Updated June 2, 2020
Only two months ago the snowpack here in the Eagle River Watershed was sitting just above normal. In the Upper Colorado River watershed as a whole, our snowpack peaked later than normal, with just above average snowpack! However, times change, and continuous warm temps and high winds have quickly eroded that robust snowpack and now we’re ahead of schedule in the high country.
The Tennessee Pass area offers a number of great hikes that feature dry trails, and a little less oxygen. One of my favorite hikes in this area is to hike the Colorado Trail from Tennessee Pass to Camp Hale! This trip is a great easy hike if done as a car shuttle, or a longer—but still moderate, trip as an out and back.
To set car shuttle for this hike, drop a car at Camp Hale as you drive to Tennessee Pass. Turn into the main entrance for Camp Hale and cross the river (do not turn right towards the campground before the bridge). Once you have crossed the river, turn right and follow the main road south, and then east for a few miles. Once the road turns east you will begin to see multiple gated roads heading south towards the historic shooting range.
The trail follows one of these roads--keep a lookout for the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail signs, which mark the trail. A quarter mile past the trail, you will find a parking area on your left.
Drop a car here and then continue to Tennessee pass. Drive to the peak of Tennessee Pass between Camp Hale and Leadville, along highway 24. When you see the sign for Ski Cooper on your left, turn into the parking area on the opposite side of the road (west side of highway 24). Hike the trail heading north, leaving from the far end of the parking area.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Hiking the Colorado Trail from Tennessee Pass to Camp Hale is an easy downhill walk. This point to point hike is roughly 6.5 miles, and loses around 1,000 feet of elevation. The first 2 miles of the hike follow an old railroad grade—likely a spur of the historic Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.
About a half mile into the hike you will pass the remains of old charcoal ovens—used during the railroad and mining area to cook charcoal and coke (a purified derivative of coal) which were used as a primary fuel source in the late 1800s. As the railroad grade enters a young Lodgepole Pine forest, look for the trail to branch off to your right, becoming single track.
This next portion of the hike is the most scenic, bordering a beautiful montane wetland with views of the Sawatch Mountains to the southwest. 3.5 miles into the hike the trail crosses highway 24—and this would be another optional end point (or turnaround) for a shorter hike. Cross highway 24 and follow the trail through mixed conifer forests to Camp Hale. Your hike will finish by walking through the old shooting range—used to train 10th Mountain Division Soldiers during World War 2.
For those without the option to shuttle a car, this is still a very worthwhile trail to explore! If you’re up for a longer (but still relatively flat) hike, I’d suggest starting at Camp Hale and hiking to Tennessee Pass and back. Another option for a shorter day is to start at Tennessee Pass and hike north to where the trail intersects highway 24. This is a great turn around, and includes the most scenic stretch of the hike.
Nathan Boyer-Rechlin is the community outreach coordinator and lead hiking guide for Walking Mountains Science Center. For information on hiking with Walking Mountains, email Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970-827-9725, ext. 144.