In 12 photos || Trip Report: Pfiffner Traverse Yo-Yo

Thanks to a delayed arrival of winter, in late-October of last year I finished piecing together the Pfiffner Traverse, a 77-mile high route through Colorado’s Front Range between Milner and Berthoud Passes. But I felt it important to get on the route again this year as a thru-hiker and as soon as conditions permitted, to gain a more holistic perspective, to determine how runoff and lingering snow affects the route, and to give the Pfiffner Traverse Guide a final edit.

For several reasons I recommend thru-hiking the Pfiffner Traverse southbound, from Milner to Berthoud. My yo-yo started at Berthoud, which gave me a chance to check conditions and scout several alternates before hitting the turnaround and giving the second leg an honest go. I started with 9 days of food (minus a dinner) and finished in 8.5, for an average of 20 miles and 7,000 vertical feet of climbing per day.

From nearly 1,000 images, I’ve selected twelve and organized them geographically from north to south:

From Milner Pass, where Trail Ridge Road crosses the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Pfiffner Traverse climbs five miles to the summit of Mt. Ida (elev 12,865). The trail is mellow, but it thrusts you immediately into Sound of Music-worthy terrain.

The Mt. Ida Trail, looking north towards Milner Pass, Specimen Ridge, and the Mummy Range.

Assuming a normal winter, July is my favorite month for high country travel in Colorado. Seasonal vegetation has greened up and wildflowers are blooming, but lingering snow still laces the high peaks and leeward slopes. The bug pressure is relatively light and easily managed.

A lush wildflower-filled meadow in upper East Inlet.

If I see as many elk and deer in November as I did on this trip, I will most certainly fill my chest freezer. I saw big herds (up to 40 head) at Sprague Pass, on the south side of Ptarmigan Peak, in Paradise Creek, and at a honey hole on USFS lands that I won’t mention.

A trophy bull near Hallet Creek in Rocky Mountain National Park. So long as he stays within park boundaries, he’s got a good life.

One perk of off-trail exploration is the “discovery” of unknown features and places, such as this 30-foot waterfall that gushes with spring runoff. To break through the cliff band that wraps the valley, an elk trail must be followed.

An unnamed waterfall on an undisclosed creek known only by elk and Pfiffner Traverse hikers.

The Pfiffner Traverse consists of a recommended Primary Route as well as easier and harder alternates that can be followed in the event of inclement weather or extra energy.

Thunderbolt Creek, as seen from the Ooh La La Extra Credit route, north of Buchanan Creek.

An unnamed alpine lake in upper Thunderbolt Creek, which can be appropriately referred to as Paiute Lake since it sits immediately below Paiute Peak (elev 13,088).

Paiute Lake in upper Thunderbolt Creek

The most technical and hazardous section of the Pfiffner Traverse is the Northeast Gully, which is the least difficult route out of Lone Eagle Cirque and into upper Arapaho Creek. When it melts out, usually by August, it’s supposedly Class 2 scree and talus. If 40-degree snow slopes aren’t your thing, there’s an all-trail route around. The route never exceeds Class 2+/3- in difficulty.

In mid-July after a very wet spring, the Northeast Gully was still loaded with snow. An ice axe was mandatory, and crampons are highly recommended.

My favorite part of the route is its middle, from North Inlet to Columbine Lake. Arapaho Creek is near the southern end of this segment, and has perhaps the biggest scenery of all.

Upper Arapaho Creek, looking north over Caribou Lake towards the Achonee-Hopi ridge, Tribal Lakes basin, Mt. George, and Apache Peak.

Of the eight nights, I cowboy camped (i.e. slept under the stars) for five. For more exposed camps and inclement weather, I was happy to have the Sierra Designs High Route 1FL, which weighs just 22 oz for the fly.

The Sierra Designs High Route 1FL, pitched near Heart Lake on the last night, with James Peak looming 2,000 vertical feet above.

As I ate through my food bag and as the end drew closer, I took on longer and harder days. My daily mileage varied between 13 and 25 miles, but the amount of climbing was more consistent: between 6,000 and 8,000 vertical feet per day.

On average, the Pfiffner Traverse climbs or descends 800 vertical feet per mile. One day, I climbed 6,000 vertical feet in just 13 miles, an average of 925 vertical feet per mile.

Forward progress on Colorado summer afternoons is often curtailed by monsoonal thunderstorms. The more reliable strategy is to get up early, be diligent all morning, lay low in the afternoon, and squeeze in some extra miles in the evening if conditions permit.

Ominous clouds hang over James Peak and four other 13’ers (Parry, Bancroft, Eva, and Flora) that stand between Rollins Pass and Berthoud Pass. Grays and Torreys, two 14’ers, are visible on the far-right skyline.

During my first summer in Colorado in 2003, I spent nearly every single weekend in the Front Range. But thereafter I lost the connection, obsessing about more faraway places like Alaska or the High Sierra. The Pfiffner Traverse is completely worthy as a backcountry experience, but it’s also been a personally gratifying project to reconnect with my backyard.

My sole selfie in 9 days, looking north from Mt. Bancroft towards Rollins Pass and the southern Indian Peaks.

3 Responses to In 12 photos || Trip Report: Pfiffner Traverse Yo-Yo

  1. Jeramie Nielsen July 24, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

    Looks like an amazing route. I’ll consider doing it as well, since it is right in my backyard too!

  2. Brad R July 24, 2017 at 8:22 pm #

    What an amazing looking route and pictures.

    One question since you have done the Sierra High Route, the Wind River Route, and the Phiffner Traverse, which has the least class 3 passes and/or technical sections? If you had to rank them in order of difficulty, how would you rank them?

    • Andrew Skurka July 24, 2017 at 8:42 pm #

      The Pfiffner Traverse has more vertical per mile than any other high route.

      The Wind River High Route spends the most time above treeline, has the nastiest weather, and has the most off-trail travel as a percentage of its overall length (tied with Kings Canyon High Basin Route).

      The Sierra High Route is the longest.

      The Kings Canyon High Basin Route spends as much time off-trail as the Wind River High Route.

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