Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pine Valley Loop

Distance: 8 miles round trip
Elevation: 6,800 ft - 7,900 ft
Elevation Gain: 1,000 ft net, 1,300 ft cumulative
Dog: On leash while in the park, off leash outside of it

View to the west from the Strawberry Jack Trail

The Pine Valley Loop is not in anyone's guide book, but it is dog friendly, winds through interesting terrain, and is close to Denver. Like the Gashouse Gulch-Baldy Trail, its topography is dominated by the burnt out remains of a major fire, in this case the year 2000 High Meadows Fire. At times the landscape is stark and foreboding and at other times, with the help of a little snow on the ground, it is serene and filled with abstract images. Since the elevation is relatively low, it is a great shoulder season hike. We did it on Thanksgiving day and there was a little too much snow on the ground, which made for some slippery descents. Snow this early is unusual, however.

Map of the Pine Valley Ranch Open Space Park showing the Pine Lake Loop and the Park View Trail

Heading along the south side of the lake. Note that the trail on this side is full of snow while the other side of the lake is clear.

The Pine Valley Loop hike is actually a series of five trails, the Pine Lake Loop in the Pine Valley Ranch Open Space Park, the Buck Gulch Trail, the Skipper Trail, the Strawberry Jack Trail, and the Park View Trail (again in Pine Valley Ranch). You can take this route in either direction, but going counter clockwise (the Buck Gulch side) means you'll come down the view laden Park View Trail at the end.

A burnt out snag on the Buck Gulch Trail

The shadows cast by the snags on the snowy hillsides made for an engaging abstract landscape.

If taken counter clockwise, the loop starts out on the short Pine Lake Loop (0.4 miles from the parking lot), which travels next to the pleasant, can you guess it...Pine Lake. This segment is in the Pine Valley Ranch Park. At the far end of the lake in an intersection with the Buck Gulch Trail.

A brief glimpse of a health Ponderosa Forest at the intersection of the Buck Gulch Trail and the Skipper Trail

The two peaks in the distance were constantly in view.

The Buck Gulch trail departs to the left and heads immediately up hill for 3 miles and 1,000 ft of elevation gain. As it ascends, the trail winds in and out of the park until it finally departs all together. At this point the dogs are allowed to roam free. The trail is open, even in the unburned areas, with pleasant views to the east. At the end of the trail is a small kiosk and parking area. This is the intersection with the Skipper Trail, which heads to the east. It is also the highest point of the loop at 7,900 ft.

Rock formations on the Strawberry Jack Trail

My friends Kate and Elaine at our lunch spot

The Skipper Trail starts out in a unburned portion of the forest, and it large Ponderosa Pines provide a hint of what the area used to be like. Only 1.2 miles long, the trail descends 250 ft but regains 100 ft of that before it dead ends into a 3-way intersection with the Homestead Trail that heads southeast and the Strawberry Jack trail which heads north.

The intersection of the Strawberry Jack Trail and the Park View Trail

Just before heading down the steep side of the Park View Trail

The Strawberry Jack trail travels 2.2 miles before the intersection with the Park View Trail. It winds primarily downwards through large rock formations. We stopped to eat lunch on one pile with views in all directions. In the dead of summer this spot would be a broiler, but on a mild November day it was delightful.

This shot shows the nice view one gets on the Park View Trail but only hints at the iciness we encountered.

There are two options for final pitch back to the car, the Park View Trail or a continuation of the Strawberry Jack Trail. The latter ends up back on the Buck Gulch trail so you repeat some of the route. The Park View Trail is totally unique and has amazing views of the Pine Valley Ranch Park and lake. On most days this is recommended. On the day we did it, it was so slick with ice, we finally resorted to glaceed down on our tushes.

Map of the Buffalo Creek area showing the Pine Valley Loop and the extent of the High Meadows fire

Some people find hiking through burn areas to be either unappealing or downright disturbing. I disagree. Seeing how nature springs back from a burn is an interesting lecture in ecology and the realization that this process is slow is a moral tale we can all benefit from. Colorado is particularly prone to fire and many of the more recent ones have been caused by arson. Only by walking through these areas do we remember these events. The headlines disappear far too quickly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the details on this trail. We just moved in to a home near the parking area and we are very excited to travel this trail.