Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 9.7 miles (round trip)
Elevations: 4,660 ft. gain/loss
Missouri Gulch Trailhead (start): 9,540 ft.
Elkhead Pass: 13,220 ft.
Mount Belford: 14,197 ft.
Trail: Most of the trail is well maintained and easy to follow. The return route down the northwest ridge of Mount Belford, however, is very steep.
Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The trail is covered with snow from mid-November through June.
Vicinity: Near Leadville
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This hike, with its 4,660 feet of elevation gain, is a relatively strenuous choice, but the rewards are ample. After climbing for the first two miles the trail finally levels out in a high alpine valley with picturesque fourteen-thousand-foot peaks on both sides and, if you are lucky enough to be there in early August, a splendid carpet of wildflowers. There are no lakes in the upper Missouri Gulch, but water is abundant and many backpackers opt to spend day or two in the scenic valley. The hanging alpine meadow is particularly popular with peak baggers who come during the summer months to climb Mounts Belford, Oxford, and Missouri.
From the trailhead the path drops down briefly to a footbridge across Clear Creek, then begins ascending immediately on the south side of the stream. For the next mile you will be climbing almost without pause up a steep, tiring but well maintained trail through a dense forest of spruce and subalpine fir. Near the bottom of the climb the trail passes through an old abandoned cemetery, a relic of the late 1800s when there were many mining camps in this area. Most of the graves are now unmarked, but the local historical society has restored one of them near the trail-the grave of a child that died soon after birth.
1.3 miles from the parking area the trail crosses to the east side of Missouri Gulch Creek, then 0.3 mile further you will see the remains of an old abandoned cabin on your left. A plaque has been nailed to the roofless cabin proclaiming that it once belonged to a hardy miner named Joe Anderson. Beyond Joe Andersonís cabin the forest begins to open up as you approach timberline. As the trail continues the dense stand of spruce quickly deteriorates into a patchwork of knurled, bushy plants that bear little resemblance to trees. Then after a few hundred additional feet of elevation gain all that is left of the confining forest is a carpet of alpine grasses and flowers. Forests have their own special appeal, but for me the openness of the alpine tundra never fails to make my spirits soar.
As you emerge from the forest you can see the summit Belford Peak clearly on your left. It is a gentle peak, as fourteeners go, more like a high rolling hill that a mountain. The ridge on the west side of Missouri Gulch, by contrast, is a very rugged formation, bordered by cliffs and talus slopes. The highest point on this ridge, near the southern end, is Missouri Peak (14,067 ft.).
After you have walked 0.5 mile from Joe Andersonís cabin you should see a trail junction with a sign marking the trail to Mount Belford, on the left, and Elkhead Pass, on the right. Either route will take you to the top of Mount Belford, but the more direct trail on the left is 2.3 miles shorter. Nevertheless, the elevation gain is the same and the trail on the right is much less steep. I suggest you continue to Elkhead Pass before climbing Belford, enjoying the beauty of upper Missouri Gulch, and use the steeper trail on the left for your return journey.
The Elkhead Pass trail continues climbing gradually for another 2.6 miles, gaining another 1,580 feet before it reaches the pass. Sandwiched in between two fourteeners at an elevation of 13,220 feet, Elkhead is almost the highest mountain pass in Colorado. The only one higher is the 13,300-foot Electric Pass, near Aspen. To the north you can look down into the Missouri Gulch, through which you have come, and to the south, in front of the Continental Divide, is the remote Missouri Basin. Seeing Missouri Peak above the west side of the pass is a great incentive to push on to Belford, the higher of the two peaks.
The trail to Belford begins by heading due east from Elkhead Pass, then it makes a long sweeping turn to the left as it follows the southern ridge to the summit. The grade continues to be gradual, and were it not for the altitude it would be an easy walk to the top. The trail gains only 980 feet in 1.3 miles. After a mile you will see a spur trail branching off to the right toward Mount Oxford, then less than 10 minutes later you will encounter the small outcropping of rock that marks the summit of Mount Belford. From there you can look down on both Missouri Peak and Mount Oxford, the two closest fourteeners. The large, prominent peak that juts up three miles to the southeast, on the other side of Missouri Basin, is Mount Harvard (14,420 ft.), the third highest peak in Colorado.
The return route goes down Belfordís northwest ridge for 1.6 miles to intersect the Missouri Gulch Trail. The route is very steep-it looses 2,560 in only 1.6 miles-so you will be glad you are going down this way and not up. The route is exciting because for the entire distance you are looking directly down into the lush green tundra of the Missouri Gulch. The trail is not difficult but it is slippery in places, so watch your footing. Once you reach the Missouri Gulch Trail you can retrace your steps for the last 2.1 miles to the trailhead.
Mount Oxford and Missouri Peak
Some hikers climb both Mount Belford and Mount Oxford together, although doing this in one day makes for a very long, tiring walk. Including Mount Oxford in the hike described here will add another 2.4 miles onto the walking distance and 1,230 feet onto the elevation gain, making a total of 12.1 miles and 5,890 feet gain. The total walking distance can be trimmed somewhat if you turn right at the trail junction in Missouri Gulch and bypass Elkhead Pass. This route will take you straight up the northwest ridge to the top of Mouth Belford, shaving 2.3 miles of the total hiking distance. But this plan will also bring the total elevation gain up to 6,000 feet.
The most enjoyable way to climb Mount Oxford is to spend a night in upper Missouri Gulch and climb both Belford and Oxford the following day. If you camp near the trail junction in Missouri Gulch you can visit Elkhead Pass, Mount Belford, and Mount Oxford all with only 7.9 miles of walking and 3,790 feet of elevation gain.
Setting up a camp in Missouri Gulch will also give you the option of climbing Missouri Peak, the areaís third fourteener. Unlike Belford and Oxford there is no easy trail up Missouri, but it is nevertheless a popular climb. The safest way to approach the summit of Missouri Peak is as follows:
Continue south from the trail junction in Missouri Gulch toward Elkhead Pass. The trail proceeds in a southerly direction for about 1.8 miles before it swings to the east to begin the final climb up to the pass. At the point where the trail turns east, about 0.8 miles from the top of the pass, you should leave the trail and walk due west. Ahead you will see a break in the cliffs below Missouri Peak's northwest ridge, with grassy slopes extending most of the way up to a 13,700-foot saddle. This will be your route to the crest of the summit ridge.
Once you have climbed the 1,100 feet from Missouri Gulch to Missouri Peakís northwest ridge there is a relatively easy route to the summit. The highest point lies at the southern end of the ridge, 0.7 miles from the saddle. You will encounter two notable obstacles on your walk along the crest of the ridge: First, you will have to climb over a false summit that rises 230 feet above the south side of the saddle. Then, just before you reach the peak you will encounter some rocky outcrops that can be bypassed on the west side of the ridge.
If you are camped near the trail junction in Missouri Gulch the hike to the top of Missouri Peak will involve about 6.2 miles of walking, round trip, and 2,480 feet of elevation gain. This is a fairly easy day hike, except for the strenuous off-trail climb from Missouri Basin to the summit ridge.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Missouri Gulch - Mount Belford Trail
Buena Vista - Collegiate Peaks (Trails Illustrated, map #129)
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