Every autumn, I have to spend at least one full day drenched in color. I hike in late September when the aspen are putting out peak wattage, the forest floor glows and the sky is clear all day. A sequence of pleasant trails circle Engineer Mountain. Choose between a 17-mile circuit and a 8.5-mile section hike.
The full loop begins at the Red Gate portal on Cascade Creek. Hike clockwise to take advantage of sun angle on trees and a reasonable uphill grade. Fueled by a golden glow, miles fly by. Cascade Creek Trail utilizes an old roadbed to the first stream crossing and then narrows to a single track. Pass through a large meadow with a view of Grayrock Peak and Graysill Mountain.
In 2.6 miles cross Engine Creek on a footbridge. In early summer, this double cascade is a thundering torrent. Engine Creek Trail is just another 0.1 mile hence at the entrance to an open meadow. Watch for the sign tacked to a spruce tree and turn right.
Initiate a gradual climb through a fir forest, watching for wildlife. The idyllic trail stays northwest of the Engine Creek gorge most of the way to the junction with the Engineer Mountain Trail. Pass through glades framed by Colorado blue spruce and effervescent aspen. The forest floor has its own particular beauty: yellow myrtle blueberry; red geranium leaves; and opaque, white snowberries.
Turn around occasionally for a dynamic view of Engineer’s fierce north face scarp. Rock hop across a tributary creek with an elongated waterfall series. The crossing of Engine Creek proper occurs as the treadway emerges into an open expanse with a view of Jura Knob.
The footpath swings slightly west to a junction where four tracks join at a post with a missing sign at 6.3 miles. Our upcoming Engine Creek Trail ends here. Beautiful White Creek Trail goes both north and south to link with the Colorado Trail. Make a hard right turn to the east on Engineer Mountain Trail.
The trail contours a thousand feet below Jura Knob swinging south to the highpoint of the journey at 7.6 miles, elevation 11,800 feet. With the exception of small undulations, the second segment of this loop is an easy-going downhill flow. The spell-binding, commanding fulcrum of this circuit is captivating. A rock glacier blankets the entire northern base of Engineer Mountain, a sure sign of exfoliating tumult.
Engineer Mountain Trail passes the junction with the Deer Creek and Coal Creek Trails. Continue toward the Pass Creek Trail. Heading south, the well-trodden path takes aim at the low saddle east of Engineer Mountain, the Engineer Plateau.
At 9.1 miles, the Pass Creek Trail comes in from Coal Bank Pass at a T-intersection. The shorter segment hike from the pass to the Engineer Mountain Guard Station joins here.
Engineer Mountain Trail heads south under columnar granitic walls. The delightfully smooth path plunges into a heavy spruce forest. The trail comes alongside the eastern edge of the escarpment. U.S. Highway 550 wends below through deep dark green and fleeting gold. Descend a grassy fanning hillside passing by a pond glazed with flaxen leaves and lit by autumnal fire.
The trail makes one long disconcerting switchback to the north before sorting itself out and proceeding south. Reach the junction with the Cascade Creek Trail at 15 miles near the Engineer Mountain Guard Station. This marks the end of the shorter section hike.
For those parked at the Red Gate, turn right on the Cascade Creek Trail. It is marked by posts and weathered tree blazes. Expect to see mountain bikers and psych yourself up for another couple hundred feet of climbing. The trail rejoins the road at 16.8 miles. Turn right and walk 0.2 mile to the Red Gate Trailhead. Or, turn left and walk 0.6 mile to the Cascade Flume parking.
If you walk on the Cascade Creek Trail in the late afternoon on a certain day in autumn, at the end of a long hike tunnels of glowing light are sustaining on a very old trail obscured by a blanket of amber leaves.
To max out on color while minimizing miles, hike 2.5 miles from Coal Bank Pass to the Engineer Mountain Trail. Turn left, walk over the Engineer Plateau, and descend six miles to your shuttle vehicle at the Engineer Mountain Guard Station.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.
Travel for the circuit hike: From Durango, drive 28 miles north on U.S. Highway 550. At the apex of the hairpin at the bottom of the south side of Coal Bank Pass, turn left. Two-wheel-drive vehicles with good clearance should be able to negotiate the potholes on the dirt road. Park at the Cascade Creek Trailhead in 0.7 mile just before the road crosses the Cascade Flume. Walk 0.8 mile up the road to the Red Gate. Four-wheel-drive vehicles may proceed to the Red Gate Trailhead, 1.5 miles from the highway. Allow 45 minutes from Durango.
Travel for the segment hike: For the shuttle drop, take a left off U.S. Highway 550 one mile above the Cascade turn at mile marker 52.2 and proceed 0.2 mile to the trailhead. Drive the second vehicle to the Pass Creek Trailhead on the west side of the highway at the top of Coal Bank Pass.
Distance and Elevation Gain: It is 17.0 miles with 3,600 feet of climbing to circle Engineer Mountain. The section hike is 8.5 miles with 1,200 feet of vertical.
Time: 7 to 9 hours for the circuit
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy; no exposure
Map: Engineer Mountain, Colorado 7.5 Quad