Hike with Sunday T. Dog on June 14, 2009
Trailhead: 38º58’13N, 106º3’31W, 10,237 feet
Big tree: 38º58’7”N, 106º4’16”W, 10,154 feet
Lunch: 38º57’41”N, 106º5’31”W, 11,083 feet
Hiking distance: 8.5 miles
There are hidden beauties on the long trails at the feet of the high mountains on the west side of South Park. One of these long trails is the Salt Creek Trail. Salt Creek isn’t salty itself, but got its name from the salt springs west of Antero Reservoir, where the Salt Works Ranch is located. The creek flows through that valley on its way to join the South Fork of the South Platte River in the reservoir.
The drive up Salt Creek Road alone is worth the trip. You’ll find the road south of Fairplay on U.S. 285 about a quarter mile south of mile marker 164. A brown and white sign points west, announcing “Forest Service Access, Salt Creek Road.” Once on that road, another sign tells you: “Salt Creek Trail, 6; South Fork Salt Creek 6; Forest Service Road 435.” Only two-tenths of a mile along you get your first view, of Buffalo Peaks, up close and personal, and just west of that, the northern Mosquito Range in the distance.
The wet June this year has made the valleys green and the wildflowers bloom in profusion. Mid-June is time for the (in my opinion) most elegant of Park County’s flowers to bloom, and the wild iris were everywhere.
At 4.6 miles from U.S. 285, we turned right to stay on FSR 435. Some Mexican restaurants serve “naked” burritos, or burritos without tortillas. For perhaps half a mile, this road had “naked culverts.” There was a creek on the left, downhill from the road, and a ditch on the right, or uphill side. Every tenth mile or so, there was a dip in the road, as opposed to a culvert under it, to let the water drain from the ditch to the creek.
We found our trailhead at the end of FSR 435, at just about six miles from U.S. 285, as promised by the Forest Service sign. Aspen were the dominant trees in the forest around us, and many were tall. Even bigger, stately bristlecone pines rose above the smaller aspen. The temperatures were warm, and the skies almost clear. A few puffy clouds floated in the northern skies, and a couple more were west of us. We walked past a sign announcing “Salt Creek Trail 618” and up a modest ridge.
On most trails, you have to walk a ways before getting your first long-range or dramatic views. At the top of this first little ridge, boom! we had a view. We found a wide valley, filled mostly with aspen, leading up to the rounded summit of East Buffalo Peak. Such a magnificent view stops you in your tracks, and then almost drags you on your way, up the trail.
Salt Creek Trail winds through the valley, going over the low ridges that separate the North, Middle and South Forks of Salt Creek. There was lots of undergrowth, and the ample rain this summer had everything smelling sweet and fresh. Butterflies were in relatively short supply; probably the rains damage their fragile wings. Birds, though, were everywhere.
The trail was mostly in the forest, but there were views from the ridgetops, up to East Buffalo Peak, and occasionally southeast toward Black Mountain. Our trailhead started near the North Fork of Salt Creek. Other roads go up the other forks, and the trail either crosses them or travels along them for as much as a quarter mile. There were two creek crossings, one across the North Fork, which was merely a step. The second crossing, on the Middle Fork, was too wide at the trail for Sunday, the Teacup Newfoundland. We went downstream a little, and I tried to give her a lift over. The stream bank was muddier than I allowed for, though, and I got a foot wet. On the way back, we tried even farther downstream, and found a spot narrow enough for a little dog hop.
Beyond the Middle Fork of Salt Creek, we came to what I thought a forest primeval would be: Big, tall, straight trees, mostly spruce and bristlecone, suddenly dark after the bright aspen groves and small meadows. The trail went more steeply than before. For a bit the trail paralleled an old road, and then joined it. It was narrow, like an old logging road made when wagons were the primary vehicles for removing trees from the forest. Most of the rock along the trail broke into flat slabs, perhaps a quarter inch thick. I’d seen rock like these on Black Mountain. Black Mountain and Buffalo Peaks have volcanic origins, perhaps they’re a volcanic rock.
After the steep bit, we went over a ridge, and slowly got back into the aspen forest. In the forest, it’s easy to daydream as you walk along. The trail began to fade a little, probably due to all the undergrowth born of the rains. It was easy to imagine we were in a timeless place, and walking deeper and deeper into trackless wilderness. Then we came around the corner, and found… a minivan! Dream ends. It was on another road, where someone had found his own trailhead.
We crossed that road, and came to another, which the trail followed to its end. Here the aspen ended, too, and we found a sign on the edge of the conifer forest: “Salt Creek Trail 618. (arrow straight), Wilderness Boundary, Four Mile Trail; (arrow right) Salt Creek Trail.” We turned right, to stay on the Salt Creek Trail, but found no real trail. We did find another sign, 50 feet or so from the first, that read, “No Motor Vehicles.” There was nothing else resembling a trail, so we pushed past the sign, and up an old road.
The road was steep and fairly rocky, although I’ve been on steeper and rockier. We walked through the evergreens at a steady incline for most of a mile. Near the end of that mile, a ridge to the west came closer to us, and the road faded away. Hoping to see something besides trees, we went the few yards to the ridgetop, and found some views of the Sawatch Range, the big mountains across the Arkansas River valley. We knew what we had then: a great place for lunch.
While enjoying the meal, I looked at the map. I found the old road we had followed up, as well as the trail we had intended to follow. The trail had left the road after a tenth mile or so, and followed a small creek straight west, while the road continued northwest. Here was a chance for a small loop, rather than following the same path back. After the food was gone, and we’d contemplated the big peaks for a bit, we headed straight south, intending to find and follow the trail back to the signs at the end of the road.
This worked well. We expected some steep slopes, but they weren’t as bad as they could have been. The trail we found was not well worn, but easy to follow. It took us back to the old road we’d gone up, but I found no mark to show where it leaves that road. I’d not be able to find the trail from the road.
The return was as pleasant as the walk out, through the forests and wildflowers. At the end we walked to the top of that first ridge, and looked back up the valley, to see where we’d been, and to admire the peak at the end of the valley again. I noticed a side trail along that ridge, and followed it for fifty yards or so. All along were views of the valley and East Buffalo Peak. Back at our trailhead, I noticed that there were two signs for Salt Creek Trail, the one we’d followed, and another heading north. It looks like I’ll have to come back.
I also enjoyed the drive back, along the picturesque Salt Creek Road. The Forest Service has done a fine job keeping up the road. I had no problems with my two-wheel drive, low clearance car. If you want a long hike, or just a nice drive and a short walk to a great view, try this trail.