Distance: 31.14 miles
Weather: Mostly sunny and cool
Knowing I need to start stepping up the time and distance of the long runs, I was in the market for some longer trail runs. Earlier in the week, I had seen one of Tim Long's posts about a run he did in the Buffalo Creek area. Tim's report indicated the trails were snow-free. With the North Fork 50/50K coming up in July, I thought it would be fun to run the 50K course today. It was fun...a lot of fun.
The day started bright an early with a 4:15 a.m. wake-up call. After the usual routine and 30-minute drive to the trailhead at JeffCo's Pine Valley Ranch, I was out of the truck and running by 5:45 a.m., just as the first hints of light were breaking the sky to the east.
North Fork 50/50K Course Map - Click for a larger version
The trail starts out with an easy 3/10s of a mile of flat running on an old narrow gauge railroad bed. From there, the course heads across the North Fork of the South Platte River, picking up the Buck Gulch trail, and begins a steady climb to gain the the ridge rising far above the river. After about three miles of climbing, I hit the first trail junction and jumped on the Skipper Trail and began a fast descent down along a creek. Soon, I crossed the creek and steadily climbed up to a meadow and the junction with the Homestead Trail. Homestead winds through a beautiful stand of well-spaced ponderosa pines, complete with a carpet of wild grasses, reminiscent of historical conditions for this habitat type.
Sunrise, looking east from the Buck Gulch Trail
Burned ponderosa pine forest, looking west from the Buck Gulch Trail as the sun rises.
Homestead dumped me out on a short stretch of the Miller Gulch Trail and led me to the rollicking downhill of the Gashouse Gulch Trail. After descending a few miles, Gashouse bears left and soon I was running through the barren remnants of the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire. With odd rock formations sticking up here and there and downed, burned trees laying like so many pick-up sticks, the scene was as beautiful as it was stark.
A stretch through leafless aspen trees descending on the Gashouse Gulch Trail
Gashouse ended at Buffalo Creek Road, which is now closed to cars and runs next to the area's namesake -- Buffalo Creek. After half a mile, the trail heads up again, this time on the Tramway Trail, which climbs a couple of miles to its intersection with the Colorado Trail. After 3.8 miles on the Colorado Trail, I crossed Forest Service Road 550 right at the run's halfway point - 15.5 miles.
After the road crossing, it was time for more downhill, this time on the Morrison Creek Trail. This undulating trail led me back down to Buffalo Creek Road, just a bit uphill from where I picked up Tramway a while back. I got back on the Gashouse Gulch Trail for about 100 meters before hanging a right up the Baldy Trail.
Interesting rock outcropping along the Morrison Creek Trail exposed by the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire
I knew Baldy well from previous runs and mountain bike rides in this area. It's a steady two-mile climb to a gorgeous rock outcropping then another mile of running through a plateau of ponderosas. Soon, it was back on the MIller Gulch Trail for 2.2 miles of up-and-down double-track. I really enjoyed this part of the run. I was cruising along at a low-7 pace admiring the forest and the occasional glimpse of distant rock outcroppings. On this stretch, I came across the first mountain bikers (heck, the first people) I'd seen all morning...right at about 24 miles.
A nice stand of ponderosa pines along the Miller Gulch Trail
Looking north at the intersection of the Miller Gulch and Homestead Trails
The trail builders knew how to take advantage of natural features on the Homestead Trail
I continued on MIller Gulch to it's second intersection with the Homestead Trail, which would loop me 2.6 miles back to the intersection with the Skipper and Homestead Trails, which I'd been through 4.5 hours prior. Here I picked up my last trail, the Strawberry Gulch Trail, complete with a sign that indicated Pine Valley Ranch was a mere two miles further on.and, I knew, about 1,000 feet lower.
As the trail turned downwards, I found the energy for a late-run surge and I began cruising downhill, passing a string of mountain bikers cranking their way up. I remembered this downhill stretch from previous excursions and was enjoying the effortless downhill cruise. Unfortunately, I had forgotten about the last stretch of climbing, but no matter, I had enough bounce left to make quick work of the climb and soon resumed my downhill cruise.
Cruising down Strawberry Gulch with just 1.5 miles to go
Strawberry Gulch soon intersected with the Buck Gulch Trail, where the real part of my run began five hours earlier. From here, it was another half-mile downhill, over the river and back to the parking lot via the Narrow Gauge Trail.
Other than stopping for equipment adjustments, food, picture-taking and bio breaks, I ran the whole thing. The ups on this course are all gentle and completely runnable and there are few rocks. Most all of the trail is either dirt or forgiving fine granite gravel. And, the scenery is gorgeous. This run has a bit of everything: healthy stands of mixed forests, pure stands of ponderosa, some aspen stands, open meadows, a dozen or so creeks with nice riparian areas and, of course, vast patches of fire-scarred land.
The fire, while devastating, created a whole new type of beauty. It opened up views that once were obscured by overly-thick stands of forests. Bizarre-shaped, erratic rock outcroppings, once hidden in deep forests, now stand exposed like sentinels watching out over vast stretches of exposed hillsides.
Together, it all adds up to a great place to run. The July North Fork 50/50K should be a very fun, and fast, race. I've given some thought to entering it, but decided I'd wait and see how the San Juan Solstice 50 the month before goes.
4,252 feet of elevation gain.