Colorado Mountain Club, The Best Front Range Hikes (2010) — Book Review

© 2012 Peter Free


30 April 2012 (updated 20 June 2012)



A flawed effort, but with value


On the positive side, this book provides:


(1) A list of Front Range hikes within 1 hour of each of Colorado’s primary western plains population centers:


Fort Collins



Colorado Springs


(2) One color photograph of scenery along each trail


(3) A generally too-small-to-read portion of the applicable topographic map







Read these negatives in light of my bias.  I don’t like trail hiking.  By nature, I’m a bushwhacker.  But I do stay on trails in easily eroded country.  And that includes most of heavily traveled, above-timberline Colorado.


As a result of my bias, I get irritated, when trail guides omit including what should be obviously useful information.


I don’t see the point of trail-following, if attempting to do so is going to get one lost or injured.  Trail guides that make both possibilities more likely are of lessened value.


Book is too heavy to carry — and its imprecise writing can lead to unanticipated problems


Since the book is surprisingly heavy (due to the quality of its pages), I never take it hiking.


That means that I try to (a) memorize key landmarks in the trail description and (b) retain an impression of the topographic map’s pertinent elevation (contour) lines.  But this technique does not work especially well because most of the trail descriptions that I have read and traveled so far in Best Front Range Hikes are imprecise and sometimes misleading.


Here are two representative examples.



Imprecise trail descriptions — Example One, Pikes Peak from the Crags


This overview of the book in regard to its description of “Pikes Peak from the Crags” is based on two hikes:


The first on 29 April 2012, when most of the trail above tree-line was snow and ice-covered.  Very high winds and slippery conditions encouraged me to terminate above Devil’s Playground, about 60-70 percent into the route.


The second, completed attempt, came on 17 June, after the snow melted.


I soon noticed that the book’s description of this hike is filled with obvious flaws.  In April, snow and ice focused my attention on trail description slip-ups (no pun intended) that were less obvious in June, when the snow was virtually gone.


First, the book does not warn readers that the dirt roads into the trailhead are rutted, deeply pot-holed, and narrow.  Critical parts of this access are too narrow for a full size pickup truck (like mine) and other vehicles to pass simultaneously.  Pullouts are less frequent than one might expect.


People in low-slung cars should not venture this road in snow-melt season, unless they are experienced at negotiating their way through bottoming-out terrain.


In reference to the trail description itself, among other flaws, the guide fails to say that the long, steep (above timberline) portion of the ascent to Devils Playground is not well-marked with cairns.


Since this is arguably one of the two more challenging segments of the hike, that is an odd omission.




The two cairns that I eventually stumbled across (on my way down) were barely a foot tall and positioned in places where you cannot see them, until you’re metaphorically about to trip over them.


Under snow and ice, which obliterated any sense of where the trail was, and with a cold wind blowing at 40 to 50 miles per hour, being forewarned about the lack of trail markings would have been useful.  I would have paid more attention to the rather difficult-to-see contour lines on the topographic map that accompanies the trail description.


This omission is significant because the route that most people would take through the saddle just below the top of Devils Playground turns out to add unnecessary distance to the hike.  This is due to the unexpected way that the trail eventually crosses the Pikes Peak automobile road.


As it was, I had to do a couple of moderately dangerous traverses on steep crusted snow and ice while wearing trail running shoes.  At an arthritic and joint-replaced age of 65, with cold-numbed hands and face, that was fun only in uninjured retrospect.  Significant previous experience under similar conditions helped me out.  An inexperienced person, even substantially younger, might have been in trouble.


Similarly obtuse, the book fails to mention that:


(i) Devils Playground is only marked on the automobile route.  Yet the trail description appears to have you entering it far below the car road.  The description does not indicate that the Forest Service doesn’t have any signs up.  Which means that hikers have no idea where they are in relationship to the description’s own chosen landmark, until long after they have been in it.




Whether this is consequential, I don’t know.


The Devils Playground sign on the auto road indicates that the area got its name from all the lightning strikes that zap it.  If that’s true, one would think that a competent guide would warn people.


(ii) At the top of the ascent to Devils Playground, and still short of the automobile highway, the trail becomes a wide dirt road (judging by the few very short stretches where the snow had blown away).  To my mind this detracts from its worth as hiking delight.


(iii) Though the trail description emphasizes that it is illegal to hike on the car road, it neglects to mention that the appropriate road crossing is not marked, nor (under snow) is there an obvious continuation of the trail on the other side.


(iii) Once across the automobile road, the trail, which lies behind an ugly cable fence, is (for a significant distance) literally within a pebble’s underhanded toss from a constantly irritating stream of vehicular traffic.




The narrowness of this separation between trail and road is difficult to tell from the book’s contour map because its small scale is overlain by the comparatively broad road and trail marking lines.


In sum, one would think that a helpful description of “Pikes Peak from the Crags” would have indicated that the last third of this hike is one of the most unappealingly stupid ones in Colorado.


This “civilized” portion of the trek might appeal to people who want to bag a Fourteener that has food and readily available assistance at the top, but those who are aesthetically driven by actual wilderness will not like it.


In my view, it is bad enough that the hike ends in the middle of the Pikes Peak parking lot.  But to be constantly reminded of this sad end during the last few miles of the hike is depressing.  A good trail description would have pointed this aesthetic flaw out.  I had expected to be considerably farther from the road and its noise.


Another of trail description’s shortcomings is potentially more significant.  It treats the significant ascent through the huge boulder field that marks the top of peak a bit too cavalierly.  This is not a section of the trail that befriends people who are afraid of heights or who have even slight physical limitations.


Although the book’s description admits that this portion of the trail “can be hard to follow,” it adds that it is marked with cairns.  However, even in June, when the snow was gone, many of these cairns are impossible to see going uphill.




Coming downhill, the cairns are much easier to follow.  They were probably built by people moving in that direction.


In a couple of the more difficult uphill sections, being unable to see any cairns, left me clambering in lateral directions, over large boulders (some unstable) with prominent, potentially leg-breaking gaps between them.


Ordinarily, for young and fit folk, this might not be a big deal.  But, given that the rest of the hike does not require anything but decent muscles and lungs, the boulder field’s balance and stretch requirements pose more than an insignificantly mild challenge.


For people with noticeable physical limitations, attempting to balance on the boulder field’s unstable steep rock, in high winds, and with the prospect of falling dozens of feet (or more) — sections of this portion of the trail can be anxiety-provoking.


In a couple of instances, wind gusts almost blew me off my (already less than confident) feet and down the boulder-strewn mountain.  You will, almost certainly, be using your hands to find and hold your way through this section of the hike.




Coming downhill, people, who are no longer able jump without risking injury, will find themselves frequently squatting and extending the downhill foot to make contact with the rocks below.


Those with severe arthritis, neurological problems, and/or replaced joints will understand how quickly tedious this gets.


Indeed, a number of the physically competent, much younger hikers than I, volunteered that this was not a particularly fun part of the hike.


A thorough trail description would have said as much.



Imprecise trail descriptions — Example Two, Stanley Canyon Trail


The Stanley Canyon entry curiously fails to warn hikers that significant portions of the trail go up fairly steeply on shoe-worn granite.  The smoothed rock is exceptionally slippery, even when dry, and treacherous, when wet.


We witnessed a couple of nasty falls the day we were there.


Related to this omission is the trail description’s arguable misclassification of the hike as only moderate.  A few parts of the trail match the challenge (given the worn and slippery rock) of segments of other trails that the same book classifies as difficult.


Again, on the day I was there, one inexperienced woman had the wit to recognize that the trail was not as advertised and wisely turned back.



Recommended — but with caveats


Think of The Best Front Range Hikes as a decent list of conveniently located trails with an illustrative color photograph of each.


Be warned, however, that it is:


(i) too heavy to carry for people concerned with pack weights




(ii) too frequently misleading to give you a reliable idea of what the hikes are really like.