text and photography by Ryan Stikeleather
A New Season
It’s finally happened. Springtime. I know winter gave up a long time ago, but I’ve been holding on; not ready to give up on the chance for more snow. But, now that the days are getting longer, the sunshine a little warmer, grass kind of greenish—I must admit—it feels good. However, this is Colorado, so you never know what the weather will be tomorrow … see, I still haven’t lost all hope for more snow.
Spring makes it a lot easier to get out and explore the mountains. Cold, gray mornings of winter are replaced with warm, golden sunlight. Trails aren’t covered with as much snow—that hasn’t been a big problem this winter because you need snow for that. Pre-dawn hours sing with the chorus of a multitude of chirping birds. Yes, I think it’s safe to say “spring has sprung”.
The high-country is still under a heavy blanket of snow, that part hasn’t changed. Before you can hike those trails, it’s going to take much warmer temperatures (June and July temperatures) to melt feet and feet of the white stuff. So, I wanted to pick something closer to home; maybe a trail I’ve never hiked before.
Just The Facts
- Trail: Gray Back Peak Trail
- Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 853 ft
- Distance: 4.14 mi. (out and back)
- Trail Use: Hiking, Horseback Riding
- Trail Condition: Maintained, but not well marked
- Bring Your Dog: Yes (but must be on a leash)
- Access: Spring, Summer and Fall (and Winter if not super snowy)
- Trail Map:www.mytopo.com
- Entrance fee FREE
Old Is New Again
Have you ever heard of Old Stage Road? If you live in Colorado Springs, chances are you have. Ok, have you ever visited Cheyenne Mountain Zoo? If you've been to the Zoo, you’re in luck, because you’ve passed right by Old Stage Road. If you’ve never taken a trip up Old Stage Road; you’re in for a treat.
The winding pavement only last for a mile-or-so before turning into a dirt road (well maintained, but still a little rough), and guides you straight into Pike National Forest. Knowing I can get into a National Forest, in only a few minutes, has always been a good reason to venture up Old Stage Road, but I’ve never given much thought about hiking trails in the area. Well, shame on me.
I did some research (yes, I Google™ for hiking trails) and found one right away—Gray Back Peak Trail. The trailhead starts off F.R. 371 and is close to Old Stage Riding Stables. I wasn’t sure if the trail was on private property or not, so I called the Pikes Peak Ranger District for more information. The ranger assured me the trail didn’t require a permit, and I should be good to go.
Even though the Gray Back Peak trail is in the National Forest, it isn’t designated trail; it’s a horse trail. Well, I still wanted to make sure I wasn’t stepping on any toes, so I emailed Old Stage Riding Stable too. Old Stage Riding Stables, a locally owned business since 1993, have horse riding trails in the area, so if anybody would know, it would be them.
I got a quick, friendly reply within a few minutes, and even easy to follow directions to the trailhead. If I find a wooden sign reading “Horse Trail” I’d know I’m at the trailhead. The only request was not to park in front of the trailhead since the horse trails intersect here. That seems like a reasonable request to me.
The forecast, on the day of my hike: windy conditions with temps in the 40s. Well, it was windy. Morning temps were in the low 30s, a.k.a. “The temperature at which things freeze”. Wind is great for flying a kite, hang gliding, or spreading tumbleweeds; but it’s miserable when it’s cold. My early morning start meant that I would hike in shadows most of the time. No matter… I’m tough, right?
About a half-mile up F.R. 371, on the left side, I found the trailhead marker. As described in the email, a wooden sign with “Horse Trail” in hand painted lettering. Also, there are two trails at this junction, keep to the left (the one going up) and you’ll be on the path to Gray Back Peak.
One other marker does exist (a classic, brown US Forest Service sign) which reads “NO CAMPING”. So, there you go, two markers to look for. I should also mention that campfires aren't permitted in Pike National Forest … I’ll get to this later on.
Years ago, when I first started hiking, I hated uphill starts. I'd start sucking wind right away; unable to even carry on a conversation. You guessed it, you don't get to ease into this one.
But, now I'm stronger, and I don’t dread it anymore. I actually kind of like it. One thing is for sure, hiking will get your lungs, legs and stamina in shape—I’m stronger after every outing.
The trail rises (gaining elevation immediately) for the first mile. It isn’t as bad as it sounds. The gain is about 300 ft. It’s still a good workout, but easy enough. The trail surface is common for the Pikes Peak region—pebbly granite; kind of like chunky sand or a loose gravel driveway. I had no issues with footing, but it could be tricky on the steep spots.
The wind continued to rush in, with staggered bursts, whistling on the branches, before fading back to a whisper. High above me, the cirrus clouds streaked the sky, filtering light to the peaks below. As you make your way up, on the right, you’ll see Mt. Vigil—a peak of exposed rock—sitting watch over the entrance to the emerald valley below.
One of my favorite parts, during this hike, would have to be the plant life along the trail edge. Often, the path cuts right through thick bearberry (sometimes called kinnikinnick) and scraggly juniper. The fir and pine trees cling to the hillsides, and snuggle up to lichen-covered boulders. Tumbled piles of rock gather around fallen trees—mixing with the evergreen ground cover—forming private, mountain gardens. They almost look placed, man-made.
Fallen trees (both large and small) lie scattered about, sometimes on the trail itself. They’ve long since shed their bark, and the wood is now bare, twisted, and weathered gray—like tarnished silver.
Since this trail lacks true markers, someone has place long, slender, mountain driftwood poles along the path borders. I’m sure it’s for the horse back riders (so they know where the trail is) but I thought it was a great way to guide you along.
A Proper View
I tried to keep a good pace during the hike, but I kept finding too many interesting fallen trees, rocky ledges, and otherwise tucked away spots to distract me. Choosing whether to make it to the top, or explore along the edges is always a tough choice.
After about a mile, the trail makes a short descent. If you look through the trees ahead, you’ll catch your first views of Gray Back Peak. The morning light warming the gray rock brings out tones of orange and faded red. There are several more vantage points to stop and soak in the views, but with the wind still gusting, I didn’t stay in one place long.
Picking up my hike once again, I forced myself to stop taking photographs and get down the trail. But, it wasn’t long before I found another excellent view. Looking east, as the morning sun climbed higher in the sky, I saw Cheyenne Mountain bathed in yellow-orange light. Yes, I could still see all the radio/TV/cell towers, but it was a different perspective of the mountain, and one I hadn’t seen in a long time.
Things Are Looking Up
A good portion of the trail follows a deep trough—likely caused from rain washout, or constant use by the horseback riders. It’s in these troughs I found most of the snow. Several times I needed use the sides of the trail, to avoid slipping or plunging through the crusty top of the snow.
Getting closer to my destination, about half a mile from the top, I crossed through a level spot on the trail. A small grove of aspen trees stand column-like on either side. Soon, they'll bud out with new growth, adding brilliant greens to the fresh, spring environment. This level ground soon gave way to the last big push up hill. My old nemesis (switchbacks) were there to greet me.
While I’ve had a mostly snow free trail, it’s now showing up; right when the trek is most difficult. The tall evergreens are providing plenty of shade for the snow to survive, and the footprints of previous hikers have glossed over with ice. It’s slick and I’m forced to slow down so I don’t fall on my butt.
Since I’ve never hiked to Gray Back Peak before, I wasn’t sure when I would reach the top. A few twists and turns later, I found myself at my destination. The heavily wooded summit doesn’t have unobstructed views all the way around, but the vantage points (both south and north) are outstanding.
I scrambled onto some large, granite boulders and looked northwest. I could see my old friend Mt. Vigil, along with San Luis Peak and McKinley Peak. The Emerald Valley stretches out before you, and down below, I could see the icy lakes located on Emerald Valley Ranch.
On the opposite side are views to the southeast overlooking Highway 115. Due south, I could see snow capped East Spanish Peak and West Spanish Peak—over one hundred miles away. On a clear, true-blue day you could probably see Kansas.
I mentioned this earlier (and it’s not something to take lightly), campfires aren’t permitted in Pike National Forest. Period. NO EXCEPTIONS. Someone has created a fine, well constructed, fire pit on top of Gray Back Peak. I commend them on their skill, and in a permitted locations, it would be a cool place to camp and have a fire going. But, using this fire pit is illegal, and extremely dangerous. It’s dry up here with lots of old, withered trees lying around. It only takes an ember to start a forest fire, and it would devastate these woods.
So, please, don’t tempt fate and start a fire.
Ok, fire safety lesson over.
Hidden In Plain Sight
Gray Back Peak offers more than I thought it would. It’s challenging enough to keep you from sprinting to the top, but varied so you don’t labour, and tire from climbing the entire time. I was on the trail early, so I didn’t run into any horse back teams or other hikers, but that’ll change if you hike later in the day.
Bring a snack, water bottle and enjoy a trail you might never even knew existed. So, spring into action, and go for a hike. See what I did there? Never mind … enjoy the outdoors.