Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hiking the Ute Trail.

It was just a few weeks ago that Dan and I hiked a section of the Ute Trail, going from Milner Pass to the AVC area and back.  On that hike I mentioned my curiosity about the trail- obviously, there are two sections that are well put in and well traveled- what we did that day, and the section from Beaver Meadows to Ute Crossing/Tombstone Ridge.  But the USGS and USFS topos show a distinct trail running all the way from Beaver Meadows to Farview Curve.  What, I wondered, was the status of this trail?  Was there anything at all there anymore?  How many people hike it, besides those two more popular sections?  
Foster describes it in her book as a "lengthy 16.8 mile passageway from Upper Beaver Meadows to Farview Curve".  To tell the truth, I'd already checked it off since I hiked those two popular sections, but after talking to Dan that day, I felt I should at least make an effort to see if the whole trail still existed.  If it did, I'd go for it.
I started the research online.  It didn't take me long to search satellite photos and determine that it looked like there might be a trail for most of the way, as indicated on the topos (though the USGS and USFS topos disagree slightly about location of the section from Lake Irene to Farview Curve).  
That was enough to pique my interest.  With more research, I couldn't find any trip reports of someone who'd hiked the whole thing, to give me some idea of what to expect.  In appendix b of her book, Foster gives figures for the trail in four separate sections, and in reality, I'd already covered most of the ground.  The only areas that were question marks in my mind were from Ute Crossing to Lava Cliffs, and from Lake Irene to Farview Curve.  
The Ute Trail was also a loose model for Trail Ridge Road, and sections of it now overlap the road, or I suppose sections of the road overlap it, as it was there first.  From many drives over the road, I knew the higher sections would be on tundra, and the worst part rock wise would be in the area of Lava Cliffs, and the 12355 foot Trail Ridge.  So even if there wasn't a trail, the terrain wouldn't be too bad.  If it was, I could simply bail to the road for some easy movement.
I started from Beaver Meadows at 6:12 am, and met sunrise upon the trail.  Ironically, it felt warmer at the parking area than it did at my house in Longmont.  
Sunrise coming.  I've seen just a few this year.  
After some easy undulation, the trail makes a distinct turn to the NW, and the pain starts!  I knew that this section, while short, would take down a fairly large amount of the total elevation gain for the day.  It's steep, going from around 9200 feet to top out on Tombstone Ridge in the 11600's.  Also of note, the current trail location is accurate on both the National Geographic and USFS topo, but shown too high up on the USGS topo.
The trail gets rockier higher up, and as I neared Timberline Pass, I started to hear the calls of Elk.  There was a fairly large herd in the area, and I was happy to let them be, except they kept moving closer to the trail.  Thus, I cut west, occasionally talking to them and making noise to ensure they'd continue moving NE.  My herding technique worked, and I was able to get back on the trail shortly after.
At Timberline Pass, out of the wind. 
While warmish, the day was quite windy.  I stopped behind a boulder to put on heavier socks and layer up. 
Longs Peak and others, covered in a delicate layer of snow.
Unfortunately, the amount of snow on the ground increased as I moved west.  I hadn't even made it to Ute Crossing yet, and was already going into drifts up to my knees.  While this was the exception, not the rule, travel slowed down a bit.
I finally made it to Ute Crossing, and with that Trail Ridge Road.  It was closed for a few days prior, and still wasn't open at this hour. 
Deserted Trail Ridge Road.
I cannot impress upon you enough the level of absolute silence here.  I've hiked by the road before, and I never noticed the sound of automobiles until this day, when there weren't any. 
It was here that I entered the first unknown of the day, the section of trail that goes between point 12036 and Sundance Mountain.  There was still alot of snow cover, and I was able to see what might have been a trail here and there.  Well, maybe.  I saw a cairn here and there, but couldn't see anything trail like around them.  Really, it was using the GPS app on my phone that allowed me to stay close to the "trail" in this area.
I dropped back to the road on the other side of this high point.  Here the trail supposedly crosses to the south side of the road, before crossing back and heading toward the Toll Memorial.
Some of my favorite mountains in the distance.
Rock Cut and the Toll Memorial in the distance. 
I looked, but I didn't see any sign of a trail on the south side of the road here.  Thus I decided to just stick to the still closed road.
I sure had some fun in this area earlier in the year.  It was my longest day mileage wise, up until this day.
I was able to find a trail in the area of Rock Cut, and followed that generally as shown on the topos.  On the other side of Rock Cut, I got on the paved path down to the parking area.  The Ute Trail once again joins the road for a short time before cutting more directly down to Iceberg Pass.
Tundra Curves in the distance.
This was one of the best sections of trail so far.  It was well put in, enough that I could see it under the snow, and marked with cairns here and there.  This section rejoins Trail Ridge Road right above Iceberg Pass, and stays on the road for a short time.  Looking forward, I could see a distinct trail leaving the pull off area on the south side of the road.  However, this became less distinct as I gained elevation, and I ended up taking the path of least resistance.
I looked up and could see a very distinct trail ahead, popping out on TRR a few seconds later, just west of Lava Cliffs.  It took me a second of looking around to realize where I was!  I knew this short section of trail would be good, as I'd hiked it before, to summit Trail Ridge, the 12355 foot ranked peak that stands over Lava Cliffs and Iceberg Lake.
Trail Ridge summit.  The first time I hiked here from the Lava Cliffs parking area.  Now I'd gone about 12 miles and done 4000 feet of gain to get to the same place. 
Back toward Rock Cut.
While the topo shows the trail from here to the Gore Range Overlook staying pretty much on the highest part of the ridge between them, and I knew there was kind of a trail here from my previous outing with Dan, I don't know if that trail we spied was the one I wanted.  I do know there is a distinct trail that runs toward the AVC.  I found a few cairns, but couldn't see a trail, thus I again took the path of least resistance to the Gore Range Overlook.
Here is where things got a bit tricky.  The road had finally opened, and the former trail down from the overlook is well signed to stay off.  According to Fosters book, RMNP discourages use of this trail, but you won't get in trouble if you do use it. 
Nonetheless, I didn't want to just go for it with the people there.  So I hiked the road down for a short time before dropping west.  This downhill was fun, with enough snow to run at a pretty good speed.  I met the Ute Trail as things flattened out, and then met the new Ute Trail, which comes down from the AVC.  Two people had hiked up it earlier, so it was easy to follow their footprints down, and I made good time to Milner Pass.
The Ute Trail above Milner Pass, one of other well traveled sections.
I had run out of water, and planned to stop at Poudre Lake to refresh.  Unfortunately, it was already frozen over!  I was able to break through the ice where a small stream ran into the lake and fill up.  I was already wondering if I should just wait until I got to Lake Irene to get more water, and that would have been a good idea. 
If you stand in the parking and look at the bathrooms at Milner Pass, you'll notice a trail running down to the right.  I decided to take this, wondering if it might be part of the trail.  I followed a stream with clean, flowing water down (a far cry from the heavily sedimented stuff I got out of the lake), before the trail gained elevation the wrong way.  I crossed the creek and made my way back to TRR. 
There is a thin but distinct section of the Ute Trail right next to the road, here on the west side.  It's obviously not maintained, with dead fall over and on it, but it's there.  I jumped back on the road for a short time before walking into the parking area for Lake Irene. 
Lake Irene.
It's pretty easy here- you can either stay on the Lake Irene trail, or leave it before the lake to find the Ute Trail on the east side of the lake.  If you stay on the Lake Irene trail, you'll soon come to this sign...
Guess which way I went?  At this point, I was almost there, with just over a mile to go.  And then that entire distance back.
I found this section to be quite easy to follow, and very well put in.  There's a little dead fall here and there, but nothing more than what you find on other less maintained trails.  And then suddenly, it ends.  I could see the road ahead of me and dropped down a dirt slope.  It's not the cool view of Farview Curve, but here is where the Ute Trail ends.
This was just slightly west of Phantom Creek.  While the USFS map was definitely more accurate as to the location of the trail here, it has the trail ended east of Phantom Creek.  I guess the most accurate map of all here was the 1915-1945 map layer on Caltopo, as it has the trail end almost exactly where it does end. 
As usual, I'll include a link to my map on Caltopo at the end of this.  Click where it says US Forest on the upper right of the map, and you can change the base layer to one of these older maps, or add them as a stackable layer, and change the transparency to see how they match up with the map from today.
So, I was now halfway there, but still over 18 miles from where I started.  That was an interesting feeling.  I ate a snack, went up the dirt slope, and followed the trail back to Lake Irene.  I must've been quite a sight in all my gear to the people who were parking at the lot and walking down to the lake!
On the other side of Lake Irene. 
Sheep Rock.
The Ute Trail in the area petered out, and I hiked the road for a few minutes to get back to Milner Pass. 
Despite knowing how far away I was from the car at this point, I knew the hike in this direction would be easier, with less elevation gain, and now I knew if the trail was there or not. 
I had a snowy slog back up the the Gore Range Overlook.  Very far in the distance, you can indeed see some of the Gore peaks, but I'd say the draw for me here was the spectacular look at the Never Summer Range.
Re-nearing Trail Ridge.  This day would bring my third and fourth ascents of this peak all time, and I was happy to count both, as I started from two different trail heads for each. 
The downhill to Iceberg Pass went quickly, and I started up to Rock Cut.  
A cairn marking the trail.
As I approached Rock Cut, I thought about the options here.  There are a bunch of signs there telling people to stay on the paved path only, and I wanted to set a good example.  I decided to stick to TRR for a short time, both avoid being off the paved trail while there were many other people present, and because it was getting later in the day, and a short distance of easier hiking on the road would hopefully speed things up slightly. 
I was nearing Sundance Mountain when things started to cool down.  After the earlier wind died, the day was pleasantly warm, but as darkness creeped over me, temperatures dropped.
This trend reversed as I lost altitude.  One the way up the trail, I'd noticed a large amount of cairns and felt them perhaps unnecessary.  But on the way down, I was very thankful for them.  The trail is pretty difficult to follow in darkness.
I got back to the car at 9:05 pm, changed, and started the drive back home.  It took me just under 15 hours to do an out and back on the entire Ute Trail, ending with nearly 37 miles of hiking and just under 8000 feet of elevation gain for the day.  
What the trail looks like in places, which is actually better than it looks in other places. 

I noticed these short wooden posts in a few places where the trail intersected TRR, so look for those if you want to hike it.  I didn't see them everywhere though. 
My thoughts on this trail are many.  Most of it still exists in some state, and where it seems to have gone back to the earth, you can still follow the line it once took, as the terrain isn't challenging.  The most popular sections are in no danger of disappearing, but it is disappointing that this trail doesn't get the attention that some of the others get as a method to cross the continental divide or through hike RMNP.  
In my mind, the limiting factor is the lack of campsites anywhere near it, so it could be broken into two or more days.  It's not a good idea to just pitch a tent on the tundra, and I feel like RMNP would have a big problem with you setting up in the most obvious areas, the parking lots and pull outs along TRR.  At least I know they don't want people sleeping in cars at these parking areas.  
One could also have the option of doing the trail in shorter out and back sections, say Beaver Meadows to Ute Crossing, Ute Crossing to AVC, and AVC to the end near Phantom Creek.  This would split it up into three approximately equal segments.  
Sadly, parts of this historical trail are disappearing, but I suppose that is the circle of life.  I am fond of exploring, and in the end, that's what this day was really all about.  
Link to hike map on Caltopo.
Hiking the Ute Trail:
36.64 miles out and back, 7979 feet of elevation gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.

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