Tucked away in a small pocket of peaks between the Vasquez and Gore Ranges, 12,303-foot Ute Peak is an alpine sanctuary. Despite not seeing a lot of traffic to its accommodating summit, Ute Peak should be on every Colorado hiker’s hit list. It’s not a technical trail—it could be rated class 1—and hikers can expect to spend the first few hours of the adventure meandering through a quiet, shady forest. Unlike many of the higher peaks in Colorado, most of the views are blocked by flora, which includes plenty of blown down, beetle-killed pine trees. It is not until breaching treeline that hikers reap the reward of some of the very best views in the Rocky Mountains.
While nearly all Colorado summits over 12,000 feet have great views, Ute Peak’s are exceptional. To the west, the entire length of the Gore Range is presented in all its craggy glory. A bit farther south, the town of Silverthorne and Lake Dillon can be seen, along with the peaks of the Tenmile Range and the open glades of Breckenridge and Copper ski resorts. Looking east, the twin summits of Bills and Byers Peaks loom in the foreground and the gleaming skyscrapers of Denver can be seen on a clear day. And finally to the north, Longs Peak and its mountainous minions in Rocky Mountain National Park rise into the clouds.
Ute Peak also offers something unique to Colorado—a hiking experience very similar to the high peaks in northern New England. The round trip distance is just over 10 miles and there is a worthy 2,900 feet of elevation to be gained. However, what most simulates Vermont and New Hampshire’s high peaks is the long approach through alpine forest. Several creeks run along the mountainside and there are even a few mushy bogs to cross. As the morning sun warms the land, humid pockets of moisture-infused air amplify the vanilla scented pine trees -- a contrast to the typical dry sage and juniper fragrances that grace the forested foothills of higher elevation hikes. Timberline gently gives way to a high alpine plateau of gorgeous red and yellow wildflowers, still defiantly in bloom in early August. And several fields of snow persist through the summer months, a refreshing reminder that there are still some traces of pure Colorado to be seen.
There are a few optional sub-summits along the way, all of which are relatively easy to scramble up and down. But it is the summit of Ute Peak that is the star of show. It is a softly rounded dome with natural seating that encourages you to clear your mind as you gaze out at the sharp ridges and piney drainages of the Gore Range. From here, the delineation between wilderness and civilization is clearly defined and the paved roads to the horizon hold as much promise as the towering rows of seemingly endless mountains. If you are looking for true mountain inspiration, an hour on Ute Peak’s summit can go right to your soul.
For those looking for a longer adventure, the good news is that the access path (Ute Trail) continues southeast for a total of 12 miles, where it merges with the Ptarmigan Trail. Combined, these trails make for an excellent and secluded 1 or 2 night backpacking trip.
Access to the Ute Trail is easy as well -- only about 1.5 hours from Denver/Boulder, the trail begins near the summit of Ute Pass, a well-maintained, paved road that is open year round. The trail is easy to follow, though there are a few large downed trees to navigate lower on the route. There is only one split along the trail, where the lower Ute Peak Trail descends to the Henderson Mine area. Stay on the main trail and continue up the obvious uphill to trek towards the summit.
Ute Peak isn’t loud or flashy, nor is it scary or particularly difficult (though you can expect to be out for 6 - 7 hours due to the long approach). But what it lacks in ferocity, it makes up in sheer beauty. A night out under the stars here is the stuff of dreams, especially on a calm, clear night. And the best part is you’re likely to have the place to yourself. If your outdoors mojo needs a burst of inspiration, there might not be a better place in Colorado to recharge your sensory batteries.
From I-70 take Exit 205, Silverthorne/Dillon, and travel north on HWY 9 for approximately 13 miles to the intersection with Ute Pass Road (CR 15). Follow Ute Pass Road for approximately 5.2 miles to the top of the pass where there is a large parking area on the right side of the road. The trail starts to the south across an open grassy field. There are no fees to park or hike to Ute Peak.