Life is different above the tree line.
The wind is blowing harder. The sun is shining brighter. And everything is moving more slowly.
There is, after all, a reason why trees stop growing at around 12,000 feet. Keep this in mind if you find yourself hiking the Missouri Gulch in the Sawatch Range in central Colorado.
The trail is a popular starting point for a trio of 14,000-foot peaks – Mount Belford, Mount Oxford, and Mount Missouri. Most hikers choose to climb to the top of Belford or Missouri. Some opt for the single, round-trip Belford-Oxford combo.
Our plan that day was to pack all three.
We started walking under the stars, our headlamps lighting up the rocky path that climbs through the forest. The cold air and the steep switchbacks combined to provide an effective, albeit boring, wake-up call. And hitting snooze was not an option.
After crossing a river just over a mile from the hike (note: speaking of past experiences missing this bridge and continuing through the willows is a shoe-soaking error that takes time), we have quickly emerged above the treeline and reached a trail junction.
Turn left and face the climb to the 14,197 foot summit of Belford. Or continue straight to Missouri.
We went with Belford first, mainly because I prefer to ride her stiff and somewhat slippery shoulder up on cool legs rather than going down her (note: speaking of past experience, the fourteen downhills do sometimes take place not as expected) hours later on tired legs.
From Belford it’s a relatively easy run to the top of Oxford at 14,153 feet. The trip back to Belford, however, is not that easy and best described as a chore. But, for us, it served as the midpoint of the mission.
Shortly before reaching Belford summit for the second time, we veered south on a smooth trail and looped back down to the base of Mt Missouri.
After having climbed, then descended, then ascended, then descended, then climbed then descended, it is with great reluctance that we pushed towards a last steep wall of switchbacks.
I had been to Missouri several times, but it was a whole new experience on the heels of two other mountains. Still, we kept going until we were on top of the 14067 foot summit – the crowning of a beautiful morning above tree line that I won’t soon forget.
Logbook : 16.4 miles, 7,100 feet of elevation gain, 14,197 feet maximum
Difficulty: Very difficult
Getting There : Travel west on US 24 to Buena Vista. From downtown, head north 14.5 miles to County Road 390. Turn left and follow 7.5 miles to the trailhead.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION: Scattered camping available along County Road 390. Toilets at the trailhead. Keep dogs on a leash.
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