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.
You have some date errors in this post. I assume you mean 2020 almost everywhere you say 2021?
We’re not in fall 2021 yet…
Thanks for the updates. I did not know about the RMNP park closures. That would have been fun learning the day before starting the traverse.
New trip is Monarch Lake TH to meet up with Caribou Pass and the southern open portion. Because that’s not long enough, I continue on the Continental Divide Trail to outside Breckenridge. Less off-trail – boo. more miles, extra day – huzzah!
Thx Skurka. Can you share as a teaching moment…how did you know about the blowdown and the specifics of drainages affected to begin with? How would I learn that if not fit your post??
Conditions page on NPS or USFS websites, or call them
Alerts on BC permit reservation page on Recreation.gov
Comments on a definitive page (like this Pfiffner microsite) or a popular online group
I was on some of these trails mentioned in this post on July 17th and 18th:
— Caribou Pass Trail (Caribou Pass to Junco Lake Trailhead): A handful of downed trees, but they are all easy to detour or get over.
— Columbine Lake Trail: All clear. Lots of work was done on the area.
— High Lonesome Trail/CDT (Junco Lake Trailhead to Devils Thumb Trailhead): All clear. Lots of work was done on the area.
— Devils Thumb Pass Trail: I didn’t see this section in person as the signs about “enter at your own risk/there have been many rescues” turned me away. However, I later met some CDTers that came down the pass who said that “it wasn’t bad,” and they “only had to navigate 12 downed trees.” They said the surrounding area was completely destroyed and that the trail crew has put in a TON of work. I would imagine this trail will be completely clear very soon.
Hope some of this information is helpful!
A friend and I recently completed the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop (clockwise from Brainard) on June 25/26. Cascade Creek trail on the immediate West side of Pawnee pass was pretty heavy with blow down. It slowed us down quite a bit to get around it all and eventually find the trail again before the split off to Crater Lake. This was honestly probably the most dangerous section of the loop because of the fall/slip hazard climbing over the downed trees (especially because it was raining at the time). The Buchanan Pass Trail (West of Buchanan pass) from the Cascade Creek Trail junction to Buchanan Pass was also pretty heavy with blow down but I would say not as bad as the West side of Pawnee pass and we had a similar situation trying to get around downed trees and find the trail again in certain spots.
Hi Andrew, thank you for conglomerating this information. I completed the Pfiffner at the end of August and have some updated information.
Rocky Mountain NP has reopened the Tonahutu Creek and Haynach Lakes Trails to backcountry permit holders, although day hikers are not granted access. Green Mountain Trail from its TH to Big Meadows remains closed, however. I spoke with a ranger to better understand the park’s stance on using the two open trails. They claim that their use is not discouraged, but they warn users about the hazards of traveling through the burn scar.
The East Inlet & Paradise Park bushwhacks, as well as the use trails along Thunderbolt Creek and between Spirit & Fifth Lakes were not substantially worse than last season. The Wheeler Basin to Coyote Park stretch after Wheeler Basin’s use trail dissipates is not pretty, but I’m unable to compare it to last season.
All on-trail portions of the primary route are in decent to good shape, except near where the Arapaho Pass Trail meets Coyote Park. I’m unsure whether it’s more favorable to follow the tail-end of the use trail east of Arapaho Creek or greet the heavy blowdowns on the maintained trail.
Jake, did you get the information about Haynach and Tonahutu trails directly from a ranger? Everything I can find online says that the trails are still closed, and doesn’t speak to whether holding a backcountry permit changes anything.
I plan on calling to ask, but I was curious where you got this information.
For the likely small amount of people to whom this information is useful: indeed, Haynach lakes trail and Tonahutu creek trails are open to backcountry permit holders, but I wasn’t able to find this information anywhere online. Hope its useful to someone.
I completed the Pfiffner Traverse in late June 2022. I can also confirm that Haynach Lakes trail and Tonahutu Creek trails are open to overnight/backcountry permit holders.
Here’s the info I can provide with regards to blowdown. In general, the impassable and excessive on-trail blowdowns from 2020 are all cleared.
Coyote Park to NE Gully via Wheeler basin: unknown–I bypassed the NE Gully.
Monarch Lake to Arapahoe Pass via Arapahoe Pass trail: 15-20 blowdowns–good.
Monarch Lake to Crater lake via Buchanan Creek and Cascade Creek trail: 5-10 blowdowns–good.
Pawnee Pass trail from Cascade Creek trail to Pawnee Lake: fair, blowdowns will slightly impact travel time.
Buchanan Creek to Paiute Lake via Thunderbolt Creek: fair, new blowdowns have added difficulty to the cliff bands at the waterfalls. I did some Class 3 moves on the blowdown itself to get through.
Buchanan Creek to Gourd Lake via Gourd Lake trail: good.
Paradise Park to Isolation Peak Pass: fair, game trails are unreliable, travel time slightly impacted.
Spirit Lake to Fifth Lake: fair, new use trails are developing but some confusion exists, travel time slightly impacted.
Spirit Lake to Beak Pass: poor, unpleasant but doable.
East side of Lake Nanita to saddle: fair.
North Inlet trail and Lake Nanita trail: good.
Tonahutu Creek trail and Haynach Lakes trail burn areas: good, not much blowdown yet.
With regards to snowpack, I estimate that this around an “average” melt-out, per Andrew Skurka’s timetable. More specifically, a +1 week delay on the timetable seems fair. (Melt-out one week later than average.)
Looking at doing Paiute Pass and NE Gully 7/30 and 7/31. Would you still recommend ice axe and microspikes?
Piute, no, NE Gully not sure because I’ve been out of state most of the summer.
Caught a good view of the NE Gully from the summit of Lone Eagle Sunday 7/24. Personally I think I would want an axe at minimum.
Photo looking south from summit of Lone Eagle for reference if you’re interested. NE Gully is the far right snowfield. https://dgtzuqphqg23d.cloudfront.net/kaq1uqhO3x8KZZtXmrTa0Af9m_gfOJfQdO0mQVTSmMQ-2048×1536.jpg
Thank you all for the information and route updates. This is such an excellent resource. I found it very helpful in planning my hike.
I completed the primary route of the Pfiffner Traverse between 7/26 -8/1 going southbound.
Passes were essentially snow free by this time. I crossed the NE Gully on 7/30. I carried an axe and spikes but didn’t need them during my hike. (I’d carry them again without a recent report confirming the passes were snow free.)
Blowdown slowed progress on most off-trail sections but nothing was impassable. The most notable sections were the descent to Spirit Lake and below treeline from Isolation Peak Pass to Paradise Creek. Also, the final approach to Coyote Park gets pretty gnarly, but most of Wheeler Basin through the second creek crossing was okay. Actually, there were signs of maintenance. The use trail along the cliff band out of the Thunderbold creek valley has been obscured as Neil noted. All on-trail sections were mostly clear with only a few blowdowns here and there. Expect to move a little slower in forested off-trail sections.
The vegetation was pretty dense (apparently not too surprising for late July), especially the approach to the NE Gully from Crater Lake. I got by in shorts without too many scrapes and scratches but consider wearing pants. Bug pressure was very light overall or at least unmemorable.
It was a very active monsoon season. Lots of racing thunderstorms. Being from out of state, I was surprised by the inconsistency of the storm cycle and by the frequency of night-time electric storms. It was possible to sleep below treeline most of the time though.
Absolutely stunning route.