Saturday, April 6, 2013

Dome Rock

Distance: 11 mile loop
Elevation: 8,788 ft - 9,742 ft (maximum elevation)
Elevation Gain: 839 ft (net), 2,160 ft (cumulative)
Dogs: Not allowed
Bathroom at the trailhead: Yes
Date Hiked: 7 October, 2012

Dome Rock is a magnetically attractive extrusion of Pike's Peak Granite.  Just being near it will make you say wow!
The Dome Rock Loop in the Dome Rock State Wildlife Area adjacent to Mueller State Park near Cripple Creek Colorado is a long, and at times arduous trek to an impressive "Devil's Tower"-sized protrusion of pink Pikes Peak Granite. The route varies from soft dirt amidst Aspen groves, to get-your-feet-wet stream crossings, and finally to gravel strewn deer paths on steep sloping hillsides.  Because of the challenges in terrain as well as the overall distance, I can only recommend this to the hardiest of hikers. If you are not scared off but such trivialities, however, then you will love the geology, solitude, and diversity of flora that this area has to offer.

There are two trailheads. This one starts the loop heading clockwise.
The initial part of the route heads up this valley.
A quick note before you race out the door...50% of this loop is closed from December 1st to July 15th each year to protect the local Big Horned Sheep. Don't let this discourage you, however. With all the Aspens in the southern portion of the route, you'll want to go in the fall anyway.

There are two parking lots at the trailhead. Since we did this as a loop, we chose to park in the lot where we would be coming OUT and therefore save ourselves an additional 0.2 miles at the end.

The first half of the route weaves in and out of Aspens.
A typical false summit on one of the many hills
While you can take this loop in any direction, I was with a friend who was familiar with the area and she chose to take the loop clockwise so we headed due south on the Willow Creek Trail. This trail climbs steadily along a wide dirt road surrounded by Aspen trees. It weaves up and down with occasional views of the surround hillsides until it reaches its highest point at around 9,742 ft. With so many false summits along the way, you won't realize you have crested until the last ascent is well behind you.

At 3.0 miles we came to the junction of the Sand Creek Trail. I would not recommend taking this route because at the far end, the trail intersect a flooded valley that you will have to either slog across or go around. Our route will have to deal with this area as well, but in a less dramatic way. 

I need to make a comment about maps at this point. I have two maps to the area. One is the standard National Geographic Topo Map and the other is a trail map provided by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. While similar, the placement and route of the Sand Creek Trail is totally different on these two maps. Given my GPS mileage to the junction, the National Geo map is more accurate.

A Mule Deer watches us cautiously as we go by.


Many of the views from the false summits are of Aspen strew hillsides.
Trail closure sign
The junction with the Spring Creek Trail is only 0.3 miles beyond the junction with the Sand Creek Trail. There is a VW-sized sign indicating the seasonal closure dates I mentioned earlier, so it will be impossible to miss. From this point on the trail will descend and descend 2.5 additional miles through Aspens galore. At times benign, and at other times steep, this part of the route is on a narrow dirt track that is easy to follow.

Further along, walls on either side will begin to close in as the route descends through a sharp canyon. The wall on the right hand side is actually Dome Rock, but it won't be apparent until you break out into the meadow on its far western side. Other huge rock formations surround the area as well and they were quite alluring until we were far enough way from Dome Rock to turn around and bask in its immensity.

Heading down towards Dome Rock is on a more narrow rutted trail.
The valley around Dome Rock is bordered by high rock walls.
Dome Rock from the side
If you have not guessed by now, Dome Rock is impressive. Like the Thumb of God protruding forcefully from the ground, you can almost feel the magnetism of that much fire-formed granite. We ate our lunch in the meadow near the junction of the Dome Rock Trail at 6.2 miles in. This trail is not on the Division of Wildlife Map.

From this point the route travels up and over the shoulder of another large, bulbous out cropping of rock until it turns eastward for the long slog back up to the parking lot.  It is this portion of the route that things get tricky.

The first stream crossing.  This one is required to get to the meadow with the views of Dome Rock. Even in late fall it was ankle deep.
The meadow around Dome Rock.  A great place for lunch.
If you look on the map, the route crosses the stream to the southern side and then continues up the canyon. This entire area has been turned into a swamp by the local beavers and the original trail, which crisscrosses the area is under water. There is no warning signs about this, and if you follow the well trodden route you will find yourself lost, and not happy snuggling up to the buck-toothed cause of your frustrations. My hiking companion and the one couple we saw on the other side yelling at each other in "you did this to me (*%&@$#)(%!!!!" staccato sentences can attest to it.

After the meadow, the route heads up this drainage before turning to the right at its far end.
The initial rabbit tail on the left side of the flooded valley.  At times difficult to follow and at others very obvious, staying on the left side of the valley will keep you dry.
The way to escape, is to look around carefully at the first water crossing for a small rabbit trail leading off into the shrubby.  Follow this and STAY on this side of the river, no matter how tempting the main trail is and you will find your way out of the canyon. The route on this side of the swamp is at times easy to follow and at times wanders through the shrubbery. If such route finding is something you don't like, turn around at Dome Rock and retrace your steps. 

Because the water covers most of the valley floor, the route on this side is further up the hillside and therefore occasionally traverses some steep, gravel strewn terrain. While you won't fall to your death is you slip, you will come away with some road rash and possibly a twisted ankle. A hiking pole would mitigate the hazards of these segments.

Looking down into the flooded valley.  The original trail is across the water at the edge of the pine trees.
Another view of the left-hand route with bogs to the right.
At 8.6 miles you will come to the ruins of the Jack Rabbit Lodge. There is a trail junction here as well. Remember you stay straight or you will find yourself deep with the confines of Mueller State Park and very far from your car. 

At 10.4 miles is a bridge. Stay left here and you will reach the upper parking lot at 11 miles after a steep climb out of the canyon.

While I can't recommend this area to everyone, I had a blast. While fatigued and ready for a beer at the end, the unique scenery and the unexpected challenges made it all worth while.  If you consider yourself a seasoned hiker, give Dome Rock a try. The Aspens alone will wow you.

The path on a steeper hillside
Finally out of the flooded valley the route is clear sailing on a well defined trail.  It just goes UP quite a bit before you reach the trailhead.

1 comment:

Linda W. said...

Looks like an awesome hike! Love the fall aspens! Nice photos.