Saturday, July 26, 2014

Walker Ranch Loop

Distance: 8 mile loop
Elevation: 7,362 ft - 7,392 ft (yep its a loop)
Elevation Gain: 1,580 ft (cumulative)
Bathroom at Trailhead: No
Dogs: On leash, Boulder County Open Space
Date Hiked: 7 June 2014

South Boulder Creek is one of many diverse terrain features on the Walker Ranch Loop.
The Walker Ranch Loop near Boulder, CO is an amazingly diverse trail with green glades, precipitous descents, cool rock formations, and a rumble-in-your-bones creek. I can't believe I have lived near Boulder for over ten years and have never done it. I was under the misinterpretation that it was just like Eldorado Canyon Trail, which it abuts, but it is so much more.

Map at the trailhead showing the numerous parking areas and stream crossings.
Starting out from the Cedar Meadows Trailhead and heading counter-clockwise.
Indian Paintbrush
There are three trailheads for this loop, three up Flagstaff Road out of Boulder (Boulder County Open Space) and the other (Cedar Meadows) up Coal Creek Canyon Road (part of Eldorado Canyon State Park).  Cedar Meadows is blessedly empty, which on a spring weekend is a novelty not to be missed. Finding a place to park and hike near Boulder can be a trial that is so stressful that it would send the most calm yogi into a week of recuperative meditation.

Leaving the open meadows behind, the terrain shifts to dry Ponderosa Pine, Yucca, and rocks.
Expansive views looking west
The steep steps leading down to South Boulder Creek
Since this is a loop, you can take it in any direction. On this trip we journeyed counter-clockwise. The route starts out crossing gentle hillsides covered in green grasses that wilted in the damp air. Wildflowers dotted the landscape and clouds hung lazily and low over the trees. An unusual June for sure. Before long, the trail drifted into stands of Ponderosa Pine.

Mountain bikers do this trail??
Looking down on South Boulder Creek
After the creek, the route changes to a wide dirt road and heads steadily upwards.
After 1.5 miles or so, the trail begins a steep descent down log steps to the bottom of Boulder Creek. The only way to go is slow, taking each step carefully since they are filled with loose gravel and are narrow in places. I can't image mountain bikers liking this trail for this reason but they just carry their bikes up or down this segment and carry on. South Boulder Creek is a controlled waterway with its volume controlled by the dam at nearby Gross Reservoir. On this trip it was a torrent that shook the earth with its intensity. Falling in would have been an instant death sentence.

Turning from the dirt road back onto a single track. Note the nature sign in the distance. That will be a good thing to look for.
A shaded segment in the trees
On top of the ridge
Beyond South Boulder Creek, the trail rises again and becomes a wide dirt road. At 2.5 miles is the junction with the Eldorado Canyon Trail that heads westward into the State Park. Another mile upwards the trail splits. Head straight up the road and you will dead end at the Ethel Road trailhead. Turn left onto the dirt path to continue the loop.

Starting into the burn area
All the rain we had in June 2014 really had the wildflowers popping.
Looking east. You can see where the trail heads south again from the Walker Ranch trailhead.
The next segment is damper and the trees change to shade-loving Douglas Fir. A small stream gurgles nearby while the trail becomes packed gravel eroded from granite outcroppings. After climbing steadily, the route peaks out on a narrow ridge (at 4.4. miles/912 ft elevation gain) with views to the east and west. The trail winds slowly down this ridge until it reaches the Walker Ranch trailhead at 7,279 ft (1,029 ft elevation gain). It was cold and windy at this point but we were starving and so chose to eat at the picnic table to avoid getting crushed by the hikers and bikers disgorging themselves from the parking lot. Obviously, this is the busiest trailhead on the route.

Approaching the Walker Ranch Trailhead
Leaving the Walker Ranch Trailhead and heading back down to South Boulder Creek
Walking along South Boulder Creek. The roar was palpable.
Continuing counter clockwise, the trail descends rapidly on an eroded path back down to South Boulder Creek. At the bottom (at 6.3 miles) there are several picnic tables that were filled with anglers braving the rushing stream. From this point the route is flat, following the stream until it crosses the creek and begins a short but brutal 0.75 mile climb back up to the Cedar Meadows trailhead.

The path along South Boulder Creek is wide, flat, and very pleasant.
Starting the long slug back to the car
Close-up of some reproductive organs.
The Crescent Meadows trailhead is a separate undeveloped part of Eldorado Canyon State Park. To get to the trailhead drive 7 miles up Coal Creek Canyon from Hwy 93. Go through a small town where you'll see a Sinclair Gas Station on the left. Turn Right on Crescent Park Drive,  travel one mile always staying to your left until you come to a T junction. Take a right at the T and proceed a couple more miles, cross a railroad track. A few hundred feet from the tracks you'll see the dirt lot on your right.

More flowers
Approaching the trailhead

It is hard to find long hikes near Boulder. Walker Ranch will get you in shape for summer hiking while keeping you interested with all of the micro-climates. If you don't live in Boulder itself, the Cedar Meadows trailhead is the way to go.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Two Elks National Recreation Trail - West Entrance

Distance: 5 miles round trip
Elevation: 8,140 ft - 8,839 ft
Elevation Gain: 699 (net), 980 ft (cumulative)
Bathroom at Trailhead: No
Dogs: Off leash
Caveats: Trail is closed after the first two miles May 1st to July 1st for Elk calving. There is a shooting range a quarter mile from the trailhead, which can be noisy.
Date Hiked: 3 July 2014

Mount of the Holy Cross is visible from the Two Elks National Recreation Trail.
The Two Elks National Recreation Trail (NRT) near Vail Colorado is a 12 mile "short cut" between I-70 and Vail proper and Highway 24 south of Minturn. Going the entire length requires serious stamina, a car shuttle, or a mountain bike. On this trip, we were looking for a less rocky trail with minimal elevation gain since my hiking partner had broken her arm several weeks before and falling on it would not have been good despite the new hardware screwed into her bone. Two Elks turned out to be just perfect.

The parking area
The trail starts out on shaded side of the creek.
From the west side near Minturn, this trail ascends gradually along a soft dirt trail that parallels Two Elk Creek. The vegetation was so lush that I felt half-naked without a pith helmet and machete. The gulch through which the creek travels is surprisingly deep, and the trail weaves up and down, sometimes close to the water but often as not half-way up the hillside. This turned out to be problematic because the weather was hot and we wanted to dunk our bandanas in the stream to cool off. Even in places where the trail was at the level of the creek, it would have been a "Doctor Livingston I presume..." adventure to bushwhack the 10 feet to the stream.

Two Elk Creek is ever present but not always accessible.
Now on the sunny side of the creek
Because the gulch is oriented east/west, the vegetation is quite different depending upon which side of the creek you are on. The southern/north-facing side is filled with Douglas Fir and other shade-loving plants, while the northern/south-facing side is more open, filled with Aspen, green grasses and the occasional wildflower.

The trail alternates between treeless hillsides and thick foliage.
One of the more rare steeper segments
The higher you ascend, and on this trip we did not go that far, the better the views back down the valley. The famous Mount of the Holy Cross (14,009 ft) is framed nicely by the towering trees although the angle is just slightly off and the cross itself looks crooked.

Thick carpets of Boulder Raspberry covered the trail.
The most voluminous plant in the area was the Boulder Raspberry (Oreobatus deliciosus) otherwise known as Mountain Plover. While yellow in the fall, this plant is verdant green in the summer with white, ostentatious flowers. Individual plants can grow 3-5 ft tall and 6 ft wide and I think every single one of them had, they were so thick. This trail must be bear heaven in the fall in the with all the berries.

Another picture of the creek.
I have seen pictures of the trail much further up the gulch than we made it. The trees disappear and green grasses dominate. In our case, we turned around at 2.5 miles (851 ft cumulative gain) in a very pleasant stand of Aspen.

Boulder Raspberry encroach on the trail.
The Two Elks Trail is a find that I will add to my early season hiking list. In July it was too hot, but I bet in late May or June it would be sublime. Be advised, because of its length, you are more likely to run into mountain bikers than hikers. The ones we did run into were generally courteous and were NOT racing down the narrow track like they were being chased by wolves. A novelty to be sure!

The pleasant glade of Aspens that was our turn around point. Because of the thick undergrowth, there were not many places to sit.
To get to the west entrance of the Two Elks Trail from Vail, take I-70 west to exit 171 (Hwy 24) and head south. Go approximately 2.7 miles to Minturn and Cemetery Road (marked with just a typical green street sign). Turn left and cross the bridge.  Follow Cemetery Road until it crosses the railroad tracks (you'll see the cemetery at that point).  From the cemetery, continue on the road and turn right at the first fork (a single lane dirt road...rough put passible with a low clearance 2WD) and left at the second fork. You'll be weaving up and down the hillside paralleling the railroad tracks. Just before the trailhead, you pass a series of shooting ranges. They were occupied, and we did hear gun fire for the first half mile or so of the hike despite the roaring sound of the Two Elk Creek.