Fall in the mountains means snow. I drove through some freezing rain and snow on my way up to meet Rob in Silverthorne Friday evening. I think the place we met – the Dam Brewery – is actually in Dillon, but what’s the difference. It’s the massive Summit County Sprawl. This area offers everything to the outdoorsman and it’s making the transition to ski season. We hiked through this area, mostly Breckenridge-Frisco-Copper, last summer doing the Colorado Trail. We returned to hike part of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). We mistakenly thought a section of the Gore Range Trail makes up the CDT. It doesn’t, at least not anymore. But what the hell. It was on some CDT map at some point in time so we’re including it in our mutli-year quest to hike the entire CDT.
We stealth camped at a CT trail head in Copper, same place we camped before hiking through Copper Mountain as part of the CT last summer. As you turn off I70 onto Hwy 91 at Wheeler Junction, you drive past the traffic light that would take you into Copper Mountain and turn left a few yards down the road into an overflow parking lot. Toward the back of this lot is a CT trailhead that would take you up over the Ten Mile Range into Breckenridge. After the brew pub dinner we dropped off Rob’s car at the Mesa Cortina Trailhead in Silverthorne, then we setup camp here and relaxed in our camping chairs star gazing through gaps in the low cloud cover.
I slept great, despite regular sweeps by the Copper Mountain snow plow patrol with colored lights that looked like lasers streaming through my tent. We woke around 5:30am to snow covering our tents and maybe a half inch on the ground, but seemingly warm. There was no wind. We broke down camp and sipped coffee while discussing whether to start from here or drive a little closer. We ended up parking near the intersection at the gas station. It opens at 7am and has a surprisingly cozy coffee shop and bakery attached to its east side. We enjoyed a civilized breakfast and hit the trail at 7:30.
The trail begins on the northwest corner of the Interstate and Hwy 91 intersection. This is my first outing this season where I needed to wear winter gear. I mostly wore what I would refer to as transitional gear – spring and fall types of garments. My pants are thin quick-dry material. I had knee-high gaiters to protect my legs and feet from the snow but honestly it didn’t occur to me to wear snow pants. I will next time but these thin hiking pants worked out perfectly combined with the gaiters. I also wore a ski jacket but carried that more often than not and was comfortable with 3 layers of shirts and a wind breaker. We found ourselves removing layers within minutes and only needed the heavy coats when crossing some of the passes. Eventually I removed all but one shirt and my shell.
Hiking this direction, the trail heads up first to Uneva Pass. Visibility was poor and the wind at the pass made the light snowfall feel blizzard-like. The snow fell steadily most of the day but we could still make out the trail for this first hump. The pass was just above treeline and the wind was only an issue when either above treeline or crossing open meadows. Much of the hike was through trees.
Half way to Eccles Pass, the second big hump, we had the opportunity to bail out by taking the North Ten Mile Trail down to Frisco. We considered this as an option if the weather became dangerous. The trail was becoming deeper in snow as we progressed but Rob’s trail reading skills are expert. Still, coming down from the third hump at Red Buffalo Pass we lost the trail. We continued high on the ridge for a bit and then headed straight down into the creek drainage. The Mesa Cortina Trail is supposed to lead us out along the South Willow Creek. Sure enough, we ran back into the trail within a few minutes of bushwhacking.
The snow began to thin out fairly quickly now that we were headed down. The visibility never cleared but it did stop snowing at some point. There were a number of small lakes – none of them frozen over yet. We met our only other hiker on this final segment. He appeared to be a Chinese national based on his accent. Nevertheless, he was sporting a rifle and hunting for Elk. Not sure how he intended to carry any game out by himself.
The final segment was scared from a Bark Beetle infestation. Massive amounts of downed trees. The ones left standing looked pretty sad. You can see some of the dead brown in this picture, especially if you click on it to enlarge the photo. As we neared the trail head in Silverthorne, we began to see views of Dillon Lake and the Summit sprawl. This would be a great area to own a little condo. Incredible access.
Rob and I returned to the Dam Brewery to recover from our ten hour, twenty mile hike. The place is good enough for a return, and we knew they had the beer and menu our bodies were looking for. We ordered a pitcher of the velvety McLuhr’s Irish Stout. Ten hours was a longer day than we anticipated, but the snow slowed down our progress. I suspect trekking poles saved this from being a twelve hour hike. Haven’t used those in some time and they were a huge help today. We intend to continue hiking segments of the CDT, but expect to need snow shoes next time around. Certainly snow pants.