For the last weekend of July we decided to escape the heat and run to the mountains. We found a great high altitude backpacking loop inside Buffalo Peaks Wilderness. This hike was the most beautiful hike I think I have ever done in Colorado. It did not have the typical big mountain views but took us through varying terrain each more beautiful and different than the last. We passed through huge open meadows in valleys between towering peaks, lush forests with a beautiful creek cascading over massive boulders, and sunny pine forests filled with more wildflowers than I knew existed!
This 12 mile loop starts at the Rich Creek trailhead about 15 miles outside of Fairplay, CO. Take Weston pass road to county road 22 and you will easily spot the trailhead. There is plenty of parking and an area to check in near the posted map. Most people take this loop counterclockwise and I would definitely recommend that direction for more gradual inclines. The loop has a total elevation gain of about 2,000′, most of this comes in the first 5 miles. For Colorado this trail is practically flat!
From the parking lot you will immediately cross a bridge over the creek. Once you cross the bridge stay to the right along the creek to stay on Rich Creek trail and take the loop counterclockwise. If you wish to go the opposite direction stay to the right after the bridge and after less than 100 yards look to the left for Tumble Creek trail. We took the trail counterclockwise and started along the creek. There were a few tricky spots where the water had eroded the path but it soon opened up to a sunny pine and aspen forest. There were tons wildflowers everywhere and the creek was easily accessible to fill up on water. A few miles in we went up a few good inclines, but for the most part the trail was very gradual and easy.
The trees become more sparce as you enter a huge open space filled with willows and even more wildflowers. The creek winds its way through this open valley and I kept a sharp eye out for moose, elk, or deer. There were a few marshy places to pass through here so I would absolutely recommend wearing your waterproof boots for this hike. At about 5 miles in you enter the trees at the edge of this open creek-bed area. The winding creek is easily visible through the trees but not easily accessed. The shade was a welcome spot for a little snack break!
After a short decent the trees will start to thin again and before the trail emerges back into the valley there are a few good spots for camping; however, the creek is a good 5-10 min walk from these sites. If you do not mind not being super close to water this is a good spot to set up. There are more flat but exposed areas for the next several miles. At about half way around the loop you will pass the intersection of Tumble Creek and Rich Creek trails trails. We camped about 2 miles past this intersection just before the trail starts another steep decent.
The next morning we started out early and the trail immediately started to descend into a lush forest. Huge boulders surrounded the path and the creek. The water cascading over these massive boulders was so beautiful! There were more decent camping spots in this area with easy access to water. There were also a few sketchy creek crossings here. There were logs across but they were thin and rotting. My dog was having non of it and I was glad that he was small enough for me to carry across! Near the end of this lush forest area you will reach a large intersection of several paths that is confusingly marked. If you are taking the path the same way we did (counterclockwise) stay to the left and cross a small bridge.
On the other side of this small bridge the lush forest gives way to a lush valley filled with beaver dams. The trail is very flat and easy through this area and the environment starts to change yet again as you reach a short incline. Along this incline we spotted a flock of wild turkeys and saw signs of other animals such as deer and elk. There are some great views from the top of this incline of the surrounding mountain ranges and the lush valley. The last few miles of this loop take you though aspen and pine forests. Near the end of the loop there is a steep decent back to the bridge and parking lot.
This was my most favorite backpacking trip this year! This is also one of the best hikes I have ever been on in Colorado! The varying landscapes and environments were amazing. We were totally secluded and it was amazing to think that untouched areas this beautiful still exist. The trail was not very crowded and there was plenty of access to water. This is absolutely a backpacking trip that I will take again!
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