Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Golden Gate Canyon State Park - a winter workout

Golden Gate Canyon State Park is 1 of 42 Colorado State parks, and only lies 16 miles north-west of Golden, and within an hour of Denver. The park has more than 12,000 acres of land to enjoy, and a variety of mountain scenery ranging from sweeping views to green meadows, to groves of aspen. Since the park is so close to Denver, it does get a lot of foot traffic, and the campsites get booked in advance at peak season.

The park can be enjoyed in all seasons whether you are on foot, bicycle, horseback or snowshoes. The first place I recommend stopping at is the Visitors Center, the center houses a small exhibit about the park and the wildlife, has free maps and brochures, and they can issue the $7 daily park fee.

Our first visit to the park was during winter with the intention to snowshoe, but traction devices were all that was needed on the compacted snow and ice, and we virtually had the trails to ourselves. The park volunteer recommended heading for the Horseshoe Trailhead to get a first taste of the park, this Trailhead is the beginning of the Horseshoe trail, a moderate 1.8 mile steady climb up to Frazer Meadow.

Start of Horseshoe Trail

Grove of aspen along Horseshoe Trail

The horseshoe trail climbs fairly gently over the first mile through aspen groves and pine trees, with a few easy switchbacks as you near Greenfield Meadow. Greenfield Meadow was once the site of a cabin and farming family, no evidence remain, and the meadow is now filled with aspen trees and Backcountry campsites. Golden Gate Canyon State park is still home however to 8+ historic structures, and a map of them can be picked up at the visitor center.

One of the many Historic Cabins

Once you reach Greenfield Meadow there are numerous options, you can turn around and re-trace your steps, you can continue on the Horseshoe Trail to Frazer Meadow, or you can make a loop (counter-clockwise) using the Black Bear Trail.

Being the adventurer/outdoor person I am, and not knowing the trails, I opted to make a loop using the Black Bear Trail. I guess the "Most Difficult" designation should have given me a clue, and the fact my wife was more keen to just re-trace our steps back to the car rather than tackle the unknown. Well, the first sign of what the Black Bear Trail throws at you comes soon after its split from the Horseshoe Trail, when you start to climb sharply upward over a series of never-ending switchbacks. Eventually, the switchbacks end at 9281 feet at the summit of Ralston Roost, and the views to the west make the climb worthwhile.

View from Ralston Roost in the mist

The route across the summit of Ralston Roost is fairly easy to navigate, even in the snow and ice (Traction devices highly recommended!), but you do have to somewhat scramble over large boulders. Having huffed and puffed your way to this point, the next 2 miles back to the car park is generally all downhill, and not quite as technical.

Little tricky in sections descending Black Bear Trail

The trail from the summit generally heads in a southeasterly direction, so the views are mainly looking towards the front range and across the valley past where the visitor center sits. You will pass through pine forest, pass HUGE rocks, and aspen meadows as you get lower in elevation.

Black Bear Trail looking SE

The entire loop amounts to about 5 miles total, starts out easy/moderate on the Horseshoe trail for the first mile or so, then gets increasingly more difficult/technical once you join the Black Bear Trail. It was a hike/route I thoroughly enjoyed, one I would recommend for the more experienced fit hiker (especially in winter). There are no amenities at the trailhead except for a vault toilet, so be sure to take water and food with you, a map, GPS/Compass, there is no cell phone service here.

5 mile Horseshoe-Black Bear Trail loop

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