Bowman’s Shortcut is an easy-to-get-to trail that tops a ridge that enables views of three different mountain ranges
— Sawatch, Gore, and Tenmile. You’ll start out climbing through a pine forest with occasional glimpses of the distant peaks through the trees, then reach the bald ridge and the magnificent views of some of Colorado’s highest mountains. Cross country skiers use this trail to reach Commando Run, and summer hikers can connect to the Two Elk National Recreation Trail. For us, it made for a delightful access to panoramic Rocky Mountain scenery. This hike occurred on Sunday, September 29, 2013 from 8:45am to about 2:25pm. Our plan was to take Bowman’s Shortcut to the summit of the bald ridge, then return.
Hike Length: 6 miles Hike Duration: 5.5 hours
Hike Configuration: Up and back
Start Elevation: 10,854 feet Elevation Gain: 870 feet
Hike Rating: Moderate, some climbing Blaze: None
Trail Condition: Potentially snow and ice covered.
Starting Point: Bowman’s Shortcut trailhead on Lime Creek Road.
Trail Traffic: We saw four other hikers and five mountain bikers.
How to Get There: From Vail, CO drive east on I-70 to exit 190 for Vail Pass. Turn west onto a good dirt road, Shrine Pass Road #709. At mile 2.3, you will pass the road for the Shrine Mountain Inn on the left and at mile 3.7, you will pass the Holy Cross Scenic Viewing Deck (known as Julia’s Deck) with a wheelchair access ramp. At mile 3.9, turn right onto Lime Creek Road #728. You will pass Timber Creek Road #712 on the right at mile 4.4 and reach the trailhead on the right at mile 4.7.
I asked my brother, who has lived in Vail for 35 years, what would you call this place along Bowman’s Shortcut Trail? He said, “The ridge top where we had lunch has no name that I know of. The two high points along the bald ridge where we first stopped for several pictures and then again for lunch are 11,710 and 11,696 feet. If I was going to call the area something I’d say it’s a high ridge west of Shrine Pass and southeast of Vail’s Back Bowls. Or, some might even call it part of Battle Mountain, which is marked on the map to the southwest.”
“I don’t know why it’s called Bowmans Shortcut. In the winter the trail is a smallish section of Commando Run which is a long cross country ski touring trail that starts in Vail Village and goes all the way to Vail Pass. (The full length of Commando Run is not a hiking trail in summer. It’s marked with blazes for winter use.) Maybe it got the summer shortcut name because it’s an alternate route connecting from Shrine Pass (Lime Creek Road) to Two Elk National Recreation Trail which starts along the bike path two miles up Vail Pass and ends in Minturn (or vice versa). Had we continued on the trail we would have reached the Two Elk Trail junction in another mile or more. “Bowmans” might have some kind of hunting connotation or something.”
“The spot where we had lunch is less than a mile from the top of Pete’s Express Lift which serves Blue Sky Basin, the newish ski expansion area south of Vail Mountain. Walking to the top of the lift would have been about a 200 foot drop, directly west. The hiking trail continues north to the junction. But nobody would be alpine skiing there since it’s 200 feet higher than the lift.”
So, apparently the destination for Bowman’s Shortcut doesn’t really have a name, but I’m here to tell you, it sure is scenic. The trail starts out relatively level in a pine grove off Lime Creek Road. There was still snow on the ground from the storm that moved through two nights before. The trail parallels the road for about a quarter mile, then begins its ascent.
The first view is of Tenmile Range. The trail begins a series of switchbacks as it climbs about 600 feet over the next mile. First the switchbacks are long, then as the trail gets steeper, they shorten. The higher we got, the deeper the snow got, probably about four inches. Finally, we decided it was time to put on the Yaktrax.
We reached a point about half way up where the view behind us, of the Gore Range, was stupendous. As we continued the switchbacks, there were alternating views of Tenmile and Gore, often peeking through the pines. Quite the scene. We topped the ridge and the ascent was gentle the rest of the way. It’s still another mile through the forest to the open meadow or bald ridge, but with a fresh coating of snow, the woods were lovely.
In the east, we call a round, treeless mountain top a bald. I’ve also seen that term used in the west, but have also heard “open meadow.” It is considerably more unusual in the Rockies simply because the Rockies are so, well, rocky. We emerged from the woods to the large open meadow where the faint snow-covered trail heads north-northwest. Make sure to keep the Gore Range in view to your right.
The ridge top is simply surrounded by massive mountain ranges. To the southeast is Tenmile and the area around Copper Mountain ski resort. More to the southwest is the Sawatch Range. Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, the highest peaks in Colorado, are clearly visible, as are Mount of the Holy Cross and Mt. Jackson. To the north, and closest, is the Gore Range and the stunning Grand Traverse. This mile-long open ridge we were walking is a photographer’s dream.
By now, we didn’t really care where the trail was. It was easy to navigate through the snow. We looked for optimum viewing locations, and also tried to stay out of the wind. That wind was producing a nice show in the sky, as the clouds were forming with that lenticular forward wall. I’ve been coming to Colorado to visit my brother for more than three decades, have seen the Gore Range hundreds of times, and I must say this view from the bald ridge is the best view of Gore Range I have seen.
The photo at the top of this post is a closeup of the Grand Traverse and Grand Traverse Peak. You may click it for a larger image, but the picture hardly does the view justice. The scene is wide and expansive. You can see Eagles Nest and Mt. Powell on the northern end of the range, all the way to Buffalo Mountain and Uneva Peak to the south. Combine that with the lenticular clouds and I was in awe.
We continued mushing through the snow to a wooden marker at the northwest end of the meadow. You can continue down into the woods and reach Two Elk Pass. Instead, we pulled up a couple rocks in the snow, plopped down, and had our lunch. I’m usually not a big fan of snow, particularly when I have to work, but on this day the snow was perfect. It totally enhanced the scene.
While we were enjoying our meal and the scenery, a couple of mountain bikers came riding by on their way to Two Elk. They weren’t as happy about the snow. My brother took time to teach me some of the landmark names as we studied the full expanse of the Gore Range before us.
After lunch, it was time to explore the landmarks on the south side of the ridge. We identified the Homestake Reservoir and the Lake Constantine vicinity where we had been hiking just a few days before. The full length of the Sawatch range was in view, with especially good looks at Notch Mountain, Holy Cross, and Mt. Jackson.
Moving farther east along the ridge, we came to an opening with the best views toward Leadville and beyond to Elbert and Massive. It was like a geography lesson of Central Colorado in one beautiful afternoon. My brother setup his tripod for a panorama while I simply marveled at the natural beauty that surrounded us.
When we reached the eastern end of the ridge, we encountered a group of four hikers just leaving the forest with the same looks of awe on their faces that we must have had a little more than an hour before. This eastern end of the ridge has the best view of Tenmile Range. The ski slopes of Copper Mountain are clearly visible as well.
The descent back through the forest was just as pleasant as we recognized our boot tracks in the snow from the morning climb. I did have one unfortunate tumble as the rubber strap of my Yaktrax got snared by an exposed root tip. I went from being up to being down in a matter of microseconds. But after dusting myself off, everything seemed to be in working order. Later, we just laughed at the total randomness of it all. I can hike for another 20 years and that will never happen again.
We had one more stop to make on our way back home. We headed back down Lime Creek Road to Shrine Pass Road. Not far away is a short trail to the Holy Cross Scenic Overlook Deck. It’s no more than a few hundred yards to what is more commonly referred to as Julia’s Deck, named after the woman who lobbied to have this marvelous structure built.
It’s a large wooden deck, much like the one in your backyard, that is covered at one end for rain shelter, and has a magnificent view of Mount of the Holy Cross. Despite being far off the beaten path, it was obviously quite popular, judging by the number of others who were there as well. We struck up a conversation with a couple who had just hiked Notch Mountain earlier in the morning.
To summarize, this short, moderately easy hike along Bowman’s Shortcut Trail offers some of the most scenic vistas I have seen in my years of exploring the Colorado Rockies. You don’t have to drive 25 miles into the wilderness to get to it (only about 9), access is easy from I-70 at Vail Pass. The bald ridge makes for convenient viewing, and I would imagine this large mountain meadow is absolutely loaded with wildflowers in July. This is a hike that is most likely doable by all ages, so bring the kids and the grandparents with you.