Editor's note: Mary Ellen Gilliland is the author of the ever-popular "Vail Hiker" book. She just released a full-color, sixth edition of the book, which includes six new hikes, a group of fishing lakes for anglers and a special "hikes for tykes" routes for kids. The book is available for purchase at the Bookworm of Edwards for $19.95. The Vail Daily will be syndicating hikes from the book each weekend this summer.
Around 1880, the first Squaw Creek pioneers struggled to haul belongings into the valley on a Ute Indian trail. That path was frequented by the always hungry Ute sub-chief, Colorow. His favorite pioneer food? Biscuits. The oversized fellow (350 pounds at his peak) often demanded homestead wives bake him batch after batch of biscuits till their precious flour supply ran out. Colorow was long gone when Squaw Creek ranchers, worried about their children's long walk to school in Edwards, constructed a new $3,000 frame schoolhouse for 25 pupils in 1920. This first schoolhouse still stands. Squaw Creek hikers can view the historic structure on their drive to the trailhead.
This hike meanders along splashing Squaw Creek to a beautiful mountain park where summer wildflowers bloom in profusion. It is rated "more difficult" not for a strenuous climb but for its several creek crossings, tricky during high water times.
Drivewest from Edwards 2.5 miles on U.S. 6 to the Squaw Creek Road. Turn left. Proceed 3.2 miles to a hairpin turn to the right. Go straight here. You leave the paved road and continue 0.8 miles to where the road turns right uphill. A gravel road straight ahead takes you 0.3 miles to the trailhead.
The drive itself intrigues visitors with its scenic and historic sights. A beautiful wetlands awaits at 0.8 miles in. Note the red 1920 schoolhouse, log cabins and other rustic ranch buildings just past the Cordillera entrance. The Eagle Valley's first stagecoach service used this route along Squaw Creek, then climbed the Bellyache Range, using Road Gulch to Brush Creek and on to Eagle, Glenwood Springs and Aspen.
The trail begins with a wake-up climb 450 feet up a ridge, then moderates as hikers skirt pastoral ranch property below. The trail forks; this route continues left. The right fork leads to Stag Gulch and Big Park.
When the narrow footpath exits heavy evergreen forest and drops to the creek, turn right onto the double track where beaver ponds pool the level landscape. Soon the narrow footpath resumes, hugging the noisy creek. Several creek crossings present challenge when water runs high. Please note: at one crossing, the trail does not resume directly across the creek. Instead, the trail picks up a distance upstream, so the crossing is a long diagonal one.
Several more water crossings appear before hikers reach Elk Park, a large, open meadow where you enter the Holy Cross Wilderness. Huge, healthy spruce-pine forest covers its west flank and aspen groves color its east flank, green in summer and bright gold in September. Lupine and scarlet gilia bloom here in June. The pale-yellow American paintbrush blooms in July.
Hikers interested in extending their walk can climb 0.9 miles beyond Elk Park to pass the Lake Creek Trail junction, then intersect with 4WD road no. 421, another 0.1 miles.
Hiker, historian and author Mary Ellen Gilliland lived first in Vail and then Summit County since January 1970. She has skied and hiked backcountry trails for more than 40 years. She has written 16 books. For more information, visit summitandvailhikes.com.