I first came to Colorado in May 2003, for an internship with GoLite. It was an eye-opening summer. Five days per week I was awed by Boulder’s scenery while bike commuting and trail running; and the other two days I weekend-warrior’d in the Front Range.
First I tried Rocky Mountain National Park, but the $15 backcountry permit was beyond my college student budget. Thankfully, immediately to the south I found the Indian Peaks and James Peak Wilderness Areas, which were equally aesthetic, less regulated, and free through mid-June.
Short is the new long
As it always does, however, life changed, and a few years ago I looked at my backyard with a fresh perspective and renewed interest. I didn’t have as much free time as I used to, but I still wanted to be wowed and challenged by outdoor adventures. Short but intense outings became my new long.
One particular project — working name, “Colorado Front Range High Route” — inspired most of my itineraries. Apologies to Amanda, Sean, Sam and Landon, and the Colorado Adventure group, who were unknowing test subjects.
The idea was simple, and consistent with the original concept that Steve Roper laid out in 1982: Follow the crest of the Front Range, which also serves as the Continental Divide, as closely and naturally as possible while avoiding technical terrain.
As I pieced together the route, mostly through marathon day-hikes and overnights, the dwindling list of uncompleted segments developed a theme: They were the least certain, in terms of physical rigor and travel quality. For information about obscure passes and rarely visited valleys, a USFS ranger recommended that I pick up the definitive guidebook for the area, Colorado’s Indian Peaks: Classic Hikes and Climbs, by Gerry Roach.
The Pfiffner Traverse
From my Facebook feed I knew Gerry as a lifelong climber who grew up in Boulder and who was doing big mountaineering routes in Alaska and the Himalaya before my parents had even met. It seems that he has also climbed every worthy topographic feature in the state of Colorado, too.
So I was a bit surprised to find, literally, at the very end of the last chapter in his book, a general description of a classic backpacking high route between Berthoud to Milner Passes, following the crest of the Front Range. He called it the Pfiffner Traverse, in honor of his friend Karl Pfiffner, who tragically died in an avalanche in 1960.
But the route has never gained traction. Currently, I can find only two online trip reports, both by FKT-motivated ultra runners. It’s mentioned only passingly in a few blogs and forums. And Paul Magnanti, who is an expert resource on the Colorado backcountry, knew nothing about it.
Dusting off a great idea
With this post I’d like to introduce readers to the Pfiffner Traverse. It runs 75 miles from Berthoud to Milner Passes, following the Continental Divide and the crest of the Colorado Front Range. It is encompassed by Rocky Mountain National Park and by the Indian Peaks and James Peak Wilderness Areas.
Forty percent of the Pfiffner Traverse is off-trail. Its elevation typically varies between 10,000 and 13,000 feet above sea level. And it features a quad-busting 760 vertical feet of climbing or descending per mile.
The Pfiffner Traverse can be thru-hiked end-to-end (budget 6 to 10 days, on average), but I expect most people to undertake it in sections with multi-day trips, long day-hikes, and adventurous trail runs. If you are thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail, you can follow it from Berthoud Pass to Grand Lake, Colo.; it’s not faster, but it is certainly more exciting.
Overall, it’s an expert-level route, but entirely worthwhile. The Pfiffner Traverse ascends airy peaks and passes, remains atop vista-filled ridgelines (and a few knife-edges), follows elk trails through deep canyons, passes by numerous alpine lakes and wildflower-covered meadows, and avoids but a few short bushwhacks. It remains continuously immersed in wilderness, intersected just once at a high-clearance trailhead atop the Continental Divide.
With Gerry’s blessing, I am in the process of developing a comprehensive Pfiffner Traverse Guide. It’s currently available for download as a Pre-Edition; a working First Edition should be completed in or by May, just before the high country opens.
The Guide will include topographic maps, databooks, and route descriptions for the Primary Route and for eight Section Hikes ranging from 17 to 42 miles, as well as detailed preparatory information.