Colorado for Fido

Trails at Vail
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If you're looking for a place to wander in Vail that's close at hand, bring your dog to the paved walkway/bike path that follows Gore Creek (from Vail Village to Lionshead, the route parallels W. Meadow Dr. instead of the creek). Or check out the Vail Nature Center, next to Ford Park, where a network of four short interpretive trails goes through a meadow and riparian habitat (your dog can be under voice command here). For more hiking options in the beautiful mountains surrounding Vail, refer to The Vail Hiker and Ski Touring Guide by Mary Ellen Gilliland. In Leadville, stop by the Chamber of Commerce and pick up a copy of the Chamber-issued hiking guide.


Douglass City and Hagerman Tunnel

5.5 miles round-trip. From Highway 24 in Leadville, take 6th St. west. In approximately 2 miles, you'll come to a T-intersection (Leadville's recreation center will be on your right). Turn right and continue straight on the paved road to Turquoise Lake. As you reach the lake, continue past the dam. You'll climb two separate hills that afford wonderful overlooks of the lake before coming to Forest Rd. 105, a dirt road bearing to the left. Turn here. You'll drive for approximately 3.5 miles before coming to a sharp turn in the road; proceed another quarter mile to a parking area on the right. Across the road is the trailhead and a sign describing the Colorado Midland Railroad. Dogs can be off leash.

This hike will let your dog sniff around one of the ghost towns for which Colorado is renowned. Many of these former towns have some connection to the state's fabled mining past. This one does, too, but in a roundabout way.

Douglass City was a wild and woolly construction camp built high above Turquoise Lake and Leadville to house workers building the Hagerman Tunnel. The tunnel was built in 1888 and used until 1897 as a route for the Colorado Midland Railroad between the silver mines of Aspen and the smelters of Leadville. At 11,528 feet, the tunnel was the highest ever built, featuring an 1,100-foot-long curved trestle (both the trestle and the tunnel were engineering marvels at the time). The path to Douglass City and the Hagerman tunnel follows the former railroad grade.

The trail starts out over rough cobble and rocks, but it soon smooths out to a gradual doubletrack. Throughout the ascent, you'll enjoy spectacular views of the valley you just traveled through as well as the northern flank of Mount Massive. After about a mile the grade comes to an abrupt end; this is where the long trestle once stood. If you look hard, you can see where the railroad grade resumes 1,100 feet across the valley. Don't hike to it! Instead, turn around to see a small trail climbing the hill to the left 50 feet behind you. Continue up this trail, which is a bit steeper and more rocky. At the four-way intersection in the trail shortly after, turn left to take a shortcut to the site of Douglass City. No standing structures remain; in fact, many of the"buildings" of Douglass City were tents. Eight saloons and one dance hall were among the first buildings up and among the busiest as long as the work lasted. You'll see a few of their remains among the rocks and wildflowers.

Continue climbing past the town, toward a steep rock wall. Soon you'll come to remnants of the tunnel-making operation; high above and to the right is the old railroad grade leading to the tunnel. Follow the trail up the hill to the railroad grade and turn left. In less than a hundred yards you'll see the entrance to the tunnel, and, just inside, ice. The tunnel was used only briefly by the Colorado Midland. It cost James J. Hagerman, the tycoon who owned the rail line, millions to construct and almost as much to keep open. The high elevation and fierce winter conditions caused so many problems that the Midland was soon routed through another tunnel, the Busk-Ivanhoe (now called the Carlton), which allowed the trains easier passage. Enjoy the coolness of the tunnel's mouth and the quiet dripping sounds from deep within. Your pooch may be tempted at the sight of emerald-green Opal Lake below, which can provide a welcome splash on the hike down.

Surquoise Lake Trail

Runs 6.4 miles along the lakeshore. From Highway 24 in Leadville, take 6th St. west. In approximately 2 miles, you'll come to a T-intersection (Leadville's recreation center will be on your right). Turn right and continue straight on the paved road to Turquoise Lake. As you reach the lake, continue straight toward the dam, but don't drive onto it. Park at the pullout on the left immediately before it. Cross the road and start down the singletrack that contours along the shoreline. The other main access point for the trail is at the May Queen Campground, though you can also pick up the trail at various points along it. Dogs can be off leash (though you may want to leash your dog when in the vicinity of the campgrounds the trail skirts).

This beautiful trail is a great hike. It never strays farther than 25 yards from the water—most times it's a lot closer than that—and winds around several secluded coves with sparkling water and sandy beaches. During the summer, the trail is fairly popular, especially close to the dam. Expect to see plenty of other hikers and cyclists if you go on a holiday weekend. (Hint: Go off-season if you can. On a beautiful autumn day, we had the trail completely to ourselves.) You'll savor spectacular views of the two highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, Mounts Elbert (14,433 feet) and Massive (14,421 feet), which dominate the skyline across the water. After approximately 4 miles, you'll encounter the remains of some abandoned mines—remnants of Leadville's rip-roaring mining heyday. A sign alongside the trail enumerates many of the dangers posed by the abandoned mine shafts and suggests you turn around here. Don't, but take the warnings to heart, and make sure your dog (and you) stay on the trail, which passes safely through the dilapidated remains. (While you're in Leadville, you may want to stop by the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, 120 W. 9th St., which offers fascinating displays and artifacts on mines and mining. Your dog won't be able to accompany you inside, however.) After 6.4 miles, the trail reaches the May Queen Campground at the northern terminus of the lake. The Charles Boustead tunnel empties water collected from the Fryingpan River into this end of Turquoise Lake. The tunnel is one of many that brings water from the Western Slope underneath the Continental Divide for burgeoning Front Range population centers. Water, it turns out, is ultimately the most precious resource—more valuable than all of the gold and silver ever mined in this area.


Piney Creek Trail

5.5 miles round-trip. From the Vail exit (176) off I-70, take the North Frontage Rd. west. After approximately one mile, turn right onto Red Sandstone Rd. You'll climb through a few switchbacks and come to a dirt road bearing left (Red Sandstone No. 700). Turn here and follow the signs to Piney River Ranch (12 miles). Park in the public parking lot outside of the fence. Begin by walking through, or around, the gate and follow the road toward the lake. As you approach the water, turn left onto a well-used trail. This is the Piney Creek Trail. Get ready for an amazing hike! Dogs must be leashed (this is Wilderness area).

This is a hike with a view: You'll be entering a broad valley flanked by cliffs of red sandstone. As the trail contours along the lake's left shore, you may marvel at the sheer rock walls of the Gore Range reflected in the water. You'll most likely see waterfowl and maybe spot the beaver that live in the lodge at the east end of the lake. As you near the east shore, where the creek enters the lake, you'll see a sign and trail register indicating you are about to enter the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. After approximately a quarter mile, bear right at the fork (the left one goes to Soda Lakes). Enjoy the vistas of rock walls ahead of you; aspen on the slopes to your left (incandescent in autumn!); and spruce, fir, and pine across the valley. The rock has weathered into rugged spires, sharp horns, knife-edge ridges, and jagged arjtes, offering a striking and photogenic backdrop.

After about 2 miles you'll come to another fork in the trail. Bear left, which will start to bring you up and around the cirque you've been admiring throughout your journey. You'll enter a forest of aspen and pine, which should send your dog's nose into overdrive; the trail will become a bit more rugged as it climbs through the rocks and trees. As you climb you'll encounter several forks along the trail; stay right on the main-traveled route. It will soon bring you along a ridge, crossing several small streams, and, ultimately, to a wonderfully scenic overlook of the valley and Piney Lake beyond. You may be tempted to stop here, but less than a quarter mile away is Piney Creek Falls. It's a bit of a scramble to the falls, but their ambience and the always spectacular vistas make it well worth your collective efforts. If you've been hiking during midafternoon, turn around periodically on the way back, as the steep rock walls turn lustrous hues of apricot and orange as the afternoon light slowly fades.

Booth Creek Falls Trail

4 miles round-trip to the falls; 12 miles round-trip to Booth Lake. Take the East Vail exit (180) off I-70 and head west along the Frontage Rd. In less than one mile you'll see Booth Falls Rd. on your right. Drive to the trailhead at the end of the road (0.25 mile) and park. Please be careful not to block or park in the nearby driveways. Dogs must be leashed (this is Wilderness area).

Climb about a quarter mile through open, wildflower-studded meadows to exit the noise and bustle of the Vail Valley, and you'll soon travel through cool stands of aspen, white fir, and blue spruce (Colorado's state tree). Keep an eye out for hummingbirds, which are plentiful in the lower areas during summer. You'll hear the rush of Booth Creek to your left as you climb high above it. After 2 miles the trail opens up to reveal vistas of the classic U-shape of this glacially sculpted valley, with the creek bed etching a deep notch at its base. You'll also see evidence of recent avalanches all around.

Before reaching the falls you'll cross two smaller creeks, providing your dog with the opportunity to cool off. After approximately 2 miles you'll reach Booth Falls, which are quite impressive as they cascade 80 feet through a sheer notch in the schist. You'll definitely want to linger here on one of the many perches that loom directly over the plunge.

You might be tempted to turn around at the falls—don't. The falls are a portal to the incredibly beautiful high-alpine environment beyond. Immediately after the falls the trail winds directly alongside the brook through cool and fragrant spruce groves, then climbs somewhat more steeply for a short stretch. Soon it brings you through the grass and wildflowers of a high mountain meadow, which is surrounded by the steep-sided mountains that make up the Gore Range.

Ultimately you'll come to Booth Lake, which sits at the base of a high cirque, surrounded by towering walls of schist—the predominant rock in the Gore Range. In addition to being breathtakingly beautiful and a great place to kick back, it also offers good fishing (and swimming for those with a fur suit).

Vail Mountain

Though dogs are not allowed to ride the gondola, you can take Rover hiking on the mountain's summertime trail network. A summer trail map lays out the options, and the hiking trails are separate from the biking trails so that pedestrians and downhill cyclists don't suffer any overly close encounters. Pick up the Berrypicker Trail behind the gondola loading station in Lionshead. The trail climbs for 5.5 miles to Eagles Nest, where you can grab a cold libation and enjoy live music on the deck throughout the summer. You can also find water for your dog here (the hike itself is dry). You'll be treated to spectacular views of Mount of the Holy Cross and the surrounding peaks in the wilderness area. Dogs can be off leash, as the mountain is National Forest land.

West Grouse Creek

About 10 miles round-trip. Take the Minturn exit off I-70 and drive south on Route 24 toward Minturn and Leadville. After approximately 1 mile, immediately across from the Meadow Mt. Business Park, you'll see the parking area and trailhead for Grouse Lake, West Grouse Creek, and Meadow Mountain. Dogs can be off leash until the Wilderness boundary, about 4 miles in.

This is not a destination hike per se; it offers no holy grail, no pot o' gold, no ultimate goal. It is, however, a great trail on which to completely enjoy the process of hiking with your dog. It's also a trail that sees little traffic, so you and your dog can exult in sharing the many sensations that accompany a hike with little chance of interruption. The first thing to do when you get on the trail is stop, close your eyes, and inhale; you'll pick up the unmistakably savory smell of sagebrush. Don't get used to this smell on your hike, however; you'll soon ascend out of the semi-arid basin and pass through several distinct vegetative zones as you hike. The sagebrush quickly gives way to towering lodgepole pine—each one straining to get at the light high above. After a quarter mile bear right at the fork, continuing on the West Grouse Trail (the trail to the left will lead you to Grouse Lake). Climb a gentle grade that parallels the creek. In a little under a mile, you'll come to an old road; continue straight across it, staying on the hiking trail. Eventually you'll come to another fork; bear right, descending to a small log bridge spanning the creek. Cross the bridge and climb into a beautiful high meadow. You may be lucky enough to spot some ripe wild raspberries along the trail. Behind you, to the east, are fabulous views of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. Continue along the trail; you'll come to the Wilderness area boundary (leash laws are in effect). The trail meanders alternately through wet spots close to the creek and talus, continuing to gradually climb. Between 4.5 and 5 miles the trail will diverge from the creek. This is where your dog might want to do some exploring to find Waterdog Lake, a small, remote pool in the trees. You'll find it—hopefully—by bushwacking off to the right of the trail as you ascend. As you bushwack, remember which way you came because you'll be retracing your steps as you hike out.

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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