Eat your Wheaties
There may be no place in Colorado where more 14ers can be accessed than along Clear Creek Road (CR 390). Clear Creek, with its huge lake of the same name, is located about halfway between Leadville and Buena Vista to the west of Hwy 24. The 13+ mile Clear Creek Rd cuts east/west through the middle of the Sawatch Range, and provides access to several trailheads, including three leading to five 14ers: LaPlata (from the south), Huron, Missouri, Belford, and Oxford. The goal of this hike day was Belford, and maybe nearby Oxford if the weather was good. Belford, Oxford, and Missouri are accessible out of the Missouri Gulch Trailhead (may be called Vicksburg on some maps) located about 7 miles in. A very fit and ambitious person could do all three in one day. However, just getting to and from Belford was enough for me. From the top of Belford, Oxford looks further than 1.5 miles (and 1300 feet of additional climbing) away, and I didn’t want to be stuck on that ridge with rain moving in from the west.
A loop could be made of the Belford climb by returning via Elkhead Pass and down the gulch, but it is somewhat longer and I wanted to get down the mountain as soon as I could because of the weather. I didn’t even eat lunch till half way down. The very-easy-to-follow trail to Belford is comprised of three distinct sections. The first part (the lower section is actually called the Missouri Gulch Trail and continues to Elkhead Pass) is along the creek that flows down to the trailhead through a canopy of pine/fir trees. There is lots of running water and continuous sound from that water along the way. Near the top of this section just short of the treeline is where lots of backpackers make camp for an easier climb to the peaks. The only thing you need to watch for, especially after big rains, is the impromptu log/branch/twig crossing of the creek. The second part (starting just before where the trail splits for Belford and Missouri Mountain) is relatively gentle and takes you to the base of Belford (about 12,000 feet), passes through an explosion of Columbine and other wildflowers, and lots of wetland willows at and just above the tree line. This area is a photographer’s heaven. The third part is what you ate your Wheaties for earlier. It is an endless (nearly) series of steep switchbacks on an exposed ridge that is a knee killer on the way down (and I forgot my hiking poles). This 2100+ foot part is slow and hard, and it will suck your heart out (you lost your lungs a bit earlier).
The relatively large Missouri Gulch Trailhead was full when I arrived after 7:00 a.m., but there was plenty of free parking along the road. Surprisingly, I encountered very few people on the lower half of the trail. There were a few dozen near the top, but not the huge number I expected on a weekend day.
From the top of Belford, the views are magnificent. The peaks of a dozen or so 14ers are visible, including Massive, Elbert (along with Leadville and Turquoise Lake) to the north, LaPlata to the NW, Huron to the west, and numerous Collegiate Peaks to the south. My take is that just getting to Belford is a heck-of-a day, including Oxford for a twofer is for the young, strong, and maybe foolish, and including Missouri Mountain for all three peaks is a stupendous achievement. Whatever you choose to do, it will be an excellent day in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness of central Colorado, as it was for me.
Endnote: highly recommend the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map 129, “Buena Vista Collegiate Peaks” for planning and navigation.
Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.
This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.
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