Vien R. Guenther
Hiking near Crested Butte, Gunnison County - Gunnison National Forest & Raggeds Wilderness, Colorado
Gunnison County is the 5th largest county, by area, in Colorado. The county seat is Gunnison, named for John W. Gunnison, a U.S Army officer and captain in the Army Topographical Engineers. We haven't done much hiking in this area, but there are several hiking trails here that are worth driving to for miles from home. What we do is make a road trip and stay a couple of nights or so to make the most of our trip hiking and exploring. You would not want to just do any of these hikes by making only a day trip out of it.
There are plenty of places and campgrounds you can stay in the area, depending on where you want to hike. The nearest town is Crested Butte, located in north-central Gunnison County. Some trails are just a few minutes drive from the center of town.
We come here in summer for the wildflowers, not just for hiking. In the fall, this is one of the finest areas in Colorado to see the aspens change into their autumn colors. Crested Butte is known as the “Wildflower Capital of Colorado”. The town is also called “the last great Colorado ski town” - backcountry skiing here is said to be some of the best in Colorado. It is also a destination for mountain biking, as well as other summer outdoor activities. The former coal mining town hosts several festivals and parades throughout the year. So, whatever your preference is, the town has plenty to offer year-round.
TO GET HERE
Crested Butte lies 8,885 feet above sea level, in the west-central area of Colorado. If you are out of towners and need a quick arrival, you can fly here through the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport. But driving from Denver, the fastest route is about 4 hours or so via US Highway 285 south and US-50 west. You will see a lot of scenic views along this route, however, if you choose to drive.
- HIKING TRAILS -
We haven't actually explored much of Gunnison County, but there are three trails that we hiked in Gunnison National Forest – Snodgrass Mountain Trail and Oh-Be-Joyful Trail and the Three Lakes Loop Trail near Raggeds Wilderness.
SNODGRASS LOOP TRAIL – 4 to 6 miles round-trip
Snodgrass Trailhead is about a 12-minute drive from the center of town of Crested Butte via Gothic Road (317). This trail is easy and shared with bikers so you might find it crowded, especially during wildflower season. The trail opens in March to October but closes in certain months, for cattle grazing, usually in July or August or even earlier - check it out before driving here.
On this trail, you have an option of taking the loop trail or hike all the way up to the summit of Snodgrass Mountain. We hiked on this trail for the wildflowers so we did the loop trail and skipped hiking all the way to the summit.
If you happen to be here during the peak season, you will be amazed at the meadows covered with colorful wildflowers, as far as the eye can see. I don't blame you if you would rather stay down among the flowers than hike, but it is nice to explore the trails as well - you never know what you might discover along the way. There are over 50 species of wildflowers in Crested Butte. Due to the generous beauty of nature found in the area, the local residents started an annual festival in 1986 to protect it. It's a week-long festival in the month of July.
The various species of wildflowers bloom at different times, so if you are looking for a particular species it's better to check the local website what time of month to visit to avoid disappointment.
Right at the beginning of the trail, you will find wildflowers surrounding the area. Not only that, the landscape on this trail is stunning. Here, the backdrop for these beautiful meadows are mountain peaks above 12,000 feet such as Gothic Mountain, Mount Belleview and Avery Peak.
Either on foot or on the back of a horse, the landscape here is wonderful to explore without much effort on your part. No huffing or puffing here when the horse does the work. The trail is family friendly, so hardcore hikers will probably skip this trail. There is a separate trail for horseback riders, but at some point on the hill we encountered a few riders.
Just above the hill, more beautiful mountain landscape can be seen - Mount Crested Butte (12,142 feet), Red Mountain (11,657 feet) and Whetstone Mountain (12,510 feet).
OH-BE-JOYFUL TRAIL – 8 miles round-trip or longer
If you want to get away from mountain bikers as well as crowds, this is the trail to take. Even families with kids that are used to hiking can enjoy this trail. It’s about 20-minute drive from the center of town of Crested Butte, via Co Road 734. The trailhead is at the Oh-Be-Joyful Recreation Area. If you don't have a high clearance vehicle, then you have to park here.
If you do have a 4WD, it will save you from getting your feet, or legs, wet since you can drive across the Slate River, if the water is low enough to be passable. The beginning of the trail is just across the river.
We hiked here in July and the water was still high - actually higher for a short gal like me - so we had to find the shallowest area we could find. But, even the shallowest part has deep areas, so it's good to have hiking sticks with you to keep your balance and to keep you from getting wet all over if you slipped. We had to remove our hiking boots and socks before crossing the river, since we didn't want to hike with wet shoes.
When you first hit the water, it was like “brain freeze”, a shock to the system I tell you. Don't hesitate though, just grit your teeth (at least I did) and go for it. Don't think about having to cross it again going back at the end of your hike. On our way back we saw a young group of backpackers contemplating what to do across the river. One of them tried to cross but after a few steps shouted and went back. We laughed but I can sympathize, the water is freezing cold at that time. It was a little painful.
So, this trail follows the Oh-Be-Joyful Creek. There's a steep ascent for about half a mile and then it gets pretty much easy past the waterfalls up the glacial valley. Past the waterfalls, there's a portion of the trail that follows an old jeep road, then a little way beyond you will enter the Raggeds Wilderness Area.
Did I say you will find several waterfalls on this trail? The first waterfalls you encounter is just one of several along the trail. You will find more right on the Oh-Be-Joyful Creek and also coming down from the high ridge above. The wildflowers here were not shabby either, so it is an enjoyable trek.
The trail traverses in the valley between two ridges with Peeler Peak (12,227 feet) on the left and Schuylkill Mountain (12,146 feet) on the right. Eventually, the trail reveals a stunning landscape, a wide open valley with the Ruby Range off in the distance.
As you hike farther, the mountains reveal more of their stunning landscape. The peaks are just above twelve thousand feet and are quite impressive. The trail goes all the way up that far ridge and beyond, so if you are early and a hardcore hiker, you can extend your hike to Blue Lake, below Afley Peak (12,646 feet). If that is not enough, you can go all the way up to Scarp Ridge or even beyond that.
My husband, Hermann, used to do that, but not anymore. I would say, "he's been there and done that". With me along. we hike not for bragging rights but for the enjoyment of the nature surrounding us.
We decided to turn around at about 4 miles, at a small waterfall. It's a nice turn-around point. There are plenty enough photo ops in the valley so that we were content to just linger a bit among the flowers before hiking back. At the end of our hike, within view of our car, we once again had to contemplate getting across that river, which had no bridge. This time we decided to just keep our boots on and try to get across as quickly as possible. The boots and socks got soaked but dried out soon enough - we were not planning to hike the next day anyway.
THREE LAKES LOOP TRAIL – 4.5 miles round-trip
We hiked here in autumn when the Aspen colors were at their peak. We stayed at a friend's summer house before we did this hike, so a little less driving for us to reach the trailhead. The beautiful autumn colors are enough reason to take this trail at this time of year. Besides that, the three lakes on this loop - Lost Lake Slough, Lost Lake and Dollar Lake are beautiful. Needless to say, this is also a popular trail.
TO GET HERE
If you are staying in Crested Butte, it’s less than 20 miles via County Road 12. A little less than an hour drive to the main trailhead. On the way, you might want to stop over on Kebler Pass where you can admire a panoramic view of the mountains. Coming all the way from Denver to here is almost a five-hour via either US -285/US-50 or via I-70 to Glenwood Springs and then State Highway 133 through Carbondale and over McClure Pass.
The Three Lakes Loop Trail sits below East Beckwith Mountain (12,432 feet). The trail begins at the Lost Lake Campground located right by the biggest lake on the loop trail, the Lost Lake Slough. The trail is well-maintained so no worries about getting "lost". If you are camping, the lakes here are stocked by the Colorado Parks & Wildlife division every year, so you can try to catch your dinner while enjoying the fine views.
The East and West Beckwith Mountains are a beautiful backdrop for Lost Lake Slough. The mountains' reflection on the lake add a stunning effect when the water is very still, don't you think? Not a bad site at all for camping. The trail is short and family friendly so anyone camping here will have a nice time hiking and fishing.
One thing about loop trails is that you can begin your hike going in either direction. Following the trail clockwise, on the eastern side, the next lake you will find is Dollar Lake. Heading this way is a little steeper though. If you follow the trail counterclockwise, on the western side, the next lake you will find is Lost Lake. Whoever named these lakes probably ran out of names, so don't get confused.
We followed the trail clockwise, to Dollar Lake, the highest of the three lakes, which is at 10,037 feet (Lost Lake Slough is at about 9,624 feet). At a high point above the first lake, before taking the turn off to Dollar Lake, there is a stunning view of the Ruby Range with Marcellina Mountain far in the distance and Lost Lake Slough down below the trail.
Take note, if you haven't discovered it yet, below Marcellina Mountain are great groves of Aspen trees, which are really beautiful in autumn. You will pass them along County Road 12, Kebler Pass Road, not far from the Lost Lake Campground.
Between Lost Lake Slough to Dollar Lake is about one and half miles. Then you have to backtrack to get back to the trail going down to Lost Lake. To Lost Lake from Dollar Lake is less than a mile, not including walking around the lake.
One enjoyable thing about this loop trail in autumn is the color of Aspen trees and other vegetation covering the mountainsides. The golden color is so bright when the sun is shining on them, especially when at their peak. We haven't hiked here in summer, but we were told that the wildflowers here are in abundance at that time.
Before reaching Lost Lake, a little detour will take you to a series of waterfalls on Middle Creek. This creek feeds Lost Lake and Lost Lake Slough. There was not much water since it was fall, but this waterfall is probably gushing down in spring.