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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.

2 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.

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