Hiking the Salt Creek Trail
With fall colors coming in quickly to the high country, weekends are a great time to explore some new trails. Authors Alan Apt and Kay Turnbaugh let you do just that—their new edition of Afoot & Afield: Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and Rocky Mountain National Park has over 180 hikes in the Rocky Mountains.
Check out this bonus hike that is perfect for a fall adventure:
South Park: Salt Creek Trail (#618)
This gorgeous, roller-coaster trail rolls around near the scenic Buffalo Peaks Wilderness with the high, rounded, impressive peaks looming in the distance. Expect a rich variety of flora with a forest of aspens and ponderosa and limber pine, bright lichen on scattered rocks, evergreen forests, riparian valleys, and foothills vistas. This trailhead can be used for enjoyable short out-and-back hikes in either direction; a long through-hike to the north that would be an excellent, easy, point-to-point backpack with a car shuttle; or a very long, challenging day hike. The description below covers two separate day hikes.
Distance Up to 18.0 miles north (Out-and-back), 6.0 miles south (Out-and-back)
Difficulty Easy to moderate, depending on distance traveled
Elevation Gain 1,000 feet (starting at 10,300 feet)
Trail Use Mountain biking, horseback riding, backpacking, option for kids, leashed dogs OK
Agency South Park Ranger District, Pike National Forest
Map U.S. Forest Service Salt Creek Trail (#618)
Take Highway 285 about 18 miles south of Fairplay. Turn right (west) onto Salt Creek Road (Forest Road 435). The narrow, but well-maintained road does not require a high-clearance or four-wheel-drive vehicle unless it is very wet and muddy. It can become impassable in heavy, sustained rain. Take the road to an intersection 2.5 miles in and bear right for another mile where it dead-ends at the trailhead.
You have a choice between hiking either northeast or southwest, both of which are described here. Think twice about driving the length of this road if it has been raining heavily; the mud can make the road passable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. If it is dry, however, passenger cars can easily make the trip.
This 1-hour round-trip takes you immediately uphill through a mixed aspen and conifer forest. You crest the small hill in about 0.25 mile and are treated, as the trail turns north, to a spectacular view of Buffalo Peak, rolling waves of forested hillsides in every direction, and a rich green valley below. The trail travels downhill 100 feet and is edged by elegant ponderosa pines interspersed with aspens and limber pines. Large lichen-encrusted rocks and abundant wildflowers complete the landscape—one of the prettiest panoramas in the state.
The trail reaches the bottom of the hill and crosses a drainage. It then climbs west-northwest, crosses a meadow, and travels southwest with every shade of green displayed off to the horizon and distant peaks in sight. At a sign reading Trail 618, the trail turns right and joins Trail 435 1B, a four-wheel-drive road that is still in use. At this point you can either join the road and the vehicles on it as it climbs out of the valley to a pass or reverse course to the trailhead.
Great for Kids: The first mile of the of the Southwest Route is ideal for a short excursion with kids. Bear southwest for the initial uphill stretch that is very short, and then enjoy immediate views to the north. Go downhill on a very gradual switchback. Cross a small stream as the trail continues its gradual downhill trend, with good tree cover for protection from the elements. Stop for a snack break, and then reverse course while the uphill return is easy.
This section of the trail travels downhill out of the parking area for a short stretch before beginning a gradual climb for 0.5 mile through a very thick stand of healthy quaking aspen. The slightest breeze sets them off to provide an optical delight. You cross some small wildflower-dominated meadows, before coming to a trail intersection at 0.75 mile that indicates that the Salt Creek Trail goes either straight north or east. Right (east) looks like a more developed trail, and, after climbing a short hill, you are rewarded with a great view of a reservoir and the Tarryall Mountains to the east.
From this point you could climb onto the ridge just above the trail and gaze upon Buffalo Peaks to the west and the reservoir and the Tarryall to the east. The trail then turns north and travels gradually downhill into the thick tree cover, losing the view but gaining lots of welcome shade on a hot summer day. The trail continues to roll and offer intermittent views. Watch the time and distances you travel; remember that you have to climb the hills again on the return, and turn around when the spirit moves you.