Weekend Backpacker: Denver
Gunnison National Forest
216 N. Colorado
Gunnison, CO 81230
Phone: (970) 641-0471
Teeming with rivers and wildlife, the Gunnison National Forest comprises over 900 miles of trails crisscrossing eight wilderness areas. Here, hikers will experience scenic mountain views and moderate to strenuous hiking conditions. This area is about 200 miles from Denver.
Recommended hike: Cliff Creek Trail. The best time to hike this 24-mile loop trail is late June through October. Begin at the Horse Ranch Park. From the parking area on the south side of the road, look for the Cliff Creek Trail sign (trail #840) and head southwest into the aspen forest.
Starting at an elevation of 9,000 feet, you'll cross the Beckwith Pass, then take the Castle Pass Trail (#441) east. Located about 12 miles down the trail, Castle Pass (elevation 11,570 feet) is the highest point on this hike. Here you'll have a great view of volcanic formations in the West Elk range (about three miles away) known as"the castles." These geologic wonders were formed when soft rock eroded and left harder volcanic rock that forms ten spires, much like the spires on a castle. Anywhere around Castle Pass is an opportune place to camp. For the return trip, continue east across the pass, where the trail will descend to North Castle Creek and South Castle Creek. About 3.5 miles from Castle Pass, pick up the low-lying trail #438, which heads northwest. After about five miles, this trail will intersect with the Cliff Creek Trail again and lead you back to the parking area.
You'll experience aspen and conifer forests on this hike, as well as swamps, mountain meadows, and excellent views of the Anthracite Mountains to the east. Look for the Ruby Range in the Raggeds Wilderness to the north and Beckwith Mountain to the west of the Beckwith Pass.
Mosquitoes and flies are particularly prevalent in July and early August. As always, treat water from creeks and streams before drinking.
Getting there: The trailhead is about 12 miles west of Crested Butte. Take Kebler Pass (County Road 12) and look for the signs marking the trailhead. There will be parking areas on both sides of the road. Park in the lot on the south side of the road and follow the signs for the Cliff Creek Trail.
Camping: Hikers can camp anywhere along the trail. Rangers advise looking for places where people have camped before and to camp at least 200 feet away from creeks or trails. No permit is required to camp.
Permits: None required.
Maps: Trails Illustrated map of Kebler Pass and the Paonia Reservoir (#133) or the Gunnison National Forest visitor map.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication