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Grizzly Helena Trail No.1126 (north end), CO, June 27, 2009

February 21, 2010

Posted February 21, 2010


Lots of times I see a trail on the map, and sometimes portions of it in person, and I say to myself “I wonder what that trail is like?”   So, one Saturday in late June of 2009 I decided to check on the northern trailhead area of Trail 1126.  Also known as the Grizzly Helena Trail.  I drove there from Fort Collins, CO by way of Laramie and then headed towards Walden, 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 (and there are more of them). In addition, 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. (If you want to see all my trips, 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 (care of the great National Geographic TOPO program ( ) that one of my sons purchased for me : ) of the Grizzly Helena trail. Please note that all links open a new browser window.


So, someone might ask, “Why, Geoff?  Why are you messing with this lowland trail that allows ATVs and motorbikes (along certain sections these motorized vehicles are allowed as the trail skirts the edge of the Zirkel Wilderness area, but does not actually enter the designated Wilderness)?  Why are you not heading up into the high country? Why, Geoff?  Why?”

OK.  Glad you asked.  Take a look at the photos above.  Aside from some rather bland looking flowers and other scenary, if you look at the mountains in the background you’ll notice a certain, ummmm, whiteness.  That’s snow.  So, forget about the high country for another couple of weeks.  Unless you want to use skis or snowshoes.

Also, if you look on the map (see my maps later on my smugmug site), you’ll see that this trail goes the entire length of the Zirkel Wilderness area along the eastern side.  And there are only 4 or so places along that where it intersects a road.  So, nice long mellow (uh, well, at least some parts of it are somewhat mellow : ) length of trail to meander on and get access into certain areas of the Zirkel Wilderness area.

In addition to the Google map link above, below is a Microsoft Live map. The red tack shows the general location of the trail from Fort Collins, CO. You can click on the map to bring it up in a “live” mode and zoom in or out (and move the map around) to get more detail.

Map image

To give you an idea of the amount of country this trail covers, here I am cruising up early that morning (well, ok, relatively early  : ) along county road 6W west of Cowdry, Colorado.  Yeah, off towards that white mountain on the left side of the photo is sorta where the trailhead lies.  Looking sorta north west.


Now I’ll move the camera so it’s pointing sorta straight west.


Now a little more south west.


And then as far to the south looking as possible from this spot.  So, I think that’s about half the length of the trail.  It runs right along the edge of the mountains (on the other side of the hill in the distance).


Here’s a pano of the above photos.  Little rough (really need to work on my panos), but gives you an idea of the amount of trail we’re talking about.  I’ll get it on my smugmug site and it’ll look much better.  Well, at least bigger : )


Not only will you miss the snow in the early season, but you’ll be treated to a lot of great color in the Fall.  Because, yep, along that trail is a LOT of aspen trees, groves, and forest.  That said, depending on the time of year, you could see some bow hunters.  Wear orange : )  They are usually pretty smart people, but it doesn’t hurt to be a little cautious.

Finally, if all the above isn’t enough to want to check out a new trail, well, take a look at the map and you’ll see that, gee, there’s a lot of the Zirkel Wilderness that you can’t get to unless you travel up and down Trail 1126.  That’s right.  There are only a few access roads and trailheads along the east side of the Zirks (sigh, I haven’t had time to check out the west side yet), so a lot of the wilderness has to be approached, first, along the Grizzly Helena Trail.

Anyway, I’d been wanting to check out the northern section of the trail for some time.  So, this looked like a good time to do it.  My son Conor and I had seen 3 or 4 miles of a section of Trail1126 down around the Lone Pine Trail head (see ) and I was eager to see what the northern end looked like.

Here’s the trailhead parking area (there is a little bit of a “dip” just before you get to this wide open spot.  Just take it slow and you should be fine).  Most times of the year it’s going to be, as you can see, pretty busy.  Uh, right.  Well, ok.  No one was around because it was a terrible weather day : )  Sigh.  Alright.  This isn’t RMNP.  Ya know?  Pretty popular with the hunters in the Fall, but other than that not much in the way of traffic.  Note that you have to get here through the Big Creek lakes recreation area.  About a 4 mile dirt road drive from the lake.  Don’t come too early in June as they don’t open the road up until the 2nd or 3rd week in June.  I know because I came one time and hiked the road : )  You can pass through the rec area for no fee, but you can’t park in the rec area unless you pay a 5 or 10 buck fee.  That said, if you got some kids to take camping, it’ll be about the best 10 dollars you ever spent on your kids.  Damn nice spot.


Note – I need to warn you that the roads into Big Creek lakes can be under construction some times.  I hit that twice one summer and had to sorta drive around some back ways to get in.  So, you may want to call the forest service headquarters in Walden, Colorado (I “think” this is the current phone number there – 970-723-2700) and check on the current road conditions.  Could save you a couple of hours of extra driving around to find an open road.  But, it’s worth it.

Wait a darn minute!  What am I saying?  Hold everything.  No matter what I said above.  You NEVER want to go to this area of Colorado.  Don’t ever go there.  It’s a terrible place.  Make sure to not even mention it to your friends (or enemies).  I mean, go check out RMNP.  Its got paved roads, McDonalds, all that good stuff.  Really.  Trust me.  This is the wild west.  You’d be endangering yourself and your family.

Ok.  You can go, and you might even like it, but you have to promise me not to tell anyone else about this place.  Sigh.  I really shouldn’t be doing this.  Oh wait.  That’s the reason for my web site.  Hmmm.  I maybe need to rethink things.

Anyway, after parking my car I met this great couple that used to hike the area.  The husband is/was some sort of ex geologist and had all kinds of great stuff to tell me about the area (not that I believed him for a second because, as we all know, this place is worthless : ).  He and his wife were the only people I saw the entire day.  But, as you can see, the weather was terrible.

The forest service has put up a nice sign at the trail head.  Ummm.  There are no “facilities” here (so, no toilets, etc.).  See, I told you it was the wild west : )


Ok.  Now the first part of the “trail” kinda confused me.  It was more like a well traveled road than a trail.  OK.  I like easy hiking, but this was a little extreme.  Pretty, though.


But, I did my best to suffer through the experience.  Even though the weather was horrible.  Looking back through the rain at the mountains.


Aha, I said to myself.  Yeah, they tried to fool me, but here’s where the real trail starts.  And indeed, trail 1126 takes off to the  right from the road through this, uh, gate thingie.


Official signs.  The Frying Pan Basin and Blue Lake are two areas I’d like to hike into.  Longish one day hikes or really nice overnight excursions.  Didn’t get close to either today.


After passing through the “gate”, I had to go through a terrible section of trail.  Honestly, I told you this place was bad.


I did happen to look around and see some bluish looking things.  Hmmm.  Flowers?


Yes, a field full of flowers.


Even through the rain and smog, it looked pretty ok.


Well, as I said earlier, the area is not worth visiting.  Really.  Remember that.

Anyway, I finally was able to get out of all the flowers and continued to follow the, uh, road, or trail, or whatever it was.  Until it ran into some water.


Darn.  It really could have used a bridge here.  Later in the summer, this may not be much water.  But right now, it looked to be an easy 4 to 5 feet deep.  I spent a fair amount of time hiking both upstream and downstream to see if there was an obvious route (like, a bridge : )  Nope.  Just an extensive set of beaver ponds.  So, I just dove into the bushes and started trying to locate an area that looked feasible to cross.

I had to do a little bushwhacking and jumping to get to this point.  But once I got across this log, it got a lot easier (for this section).  That said, I had a little bit of trouble finding this same exact route when I came back at the end of the hike.  So, if you have to cross an area like this, just be patient and look around.  You can normally find a way across.  You might get a little wet, but that’s part of being in the great outdoors.


As can be seen here, at one point in time there may have been a span of rough bridges all the way across this wet area.  Here is one span that was still in one piece.  But, most of the bridge sections I saw were just ruins.  This was a usable section which got me over the last of the main section of open water.  Again, later in the summer, this may all be pretty dry.  Or, not : )


The road/trail led through some open aspens.  I know.  Kinda a trashy looking place.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone come here : )


And then into more of a thicker stand of trees.  Didn’t look like much of anything had been on the trail yet this summer.  It was very pleasant walking through this section.


But then, I ran into my next wet spot.


Now, even I, dumb as can be, can eventually begin to see patterns.  Let’s see. This trail goes along the edge of the mountain range.  Which means it’s going crosswise to all the drainage’s.  And there are no bridges.  And it’s early in the summer with high runoff.  Gee.  I could be crossing many streams like this.  Oh well.

Again, later in the summer these stream crossings may pose no problems.  But, although you can’t see it from the above photo, the stream is moving pretty fast and about 3 feet deep in the middle.  And it’s really cold water.  Remember my earlier photos of all that white stuff in the mountains?  Yeah, this water is right from all that snow.  So, I go upstream and I go downstream looking for a crossing.

I finally find a section of downed trees that allows me to make my way across a flooded area just below the junction of the road and stream.


Which gets me to some small little islands that I jump and climb across using the small trees and bushes.  Yes, it did dawn on me that I’d have to do the exact same thing on the way back.


But, once across it seemed worth it.  The road cut across a nice set of sage covered meadows.  With the rising mountains, which could barely be seen through the smog and rain, in the background.


Like these.


Of course, shortly after getting across the meadow I ran into my next, yes, you guessed it, river.  This one was pretty big (relatively speaking).  Looking on the map, it was probably Goose Creek.  Anyway, I had to hike a quarter to half a mile up stream to find a crossing.


But, find one I did.  I normally use a hiking stick nowadays.  It certainly helped me cross this stream and others.


Then after a half mile or so later, after I got back on the trail, I got a little confused.  The trail seemed to go out into some ranching meadows.  Well, that wasn’t what I wanted to do.  From the rather crude and old map I had, it seemed that instead of going down into the cow meadows (across that bridge), I could instead go ……..


…….. up the stream (ummm, yes, I had hit a small stream.  Very surprising : ) and cross the “real” trail.

So, up the stream I went.  Besides, it looked rather pretty.


Turned out this was quite a pleasant little trail (not used hardly) that went by several beaver ponds.




It didn’t really look like a main trail, but since the going was easy, I kept moving up the drainage.


While I never did come upon the main trail that I was looking for, the scenery was enough to keep me happy for quite some time (probably half a mile or more).


Zoom in a little.


However, one thing that the photos don’t show is the rather large horse/deer flies that lived in the area.  And they were quite persistent.  If I had had some sort of repellent, I would have made myself use some to see if it would keep them off of me.  But, I wasn’t carrying any.  Since I hadn’t come upon the main trail, and the flies were making it too unpleasant to really enjoy the place, I turned around and went back to the bridge that crossed the ditch.

I crossed over that, and, only a short walk later, I saw where Trail 1126 headed off into the trees away from the pastures.  Once into the trees, it began gaining a little altitude.  Nothing extreme, but definitely heading upward.  After a while, the road/trail began roll with the land as it crossed the foothills.


Came upon a nice flower so just had to take a photo.


It appeared that it was going to take some time before I got to the Frying Pan basin cutoff, so, as I still had to re-cross all those streams, I headed back at this point.  Suffice to say, it didn’t take quite as long going back since I knew where all my crossings were, but each one took longer than just walking along the trail and stepping across the stream as you came up to it.

After getting back to my car, as I drove past Big Creek Lake, I stopped to admire the view.  It really is a great place to visit.


Zoom in across the lake.


There is a lot of both short and long hikes in the area.  One of them, that goes up to 7 Lakes, heads up that valley on the other side of the lake.  One of my sons, Conor, and I had gone up there in the summer of 2007 (see ).  Great hike.

Unless you go up through Riverside, WY, you will exit the area through Pearl, CO.  Here is a photo looking back at Pearl, CO.  Elevation around 8,300 feet.  Mostly just ranchers and a few “weekend” cabins left from the old mining days.  You can barely see the skyscrapers through all the smog and rain.  Terrible place. : )


After leaving Pearl, you cut through Troutman Draw to the head of Lake Creek which the road follows for a few miles on it’s way back to Cowdry, CO.


Especially at dusk (which this trip it was not), I normally can see elk, deer, antelope, and coyotes along the road.  Pretty spot.

Here is a pano.


Well, that’s it.  Turned out to be worth the trip (even with the smog and rain : )  I’ll probably check that trail out later in the summer (or, during the fall in order to see some color from all the aspens) some year and use it to get to the Frying Pan basin and/or Blue Lake trails.  Looks to be several miles shorter than coming up from the Lone Pine trail head.

– Geoff Weatherford

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2010 5:46 pm

    Wow! You really have some beautiful photos on your site. Thanks for posting these photos and descriptions!
    Joe and Frederique Grim

    • May 29, 2010 3:58 pm

      Yeah, well, you know how it is. It’s so pretty up there that all you have to do is really point the camera around and keep clicking. Some of them are bound to turn out looking good : )

      I’m not really a photographer at all. It’s just to let people see what’s available in the area for hiking so that they can go experience it themselves. Although, that’s kinda a two edged sword issue. That means I’d have to share the trail with more people : )

      Geoff Weatherford

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