Several sections of the Pfiffner Traverse were significantly impacted by wildfires and storms in fall 2020, including both on- and off-trail portions, and both the Primary Route and Section Hikes.
These events caused an official area closure by the National Park Service and de facto closures on NPS and US Forest Service lands because of downed trees. I was last on the route in early-August 2020 and I’ve not witnessed the impacts first-hand.
In early-September a cold air mass dropped out of Canada (or the Arctic) and tracked along the Front Range. Its snowfall was notable for early-September, but its longer-lasting impact were the winds, which toppled many beetle-infested trees on the western side of the Continental Divide. Blowdowns have been a worsening problem for years, and these winds just accelerated the process.
Then, in late-October the East Troublesome Fire torched nearly 200,000 acres, including the Tonahutu Creek watershed in Rocky Mountain.
Official area closure
For the most updated closure information, visit this page on the Rocky Mountain website.
When I published this page on July 11, the Pfiffner Traverse is impacted by closures of:
- Tonahutu Creek Trail, from its trailhead outside of Grand Lake to its junction with the Flattop Mountain Trail;
- Haynach Lakes Trail; and,
- Upper Tonahutu Creek watershed, including the off-trail alpine area west of the Continental Divide.
Until this closure is lifted, the most practical way to hike the Pfiffner Traverse is to start or finish using the North Inlet Trail, which is open. If you were really motivated, you could:
- Hike upper Hallet Creek as an out-and-back;
- Hike from Milner Pass to Haynach Pass as an out-and-back; or,
- Find a thru-route on the east side of the Divide from Flattop Mountain to Milner Pass.
De facto trail closures
NPS has probably prioritized the opening of Tonahutu Creek Trail and the upper watershed. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened in summer 2021.
Blowdowns elsewhere on the Pfiffner Traverse will take more time to clean up, and blowdowns on off-trail sections never will be (at least not by man).
I’ve been unable to find updates on Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest’s website, but I’ve been forwarded messages from Recreation.gov stating that, “Several trails on the west side of the Continental Divide have sections that are considered impassable due to hundreds of downed trees across the trail. The impacted trails include:”
- The Buchanan Pass Trail from the Cascade Creek Trail junction to Buchanan Pass
- The Arapaho Pass Trail east from Monarch Lake trailhead
- The Devils Thumb Trail from the Devils Thumb Park Trailhead to Devils Thumb Pass
It’s possible that some areas between these trails were spared, but I think it’s more likely that they haven’t been scouted or were less severely impacted. These trails include:
- Roaring Fork
- Hell Canyon
- Gourd Lake
- Cascade Creek Trail, from its junction with Buchanan Pass Trail to Pawnee Lake
- Columbine Lake Trail
These are just the trails. Off-trail sections that pass through forest might also be really difficult, including:
- From Beak Pass to Spirit Lake in East Inlet,
- The use trail in East Inlet from Spirit Lake to Fifth Lake,
- Below treeline in Paradise Park
- Thunderbolt Creek, and
- Wheeler Basin to Coyote Park.
What sections can be reliably completed right now?
The Primary Route can be done in its entirety from Arapaho Pass to Berthoud Pass, because this section is almost entirely above treeline and therefore unaffected by fires or closures.
I can’t speak to recommended section-hikes that use this portion of the Pfiffner. But I think they’ll be okay: the blowdowns seem centered on the west side of the Divide, in the northwestern quadrant of the Indian Peaks and in the southwest quadrant of Rocky Mountain.
When the closure is lifted in Rocky Mountain, a big northern chunk of the route can be completed, from Milner Pass to East Inlet or maybe even to Hell Canyon.
Between East Inlet and Arapaho Pass, I’d exercise caution, because there could be some very slow and tedious stretches in upper East Inlet, Paradise Park, Buchanan Creek, Thunderbolt Creek, Cascade Creek, and Wheeler Basin.
A helpful map
In the CalTopo map below, I’ve created four categories of the Pfiffner Traverse:
- “Passable,” as it sounds, with extra fire- or blowdown-related difficulties;
- “Concerning,” for areas without reports but that would be prone to severe blowdowns;
- “Considered impassable,” which is the USFS description but which just means, “really, really slow.”
- “Closed,” per official orders.
Please send me updates
If you get onto the route, please contact me (by sending an email or leaving a comment below) so that I can update this page. Thanks.