Secrets of the South Platte

Denver's nearest national forest is stacked with recreational opportunities.

May 2010

Drive up the long rise between Buffalo Creek and Deckers, the divide that parts the two forks of the South Platte River, and look south and west from County Road 126: Barren hillsides dotted with charcoal snags stretch to the horizon. The massive Buffalo Creek, Hi Meadow, and Hayman fires torched more than 160,000 acres in this area between 1996 and 2002, and to many Denverites the broad South Platte River basin still conjures only the image of burned-out wastelands.

But look closer. The majority of the South Platte District of Pike National Forest is still pristine woodland, home to underpopulated peaks and beautiful riverfronts, and it remains a close-to-home mecca for outdoor sports—the national forest boundary is just 19 miles from the Capitol. Here, three reasons to give the Platte another look.

Mountain Biking

If you didn't know better you might think those rolling hills west of the hamlet of Buffalo Creek were designed for mountain biking. The gradients are modest, and gravelly soil and grassy forest floors yield smooth single-track trails. The 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire left a ghostly forest of charred timbers over some of these hills, but in early summer the ground is carpeted with wildflowers: blooming orange paintbrush, blue penstemon, white and yellow asters, and spiky yucca.

Trailhead parking lots are jammed from spring through fall for the classic rides along the Colorado Trail and the Buffalo Creek Recreation Area. But Jefferson County's Pine Valley Ranch Park, just to the north, is often quieter. Maybe it's because all the rides here start with a monster climb above the North Fork of the South Platte. If you're a cup-is-half-full person, all of these routes end with a joyous downhill romp.

A favorite ride for many cyclists is the 10.4-mile loop that links Buck Gulch, Strawberry Jack, and several other trails. From the Pine Valley Ranch parking lot (follow CR 126 south from Pine Junction for 5.8 miles to find the entrance road), head west along the Narrow Gauge Trail to a steel bridge over the North Fork. Now, pay your dues: Switchback south along Buck Gulch Trail, gaining more than 1,000 vertical feet in 2.5 miles. It's a haul, but you'll get most of the day's climbing out of the way in the cool morning hours. At the top, turn left and enjoy some exhilarating downhill on the Skipper Trail's single-track. At a four-way intersection, head uphill to the right, then turn left on Charlie's Cutoff, which features a bit of granite slickrock.

At around 6.4 miles, veer back left to rejoin the Homestead Trail; follow it up and down past the Platte basin's characteristic smooth boulders. At another four-way intersection, turn right on the Strawberry Jack Trail and begin the thrilling descent back into Pine Valley Ranch.