Camp Robbers and Scary Rocks: Epic Day Hike to Pancake Rocks
Horsethief Falls and Pancake Rocks - near Divide, CO
text and photography by Ryan Stikeleather
Ok, full disclosure…I am not a master hiker. I’m just an average guy, who is a little soft around the middle, and has too much gray on his chin—well at least more than I think I should have. I have a 9-to-5 job that keeps me behind a computer, and I don’t always eat healthy—even thought I know I should be. I don't hike everyday and when I do go for a hike, I get tired. Truth be told, I am sucking wind a lot. However, despite my “Average Joe” physique and my graying chin, I won’t let these things keep me from getting out on a hike. And all my hard work is starting to pay off.
Just The Facts
- Location: Horsethief Park trailhead, near Divide, CO
- Trail: Horsethief Trail (#704) & Ring the Peak trail (#704A)
- Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 1400 ft.
- Distance: Horsethief Falls 1.5 mi. (3.0 round trip), Pancake Rocks 3.0 mi. (6.0 mi. round trip)
- Trail Use: Hiking, Running, Mountain Biking, Horseback Riding
- Trail Condition: Well maintained
- Bring Your Dog: Yes! But must be on a leash at all times
- Access: Open Year Round (heavy snow in winter)
There are no shortage of hikes to take in Colorado. Open up a map of Colorado, stick your finger on it and there is probably a trail on that spot. But, sometimes I like revisiting a spot. Or, in my case, seeing more of a hike I have been on before.
Horsethief Park trailhead (near Divide, CO on HWY 67) starts near, the now closed, Little Ike railroad tunnel. The broad trail (#704) starts with a quick climb under the shade of lodgepole pine, bordered with steep hillsides covered in pillowy green moss.
Even though it’s mid-June, pockets of shade still preserve snow leftover from winter. Some of the snow still crosses over onto the trail making it a little slick. The temps are starting to rise and these pockets will quickly disappear. It is a fairly straight hike up as you make your way to the falls. The trail starts to level out before I reached the junction for Horsethief Falls and Pancake Rocks. At the junction, a narrow valley emerges. Legend has it that horse thieves (after robbing patrons in nearby Cripple Creek) would camp here while evading capture. I guess even horse thieves like to get out and camp under the stars.
The junction has two options, the left trail will take you to Horsethief Falls and the right (#704a) will take you to Pancake Rocks.
It is only .5 mi. (from the junction) to Horsethief Falls and worth the detour. The trail is predominantly flat and easy to follow. With all the rain over the past few weeks the falls are full and active. As the summer months arrive and the rainy days disappear, they will be less impressive, but springtime is eager to please. The hillside, around the falls, is a jumble of immense boulders all locked together, providing a natural path for the water to crash down. I have the balance of a newborn fawn and put a boot in the icy water. Some people in my family (my wife and daughter) think this is hilarious. So, don’t be like me, be careful around the slick, wet rocks.
After my visit to the falls, I headed back down the trail and made my way toward Pancake Rocks. This is part of the still incomplete Ring the Peak trail system. The start of the trail was muddy and wet from the overflowing creek, so naturally, I put the same soggy boot in ankle deep mud. I guess I need to work on my walking skills some more.
The hike to Pancake Rocks is more demanding, which gave me a great workout. This is the first time (in a long time) that I have been able to keep up with all the switchbacks. I usually wimp out at the start of a new one and take a breather. But not this time. I wouldn’t let myself stop until I had reached the highest point on the trail. I feel like I am actually getting stronger as a hiker, and it feels great. Sure, I still sound like an old, wheezing accordion, but I’m having fun. Combined with the afternoon storms rolling in and the arduous trail, I had the scenery all to myself. I'm glad nobody had to listen to my annoying wind sucking.
The top of the climb opens up to a stricking view of the hills and mountains (to the west) around Cripple Creek, CO. A vertical section of exposed rock dominates the foreground as you scan the distant horizon. This is a good spot to take a break, have a snack or just sit and enjoy the view.
After my quick break, I pushed on. The trail drops up-and-down several times, but not dramatically. It is a nice change from the constant uphill climb of the switchbacks. The pine forest is still dense until just before I reached Pancake Rocks. When I stepped into the clearing, I was impressed by the size of the rock formations. Pictures and descriptions are great, but to really appreciate something, you have to experience it for yourself.
I think this is a popular camping spot. There are a lot of fire rings and caches of wood stored under rocky overhangs. Camping is permitted along the trail, but not everybody keeps the campsites clean. I am always discouraged to see trash (plastic bottles and cans) left behind. I will usually grab what I see, but there was a lot today. Sad, really.
The birds are also aware of the campers, and the potential for grabbing some food. Camp Robbers (or the more technical name: Gray Jay) appeared out of nowhere. Camp Robbers are very bold and aren’t afraid to fly right up to you and look for food. I was sitting on one of the rocks and noticed one just a few feet from me. He was starring right at me, waiting for me to give him something tasty to eat. I wasn’t going to give him anything, and he knew it. I can’t be positive, but I am pretty sure he rolled his eyes and shook his head in disgust, and then flew away. He must have told his bird posse that I was useless to them, because I never saw another camp robber the entire time.
Pancake Rocks—as the name would suggest—looks like flat stone stacked and piled on top of each other. Actually, the whole area is one massive rock with other rocks piled on top. There is a cluster of low stacks near the edge, and another group near the trail entrance. The larger formation reminded me of Siamese Twins, which can be found at Garden of the Gods. I explored the area for several hours waiting for the storm clouds to clear and hoping for a dramatic sunset. A great spot to spend the afternoon and well worth the effort to hike to.
After the sun slipped behind the ominous storm clouds, I decided to make my hike back to the parking lot. I was completely alone on the trail. I had not seen another hiker for several hours and the dark forest continued to close around me. The dim light from my headlamp cast a weak glow as I plodded down the path. A twig snapped to my left and behind me. I whipped around and cast the faint light in the direction of the sound, the pale light glinting off something for a fraction of a second, then it was gone.
“Not to worry” I told myself “it was probably just a rock…with round, beady eyes”.
I don’t normally hike at night, and maybe that is why my imagination was getting the best of me. But, you can never be too safe. I picked up my pace just a little and continued on. I knew that as I got closer to the junction that the trail would be hard to find. The water flowing over the path would hide the trail and make it tricky to follow. I had brought an additional flashlight with me, one that is very bright. I pulled it out of my pack and lit the trail ahead. The strong beam created unusual shadows and shapes on the trail as I trudged forward. Suddenly, a massive shape appeared on the trail. I stopped dead in my tracks and waited for it to turn. My ridiculous imagination had just turned a large rock in to a bear. I didn’t squeak or run like a frightened mouse, but I did jump back a little…just a little bit. More like a manly show of strength, preparing to stand my ground. Yeah, right. I’m glad I was alone on the trail…now nobody can contradict my story.