12,431 Feet (Highest in the Tarryall Range)
Southwest Ridge Route
Ute Creek Trailhead, 8,760 Feet
September 29th, 2007
Approximately 12 Miles Roundtrip
Approximately 3,800 Feet Elevation Gained
Greenhouseguy, Keith K., and Brian K.
Bison Peak is well known for its numerous pink Pikes Peak granite domes, spires, and monoliths. By all rights, this unearthly landscape should rank among Colorado’s most frequently visited summits. However, because it is not one of Colorado’s highest peaks, many hikers ignore this worthy mountain. Hikers can enjoy unspoiled views from the 12,431-foot summit, which is the highest in the Tarryall Range, the Retirement Range, and the Lost Creek Wilderness.
Keith and his brother Brian planned a trip to Bison Peak, and invited me to come along with them. I was psyched to finally get to hike Bison Peak, but somewhat skeptical of our prospects for success because of a sketchy weather report. Most of the lengthy hike is below timberline, so we would be able to enjoy the relative safety of the trees while we observed the weather. There would be plenty of opportunity to turn back if we did not like what we saw.
We started from the Morrison park and ride, and headed down Hwy. 285 to Kenosha Pass. Shortly after we crested the pass, we arrived at the town of Jefferson. The intersection with Park County Rd. 77 (Tarryall Rd.) is well marked. We turned left on Tarryall Rd., and followed it for 20 miles to the Ute Creek Trailhead. The last part of the road has some serious potholes, and I hit my fair share of them. The scenery along Tarryall Rd. was pretty interesting. We saw several historic log cabins in various states of decay, and several elk. Some of the rock formations along the road gave us a taste of what we were about to experience on our hike.
We arrived at the Ute Creek Trailhead and found that it had a small but adequate gravel parking lot. The sky was gray and cloudy, but it did not appear to present any immediate problems. An interpretive sign at the trailhead told about the Ute Indian practice of stripping Ponderosa Pine bark to eat the nutritious inner cambium. A dead tree on the opposite side of the creek bears a scar from having bark harvested back in the 1800s.
We started out by crossing Tarryall Creek on a decent bridge.
The trail started out with a gentle grade, and remained that way for more than two miles. The trail is generally in good shape, but it could use repair in places where foot traffic has worn a deep trench in the middle of the path.
There is no trail register, but hikers are requested to fill out a wilderness card with some basic information about the size and makeup of their party. A sign marks the point where hikers enter the Lost Creek Wilderness.
We crossed Ute Creek on some small logs. It really is not much of a creek, at least at this time of year. After we crossed the creek, the trail veered to the right to follow the East Fork of Ute Creek.
On the gentle lower portion of the Ute Creek Trail, the forest of Aspens and Ponderosa Pines is not very dense. The colorful Aspens broke up the monotony of the evergreen forest.
As we gained altitude, the Aspens became less numerous and Bristlecone Pines took the place of the Ponderosa Pines that we encountered in the lower stretches. Hiking was still easy on the broad and well-maintained trail.
I glanced to the right, and wondered if this interesting crag was Bison Peak’s summit. A closer look at the map revealed that it was actually Point 11,963. The scenery was starting to get interesting.
At about 11,200 feet, the Ute Creek Trail merges with the Brookside-McCurdy Trail. One fork of the Brookside McCurdy heads north to the Lost Park Campground; the east fork goes toward Bison Arm and McCurdy Mountain. Bison Arm is the broad, flat saddle between Bison Peak and Point 11,963.
As we started up the Brookside-McCurdy Trail, more interesting sights came into view.
The grade on the Brookside-McCurdy Trail was much steeper than it was on the Ute Creek Trail, but some well-placed switchbacks made hiking much easier.
We slogged onward, and before long we saw some of the “bison herd” (boulders) on Bison Arm.
The Brookside-McCurdy Trail meets Bison Arm at about 11,760 feet. The landscape changes from timber to tundra near this point.
When we arrived at Bison Arm, it was like landing on a different planet. To say that it is a broad plateau is an understatement. The tundra was the color of golden wheat, but it must certainly be more colorful in the summer time. An army of boulders, spires, and monoliths surrounded us and stretched as far as we could see. The spectacle extended beyond Bison Peak to the slopes and summits of neighboring McCurdy Mountain.
The Brookside-McCurdy Trail traversed the saddle and continued to McCurdy Mountain. There was no trail to the summit of Bison Peak, so I chose an obvious route that approached the summit from the east. This route took us past the well-known Bison Monolith and the Amphitheatre.
The area around the Bison Monolith seems to have the most unique granite features. This bizarre tower is one of the more interesting structures.
The landscape on Bison peak is fascinating, and there is no way that images can do it justice.
I hiked around to the east side of the peak, and lost sight of the true summit. I climbed the north side of a 12,300-foot subpeak, and found more inspirational sights.
The true summit was just a stone’s throw from the subpeak. The weather was getting progressively worse, and I got pelted with graupel for a few minutes. The wind really picked up, and I started to think about getting down to timberline in a hurry. But first, I had a summit to visit.
The summit block is a large jumble of boulders. It can be approached from any side, but some routes are obviously easier than others.
There is a mayonnaise jar summit register on the highest part of the summit block. There are some weathered remains of a viewing platform falling off to one side, and some masonry remains of an old stone stove.
The views from the summit were inspirational, although they were somewhat obstructed by clouds and haze. There were practically no signs of mankind in any direction. While we were not far from civilization, the feeling of solitude was overwhelming.
The center of this image is the valley of the South Fork Lost Creek, with the Kenosha Mountains rising in the background
Keith and Brian took a different route to the summit, and they arrived a few minutes later. They were as concerned about the weather as I was, but they wanted to enjoy a few minutes on the summit.
The clouds parted as we left the summit. The wind persisted, but the warm sunshine was more than welcome. I was no longer anxious about the weather, so I took plenty of time to enjoy my surroundings on the return trip.
As we worked our way back down to Bison Arm, we had a good view of the Mosquito Range. Mt. Silverheels, Mt. Sherman, Mt. Sheridan, Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Bross, and Mt. Democrat were visible on the horizon beyond South Park.
Our descent presented no difficulties. The trail was not steep, and it offered good footing. It was an easy six miles back to the trailhead.
As we approached the trailhead, some colorful River Birch served as a reminder that Aspens are not the only fall foliage trees worth viewing.
It was sunny and pleasant when we reached the trailhead. Our feet were pretty sore from the 12 miles that we had covered, but we were all in good spirits because of the magnificent scenery that we had experienced. I was already planning to visit the equally majestic McCurdy Mountain. A snowshoe expedition is definitely in the works for this winter. Bison Peak is too incredible to visit only once.