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Places: Hayden Creek to Big Cottonwood

Photo taken of Hayden Pass area just before the fire broke out.
Photo taken of Hayden Pass area just before the fire broke out.

Hope on the Rainbow Trail

Story by Ericka Kastner
Photos by Ryan Kempfer

This month’s Places column is dedicated to the families and their animal companions who have been evacuated from their homes by the Hayden Pass Fire and the firefighters who braved the flames.

Some of the best places in Colorado are on occasion touched by a fast moving wildfire, leaving the landscape forever changed.
Recently, a beloved route in Central Colorado, the Rainbow Trail, was impacted by fire. The 16,000-acre Hayden Pass Fire is reportedly the largest wildland fire this region has seen in decades. Even as I write this, flames are still lapping at the chaparral biome and lodgepole-turned-beetle-kill fuel, engulfing a forest that once graced the hills and mountains along the trail.
On the morning of July 10, my hiking companion and I set out on a 60-mile backpacking trip which was to begin at the Hayden Creek Trailhead. My plan was to solo hike the portion of the Rainbow Trail that I’d not yet trekked, and my partner, Ryan, was joining me for the first five or so of those miles. I had a fully-loaded pack and enough food to last six days, allowing plenty of time to travel at the slower pace my epileptic dog requires.
The hike began like many wilderness adventures in Colorado do, a brief meander beside a quiet mountain stream at about 7,200 feet in elevation (along Hayden Creek) before a long, steep uphill climb to summit Table Mountain at 8,990 feet. We were rewarded with stunning views of high mountain meadows dressed in summer’s wildflower bounty and expansive vistas of Hayden Pass to the southwest. Ironically, it was here, at this elevated meadow, that we paused as we took in the landscape and commented to each other about the sad number of beetle-kill trees on the northeast flank of Galena Peak and along the Hayden Pass Road.
We continued along the trail, noting how the winds had picked up and feeling grateful for the relief from the extreme heat of the day. Before long we found ourselves on the steep, exposed descent towards Big Cottonwood Creek, with more impressive scenery to enjoy in the distance. On the south side of Slide Rock Mountain, and just before Wolf Creek begins to flow alongside the trail, we took a break together. Afterwards, we reluctantly parted ways, looking forward to reuniting later in the week on the east side of Medano Pass near Carbon Hill, and having no idea of the events that were about to transpire.
Upon reaching Big Cottonwood, I gave my pup a break from the heat, and we lay down together to take a nap beside the creek. We woke about an hour later to the feeling of a suddenly cooled sun (blocked out by the smoke from the fire) and to discover we were bathed in a red glow. As I watched incredibly thick plumes of smoke rising over the ridge where I had just descended, my initial question as to whether we were experiencing an eclipse quickly transformed into a realization that my dog and I were instead incredibly near a forest fire. Two other hikers suddenly emerged from the trail and offered me a ride down to U.S. Highway 50.

Hayden Pass Road before the trailhead as Ryan was departing the scene.
Hayden Pass Road before the trailhead as Ryan was departing the scene.

Meanwhile, Ryan returned on the trail towards Hayden Creek, looking forward to wandering the same high mountain meadows we’d enjoyed together only hours before, and a leisurely stop at the creek so his own dog could cool off. Instead, he was greeted with smoke and flames rising quickly over Hayden Pass, and his unhurried hike immediately turned into a rapid downward climb to the trailhead. After assisting some folks with loading their horse trailers, he was able to drive out of the drainage, just as the fire began to make its way down the mountain.
I’m sharing this experience with you because we may have been among some of the last hikers to enjoy the beauty of the Rainbow Trail before the Hayden Pass Fire took its toll on vegetation, forest and wildlife. I wanted to remind you what the trail once was, and to encourage you to explore this path again one day soon, or to discover it for the first time if you’ve never been on the Rainbow. I’m asking you to have faith in the hope that new life will fill in where fire once reigned. Time and again, scarred forests revegetate, and a newer, healthier landscape is revealed. So, in this, the Hayden Pass Fire may be a cause for celebration, and perhaps even a gift for Central Colorado lovers of wild places.
It will be many years before the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness and the Rainbow Trail look the way they did the morning of July 10, 2016, but in the meantime, we’ll still visit the trail, curious to see how fire impacted it and eager to behold the signs of new life. Even if steep hikes and climbs to moderate levels of altitude are not within reach for you, both ends of this section of the Rainbow Trail, Hayden Creek and Big Cottonwood, provide beauty, peace and stillness for picnicking, naps or dipping feet in the creek, and a chance to view the threatened Greenback Cutthroat Trout in its natural habitat.

Getting there: Check first with local authorities to be sure all fire danger has passed. Then, from Salida, travel east on U.S. 50 19.9 miles to Hayden Creek Road/CR 6. Travel CR 6 for 4.8 miles until reaching the Hayden Creek Campground and Trailhead. This section of the Rainbow Trail, from Hayden Creek to Big Cottonwood is approximately seven miles in length. The first mile is on relatively easy doubletrack road and the entire trail could be done as an out and back or one way, if cars are shuttled.

Places columnist and logophile Ericka Kastner writes from her home up Bear Creek Road very near the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness and the Rainbow Trail. She’s grateful for every one of the firefighters who risked their lives to fight this fire, and backpacked the Weminuche Wilderness after evacuating from the Hayden Pass Fire.