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Prong Creek Trail, Elkhorn Mts, CO September 1, 2007

April 13, 2008

Posted April 15, 2008

First week in September gave us our annual 3 day weekend (Labor day? Memorial day? I can never remember : ). Great time to take a little longer than normal trip. So, I decided to take take my camper and myself waaaaaaaaayyy over to western Colorado to a place I’d never been before. Elkhorn Mountains. This area is actually pretty large; covers most of Routt National Forest that lies north of a line drawn between Steamboat Springs, CO and Craig, CO.

Before I go any further in the trip’s description, here is my standard comment. Please check my photo galleries here for all the larger and higher quality photos for this trip. The photos in the gallery are a quantum leap in size and quality compared to the little teaser photos I put in this site’s trip narrative.
I have two other links that will help locate the area if you are interested in making the hike yourself. A Google Earth map can be found here. Use the scale bar on the left side of the Google map to help zoom in or out to help locate the area based on where you live. (This link
will direct you to a Google map that shows ALL my trips.)
In order to help you with the actual trail itself, you can use this link to view a topo map of the Prong Creek trailhead.
All links open a new browser window.

I’ve actually seen it from a distance while driving to Huston Park Wilderness, Wyo. Always wanted to go back and check it out, and now was a great time. So, on Saturday, Sept 1, 2007 I headed up the highway. Went up through Laramie, Wyo, crossed westward over the Medicine Bow mountains to where CO Hwy 127 intersects with the road that heads up to Riverside/Encampment, Wyo (one of my favorite places; at least outside of wintertime : ). At Riverside/Encampment I took Wyo Hwy 70 headed west to the rather small, ummm, spot in the road called Slater, Wyo (or, maybe it’s CO: it’s right on the border). This is what I saw when I turned off the highway onto Cty Rd. 1 (which eventually turns into Cty Rd 82) and headed south towards the Elkhorns.

Note that it had taken me around 4 hours to get to this point. But I figured it was already well worth the trip. Just a “sweet” little valley out in the middle of nowhere. And, this was the usual amount of traffic I encountered on Cty Rd 1 : ) Actually, I saw not much more than this amount of traffic on Hwy 70 that I had just turned off of. This part of Colorado/Wyo is not exactly on the way to anywhere that tourists go to (again, this was on the holiday weekend at that). I was lov’n this.
(Note that I’ve kinda switched some of the photos around to help “show the way”. That is, I think I took the photo above when I was headed home, but wanted to show everyone what they should be seeing on the way in (just in case someone wants to visit this area)).
Anyway, headed up the road that, in general, followed a valley filled with green meadows and ranches. It slowly took me closer and closer towards the (now not too) distant Elkhorn mountains.

Some words of warning. The road is very well maintained, but there aren’t a lot of signs. So, kinda watch where you are headed. Also, there were a few blind curves so keep an eye open for oncoming traffic. I was sight seeing myself (going pretty slow : ), so if you do the same, have some consideration for the people that actually live and work in the area. Pull off to the side when you can in order to give them plenty of room to pass. They will appreciate it and you can proceed slowly on your way enjoying the scenery.

Once I had gone 10 miles or so (don’t really remember the exact amount), the valley had started to close in on me and I saw another side valley headed up ahead to my right. I knew that somewhere along here I would be turning off onto a Forest Access Road #110, so I started looking for the turnoff.

Sure nuff, not long after passing under that power line (phone line, whatever), I came to an intersection. So, note that nowhere on the sign (or, near the sign) does it say anything about access road #110. But, looking on my map it seemed to me that heading towards Sawmill Cr. C.G. (campground) was probably the right way to go. I turned right and soon (within a mile or less) saw a sign with #110 on it. Note that there is a nice ranch/resort located right next to the junction of these roads. I almost went in to inquire about a room (for some other time) because it looked really great. Also, you may want to stop and take a photo of an old bridge that you cross immediately after turning. I did not, but was sorely tempted to.

Well, I did not go much up the road (which started climbing into the hills/mountains right away) before I entered a new woodland environment. Aspens. Lots of aspens. The Elkhorn mountains have mucho aspens. This would be a great place to go for fall colors.

Another photo less the vehicle.

By now I’d been 5 plus hours on the road (admittedly, some of that time was spent going slower than necessary) and the shadows were getting pretty long. I started seriously thinking about finding a spot for camping. As it turned out, along with being a national holiday, this weekend was also the beginning of the hunting season. Both birds (grouse I think) and archery hunting (for either deer or elk, maybe both). So, I ended up seeing a lot (well, relatively speaking) of hunters in some of the best camp areas along the side of the road. That said, there were still an abundance of potential camping spots all along the road. This leads me to believe that this whole area must be relatively under used during the majority of the summer. I eventually found a great place to pull off for the night. Here is the view looking out the door on my camper. Nice. And, no insects : )

A view showing my camper.

And my mobile home ready for an evening fire (which, yes, I did enjoy later : )

Speaking of the evening fire, when I went out to pick up enough dead branches for my fire later that evening, I noticed that this area seemed to be a lot more “volcanic” in nature than some of my other haunts. Here is a photo of a rock I picked up that illustrates that fact.

This next photo zooms in a little so you can more easily see the volcanic nature.

I got my fire all ready to go, but after sitting all day in the truck, I wanted to get out and walk a while. So, found me a little nearby trail and took off.

The sun was setting, but this is a great time to be outside (neat light and good chance to see animals).

Though, it does make it a bit harder to see where you are going when the light goes : )

Got back to my meadow at sunset. Good timing : )

Zoom in a little.

Zoom in further.

Anyway, this is what it looked like next morning at the sunrise looking out my “back door.” Started out quite nice, but then eventually clouded up for my hike, and then again cleared up by the end of the day.

A look back at my camper during a short stroll (trying to see if there were any elk/deer out in the meadow).

Anyway, packed up the camper and headed out to look around. The thing about this area is that, prepare yourself, there is NO wilderness area. Yes, it’s true. Unlike almost all my other hikes, these mountains do not have any designated wilderness areas. That said, if you look at a map of the area, you can see that there is plenty of space to hike into remote sections where the possibility of seeing someone else is “slim to none.” In fact, I located at least two rather longish looking trails (foot only) that looked like prime candidates for good overnight hikes. So, I decided to at least check one of them out for a possible future hike.

That said, before I went on the hike I wanted to get more of a feel for the area. So, I headed up the road to the Bear Ears Peaks lookout. While from the map it looks like it might be one of those big parking lots with a rocked in walkway and scenic overview, it turned out not to be that way at all. The road just kind of keeps going (gets a little rough near the end) until it ends (there is enough room to turn around). But, there was a nice overview of the area. This is looking (I think) roughly north.

And this view is more northeast, I think (I really need to get a compass : ) Lots of room out there. Difficult to tell from these photos, but a lot of the forests in the distance are all aspens. Nice for fall colors.

Here is a pano of those two photos.

Well, I was wishing I had more time to head back into all those aspens, but knew that I needed to go find that trail before it got too late in the day. And finding the trail was going to be a little tricky, because I should have passed it yesterday on the way in, but had no memory of seeing it. Looking at the map I noticed that the trail did not start from the main forest access road #110, but at the end of a secondary forest access road #162. So, I headed back down the road keeping my eyes peeled open for the turnoff. Yep, here it was.

So, I turned onto the road but did not get more than 100 yards before finding a rather large tree in my way. It looked as if it had fallen across the road sometime this summer and no one had bothered removing it. While it appeared that a jeep, or something smaller, could get around it through the forest, I decided not to try doing that in my truck. I went back to the main road and pulled off to park it while I went hiking.

I started back down road #162. Here is a photo of the tree that was laying across the road. More than likely it has been removed. That said, it is only a short hike from here to the actual trail head, so no big deal if you need to hike around it.

The road is very level and winds it’s way through the forest. Passing through some small meadows……….

And through the trees………. Not much recent traffic (due to that nice tree across the road : ).

It didn’t take long for me to see the actual end of the road and the beginning of the trail. As can be seen, by now the sun had disappeared and it remained mostly cloudy for the rest of the hike (it cleared off at the end, of course : )

Eventually (1/2 a mile or less) you come to the actual “trail” head. Note the sign. Nice sign. Big. Clear. Good shape. That’s the only time I saw such a sign on the trail, although the others weren’t too bad (when I could find one : )

Anyway, the trail immediately heads downhill into a valley. Very pleasant; almost like being in a cave. Also, although it kept it nice and cool, the sky did stay mostly overcast. So, that has an effect on my photos (kinda dull looking, I think). Take my word for it that it is a very lovely green hike.

After a few hundred yards, you break out into the aspens. Yes, the trail does have a little tendency to disappear. This is not a heavily used trail. So, the trail can sometimes get to be a little hard to find in all grassy areas. That said, very pretty area which would be a great hike in the fall. Before I forget, I saw no one either near or on the trail. On a national holiday weekend. Nice.

Here is a view looking across the little valley. I did not know it at the time, but the trail winds across that grassy dell below, across a stream, and then back up that far hill (but to the left).

But first, I have to find my way there : )

The “bottom” of the valley had a bunch of very old, mostly filled in, beaver ponds. Now, I’m going to move through this area quickly in this part of the description of the hike, but in reality this section of the hike took a long time. I probably took between 30 minutes to an hour going a total of 300 to 400 yards of trail. Because, it took me that long to figure out which way the trail went after I reached this area.
A little aside. I’ve been “lost” before. Sigh, more than once. As in, just where am I and what direction is my vehicle/camp/etc. It’s never fun. So, when I get to a point that I sense a “possibility” of getting lost (or, turned around), I nowadays come to a complete dead stop and spend a lot of time just looking around. And, after that, I move very slowly never losing a sense of what direction to “go back” if I am unable to find a way forward. Understand, there are some circumstance (traveling cross country) where you leave the trails behind. But in those situations you (normally) have a compass and a very good topo map that can be used to get you from one point another without getting lost (or you are following one river, etc.). Well, this was NOT one of those situations. This is a moderately to heavily forested area with lots of rolling hills, no real natural signposts (nice mountain sticking up close by : ), and, oh yes, I did not have a compass. So, slow slow.

Ummm, as I was saying………….. See the trail? I did not see it either. In fact, there was no reason to think it even headed in this direction shown in the photo below. Except for one little detail. In the distance, close to the middle of that small grassy area in the background (the slightly rising section, not the foreground area which is just marsh that (it would appear) a person could sink into out of sight : ), there is a bare pole sticking up out of the ground. I headed to it (picking my way over an old grassy dam).

So, this is good. Not great : ) , but good. I’ve seen a lot of these. They are “signposts” usually found in the middle of meadows/prairies to guide people in the right direction. I looked carefully and could see no trail (although I did see some hoof prints of a horse (and probably a rider) that had come through in the last few weeks). So, the issue was, which way now (the hoof prints were too scattered to be of much help)?

Now, in these situations you want to be a little careful. It is easy to take the wrong direction and end up no where (or, worse,the aforementioned “lost”). So, the best thing to do is figure that the trail is going to be going generally in the direction that is just an extension of the direction that was followed to get to the sign post. So, what to do is kinda check out the area in that direction (in this case the area behind the pole in the photo above) in sort of a sweeping arc. Trying, if possible, not to lose site of the sign post itself (or, at least easily being able to find your way back to it).

BUT WAIT!!! Before you try and find your way forward, make very sure you can find your way back. A “very, very, very important” (write this down : ) little detail to note is to look back the way you just traveled to fix in your mind which direction to go (hours/days later) when you are trying to retrace your “trail”. In this case, not too difficult (remember the pond?). But a good habit to get into. So, yes, looking back the way I need to go on the way back. Got it.

OK. So I started checking out the area behind the pole. I had to do a bit of an arc before I noticed what seemed to be a trail heading off downhill. Pretty darn faint, but the best I had. Keeping track of where I was going, so I could back track to that pole if necessary, I decided to check out the possibility that this was the trail (I guess it goes without saying how difficult this would be in darkness (or, a snowstorm), so, ummm, don’t do that).

As it turned out, I only had to go another 100 yards (or less) before discovering that, indeed, this was “the” trail.

It did not take long for the trail (or, I was hoping it was the trail) to end up down by a nice stream.

O look. I think, yes, its a sign : )

I was pretty sure that I had found the trail, but always nice to be sure. Lovely little stream. Great place for a lunch break. I saw a few small fish, but I don’t think the stream is really big enough to try and fish (downstream is probably a different story). I believe, but I’d have to check a topo to be sure, that I had camped at the head waters of the Prong Creek last night.

The trail led up a nice aspen dotted valley. Again, just enough of a trail to follow, but not worn in 2 feet deep like some in Rocky Mountain National Park. The day remained overcast.

Once I gained a little altitude I took a photo looking back down the trail and beyond. Not really sure where that country is that I’m looking at in the distance (since no compass). Definitely an uphill walk since crossing Prong Creek. But not steep enough for switchbacks. Quite pleasant, actually. I haven’t mentioned it, but the entire trip was pretty much bug free. Not sure why. Wasn’t getting cold yet.

At the “top”, I came across another sign. Just beyond the sign (behind me as I’m taking this rather astounding photo : ) is a barbed wire fence with a wire gate to go through.

Now, I spent quite a bit of time at this point of the trail trying to figure which way to go. The map I had was old and I wasn’t sure exactly where I was (on the map). So, I ended up walking down the fence line about 1/2 a mile just to make sure the trail did not take off below me. Saw nothing, except this nice view, so I headed uphill along the fence line (along which an old road ran along).

Along the way I noticed some sign of the elk (or, guess it might have been deer) rubbing their new growth antlers against the trees. A little hard on the trees, but must have felt good to the animals.

Here is a little closer view.

As I walked up the fence line, since I did not spot the trail after walking down the fence line, I spotted this sign along the way.

After about a 1/2 mile or so of uphill walking I came across another sign that pointed to where the trail took off through and away from the fence.

Here is looking on down the trail into the unknown. Yes, I had a long trip back to Fort Collins and I had satisfied myself that this looked like a trail to come back to and do a full hike some time in the future. So, I have no idea what lay further on past this point, but I’ll be back (along with a topo and a compass : )

On the way back I stopped to take a few photos at the Prong Creek crossing.

Close up of that green little island in the above photo.

Made it back to the “lost meadow” and located the pond (and the trail : ) And, yes, the sun was finally starting to find it’s way through the clouds.

I did not see a lot of flowers on the trail (time of year and elevation I was at), but I did walk by some ‘rooms.

Close up.

Got back to the truck and headed back to Fort Collins, CO. On the way back the weather cleared off so I (of course) took some photos : ) The above photo is after getting back to county road 1 (or, 82 depending where you are on the road).

Zoom in on the far mountain and someone’s little country get-away : )

Full zoom after I had gone down the road a ways and got a slightly better angle. Just a little cabin in the woods. Nice backyard.

However, the majority of the area appears to be normal working ranches and farms. The meadows being used for grazing and hay production. Not much in the way of suburbs (any malls are a bit of a ways to drive). The largest closest town is Baggs, Wyo. Well, village.

Slightly different view. Probably a little “bleak” in the winter, but looks pretty nice this time of year.

Watering the yard.

Now this was interesting. Right where the county road intersects with Wyoming Hwy 70 (old town of Slater?), there are some old stone and log buildings.

It’s a shame that they are not kept in better condition (roof and floors), because the rest of the structure is built to last a long time.

Pretty nice log structure. Maybe an old stage coach stop?

Close up of what is on the rock wall. I wasn’t able to locate a lot concerning this place, so I’ll have to check on a museum that is farther down the hwy (towards Baggs, Wyo). Here are a couple of links that provide a little more info on the area. Jim Baker and Jim Bridger, both famous frontiersmen, spent a lot of time around here. As did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Savery, Wyo

Baggs, Wyo

Turning back and looking in the other direction shows the Little Snake River valley you cross over to get up into the Elk mountains.

Slightly different view. Really “sweet” place.

There is a “scenic viewing” turnoff on Hwy 70 on the way back to Riverside/Encampment, Wyo that gives a great view of the Little Snake River valley and the Elk Mountains. This is a pano made up of around 5 photos (which follow). I’d like to get this printed sometime.

Here are the individual photos. Really lots of country to roam around in out there. Mostly looking south.

Closeup view of the valley. I’m going back and drive up that valley some time. Very nice. Funny story about what happened while I was taking the photos. This man and woman were looking over the view next to me. All of the sudden he said “…and listen, you can hear people down in the valley…..” What they were actually hearing were some elk bugling : )

As can be seen, I REALLY, like this part of Colorado/Wyoming. Not a wilderness area, but very remote with lots of pretty country to see, hike,and camp in. And very few people. Gotta go back.

– Geoff Weatherford

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 3, 2008 7:24 am

    I agreed with you

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