Jefferson Loop Trail: Long and Pleasant

08 Jan


Pond at the headwaters of Michigan Creek

Pond at the headwaters of Michigan Creek, near the high elevation of the Jefferson Loop

Hiking with Pete and Brian on June 28, 2006
Trailhead: From the town of Jefferson, go north on Park County Road 35, 2 miles; turn right on Park County Road 37, go 3.2 miles; trailhead parking on left, past Colorado Trail sign, near Lodgepole Campground
Starting elevation: 10,020 feet
GPS: 39º25’47”N, 105º50’42”W, Datum WGS84
High point elevation: 11676 feet, 4.1 miles from start
GPS: 39º31’38”N, 105º38’12”W, Datum WGS84
Hiking distance: 8.2 miles

Oh! the deceit. I found the basic details for this trail on the National Forest Service internet site (, which listed its length as 5.5 miles. Ha! We walked 8.2 miles. Also, there was an omission from the NFS description: There is a $5.00 per car use fee for the area around Jefferson Lake, which includes this trail.

Jefferson Trail between the campgrounds

Jefferson Trail between the campgrounds

Luckily the trail is good, with little rock, and the elevation gain is fairly gradual. It is a loop, and you cover only about 0.2 miles of the same ground twice. From the car park, go back to the Colorado Trail, and turn west. The trail goes through the woods and crosses Jefferson Creek on a sturdy footbridge. At the far side of the bridge, there are two ways to go: The path to the right is marked as the Jefferson Trail, which is the northern half of the loop; to the left is the Colorado Trail, the southern half. There are some tradeoffs to be made in the direction you take around the loop. The southern, Colorado Trail half is rockier than the northern, Jefferson Trail half, and is a steadier climb, so there are fewer steep portions, and so might be better for the uphill half of the loop. On the other hand, there are views of South Park from the Colorado Trail as you head downhill that you would miss going uphill. Another consideration might be bicycles: The fat tire bunch travels the Colorado Trail. They go faster downhill, so you might want to go up the Colorado Trail to see them coming. Bicycles are mostly a weekend consideration; our party went on a weekday, and saw no bicycles but plenty of tracks.

Enough preamble! Let’s amble. We went right, up the Jefferson Trail part of the loop. This trail follows Jefferson Creek, paralleling the road, but from the far side of the creek. The trail is wide, the  incline slight, and the walk between Lodgepole and Jefferson Lake Campgrounds is easy and pleasant. At Jefferson Lake Campground, you must skirt a camp site, or go through it with apologies to the occupants, and then follow the campground road to the other end, where the continuance of the hiking trail is well marked. In the campground there is a hand pump if you need water.

Glacier Peak on the Continental Divide to the north; Pete on the Jefferson Trail

Glacier Peak on the Continental Divide to the north; Pete on the Jefferson Trail

Past Jefferson Lake Campground the trail continues to follow Jefferson Creek. The trail becomes a bit steeper, but it’s still easy going. The spruce forest blocks any long views, but the quiet walk, many wildflowers, and good trail make the going pleasant, or quick if you want to make good time. At about 1.4 miles, there’s another well-made bridge, after which the path moves away from the creek and becomes a bit steeper. The valley floor widens, and fills with bushes and swamp. At last there is a long view, of the Continental Divide far ahead, with a snow bank near its top. Shortly thereafter is another view of the ridge, with Glacier Peak rising above the snow.

Those views are brief, and soon you’re back in the depths of the forest. After the bushes end, the creek splits, and you cross good log bridges over three tributaries. At the third bridge, your elevation is 10,888 feet, the path is steeper still, and some wide, easy switchbacks begin. The spruce forest continues, with occasional aspen and pine. The spruce are tall but almost all thin, less than a foot in diameter. An exception appears right next to the trail, a granddaddy almost three feet across. Soon after meeting this big boy, we found our first patch of snow, at 11,360 feet. The patches were few, only one blocking our path.

Pete, left, and Brian below the snow bank

Pete, left, and Brian below the snow bank

Gradually we saw the blue sky through the tree trunks, then suddenly we were in the open, looking at the ridge above us, with the long snow bank. The ridge acts as a snow fence: The high-country wind blows over the ridge all winter long, dropping its load of snow on the leeward side. When we came close, we saw that the drift was about 15 feet deep. Both Jefferson and Michigan Creeks have their sources from these snow banks.

The Colorado Trail and Mount Guyot

The Colorado Trail goes over the ridge to Georgia Pass, just to the east of Mount Guyot

Mount Guyot stands majestically near where the Colorado Trail meets the Jefferson Trail. A right turn here will take you to Georgia Pass, the Continental Divide, and the top of Swan River valley in Summit County. We went left, to continue the Jefferson Loop. The path took us south, passing a section of the ridge below the snow bank. The snow was melting, making for a muddy trail. The mud is allowed for by flat rocks paralleling the dirt path; just walk the rocks where the trail is too muddy. The far end of the snow bank is the source of Michigan Creek: the snowmelt gurgles down through the tundra and tiny flowers to a small pond below, and then the creek begins. The trail follows the creek, but stays on the side of the ridge to the north.

The land here is high, and the winter winds strong and cold. The spruce and occasional lodgepole pine huddle together in clumps for protection against the harsh conditions, and many are bent by the wind. Travelling down the trail you see the clumps tend to grow closer together, the trees grow taller and less bent, and eventually we were in the forest again. Our path up the Jefferson Trail was on the northeast side of the ridge between the two creeks; this forest is on the southwest side, more towards the sun, and so is dryer and less dense. The path is a bit rocky, so you must watch your step, but there is ample opportunity to take in the views of South Park before you. Michigan Hill, a rocky outcropping west of the town of Jefferson, shows prominently in the near valley floor; North and South Twin Cone Peaks, south of Kenosha Pass, are obvious twins from this trail. The path slowly moves away from Michigan Creek, and eventually reaches the top of the ridge. At this point, you have your only view due north, and can see a blue sliver of Jefferson Lake below Whale Peak.

The last mile of the trail is nearly level as it crosses the end of the ridge and back towards Jefferson Creek. Here you’ll find the most foot traffic, both casual strollers from the campgrounds, and ardent, long-distance hikers on the Colorado Trail. This easy last mile, your eighth on this trip, gives you time to wonder, who measured the loop at five and half miles? There are always surprises on the trail. Don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself!

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