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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.