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Near & dear: The Pfiffner Traverse, high in Colorado’s Front Range

A rare view of the Lone Eagle Cirque, from atop the Hopi Glacier Route, one of the best on the Pfiffner Traverse. Crater Lake, Cascade Creek, Paiute Peak, Mt Audubon, and Longs Peak are all visible.

A rare view of the Lone Eagle Cirque, from atop the Hopi Glacier Route, one of the best on the Pfiffner Traverse. Crater Lake, Cascade Creek, Paiute Peak, Mt Audubon, and Longs Peak are all visible.

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.

But after that first summer I turned my attention to long-distance trails, Big Wilderness, and high routes in more novel places. For nearly a decade I grossly underutilized the Front Range.

Overlooking Iceberg Lakes from the Continental Divide, late-July 2003, outfitted with GoLite Stride shorts and the first-generation Jam backpack.

Overlooking Iceberg Lakes from the Continental Divide, late-July 2003, outfitted with GoLite Stride shorts and the first-generation Jam backpack.

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.

James Peak, one of five 13'ers on the route. Immediately to the north it gets easier for a while, with pleasant ridge-walking atop the Divide, overlooking deep cirques to the east.

James Peak, one of five 13’ers on the route. Immediately to the north it gets easier for a while, with pleasant ridge-walking atop the Divide, overlooking deep cirques to the east.

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.

Sunset and the St. Vrain Glaciers, as seen from the Continental Divide near the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness

Sunset and the St. Vrain Glaciers, as seen from the Continental Divide near the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness

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.

Peak wildflowers in upper Buchanan Creek, on the Triple Bypass Loop and near the start of the Ooh La La Alternate.

Peak wildflowers in upper Buchanan Creek, on the Triple Bypass Loop and near the start of the Ooh La La Alternate.

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.

Have a question about the Pfiffner Traverse? Leave a comment.

3 Responses to Near & dear: The Pfiffner Traverse, high in Colorado’s Front Range

  1. dgray January 19, 2017 at 6:18 am #

    I’m curious about campsite options in the part of the route through RMNP. How would you handle this on a thru hike or long section through through the park? It seems like making a reservation for one of the designated backcountry sites is impractical given the popularity and difficulty of securing any one particular site on a particular date during the summer. That option also seems to lock you into a very specific itinerary, which could be a problem given weather and the unpredictability of off trail travel regarding time. Do you instead dip below treeline in the evening and camp in the cross country zones (I see the waypoint at Spirit Lake on the overview map)? Or is there another option I’m not familiar with?
    Thanks for putting all the route resources together. I also appreciate the homage in the title. Good form.

    • Andrew Skurka January 19, 2017 at 8:44 am #

      The permit challenge for Pfiffner Traverse hikers in RMNP is the same for, say, CDT thru-hikers in Glacier and HDT hikers in the Grand Canyon. RMNP is one of the few places with designated campsites (plus a few zone camping areas), in order to concentrate impact. A few tips to deal with it:

      1. Reservations are accepted starting March 1. For the best chance of getting your ideal spots, attend the permit party at park HQ. If you can’t do that, at least submit your reservation on March 1. If you wait, you run a greater risk of having inconvenient camps.

      2. Schedule your trip during non-peak seasons. I’m specifically thinking after Labor Day. Or, if you’re up for more of a challenge, go in late-June or early-July, but be prepared to sleep on snow.

      3. Set a realistic itinerary. If you end up with extra time, catch up on sleep or add an element to the day (e.g. a peak, an out-and-back to a lake). With the alternate routes that I have included in the Guide, you should be able to progress forward even in bad conditions, so long as you get at least a few good hours per day (normally in the morning) so that you can jump a pass and make it back into the trees.

      Overall, I don’t think it will be overly difficult to accurately plan through the park. There are campsite clusters at Mi 4.5, 7, 9, 19, and 25. The park boundary is at Mi 31.

      Permits are required in IPW, too, and they have a cap on the number of permits available per backcountry per night. A few super popular sites (e.g. Crater Lake) get filled night after night, but it’s much easier to get an ideal permit than in RMNP. I still recommend getting it in advance.

      2.

      When I have guided trips in RMNP, I created itineraries that were practica

  2. Paul Mags January 20, 2017 at 10:34 am #

    Exciting stuff Andrew. Looks great!

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