Monday, August 15, 2016

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
Tags: #hiking, #coloradooutdoors
Nearby hikes: Game Creek

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.

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