Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 12.9 miles
day 1: 8 hours
day 2: 2 hours
Elevations: 3,000 ft gain, 3040 ft. loss
Denny Creek Trailhead (start) 9900 ft
Browns Pass: 12,020 ft.
Kroenke Lake: 11,500 ft.
Trail: well marked, easy to follow
Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The higher parts of the trail are usually covered with snow from late November through mid-July.
Vicinity: Near Buena Vista
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This hike has it all: two gorgeous lakes, a short walk along the Continental Divide, and memorable views of several 14,000-foot Collegiate Peaks. At 12.9 miles it is a relatively easy backpack trip with a choice of two lakes as campsites. If you get an early start you will probably want to spend the night at Kroenke Lake, 8.2 miles from the Denny Creek Trailhead. If you get a late start, however, you can also camp at Hartenstein Lake which is only 3.0 miles from the trailhead. Either lake is a beautiful place to spend the night. The hike described here begins at the Denny Creek Trailhead, but you can just as easily do the trip in the opposite direction.
Day 1 ( 8.9 miles):
The trail follows the west side of Denny Creek for the first 1.0 mile, then crosses the creek on a primitive log bridge as it continues to climb toward the Continental Divide. 0.3 mile beyond Denny Creek you will come to a well-marked trail junction where the trail to Mount Yale departs on the right. Up to that point the trail is so wide it sometimes looks more like a jeep road than a foot path, but beyond the junction the trail soon narrows down. Also, as you gain elevation the forest seems to thin a bit, yielding occasional views of the mountains north and west of the trail.
0.7 miles from the Mount Yale trail junction you will come to another well-marked junction where the Hartenstein Lake trail leaves on the left. You could complete this hike without taking the detour to Hartenstein, but it is such a pretty lake it would be a shame to miss it. It is just a half-hourís walk from the main trail over an easy path with an elevation gain of only 330 feet. As you approach Hartenstein you will notice a treeless slope above the north side of the lake that is swept clean almost every winter by avalanches. The slope descends 1,200 feet from the ridge above at an almost constant 30-degree angle-a perfect avalanche chute. Not a place you would want to be in late winter or early spring! There are some excellent campsites where the trail ends at Hartenstein Lake, and if it is late in the day you may want to consider spending the night there instead of pushing on to Kroenke Lake.
The Kroenke Lake Trail crosses the North Fork of Denny Creek just a few yards beyond its junction with the Hartenstein Lake Trail, and from there it climbs another 900 feet over a distance of 1.6 miles to the summit of Browns Pass. This part of the hike is very pleasant. The trail is situated in an alpine bowl just east of the Continental Divide, and as you pass above timberline you will have an unimpeded view of Mount Yale further to the east. Finally, when you reach Browns Pass the full glory of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area opens up before you. Texas Creek runs through the deep canyon directly below the pass, and above the north side of the canyon a long like of dramatic mountain peaks marches east to west across the skyline. First in line is Mt. Columbia, followed by Mt. Harvard. Then there is Emerald Peak, a near fourteener, with Missouri Mountain, Mt. Belford and Mt. Oxford behind it. And finally, further to the west, the distinctive Three Apostles.
300 feet below the north side of Browns Pass you can see the remains of an old broken-down cabin, Browns Cabin, that was once well known to hikers in the area. Before the 1990s the hundred-year-old cabin was still intact and backpackers frequently used it as an overnight stop. The cabin had a large attic and an iron stove, and there was plenty of room to roll out sleeping bags on the floor. Unfortunately, sometime in the late-1990s the winter snow-load proved to be too much for the old shelter and the roof collapsed. Now Browns Cabin is little more than a gigantic pile of logs, but it is still fun to visit and poke around in the debris. A detour to the cabin and back will add 0.7 mile to the length of this hike.
From Browns Pass the trail climbs up the ridge that defines the Continental Divide, then zigzags along the north side of the Divide for 1.4 miles to a saddle at the head of North Cottonwood Creek. This is all alpine tundra country, well above timberline, and walking across it on a carpet of grass and wildflowers with the spectacular Collegiate Peaks rising dramatically above Texas Creek on your left and Mount Yale on your right is an exhilarating experience. The trail between Browns Pass and Kroenke Lake is easily my favorite part of this hike.
Upon reaching the basin above North Cottonwood Creek the trail makes a long descending turn around the north side of the bowl (in order to avoid a snowfield), and then heads east down the drainage towards Kroenke Lake. Finally, 0.8 mile after leaving the Divide, the path arrives at a terrific overlook point above the lake and then makes its way down the last 300 feet to the waterís edge. You will find several excellent campsites along the south side of the lake.
Day 2 (4.0 miles)
The trail leaves on the east side of Kroenke Lake, first crossing the bog below the lake, and then pursuing a route above the north side of North Cottonwood Creek. Soon you will enter a dense, pristine forest of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir as you make your way down the stream along the well traveled path. Over the next 2.5 miles the trail crosses several minor tributaries of North Cottonwood Creek before finally coming to Horn Fork. The trail crosses Horn Fork on a rickety log bridge, and 30 minutes later arrives at the well-marked Horn Fork Trail Junction. The Horn Fork Trail is the route most often used by hikers climbing Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia. These two fourteeners are popular hiking destinations, so you can expect to see many more hikers on the trail between this junction and the North Cottonwood Trailhead.
The last 1.5 miles of this hike are particularly pleasant. North Cottonwood Creek picks up a substantial amount of water from Horn Fork, and after leaving the trail junction the path never strays far from the dancing, tumbling waters of the fast-flowing mountain stream. The route follows the south shore of the creek for 1.1 miles to the wilderness boundary, then after another 0.3 mile it crosses the stream, soon to end at the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead and parking area.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Kroenke Lake Trail
Buena Vista - Collegiate Peaks (Trails Illustrated, map #129)
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