Summit County hiking trails: An autumn trek to Keller Mountain
The Keller Mountain trail is one of best places to hike in Colorado in the autumn months
Keller Mountain (13,085 feet) in the North Rock Creek watershed offers an opportunity to explore an historic mining area and observe waves of brilliantly colored aspen groves during the fall season making this an ideal Summit County hiking trail. Hikers are enveloped by the ragged ridges of the southern Gore Range, viewed from beyond tree line by ascending Keller Mountain to a boulder-strewn ridge.
Although I completed a rigorous day hike of 12 miles and 4,000 vertical feet, a casual hiker can shorten this route into an easy 5-mile round-trip beginner hiking trail from the upper Rock Creek Trailhead parking area, with a vertical ascent of only 1,000 feet to the Boss Mine ruins. The Boss Mine area is obvious due to the large, barren, yellow-tinged sulfide tailing piles that cover a swath on the south face of Keller Mountain.
The Boss Mine produced around $200,000 worth of high-grade Argentite silver ore from 1882 to 1897, pulled from veins less than five feet wide. Gold, lead, zinc and copper were also present in the extracted ores. Acidic run-off containing toxic heavy metals will persist for centuries, seeping from the abandoned mines throughout Colorado.
After bottoming-out on many potholes and exposed rocks a few weeks earlier, I decided to park at the lower Rock Creek parking area, 1.5 miles below the Rock Creek Trailhead. In the past, I have paid towing fees to get my own all-wheel-drive vehicle (and a Good Samaritan’s pick-up truck) towed down from this U.S. Forest Service road after an early snowstorm coated the surface in slippery powder. As I walked along the road, admiring the gurgling creek among willow thickets and aspens, I realized that a grader had recently leveled many of the hazards that punished my vehicle in the previous month.
From the Rock Creek Trailhead, I proceeded west into the Eagles Nest Wilderness area and continued straight at the intersection with the Gore Range Trail. After two hours, I reached the Boss Mine, four miles from the lower parking area at 10,280 feet. I ascended a couple of quick switchbacks and continued west on the trail. It leaves the mine tailings behind and enters avalanche chutes covered in densely packed aspen saplings. One-third of a mile beyond the Boss Mine, at 10,400 feet, I found an open meadow on a steep slope and chose a path for my scramble to the ridge of Keller Mountain.
Two hours later, I reached the exposed ridge at an elevation of 11,850 feet, 5.5 miles from my start. I continued hiking upward through a boulder field, rising above the krumholz and tundra turf toward the summit. Another hour passed as I ascended the next 1,000 feet, scrambling ahead on the sharp spine of rock that forms the western end of Keller Mountain.
I captured photographs of the Boulder Creek watershed to the north of Keller Mountain, as well as the ridge of Willow Mountain peeking over the southern wall of North Rock Creek Valley. The surrounding peaks own obscure titles, including Peak X, Peak Z, Mount Solitude, North Traverse Peak and Climber’s Point.
I began my descent back down this Summit County hiking trail, stumbling on a male ptarmigan foraging for wildflower seeds in the boulder field at 12,500 feet. The distinctive blaze-orange stripe over his eye identified his sex. I observed his dining activity for a while, the bird blending well with the rocks, despite plumage transitioning from the mottled brown of summer to the all-white feathers of winter.
I quickly cut a path east on unknown terrain, being careful to avoid falling from small rock outcrops. I descended through steep slopes swept clean by frequent snow slides and wandered past the ruins of several mining cabins before connecting with the main local hiking trail that passed out of the valley. As the sun sank below the ridge of the Gore Range nine hours after my start, I arrived at the lower parking area.
How to get there
Drive north from Silverthorne to the mile marker 109 and turn west on Rock Creek Road. Continue up the road for 1.5 miles to the low-clearance and winter parking area. If you have a vehicle that can pass over water diversions, potholes and small stones, turn left onto the U.S. Forest Service road and continue another 1.5 miles to the Rock Creek Trailhead parking area. The hike from the lower parking area to the upper parking area adds only a half-hour and is a superior viewing experience to the drive up. Along the way, the rocky road passes aspen groves, dispersed campsites and the gurgling, willow-lined shores of North Rock Creek. Take the Rock Creek Trail west to the junction with the Gore Range Trail and continue straight up the North Rock Creek Valley.
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 printed in the September 12, 2015 issue of the Summit Daily and regularly vetted for accuracy.
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