Just another Sunday at 12,801 Feet!

My wife arrived home yesterday after spending the past week in London on work. One of the first things I told her was that I had decided to go out with the Club to run some trails. Those of you who are married can guess her reaction; she said “Great, I’ll get some peace and quiet”. I have a very atypical wife.

The club had decided to explore two of the more well know high mountain passes in the Rockies . Our trip was to take us over Red Cone, then up Radical Hill, down and along Deer Creek Trail then back east over Webster Pass. Basically a large figure 8 route! I have lived in Colorado for 3 ½ years now and have always wanted to do Red Cone but so far always been busy when the opportunity arose. The mere fact that I had no rear drive shaft was not going to stop me, so I put out a call to other club members who may be going for anyone who had a spare seat. The great thing about belonging to a club is that this type of request is possible and even encouraged. Luckily a resounding yes came back and I had my free seat.

Red Cone Peak

The Trail to Red Cone is located approximately 1 ½ hours drive to the South West from Denver along Highway 285 to County Road 60. Several of the Guide books classify Red Cone as a difficult trail, primarily due to the descent from the peak which is very steep and covered in loose rock. This is really a conservative rating and for most Four Wheel Drivers I would classify it as of medium difficulty. The trial across to where it rejoins Webster pass is only a little over 6 miles long and can be undertaken in a fairly short time period. Once off the highway our route starts in the Pike National Forest just to the west of the Mount Evans Wilderness area. For the first few miles we drove along hard packed dirt parallel to the North Fork South Platte River.

After airing down tires we met up with one of the local Back Country Rangers with the local Forestry Service. He had wanted to inspect some trails and run Red Cone. The Forestry Service had provided him with a new Jeep Rubicon and not being a Four Wheeler had asked to tag a long with us for the trip. I have to admit that this request may seem initially surprising. The request was not be that surprising given the good level of co-operation that has been building over past years due to the “Adopt-A-Trail” program working here in Colorado . We then all started a slow climb over a mainly dirt trail covered in loose rock. The trail winds its way through groves of White Aspen and some Anglemen Spruce and Lodge Pole Pine. It helps having experts along who can name all the native flora and fauna. There had been a lot of rain in the area so dust was non existent for this trip. Before traveling too far we had our first problem, Jim Hall’s 1987 Range Rover was over heating. A quick check found that a relay had blown for his electric fans and hence the Rangie was getting no cooling whatsoever. This was quickly bypassed and we were on the road again. The trail in this area becomes quite tight with various switch backs although the drive itself was not overly difficult.

Once we climbed above the tree line [at about 11,900 feet] the views started to spread out before us. Whilst still a little rocky, and contrary to the description in some 4WD guide books, we found this section of the trail to be quite pleasant and enjoyable. The final climb up to Red Cone Peak is a little loose and rocky but even a stock Land Rover can easily make the climb. Near the top we passed over a small saddle area. Off to the left [looking South West] the trail drops away probably 2000 plus feet. Drive over the edge here and you can kiss goodbye to your Land Rover [and your life too I suppose]. The right hand side of the saddle is not quite as steep but is still not somewhere you want to take you truck. There is limited parking space at the top of Red Cone and only about 7 Landies can fit, we luckily had only 6. The view from the top was nothing short of Spectacular. To the North and North East we could see up into Arapahoe National Forest ; Mount Evans Wilderness area and the many peaks along the Continental Divide. These peaks included: Landslide Peak 13,228 ft; Sanata Fe peak 13,180 ft; Square Top Mountain; Guanella Pass 11,669 ft; Mount Bierstaft 14,060 ft; Epaulet Mountain 13,523; Mount Evans 14,264 ft and many, many more.

The final part of Red Cone comprises one long descent that can be broken down into 3 sections. These mini descents are deceptively steep. Over time the trail has been worn down so that some build up of rocks has occurred on either side of the trail. As a result it is now highly unlikely that you will drive over the edge [remember that 2000 foot drop mentioned before] but care still needs to be taken to drive down slowly and in control. The lower parts of the 1st and 3rd descents are probably the steepest parts. Once we were down it was time to look a round and check out our next sector for the day, Radical Hill trail, which was easily viewed off to the West.

Radical Hill

The trails name exaggerates its difficulty. Again it is probably only of medium difficulty. It is a lot easier than it looks.

After driving down into the Snake River Canyon from where Red Cone meets with Webster pass trial along several tight switchbacks, Radical Hill starts off with a small easy climb up towards Teller Mountain from the valley. This valley is designated as a back country Cross Country Ski Area in winter. It was at the lower part of the trail that our club was to undertake some of it’s ”Adopt-A-Trail” track maintenance activities which was part of the purpose for the days trip. It was at this time we came across a 2000 burnt orange Discovery II driven by Larry & Carrie Grubbs coming down Radical Hill. Larry is our club president and was supposed to be part of our group but had not made it in time [we suspect too much canoodling in the morning but they denied, denied, denied].

The first obstacle, if it can be called that, is a small rock ledge extending part way across the trail. The standard Discovery II in our group had no trouble overcoming it but required a good approach angle and guidance around the high spots. Interestingly enough, the Forestry Ranger with us in his brand new Jeep Rubicon got stuck on this obstacle because he had not taken the appropriate line. With front & rear lockers engaged he managed to back up then try again on a better line easily getting through this time.  

After this first obstacle it is a climb up a mild but loose and rocky ascent. About 2/3rds of the way up there are several tight switchbacks though even the LWB vehicles in our group had little difficulty maneuvering around. As we drove up, the drop off was to the south of the trail looking back into what was obviously an old mining area. We only saw one old mining building, however Mohawk Mine is in the area.

Once we got to the top our group could look to the South towards Handcart Peak 12,518 ft; Red Cone at 12,801 ft; and Webster pass. We had crossed the Continental Divide and were now firmly in Arapahoe National Forest, not far from Keystone Ski Area. Several other vehicles were already at the top of Radical Hill having come in from Montezuma along the Deer Creek Trail. We then took off down the Deer Creek Trail to loop around and come back up the Snake River Canyon back to the base of Webster Pass. This section was fairly uneventful and only has one small river crossing to help clean the tires.

Webster Pass

We joined Webster Pass Trail where if intersects with the end of Red Cone Trail. This is actually Webster Pass itself as the trial drops down from here back into the Hall Valley . The drive down is extremely narrow in places and large dual wheeled vehicles would struggle to get down. Due to the narrowness of the trail it is a good idea to check as far as possible for oncoming vehicles as there are very few places to pass. This pass is often closed late into the season due to snow however we were lucky as almost all signs of the lovely white stuff had gone.

Recently a vehicle pulled over to the outside to allow another 4WD to pass and got into trouble. It appears the vehicle started to slip off the side due to the very loose shale trail surface. The other vehicle tied on a tow rope to help get it back on to the trail but unfortunately it started to slip further and eventually went straight over the side and down several hundred feet. Luckily the tow rope attached to the second car snapped otherwise 2 trucks would have been lost. No one was in the vehicle that went over the edge which was a relief to all at the time.

Webster pass used to be highly used by Native Americans prior to European occupation when it became a freight route for taking items into the Snake River Mining District.

Driving down the switchbacks there are a couple of off camber sections but these are relatively mild and nothing to worry about. There has been a lot of work done by the Forestry Service and other 4WD clubs on the sides of this trail to stop the sides falling away further on the narrow sections thus keep this trail open. It was due to the work of local 4WD clubs that we now have access to this trail following their work that started back in 1971.

Once down past the switchbacks the trail becomes completely different as it winds back along the top parts of the North Fork South Platte River and through more White Aspens on each side of the trail. At this point the river is a very deep burnt orange color due to the color of the surrounding ground and its run off. Whilst basically from here on it is an easy drive it was interesting to look around and contrast the abundant trees to the barren peaks just a bit higher.

This figure 8 loop can be easily handled in a day by a medium sized group. The Delorme Colorado Atlas & Gazetteer will easily get you to the trial head and the Arapaho National Forest map will give you a good guide along the trails. The area is well sign posted so even if you have not been into the area before it is very hard to get lost.