10 epic day hikes in and around Vail, Colorado
Special to the Weekly
Basic Safety Tips
Before striking out for a hike, be sure to follow these basic safety tips to help ensure a pleasant journey.
• Start with the sun. Storms tend to roll in during the afternoon in the high country, so start your hike early and you’ll most likely finish before the rains come. Plus, an early start means gorgeous morning light for your hero shots.
• Don’t go alone. Sure, you could strike out solo, but having a buddy along means that if something happens, then you have another set of hands for signaling or a shoulder to lean on. Plus, who else is going to know all of the words to “Hakuna matata” for when you need a boost on the trail?
• Let someone know where you’re going. Along with the “bring a buddy” tip, alerting a friend or family member to your plans and when you expect to return is important. If you’re not back at the expected time, then your contact will have helpful information for search and rescue.
• Be prepared. The Scouts have the right idea. Be prepared for situations that might arise by including some key items in your backpack, including extra water, snacks, sunscreen, rain gear, a compass, a head lamp, extra layers of clothing and a small first aid kit. While these items may add a bit of extra weight to your pack, they’re lifesavers when the need arises.
Resources for Epic Hikes
If you’re interested in tackling all of the trails in Vail, then the “Vail Hiker” (Alpenrose Press, 2012) is a comprehensive listing of the trails in the area, with 50 options that run the gamut from “Wildlife Havens and Flower Retreats” to “Ghost Towns and Panoramic High Passes.” The book provides directions to trailheads as well as maps and detailed descriptions of the hikes. Pick up a copy at The Bookworm of Edwards or order online.
The website 14ers.com is a great resource for those looking to bag one (or more) of Colorado’s 14ers. Featuring route maps, hike descriptions and user-provided updates, this site is an online guidebook to Colorado’s 14ers.
The website Alltrails.com is another online resource for hikers, with trails ranked by difficulty as with ski runs (green, blue, double black, etc). Hikers post their photos, experiences and stories to provide an insider’s perspective of each trail. However, keep in mind that some users are more experienced than others; the trail difficulty comments reflect this.
This article originally published in August 2014. It is periodically reviewed and updated to ensure accuracy.
There’s no question the Vail Valley is home to some of the best views in the state. And while birds may have the best vantage point, we humans can reach some spectacular summits on our own two feet. Hiking is a favorite pastime in the area, affording world-class views with just a few basic tools: a good pair of shoes, some basic supplies and a destination. Here are 10 epic day hikes to conquer this summer.
In Your Backyard
There’s no need to go traipsing around the state for a memorable hike — Vail’s backyard is crisscrossed with hikes of varying lengths and difficulties, culminating in lofty peaks or idyllic mountain lakes. Some of these trails are more difficult due to rapid elevation gain; others are epic in length. A few are a combination of both.
Taking you high above Vail to an isolated mountain lake, Deluge Lake is a path less traveled, mostly due to the fact that the trail gains 2,300 feet in 2 miles. However, if you’re willing to make the climb, the views of Grand Traverse Peak and the pristine lake are well worth the effort.
One of the most iconic sights in the Vail Valley is the ridgeline of the Grand Traverse. Made up of two 13,000-foot peaks, North Traverse Peak and Grand Traverse Peak, it’s an audacious goal, but totally feasible for a one day hike. This route is not for the faint of heart and requires quite a bit of scrambling on the traverse, but at the end you’ll gain a true bird’s eye view of the Vail Valley.
Gore Lake and Red-Buffalo Pass
An East Vail gem, the hike to Gore Lake has steep sections but is an overall pleasant hike, taking you through aspen groves and wetland meadows full of wildflowers. At the 4-mile mark, you’ll come across the grave marker for the Recen brothers, who were early settlers in the valley. This marks the junction: Go to the north and reach Gore Lake, a popular camping spot at this high alpine lake. The other branch leads to the saddle of Red-Buffalo Pass which, at 11,740 feet, overlooks Red Peak and Buffalo Mountain. If you make arrangements for a ride home, then you can continue down and hike all the way to Silverthorne.
Fancy Pass to Missouri Pass Loop
This loop hike has all of the elements of an epic hike: well-marked trails, high mountain passes, lakes, tarns and some amazing natural beauty. The deep ravines carved by Fancy Creek and Missouri Creek provide spectacular views along the trail; the Missouri Lakes (there are about 14 lakes and tarns included in the name) are a destination unto themselves. The pot of gold is Treasure Vault Lake, located in a hanging valley between the two passes.
Mount of the Holy Cross
With a summit elevation of just over 14,000 feet (14,005, to be exact), the Mount of the Holy Cross may not be the highest of Colorado’s 14ers, but it is one of the more difficult peaks to summit. After climbing over Half Moon Pass on the way to Holy Cross, you’ll actually lose about 1,000 feet during a descent to East Cross Creek, which can be daunting during a climb. Keep up your spirits, as the summit is worth the effort (plus, you’ll have to do it again on the way back). However, be sure to follow the same route back down the north ridge after summiting, as hikers can become lost by not returning to East Cross Creek on the main trail.
Though Mount Powell isn’t a 14er (its elevation is 13,580 feet), it is the highest peak in the Gore Range, and summiting this peak is a journey that warrants bragging rights. The difficulty in this hike isn’t necessarily the elevation gain, though it’s substantial. Navigating the summit requires a topographical map and a compass or GPS, as the trail can disappear, making bushwhacking necessary.
“Climbing Mount Powell is really good because there’s a spur trail that goes behind Piney Lake that takes you off the beaten path,” said Dr. Jon Kedrowski, a Vail local that wrote the book (literally) on hiking and sleeping on 14ers. “It’s a combination of on-trail and off-trail hiking. Once you get off of the main Piney Lake Trail, you’re by yourself. For solitude in the valley, it’s a good one to do.”
The following hikes are located a bit further afield but are worthy of consideration because of their epic nature. From classic excursions to brag-worthy feats of endurance, these hikes will require a bit more planning but are worth it in the end.
The Colorado Trail: Copper to Camp Hale (Searle and Kokomo Pass)
The Colorado Trail, which runs 500 miles from Denver to Durango, passes through Summit County and into Eagle County at Camp Hale. Start on the east side of Copper Mountain Resort and you can trace the CO trail above timberline, over Searle Pass and onto Kokomo Pass and the east end of Elk Ridge at the 12,000-foot level before leading into Camp Hale. An invaluable location during WWII, this area is home to the Climax Molybdenum Mine and was also the training ground for the 10th Mountain Division. Explore this trail with a little help from a friend: You’ll need to arrange transport to be dropped off or picked up at either end.
The Decalibron Loop
The so-called Decalibron (a mash-up of mounts Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross) loop allows you to summit two (or three) 14ers in a day, with Cameron as an added bonus. Cameron is a disputed 14er as the valley between it and Lincoln isn’t quite high enough to be official, but you can count it if you’d like. Additionally, Mount Bross is privately owned and is currently illegal to climb; you can still take in the view of the peak. Even with these restrictions, it’s an epic trek and one that is a crowning achievement for a hiking enthusiast. This hike is located in Park County, about a 1.5 hour drive from Vail.
Aspen to Crested Butte (Maroon Pass)
You can drive the 100 miles from Aspen to Crested Butte or you can just hike it. The 9-mile trail takes you past the waters of Maroon Lake, which reflects the stunning vista of the 14,000-foot Maroon Bells, perhaps one of the most photographed views in Colorado. Cross over the top of Maroon Pass, traversing small streams and frolicking in fields of wildflowers before descending to the trailhead in Crested Butte. Masochists can turn around and return to Aspen, but staying a night in Crested Butte before returning home is highly recommended. There is a shuttle service that’ll take you into town, or make arrangements for a friend to provide a lift.
The definition of an epic hike can vary from person to person. For someone coming from sea level, hiking to Beaver Lake could be epic. For seasoned scramblers, Mount of the Holy Cross could be a walk in the park. In the end, it’s all about enjoying the unique aspects of our surroundings.
“I think it’s all about getting up and enjoying the views of the valley,” Kedrowski said. “Mountains really build your character.”