October 3, 2020 · Collegiate Peaks Wilderness
The hike to Elkhead Pass in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness within the San Isabel National Forest is particularly challenging for the first 2.2 miles. The first 2.2 miles is a steep, knotty and lumpy trail. The steep slope of this trail beings to relent at a group of abandoned cabins. The next four miles to Elkhead Pass meander up a wide glacial valley. The views of the valley are incredible this time of year.
It was a beautiful day for an early October hike. It had snowed about a week before, but by now most of that snow had melted, leaving only traces of snow on the North face of the headwall of the glacial valley. This hike also marked the crossing over the 200-mile mark for the 2020 hiking season, this was a great trail to experience that milage crossing.
The trailhead starts at the historic Vicksburg Mining Camp. The establishment of the Vicksburg Mining Camp has a humorous beginning, some people believe in a lucky rabbit's foot, others ascribe their luck to a lucky family amulet. But how about a lucky burro? For a group of prospectors, that was the case. While prospecting, their burros wandered away and got lost in the forest. The prospectors found the burros along a creek that just happened to have placer gold in it, thus the Vicksburg Mining Camp was established.
There were several vehicles at the trailhead in the morning, I suspect the primary reason why there were so many vehicles at the trailhead was because there are three 14ers that can be accessed via this trailhead, they are Mount Belford, Mount Oxford, and Missouri Mountain. Given the number of vehicles at the trailhead in the morning, the trail was surprisingly well spaced out and you really did not see many people on the way in.
It was brisk at the trailhead, though the first couple of miles of the trail kept you very warm, considering up to the abandoned cabin you are heading South and in the shade. Just before the abandoned cabin, the trail snakes through an avalanche debris field. The avalanche had taken out all the trees and re-routed the river. Looking back there was a large grove of Aspens, though most of them had probably shed their Autumn leaves the week before.
The slope of the trail to the abandoned cabins is so steep, that once you reach the abandoned cabins you feel like you have already achieved a major milestone, though this is just a rest area and rallying point for people to meet on the way in and out. It is from here that you get the first views of this spectacular V-then-U-shaped glacial valley you will be spending the rest of the day in.
The grasses and shrubs have already rusted out from the Fall and are shades of yellowish and deep-flat greens set against the snow-stratified granite peaks. This is also treeline, so there are huge blue skies and not a single cloud. Up until Elkhead Pass there was a light but persistent breeze, just enough to keep you cool.
The first cut-off on the trail is to the 14er Mt. Belford. My destination was Elkhead Pass, at the end of the valley, I did not go to any 14ers. I feel that was the right choice, I only came across a few people while on the trail up to Elkhead Pass. Though I could see several people marching up the trail to Mt. Belford. Though there was one person I would see a few times on this trek. There was a woman speed-walking the trail, and she was moving quickly and effortlessly it seemed. Based on the number of times I saw here and where I saw here, I suspect she did the full tour of this valley, including Mount Belford, Mt. Oxford, Elkhead Pass, and Missouri Mountain. I do not know when she started, but she finished about a half-hour after I stepped off the trail for the day.
The trail from the cut-off to Mt. Belford and Missouri Mountain is a beautiful trek in the widest part of the valley, as such you feel like you are on a casual stroll and take your time on this leg of the trail to take in the views. There were two river crossings. They were running low and slow and they still had a delicate layer of ice on them at this hour.
The dominate features along this leg of the trek are Mt. Belford to the left and Missouri Mountain ahead and to the right. Shortly after the cut-off to Missouri Mountain, the slope of the trail picks up and Elkhead Pass always seems to be right around the next corner, the longest corner it would seem, and the trail meanders trough a talus field and the saddle that is Elkhead Pass comes into view.
The slope on the final pitch to Elkhead Pass is noticeable, though when you make it to the saddle that is Elkhead Pass the views in every direction are stunning. To the North you can look down the valley you have spent the day hiking in, and the rust and flat greens on the valley floor are striking. Mt Belford is just off to the East and seems like a short trek from Elkhead Pass. To the West is Missouri Mountain, which seems more like a range than a peak from this vantage point. Off to the North, just beyond the Vicksburg Mining Camp is Quail Mountain and next it is Mt. Hope, which is just out of sight though.
Turning South, one of the most incredible panoramic views of the Collegiates is on full display, the view is simply breathtaking. From Elkhead Pass the trail drops sharply to a wide alpine plateau covered in a carpet of rusted grasses and flat green shrubs that is rimmed by Iowa Peak and Emerald Peak. Just above the plateau is a shelf with a few small lakes. The size of the plateau and the width of the panoramic views of the Collegiates is epic. I wish I could have stayed longer, though it was windy at the pass. After a lot of pictures and taking in the views, I decided it was time to head back.
The weather was perfect all day, and this incredible trek came in at 10.2 miles roundtrip. Well worth the difficult 2.2 miles at the start of the trek.