Buffalo Peaks trip report


Thus began this year's attempt to bag the bejesus out of the Colorado 13ers. I've just about given up on adding much to my 14er total since many of the remaining ones are really long as day hikes (e.g., Eolus, Windom, Sunlight), have unnecessarily problematic trailhead access in a normal car (e.g., Lindsey, Kit Carson), have considerable objective danger (e.g. the Maroon Bells) or some combination of at least two of the three (e.g., Capitol, Little Bear). I still may get a few more 14ers, but now I'm focused on the vast supply of 13ers that are available. This year, I hope to increase my total of 13ers and 14ers from 79 to 100, on my way to a lifetime goal of half of the 13ers and 14ers out of 637 total (plus a few more 13ers if some high 12ers are given new altitudes above 13000 feet due to the recent revision of "sea level" under the United States).

At the moment I have a heavy focus on the Tenmile-Mosquito Range and the Front Range because I am so familiar with the areas due to all of my years in Laramie and Boulder. And, I'd rather visit Summit County than just about any other place in the state. I have never been better prepared for peak bagging after spending a considerable amount of time considering routes for dozens of 13ers using a variety of sources, including more up-to-date trail and road maps for National Forests than I knew existed before last fall. Plus, I have been very consistently doing a lot of elevation gain on local peaks to be in shape.

The Buffalo Peaks are the southernmost 13ers in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range and anchor an eponymously designated wilderness area. These peaks had interested me for along time, but I only knew of a rather long route from the south that included a rough road that wasn't always passable to the trailhead in a normal car. However, oddly enough, the "Buffalo Peaks Road", aka FR 431 reaches the north side of peaks a little more closely.

Buffalo Peaks from approach road

The signed turnoff is 12.8 miles south of the highway junction in Fairplay. The first 3+ miles to a signed junction for access to the Weston Pass Road are a pretty good gravel road, but the next 4 miles or so have some rougher spots, including a few rocks, some deep dust surfaces that could be problematic when wet, and some places where you have to straddle very deep tire ruts. However, the last 1.5 miles of the 8.3 total are better again. The road is consistently narrow and you will want to hope that you don't encounter oncoming traffic in most places. Still, under current conditions, it is reasonable to drive a regular car to the trailhead.

The trailhead is not signed, but if you know where you want to be, you can turn left onto a short two-track and park for access via a closed road. Or, if you overshoot, less than 100 yards later there is a road junction with another closed road on the left right before the junction. Either access is fine and in fact I cleverly parked at the first spot and then uncleverly exited at the second spot even with GPS since they are so close together.

I followed this road, shown on the old USGS quad, up to about 11500 feet. The road sort of peters out after 2.5 miles and then if you are careful, you will pick up a trail that helpfully guides you through a patch of dense ground willows. Above this obstacle it is a straightforward hike up tundra to a long saddle between East Buffalo Peak and a minor ranked 12er. Below treeline there were a fair number of mosquitos (hmmm...I wonder why it's called the Mosquito Range), but as long as I kept moving it wasn't so bad.

I'm not quite sure whether it is best to try to stick near the east ridge to climb East Buffalo Peak or to stay very low and then head straight up a talus and tundra slope to a point just east of the summit. I know that as I was doing the former, I wished I was doing the latter. Basically, I ended up traversing just below the left (south) side of the ridge, including one very steep spot, on loose talus and dirt. This was very slow, and didn't relent until reaching the flat summit area just before 10am.

Steep east ridge of East Buffalo Peak

A few cumulus clouds were forming off to the west, but nothing that would interfere with doing the traverse to the main summit, West Buffalo Peak. My original plan had been to do a double traverse and hit the ranked 12er as a short side trip on the way down. But, given the cloud formation and the forecast, I already knew that wouldn't happen unless I could make the traverse very fast, like 30 minutes. I was expecting more like 45 minutes. The descent to the saddle was very easy and only took 10 minutes! But, it took another 30+ minutes to climb to the main summit, including a slow traversing section below some of the steeper parts of the ridge crest.

The main summit is also quite flat and the "Marmot Peak" benchmark might not be right at the very highest point. I didn't have time to really check it out, but I crossed one rock shelter on the way to the second one with the benchmark which may have been a few feet higher. I reached the summit at 1048, with 5.26 miles of hiking indicated on my GPS. By now, the clouds were building up and one towering cumulus cloud across the valley over the Sawatch Range was starting to look interesting. Not threatening yet, but moving my way and not very conducive to wanting to spent another 45 minutes just to get back over to the east summit and then having to get down from there, which wasn't going to be trivial.

Towering cumulus west of West Buffalo Peak

The descent down the west side of the west peak was pretty easy and certainly easier than the descent would have been down the east side of the east peak. After a couple hundred vertical feet, I encountered a group of 7 or 8 people who were on their way up and had come up via the "standard" route from the south. The towering cumulus cloud was continuing to build up and drift our way, with the top of the cell quickly reaching overhead. Glad I had already picked up my two 13ers. After another hundred feet of descent, I was off the talus for good as I continued a gradual rightward curve to skirt around the rest of the talus and get back to the north basin of the peaks.

Getting back to where I left the road in the first place didn't seem like a good option with the weather threatening as it would be a considerably longer trip. I found a line that got me into the trees without any ground willows, heading for the end of another road that is indicated on a USFS revision of the USGS quad for this area. I had set a GPS waypoint for this spot. I had to bushwhack through the woods, which wasn't too bad except for a few steeper parts and some deadfall, but did not find the road as I approached the waypoint. However, I didn't have to walk much further before finding it. By this point, that towering cumulus cloud and its friends had completely filled the sky. No rain fell and I didn't hear any thunder, but I was glad to be on the final approach for the hike. With some help from GPS at a couple of junctions to make sure I took the right path, I made it back to the original road about 0.6 miles from my car. I actually made that a little more difficult than it should have been by doing some unnecessary bushwhacking.

Weather moving in

Except for exiting at not quite the right spot as mentioned at the beginning of the report, I uneventfully reached my car at 1224, ignoring the social trails that cut the final switchback pair of the old road. The weather actually held off a while, but I drove in light rain about half of the time back to Dillon after reaching the highway.

To the chronological trip index

File last modified: 20 July 2007

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