Explore these down-valley gateways to the Holy Cross and Flat Tops wilderness
By Phil Lindeman
Photo by Scott McClarrinon
There’s no doubt Eagle County is a bona-fide winter playground, but Vail Mountain’s 5,289 lift-accessible acres pale in comparison to what’s in store for alpine junkies once the snow melts.
The area’s four main wilderness zones – White River National Forest, Holy Cross Wilderness, Eagles Nest Wilderness and Bureau of Land Management forests – cover 865,000 combined acres and nearly 80 percent of the county, according to the U.S. Forest Service and latest U.S. Census data. The terrain is signature Colorado, with densely wooded forests, expansive wildflower meadows and remote clear-water lakes. More than 1,000 miles worth of pristine foot-only trails crisscross from Vail Pass to the mouth of Glenwood Canyon, and most are maintained fairly well. Many allow dogs, have nearby campsites and, if your timing is right, are remote enough to have entire forests to yourself.
All that land makes selecting the right day-trip a bit daunting. SneakPEAK scoured the local trail system to build a list of the area’s most awe-inspiring hikes, from simple jaunts for the kids to grueling tramps across boulder-filled peaks. We’ve included as much relevant info as possible, but keep in mind you’re dealing with Mother Nature – nothing is predictable.
The following is first in a two-part series. Day hikes in this set are located down-valley in areas around Edwards, Eagle, Dotsero and outside of Glenwood Canyon.
Distance: 6.4 miles round trip
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
The Nolan Lake Trail combines picturesque vistas and relatively easy hiking, all with the reward of stellar brook trout fishing at the eponymous 7-acre lake. Along with more than a dozen others, the trailhead is accessible through Fulford Cave Campground outside of Eagle and sits on the edge of the Holy Cross Wilderness.
To get to the campsite, take the Sylvan Lake Road exit off of Grand Avenue in Eagle. After 1.5 miles, turn right onto Brush Creek Road and follow for nine miles until the fork of East and West Brush Creek. Take the east fork and drive six miles to the campground and parking lot. From there, drive or walk another five miles past Yeoman Park and take a left at the first switchback (FDR418). Continue 3.5 miles until the trailhead on the left.
The well-maintained trail winds through spruce, aspen and pine forests, with small pikas found in the surrounding boulder fields. The meadows burst with wildflowers from July to early September and are interspersed with several steep, rocky sections. Towering over the lake is Craig Peak, at 11,902 feet, and to the south is the Gore Range.
Distance: 11 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
The Lake Charles Trail in Holy Cross Wilderness can get packed in the summer, but with good reason: It’s the definition of meandering, with long, relatively easy stretches of clear trail leading to the area’s finest lakes. Although the total distance is intimidating for kids, the trail can be cut short at Lake Charles (9 miles roundtrip) or followed the full distance to Mystic Island Lake. Fisherman find rainbow, brook and brown trout in the nearby creek, and both lakes house Colorado cutthroat trout.
Like Nolan Lake, the trailhead is accessible from Fulford Cave Campground. From the information board near the campsite parking lot, enter through the trail gate and take a left at the fork. To the right is the difficult, lightly used Ironedge Trail (13.2 miles roundtrip) leading into Sylvan Lake State Park.
Distance: 2.4 miles roundtrip
The Hanging Lake Trail through the eastern portion of Glenwood Canyon in the Flat Tops Wilderness is ideal for a quick weekend jaunt, and easily one of the most popular routes in the area. Don’t let the distance fool you – the trail is steep, craggy and not for very small children – but the rewards are plentiful, including gorgeous canyon views, geological formation, the crystalline lake and nearby Spouting Rock waterfall. The surrounding ecosystem is extremely fragile, meaning no dogs, fishing, swimming or bushwhacking.
Drive 22 miles west of Eagle along Interstate-70 to the Grizzly Creek exit in Glenwood Canyon. From the exit, turn around and take the interstate east to the Hanging Lake exit. The trailhead starts a quarter-mile east of the rest area, just before the bridge.
Sneve Gulch and Sylvan Lake State Park
Distance: 5 miles roundtrip
Located south of Eagle near Sylvan Lake State Park – which boasts a handful of easy mile-long trails itself – Sneve Gulch packs an immense variety of terrain into a short trip. The well-maintained trail can be steep in places, but it’s a worthwhile sacrifice, leading through pine and fir forests, open meadows with wild roses and geraniums, and across hilltops with magnificent views of Sylvan Lake, Red Table Mountain and the maroon-hued cliffs of Mount Eve.
From Grand Avenue in Eagle, turn south onto Sylvan Lake Road and drive 1.5 miles to Brush Creek Road. Follow the road for roughly nine miles until the fork of East and West Brush Creek. Turn right and travel 4.5 miles to the entrance of Sylvan Lake State Park. The trailhead is just past the park entrance on the left.
New York Mountain Trail
Distance: 8.7 miles roundtrip
The New York Mountain Trail wanders into the forests and valleys southwest of Edwards, and despite some nearby camping, it can be practically empty in the height of summer. The trail passes through portions of the Holy Cross Wilderness, with access to Nolan Lake Trail and the very difficult, cairn-marked New York Lake Trail (5.1 miles roundtrip).
Starting in Edwards, drive under a mile west along U.S. Highway 6 to Lake Creek Road and turn south at the national forest access sign. Travel about two miles, then turn right onto West Lake Creek Road and follow for 2.7 miles to Baryeta Cabins Road. From here, roads are only 4-wheel accessible. Drive or walk right at the switchback for three miles, stopping at the trailhead near the Baryeta Cabins.
The trail gets off to a steep, occasionally difficult start, but quickly plateaus on a ridge top surrounded by meadows and the New York Mountain Range. It’s a good place to practice your mapping skills; the trail is clear through forests and along roads, but the last mile can be very faint.
Distance: 7.2 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Moderate to hard
The photo ops along Nellie’s Trail in the southeast portion of Flat Tops Wilderness outside Dotsero are worth the occasionally grueling hike. It’s a good workout for folks who like steep, rocky terrain without 12 hours of scrambling or route-finding. Views of Sweetwater Lake, Sweetwater Canyon, Shingle Peak and surrounding mountain ranges are pristine, and the hike can be extended by following the 3.5-mile Johnny Meyers Trail near the halfway point.
At the Dotsero exit, follow the signs for Sweetwater/Burns and turn north onto Colorado River Road. Drive seven miles and turn left onto Sweetwater Creek Road, which continues 11.5 miles to parking at Sweetwater Wilderness Ranch. Hike or drive another quarter-mile to the gate above Hilltop Ranch. The trailhead is 1.5 miles up the Turret Creek Trail, where you take a right at the fork crossing the creek.
Gear up and get out
Don’t be fooled by the term “day trip”: Anything can happen on Colorado trails. Frequent hikers have lists of go-to gear, but everyone should pack the following items.
-Water (16 oz. for every hour on the trail)
-Extra socks (wicking blend)
-Extra base layers (wool or polyester blend)
-Trail/topographical maps (local maps found at the Holy Cross ranger station)
-Rain coat or poncho
-Pocket utility knife