Hike of the Week: See early-season fall foliage views at Camp Hale and Tennessee Pass
Hike of the Week
As the aspens outside the window by my desk here at Walking Mountains Science Center are only just starting to show hints of yellow, it’s clear that fall is taking its time to arrive this year. Last year we were nearing peak color by the third week of September, but in 2019, the best way to see the start of our fall colors is by going high.
One place that you may start to see some fall foliage, intermixed among the predominately lodgepole pine and spruce forests, is near Camp Hale and along the Colorado Trail. One of my favorite hikes in this area is to hike the Colorado Trail from Tennessee Pass to Camp Hale. This trip is a great easy hike if done as a car shuttle or a longer — but still moderate — trip out-and-back. In this article I will describe the hike as a point-to-point hike, traveling north along the Colorado Trail.
If you do the 12-13 mile round-trip version, however, I would recommend starting at Camp Hale so you return hiking downhill.
To set a car shuttle for this hike, drop a car at Camp Hale as you drive to Tennessee Pass. Turn into the main entrance for Camp Hale and cross the river — do not turn right towards the campground before the bridge.
Once you have crossed the river, turn right and follow the main road south and then east for a few miles. Once the road turns east, you will begin to see multiple gated roads heading south toward the historic shooting range. The trail follows one of these roads. Keep a lookout for the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail signs.
A quarter mile past the trail, you will find a parking area on your left. Drop a car here and then continue to Tennessee Pass. Drive to the peak of Tennessee Pass between Camp Hale and Leadville, along U.S. Highway 24. When you see the sign for Ski Cooper on your left, turn into the parking area on the opposite side of the road, on the west side of the highway. Hike the trail heading north, leaving from the far end of the parking area.
What to Expect
Hiking the Colorado Trail from Tennessee Pass to Camp Hale is an easy downhill walk. This point-to-point hike is roughly 6.5 miles and loses around 1,000 feet of elevation.
The first 2 miles of the hike follow an old railroad grade—likely a spur of the historic Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. About a half mile into the hike, you will pass the remains of old charcoal ovens used during the railroad and mining era to cook charcoal and coke — not what you’re thinking; coke was actually a purified derivative of coal. Both were used as a primary fuel source in the late 1800s.
As the railroad grade enters a young lodgepole pine forest, look for the single-track trail branching off to the right.
The next portion of the hike is the most scenic, bordering a beautiful montane wetland with views of the Sawatch Range to the southwest. When you are 3.5 miles into the hike, the trail crosses Highway 24. This would be another optional endpoint or turnaround for a shorter hike.
If continuing, cross Highway 24 and follow the trail through mixed conifer forests to Camp Hale. Your hike will finish with a walk through the old shooting range used to train 10th Mountain Division soldiers during World War II.
Nathan Boyer-Rechlin is the community outreach coordinator and lead hiking guide for Walking Mountains Science Center. For information on hiking with Walking Mountains, email Nathan at email@example.com or call 970-827-9725, ext. 144.