverthorne, drive north for 0.3 miles and turn left on Wildernest Road. Go 0.5 miles before turning left onto Ryan Gulch Road. Drive up the base of Buffalo Mountain for 3.7 miles and stop at the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead, parking on the left side of the road.

If you want a ride to the trailhead with the Summit Stage transit bus, then stay on Highway 9 north and park near the station on Fourth Street in Silverthorne. The Wildernest bus departs at 15 minutes past each hour and reaches the trailhead by 15 minutes later.

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.

Originally posted in the July 4, 2015 issue of the Summit Daily News and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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