This 25 mile loop is a classic backpacking trip, with ample opportunities for views, wildflowers, wildlife and solitude. The best time for this trip is during July once the snow has melted and the wildflowers are in full bloom.
Features: Birding — Fall Colors — River/Creek — Spring — Views — Waterfall — Wildflowers — Wildlife
In spring, the snowmelt could make crossing the East Fork of the Cimarron River dangerous, so plan accordingly and be prepared.
Either trailhead can be reached in the winter by snowmobiles, skis, or snowshoes; but both forks traverse avalanche terrain, especially near the pass.
You can park your car anywhere along either road, but to get the bulk of the road out if the way first, I parked mine at the intersection where the two forks split then started down the Middle Fork of the Cimarron. Following Middle Fork Road 4.6 miles to the trailhead, the slower pace affords great views of Turret Ridge, Dunsinane Mountain and Precipice Peak along the way.
Reaching the trailhead, the first .4 miles of the Middle Fork trail follows the river closely, seeing little elevation gain. But pulling away into heavily forested hillsides, the climb picks up.
Meeting with the Porphyry Basin trail at 1.9 miles, the trail drops again to cross Prophyry Creek. Steep switchbacks summit a sloping plateau where the trees thin with blowdown. Here, you’ll find faraway views of Dunsinane Mountain and Precipice Peak to the north, as well as the coming mountains at the head of the basin.
Funneling towards a narrow shelf high above the river, the trail slowly looses ground on its way to treeline. At mile 3, the trail meets with the river again and passes by the first of a half dozen primitive campsites strewn across the next 1.5 miles.
The trail enters into a meadow, where Coxcomb and Redcliff Peaks come into view. Just before pulling above treeline at 4.5 miles, the route steepens at the head of the basin. The trail disappears in the tundra, but posts and cairns mark the route as it veers east towards Middle Fork Pass. Topping out just above 12,600 feet, 5.4 miles in, the air is thin, but the views stretch far and wide.
With the worst of it behind you, the trail, still faint, utilizes a steep ridge of loose sand to find its way towards the East Fork Cimarron River. Easing briefly halfway down, the trail reemerges with a set of tight, looping switchbacks. Flattening, the route parallels the river for 1.4 miles, where it finally meets with the East Fork trail.
To continue the loop, turn left. Soon hitting treeline, and a number of campsites (some frequented by elk), the trail disappears briefly as it drifts west to drop into a wet drainage spilling from high within the basin’s rocky wall. Climbing out on the opposite banks, the trail weaves alongside the scree, trapped in a narrow flat stretched tight beside the drainage. Slowly pulling back towards the East Fork Cimarron River, the trail meets with the raging, snow-fed waterway 3.4 miles from the pass, after a loss of 1,700 feet.
With no bridge and no downed timber nearby, a wet crossing finds the east banks. Here, the trail comes back fully, and the grades abate. In another wide thicket marred by heavy blowdown, the trail stumbles across the Silver Jack Mine, just .2 miles from the intersection.
Losing 100 feet across the next .9 miles, the trail lurches into and out of alpine meadows, with the rugged summits of Pinnacle Ridge becoming clearer up ahead. At your rear, Uncompahgre Peak
remains at the head of the basin. But where the trail finally ducks back into the canopy for good, the peak eventually disappears behind the folds of the basin wall. The next long stretch, punctuated by waterfalls on the western wall of the basin, meets with one final difficult crossing, this one marked by cairns. Then, trapped in the lowlands between Sheep Mountain and Pinnacle Ridge, the basin walls widen, and the final five miles unravel along an easy grade on an old mining road that hugs tight to the East Fork Cimarron River.
I saw deer along both forks, and signs of elk near the head of the east fork. Wildflowers make both these forks a destination in peak season.
Most of the East Fork follows an old mining road which led to the Silver Jack Mine. This mine once brought in gold, lead and silver, but today, only a few collapsed cabins and rusted mining equipment remain of the venture.