I’m feeling exhilarated and exhausted simultaneously. Segment 4 of the Colorado Trail was simply magnificent! I highly suggest hiking this segment during the fall when the aspens and willows change from green to golden. I know through hikers may not have this luxury, but day hikers shouldn’t miss this part of the trail in the fall.
The trailhead can be found 8 miles from Bailey down County Road 68 in the Pike National Forest. The road changes names to FS-560, but consistently staying to the right at any splits results in arriving at the Rolling Creek Trailhead parking area. A forest service road extends from this parking area 0.3 miles up to another parking area directly across from the trail to the right.
After dropping a car off at Long Gulch and then returning to the start (a 2 hour process though a beautiful drive at sunrise), we finally ventured in a northwesterly direction along the trail. We gained the first 0.3 miles of the service road in the car. I didn’t feel too bad about this extra help given I’ve hiked this road at least four times in the past.
The trail took us past colorful aspens immediately upon entering the forest. At about a mile (including the 0.3), the trail connects with a logging road built by W.H. Hooper for $1,700 between 1885 and 1887. The cost was over budget due to the boggy stretches that are now closed off to hikers. Mr. Hooper also ran a sawmill operation in Lost Park which was closed down by the Department of Interior for illegalities.
The road, though rocky at times and draped by a few fallen trees, is extremely well maintained. We strolled along the wide swath for the next five miles while admiring limited views of Mt. Evans and Mt. Beirstadt to the north and Windy Peak to the south when it aligned itself with Hooper Road. Lodge pole pines and aspen groves alternately blanketed the trail in the Lost Creek Wilderness, though by my pictures, it appears that aspen groves have overtaken the forest. Some leaves were just changing from green to yellow while others leaves from golden to orange and red. The colors were absolutely splendid and the trunks of some of the aspens were the biggest I’ve seen.
We also passed Payne Creek Trail, the headwaters of Craig Creek (around 4.5 miles) and an old truck before we eventually exited the road to the left and followed the trail which switched back and forth up the mountain. For the first 5.5 miles, the trail gradually ascended along the road from 8,279 feet to 9,897 feet. At the well marked cutoff, the trail climbed 1,500 feet over two miles through lodge pole pines (one with a waterfall of sap trickling down its trunk, fallen trees, funky fungus, and boulder fields until we reached the road again at mile 7.4.
Soon we crossed a small spring, left the Lost Creek Wilderness area, and came upon a clearing as we began our descent. Though we had snacked along the way, it wasn’t until around mile 8.5 that we finally found a log with a view of the valley blanketed in flaxen willows. We lightened our load as we devoured sandwiches, apples, salami, cheese and crackers…wait no cheese; it didn’t make the trip from the refrigerator. None the less, our lunch refueled us for the second and easier half of the trek.
For the next six miles we slowly climbed 1,000 feet as we followed the North Fork of Lost Creek. The willows were so dense in places, the creek wasn’t visible. Other times, we spotted a small stream or beaver ponds. We passed by remnants of an old building, thought to be Hooper’s sawmill, and the intersection with Brookside-McCurdy Trail which leads to the Lost Park Campground.
The CT official guide book suggests watching for deer and bear. An older version suggests cows may watch us trek beneath the sunny skies. I kept my eyes peeled for animals. I even spotted a wild white rock in the distance, though the only sign of animals was the amount of scat on the trail. At times we felt like this segment should be called “the poo segment” (no relation to Winnie). We came to the conclusion that most of it must have belonged to coyotes, though one large pile seemed like it came from a mountain lion.
Admittedly, this part of the trail was a bit tedious. As Bart said, no wonder this is called “Long Gulch”, which was our final destination. The yellow willows went on forever. I must say, I was thankful to be hiking through the meadow in the fall and not the middle of summer. The temperature was glorious at 67, and the changing colors added variety to the valley. I only found myself getting impatient because I could see more magnificent aspens ahead, and I couldn’t wait to admire their beauty.
Before we left the valley we stopped twice for more snacks, once by a large rock (that didn’t offer shade), and once by some fallen trees which appeared to have burned from a fire long ago. In between our stops, we were blessed to see two moose!! A mama and her baby were hiding in the shade of evergreens to our right and staring out toward the marshy waters. I’m not sure if they wanted a drink or not, but fortunately given we were blocking their path, the mama decided to turn into the forest versus charging us. So much for deer, bears, and cows…how about a MOOSE!
And after the moose came the aspen groves of all colors. Some of the aspens were just losing their leaves which spotted the trail. The rest gleamed in the afternoon sun. The valley met the forest at the head of the North Fork of Lost Creek where we passed through a gate into the forest at the highest altitude (10,929) of the day.
From here, at mile 14.5, we descended steeply as the trail switched back and forth down the mountain through the forest. Occasionally we caught a glimpse of the aspens blanketing the mountainside across the valley, and we even stopped for a view of South Park. At the end of the trail, which crosses a small stream to the parking area, we found a bunny. Tired, but happy to be finished, we piled into the car and admired countless aspen trees along the drive back to the trailhead as the sun set. Here, we spied our first deer in the dark! We hiked slowly and enjoyed all nature had to offer on this spectacular day of 16.6 miles. With Bart and Sue’s help, I’m now 57.1 miles closer to finishing the Colorado Trail. ETB