Published: March 12th 2008June 9th 2007
Distance: to view of Chair Rocks ~ 9 miles
I typically pride myself in knowing where to go hiking when the weather gets oppressive in the summer. So, I figured I would be fine if I headed back to the South Platte River Valley in the Buffalo Creek area. After all, it’s far enough away from Denver that the weather should be pretty different, right? Wrong. This was easily one of the most uncomfortable hikes I’ve ever been on. As I descended towards the South Platte River, I watched the temperature on my car’s thermometer climb higher and higher. It was near 85 degrees when I finally hit the trail. That’s just uncomfortable! Making matters worse, I didn’t pack nearly enough water and I ran out on the way back. Regardless, I still had a great time on this hike.
Heading west, the second segment of the Colorado Trail starts in the shadow of the canyon carved by the South Fork of the South Platte River. The trail climbs up into one of the largest areas scorched by the Buffalo Creek Fire. This conflagration charred nearly 12,000 acres of the Pike National Forest in 1996. Not surprisingly,
the fire had profound effects on the land, which now bares more resemblance to desert than forest in many places. Just after the fire, the area experienced torrential rains which resulted in catastrophic flooding in the area. These two devastating natural disasters permanently changed the landscape. Several popular camp sites and 4-wheel drive roads were closed, making this a somewhat taxing segment for hikers making their way towards Durango in southern Colorado.
Despite the undeniably negative side of the Buffalo Creek Fire, there is a silver lining. While it may not look like it from afar, the forest is gradually rebuilding itself. The Forest Service does not expect this area to be fully recovered for centuries, but many hardy plants like yucca, cacti, and numerous shrubs and low trees have taken root. As ruinous as fires may be, they are a natural part of a forest’s life cycle. The elimination of the older trees has allowed new plant life to emerge. And while it may not have been worth the destruction, there are now impressive views of the surrounding mountains along parts of the trail.
The trailhead for this segment is at the South Platte River Trailhead, just
south of the confluence of the North and South Forks of the South Platte River in Douglas County. The trail starts by crossing the river using the Gudy Gaskill Bridge (named for the founder of the Colorado Trail Foundation). After briefly running along the river, the trail begins a steep climb up the canyon. After a little over a mile of climbing, the trail enters the burn area and begins a long moderate but exposed section of hiking. Visible just to the south is Long Scraggy Peak, one of the highest mountains in this area. Just visible to the south and east is Devil’s Head Mountain. The craggy Raleigh Peak is visible to the west, as are the mountains of the Lost Creek area (much further to the west). The trail stays in the exposed burn area until about 2.5 miles into the hike, then it finally enters forest area and some merciful shade. Fortunately, the trail stays within the unburned forest for about five miles. I ended up turning back after reaching a point where the trail starts to descend; I am guessing around 4.5 miles in. The entire segment of the trail is 11.5 miles, ending at the
Scraggy Creek Trailhead in the Buffalo Creek Recreation Area.
If you are interested in attempting the entire segment in one day, consider making this a shuttle hike. Park one car at the South Platte River Trailhead, and leave another car at Scraggy Creek. Unfortunately, the Colorado Trail is really the only legitimate hiking option to be found in this area. If you are not interested in hiking through the burn area, another option would be to take Segment 1 east towards the Waterton Canyon trailhead. The Buffalo Creek Recreation Area to the west offers more hiking options through land that was less affected by the fire.
As I mentioned earlier, I ran out of water on this hike. This was a very stupid mistake on my part. If you plan on hiking this trail, I would advise bringing double the amount of water you think you need. Believe me; the extra pounds in your backpack will be well worth it! Also, be very mindful of the weather before you set out. Considering how exposed much of this hike is, you don’t want to get caught in a storm.
Directions: From Denver, take US 285 west past the
Aspen Park and Conifer areas. Exit onto CR 97 (Foxton Road) and follow it south for 9 miles to the intersection with CR 96 (still in Jefferson County). Turn left and follow CR 96 for 10 miles. At the ghost town of South Platte, the road will cross the river and become Douglas County Road 97. This part of the road is dirt, but is accessible for all cars. The trailhead is .7 miles south along the right side.
There are more photos below