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Length: 6 miles round-trip
Why we love it: It gives you a taste of the Colorado Trail without the commitment of an overnight outing
When to go: May through October, once most of the snow has disappeared
Pre-hike Buzz: Stop by the Brown Dog Coffee Company in Buena Vista for an almond twist and a cup of freshly roasted coffee or a frosty glass of iced tea
Restrooms: None at the trailhead
Dogs: Allowed off leash
If, like me, you haven’t yet found the time to hike the entire Colorado Trail–the spectacular 500-mile-long route that runs between Durango and Denver—this segment near Buena Vista is a great introduction to the trail’s charms. This route traverses forests along the slopes of the 14,078-foot-high Mount Columbia toward a pair of lakes known for their plump trout. Along the way, you’re treated to far-reaching views of many Collegiate Peaks and the Arkansas Valley.
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The first stretch, which climbs steeply out of the North Cottonwood Creek valley, is the most challenging section of this trail, climbing a total of 900 feet. After cresting, the trail then winds through the woods, passing large, gnarled Douglas fir trees (look for their mouse-tail pine cones), as well as thick stands of spruce, aspen, and lodgepole pine. Several clearings offer distant views down toward the Arkansas River and up to the summit of a neighboring fourteener, Mount Princeton.
After a few more short, uphill pitches, the trail reaches the first Harvard Lake on the right; the second is just a couple of minutes up the path. The second is an especially sweet spot in early summer, when Mount Columbia’s still snow-capped shoulder is reflected in the lake’s calm, clear water. Either one makes a nice picnic or fishing spot (don’t forget that mosquito repellant) before retracing your steps to your car.
Getting there: From the only traffic light in downtown Buena Vista, head north on US-24 for 0.4 miles to County Road 350 (Crossman Avenue). Turn left (west) onto Crossman and continue for 2 miles before turning right onto County Road 361. Head north on CR-361 for 1.1 miles, and then turn left onto County Road 365, a dirt road that’s a bit rough but accessible to most 2WD vehicles. After 3.6 miles you’ll reach a small pullout on the left across the road from a trailhead for the Colorado Trail (CO Trail 1776). If you reach the Silver Creek Trailhead, you’ve gone too far, although there is more parking here if needed.