Trip Report: Section hike of the Pfiffner Traverse

August 11, 2018 – August 18, 2018


The plan was to hike a section of the Pfiffner Traverse, a high route in Colorado designed by Andrew Skurka. Due to us being new, we made a conservative schedule with on-trail bail-outs and things were pretty relaxed in general.

General itinerary

Beginning at Roaring Fork Trailhead, we hiked into Indian Peaks Wilderness to Stone and Upper Lakes. We looped northward into Rocky Mountain National Park via Paradise Pass, dropping into Paradise Park then gaining the Continental Divide. Traversing the ridge through the summit of Ooh La La, we dropped down into Gourd Lake, then followed Buchanan Creek until reaching Thunderbolt Meadow. We subsequently reached Paiute Lake, but turned back from attempting the pass due to stormy afternoon weather. Out of concern for time, we bypassed Paiute Pass and the Northeast Gully via the CDT, then rejoined the Traverse at Columbine Lake. Ascending Cabin Pass, we regained the Divide, summitted Neva and Jasper, and travesed the ridge until Devil's Thumb Pass, at which point we descended again to avoid a storm. Later, we regained the divide until Rollins Pass, with a brief visit to King Lake, then descended to the west through the James Peak Protection Area toward Winter Park, our pickup location. In total, we spent eight nights in the area.

Day 1

Beautiful scenery awaited after the long climb from Roaring Fork Trailhead.

Day 2

En route to Stone and Upper Lakes, we found a photogenic rock that looked fun to climb. Just prior to taking this picture, we saw a startled elk who ran off.

A teaser of Paradise Pass and Upper Lake.

A view of Paradise Park from Paradise Pass, protected zone in RMNP—there are no trails in or out, nor is camping of any kind permitted.

Inside Paradise Park. It is said that herds of Elk can be found grazing here.

On our way to the Continental Divide from Paradise Park.

Looking back at our progress through Paradise Park.

The path to the ridge is visible here.

We gain the Continental Divide and gaze over the cliff's edge. The winds were very strong.

Nothing but miles and miles of rolling, exposed tundra up there.

A view of Upper and Stone Lakes from the divide.

Overlooking the St. Vrain glaciers from the Ogalalla–Ooh La La ridge.

Traversing a class-2 jagged ridge en route to Ooh La La.

Taking a break after reaching the summit.

After summitting, the tundra along the ridgeline is relatively flat.

Day 3

A view of Thunderbolt Peak in the center, and Thunderbolt Meadow and Paiute Lake and Pass on the left.

Eventually, we descend toward Gourd Lake, with the goal of reaching Thunderbolt Meadow (the small green meadow on the left) via Buchanan Creek.

Gourd Lake is visible in the distance. The long descent is aided by on-and-off elk trails.

Swimming in Gourd Lake is very refreshing.

Clouds always seem to eclipse the sun right after we go for a swim...

Day 4

Thunderbolt Meadow in the morning. The view of Paiute Pass in the far distance is stunning.

We found the split pattern interesting.

We alternate through meadows and forests on the way to Paiute Lake. At times, the growth in the avalanche runoff zones reaches up to our shoulders.

We reach Paiute Lake, but some stormclouds are gathering. After we have a quick break for food, we decide to backtrack for safety. Both rain and lightning would make Paiute Pass much more dangerous.

A strange cloud formation clings to the Divide.

A fun climb down a handy chute on the way back. A light sprinkling of rain made the rocks slippery.

A 20-ft waterfall cascading down.

New growth.

Day 5

The next day, we set off on the CDT (aka High Lonesome Trail) southward, bypassing Paiute Pass and the Northeast Gully. We were concerned with thunderstorms and with reaching our pickup point on time.

Helpful markers showed the way at the many junctions and forks.

We rejoined the Primary Route of the Pfiffner Traverse by heading to Columbine Lake, with beautiful views of the region's peaks along the way.

Beginning the ascent of Cabin Pass, at the base of Columbine Lake.

Resting at the top of Cabin Pass. Hazy!

The skies cleared up within an hour.

Day 6

A view of Columbine Lake from Cabin Pass.

Regaining the Continental Divide by following the ridge of Mount Neva from the top of Cabin Pass. Reliable footing made for an easy ascent.

Serendipitously encountering someone at the summit who ascended via a different face.

Another view from Mount Neva.

Again, summitting is followed by a nice stroll across gently rolling terrain.

Quartz and moss on the tundra.

Beautiful, and mysterious, piles of rock abound.

Views from the summit of Jasper Peak.

More views.

Refilling our water bottles after dropping down to a small tarn on the side of the Divide.

Storm clouds gather in the distance. We quickly retreat, joining the CDT at Devil's Thumb Pass and descending past treeline.

Day 7

We get started early the next morning to preempt the consistent afternoon precipitation.

The sun rises over Devil's Thumb Pass.

Morning on the divide.

Wisps of clouds float across the sky as the sun begins to warm us.

The very regal King Lake, a sight for sore eyes. Ice remains on one side, beautiful meadow and sparse forests on the other.

Storm clouds gather, prompting us to cut our breakfast short, return to Rollins Pass, and descend to the west.

Beginnings of a storm at Rollins Pass.

Taking a break at Riflesight Notch to coordinate plans with our pickup.

Looking back, an armada of thunderclouds seems poised to strike.

Strolling next to many small trees in an active logging zone in the James Peak Protection Area. The roads are off-limits to regular cars to encourage reforestation.

Examining some machinery...

The sun shines through lingering thunderclouds as we approach the ski town of Winter Park to check out our pickup location ahead of time.

Closing Thoughts

It was a lot of fun! We loved the amazing views and pristine alpine lakes. Going cross-country is really enjoyable, and we were fascinated by the game trails. We just wish we had woken up earlier to get more hiking in before the afternoon storms.