Date hiked: 8/15/17
Mileage: 23.3 miles; if you have two vehicles, you can cut out 5.7 miles by driving from trailhead to trailhead.
Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): two groups of backpackers
You can park your car anywhere along either road, but to get the bulk of the road out if the way first, I parked mine at the intersection where the two forks split then started down the Middle Fork of the Cimarron. A decision I would later come to regret.
Following Middle Fork Road 4.6 miles to the trailhead, the slower pace affords great views of Turret Ridge, Dunsinane Mountain and Precipice Peak along the way.
Reaching the trailhead, the first .4 miles of the trail follows the river closely, seeing little elevation gain. But pulling away into heavily forested hillsides, the climb picks up.
Meeting with the Porphyry Basin trail at 1.9 miles, the trail drops again to cross Prophyry Creek. Steep switchbacks summit a sloping plateau where the trees thin with the blowdown. Here, you’ll find more faraway views of Dunsinane Mountain and Precipice Peak to the north, as well as the coming mountains at the head of the basin.
Finding a narrow shelf high above the river, the trail slowly looses ground on its way to treeline. At mile 3, the trail meets with the river again and passes by the first of a half dozen primitive campsites strewn across the next 1.5 miles.
The trail enters into a meadow, where Coxcomb and Redcliff Peaks come into view. Just before pulling above treeline at 4.5 miles, the route steepens at the head of the basin. The trail disappears in the tundra, but posts and cairns mark the route as it veers east towards Middle Fork Pass.
Topping out just above 12,600 feet, 5.4 miles in, the air is thin, but the views stretch far and wide.
With the worst of it behind you, the trail, still faint, utilizes a steep ridge of loose sand to find its way towards the East Fork of the Cimarron. Easing briefly halfway down, the trail reemerges with a set of tight, looping switchbacks. Flattening, the route parallels the river for 1.4 miles, where it finally meets with the East Fork trail.
To continue the loop, turn left. Soon hitting treeline, and a number of campsites (some frequented by elk), the trail disappears briefly as it drifts west to drop into a wet drainage spilling from high within the basin’s rocky wall. Climbing out on the opposite banks, the trail weaves alongside the scree, trapped in a narrow flat stretched tight beside the drainage. Slowly pulling back towards the East Fork Cimarron River, the trail meets with the raging, snow-fed waterway 3.4 miles from the pass, after a loss of 1,700 feet.
With no bridge and no downed timber nearby, a wet crossing finds the east banks. In spring, the snowmelt could make this crossing dangerous, so plan accordingly and be prepared.
Here, the trail comes back fully, and the grades abate. In another wide thicket marred by heavy blowdown, the forest tries to reclaim the rotting ruins of the Silver Jack Mine, just .2 miles from the crossing. This mine brought in gold, lead and silver, but today, only a few collapsed cabins and rusted mining equipment remain of the venture.
Losing 100 feet across the next .9 miles, the trail lurches into and out of alpine meadows, with the rugged summits of Pinnacle Ridge becoming clearer up ahead. At your rear, Uncompahgre Peak remains at the head of the basin. But where the trail finally ducks back into the canopy for good, the peak eventually disappears behind the folds of the basin wall.
A long stretch punctuated by waterfalls meets with one final difficult crossing, this one marked by cairns.
Then, trapped in the lowlands between Sheep Mountain and Pinnacle Ridge, the basin walls widen, and the final five miles unravel along an easy grade on an old mining road that hugs tight to the East Fork Cimarron River.
I was in the home stretch, ecstatic about reaching the East Fork trailhead, when I saw them. I’d come across a couple heart-pounding wildlife situations while hiking and camping before, but sometimes, the true threat comes in innocent packaging.
They littered the hillsides. Cattle; massive, hulking slabs of muscle with their calves in tow. And they weren’t too happy with me. As I tried to pass them by, calm and nonthreatening, the biggest ones would charge every time I got within thirty feet – false charges, yes, but a warning nonetheless. I ended up having to bushwack my way through the thick foliage and wade my way upstream half a mile to get around them. There, a woman and her dog helped me pass through the rest of them.
Now, I refuse to let my guard down until I’m in my car and driving away. I don’t want be caught unsuspecting again.