By Suzanne Webel
I absolutely loved about 95% of this spectacular new trail system in Jefferson County.
Curiously, the best part of this park for me was the “WOW!” experience upon arriving at the trailhead. Drive up Golden Gate Canyon Road about 8 miles to Robinson Hill Rd, turn left and continue to Camino Perdido, then follow signs to the park. You’ll feel as if on a clear day you could see forever, with sweeping vistas of many superimposed mountain ranges, canyons, meadows, homesteads, and pine forests. You’re on top of the world.
This park is so new that both trailhead parking areas were still under construction when we arrived in the fall of 2008. No horse trailers are allowed at the smaller, west one; the north one accommodates four rigs parked parallel to the railings. Both have rest rooms but there is no water – anywhere – in the park. A few springs were marked on the old topo maps but appear to have dried up completely. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever have made a living off this land, but the kiosk at the trailhead refers to “local folklore” about the area having been homesteaded by an African-American family. Remnants of farm equipment, foundations, and old barns bear mute testimony to someone’s hard work.
The large 12-mile loop around Centennial Cone “rides best” in a counterclockwise direction. Proceed southwest on the Elk Range Trail, a wonderful old ranch road that traverses the upper meadows. Jefferson County is very talented at getting easements and cooperation from neighbors and adjoining public agencies in order to complete their desired trail alignments. The trail crosses several private properties, and goes quite close to a private homestead complete with an old windmill. In about 3 miles you’ll come to the other trailhead (good opportunity for a pit stop if needed) and a smaller loop trail to a lookout that we didn’t check out. The dirt road ends here and becomes a singletrack trail for the rest of the loop. Continue downhill through a beautiful grove of enormous golden narrowleaf cottonwoods that verily cry out for you to make a lunch stop among them.
My trusty trail horse and my two riding companions didn’t mind the narrow, exposed section of shelf trail ahead — but I sure did. So I dismounted and walked about a quarter of a mile, literally shielding my eyes from the thousand-foot sheer dropoff down to Clear Creek on our right. Naturally, we encountered a large group of spry octogenarian hikers at the narrowest point, and had to diplomatically ask them to find little perches somewhere so we could gingerly sneak by. Whew. That was kind of typical of our Centennial Cone experience – the trail is extremely narrow with not very much room to pass. There are also many steep switchbacks and other technical trailbuilding marvels such as rock steps and an incredible rock ramp that don’t show up on the map. Fortunately we went on a midweek day, trail conditions were excellent, and other trail users (including mountain bikers) were polite and good-natured.
The rest of the trail was fine. A tiny meadow just west of Elk Creek offers another picnic spot if you didn’t stop at the cottonwoods earlier. The Evening Sun Loop is definitely recommended for horses over the rockier Travois Trail just before you return to the trailhead, and offers a beautiful recapitulation of the whole park.
Somewhat paradoxically, the entire park is closed for hunting in December and January, with seasonal closures in the center and along the Elk Range Trail each spring for calving “to ensure that a certain portion of the park has minimal disturbance by humans” (check the Jefferson County website for details). Because of the park’s proximity to civilization, the narrow trails, and the potential for visitor conflicts, they have also instituted a non-traditional management schedule, in which mountain biking is allowed on weekdays but on only even-numbered weekend dates (see sample calendar). So plan accordingly.
Total Distance: Total mileage 16 miles; Elk Range Trail 3.2 miles, Travois Trail 7.4 miles, Evening Sun Loop 0.7, other 3.7 miles
Difficulty: Moderate – difficult
Dogs: Leash only
Jurisdiction: Jefferson County Open Space
Maps: USGS topo’s Ralston Buttes, Black Hawk, Squaw Pass, Evergreen (use this map or the park’s, but be aware that the park brochure doesn’t give you a sense of the true topographic situation out there!).