Summit County Hikes: Buffalo Cabin to Mesa Cortina in Silverthorne
Explore this beginner hiking trails with waterfalls, scenery, and countless route options
In search of a beginner hike providing easy access from the Blue River Valley at Silverthorne, I decided to follow a three-sided loop descending from Buffalo Cabin trailhead and ending at the Mesa Cortina trailhead, the perfect Summit County hike. The hike is easy because of its negative elevation profile, from 9,900 feet at Buffalo Cabin trailhead down to 9,200 feet at Mesa Cortina trailhead.
The loop can be finished by ascending west on Buffalo Cabin Road from the Mesa Cortina trailhead to the connecting trail at the end of the road, then southeast on the Buffalo Cabin Trail at the entrance to the wilderness. Alternatively, you can descend two miles from the Mesa Cortina trailhead into Silverthorne. I finished this simple hike, with a side-trip up to South Willow Falls and a final descent ending at the Summit Stage bus station in Silverthorne, within four hours.
I took a Summit Stage bus up to Buffalo Cabin trailhead at the top of Wildernest subdivision. I hiked northeast on the Buffalo Cabin Trail for two-thirds of a mile, then continued straight at the junction with the trail to South Willow Creek. Circling the base of Buffalo Mountain on this local hiking trail, I met a water diversion ditch at 1.25 miles, then followed the trail to cross South Willow Creek and found the junction with the Gore Range Trail at two miles after one hour of descent.
I could have turned left and shortened my Summit County hike through the lodgepole pine forest to 6 miles. However, I decided to climb a mile up to a favorite local hiking place, South Willow Falls, by turning left and ascending roughly 300 feet. Due to the continuous rainfall the summer brought, South Willow Falls, cast a heavy flow of water into the catch pool downstream.
From South Willow Falls, I hiked two miles down the Gore Range Trail, with South Willow Creek on my right side. Then, I continued east to the junction with the Mesa Cortina Trail and crossed South Willow Creek at five miles into my hike.
Most of the lodgepole trees seen along the trail are dead, killed during the past decade by mountain pine beetle infestation promoted by the climate change effects of warm winters, a problem that can be seen across many hiking trails Colorado has. Without long periods of penetrating cold weather, mountain pine beetle larvae have a higher-than-normal survival rate and chew through the living, sap-rich layer of the pine tree until the tree is fatally girdled.
The final three miles on the Mesa Cortina Trail were covered within an hour due to the level terrain and smooth pathway. It is along the final few miles of trail that you will find brilliant patches of aspen in the sage-filled meadows overlooking Silverthorne and Dillon Reservoir.
How to get there
If you want a short Summit County hike through the sagebrush and aspen meadows from the Mesa Cortina trailhead, you can drive up Buffalo Mountain Drive behind Lowe’s. Proceed 0.3 miles north of the Interstate 70 interchange in Silverthorne and turn left (west) onto Wildernest Road. Take Buffalo Mountain Drive to Lakeview Drive. Turn right at the sign for Cortina Ridge, then left onto Aspen Drive. You may park in the Mesa Cortina trailhead turn-out on the right (north) side of the road. The Mesa Cortina Trail runs four miles northwest to join the Gore Range Trail at South Willow Creek, with only 400 feet of elevation gain. The first two miles of level trail provide open meadow views of colorful aspen trees during the fall season.
For the eight-mile loop from Buffalo Cabin trailhead down to South Willow Falls and ending at the Mesa Cortina trailhead, go north from the junction of I-70 and Highway 9 in Silverthorne. Drive 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 to ride to the trailhead with the Summit Stage transit bus, then stay on Highway 9 north for two blocks past Wildernest Road, turn left on Fourth Street and park near the bus station behind Mountain Lyon Cafe. The Wildernest bus departs at quarter-past the hour and reaches the Buffalo Cabin trailhead by half-past the hour.
Map: “Trails Illustrated,” Vail, Frisco, Dillon, 108. Latitude 40° Summit County Colorado Trails.
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.
Originally published in the September 26, 2015 issue of the Summit Daily and regularly vetted for accuracy.
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