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Pfiffner Traverse

From Paiute Pass, looking north down Thunderbolt Creek. The tip of Longs Peak can be seen on the skyline, far right.

From Paiute Pass, looking north down Thunderbolt Creek. The tip of Longs Peak can be seen on the skyline, far right.

The Pfiffner Traverse is a 77-mile backpacking high route that follows the Continental Divide and the crest of Colorado’s Front Range between Berthoud Pass and Trail Ridge Road, passing through the James Peak and Indian Peaks Wilderness Areas, and Rocky Mountain National Park.

It can be attempted as a thru-hike (in 6 to 10 days, on average), or completed in sections with overnight trips, long day-hikes, and adventurous trail runs. Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers can easily link up with it, as can be done further north with the Wind River High Route and the Glacier Divide Route. Bypasses and “extra credit” routes can be used to alter its difficulty and risk, and to reduce exposure to inclement weather.

As an end-to-end effort, the Pfiffner Traverse is an expert-level project, requiring excellent physical fitness and backcountry skills, plus a favorable weather window. Forty percent of its length is off-trail, up to Class 3 in difficulty. Oxygen is always in short supply: the route drops below 10,000 feet only twice, and it climbs five 13,000-foot peaks. Vertical change is never-ending, with 760 feet of climbing or descending per mile. And there are no convenient resupply opportunities.

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

Of course, the effort is entirely worthwhile: the Pfiffner Traverse spans a gem of the Colorado Rockies. It 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.

The route is named after the late Karl Pfiffner, who inspired his climbing friend Gerry Roach to undertake a version of the route in 1987. Roach included his itinerary in his definitive guidebook, Colorado’s Indian Peaks: Classic Hikes and Climbs.

For aspiring thru- and section-hikers, the Pfiffner Traverse Guide is a must-have resource. It includes route descriptions, topographic maps, and datasheets for the 78-mile primary route and for eight best-of loop trips that are 17 to 42 miles long.

23 Responses to Pfiffner Traverse

  1. elmateo1047 September 13, 2017 at 7:14 am #

    Ahoy: Downloaded and studied the P T download last night. Going to hit a section next weekend. No mention of water sources by design such as the SHR where sources abound? Lots of blue on the maps so I surmise that’s the case.

    • Andrew Skurka September 13, 2017 at 7:21 am #

      Correct, lots of water, except along the Divide, especially later in the season. You’ll need to drop off the Divide to mapped creeks or tarns, e.g. Lost Lake. After a wet winter, you might still find some snowfields (and associated melt) lingering on the north slope of James Peak, on the flat between the summit and the gap with Bancroft.

  2. Alex Nosse December 20, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

    Exciting! I know this is probably a question you hate to even hear, but how would you compare the level of difficulty of Pfiffner with the WRHR? Last year I completed a week-long section of the WRHR (Green River Lakes–Knapsack–Bonney Pass–Iceberg Lake–Downs Mt–and out by way of bushwack through Faler Lake) and it was an inspiring experience! It was difficult for me and my partner, but we completed the trip safely and learned a lot. If you had to say, would a section hike of the Pfiffner Traverse tend to be even more difficult than a WRHR section? I’m planning my 2018 vacations now and need to decide if Pfiffner might be for me, or if I should look elsewhere.

    If you prefer not to answer, I’d understand.

    • Andrew Skurka December 21, 2017 at 9:44 am #

      “Hate to hear,” why? I’m happy to answer it.

      Overall, the Wind River High Route is more difficult than the Pfiffner Traverse. The Pfiffner Traverse has easier and more frequent bailout points, drops below treeline more regularly, has less talus-hopping, and follows trails more often as a percentage of its overall length (41 percent vs 65 percent on my WRHR, 45 percent for Dixon/Wilson). The Pfiffner is more difficult in just one respect: more vertical per mile, 760 ft of change per mile, which is 20 percent more change than my WRHR and 42 percent more change versus Dixon/Wilson).

      No one will ever say that the Pfiffner is “too easy.” It’s an ass-kicker, and offers plenty of opportunities to get into trouble.

      Difficulty varies among the recommended Pfiffner hikes, as it does on the WRHR.

      The most technical feature on the Pfiffner Traverse is the Northeast Gully, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/pfiffner-traverse-northeast-gully-lone-eagle-cirque-tribal-lakes/. It’s as technically difficult as Bonney Pass, which is purposely not on my recommended route. When snow-free, the NE Gully may be more difficult than Bonney, because it’s a thin layer of loose dirt (with some embedded rocks) atop a hard layer of dirt, as opposed to Bonney’s talus.

      Re your WRHR section-hike:

      * The long hike up the Green River Lakes valley (at 8k feet, and eventually up to 10k) has no comparison on the Pfiffner. While the Pfiffner has some easy stretches of trail hiking below treeline, they’re all shorter and higher — the Pfiffner drops below 10k only twice, and never lower than 9600 feet. Some of the Pfiffner section hikes will have longer stretches of easy tree hiking, in order to gain the route.

      * Knapsack is run of the mill on the Pfiffner.

      * Bonney is equivalent to NE Gully, and more difficult than the second most technical feature on the Pfiffner, Paiute Pass, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/pfiffner-thunderbolt-paiute-pass-lake-indian-peaks/

      * The entire landscape from Bonney to Downs is more primal and alpine than anything on the Pfiffner, with glaciers, lingering snowfields, and extensive rock. The only section on the Pfiffner that compares is the southern few miles, when the Pfiffner links five 13’ers between Flora and James. But 13k in Colorado is probably more like 12k in the Winds, so the section melts out completely and hosts some delicate life forms.

      Hope this helps. If you have more questions please ask.

      • Skyler W January 4, 2018 at 7:35 pm #

        How does the macro/micro route-finding difficulty between the two routes compare?

        • Andrew Skurka January 4, 2018 at 7:43 pm #

          They’re comparable. In both cases, you have big terrain with really obvious topography, i.e. there’s no doubt that the low spot on the ridge is the pass, because it’s 1,000 vertical feet lower than the peaks on either side of it.

          The Pfiffner has a few spots that are trickier because they’re forested and visibility is limited. I’m specifically thinking of the “bushwhacks” (if you’ve really ever bushwhacked, you’d simply call them cross-country sections) into East Inlet and Wheeler Basin. In the Winds, you always can see, assuming you’re not in a whiteout or smoke. But these two sections are short-lived and I don’t think they change the overall nature of the route. Plus, the Pfiffner has more on-trail miles, so that ratio offsets any increased difficulty of off-trail travel.

      • Alex Nosse February 9, 2018 at 8:30 am #

        I somehow hadn’t noticed your reply until just now. Thank you for answering so thoroughly!

        I am now committed to attempting the PT this summer. Hearing that there is less talus on the PT than on the WRHR made my heart flutter! Ultimately, whether or not I end up making out to Colorado this year depends on my ability to convince my hiking partner to take the time off 🙂

        … and just to clarify — I thought you might dislike the “how hard is it?” line of questioning since ultimately it’s up to each of us to know our own abilities and take full responsibility for our own safety when venturing into the backcountry.

  3. John Bell February 24, 2018 at 10:23 pm #

    What would an average and/or good base weight be for a 5 day loop of the pfiffner traverse in summertime?

    Thank you,

    John

  4. Bill Welch March 16, 2018 at 8:51 pm #

    Hi Andrew. Hate to be a pain in the ass, but wondering if you have any anticipated timeline for completing the annotations and “as you go” sections for the southern part of the Pfiffner. My friend and I are trying to decide whether to do the Pfiffner or the Kings Canyon High Basin this summer. Already have the Kings info and purchased the Pfiffner to help decide. I think we’re capable of figuring the south section out ourselves, but your guides are a huge help when it comes to deciding which gully is better ahead of time or which route is more direct. We’ve hiked the SHR and the WRHR, so looking forward to another.

    Thanks.

    • Andrew Skurka March 16, 2018 at 9:04 pm #

      Not a pain in the ass at all, no sweat.

      I have the “As you go” chapter completed, except for a few alternates. I’ll send it to you as a PDF. I was waiting to finish it before going public with it.

  5. Bill Welch March 17, 2018 at 9:00 pm #

    Super. Thanks Andrew. We usually do some of our own annotations on the maps based on the details in the “as you go”, so that’s really helpful.

  6. kate udall June 17, 2018 at 6:49 pm #

    Hi Adrew,

    i just bought this guide from you. Looking forward to studying it. Would you be able to send me the As You Go chapter as well? I’m assuming it is not yet included in what I just purchased?

    Thanks.

    • Andrew Skurka June 19, 2018 at 7:57 am #

      The download did not include Part 2? If not, that’s definitely an oversight on my part, and I’ll get it over to you (give me until tomorrow — I’m traveling right now) and to everyone else who has purchased the guide. But I’m surprised that no one has noticed this and said something yet. Can you double-check?

      • Skyler W June 19, 2018 at 9:45 am #

        Just checked and Part 2 “As You Go” was indeed included in the download I received last week, if it was missing from your download looks like it might be a one-off issue.

      • Andrew Skurka June 19, 2018 at 4:07 pm #

        Just returned home, and relieved to see all the parts are in the .zip file that you downloaded. Here’s a screenshot:

        So please check again. It’s possible that your download didn’t include it, but I don’t know how that would be.

  7. Kate Udall June 19, 2018 at 4:08 pm #

    Great! Thanks. I haven’t taken a closer look yet.

  8. Lucas Trilling July 24, 2018 at 6:50 pm #

    Is planning on an early september hike rolling the dice or is the weather fairly reliable that time of year? I’m from the mid west so not super familiar with the seasons in your neck of the woods.

    • Andrew Skurka July 27, 2018 at 8:37 am #

      Early-September is a normally great time of year. No bugs, comfortable daytime highs, and the elk are going berserk. You could get whacked with cold precip, but that happens June through August, too. It can snow in September, but it will not stick until October, starting at the highest elevations and shadiest north-facing aspects. I do not plan high-priority trips in October (it’s best to work with the weather, picking favorable windows when they come up), but September is fair game.

  9. Debbie Sanders July 30, 2018 at 10:55 am #

    We are back for the US, and also did the Pfiffner Traverse from 11th till 12th of July 2018. Pictures can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/debbekes/albums/72157693825279290. Great route, technically feasible but physically pretty intense. We live at sea level so the altitude makes us breath more than normally (and more than what we are used to in the European mountain ranges). 😉 Little snow this year, so we did not need crampons or ice axe, however we did use sturdy hiking boots (and no trailrunners). They suffered a lot from the rocky terrain in Colorado. No remarks on the trajectory, it is pretty logical from a backpackers’ point of view. As you can camp below the timberline, and temperatures are rather high, we could have brought less clothing and a lighter sleeping bag. Because we lost a bag on the plane, we had to buy – pretty heavy – new gear in Estes Park (i.e. a polyester tent instead of our Trailstar that was an the missing bag). We paid Estes Park Shuttle to get to the trailhead at Milner Pass, and hitchhiked (very easily) from Berthoud Pass to Idaho Springs. Enjoy everyone!

  10. Aditya August 3, 2018 at 2:29 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    This is probably a difficult question to answer, but I’d appreciate any insight you have.
    I attempted the SHR with a friend last August, and we had to turn back because we made too many mistakes navigating and ended up having to make very risky choices to get back on track. The altitude was a challenge, but after 2 days, we weren’t feeling it as badly.

    How would you compare the PT with the SHR in terms of navigation skill vs elevation challenge?

    I did a little more prep this time around, especially in terms of navigation, but due to the fires in California right now, I’m planning to make a last-minute switch. My only concern is the relative unfamiliarity of this place, but I can do a little more research before setting out. If you have any insights in that regard, I’d appreciate them.

    • Andrew Skurka August 3, 2018 at 6:03 pm #

      In terms of gear and climate, the Front Range is very similar to the High Sierra. It gets more regular summertime precip (usually an afternoon event), but overall it’s sunny and semi-arid.

      Elevations are also similar, with the PT probably being higher overall. As you experienced with the SHR, it’ll take a few days to adjust. You’ll never perform at altitude the way you can at sea level, but after a few days you won’t have headaches and won’t throw up your dinner.

      Sounds like you may be well served by doing a section-hike instead of an end-to-end itinerary. The section-hike would be a loop, and you could extend or shorten as your nav competence allows. At this point, you’d really struggle to get the necessary permits for Rocky Mountain, so I’d look at the section-hikes in the Indian Peaks and James Peak. If you’re a strong hiker, you could dive into Rocky Mountain for a day, doing a loop in upper Paradise Creek (“Hell & Paradise” loop).

      If you’re really settled on an end-to-end trip, well, let me think…

      The southernmost miles of the Pfiffner are really straightforward. You have about 30 miles of trail or very obvious off-trail (i.e. stay on the highest ridge there is, and don’t descend) before it gets more complicated. Beyond that, I think the nav challenges will be similar. The topography is really distinct, and a skilled navigator can easily nav with just the topo maps, no compass, altimeter, GPS, etc.

      I might also humbly suggest that you consider taking a guided trip with me sometime. In June and July I ran six 5-day trips on the Pfiffner Traverse, and in September I’m running four 5-day trips on the Kings Canyon High Basin Route, which is similar to the SHR. Our goal in these trips is to give you the know-how to do these routes on your own. I know it’s an investment, but you’ll be more quickly buying your freedom from the trail system.

  11. Aditya August 3, 2018 at 6:52 pm #

    Thank you for the quick response and the suggestions. While I’d have loved the opportunity to take a guided trip, that is well out of my budget right now. I’m in grad school, so I only get a small travel window because of schedules. I will take the guided trips into consideration and apply for one when my circumstances allow.
    I did look into the RMNP permits and they’re all almost full as you said. I will look into the alternate wilderness areas you suggested.

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