Mammoth Gulch – An Open Backcountry Secret

I’ve written about my love of wintery forest roads in previous articles for Elevation Outdoors (see The Joy of a Frozen Road). One of my favorites is Mammoth Gulch, a highly overlooked access road that begins at the “barely-there” town of Tolland. On a busy winter weekend, dozens of cars will zoom by Mammoth Gulch en route to Moffat Tunnel, a much more popular destination for skiing, snowshoeing and ice climbing. Mammoth Gulch is not a complete secret – you may encounter a few skiers or snowmobilers on the way – but its low profile means you’re likely to experience its best-kept secrets in relative solitude.

In the summer time, Mammoth Gulch offers a modest 4×4 experience that eventually connects with mountain roads behind the casino-heavy town of Black Hawk. A more rugged split from the main road goes over 12,000 ft. near the summit of Kingston Peak. Along the way, several redneck outposts bear the scars of drunken gunfire and piles of cheap beer cans – not exactly a ringing endorsement for the area.

MAmmoth Gulch trees
After a mile of trees, Mammoth Gulch slowly begins to reveal its grandeur.

When heavy snow renders the road impassable by trucks, the party scene goes into hibernation and the true beauty of Mammoth Gulch comes into focus. The junction in the town of Tolland of Mammoth Gulch Road and East Portal Road at 8,950 ft. is the unofficial parking lot. The first mile up the road can be a dark and cold experience, especially in the morning. This area can be notoriously windy and cold, with the chilliest gusts funneled down to the exposed sections of road. Don’t let the inauspicious start discourage you!

As the road trends southward, pockets of sunlight begin to filter through the trees and the landscape opens up. A little over a mile and a half in, previews of this beautiful area begin to reveal themselves. Stunning views of South Arapahoe Peak to the north and the southern Indian Peaks come as a bit of a surprise given the dense pine trees up until this point.

Mammoth Reservoir sign
If the winds are howling, you may want to stay in the trees and detour to the old Mammoth Reservoir site.

If the winds are blowing too hard or you simply want to stay in the trees, the road splits down to the old Mammoth Creek Reservoir site, now unused, 0.8 miles off of the main road. Most days, staying high on the road is the way to go. Just after the split with Mammoth Res, the western slopes of Baltimore Ridge open up – not to mention some nice, moderate backcountry ski terrain (about 700 vertical feet from the top of Baltimore Ridge to Mammoth Reservoir). The views of James Peak to the west are gorgeous.

Above the exposed slopes, the road returns to the woods and splits once again. To the east (left), the road goes into Elk Park which offers a nice turn-around point at 10,560 ft. where Roosevelt National Forest ends and private property begins. If you’re aiming for a longer day in the 10 – 14 mile range, stay west (right) along a 4×4 road that traverses below Pile Hill (10,863 ft.) and eventually tops out at 12,029 ft. at the western saddle of 12,147 ft. Kingston Peak. Skiers may want to go for the grand tour all the way up to James Peak, a very long winter day but a relatively quick descent.

James Peak from Mammoth Gulch
The views west to James Peak are indeed worthy.

Mammoth Gulch is the gateway to great snowshoeing and cross country skiing that is close to the Denver/Boulder/Golden metro area. Backcountry skiers and snowboarders can also find some good turns here, especially on days when the wind calms down. And if you see the tracks of one snowshoer and two dogs, chances are I’ve been up there enjoying the views with my pups!

Mammoth Gulch
Nearing the highest point of the Mammoth Gulch Road. Pardon my shadow.
Elk Park Colorado
If you are just hiking the road, this is the end of the line at Elk Park.

How to Get There 

From the town of Rollinsville on Hwy 119, turn west onto East Portal Road toward Moffat Tunnel (also known as Tolland Road and Main Street). This is a well-marked road that has signs for Moffat Tunnel and Rollins Pass just before you reach it. It is a well-maintained dirt road that is plowed all winter but be advised rear-wheel drive vehicles may slip in some of the icy sections of the road. Follow East Portal Road 5.1 miles just past the cottages of the town of Tolland. Mammoth Gulch Road has a sign and will be on the left (south) side of the road. Note that if you pass the bright yellow schoolhouse, you’ve gone too far. Park at the bottom of the Mammoth Gulch / East Portal Road Junction.

Routes

Mile 0.0 – Start on the main Mammoth Gulch Road. This is the main and obvious road that climbs up and into the forest; there is one minor, unmarked split to the left that goes to an old quarry near the start of the hike. Ignore it.

Mile 1.6 – Here a side road splits to the right. If you’d like to visit the old Mammoth Reservoir site (now drained) and Mammoth Basin, follow this road 0.8 miles to the flat basin. Explorers can continue to the west past Mammoth Basin to some open areas and 11,534 ft. Nebraska Hill but note there are no winter trails here. Otherwise, continue along the main road.

Mile 2.2 – The views here along Baltimore Ridge are amazing! A forest road labeled 416 splits off to the north east and offers a dead-end 0.7 mile detour (one-way) to some old mining sites. Staying on the main road reveals nice backcountry ski slopes and the epic views continue for over a mile before returning to the trees.

Mile 3.4 – The road splits to the west (right) and begins the optional routes towards Pile Hill and Kingston Peak. To the left (east) is a short walk up to the highest point of Mammoth Gulch Road.

Mile 3.6 – The top of Mammoth Gulch Road. The land east, north and south of here is all privately owned (except for the road proper, which is now Elk Park Road). The forest boundary runs along Baltimore Ridge’s ridgeline to the north; stay to the west to avoid trespassing. Return back the way you came.

Optional Routes

Mile 3.4 – Split right onto the 4×4 road towards Kingston Peak (there are some neglected signs and national forest info kiosks here).

Mile 4.5 – About a mile after the split from Mammoth Gulch Road, you will arrive at the base of the modest but exposed Pile Hill. A detour to the summit offers good views.

Mile 6.7 – By now the road has climbed out of the trees and reaches its terminus at the western saddle of 12,147 ft. Kingston Peak. A side trek to the peak summit is a perfect 7 miles from the start of your adventure.

Mile 9 – If you really want a big day (most likely for fast skiers or snowmobile assisted adventures), carry on past the road up to the summit of James Peak via the east ridge or the southern slopes. James Peak is 13,294 ft. and is a classic spring ski destination. A round trip would cover over 18 miles and 4,200 ft. of elevation gain. Those up for a huge day may consider parking a second car at the St. Marys Glacier parking area and returning via St. Marys Glacier.

Click for a full size map, courtesy of Mountainous Words.
Click for a full size map, courtesy of Mountainous Words.

jd-thumbElevation Outdoors contributing editor James Dziezynski is the author of Best Summit Hikes in Colorado. Visit his Mountain Air Blog or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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