The U.S. Forest Service has done a nice job of building trails up the watersheds that drain into the Town of Vail. Included among these is Spraddle Creek, located across I-70 from Vail Village. The reward at the top of the ridge is a mountain meadow that overlooks Vail, Beaver Creek ski mountain, and the Holy Cross Wilderness far, far away. Hike in late September for an extra treat of peak golden aspen color. My brother Dave and I enjoyed Spraddle Creek Trail on Thursday, September 29, 2016 beginning at 9:00AM and ending about 1:30PM. Our plan was to take Spraddle Creek Trail to where it spills into a grassy mountain meadow, returning the same way.
Hike Length: 6 miles Hike Duration: 4.5 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate. Nice and steady uphill, not particularly strenuous.
Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: None available
Elevation Change: 1,240 feet Elevation Start: 8,600 feet
Trail Condition: Formerly a forest service road. Lower section is sandy for horse traffic. Upper section is firm double track trail with limited rocks.
Starting Point: Top of Spraddle Creek Road at Vail Stables.
Trail Traffic: We saw two other hikers on this delightful Autumn day.
How to Get There: Take Spraddle Creek Road off the Vail Frontage Road directly across from Golden Peak on the ski mountain. It is less than a mile to parking at the top of the road. There are about 5-6 hiker parking spaces at Vail Stables.
Living in the Southern Appalachians as I do, I am able to enjoy the lovely autumn colors of the maple, oak, hickory, poplar and many other hardwood trees that are native to the area. The Rocky Mountains don’t have the same variety, but the astounding aspen forests put on quite the show themselves. Vail, Colorado is truly one of the most beautiful regions when it comes to dazzling aspen finery.
In the introduction above I mentioned the trails that climb the watersheds around Vail. Others my brother and I have hiked during previous visits to his neck of the woods have included Booth Lake Trail, a nice one with an exciting waterfall and beautiful alpine lake, and Bighorn Trail that reaches all the way up into Eagles Nest Wilderness. Now, add Spraddle Creek Trail to this list.
The other trails mentioned above are in the East Vail section of town. Spraddle Creek is directly across from central Vail. Make a short trip up Spraddle Creek Road to the hiker’s parking at Vail Stables. The trailhead is behind the forest road gate. On maps this trail may be designated as Spraddle Creek Road. Roughly the first mile of the trail is sandy
— a consequence of horse traffic from the stable (watch your step lest your boot tread become mired with you know what)
— as it gently climbs above the stable.
You come to a hairpin turn after less than a half mile, reversing to a westerly direction. There is a short spur trail to the right that leads to a marvelous view of the Gore Range looking east up the valley. We decided to save that for our return from the destination. And that destination is a high mountain meadow more than 1,200 feet above that overlooks the Vail ski mountain and its cousin Beaver Creek to the west, as well as the tips of some of the tallest peaks that jut from Holy Cross Wilderness.
In addition to Engelmann spruce, fir and aspen trees that are abundant along Spraddle Creek Trail, it is also lined with low-lying bush type plants that are in seed this time of year. Some that we observed include the pulsatilla pasqueflower, yellow goatsbeard, and fizzynotions (a flowering plant in the sagebrush family).
After about a mile, the trail hardens from sand to dirt as apparently the horses go a different direction. For a few hundred yards it also flattens out somewhat. Since this was my first day in town, it made a nice altitude acclimatization trail for me.
Roughly a mile and a half from the trailhead we reached the remains of an old cabin. Because hunting has been popular in this area in decades past, the cabin was likely hunter’s quarters at one time. Deer and elk are abundant here in the summer, and the ridge along the eastern boundary is Canada lynx habitat, as well as home to bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
Soon after passing the cabin, the trail curls to the north and enters a luscious aspen forest that hugs both sides of Spraddle Creek. You can’t really approach the creek itself because it is surrounded by impassable willow thickets. From an environmental perspective, this area has critical importance as a buffer between urban development in Vail and Eagles Nest Wilderness to the south and east.
We seem to have caught the aspen forest at peak golden glory. Combined with the azure blue sky and bright sunshine, the brilliant golden glow made me put on my sunglasses. The trail once again begins a moderate ascent along the creek. Watch for deer in this area as they frequently come to feed on the grass beneath the aspen canopy. Also, turn and look behind you for occasional views of the ski slopes on Vail Mountain.
The higher we got, the more dense the aspen forest. A gentle breeze was rustling the gold leaves, providing a visual understanding of why they are called quaking aspens. The goatsbeard seed tops were in abundance on this day. If you aren’t familiar; think of a giant dandelion. The cottony seeds are whisked on a gust and planted furlongs away for next year.
A bit past two miles you reach a trail junction. Take the south (right) fork here. A left/steeper fork continues a little further toward Bald Mountain which is itself a pretty popular local climb. The trail also levels once again, and the evergreens become more abundant. Instead of fallen aspen leaves carpeting the trail, now it is pine and spruce needles. Stroll through the breathtaking aroma for a half mile and then you see the clearing.
The forest opens up and the abundance of Vail spreads out before you. This large open meadow is prime habitat for elk, so approach quietly and you may be fortunate to witness a few grazing before they see (or smell) you. The views are incredible.
Directly across the valley you can see the massive expanse of the Vail ski mountain. Golden Peak (named for its proliferation of aspen trees) is directly across. To the west you can make out the slopes of Beaver Creek ski resort, 15 miles distant. Between the two is the jagged peak of Mt. Jackson. As you’re peering at the scene in front of you, it’s one of those WOW! moments.
After lunch, we decided to continue on up the ridge a little ways, perhaps another quarter mile. We found ourselves once again surrounded by bright yellow aspen quaking in the breeze. This would be a great place to bring your whole family with a picnic basket and blanket in the summer. Open meadow, ideal for running toddlers and pups, combined with breathtaking alpine vistas. What more could you want?
Soon, we decided I probably shouldn’t overdo on my first day. After all, we were only about 200 feet short of 10,000 elevation. I live at 2 thousand and hike at 6, so the air is a bit thinner than what I’m accustomed to. So we turned around to begin our descent off the mountain.
The return was uneventful. Just gorgeous weather, stunning scenery, aromalicious forest, and great company. That’s all. We took the spur trail at the hairpin that I mentioned above for a great view of the ribbon of I-70 piercing through Vail and Gore Range far in the distance.
When we got back to the car, they were loading up all the horses at Vail Stables into trailors. Turns out this was the last day of the season. Winter comes fast in the Colorado Rockies.
To summarize, all-in-all a very delightful hike above Vail, and one that was perfect for me to get used to the higher elevation in the Rocky Mountains. This hike is doable in all seasons, but be sure to bring ice traction in winter. It’s a great trek for the whole family, one I’m sure the youngsters would enjoy too. Best of all, if you’re visiting Vail for some other reason, it is conveniently nearby.