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Hiking in Summit County: Silverthorne to Vail via Red Buffalo Pass

Entering the Eagle's Nest Wilderness on the Buffalo Cabin Trail
Entering the Eagle's Nest Wilderness on the Buffalo Cabin Trail
Deb Stanley

It sounds like a crazy idea -- hiking from Silverthorne or Frisco to Vail. If you drive I-70, the drive is 25 miles. But if you hike via Red Buffalo Pass, the distance is 12-13 miles -- very hikeable.

Red Buffalo Pass, Vail side
Deb Stanley

The next question -- what route do you take? There are articles that recommend taking the Meadow Creek Trail via Eccles Pass. There are articles recommending starting at the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead and taking the Gore Creek Trail. There are also articles that start on the Vail side and backpack the trail. So which way do you go? Here's what I learned:

  • Starting in Vail, there's more elevation gain. The Gore Creek trailhead is at 8,711 feet. Red Buffao Pass is at 11,742. That's an elevation gain of at least 3,000 feet on the Vail side. Add in the ups and downs on the Vail side and you've got another 300 feet or so.
  • Starting at Buffalo Cabin Trail, the trailhead is at 9,778 feet. That means an elevation gain of about 2,000 feet to the top of Red Buffalo Pass. However, the Buffalo Cabin Trail drops 350 feet to the Gore Creek Trail, so that means a gain of about 2,350 feet, plus the ups and downs on the Vail side.
  • Starting in Frisco, the Meadow Creek Trailhead is at 9,157. The trail gains about 2,700 feet to the top of Eccles Pass at 11,900. THEN, hikers have to drop about 500 feet to the ponds between Eccles Pass, then climb another 350 feet so about 3,050 feet of gain, plus all the ups and downs on the Vail side.

The next question you'll ask is the distance. It appears the distance via the Buffalo Cabin Trail and via the Meadow Creek Trail is about the same, but some articles say the Meadow Creek Trail is up to a mile longer.

We choose the "easiest" path -- starting at the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead (directions below). Note, there are two trailheads here that share the same parking lot -- Buffalo Cabin and Lily Pad Lake. Make sure you start at the right place.

The Buffalo Cabin/Buffalo Mountain Trail #31 starts on a dirt path through the forest. The trail enters the Eagles Nest Wilderness about 1/3 of a mile from the trailhead.

At 0.6 miles, hikers come to a trail split with a turn-off for Buffalo Mountain. That trail takes hikers to the ruins of two old cabins or the top of Buffalo Mountain at 12,777 feet. We went straight, following the arrow for the South Willow Creek Trail.

After crossing a short scree (rock) field, the trail dropped down a steep, narrow, rocky path. Pay attention and make sure you stay on the trail. The drop ends at a ditch. Turn left and follow the ditch to an avalanche path. Here continue following the trail into a dark forest of trees and a path that winds through a network of streams and rivers. There are several "bridges" of logs at this low point to help you cross the water. At this point, hikers will have dropped 350 feet from the trail's high point.

Pass through the forest of trees and streams to the next trail split and turn left on to the Gore Range Trail No. 60. From here, it's a half mile and about 350 feet of steady elevation gain to the lower falls. The trail doesn't go directly to the falls, but there is a signed turnoff for a short spur trail to the falls.

Willow Falls is a series of drops that create a beautiful, loud waterfall. After taking photos, backtrack to main trail.

From here, the trail continues through the thick forest for another mile. There are lots of spots along the way where the underbrush is overgrown and you'll be walking through muddy spots. You can tell that fewer people hike the trail past the falls.

About 3.3 miles from the trailhead, the trees open up in a scenic meadow and you'll get your first glimpse of the scenic ridge in the distance above treeline (see slideshow). If you look at the southwest corner of the ridge, to the left of that is Eccles Pass. It's on a ridge that continues east to Buffalo Mountain -- the mountain we hiked around from the trailhead. From this spot you can't see Red Buffalo Pass, but it's in the northwest corner of that ridge up ahead of you.

The next 1.5 miles of trail wanders through forest and meadows, with a few rocky stream crossings. In some years, hikers in this area have lost the trail, but we had no problem following it this year. The nice thing about this side of the pass is that while the trail gains about 2300 feet over 5 miles, it's never really steep. It's a very steady gain.

About 4.8 miles from the trailhead, the trail we were on came to a small ridge. Drop down into a meadow and hike to a pond across the flower-filled slope. Here the trees really open and you can see the views around you. Take a moment and enjoy.

Then hike another 0.2 miles to a pond in the meadow. Here you can see the trail going up a hill to the south. That's the trail to Eccles Pass. At the pond, look for a faint trail going back to the north. It may or may not be visible, depending on how many people have hiked here. You may spot a cairn on a rise to north. You want to go that way. Red Buffalo Pass is not directly west here, it's back to the north and then west.

Climb that rise to the north. Keep looking going north. Keeping looking for a path. You'll eventually find the trail going up Red Buffalo Pass at the northwest end of this valley. The trail gets pretty steep near the top of the pass, but at 5.6 miles from the trailhead -- you're there -- you're on top enjoying the amazing scenery in both directions.

This is a great spot to sit for awhile, and enjoy lunch, while you take in the views.

From here you have three options:

  • Return the way you came.
  • Drop back down the valley, hike over Eccles Pass and take the Meadow Creek Trail to the Lily Pad Lake Trail and create a loop hike back to the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead.
  • Or continue hiking on the Gore Creek Trail to Vail, if you have a vehicle there.

On this trek, we hiked on to Vail.

At the top of Red Buffalo Pass, the trail disappeared. Fortunately, there were several cairns (piles of rock) that we followed until we found the trail going downhill on the other side. And when I say downhill, I mean downhill. The trail quickly becomes very steep on the Vail side.

The views on the Vail side are amazing. To the south was my favorite cirque and the headwaters of the Gore Creek. But the cirque to the north was also scenic. This was just a beautiful spot. Until you hit treeline, make sure you stop and enjoy the views.

Even when you're back in the thick forest, there are some wonderful meadows along the way where you once again get a view of the surrounding mountains. There are also a few creek crossings on this side to keep it interesting.

About 2.7 miles from the top of the pass is the most interesting creek crossing, mainly because it's wider than the others. But there are plenty of rocks and downed trees to help you keep your feet dry as you cross.

On the other side is a trail split and a grave site. The trail split is the turnoff for Gore Lake, about two miles and 1,200 feet of elevation gain away. The grave site is for Andrew and Daniel Recen. According to "The Vail Hiker," by Mary Ellen Gilliland, the brothers came to Colorado from Sweden in 1876. Gilliland says the brothers were successful silver miners until the silver crash. Then, they lived in a cabin near this spot hunting and trapping in the Gore range until they died.

After reading the signs at the grave site, continue down the Gore Creek Trail. For the next 4.4 miles, the trail winds through thick forested areas and open meadows.

Occasionally there's a glimpse of the nearby Gore Creek. About 1.8 miles from the trailhead, hikers will pass a few cascades that are next to the trail.

You'll know you're close to the trailhead when you start hearing I-70 traffic. Suddenly the trail turns sharply right, then drops steeply down to the parking lot. There's one last split before the parking lot, that trail goes to Deluge Lake. Stay on the main trail and it's just a tenth of a mile to the parking lot.

Details: This trail is VERY rocky. Everyone in our group commented on the rocky trail. Before going, check on snow conditions with the Dillon Ranger Station. The trail can be impassable in July if it's a heavy snow year. My GPS registered about 12.7 miles one way and 2,700 feet of elevation gain with all the ups and downs.

Find more great hikes in the Summit County and Vail areas and across Colorado in this list of 200+ hikes across the state. Don't miss any of my trip reports, sign up for an email alert by clicking on subscribe at the top of this page and follow me on Facebook.

Directions: From I-70, take exit #205 at Silverthorne. Turn right on Highway 9 and quickly move across the lanes of traffic to turn left at the first traffic light, which is Wildernest Road. Drive a short distance and the road dead ends at Lowe's. Turn left again for Wildernest Road. Take the road up the hill. The road turns into Ryan Gulch Road. Just stay on the road to the top of the hill where there is a parking lot and two trailheads.

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