Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Pine Creek Backpacking

Pine Creek Trail plus other adventures.

Trailhead Elevation: 8,806 ft.
First Camp Elevation: 10,970 ft.
High Camp Elevation: 11,640 ft.
Total Trip Distance: 33.33 mi. (my Forerunner 235)
Total Trip Elevation Gain: 8,223 ft. (my Forerunner 235)
Start Time: Tues, July 27, 2:30pm
End Time: Thurs, July 29, 5:48pm

Trip Report:
If you're looking for some truly classic Colorado backpacking, and are willing to put in the miles and the work to get it, backpacking up the Pine Creek trail is a worthy choice. It is a lengthy 10+ miles to get deep into the basin but the trail is good and well worth it. My father and I have been eyeing this hike for many years now but have never found the opportunity to pull the trigger. We've even caught glimpses of the this beautiful area from the summits of the surrounding 14ers like Harvard and Missouri. When my son Luke and I stumbled into a few days of free travel time to head out to Colorado and join my father the perfect opportunity presented itself.

We carved out a plan for 3+ days to hike up to a high camp around 11,600 and then make small day trips to the lakes and peaks above. We tried to keep things flexible to allow for weather and other ideas to present themselves. My son and I booked a flight into Colorado Springs and would be arriving at 10am on a Tuesday. We set out a hope to start hiking in right away that afternoon. If possible, we would hike the whole 10 miles. This would give us two whole days in the basin for small day projects and then the final day, Friday, to hike out. Initially, the weather looked fairly supportive of our goals with a typical late July forecast of afternoon showers, but nothing more. It looked like everything was in place for a wonderful trip.

Tuesday July 27
It was 2:30pm when we hit the trail. My mother dropped us off on the Pine Creek road just shy of the trailhead start. We paid our $1 each to walk across the private land at the start of the trail and were on our way. (Its worth noting, this $1 is paid into a dropbox with an envelope right by the trail start. Yes, its on the honor system). It was low 80's at start and the trail quickly moves into an open meadow where we were plenty warm.

I was using my Osprey Aether 85 pack while Luke carried a relatively new Osprey Volt 60. Our group shared an REI Half Dome 4 tent. We tried to keep things reasonably light with not too many luxuries. Our biggest splurge was probably in bringing more than enough food. We brought my father's Jetboil flash along for cooking and each had freeze-dried meals for our evening food.

The first 4.3 miles of the hike gain a bulk of the elevation. It is a difficult way to start a long hike especially when carrying a backpack of 30-ish pounds. We had an initial goal of hitting 2mph which would give us a chance of making our goal area around 7:30p. That would give us time to setup camp and maybe even cook before dark.

Around 3 miles in the trail now sits a fair amount above Pine Creek and traverses around a slightly cliffy section. Its narrow and rocky enough there is a diversion trail for stock animals. Don't worry, its still plenty safe for the reasonable human hiker.

Narrow cliffy section around 3 miles in

Once you reach the 4.3 mile mark you join up with the Colorado Trail for a brief moment. There is a nice bridge crossing over to the north side of Pine Creek and then in less than a tenth of a mile the CT is left behind. The trail puts you into a beautiful meadow area with views deeper into the basin. One of the highlights of hiking Pine Creek is you don't spend lengthy amounts of time in a "tree tunnel". Hiking much of my time in the beautiful state of Michigan, I have lovely dubbed most of our trails here as "tree tunnels" where you spend your time surrounded by trees with little to no views. The Pine Creek trail has plenty of beautiful, open meadow areas to keep you from feeling stuck in the tree tunnels for long.

As we neared the halfway mark we could begin to see we were a bit off pace from the 2mph goal. It was looking more and more that it might be closer to 8pm when we would reach our goal area. Couple this with the physical challenge of our weighted packs, the warm heat, at the start, and the 1500 feet of gain behind us and we were starting to consider options to camp sooner.

At mile 7 we could see what looked like old remains of animal fencing and then we came upon the Littlejohn cabin site. Much of the cabin is still intact and you can even look inside at what remains. The roof on oneside has caved in and the other probably doesn't have far to go. This is also where the South Pine Creek trail heads south towards the northeast ridge of Mount Harvard. We could see a group or two camping off trail in this area and it appears to be a popular camping spot. We finally made the executive decision that we wouldn't shoot for our goal spot at about 10 miles in near the Elkhead Pass junction. We would shoot for another mile or so and then target a good spot off trail within reach of Pine Creek.

At mile 8 the trail was stuck in thick trees and a fair distance from the creek. So we continued to press on and I could see a place on the map where the trail moved closer again to Pine Creek. We hoped there would also be good camping and less thick forest. It was finally about 8.5 miles in when we spotted a great site to our left that sat not far from Pine Creek. It was clearly a well used site with large logs set in place around an already made fire pit. We decided to make this our home for the night and got our camp setup.

We had heard reports of bad mosquitos up in Pine Creek and we were arriving just late enough this first night that they weren't too bad just yet. It was just shy of 7pm when we stopped. We were able to make time to cook some supper and get a fire going before things got too dark. The weather for our first night would be more than pleasant and we had a good start to our adventure.

Wednesday July 28
We woke up to a beautiful morning. It wasn't too cold and a nice light breeze was keeping the air fresh. I pulled out my foods for breakfast and set about relaxing. The only great hiccup we had up to this point was that my Sawyer Squeeze filter was having issues. I last used it September 2020 in the Tetons with my brother. I can only guess I didn't backflush it or store it properly because on first use for this trip not a drop of water was going through at first. I had to backflush it several times to finally get a good trickle going. Even then it was up to normal. It took several efforts on and off throughout the day using our clean water to continuously backflush the thing. I would finally get it back to a state where I felt as though it was "normal" again. When the trip was over I gave it a thorough backflushing at the house and I think that also helped to restore it well.

Knowing we had all day and a light itinerary we were in no hurry to get going. We let Luke sleep in til about 8:30a before getting him going for breakfast. Because we stopped up a little short yesterday we did have to pack up camp and hike a bit further up trail. We did this in about half an hour and by 9:20a we were on the trail again heading further up trail.

Not far up trail from our site we passed what I believe is called bedrock falls. It was noisy and quite notable as we passed by. Some more time was spent climbing up hill and in the trees but finally the trail put us out into a lengthy open marshy meadow. The views of the upper basin were a delight.

About two tenths of a mile before the junction we came upon a horrible smell. It reminded me of the dead mice we used to catch in our dorm in college. It turns out a horse was put down just off trail in this area and we could see it along with the smell. Right after passing the horse was a big crossing of Pine Creek and then shortly after the junction. We continued passed the junction on the Pine Creek Trail and began looking for a camp site. The first good area we found on our left already had a tent in it so we moved further. We ended up probably about a quarter mile past the junction when we finally found a nicely used site just off trail. It was probably a little closer to trail than we usually like but it was well established and had a fire pit so we decided to use it. Strangely enough, though we sat right on trail we never did see one hiker go by us during our entire stay. In fact, we didn't bump into anyone in the basin past the Elkhead Pass trail junction. We had it to ourselves and it was beautiful.

It was just before 11a as we got our site chosen and setup. Given the timing we also decided to do lunch before heading into any of the other objectives for the day. For lunch we had packed soft tortillas with packets of salmon as well as string cheese. We rolled it all up together in the tortillas and it turned out to be pretty good. Always nice to have some fresh, real food in the backcountry to break up the monotony of gels, granola bars and crackers.

It was almost 12:30p when we got our daypacks ready for a hike up to Silver King Lake and Magdalene Mountain, a 13er. This would be our afternoon objective. I have a separate trip report for just this adventure here on my blog:

It was just shy of 4:45pm when we got back to camp. We found the mosquitos to be pretty bad now in the afternoon. They were likewise bad when we first arrived for lunch and we were forced to put on bug spray. It is rare that I will put on bug spray so this might emphasize just how much of a nuisance they were. If you sat down or stayed still for any amount of time they would start to form a cloud and hover around you.

Couple this with the possible threat of a shower and I decided to retreat into the tent for an hour to read. At least in the tent I could find peace for a time without swatting and swinging at mosquitos. Other than a few light sprinkles a shower never really developed. We waited til 7pm to work on supper. Both myself and Luke had chicken-n-rice freeze dried packs while my father had an interesting mac-n-cheese package. The chicken-n-rice is an old staple we like but I was pleasantly surprised by the mac-n-cheese. It was creamy and good flavor even though the macaronis came out slightly crunchy.

We had another good fire going tonight and we stayed out with it until 10pm when I was tired enough I could hardly keep my eyes open any longer.

Thursday July 29
We were all up early today, not long after 6am. We wanted a good start on the loop of several 13ers and 14ers we had planned for the day. Luke and I got our food ready in our packs and made ready for a nice day of hiking. Dad was ready for a rest day after the last two day's miles so he planned to stay back at camp. We were on the trail by 7am.

Upon our return to camp Dad had already make a lot of preparations for our hike out. While we had originally looked at staying through til Friday the mosquito situation near camp was a driving factor in getting us to decide to hike out early. If we stayed we had all afternoon and evening to go and sitting around and relaxing was not an option with the bugs. We didn't have any other driving forces for new hiking adventures so the hike out won the day. We figured it would enable us to use Friday as a rest day and then start all over with new adventures on the weekend.

In under 40 minutes Luke and I resituated our packs and we had a quick lunch before hitting the trail. Beginning the 10 mile hike out with big packs was a true mental challenge. We knew it would be a solid 5 hours repeating trail we had just done the other day. We prepared to get through the long walk out. In reflecting on this days later I found it sad that while we love hiking and backpacking and possibly loved even more the beauty of the Pine Creek basin, it was still this challenge of fighting with the desire to get the long hike over with. Human psychology is a real battle.

The rest of the hike out was hardly noteworthy. We tried to soak up the beauty and distract the mind. Since we were moving the bugs were really no issue. We were a bit bummed we had no real good wildlife sightings. Temps were good high in the basin but as we neared the trailhead they began to rise steadily. But as a whole the weather held up quite nicely for our whole backpacking adventure. True to predictions, the hike took 5:08 to get us back to the trailhead and our pickup.

I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in the embedded Google Map. Check it out and use at your own risk.

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