Beginning on Columbine Dr. in East Vail, CO, the Bighorn Trail climbs steeply out of the Vail Valley, then more gradually climbs up through stands of aspen and pine. The trail passes beaver ponds and the remains of old mining camps as well as Bighorn Creek. Near the halfway point, be sure to turn around because the views of Vail and Bighorn drainage behind you are exceptional. You will reach Bighorn Falls and your first glimpse at Grand Traverse Peak in the Gore Range, then make another steep climb through willows and a boulder field. The reward at the top is an alpine wonderland at the foot of Grand Traverse and an old, rustic log cabin. This hike occurred on Monday, September 30, 2013 from 8:00am to about 3:30pm. Our plan was to take Bighorn Trail to the log cabin, then return the same way.
Hike Length: 7 miles Hike Duration: 7.5 hours
Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: None
Start Elevation: 8,608 feet Elevation Gain: 2,330 feet
Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous climbing and rocky terrain.
Trail Condition: Mostly good, some rock scrambling.
Starting Point: Bighorn trailhead on Columbine Drive.
Trail Traffic: We saw six other hikers, and wish some were more attentive.
How to Get There: Take exit 180, East Vail, off I-70 and turn east onto Bighorn Road. Proceed one mile to Columbine Drive, and turn left. Continue to the end of the road after it passes under the interstate through a narrow tunnel. There is parking at the end of the road for about five cars.
I would consider Bighorn Trail a four-phase hike. When we started out, my brother warned me that the first half-mile would be a steep, difficult climb up and out of the Vail Valley. He was right. You will be breathing hard in short order. After the first 20-30 minutes, though, the trail mellows out in phase 2 for a gentle ascent through breathtaking stands of aspen and pine.
One of my goals for a late September visit to my brother’s home in Vail was to enjoy the changing of the season. There isn’t much more beautiful than an aspen forest in full autumn regalia. As we would pause occasionally to rest during the initial ascent, the best views of the golden aspen were behind us, on the south side of the valley. Many of the trees on that side were already in peak color because they get less sun during the day.
About five minutes into the hike we entered Eagles Nest Wilderness, and would remain for the rest of the hike. Wilderness typically means no trail signs and no trail blaze, but we did see the occasional cairn in the hard-to-follow places.
On this north side of the valley, most of the aspen were still green, but the higher we continued, the more color we began to notice. There is also a certain appeal to the mixed color trees as the leaves begin that gradual transformation of hue.
Reaching the more gentle ascent section of Bighorn Trail is a welcome relief. Breathing returns to normal. It is easier to hold the camera steady. The next mile to mile and a half is mostly in forest. For a summer hike, this would also be a nice respite from hot sun.
The pine bark beetle has really done a number on the lodgepole pine in this area of White River National Forest. It’s easy to distinguish the grey, dead trees from the few still unaffected. Collapse and blow down are a major safety issue for hikers, so keep your eyes and ears open as you proceed on the otherwise lovely terrain.
About an hour into our hike we reached a particularly thick and healthy aspen grove. Mostly young, toothpick-like trees, they were backlit by the early morning glow of sunshine coming from behind us. It created an unusual scene, almost as if the grove was generating its own light.
Not far past, about 1.5 miles into the hike, you’ll reach a rocky outcropping that is a nice place to rest, have a snack, and turn around for the fantastic view of Vail Valley behind you. We called it simply The Overlook.
At the two mile point, the next feature along the trail is a visit to Bighorn Creek. You will enter a thick, dark pine grove that is right alongside the creek for a hundred yards or so. Soon after, the trail leaves the forest, is back out in open country, and begins phase 3 of this hike. Get ready to stretch your legs and burn your lungs again. It gets hard.
In the third mile you will climb an additional thousand feet. The trail passes through open meadows and stands of subalpine fir and Englemann spruce, and offers the first glimpse of the Grand Traverse, a continuous 12,000 foot ridge connecting North Traverse Peak and Grand Traverse Peak in the Gore Range. It is incredible. I reported earlier about views of the Grand Traverse from across the valley. Well, this is up close and personal. You’re right there, surrounded by the giant peaks.
We passed a beaver pond and Bighorn Falls. Unfortunately you can’t really get to the waterfall without a major bushwhack through willow thickets so fierce you would no doubt return with your clothing in shreds. That assumes you make it back.
There are several boulder fields along the way, including one about two-thirds of the way up phase 3 that requires serious scrambling for close to 100 yards. The good news, though, is the view back down the Bighorn drainage. That’s the photo at the top of this post. Be sure to click it for a larger image. We took a five minute break here to enjoy the view and to catch our breath from the intense climbing.
We began to transition from subalpine to alpine ecosystem and what few aspen remained at this elevation were now totally golden. The mountains surrounding us now were snow covered, and as we topped the climb the Grand Traverse, in all its magnificence, was in clear view. For me, this is what Rocky Mountain hiking is all about. There is so much. Forest and rocks and mountains and sky and water and colors and…
The fourth and final phase of this hike begins as the trail mellows again. You walk at the base of the Gore Range alternating between stands of spruce and grassy meadows. It’s still another half mile to the destination, but by now it’s an easy stroll among the massive peaks that surround you. We paused for a few selfie photos and to enjoy the full sensual delight.
The destination is an old homestead cabin that is actually on private property. Not really a problem, because no one comes here anymore except hikers. People must have really been short back then, because goofy ol’ me walked right into a cross beam with my forehead. Saw stars too. We found some rocks to sit on in a nearby meadow and enjoyed our well-deserved lunch. My brother told me a story about another time he was here, sitting on the porch, when a hiker with a lounge chair on his back approached, put the chair on the porch, and departed without saying a word. Go figure.
As you will see in the photos below, by now the weather was near perfect hiking weather… sunny, cool with a light breeze. Add in the marvelous visuals and we were having a great day. We were to learn a lesson about hiker communication on the way down though.
We made our descent through phases 4 & 3 without incident, although I did take a small tumble when trying to find the perfect spot for a zoomed-in photo of Bighorn Falls. Stepped in a hole. And the dang photo turned out lousy anyway. Peh.
When we got back to the pine-spruce forest near Bighorn Creek, we decided we wanted to take some time for creek photography. All we said to each other was, if we get separated we’ll meet back on the trail. Mistake #1. We bushwhacked through the forest to find that perfect spot.
We each marked out a section of the creek to try to work with the high contrast environment and spent 15 minutes hoping for the best. At one point my brother dropped his cap in the creek, and amazingly it didn’t end up all the way to the Colorado River. I had enough, so I looked at him and nodded that I was heading back to the trail. He nodded acknowledgement. Mistake #2.
I never saw him again for the next hour. I assumed that he was on the trail ahead of me, and he assumed that I was on the trail behind him. In actuality, the opposite turned out to be true. I chose to continue down the trail, figuring I would catch up with him eventually. Mistake #3. He chose to backtrack, looking for me. Mistake #4.
As I continued down the trail, the sun was lowering in the sky and made for lovely photos through the aspen groves. But still no sign of my brother. By now I was beginning to think he must be behind me, so I slowed my pace to give him a chance to catch up. And I tried to call and text him cell phone to cell phone.
Unfortunately he didn’t have a cell signal. Different carrier from mine. Anyway, to shorten a long story, he went back and forth on the trail for half an hour looking for me. In the meantime, I was on my merry way off the mountain. He finally found a cell signal when I was only five minutes from the end, determined where I was, and said okay, I’m half an hour behind you.
Up top, in the info section, I mentioned there being other hikers, and wishing they were more attentive. During all of this confusion I passed a hiking couple that my brother would later encounter. He said to them, if you see a guy with a yellow cap tell him where I am. These other hikers didn’t think to mention they had already seen me. Mistake #5.
Suffice to say, we did a better job of communicating the rest of the week whenever we separated on the trail. Lesson learned.
This is a hike that I was actually unable to complete 33 years earlier, when I was 27. ‘Course I was a smoker and lazy sloth back then, but I only made it to the end of phase 3 and didn’t want to go any farther. My body just had enough. So I was pretty proud that I could accomplish something at 60 that I was unable to do at 27.
To summarize, this is really a beautiful trail with just about every kind of scenery that hikers look for. It is hard. There’s no question about that. But you expect trails to be hard in the high elevation of the Rocky Mountains. We were out for 7.5 hours but stopped for lots of pictures and had that communication snafu. You can certainly do this hike in a lot less time, but why would you? Just enjoy Bighorn Trail for the absolutely stunning scenery.