SO NEAR, YET SO FAR AWAY –
Getting away from it all in the Hunter Creek Valley
LAST MARCH WITH SNOW BLANKETING OUR HILLS
COVID-19 arrived in our Valley, ski areas closed due to the coronavirus, and local mountain gear stores found a booming trade in all things backcountry. Snowshoes, Alpine Touring skis, even micro-spikes became tickets to sanity. After all, we live here for fresh air, sunshine, and adventure, so it’s no surprise we found our antidote in the great outdoors. (photo above: Aspen Alpine Guides)
FAST FORWARD EIGHT MONTHS
The mountains are once again white-capped while we brace ourselves not only for shorter days and more time inside but also for a predicted wave of coronavirus. This time, we welcome new families to our community, new friends who moved here so that they may weather whatever comes by getting out there here, as opposed to sheltering-in-place where you cannot so easily get outside. It seems that whether we’re new to the backcountry or new to town, you’ll enjoy exploring Hunter Creek Valley this winter.
A LAYER OF SNOW CHANGES EVERYTHING
A highly-trafficked thoroughfare in summer and autumn, Hunter Creek is often silent and still after snow falls. The four different trailheads are walking distance from Aspen, but once you start moving, you are quickly away from it all. You can get a good cardio workout in a short window simply by hiking or skinning up then heading down as your time allows. When you have several hours, the upper valley is approachable, given knowledge of trail locations and how to connect the various established trails and routes.
PLAY IT SAFE
You may hear the phrase “this ain’t Disney World.” That’s because it can get real very quickly when you venture away from patrolled slopes. Getting off route, exploring trails on skis, and longer days on snowshoes should raise caution about the weather, snow, and potential for avalanche conditions.
Generally, the low angle of most Hunter Creek Valley slopes puts the terrain into what can be considered a low risk for avalanche activity, but please keep in mind that some terrain and micro terrain can, and certainly will slide given the right conditions. Basic snow safety education is essential, especially when traveling in unfamiliar terrain and where slopes are greater than twenty-five degrees.
MP’s TRAIL MAP: HUNTER CREEK
MP’s map and trail descriptions can help provide terrain recognition for green or blue level outings and inspiration for planning overnights to huts in the area.
Day trips from 1-4 hours
1. Lower Hunter Creek
+/- 1.5 miles one-way from (2) Lone Pine TH or (1)Rio Grande TH.
Typically a summer route, in winter this trail is quiet and follows the creek to the upper Hunter Creek Valley floor. The lower part of the trail is rocky and sometimes difficult to manage if the snow isn’t packed. Micro-spikes or snowshoes are good options. Rated as GREEN because of the shorter distance as an out-and-back but expect sections of challenging terrain and elevation gain.
2. Smuggler Mine Road
+/- 1.3 miles one-way from (3) Smuggler Parking TH to (A) Smuggler Platform.
Highly visible from everywhere in Aspen, this road is certainly not a secret. We’ve included this route because it provides a clean, clear, and easily-accessed trailhead, plus a good starting or ending point for other longer day or overnight trips. Rated GREEN because of the shorter distance as an out-and-back and also because the Jeep road surface is well used by hikers, dog walkers, sledders, and fat bike riders. Expect significant elevation gain and use micro-spikes for traction on hardpack snow and ice underfoot.
3. Upper Valley
+/- 1 mile one-way from (4) Upper HC TH to the last bridge (C).
Accessed from all trailheads. Rated as GREEN because the main trails follow the right and left banks of Hunter Creek and are generally out in the open without technical challenges. The trails are not maintained so snowpack typically requires snowshoes or Alpine Nordic ski gear. Here’s a great introductory opportunity for Alpine Nordic Skiing, basic Alpine Touring, or snowshoe trips. Please see BLUE and BLACK routes for extension options.
Day trips from 3-6 hours
4. Lower Hunter Creek Extended Horseshoe
+/- 5 miles one-way
This popular summer loop offers longer-day winter adventures with notable spring snow difficulty. The trail works in either direction, but for description, start at (2) Lone Pine TH and finish at (3)Smuggler TH. Connect(1) Lower HC Trail to the base of the(3) Upper Valley; with a connection to the (B)HC Overlook; to the (A) Smuggler Platform; then down (2) Smuggler Mine Road. The full loop is not often used regularly and conditions can be challenging. Snowshoes are recommended for mid-season snowpack. After fresh snow has fallen, the landmarks indicated on the map are particularly useful.
5. Mid Red Mountain Loop
(Mileage dependent on route; rated BLUE for length/elevation gain)
Use (4) Mid Red Mountain TH to connect to the pedestrian/hikers and bikers bridge that crosses HC and merges with the Lower HC Trail. Moving upwards you will enter the Upper Valley to access routes for hiking, snowshoeing, Alpine Nordic, and Alpine Touring. This area spans the left bank or right bank of the Hunter Valley. For additional mileage and elevation gain, add another length to the loop. This level of exploration requires additional maps and route resources.
(a) Iowa Shaft Section: from (B)HC Overlook hike or ski to the last bridge as a loop crossing HC in the flats to the trees.
(b) Hummingbird Connection: From (5a) ski or hike NE along (3) Upper Valley Trail until you reach a left-hand cut-off that takes you up several wide switch-backs to connect with (6).
6. Van Horn Park
(Mileage dependent on route; rated BLUE for length/ elevation gain)
Appropriate for snowshoes and a mid-level opportunity for Alpine Nordic Skiing and Alpine Touring. From the (5) Mid Red Mountain Loop, you can head deeper into the valley with terrain that includes:
(a) Van Horn Park
(b) HC Overlook Trail
(c) Lower Plunge
(d) HC Jeep Road
extended day trips or overnight
NOTE: The trail system is not maintained and snow conditions vary. Hazards associated with backcountry travel include avalanche potential both on and off route. Knowledge of route finding and a basic understanding of map reading is essential for entering these remote routes that are less used and can be challenging to stay on track. That said, the beauty of going “off-trail” allows for the potential of a unique experience with solitude and can allow for some great conditions if skiing or snowshoeing.
7. FOUR CORNERS AREA
This area offers an exploration into terrain far above the valley floor. It moves through Aspen groves and thicker pine forests with somewhat steep decents.
(a) Hobbit Trail
(b) Four Corners
(c) Upper Plunge
8. McNamara Hut
10th Mountain Huts Association offers overnight options. Trailhead locations are indicated here as points of reverence, rather than to provide directions to these destinations, which are not available for day use. There are NO services available at the huts. Advanced reservations are required.
Use MP’s map to start a fun activity.
Practice orienteering. Show your child how to find their location, or how to spot Hallam Lake or follow Hunter Creek. And any time you are planning to explore a backcountry area, especially one that is unfamiliar to you where winter conditions may obscure landmarks, always bring a topo map, such as the National Geographic Aspen Hunter Creek Valley Map. These can be found at Ute Mountaineer and Bristlecone Sports.
ASPEN ALPINE GUIDES – Expert guide serves. (970) 925-6618
MP’s TRAIL MAP SERIES
MORE WINTER ADVENTURES
Winter Hut Trips by Stephen Szoradi
Aspen Snowmass Nordic Trail System by Stephen Szoradi
SPRING SUMMER & AUTUMN ADVENTURES
Lincoln Creek Road by Stephen Szoradi
Mount Elbert by Stephen Szoradi
Navajp Rocks by Ian Anderson
Hartman Rocks by Ian Anderson
Lake Powell Car Camping by Brian Edmiston
Boating Lake Powell by Rachel Connor