Escape to Redstone’s East Creek Trail near Carbondale
Free Press Correspondent
Drive time (one-way) and distance: 1 hour, 57 minutes; 116 miles
Length: 3.5 miles to summit
Hiking time (round-trip): 4-5 hours
Notable wildlife: Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, elk
Relentless heat is the forecast for the next two months on the Western Slope. One-hundred-degree days make outdoor hikes in the area such as Mt. Garfield, the Colorado National Monument, and Rabbit Valley unappealing and certainly dehydrating. Yet with the multitude of high-elevation trails throughout the state, heat exhaustion and heat waves are no excuse for hikers during Colorado summers.
One such high-elevation route is the East Creek Trail in Redstone near Carbondale; one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever finished, yet equally rewarding.
Known as the most difficult hike in the Maroon Bells Wilderness, the East Creek Trail presents hikers with an elevation gain of 5,000 feet in under 3.5 miles (that’s like stacking two Mt. Garfields on top of each other). This very strenuous day hike begins at a trailhead just outside the town of Redstone, elevation 7,200 feet, and finishes high up above the town on the crest of the Avalanche Divide at 12,220 feet.
The drive to the trailhead is nearly as breathtaking as the hike, whether you enter Redstone from the north or the west. When you look up, Mt. Sopris and the Ragged peaks rise a thousand feet above timberline. Looking down the valley, the Crystal River (now raging with a late runoff) slices through the heart of Redstone, attracting anglers and boaters.
The East Creek trailhead is located on the north end of town, past the last house. If you have four-wheel-drive, the true trailhead is 0.5 miles up the first part of the trail and is located next to the Redstone water treatment plant. Just keep in mind, that first half-mile is the easiest part of the hike, so you may not want to skip it.
As the hike begins, East Creek, the town’s main water source, comes immediately into earshot, loud and rushing with runoff. Tall pines and Aspen trees couple with the underbrush to present a very lush forest floor, especially on the banks of the creek.
Unlike many high mountain routes, full of switchbacks and sharp curves, East Creek trail mainly stays straight (straight uphill, that is) as it follows the very slight contours of the creek.
At 1.5 miles, the trail splits: To the right, the Lily Lake Trail begins a 10-mile journey to the town of Marble. To the left, the East Creek Trail continues, crossing the creek and steepening. Throughout the climb, glimpses of the valley below can be seen between the foliage.
Small patches of slushy snowpack cover the trail as the elevation approaches 10,000 feet. However by mid-July, most of these will be entirely melted into the stream below.
Even though the distance from the trailhead to the summit of the divide is only 3.5 miles, by the time the trees start thinning and the air turns cooler at 11,000 feet, it feels much further. Around this height, the valley opens up and the high mountain East Creek basin comes into full view. Although I didn’t see any on my trip, this basin is full of elk and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, according to locals.
At the back of the basin after meandering through mountain meadows waist-high in wildflowers, the trail begins its final ascent to the top of the divide. Leaving timberline in the dust, the hike becomes a battle of hiker vs. mountain. The air thins with the trees and breathing becomes more of a labor. The temperature can drop down into the 40s and 50s here, even during the summer.
Then, finally, the crest of the divide. And you realize why you set out on such an endeavor in the first place. In a 360-degree view, beauty surrounds you. To the north, the bald Mt. Sopris stands, its peak stretching to the clouds. To the south, the backside of the 14,000-foot Snowmass Peak is visible in the heart of the Elk Mountains. And to the west and east, miles of uninhabited wilderness spread to the horizon.
The trail to the summit is challenging, and will require a good portion of any hiker’s strength; the view is worth every step. And if escape from 100-degree days is what you need, drive up to Redstone for the day and discover what the East Creek Trail has to offer. The temperate weather coupled with Alps-like views make the hike a memorable experience.
Avid hiker Matt Scofield is a Colorado Mesa University journalism student.
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