It’s a split log twenty-two feet across, nine inches at its widest spot and you’ve got to cross it to get to the Skeleton Gulch trailhead in the northwest corner of Rocky Mountain National Park in the mountain wilderness of Colorado. Seven feet below is the swift, icy cold water of the Ditch at Sawmill Creek. Depending on the time of year it is ankle or chest deep with river worn rocks underneath. The log wobbles a bit but feels firmly anchored. It’s the start of one of the best hiking trails you’ll ever put a boot on.
You took the rough five and half mile way from the Colorado River Trailhead or started from La Poudre and enjoyed the scenery from the gravel Ditch Road. You might have hitchhiked a ride in a green truck for the four miles. The guys that maintain the Ditch sometimes show mercy to backpackers. Whichever way you came was just the appetizer.
There is a short log bridge over Sawmill Creek. There will be wildflowers and different types of mushrooms all around you, color and size dependent on the time of year. I expect to a hobbit stick their head out from under a tree or a lacy winged sprite to flit by. Jays, juncos, ground squirrels and voles are more likely.
Watch the open meadow to the left for mule deer for a quarter mile of gently sloping dirt and rock trail. To the end of the mile the ascent gets steeper and you get surrounded by trees, lodgepole pine, blue spruce, and trembling aspen with small open meadows where deer and mountain sheep graze.
The trees give way to a rock slide area. Mount Richthofen on the north lets loose a slide every so often that keeps the area clear of trees and offers hiding places for marmots and ground squirrels to get away from the hungry hawks above.
Back in the trees the trail gets steep enough for some switchbacks. The trail levels out in a area of white gray granite and you see the sign for the Skeleton Gulch campsite. Keep going and step to the edge of a meadow two football fields long and one across. Four years running a moose we named Jack has been there. The nearly vertical slope of Mount Richthofen is a playground for mountain sheep. It is a fantastic view but you really need to follow the southern edge of the meadow and pick up the trail again.
The trail gets rockier and passes through a narrow meadow where old trees create deep shadows. Pass over a area of bare rock and through a band of pine trees that are hiding the real treat. An unparalleled vista. It is Skeleton Gulch surrounded by Lead and Teepee mountains and Mount Richthofen. Verdant grasses, brilliant wildflowers, clear Sawmill Creek fed by the melting snowfields. They don’t call it the Never Summer Mountain Range for nothing. Trust me, the hike will be worth it.