Saturday, August 13, 2011

Shrine Mountain

Distance: 5 miles round trip to end of the right side of the ridge
Elevation: 11,100 ft - 11,888 ft
Elevation Gain: 788 ft (net), 1,135 ft (cumulative)
Date Hiked: 31 July, 2011
Dogs: Off leash
Bathroom at trailhead: Yes

The unusual rock formations on the west side of Shrine Mountain Ridge.

Shrine Mountain off of Shrine Pass near the Copper Mountain Ski Resort has by far the best scenery I have seen in Colorado thus far. It beats out Mt. Thomas, which has similar views but a much larger effort, and Mayflower Gulch, which had here-to-fore has been the trail I returned to year after year, season after season. To think that this trail is practically in my back yard makes it all the more appealing. It is short enough for a quick after work jaunt to watch the sunset from the ridgeline.

Starting out on the gravel road that leads to the Shrine Mountain Inn

The official trailhead is easy to spot

I don't know if it is the 2011 season or this trail but the wildflowers in this area boggled the mind. There were so many colors and textures I wanted to wallow in them forever. This is summer in the Rocky Mountains at its best. Green meadows, flowers galore, and deep blue skies interrupted by fluffy white clouds and the occasional thunderstorm. If these characteristics don't want to make you jump on the plane or buy John Denver's Greatest Hits then there is just no help for you!

Looking down the valley towards Copper Mountain

The route up Shrine Mountain begins at Shrine Pass, which is located only a few miles up Shrine Pass Road from Vail Pass. In the winter there is a fee to use this area in summer there is no fee. The road, while bumpy in spots is passable with a passenger car. Don't be fooled by several of the smaller pull outs along the way. There is a 50 car parking lot at the Pass and bathrooms. You'll know it when you see it.

Bare roots can make for slippery step in wet conditions

Unfortunately, hikers have expanded the trail system beyond the original single track.

The trail follows the gravel road to the Shrine Mountain Inn for a short distance and then quickly veers left into the willows. The views already begin with a panorama down towards Copper Mountain. I suspect the willows will be stunning in the fall. The trail skirts the edge of the meadow and climbs slowly upwards. You can see people and the trail in the distance (around 0.8 miles up the trail) before it finally disappears into the towering Fir forest.

Looking back down the trail at the Gore Range

Leaving the trees and approaching the ridge

From the time you enter the trees, it is only a short mile all the way to the saddle. The route stays in the trees until it exits at the base of the ridge itself, which stands as a towering wall both directly in front of you and to the left. The route goes to the right and wanders through large red rock monoliths before gradually ascending to the saddle. Near the top is large cornice of snow that looks like it stays there all year. Hikers have trudged a route directly across it. While slippery, it is not dangerous in anyway.

Looking left you can see that the ridge curves around to the left

The trail follows the ridge to the right before ascending

Immediately greeting the hiker upon arrive at the saddle is an expansive view to southwest highlighted by the Mount of the Holy Cross, which dominates the view. Some people ascend to just this point for this view alone. To the left is a long, lazy climb through open green meadows and to the right is the summit of Shrine Mountain and the ridge beyond with its fascinating rock formations. A hiker familiar with the area said go right first. Had the weather not intruded, I would have done both.

One of the red rock monoliths that have fallen off of the ridge itself

The route to the right is relatively flat for a quarter of a mile or so. There is a large plateau here where other hikers lounged to admire Holy Cross and the teeming wildflowers at their feet. It was tempted to linger there for a while, but the clouds were building ominously, so after snapping a hundred or so flower pictures, I continued on.

Starting to ascend the ridge

The snow cornice. The saddle is just over that small incline.

From this point, the trail climbs steeply for another quarter of a mile. When I reached the apex of this section I did not realize that I had ascended a name "mountain". It really is just a hump on top of the ridge itself. I have never understood how some large mountains, like the peak just before Mt. Sniktau are unnamed while these lumps of rock are named. I am sure there is logic in there someplace.

Looking left from the saddle. There is a trail that heads up that plateau. I will have to return another day to do that segment.

The Mount of the Holy Cross (14,005 ft) and other peaks in the Holy Cross Wilderness dominate the view to the south.

Beyond the summit the ridgeline continues, which is the most interesting part of this section. It descends gradually and sometimes vary narrowly towards the northwest. To the left is a gentle slope full of trees, while to the right is a small gully overlooking the Gore Range. Sitting atop the other side of the gully is a long series of red rocks that are like a giant Rorschach Test. To me they looked like a giant fossilized aircraft carrier. Bring along some mind alternating substances and who knows what you will see.

A field of wildflowers of every shape and color greeted me as I head off to the right side of the ridge.

You can walk this ridge all way down until the trail officially ends. There was a very steep section that I almost just slide down on my tail near the end. I am not sure it was worth that extra 100 yards, but having never been on the trail before I had to check it out.

Continuing along the right side of the ridge

The summit of Shrine Mountain (11,888 ft) is just ahead

In the distance over Piney Lake and the Gore Range a large thunderstorm was booming, sending shock waves across the valley. I was taking a chance being above treeline in such weather, but since it was a short sprint to trees I felt safe enough pushing my luck. Alas, by the time I returned to the saddle, the weather directly above had turned ominous and it had started to rain. Time to descend dag nabbit!

Looking south towards Copper Mountain from the summit. You could follow that ridgeline down to Wilder Gulch for a nice loop if you had two cars.

The jagged peaks of the Gore Range from the summit slope

The hordes have discovered this fantastic trail, so I don't feel too guilty sharing it with the world. The day I hiked this, there was a continuous stream of folks going up and down. Many were significantly older than me (think Medicare) so this is obviously a trail accessible by many.

Aircraft Carrier rock comes into view. What do you see in its unusual shape?

The ridge begins to narrow. I continued despite the looming dark clouds and the sound of thunder ahead. It is a quick jaunt into the trees on the left.

I will say that this trail is being unfortunately loved to death. Instead of staying in the muddy single track route, the hordes have expanded the trail so that it is almost a multi-lane highway. He is a tidbit about hiking etiquette, get muddy folks, it preserves the area.

Looking back at the rock formation from the end of the ridge

So visitors to our fair State, if you any where near Vail, Copper Mountain, Frisco, Silverthorne etc and have only one day to hike, this is the trail for you. The views will border on a religious experience. You might just pull up stakes and move here permanently. John Denver would be proud.

I had to take only last stop at another field of flowers before descending.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for the work on these trail descriptions and photos. Although we did not take the time for the trail you describe we did proceed further along the road about 1.7 miles to a handicap accessible trail leading down a short path to Julia's Deck, a beautiful overlook with a view of Mount of the Holy Cross albeit without snow in mid July 2012. Not another soul in sight on that easy quarter mile trail. The trail to Julia's Deck allows wheelchair bound persons access to a beautiful view.