I TROMP UP a snow-covered mountain trail in central Colorado in a loose line with four friends. The only sounds we hear are a light wind moaning through the lodgepole pines and aspen, the rhythmic crunch, crunch, crunch of our snowshoes and our steady breathing at two miles above sea level.
As we shuffle deeper into this stellar high country, we consider our goal today: a peak-ringed lake nestled at 11,450 feet in a natural amphitheater that lies just below the treeline.
In another hour or so we encounter the snow-covered lake, along with a picture-perfect panoramic view. Mount Yale, towering 14,196 feet to the east, shows off a treeless, alpine summit cloaked in the whitest of whites.
Slightly lower—but equally impressive—several 13,000-foot peaks march off in all directions like giant stepping stones. “To think just a few short hours ago we were eating breakfast in snow-free Buena Vista,” says one of my friends, laughing. “Now we’re in deep, untracked snow, in one of the finest wilderness areas in Colorado.”
Located 125 miles southwest of Denver in the rural Upper Arkansas River Valley, Buena Vista (meaning “nice view” in Spanish) sits just a short drive from some of the best snowshoe country the Centennial State has to offer. Perched at an elevation of 8,000 feet, the town sits below the magnificent Sawatch Range—a narrow strip of the Continental Divide with 15 summits of 14,000 feet or higher.
Two of my favorite snowshoe hikes (from a list of 10 or more in the Buena Vista area) ascend different mountain drainages, each with its own unique character and eye-popping views.
The first of those begins in St. Elmo, one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the state. You’ll find St. Elmo, founded in 1880, at 10,050 feet—right in the heart of the Sawatch Range, 20 miles southwest of Buena Vista. You can reach it via County Road 162 which is plowed throughout the winter months.
In its heyday, St. Elmo boasted a population of about 2,000 when gold and silver were discovered there. Now the town has just three year-round residents.
From the stop sign in town, go two-tenths of a mile to a small, dead-end parking area on County Road 267 (Tin Cup Pass road). A U.S. Forest Service sign marks the spot of the Poplar Gulch trailhead. Strap on your snowshoes and daypack and set off into the adjacent winter wonderland.
The climb is steady, with several awesome mountain viewpoints to the south and east across the Chalk Creek drainage. Your objective, if all are on board, is to reach the head of a large subalpine meadow at 11,448 feet, situated just below treeline about two winding miles from the parking area.
Take your time and enjoy the spectacular Rocky Mountain landscape that rises above the Poplar Gulch basin. Look for moose tracks as you start ascending the narrow, switchbacking trail, as these ungainly giants—largest of the deer family—are frequently observed here.
Your descent, aided by the packed trail you broke on the way up, will be a whole lot easier and faster.
On the drive back to Buena Vista, treat yourself to a soothing soak at Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort, with its two, large outdoor pools and mellow creekside basins. As you ease into the muscle-loosening 104-degree geothermal waters, you and your pals will experience pure bliss.
The next day, head 12 miles west from the traffic light (there’s only one in Buena Vista) up Cottonwood Pass Road (CR 306) to the Denny Creek trailhead (elevation 9,925 feet). Trailhead parking is on the right, near the gate that closes off the pass in winter. There you’ll travel north on the Browns Pass Trail into the famed 168,000-acre Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area, offering one of the the highest elevation averages of any wilderness in the lower 48 states.
Denny Creek’s extremely scenic, 10-mile out-and-back snowshoe route—one of the best tours in the valley—climbs 2,200 feet to a high pass on the Continental Divide. The ascent is relatively gentle (compared to some other snowshoe treks in the Sawatch Range), but your lungs may not agree unless you’ve already acclimated to the elevation.
If a 10-mile trek seems too daunting, you can shorten the hike to a six-mile out-and-back (with a mere 1,525 foot elevation gain) by veering off Browns Pass Trail about 2.5 miles from the Denny Creek trailhead. Then, follow the Hartenstein Lake Trail where you’ll meander for a half-mile through lodgepole pines before reaching the subalpine basin of the lake.
All around, you’ll see soaring, white-mantled peaks that will beg for you to return.
WHERE TO STAY: For overnight stays, visit buenavistacolorado.org for lodging information. And if you plan to camp, call the Salida Ranger District (719-539-3519) for suggestions.
GEAR UP: For snowshoe rentals, maps, and trail information, contact The Trailhead, a local outdoor speciality store, at 719-395-8001 or thetraiheadco.com.
SNOWSHOE SAFETY: Winter weather in Colorado can be unpredictable, especially in the mountains. So, tune in to a local weather report to check conditions before your hike. Dress properly (along with stiff-soled footwear and gaiters), carry food and water, trekking poles, map and compass (and GPS), a first-aid kit, and other necessary equipment. Let others know where you’re going, never travel alone, and don’t hesitate to turn back if conditions become extreme. Don’t overdo it; especially if you’re not in a fit physical condition. Many hikes take place at high altitude, and an “easy”snowshoe hike at 10,000 feet can prove strenuous.
LOCAL WISDOM: Established trails that are easily recognizable in summer are sometimes difficult, or even impossible, to follow when deep snow cloaks the landscape. A GPS, preferably with pre-loaded topographic maps, can prove indispensable in route-finding. But practice makes perfect with a GPS; know how to use it before your snowshoe outing.