Two Trails in Collegiate Peaks

Hiking a Pristine Colorado Wilderness
By Lora Davis
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Collegiate Peaks' alpine environment is barren and beautiful.
Collegiate Peaks' alpine environment is barren and beautiful.

These hikes in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area of western Colorado are all reached from Taylor River Road (County Road 742), which follows the Taylor River from Almont, eleven miles north of Gunnison, to its end three miles past the intersection with Taylor Pass Road. Taylor Park is worth the drive itself. The park is high and wide, and the Sawatch Range to the east rises quickly above timberline. At the southern end, access to the Wilderness Area requires a hike or drive along four-wheel-drive roads extending east from Taylor River Road. The central and northern portions are easily reached by standard passenger cars. Taylor River and Taylor Park Reservoir are popular for camping and fishing. Several campgrounds and camping areas dot the sixteen mile stretch of road extending north from Taylor Park Reservoir.

Red Mountain Creek Trail (USFS #543.1)

Destination: Lake Pass
Round-trip distance: 11 miles
Starting elevation: 9,800 feet
Maximum elevation: 12,080 feet
Elevation gain: 2,280 feet
Rating: Difficult
Time allowed: 8 to 9 hours
Recommended use: Day hike or extended backpack. Could be used to reach South Fork Lake Creek basin.
Maps: Gunnison National Forest; 7=' Pieplant; Trails Illustrated Crested Butte/Pearl Pass

Trailhead Access

Follow Highway 135 north from Gunnison to Almont for 11 miles. Turn right (east) on paved Taylor River Road (County Road 742). Follow this road as it winds its way generally northeast for 26 miles to the Taylor Park Reservoir. Cottonwood Pass Road intersects the Taylor River Road at the point where the pavement ceases and the road becomes gravel. Continue on the Taylor River Road for approximately seven miles to Red Mountain Road 742.8H. Here a sign marks the site of the historic town site of Red Mountain. It's unclear where the town was actually located. The early surveyor and explorer F. V. Hayden stated that the town was on the south fork of Lake Creek along Red Mountain Road. The town-site marker puts the dates of the town at 1873-1893. To reach Red Mountain Trail, follow Red Mountain Road one mile north through a pine forest. It ends in a wide loop. The trail begins on the east side of the loop. A number of campsites are available near the trailhead.

Trail Description

This hike has a wealth of variety—open meadows and beaver ponds; dense lodgepole pine forest; moist mixed conifer forest; high, willowed meadows; boulder fields; and a windswept pass above timberline. The well-maintained trail is obvious all the way.

The first two miles of this trail are along Timberline Trail #414, which follows just outside and parallels the Wilderness boundary. The hike is accompanied by the music of Red Mountain Creek most of the way. The trail begins a few hundred yards from the end of the road as you cross a log bridge that spans Red Mountain Creek. Immediately after crossing, sign in at the U.S. Forest Service sign-in box, just to the east of the stream. Another ten minutes brings you to a faded sign directing"Red Mountain 1." The trail forks right, climbing for a short distance and moving away from the water, then continuing through pine forest. At one mile you'll pass beaver ponds steaming in the early morning sun. The trail gradually begins to turn toward the east and once again picks up Red Mountain Creek, now on the north side of the trail.

At two miles you reach the Wilderness boundary and the intersection of Red Mountain Trail heading north and the Timberline Trail, which turns sharply back toward the southeast. Here Red Mountain Trail becomes distinctly fainter but still obvious. The hike continues through mixed pine and spruce. Just past the Wilderness boundary a collapsed log cabin looks out of frameless windows as you pass by.

Within a short distance you pass another set of beaver ponds. Algae tints the waters of these ponds bright green, and waist-high yellow flowers surround them. Like a Japanese garden, water flows here and there over low waterfalls. Another one-quarter mile brings you to the remains of an avalanche. The sight of one of these is always a little awe-inspiring. Seeing massive trees torn from the ground and scattered like pick-up-sticks, one can only imagine the power and sound of the slide that created this. Continue on through boulder fields and a mixed spruce and aspen forest. One more mile and the scenery changes again. Here you enter a beautiful open meadow in the narrow valley. For the first time, Lake Pass is visible ahead.

At four miles you encounter your first creek crossing since the start of the hike. On the map, this appears as a confluence of two creeks. When you are there, it's not so obvious. The trail literally becomes the creek, then disappears under thick willows. A distinct trail, a trail sign, and blazes on the trees let you know that you have found your way through the maze. The trail follows along on the west side of the "east fork." It begins a gentle climb through the dense forest now, passing an old log cabin on the right and crossing a drainage coming in from the northwest. The trail climbs more steeply as it switches back to the north. The steep ascent continues until almost tree line. I hiked through here with some effort, losing awareness of the surrounding forest and focusing attention on walking and breathing. It seemed almost suddenly that the terrain leveled out and the forest cleared. As I stepped into the open, the trees no longer blocked the view. Momentarily, it took my breath away. The panorama is spectacular—first the view of Lake Pass to the north, then southeast into Church Basin, and finally, far to the southwest, Taylor Park and the misty blue mountains beyond. May you, too, be gifted with clear skies on this hike.

In the basin just below the final ascent to the pass the trail crosses to the east side of the stream, now just a marshy seepage. Here the trail becomes faint. You'll be at the top within twenty or 25 minutes, so persevere for the final steep climb. If the weather is clear you'll get a view of Red Mountain just as you crest the pass—two miles northwest along the Continental Divide. Is this where the creek got its name? From the pass, you can continue west to meet South Fork Lake Creek Trail #1466. The trail is cairned but faint as it turns west and begins a traverse along the north side of the Divide, down into the South Fork Lake Creek basin. However, if you continue north be prepared for an extended hike with a car shuttle. The trailhead for the South Fork Lake Creek Trail is on Independence Pass Road.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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