In the Snow Above Elevenmile Canyon

24 Dec

Hike with Mark on December 8, 2007
Spillway Campground: 38º54’19”N, 105º27’57”W, 8,472 feet

In Lake George, turn southwest from US 24 onto Elevenmile Canyon Road (Park County Road 96), at Starkey’s Liquor and Groceries. Drive to Spillway Campground, 9.5 miles from US 24. The campground is closed for the season, but there is ample parking just off the road.

Elevenmile Canyon, like the Jefferson Lake area, is one of at least two fee areas in Park County. During the peak season of May through October, there is a $5.00 per car charge to drive into the area. I’m basically cheap, so I’ve waited until the off-season to venture into those areas.

The National Park Service web site
( says there is an Overlook Trail that starts in Spillway Campground, the campground closest to Elevenmile Dam. There’s a map with the web site, but the trail isn’t marked on it. Mark learned about an Overlook Trail that starts in Idlewilde Picnic Ground, just downstream from Spillway Campground. Perhaps the two trails were opposite ends of one trail. We agreed on a day, and went to check it out.

Mark has done some historical research on the area. Elevenmile Canyon Road follows the bed of the Colorado Midland standard gauge railroad line on its way from Colorado Springs to Trout Creek Pass, and points beyond. The road shows typical railroad bed construction: No sharp turns, gentle grades, and three short tunnels through the rock. Mark had also found some old photographs, one of a “Wildflower Express” that came up the canyon in the summer. We found the location of that photograph, at the present IdleWilde Picnic ground.

The weather was definitely worse than that in the old photograph. It had snowed about an inch the night before, and the clouds were threatening to dump more. Mark’s thermometer said 26 degrees, and a light breeze was blowing. We decided we didn’t need our snowshoes, even if more snow was on its way, but we both took walking sticks, which are very helpful on slick and uneven ground.

We followed the road through Spillway Campground, looking for a trail head. At the very end of the road, at camping space number 11, we finally found an unmarked trail heading up the hill. This was not a Forest Service-built trail: It was not leveled path, and it headed up a water drainage with no provisions for separating drainage from path. It stayed clear of the Denver Water Department’s fence around the reservoir, and wound up the hill for a quarter mile or so, but then we lost it in the snow. By this time, fresh snow was beginning to fall.

Mark had read about a “Rock of Ages” in the area, which he assumed would be a prominent high point along the canyon. Having no path to follow anyway, and the trail being way too short for a satisfying hike, we decided to climb farther and check out the higher rocky points in the area.

The forest is a hodgepodge of ponderosa, Douglas fir, aspen, spruce, limber pine, and other pines, too. The terrain is also a hodgepodge, steep and then gentle, rocky outcroppings blocking our progress here and there, small meadows thrown into the mix. We kept a generally uphill, northwest trend, moving out on rocky high points to take in the view. The steepest bit came just after we had lost the trail. On our first view spot, we were seven-tenths of a mile from our trail head, and 500 feet above it.

All our views looked south and west, across Elevenmile Dam and Reservoir. I kept thinking that I heard wind in the canyon, but later realized that the sound was water going over the spillway;Elevenmile Reservoir must be full. Beyond the lake were the ranches and low hills of South Park, with Thirtynine Mile Road
(PCR59) winding through them on its way toward Guffey. The backdrop should have included Thirtynine Mile Mountain, but the snow in the air formed a curtain between us.

We continued up to the next high point, then the next higher. Many rocks in the area form slabs and squared blocks. Slabs flat on the ground made the walking a bit hazardous once the snow began to accumulate on the ground. It seemed that they were always tilted just enough that we’d slip just a little. The blocks were piled in our path, on occasion forcing us to take circuitous routes, at other times to do a little cautious scrambling.

When the slabs and blocks were piled together, they made massive pedestals, grand monuments, and at least one caricature of stone. Mark found the face of what could be an old trapper, with a prominent nose, firm-set jaw, and a wool cap or maybe a Russian fur cap with the ear fl aps down, forever gazing over the reservoir.

At last the snow became thick enough that we decided it was time to go back. Rather than retrace our steps, we moved east, and then south. Except for a few tight spots, we found the terrain gentler, the rocks fewer, and, as long as we kept out of the gulch bottoms, little downed timber to go over and around. As we approached the river bottom, we found a trail, which led us into IdleWilde the road, we turned upstream toward our parking spot. On the way, not ten yards from the truck, we found a sign, set parallel to the road so you don’t necessarily see it as you drive along. It said: “Overlook Trail 641, Scenic View 1/2 Mile.”

It seems we made a loop around the trail we had intended to walk. Oh, well, that’s life in the great outdoors. We had a good walk, good conversations, good views, and no real trouble with the snow and rocks. Maybe we’ll get back to the real Overlook Trail later in the season. Enough snow to need the snowshoes, and a icy-cold, crystal clear day would make a good contrast.


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