This is the first summer I’ve spent a lot of time running in the high country. And I’m addicted. Want proof? I’ve only done eight 14ers in my life, 5 of them being this summer alone. My goal isn’t to climb all the 14ers in Colorado . . . it’s more about the beauty of the high country, exploring new trails and loops, with the bonus of getting killer altitude training!
A few weekends ago I completed a loop with boyfriend Jon. I had my heart set on a 3 mountain loop that I’d been reading about on 14ers.com. It involved massive Missouri Mountain, Mount Belford, and Mount Oxford. The trip reports on 14ers.com are extensive, but after looking at several maps and routes I decided to do Mount Belford first, traverse over to tag Mount Oxford (a common duo) and then descend through Elkhead pass and head up and over to Moussouri mountain.
I printed out a couple maps and trip reports to help me out along the way. These two were the most helpful with descriptions and pictures:
Based on the reports I read, the loop was around 15 miles with 7,000+ ft of ascent. Hikers reported 11.5 hours round trip, but I figured with power hiking, running the flats and downhill, 7 hours would do it.
We camped the night before about a mile from the Missouri gulch trailhead, about 5 miles down county road 390 (off hwy 24). There’s plenty of dispersed camping along county road 390.
The weather already felt like fall that night, and it was a brisk 40 degrees that morning. I decided last minute to hike in capri pants (good call for sure!). We started a little after 5am with packs and headlamps (my trusty Salomon pack filled was full of water and food). Initially we started running the flat sections but pretty soon transitioned into a strong power hike. It was steep right away!! In 0.9 miles we had already climbed 1000ft. Having the headlamps helped to focus on the steps in front of me, and not on how steep everything was!
I had read in some reports that there was a crucial intersection/river crossing early on in the route. This was at about 1.5 miles in, where we could cross a creek (over two sets of log bridges). I knew Belford was over to the left so we needed to go that way. I’m pretty sure going straight would lead to a dead end, but I didn’t go find out.
We knew we were on the right path when the trail went steeply uphill through fairly rocky terrain. There were definitely some runnable sections in this section, especially once the trail started to reach tree line. At about 2.5 miles in we reached the junction for elkhead pass and Mount Belford. We continued left at a solid pace, mostly power hiking at this point.
There were quite a few people on the trail by this early hour. The more I looked up, the more I was surprised how steep the trail was. Just how steep? Well, in under 4 miles we had climbed 4500ft to reach a red, jagged out-cropping of rocks (the abrupt summit of Belford). We ate something quickly and started running the downhill and flat traverse over to Mount Oxford. I was super pleased with my shoe choice for the day: La Sportiva, Helios. Light weight, super sticky rubber and surprisingly protective for being so flexible. These shoes did great on the uphill, but the true test of loose gravely, winding downhills my Helios were still very grippy.
We were having a grand time, enjoying the sweeping views, they were literally breathtaking, especially when we started on the uphill again. We had descended around 700ft, which meant we needed to ascend that to reach the Oxford summit. My legs were not happy with me at this point, I guess the lack of oxygen at 13,500ft has it’s effects after all.
The summit of oxford was windy and desolate, mainly just a pile of rocks marking the summit that were slightly higher than the mountain plateau. The traverse took us about 40 minutes, But we had to stop at the top and take in the spectacular views of Mt. Harvard and Mt. Yale in the distance. (I’m already planning a Mt. Harvard-Mt. Columbia duo).
We hunkered down, at the summit of Oxford and ate some food while we looked at some maps to decide where we needed to take the trail down to Elkhead pass. We had to ascend not quite on the top of Belford, but to that same ridge-line and take a left to head down to a 4-way junction, towards Elkhead pass.
Once we reached the ridge-line of Mount Belford, the trail we had to take was quite clear and we could see it stretch down and over towards Missouri Mountain. The downhill was fun and playful, we had to descend about 1700ft before the junction to Missouri Mountain. I was mentally preparing myself for the grueling uphill, for my legs to feel like jelly, to grind my way to the top. But after refueling with delicious hammer bars and espresso gels before the trek up, we summitted in about 45 minutes.
Missouri Mountain is a beast!! The sketchiest part of the loop was on this section, not really due to technicality, just due to foot traffic, a really small single track plus loose gravel and a steep sweeping scree field. Once we reached the summit, we felt a profound sense of accomplishment! 3 summits in one day! We also had a visitor at the top.
We then started back the way we came, to the junction at Elkhead pass. We started bouncing off rocks and dancing down the mountain. Descending through Elkhead pass was incredible. The bubbling creek and sweeping meadows were breathtaking. Plus is was only 10:30 in the morning! We were making great time. Storms were already blowing in across Missouri Mountain, so that helped us to move along at a good clip.
We met up with the trail junction to Mount Belford (the one we took early that morning) and quickly descended into the dense forest. The trail became really steep again, and the technicality of this section really tired out my quads. Pretty soon, we were back at the creek crossing (neither of us managed to catch a toe on this descent, although we had many close calls).
We were now on the final descent, and it was steeeep! I didn’t realize how steep until I saw it. The darkness in the morning hid the steep drop offs and the intense vertical angle of the trail.
We made it back to our car in 6 hours and 30 minutes total time, which made our moving time around 5 hours 45 minutes. We made it back to camp before noon and passed out in our tents before the rain came in. It was a perfectly planned early morning loop in the high country.