13,132 Feet (528th highest in Colorado)
Continental Divide Trail via Colorado Mines Peak
Colorado Mines Peak
12,493 Feet (1,005th highest in Colorado)
Berthoud Pass Trailhead, 11,307 Feet
February 20th, 2008
Approximately 7 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: 2,500+ Feet
Colorado’s first resident botanist Charles C. Parry gave Mount Flora its name in the 1860’s. The mountain is situated on the Continental Divide between Colorado Mines Peak and Mt. Eva, which was named for Parry’s wife. Mt. Flora’s eastern slopes are in the James Peak Wilderness Area, which was dedicated in 2002. Its western slopes are in the James Peak Protection Area. Mt. Flora’s summit provides impressive views of the Gore Range, the Indian Peaks, and the Front Range.
Mount Flora’s neighbor to the southwest, Colorado Mines Peak, was named by Colorado School of Mines student Neal in 1954. A ski resort operated on the mountain from 1937-2001. Backcountry skiers still frequent the mountain, and guides ferry skiers to the summit in Snow Cats on the weekends.
Colorado Mines Peak high above Hwy. 40 on Berthoud Pass
This has been a harsh winter, and there have been few fair days along the Continental Divide. On a bluebird day, nothing can compare to hiking the spine of the CD with spectacular views in every direction. On a blustery day, the Continental Divide can seem like the least hospitable place on the planet. I had wanted to tackle some peaks on the Divide since last fall, so I started to look for a good weather window. Wednesday looked great; why is the weather always so terrible on the weekends? I picked up Trails Illustrated Map #103, downloaded some waypoints to my GPS, and took a personal day.
Colorado Mines Peak from the Berthoud Pass parking lot
Colorado Mines Peak is accessed from the Berthoud Pass Parking lot on Hwy. 40 near the town of Empire. There were a couple of skiers gearing up in the parking lot, but it looked like I was going to have Colorado Mines Peak all to myself. The sun was brilliant, the temperature was nippy, and there was no wind to speak of. Conditions were ideal for a hike over to Mt. Flora.
Because of the recent snow, there was quite a bit of avalanche blasting going on. Signs warned the backcountry skiers that they might be blasted to kingdom come without warning; I suppose that this rarely happens, since the skiers probably have enough sense to stay out of the most dangerous avalanche chutes.
There are basically two options for ascending Colorado Mines Peak; hikers can just go straight up the slope under the old ski lift, or they can hike up the service road to take advantage of a gentler grade and several switchbacks. I took the longer-but-easier route on the road. The road starts at a closed gate on the south end of the parking lot. The gate was almost entirely buried in the snow, so I stepped right over it. The double tracks of a Snow Cat had compacted the snow on the road, so I did not need to use my snowshoes.
The service road just beyond the gate
The snow was deep in the trees, but the relentless wind had scoured the tundra above timberline. All but a few patches of the road were covered with packed snow all the way to the top.
Looking towards Colorado Mines Peak’s summit from the service road
The parking lot looked tiny from high on the mountain. It was easy to see why backcountry skiers love this area.
Berthoud Pass parking lot seen from 11,778 feet on Colorado Mines Peak
Mines Peak’s summit was far too cluttered with satellite dishes and cell phone towers, but it was high enough to provide some good views of the surrounding mountains. A small mound of rocks marked the high point.
Summit rocks on Colorado Mines Peak
From the northeast end of the summit, I could see a trail that descended to a saddle between Mines Peak and an unnamed peak on the Divide. The trail skirted the large cornices that had built up on the steep southeast side of the ridge.
Looking northeast up the Divide towards Mt. Flora
I descended about 350 feet to the low point of the saddle before I started back up the other side. This was the Continental Divide Trail, which runs for 3,100 miles from Canada to Mexico. The trail was easy to follow, but it got steep in a hurry. As I ascended, I got a better view of Pt. 12,845 and Cone Mountain on a spur to the south. These peaks seemed like they would be interesting side trips; I could see a trail leading down into Mad Creek Gulch, but it appeared to pass through a dangerous avalanche area.
Pt. 12,845 as seen from 12,609 feet on the Continental Divide Trail
Looking back towards Colorado Mines Peak from 12,609 feet on the CD Trail
At about 12,750 feet, there was a long, fairly level stretch of trail. I was grateful for the opportunity to cruise for a while without much effort. The scenery was good and the weather was pretty pleasant for a February day. The tundra must be awesome in the summer time, but this would be a frightful place to get stuck in a lightning storm. Cover would be difficult to find.
The CD Trail at about 12,750 feet
The trail got steeper as I approached Mt. Flora, but it was never excessively difficult. The ridge dropped off sharply to the southeast, and the snow was heavily corniced. That would have been a bad place to take a spill.
Hugging the edge of the ridge just below Mt. Flora
The slope was convex just below the summit, so I could not see the true summit until I was near the top.
The final stretch of trail below Mt. Flora’s summit
There were quite a few cairns on the broad, flat summit, so I sought out the highest one. Some of the lower cairns were much more elaborate than the highest one. There was a low, circular wind shelter on the top, but it was almost completely filled with snow. Other than my mask, I was mostly wearing spring hiking gear; fleece with no shell, pop-top mittens, light base layer, light socks, and summer boots.
Summit shot on Mt. Flora
I couldn’t identify many of the peaks, but the view to the northeast was the most interesting. Mt. Eva, Parry Peak, Mt. Bancroft, and James Peak were just a short distance away.
View to the northeast from Mt. Flora
Part of the beauty of this hike was that I hadn’t seen another person since I left the trailhead. On the level portion of the trail, I met an Englishman and his hiking partner who were apparently on their way to Parry Peak and beyond. I saw a pair of skiers in the saddle by Mines Peak, but I had the trail to myself for the rest of the day. As I passed mad Creek Gulch again, I considered the possibilities for a summer hike; from the town of Empire at the bottom of the gulch, it would be possible to ascend twelvers Breckenridge Peak or Cone Mountain. It’s a picturesque valley that only a spoiled Coloradoan could overlook.
Mad Creek Gulch with Breckenridge Peak on the left, Cone Mountain on the right, and the town of Empire in the center
The Continental Divide Trail wraps around the north side of Colorado Mines Peak and connects to the uppermost switchback of the service road, so it is not necessary to re-summit the mountain to get back to the trailhead. I didn’t intend to go over the summit again, so I took the right hand fork in the trail about one third of the way up the mountain. I changed my mind when I saw that the trail crossed an avalanche chute.
An avalanche chute on the north side of Colorado Mines Peak
I picked a line and headed straight towards the summit. It was a steep, miserable ascent. I divided my time equally between rock hopping and sliding on hard wind slab. Fortunately, it was only a couple hundred feet of elevation gain. I passed over the summit and admired rugged Engelmann Peak, which was named for a famous botanist.
Engelmann Peak (13,362 feet) viewed from Colorado Mines Peak
I descended the service road, and found plenty of boarders and skiers in the parking lot. They seemed to have been enjoying the break in the weather as much as I was. This hike is certainly one to avoid in harsh weather. The wind absolutely screams over the Divide at times, causing ground blizzards and severely reduced visibility. When the weather is decent, this is an excellent ridge walk with outstanding scenery and ample opportunities to visit other nearby peaks. I thoroughly enjoyed this hike.