When you drive from the Uncompahgre Valley to the Denver area, which route do you prefer?
In very informal polling, I have found that many people from our area prefer to drive U.S. 50 over Monarch Pass and then U.S. 285, rather than taking Interstate 70.
If you are one of these, perhaps you might want to make time along the way for a short hike or even a long run up to and above timberline.
Recently I have heard from many hikers in our area who are lamenting the current, temporary inaccessibility of the upper reaches of our local high country trails. Many of these trails are unreachable because they still have too much snow covering them now in late June.
Not so in the Pike National Forest, just six miles east of Kenosha Pass. There, the south-facing slopes above timberline currently only have snow in the thickly forested areas, and it is becoming patchy now and more easily passable.
On a recent trip to do research in the Colorado University medical library in Aurora, I needed an outdoor break after all of those hours indoors. So on my return drive, I chose to take U.S. 285, knowing that if I drove just two miles of newly paved road off of that highway, the Three Mile Creek Trailhead awaited.
U.S. 285 in that region follows the North Fork of the South Platte River, and at the tiny village named Grant, Colorado Highway 62 heads north toward Guanella Pass.
Many of you may know that Pass as the trailhead from which one of the shorter, easier routes of any of the “Fourteeners” (peaks of greater than 14,000 feet elevation) is accessed. That peak is Mt. Bierstadt, near Mt. Evans, in the Mt. Evans Wilderness Area.
Geneva Creek runs through this narrow valley, carrying its waters to the South Platte. It, like so many of the rivers and creeks in the Central Rockies now, was about one foot shy of over-topping its banks. Loud and powerful, it was shockingly full for being a creek of such small width.
The Three Mile Creek is as long as its name implies. Its waters join those of Geneva Creek at that state highway near the trailhead itself. The hiking trail follows Three Mile on a well-established trail to its headwaters, at which point the trail veers off toward Mt. Bierstadt.
In those first three miles of trail are fifteen footbridge crossings of that ice-cold creek. The local Forest Service and trail group volunteers in that region have fortunately laid large timbers across the creek fifteen times, timbers which have been clearly flattened with an adze swung by hand.
As a solo hiker (or runner, in my case that day), some risks had to be assessed and calculated in crossing these wet logs. This is especially true once a person gets above the first couple of miles, at which point most of the other hikers have turned around.
Since no one else would likely be available to assist if a slip led to a fall into fast, waist-deep water near 32 degrees Fahrenheit, filled with fallen trees and limbs, chances must be assessed carefully. The recent cold-water drowning deaths of a paddle boarder and also of a kayaker near Gunnison, and the narrowly averted tragedy of another paddleboarder on Ridgway State Park, must be considered.
For the foot traveler who chooses to continue on above that third and last mile of Three Mile Creek Trail, Forest Service Trail number 635 continues on up higher before it intersects with 603. If you choose to take on these trails, know that no trail markers exist, once you leave the trailhead.
While the signboards at the trailhead down below are very well made and quite informative, neither a cellphone picture of their maps, nor some digitally accessed maps, show the current trail accurately. Compass and route-finding skills once again are necessary.
Remember those fifteen log bridges over that first three miles of trail? Well, on the way higher up the mountain, while still in the trees, the small patches of snow in the shade began to get wider, longer, and deeper.
As these snows were melting, they had begun turning the trail into seasonal rivulets and mini-creeks. In that next two miles, as I worked on ascending toward timberline, I had to cross and recross the trail another nineteen times, so as to not have to walk in the deepening runoff itself.
In order to preserve the integrity of the surface of the trail, at such times it is important to either turn around and descend, or to step only on rocks alongside the trail. I did the latter, and eventually got to 12,400 feet elevation.
Such an altitude was mostly unachievable back in the San Juan Mountains that weekend, but that short two mile detour off of the highway made such a trip possible.
John T. Unger is a Diplomate of the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians, with over twenty-five years of practice in Montrose. Ideas for future columns are welcomed at sportsdocunger.com.