Fire and Water Along the Platte River Trail

20 Jul
The river flows rapidly around rocks and boulders

The river flows rapidly around rocks and boulders near where Sunday took a plunge. Luckily I had picked a quiet pool for her to try to get a drink.

Hike with Sunday T. Dog on August 13, 2008

Trailhead: 39º1’32”N, 105º21’17”W, 7,843 feet
Highest Point: 39º2’11”N, 105º21’8”W, 8,187 feet
Turned Back: 39º3’27”N, 105º21’4”W, 7,711 feet
Hiking distance: 6.2 miles

How far does one go on a hike? Maybe to the top of the mountain and back, or up one trail and down another. Some trails are just too long to tackle all at once, so you have to pick a place or time to come back, or turn around after some event. On this hike, we walked until the dog fell into the river.

The Platte River Trail goes along the South Platte River a few miles below Lake George. To get there, turn north on Tarryall Road, Park County Road 77, from US 24 just east of mile marker 264. Go 1.4 miles, and turn east on a road just past a brown and white Forest Service sign with a picture of a tent (the symbol for campground). If you’re coming from the north end of the county, go to Jefferson, and turn south from US 285 onto PCR 77 at mile marker 199. Travel about 40.5 miles, and turn east after the Forest Service campground picture sign. Once on that road (it’s PCR 122, but no sign tells you that), go across the valley to a T in the road, and turn right (south). (The left turn goes onto a much worse road, marked as Forest Service Road 295.) Pass Happy Meadows Campground 1 mile from  PCR 77, then stop at the Platte River Trailhead, 2 miles from PCR 77. There’s a yellow “Dead End” sign on the right, and a trailhead sign and parking for three cars on the left.

Sunday and I started our hike after 10 a.m., a little late for a mountain hike, but the weather looked good. There were a few high, thin clouds, no breeze, and an almost hot sun. The wide, well-worn trail went north, moving slowly away from the road and the South Platte River, going gently up the ridge to the west. The valley floor dropped as we rose, and soon we had a grand view of the wide, slowly moving river, complete with a foursome of Canada geese.

We passed above houses in the valley, and then the trail turned more westerly, away from the river. The ponderosa pine were fragrant, and smallish butterflies, black with an orange pattern on their wing tops, danced across the trail. What a nice day for a hike.

The trail took us above the valley, where the South Platte River flowed quietly and smoothly

The trek started with calm winds and a clear sky. The trail took us above the valley, where the South Platte River flowed quietly and smoothly. The only disturbances on the water’s surface were from the Canada geese swimming upstream.

At four-tenths of a mile out, the trail grew rockier and steeper, and Douglas fir started to appear in the forest. The trail crossed a gulch at 0.8 mile, and turned east, continuing up the next ridge. As we were higher up, we had a view of the hilltops across the valley to the east. Bits of the Hayman Fire had burned there, leaving areas of dead trees. Living trees were reflected in the calm waters of a lake on the valley floor.


Here’s where I found the bracelet

Here’s where I found the bracelet that I took to replace my broken GPS strap

We reached the highest point on the trail at about 1.3 miles from the trailhead. There someone had built a small cairn on a rock about shoulder high, and used it to hold a short stick upright. A deer or elk vertebra was stuck on the stick, and what I took to be a lost bracelet was hooked to the bone. The bracelet was made of beads with letters; I imagine that the maker meant to spell “FRIENDS,” but the letters were strung backwards, so it spelled “SDNEIRF.” I had a short cord that I used to carry my GPS unit on around my wrist, but it broke recently. “I’m friends with the Park County Trails,” I thought. “This bracelet must be a gift from the trail to me!” and so I justified acquiring it to replace the broken cord.

The trail began a downward descent, and slowly moved back toward the river. More signs of fire were evident across the valley, and beside the trail, too. In numerous places, a dozen trees had blackened bark six or more feet from the ground, and occasionally there would be a fallen and burnt log.

At 2 miles from the trailhead, we came to another small valley, this one narrower and wetter than the four or so we’d passed through before. The forest was thicker, and there was more undergrowth. Overhead it was getting wetter, too. Many puffy clouds had replaced the high, thin ones, and those to the west were growing dark. We continued down to the river, just downstream from a few houses. A trail sign pointed down river, while upstream was “Private, No Access”. We found a fisherman there, who told us about the one that got away.

The river bottom was very different from the hillside. The butterflies were white or orange, the air was humid, and the trees were tall, large spruce, and not just any spruce. Most spruce in Park County are Engleman spruce, which have reddish cones. These were Colorado Blue spruce, with larger, yellow cones.

small, isolated fires had burnt the grass and lower bark on a dozen or more trees

We passed a number of places like this, where small, isolated fires had burnt the grass and lower bark on a dozen or more trees

We passed a number of campsites as we walked, while the valley slowly grew narrower and the river ran a little faster. The trail went through bushes, then through a few rocks, and soon we were on the hillside, climbing over rocks, and getting pushed closer to a river that was now rushing over rocks and around boulders. Sunday thought it was a good time to go get a drink, but I managed to keep her away from the water until we found a quieter pool, with a gently sloping, slightly damp rock at its edge. At least, I thought it was gently sloping. Poor dog got on the wet, slick rock and slid right into the river! I lunged forward to grab her so she wouldn’t wash downstream, and my hand landed on an indignant and stinging bee. Luckily the water in the pool was washing toward the rock, and Sunday dog-paddled back to me. We decided the trail had gotten too rough, and it was time for lunch anyway, so we turned back upstream.

Here’s the rock and pool where Sunday slid into the river

Here’s the rock and pool where Sunday slid into the river. The pool is relatively quiet, and the surface water moves toward the riverbank.

Picking one of the campsites with a comfortable place to sit, we dried off and had a bite. After fifteen or so minutes, raindrops began to fall, so our rest was cut short. We packed up, and started our return trip. The gentle shower ended in a few minutes, and we had a dry and cool return trip.

This is an easy hike, with few steep spots on the trail, and not much elevation change. The narrow part of the river is certainly the toughest, as there is a bit of rock scrambling to do. Still, I’d like to explore farther down river. If you go, make sure you start early to avoid the midday showers so common in the summer in Park County. And make sure to give your dog a little water before you get to the rocky part of the valley.


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