Boulder backpackers looking for an epic time in the mountains are faced with a wonderful dilemma. Within roughly an hour of the city are three premier backpacking destinations: Rocky Mountain National Park, the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and the Front/Gore Range. While all three offer excellent backcountry adventures, it’s difficult to top the depth, mystery, and sheer beauty of the wilderness found along the Gore Range Trail. Pristine alpine lakes, towering summits, flower-drenched alpine fields, and even ghostly graves await—and nearly all of these can be experienced in a three-day backpack. This journey immerses backpackers in wilderness areas that see surprisingly little traffic, considering how easy they are to access.
3 Day Adventure
Meadow Creek Trailhead to Deluge Lake Trailhead- 12 Miles
Don’t be fooled by the low-mileage here, this point-to-point adventure is chockful of mountainous options. You want to make sure you have good shoes to help with your footing and to avoid blisters, La Sportiva’s Trango TRK boots from REI are a reliable choice. You’ll also need two vehicles or a pre-arranged shuttle, though there is always the option of backtracking for an out and back. The starting trailhead is a little over an hour’s drive from Boulder in Frisco.
This adventure begins at the Meadow Creek Trailhead. Take Exit 203 off I-70. If coming from the east, take the second road in the turnabout. If coming from the west, take a left off the exit, go over the I-70 bridge and enter the turnabout, passing the exit ramp for eastbound I-70 and the next road before hitting turnoff. This 0.3 mile dirt road ends at the trailhead and is suitable for all types of vehicles (just make sure to lock up as the trailhead is very close to the highway).
The ending trailhead is Deluge Creek in Vail. Take Exit 180 from I-70. Coming eastbound, take a left off the exit and go under the I-70 bridges to Big Horn Road. From the west, continue straight off the exit to reach the same place. Follow the road about 2 miles until it again goes under the I-70 bridge. At a well-marked bend in the road is the Deluge Lake Trailhead. There is plenty of parking.
Day 1 - Meadow Creek Trailhead to Red Buffalo Pass- 5 miles
The opening act of this adventure beings on the Meadow Creek Trail. A mixture of pine trees and white aspen groves line the start of the trail. As the highway traffic fades away, the namesake creek intersects the trail and the climb towards your first goal, Eccles Pass, begins in earnest. In just over three miles, a series of ponds announce the broad, open meadows on the south side of Eccles Pass. If you’re in for a casual outing, this is an excellent place to set up camp and relax for a night. However, the best is still to come. As the Meadow Creek Trail ends, it merges with the Gore Range Trail and continues up Eccles Pass.
From the top of the pass, ambitious hikers can drop their heavy packs head west to the 12,902-foot Deming Mountain or east to 12,313-foot Eccles Peak. Eccles is 0.5 miles from the pass and is the easier of the two; Deming is about a mile from the pass. As you crest the pass, you’ll gaze out on one of the most spectacular basins in all of Colorado. This is your destination for night #1. Strong hikers (who get a very early start to avoid storms) can set up camp, then head up to 13,189-foot Red Peak to the north. But you may just be too enchanted by the calm alpine lakes and wildflower display to go farther.
Day 2 - Red Buffalo Pass to Gore Lake- 4 miles or Deluge Lake- 10 miles
Red Buffalo Pass dips between the shoulders of Red Peak and Deming Mountain. The Gore Range Trail splits here and becomes the less-formal Gore Creek Trail. Follow it up and over Red Buffalo pass. The west side of Red Buffalo Pass is steep but the trail is easy to follow. Views extending down the valley to Vail are quite remarkable. Continue down along the trail until you come across the graves of Daniel and Andrew Recen, early Swedish settlers in the region. The grave marks the start of the Gore Lake Trail. From here, it is 1.3 miles to Gore Lake, your camp for the night. Depending on where you camped below Red Buffalo Pass, it’s about four miles from camp. If you really want privacy, go off-trail another 1.2 miles on social trails up to Snow Lake. The camping is a bit more rugged and exposed but chances are, you’ll have the place to yourself! It’s also possible to bag Snow Peak by hitting the east slopes or the east ridge of the 13,024-foot mountain, though it’s a scrappy route from Snow Lake.
Now, if you’re looking for a bigger challenge and can handle the miles, you can bypass Gore Lake and stay on the Gore Creek Trail to the Deluge Trailhead (six miles from camp). Heck, you can even grab lunch and clean clothes from your second vehicle. The option you have is to hike up four miles to Deluge Lake on the Deluge Lake Trail. Even though the mileage is low, the trail climbs over 2,500 of vertical elevation—a burly task with a backpack! However, the reward is camping the Deluge Lake Basin. It can get mighty windy, so set up camp in the trees around the open tundra.
Day 3 - Hike Out
If you camped at Gore Lake, the hike out will be a pleasant 5 mile trek to the Deluge lake Trailhead along the Gore Creek Trailhead. Those camped at Deluge Lake have the option of scoring the toughest peaks on the route (but by Gore Range standards, average work). To the northwest is 13,041 ft. Grand Traverse Peak, an utter class 2 grind and likely the least palatable option. Snow Peak is off to the east and offers a steep climb to the Snow Pass saddle before an engaging, excellent class 3 ridge to the summit. Connected to Snow is 13,180 ft. Vahalla Peak, a difficult class 3/4 peak with no established trail (none of these three peaks have trails). The route finding is difficult. Strong, experienced climbers with good navigation skills can link all three without using ropes, but helmets and ice axes / poles are highly advised.
However, if you’re not in it for the peaks, take the deluge lake trail four miles back to the trailhead and the end of a fine adventure.
Extending Your Adventure
Peak baggers can add an extra day to their outing by focusing on the peaks, especially those in the Deluge Lake area—it’s nice to to have to walk down four miles after grinding out any of the three marquee summits in the area. An interesting additional option (five days) is to park at the trailhead on the west side of the Eisenhower Tunnel (only accessible off I-70 eastbound, a few hundred feet after exiting the tunnel) and hike up and over Coon Hill and along the Williams Fork Range (13 miles) before walking through Silverthorne a short distance along the roads, then connecting with the Gore Range Trailhead to South Willow Creek, which eventually leads (seven miles) to the Red Buffalo Pass basin.