VAIL, Colo. - If you're looking for a hike with incredible wildflowers, go to Shrine Mountain on Vail Pass this week! The wildflowers are incredible. There are fields and fields of flowers.
How good are the wildflowers? Just take a look at the attached slideshow. My camera has a great zoom lens, so my flower pictures are normally blurry and lousy, but when there are this many flowers you can't take bad pictures.
The hike starts on Shrine Pass, about 2.3 miles from Interstate 70 and the Vail Pass rest area (directions below). At the trailhead, you'll find a large parking lot and bathrooms. Expect to also find lots of vehicles. When we finished our hike at 9:45 a.m. on a Sunday in August, there were more than 40 vehicles filling the parking lot and parked along the nearby road.
From the parking lot, walk the wide, dirt road toward the forest. This road is used for stocking items at the Shrine Mountain Inn -- three huts/cabins in the area that are rented out by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association.
About a tenth of a mile from the parking lot, the road continues past a gate, but hikers turn left on a trail with a sign that says Shrine Ridge Trail 2016. I've seen this hike labeled Shrine Ridge. I've seen it labeled Shrine Mountain. While the sign here says Shrine Ridge, the Forest Service website calls it Shrine Mountain.
The trail here is wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side. The trail is rocky, with lots of tree roots and it's muddy. It's so muddy in spots, you'll find two to three social trails branching out through the nearby willows. In some spots, the social trails look more like the main trail than the real trail. The Forest Service asks that you do your best to stay on the main trail and hike through the mud. Even though this hike is short compared to many in the area, I recommend wearing waterproof hiking boots on this trail.
A short distance from the turnoff, you'll suddenly notice the trail dropping in elevation. It drops nearly 100 feet before it begins it's climb up to Shrine Ridge. It's nice to have this drop at the beginning, but remember to save some energy because you'll need to regain that elevation on the way out.
After that drop, the trail begins to climb. While the trail is rated "easy to moderate," I would definitely call it moderate. The trail starts at 11,089 feet and it climbs up to 11,914 on the top of Shrine Mountain. That'll get your heart pumping and your lungs working.
However, if you like wildflowers, you'll find yourself stopping -- a lot -- for photos. As we walked, there were fields of wildflowers, especially about 0.7 miles from the trailhead. Here flowers filed the hillsides on both sides of the trail.
There were so many flowers you could frame them with the nearby trees and with old timber in the meadow. You could take pictures of the trail lined with flowers or use the wildflowers as foreground as you took photos of the distant mountain ranges.
We saw photographers out in the fields taking photos and families sitting on logs taking group shots.
About a mile from the trailhead, there was a trail split for guests of the Shrine Mountain Inn who wanted to cut back over to their lodging. For hikers, this is just a spot that tells you that you're about half-way to the top.
Here, the flower show continued as we headed for the forest at 1.3 miles. However, you're not in the forest for long. An 1/8 of a mile later, you're back in a meadow with a steep ridge next to you. Yes, you're about to start climbing again.
The trail turns and follows the forest, then it begins to climb to the top of the ridge. In the neat .3 miles, you're going to gain about 225 feet in elevation. However, there are spots here when flowers fill the hillsides giving you lots of opportunities to stop and enjoy the scenery. There's also something new in this area -- red sandstone rock formations. Include a formation or two to add something extra to your photos.
As you approach the top of the ridge, you'll once again notice more social trail leading in several directions. The "middle" trail had concrete steps, so I went that way. It was a good choice. The middle trail takes you right on to Shrine Ridge with a great view of the Holy Cross Wilderness and the mountains to the west. Look carefully out there and you should see Mount of the Holy Cross.
According to the Forest Service, Shrine Mountain was named Shrine for its excellent view of the Mount of the Holy Cross.
"The pass was originally a Ute Indian trail and later used by silver miners and settlers," the Forest Service's website says.
At this point, you've hiked about 1.85 miles from the trailhead. You can find a rock on the ridge and enjoy the views and wildflowers or you can continue on. We turned right/north and hiked up to Shrine Mountain. It's hard to believe, but the wildflowers up here were even better! There were more fields of colorful flowers and up here, it seemed like the clumps of colorful flowers were even thicker.
At the top of Shrine Mountain, enjoy the views all around you. The Forest Service says you can see:
While we stopped at the top of the mountain, there is a ridge you can continue hiking out.
When you're done exploring and taking photos, return the way you came.
Important note: Remember to wear sunscreen and bug spray for this hike. All that mud on the trail means lots of mosquitos. And while you'll see a thick forest from the parking lot, the trail is in the meadows, more than the trees. There's occasional shade along the way, but it's only occasional.
Details: The hike to Shrine Ridge is about 3.6 miles roundtrip with about 700 feet of elevation gain. The hike to Shine Mountain is about 4.2 miles roundtrip with 850 feet of elevation gain.
Directions: From I-70 , take Exit 190 for Vail Pass. Exit and turn west. toward the Vail Pass rest area. But instead of heading for the rest area, take the Shrine Pass dirt road. Follow this rutted road about 2.3 miles to a parking area on the left.