Lost Creek Wilderness, Colorado
Distance: 12.2 miles
Traveled: Ute Creek Trailhead to Bison Peak
“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Summer is finally starting to settle into the Rocky Mountains. The aspens are getting their leaves, the wildflowers are starting to bloom in the foothills, the temperatures suddenly catapulted from the 60’s to 80’s, the snow is melting and the rivers are singing, and I cut my grass for the first time this weekend. All signs point to summer.
The night before I had convinced my buddy Jon to join me in hiking Bison Peak, and we met at the nearly-late (not joking) hour of 5:30 am to drive to the Ute Creek Trailhead (it’s the height of monsoon season in Colorado – and it’s best to get to the trailhead at sunrise this time of year, which is about 5:20am right now – so we were running a bit late).
Last fall, toward the end of the hiking season, I learned of the marvel of 12,431’ Bison Peak in the Lost Creek Wilderness. I knew immediately that I would save the hike for this time of year – when the high mountains are still socked in, the alpine tundra is still muddy and colorless, and the ‘lower’ elevations are green and beginning to just beginning to burst with wildflowers (low being all relative, I suppose – around here I consider it anything below 9,000’ low-ish). This is the time of year that I’m itching for long miles and high peaks and any impressive vista I can get to – and I knew a hike up Bison Peak would satisfy.
We set out on the Ute Creek Trailhead around 7:00am. Leaving the car I was feeling completely torn about what layers to wear and bring. Thunderstorms were in the forecast, and it was tough to tell what the weather would be like above the timberline and on the peak (isn’t it always?). It was chilly at the trailhead, but being that it’s always cold early morning, it was tough to tell. I decided to play it safe and dress warm and shed my layers later if needed.
The trail started off skirting a meadow and quickly entered the trees. It passed through lovely stands of old–growth aspen and under cover of impressive pines and firs.
Soon we crossed the Lost Creek Wilderness boundary.
From the start, the trail travels almost entirely uphill to the peak and gains over 4,300 ft of elevation in it’s climb. Initially the uphill was reasonable, but a couple miles in the trail began to climb steeply.
As the trail climbed, the temperature also heated up, and I truly began to regret my layer decisions. We stopped to shed some layers, and I found after dumping out the entire contents of my backpack that I had forgotten both my shorts and my lightweight socks in the car. I was so bummed. I stripped what layers I could, but was left wearing my hiking pants and long sleeve shirt that would prove to be super-hot.
The trail from this point to treeline was surrounded by forest that must have suffered a fire many years ago. The trees had recovered, but the evidence of the fire was all around. Twisted and burned remains of bristlecone pines were scattered around the forest.
A few miles in the trail meets the Brookside-McCurdy Trail. From here we would follow the trail to treeline, and then the saddle of the Bison Peak.
The sandy trail moved ahead, and we trudged through the occasional dirty snow field.
Quickly after turning onto the Brookside-McCurdy Trail, we popped out above the trees and the view opened up over Fairplay and Jefferson with views of the high peaks all around. The view was incredible, and we immediately began the “name the peak” game.
We were on the north face of the mountain at this point so the snow fields became a bit more frequent, though, totally manageable.
The views of the rock formations on the mountain also opened up at this point.
We quickly reached the saddle, and here the trail disappears, though the path to the summit is quite clear.
The view of the continental divide and surrounding mountains was awesome from up there.
The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. No wind, sun, no threatening clouds, and quite warm. If I had been wearing shorts I would have been much happier though.
Turning east from the saddle, the view of Bison Peak is awesome. The rock formations that litter the mountain are huge and unlike anything I have seen outside of the Utah desert. I would love to know more about the geology of the mountain and how the rocks got there.
Getting closer to the base of the peak the true huge scale of the rock formations became much clearer.
Unfortunately this would be the last photo i would take with my “real” camera as my battery died right after this shot was taken. I was so bummed. I usually have an extra with me, but didn’t on this day. I was stuck with my iPhone for photos for the rest of the hike, which I wasn’t thrilled about, but at least I had it as a backup!
There was a decent amount of snow on the peak and the path to the summit became a game of “choose your own adventure”. We tried to skirt the snow fields where we could, and when crossing the snowfields we were lucky sometimes to find firm steps in the snow that held our weight, and other times I postholed to my hips.
It’s a short scramble to the summit, and the 360 degree view from the top was awesome.
We ate some lunch and relaxed for a bit and took in the view. Naturally, I brought a completely reasonable hiking lunch of veggie sushi.
On the way down we explored more of the rock formations and noticed there were many randomly strewn boulders balancing precariously on top of some of the formations. Some perfectly round and they looked like you could push them right off, others sitting at weird angles seeming to defy gravity.
An unusual landscape, indeed.
Heading down we postholed and scrambled and walked through soaking wet tundra to get back to the trail. It was awesome.
We both agreed that this would be an awesome place to camp for a night and do some night sky photography. Lighting up some of the surrounding rocks against the night sky would make for some incredible photos.
We headed back down the way we came, and the temperature was nearly unbearable toward the bottom. It was super hot. We were flying though, and made it the 6 miles back to the car in 2 hours.
Overall we made awesome time on the whole hike. Including stopping for a zillion photos, scrambling around, stopping to catch our breath, eating lunch and snacks – we finished the 12.2 miles in a leisurely 6 hours total. Not too shabby.
When I come back again, I’ll definitely combo Bison Peak with a traverse over to McCurdy Mountain. I got word of a 35 miles backpacking look that passes over both mountains, so there is a good chance I’ll be back.