Colorado River Headwaters Trail
Date Hiked: August 12, 2012
Best Season: Autumn Spring Summer
Check Trail Conditions: Rocky Mountain National Park 970-586-1206
- Distance: 9.1 miles as hiked by us
- Elevation Gain: 591 ft min/max, 1749 ft total
- Route Type: Out and back, as hiked. Lollipop if you add Lulu City.
- Trail Type: Well maintained dirt trail
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Parking: Free at trailhead, $20 for a seven day car pass to enter the park, $10 for bikes and pedestrians
- Locality: Rocky Mountain National Park
- Nearest City: Grand Lake, CO
- Kid-Friendly: No
- Dog-Friendly: No
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Last summer, Colleen and I visited Colorado and the Rocky Mountain National Park. We stayed at a great little cabin just outside the charming little community of Grand Lake, in the much quieter western side of the park (compared to the Estes side). While researching the east half of the park, we found that the upper reaches of the Colorado River ran right by our cabin, and that the actual headwaters of the Colorado River were a relatively short hike’s distance of the scenic Trail Ridge Road!
Now, when most people think of the Colorado River, they think of either the whitewater of the Grand Canyon, or the “Party Central” part of “the river” around Lake Havasu visited by tens of thousands of people every year from Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada.
But the Colorado River is much more than the Grand Canyon and party boats. It travels 1,450 miles through seven US and two Mexican states, draining 246,000 square miles of watershed, getting dammed and diverted in multiple places along the way before sometimes (in a wet year) trickling all the way into the Gulf of California.
If you are coming from Grand Lake, as we did, the trailhead is right off Trail Ridge Road, approximately 10 miles from Kawuneeche Visitor’s Center, and not far from Holzwarth Historical Site and Timber Creek Campground. Almost immediately past the Colorado River Trailhead Parking Lot, Trail Ridge Road makes a sharp right curve and starts heading uphill towards Milner Pass (trailhead for Mount Ida) and Alpine Visitor’s Center. If you’re coming from the Estes side, the Colorado River Trailhead Parking Lot is about 30 miles from Beaver Meadows Ranger Station just west of Estes, and marks the end of the long and winding descent from the aforementioned Alpine Visitor’s Center.
The parking lot at the Colorado River Trailhead was decent sized, and had trash cans and well kept vault toilets. The trailhead itself was at the north end of the parking lot, and well marked. I should also note here that the trailhead is at over 9,000 feet in elevation, so unless you are very well acclimated to high elevations and low oxygen levels, you probably are not capable of as much mileage and climbing as you usually are–as we ourselves became all too aware of on this hike, which was our first in the Rockies.
According to much of what I read while researching the hike, Lulu City is probably the most popular hike from here, but our goal was the junction of the Colorado River and Lulu Creek, which some believe to be the real beginning of the Colorado River. The accepted geological beginning of the river is at Poudre Pass (7.5 miles from trailhead), but we knew there was no chance that we’d make that. We hoped to make it to Little Yellowstone at 4.5 miles, which is just past the junction we most wanted to make.
Almost immediately past the parking lot, there is a set of steps on the trail that makes a quick and steep, but relatively short climb, before leveling out for almost a mile. You’ll come to a couple of wooden bridges and crossings over creeks/washes that may or may not be full of water, depending on how recently it has rained, how wet a winter it was, and how late in the year you are hiking.
Along this stretch is also your first view of the Colorado River–for what it is worth. You’ll also see some nice meadows, and a trail junction that crosses the river and heads west on the Red Mountain Trail towards the Grand Ditch. We actually checked out the bridge across the river on the way back, but I’ve included the pictures here for continuity’s sake. It’s a cute little bridge, though not quite as majestic as the one over the Colorado by Hoover Dam…
We soon hit a stretch of the trail that followed immediately alongside the river, which pleased us both. Our favorite hikes are the ones that go along a river or creek, keeping the air cool and filling the air with the burbling sounds of running water. Unfortunately, within a quarter mile, the trail moved back away from the river again.
One of the cool things about hiking in a place like Rocky Mountains National Park is the diversity of wildlife that you know exists in the area. Every time you come across a meadow, you scan for elk or moose or bear, and every time you see a rocky cliff or moraine, you look for bighorn sheep. And while we didn’t see any of those on this hike (probably because we weren’t here early enough or late enough), we did see some moose on the way home this day, and saw bear, moose, elk, and bighorn sheep during the five days we spent in the area, so they really do exist.
Soon you’ll approach a sign for Crater Creek, and the site of the old Shipler Cabin. According to the trail guides I saw, Joseph Shipler built the original cabin–the first structure in the valley, as a base for his (unsuccessful) mining operation in 1876. There are just remnants of the cabin left, and then a “privy” sign, leading to a semi-open air toilet with the best views I’ve ever seen!
About 3/4 of a mile past that last crossing of Crater Creek, you’ll come to the trail junction for Lulu City. Lulu City was a small, unsuccessful mining town from the 1800’s that once had as many as 200 people, and is the destination for most people on this trail. But we’d read that there were only a few skeletal remains of cabins there, and it would require us to detour a couple hundred feet down, and then back up again, so we decided to skip it at this point and see if we were still in the mood after making our destination. In retrospect, I wish we’d made the effort (the trail does connect back to this trail at the river), but we were just not in the mood for adding any additional work to the trail by the time we turned around.
From here, it was a little less than a mile, mostly flat, to the river junction we were looking for. If you look at the elevation profile at the bottom of the post, you can see how it levels out between roughly the three and four mile mark, before spiking at the end–but I’ll get to that shortly.
Once crossing the Colorado, you’ll come to another trailhead, where the Lulu City Trail re-connects with this one. After one more crossing across Lulu Creek, (where we sat and had a nice picnic lunch), you’ll start to head steeply up the trail towards “Little Yellowstone.”
We didn’t get very far. If you look at the elevation profile, you can see the very steep little peak right there in the middle, which was the beginning of the trail up to Little Yellowstone. Very quickly we decided that after 4.5 miles of hiking, starting at 9,000 feet of elevation, there was no way in hell we were getting all the way to Little Yellowstone, much less up to La Poudre Pass, from whence the actual headwater allegedly springs. So once we got a decent view down into the valley (picture immediately above), we turned around and headed back.
And while we still didn’t see any cool elk, bears, moose, or sheep, we did spot a pair of cute river otters:
So we didn’t really make it to the “true” Colorado River headwaters at La Poudre Pass, though we did make it to what at least one crackpot said was the headwaters, based on his theory of Lulu Creek being the major creek that joined the other creek to form the actual river–though I think he may have just been another guy who, like us, was too tired to hike all the way to the REAL headwaters, and wanted to declare victory in his own way. But wait—further research reveals that none of this may actually be the headwaters of the Colorado River, and that the real headwaters may actually be the Green River in Wyoming, but some bastards in Congress over-ruled the findings of hydrologists because they thought it made more sense for the Colorado River to begin in Colorado.
But hey–it is still very cool to think that this:
Heads a few hundred miles downstream to create this:
View Colorado River Headwaters HikingTrail in a larger map