wildflowers at rustlers gulch, crested butte

Happy Hiking: Rustler’s Gulch

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Rustler’s Gulch is a 9 mile, heavily trafficked trail located in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness near Crested Butte, Colorado.

Getting to Rustler’s Gulch

Rustler’s Gulch is about 8 miles from town, but the drive takes about 30 minutes on the dirt road, FS 317.  Don’t worry, FS 317 is passable by two-wheel drive car to this location, and the drive through mountainsides of wildflowers is spectacular.

Fair warning, FS 317 becomes a 4×4 road shortly after arriving to the main parking for Rustler’s Gulch.  Additionally, the turnoff, single lane road to the Rustler’s Gulch Trailhead at the yellow gate is also a 4×4 road.  As a result, most people park on FS 317 and walk the mile up the rocky road, which is included in the 9-mile journey.

That said, the creek crossing near the beginning of this road is easily passable in July, and the majority of the mile road is manageable in any SUV.  The limited parking on the side of this road is the tricky part.  There are two campsite pullouts, usable if no one is camping, and room enough for three cars or so before the road collapses into massive potholes.

4x4 road to Rustler's Gulch
Much worse than this looks

A confident 4×4 driver could likely maneuver along the side of the ditches, though the slant of the road is substantial, thus aside from one Subaru, all other cars parked at the trailhead were jeeps.  I could have shaved off 0.75 miles on the way up in VANgo, but wouldn’t have tried the final portion of the road.

The Hike to Rustler’s Gulch

  • Distance:  9 miles
  • Type: Moderate, out-and-back
  • Elevation Gain: 1,791 ft
  • Other: Dogs Allowed
  • All Trails Link

I was just relieved to find out that walking the mile one way on the road was included in the 9-mile calculation on AllTrails because it was a little unclear by the reviews.  Also, many reviewers claimed the road was really steep, but it never got over an 18% grade, so it wasn’t bad at all.  Especially not after attempting the 50-70% grade up Gothic Mountain!

Of course, the road was the hardest part of the whole hike, and aside from the long mileage, it is the only reason Rustler’s Gulch would be rated as moderate on AllTrails.

The rest of the hike is very easy.  It follows a “road” most the way. I used quotation marks because the road, with wildflowers popping up in the center of the two tire tracks, is clearly not used frequently.

wildflowers on rustler's gulch trail in crested butte

As my readers know, following a road is not my favorite type of hike, so I was initially disappointed in Rustler’s Gulch.  Despite starting at 8 am and being below tree line, there was absolutely no protection from the sun as the road crossed through open meadows of wildflowers.

wildflowers on rustler's gulch trail in crested butte
about the only shade

By 9 am, I was burning up and it was probably only 70 degrees at best!  The sun is so intense at high altitude, beginning at 9,500 feet and climbing to 11,500 feet.  And the five creek crossings did nothing to help. Having to skip from rock to rock and balance on logs only got my socks and shoes soaked.  Not a fun way to walk 9 miles!

Additionally, in the beginning, the wildflowers were wilted and on their way out for the season.  It was going to be a long hike after all the magnificent displays of wildflowers I’d seen the previous week.

Amazing Wildflowers and Views on the Second Half

But as we gradually gained in altitude, the flowers glowed in super shades of yellows, whites, reds and purples beneath sunny blue skies.  In fact, Rustler’s Gulch stands out compared to other trails in Crested Butte for its plethora of Indian paintbrush.  It was nice to have that red contrast in the sea of gold.

indian paintbrush on rustler's gulch trail

The scenery didn’t change much on Rustler’s Gulch as the road continued for miles.  Along the way, I passed about 10 other hikers.  I finally crossed paths with someone returning. 

I think I’ve hiked too much when I asked, “Does the trail just go on and on like this, or does it change at all?  I mean, it is pretty, but will it be any different from mile 3 to 4?”

They turned and pointed to a couple of snow patches and said, “It just goes to that waterfall and there really isn’t much else to see.”

I’m not really sure why asked, because being a “completionist”, I’d have to see for myself anyway.  What I found is that the density of the wildflowers increased and the variety was outstanding. Peppered in the yellow and white hillsides were larkspur, monks hood, lupine, blue columbine, and harebell. I couldn’t keep from taking pictures as they got prettier with every step!

wildflowers on rustler's gulch trail

And toward the end, the road turned into a single track.  Of course, I liked this!  Additionally, once reaching the second snow patch, I found a trickling steam and a huge, smooth boulder which provided expansive views of the wildflower meadow surrounded by mountain peaks.  It was a perfect perch for a snack, and I almost stopped.

But the trail continued on the other side of the snow patch, so Annie and I trudged forward.  We found an old cabin and some mining equipment.  The ruins of the cabin were made of stone and brick, so it wasn’t from the late 1800’s like most mining remnants in Colorado.  Regardless, I love old ruins, so it was nice to poke around before we made our final ascent through the willows.

mining cabin

Snack Stop at the Creek on Rustler’s Gulch Trail

Soon we reached a small waterfall and shallow creek lined with bistort, Indian paintbrush, aster, lupine, kings crown, and mule-ears.  Oh my gosh, it was so pretty!  And the temperature must have dropped at least ten degrees with the breeze coming off the cool water.

wildflowers on rustler's gulch trail in crested butte

I sat here for a long time while snacking and enjoying the refreshing temperature.  Meanwhile, Annie, my dog who I used to have to drag across creeks, was splashing through this one.  She must have been really hot! 

annie cooling off in the creek

I kept wondering when the rest of the hikers would arrive, but most people stopped at the overlook I previously mentioned.  Though certainly beautiful, I feel like they missed out!  I’m not complaining as I had this heavenly slice of nature all to myself.

As I prepared to pack up, an older couple sat down for their snack and exclaimed, “This is our spot.  We’ve been coming here the last seven years!”

mules-ear on rustler's gulch trail

Yes, this spot is simply magical during wildflower season in mid-July.  Now I know why so many AllTrails reviewers wrote, “My favorite hike.”  While I wouldn’t go that far, Rustler’s Gulch is sure worth the walk up the “steep” road, the shadeless meadows, and the wet feet.  I realized how much I enjoyed it when got home and had to sift through the 169 pictures!

I highly recommend arriving early, especially on a weekend.  By the time I returned, the parking was overflowing as it is also used by cyclist who ride up FS 317.  Not to mention, starting any later than 8 am would make for a hot afternoon.  ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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