It’s no secret that I have an unhealthy fascination with the Gore Range. How could I not? It’s jagged, lush, unknown to 90% of the hiking community (since it contains no 14ers), doesn’t appear on maps except at their very edges, and may well contain sasquatches, dragons and unicorns.
The Gores have also resisted my exploratory efforts most annoyingly and that makes them even more attractive. At the edge of one of my maps, there’s a nice-looking trail loop around the massive, brooding Buffalo Mountain via Eccles Pass at the southern end of the range. There are two trailheads quite close to civilization, even. In February, Michelle and I attempted to ski the loop from the Buffalo Cabin trailhead but lost the trail amongst deep snow and steep trees in the spectacular South Willow Creek valley. A month later, I came back solo and tried a clockwise loop up the easier-to-follow Meadow Creek Trail. I got within sight of Eccles Pass that time, but had burned so much energy in the sticky snow, I turned back.
Time for a rematch!
I mobilized a crew of reliable, flexible, and adventurous partners (Ben and Amanda) and we got a chilly pre-dawn start at the Meadow Creek trailhead just off I-70. Half a mile up the Meadow Creek Trail, we broke right and climbed through alternating trees and meadows to the unremarkable Lilypad Lake, then made a short traverse to the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead where Michelle and I had started my first ill-fated adventure.
This time, the trail around the north-east side of Buffalo Mountain (the connection from the Buffalo Cabin trail to the Mesa Cortina trail) was easier to follow, though it was still steep, rocky, and clearly doesn’t see a lot of traffic. Soon we arrived at zone of young, ten-foot high trees marking an old avalanche scar. “This looks familiar,” I thought with a growing sense of deja vu. “I skied down this slope! And there weren’t any trees then!” Whoa. That’s a lot of snow.
Once we found the Gore Range trail coming up from the east, the path became more obvious, though no less rocky. We climbed steeply past bluffs and gorges and I found one spot after another which looked familiar from my winter thrashings. Inevitably we’d reached it from a different direction and departed in yet a fourth. A side trail to South Willow Falls was well worth the diversion as were several great, rocky overlooks (several of which I may have semi-hucked last winter on skis). We weren’t making fantastic time, but the great scenery was deemed a valid excuse for our slow pace.
Another few miles of steady climb through mixed forest and wildflower meadows brought us to the highest reaches of the South Willow Creek valley. We emerged from one last grove and our jaws sagged down to around our knees. We were in a a startlingly–almost unnaturally–green meadow below the low ridge of Red Buffalo Pass. Behind us was revealed the bulk of Red Peak and the improbably jagged spires making up its east ridge. Ahead was the long-sought Eccles Pass. But between the two was a small lake surrounded by flowers of all sorts. The day was still young and all these mountains I’ve been drooling over for so long were finally within my grasp. What to do?
Conditions could not have been better and yet we climbed nothing. I have visited many spectacularly beautiful places in Colorado. This region is the equal to any of them. We frollicked. We cavorted. We danced and sang at the tops of our lungs. It was transcendant.
In search of broader views, we climbed Red Buffalo Pass and were amply rewarded with new views to the north and west. We came back down, frolicked and lounged anew, passed another few lakes at least as gorgeous as the first, then climbed Eccles Pass (at last!) where we encountered the first people we’d seen all day. Wandering a half mile along the gentle flower-encrusted ridge to the east, we summited the modest Eccles Peak and lounged yet again, this time amidst a vortex of butterflies (seriously!), now enjoying the great views to the south.
All good things must come to an end, so we eventually suffered ourselves to descend to Eccles Pass and start a hammering descent down into the Meadow Creek valley. Had we not just come from the astonishing South Willow drainage, the Meadow Creek wildflowers would have knocked our socks off. Our socks were long gone, but it was still spectacular. Again, I started to recognize places I’d been in the winter (lots of snow on this side, too) and we made a fast, glorious descent through pretty much continuous wildflower meadows on good trail passing a surprising number of people for a Friday afternoon. The last mile or two was on pretty good trail through tall, hot forest.
It was only 16.5 miles for the total loop plus assorted wanderings and the elevation gain was fairly modest as well (3500′?), but we were still very glad to get back to the car. It was a huge relief to finally complete this loop after three tries. Spectacular as the tries were, it was still disappointing. However, had I succeeded in the winter, I might not have returned in the summer and witnessed something so amazing. For a hyper-type-A kind of guy, surrounded by several mountains all offering up their summits as easy pickings, it was very, very strange to pick aesthetics over athletics.
Maybe I should try that more often…
Guidebook Entry for the Eccles Pass Loop: Even without the wildflowers, this is a fantastic trail run. The obvious comparison is with the more famous mountain running loops in Colorado: Aspen’s Four-Pass Loop, the Indian Peaks Pawnee-Buchanan Loop, RMNP’s Tonahutu-North Inlet Loop, and so forth. The basic loop comes in at about 15 miles with only about 3000′ of elevation gain, so it’s pretty modest loop compared to the better-known outings. However, the trail, especially on the north side of Buffalo Mountain, is pretty rough. Even without the wildflowers, the scenery is awesome.
- For interactive version, see http://www.mapmyrun.com/routes/view/46800198/
Logistically, the loop can be done from either trailhead and from either direction. Descending from Eccles Pass to the south via the Meadow Creek Trail makes it a 4.5 mile, very runnable descent and starting out with Lilypad Lake and the traverse across the east side of Buffalo Mountain means that you don’t face four miles of rolling terrain at the end of the day. The toughest route-finding is the section between the Buffalo Cabin and Gore Range trails, and going counter-clockwise makes this section the easiest as well.
There are many possibilities for add-ons. While not part of the loop, I highly recommend the short detours to see South Willow Falls and Red Buffalo Pass at a minimum. The first has a signed intersection from the Gore Range trail. The latter lets you continue down the Gore Creek trail to the campground of the same name near Vail. Alternately, you can head north from Red Buffalo Pass up another 1200′ of climbing to the summit of Red Peak; it’s class 2+ with a few scrambly bits toward the top, but this is easier than usual for the rugged Gore Range. From Eccles Pass, ~2.5 miles each way to the east takes you to Buffalo Mountain (steep toward the end with a wee bit of scrambling) or the gentle humps of the long ridge before that. West from Eccles Pass are the complicated but fairly gentle slopes of West Demming Mountain. The Gore Range Trail continues to the south shortly below Eccles Pass, though it appears to receive little traffic. It drops into the North Tenmile Creek valley whereupon you can head all the way out to Frisco (exit 201) or continue further south all the way to Wheeler Lakes and Copper Ski Area (exit 195).
Consult a map, alert your next of kin, and find your own adventure in the Gore Range.