Monday, May 23, 2016

See old mining town’s ruins on RMNP trail

Modern Lulu City in Rocky Mountain National Park, courtesy of Flickr.
Colorado River Trail map, courtesy Rocky Mountain NPS.

Hike leaves from
park's famous
Trail Ridge Road

The best way to see the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park is a drive along the famous Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile section of U.S. Hwy 34 running from Estes Park to Grand Lake. Designed in the 1930s to sweep across the landscape to give grand views of the mountains, drivers gain elevation on it via long continuous curves. Plenty of turnouts to enjoy fantastic vistas – as well as many trailheads to explore those sights up close – can be found along the highway.

Among the best of the latter is the Colorado River trailhead, which is open year-round on a highway that often closes mid-October through May thanks to the heavy snowfall. To reach it, from Trail Ridge Road turn west into the marked parking lot for the trailhead, which is closer to Grand Lake than Estes Park.

From there, take the Colorado River Trail to the ruins of an 19th century mining town, Lulu City, in a 6.2-miles round trip with 320-foot elevation gain. The trail leaves from the lot's north side at 9040 feet above sea level.

Elk and grouse
Crossing a thick rolling woodland, the trail offers nice views of Colorado River, arguably the Southwest’s most important waterway. The trail runs in the same direction as the river but never comes within more than 100 feet of it. If the river looks a bit small, that’s because you’re very close to its source, which is La Poudre Pass Lake just 6.5 miles from the trailhead.

Grassy meadows can be found along the way. It’s the perfect environment for elk to graze and then hide in the woods, and you’ll likely see some of the large hoofed mammals here. Be sure to remain clear of them, especially if they pull their ears back or make any threatening gestures, which is a sign that a calf is nearby.

In addition to the river and elk, lining the horizon to the west is the Never Summer Mountains range. Though a small range, it’s quite tall with ten peaks rising above 12,000 feet. Having formed a mere 24-29 million years ago, they’re also much younger than the surrounding Rockies, which rose 55-88 million years ago.

Closer to the trail, dusky grouse often can be seen feeding on seeds and raspberries in the brush, especially near conifers. The bird has the interesting habit of moving to higher elevations during winter where it feeds on evergreen needles.

Mining ruins
The first man-made site along the way is the ruins of the Shipler mine on a talus slop just above the trail. A few yards later is the Shipler cabin, a set of stacked logs in a small clearing.

About three miles from the trailhead, the route turns sharply right and begins to climb steeply. Watch closely for the narrow stem trail that runs to Lulu City, and take it left. The path drops about 100 feet in elevation before arriving at the ruins.

From 1879-84, Lulu City was a gold, silver and lead mining town with a population of about 200. At that time, 40 cabins, several sawmills, a hotel, a justice of the peace, and a stagecoach service (with rides to and from Fort Collins three times a week) filled this area. As the silver turned out to be low grade, the cost of transporting it simply wasn’t worth it, and the site soon was abandoned. All that remains of Lulu City today are a few log cabin planks and a modern albeit rustic sign marking the location.

Upon taking in the ruins, retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

Note: Some maps refer to this as La Poudre Pass Trail. If continuing the hike behind the turnoff to Lulu City, the trail heads to that pass and the Colorado River’s source.

Learn more about the park's day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at Rocky Mountain National Park guidebook.