Denver's nearest national forest is stacked with recreational opportunities.
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.
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.
Remarkably, most of the nearly 120,000 acres in Lost Creek Wilderness Area escaped the Platte's conflagrations—Hayman burned only a few thousand acres along the eastern edge. And the east side is where most people enter this beautiful wilderness of grassy parks, smooth granite slabs, and stacked house-size boulders. Hikers and backpackers congregate around the Goose Creek Trail. To escape the crowds, drive to the west side, where the highest peaks often go days without seeing visitors.
The second-highest peak in the Lost Creek Wilderness has no official name; Gerry and Jennifer Roach, in their Colorado's Lost Creek Wilderness: Classic Summit Hikes, just call this wind-swept, 12,429-foot summit "Peak X." There is no formal trail to this high point of the Kenosha Range—a sure way to keep down the crowds—but experienced hikers will have no problem following the 2.5-mile route to the top.
To start, drive 3.1 miles past Kenosha Pass on Highway 285, then turn left on County Road 56 (Lost Park Road). Follow this gravel route 10.7 miles, through rolling open parks and shimmering stands of aspen—the autumn leaf displays in Lost Creek are some of the best in the state—to reach the Long Gulch Trailhead.
Hike across a small stream; you will cross the Colorado Trail in less than a quarter-mile. Continue straight ahead on the unmarked but broad Hooper Trail, which follows the right bank of a creek. After about three-quarters of a mile, look left for a spur trail that stays alongside the creek as it bends to the north up a prominent, narrow gulch. Follow this to tree line, and then choose a route through willows and over tundra toward Peak X, visible to the left (northwest). The broad summit is dotted with twisted rock pillars, and you may have to climb more than one to find the true high point. The panoramic view takes in a dozen or more fourteeners, from Pikes Peak in the southeast to Mt. Evans in the north, down along the Ten Mile and Sawatch ranges, and over sprawling South Park to the distant Sangre de Cristos.
The South Platte needs no introduction to trout fishermen—these waters draw anglers from all over the country. North of Highway 24, the action centers on the tiny junction town of Deckers, where the river is famous for monster browns and rainbows—and infamous for its challenging fly-fishing.
The Deckers area's most celebrated fishery is Cheesman Canyon, accessed by the Gill Trail (about three miles west of Deckers on CR 126; there's a sign for "Cheesman Canyon"). A 15-minute walk brings you to the canyon rim, and then the trail follows the river upstream for another three miles. This is a tailwater fishery: Cold water rushes out of the bottom of Cheesman Dam, rich in nutrients for the insects that lunker trout love to eat. It's also a purists' area: All the trout are wild, only artificial flies and lures are allowed, and you have to release anything you catch.
Downstream of Deckers, fly-fishing is popular in the gold-medal area that extends as far north as Scraggy View Picnic Area. (A name that doesn't do the view justice—it's gorgeous.) But farther downstream, from Scraggy View to Strontia Springs Reservoir, bait fishing is allowed and the state stocks the river with young fish. This scenario makes purists sneer, which leaves good fishing for the less picky. "The farther upstream you go, the bigger the trout are, but the smarter they are," says Danny Brennan, a fishing guide and owner of the Flies n Lies shop in Deckers. "The farther downstream, the smaller but dumber they are."
Which suggests a sound strategy: Head first to Cheesman Canyon and enjoy the superb setting and the chance—just the chance—of hooking a trophy-size fish. But don't use up the whole day. Says Brennan: "I always tell people, 'Go up there and get humbled, and then, on your way home, go downstream and catch some fish.' "
Dougald MacDonald is a Louisville-based freelance writer and a contributing editor for 5280. His last story for the magazine was "Let the Games Begin," a look at three adrenaline-pumping winter sports. E-mail him at [email protected].
If You Go
The South Platte Ranger District offers a wealth of helpful information: 303-275-5610; www.fs.fed.us. For a unique après experience, stop at the log-cabin, good-timin' Buck Snort Saloon (thebucksnortsaloon.com) in Sphinx Park, about 1.5 miles north of Pine (County Road 126), along South Elk Creek Road.