14,197 Feet (19th Highest in Colorado)
West Slopes from the Missouri Gulch Trailhead (9,640 Feet)
14,153 Feet (27th Highest in Colorado)
11 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: 5,900 Feet
Greenhouseguy (Brian) and Son of Greenhouseguy (Ian)
August 12th, 2008
There is a fine Colorado Fourteeners Initiative trail to the summits of Mt. Belford and Mt. Oxford, and the Class 2 rating seems like a bit of an exaggeration. However, this does not mean that climbing this pair of peaks is an easy task! The 11-mile roundtrip is not nearly as big of a challenge as the 5,900-foot elevation gain. Having to regain more than 650 feet on the return trip is like a poke in the eye after such a strenuous ascent. Some prefer to hike this pair as a two-day backpacking trip, but lugging heavy gear up the switchbacks into Missouri Gulch just didn’t appeal to me. The alpine start and grueling day trip seemed like the more palatable alternative.
We arrived in the late afternoon and set up camp near the road about 0.7 miles west of the Missouri Gulch Trailhead. A narrow dirt road runs parallel to the CR 390, and there were dozens of dispersed camping sites available along this auxiliary road. Camping was free, because this was an undeveloped portion of the San Isabel National Forest.
Camp site about 0.7 miles west of the Missouri Gulch trailhead
We got up at 4:30, and I discovered that my watch, cell phone, and headlamp batteries had died simultaneous deaths. We hit the trail at about 5:30, and could only see one hiker’s headlamp on the trail ahead of us. Ian’s old-fashioned flashlight was more than sufficient to help us find the path. We crossed Clear Creek on a good bridge, then headed straight up into the forest. The infamous series of switchbacks helped us to get up a particularly steep part of the hillside. Above the switchbacks, we crossed the creek on a multi-log bridge and followed the trail straight up into Missouri Gulch. It was too dark to take any pictures until we were above treeline. Once we were out of the trees, we hiked through chest-deep willows until Mt. Belford finally came into view.
Approaching Mt. Belford
We crossed a shallow gully and began our ascent of Mt. Belford. The well-maintained dirt trail switchbacked up the northwest ridge through talus and tundra. Compared to other talus-hopping routes in the Sawatch Range, this trail was luxurious. It was far from easy, however; the trail gained about 2,200 feet in the next mile.
Starting up Mt. Belford’s northwest ridge
The last time that I climbed Mt. Belford, I saw a herd of mountain goats in the gully between Pecks Peak and Mt. Belford. I kept my eyes open for wildlife, and saw a small herd of mule deer above 13,000 feet in the gully. I can’t recall ever seeing muleys this high before.
It was definitely feeling like fall weather. A chilly breeze picked up as we gained altitude. Things wouldn’t warm up until the sun climbed above Mt. Belford’s rocky crest.
The trail leveled off after we passed over the last false summit, and we finally got a closer view of Mt. Belford’s distinctive knobby crest. It looked like a fortress sitting at the end of the trail. The nearly level trail was a relief after slogging up the steep northwest ridge.
The route through the rocks to the summit block barely enters Class 2 territory. We ducked down into the rocks for shelter from the wind, but did not intend to stay long. We had the summit to ourselves until a solo hiker and his dog caught up with us.
The views from Mt. Belford were among the best that I’ve encountered. To the north, we could see La Plata Peak and Mt. Massive. To the west, we could see Missouri Mountain, Huron Peak, and a number of thirteeners. To the south, we could see Mt. Harvard, Mt. Columbia, Mt. Yale, and Mt. Princeton. Our next objective, Mt. Oxford, loomed large to the east.
A clear trail led from the summit towards the saddle between Mt. Belford and Mt. Oxford. The grade was gentle until we started down the saddle; at this point, it was kind of like rolling off of a tabletop. Re-climbing the Mt. Belford side of the saddle would clearly be the crux of the route.
Besides being a bit longer than I had imagined it, the saddle was a pleasant and scenic tundra hike. The wildflowers were past their prime, but there were still quite a few splashes of color to liven up the dull green tundra.
We already had a few miles and quite a bit of elevation gain behind us, but reaching Mt. Oxford’s summit was not too difficult. Like Mt. Belford, a good trail led all the way to the top. We sat down and had a long rest on the summit block. The solo hiker and his dog caught up with us again, and we had a short chat. It was still early in the day, and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. I felt confident that we could make it back to treeline before any afternoon thunderstorms hit.
Mt. Belford as seen from Mt. Oxford. The trail is on the steep ridge on the left; Mt. Belford’s summit is the knob in the upper right.
The Mt. Belford side of the saddle was just as gnarly as I had imagined it. I started by rest stepping and taking measured breaths. Then I resorted to counting my steps and taking breathers. First 300 steps and six deep breaths; then 100 steps and 10 deep breaths; finally, 50 steps and a few gasps. By this time, we were near the top and the trail had leveled off. There were quite a few hikers on Mt. Belford’s summit when we returned. We sat down for a few minutes and enjoyed the sunshine.
Descending back into Missouri Gulch was no quick trip. We were moving pretty slow at this point, but I still needed my trekking poles to keep from hammering my knees into oblivion. We took a break to eat and adjust our gear when we got to the junction of the Mt. Belford and Elkhead Pass trails. The weather was still great, and the hardest part of our journey was behind us.
Some of the best campsites in the gulch are near the old cabin at about 11,300 feet. The ground around the cabin is fairly level, not too rocky, and there are already a few fire rings in place.
There were still a few columbines hanging on, but the summer wildflowers were definitely on their way out. One of the nicest late-season wildflowers was Parry’s gentian. Gentians are noted for their vivid blue color.
Parry's gentian (Gentiana parryi) spotted along the trail just below treeline
Below the cabin, the trail followed the creek for about a quarter mile. We crossed the creek on a log bridge at about 10,800 feet, then followed the west bank of the creek for about 0.4 miles until we arrived at the notorious switchbacks.
The switchbacks were much more pleasant on the way down than they were on the way up. Our final switchback was about half a mile from the parking lot. It seemed like the longest of days, but we were back to the Jeep by 12:15.
Isn’t this supposed to be “Collegiate Peaks Wilderness?”
This hike was non-technical, but it was one of the more physically demanding hikes that I’ve completed. The elevation gain on this route is greater than the gain on Longs Peak’s Keyhole Route, and I definitely felt it in my calves and quads the next morning. It was certainly worth the effort, though; the scenery in Missouri Gulch was excellent, and the view from Mt. Belford was hard to beat. Ian enjoyed summiting his 13th and 14th fourteeners at the ripe old age of 18. He’s an incoming freshman at CU this year, and with luck and perseverance he could finish the fourteeners before he graduates.