Colorado, Colorado Hikes

Colorado Day Hikes: Butler Gulch

Colorado has turned me into a winter person. I swore that would never happen, but it appears I was wrong.

Growing up in Montana, I never liked winter. It’s cold and dark and lasts way too long. Then I moved to Washington for college and, in addition to cold and dark, winters there are humid and drizzly and you regularly go days at a time without seeing the sun. Then I moved to Connecticut and my first winter there was marked by 3 giant snowstorms that collectively dropped more than 6 feet (2 m) of snow over the course of about 5 weeks. After the novelty of my first ever snow days wore off, I was back to hating the freezing wind and humid cold and lack of sunlight. Also, digging my car out from under that much snow wasn’t exactly fun.

And then Colorado happened. Don’t get me wrong; I still complain about 4:30pm sunsets and scraping ice off my car. But winter in the mountains…  I love it so much! The combination of sharp rocky ridgelines and shimmering white landscape and treetops dusted with snow against the bright blue skies is ethereal. I’ve reached the point where I look forward to winter weekend adventures and I find myself eagerly awaiting the day there will be enough snow to go snowshoeing.

A beautiful pre-hike sunrise always makes the early morning wake up call a little more bearable

In early January 2021, that day finally arrived. (But you’re reading this in April 2022 because it got buried in my drafts folder. Oops.) Chelsea and I headed out on a Thursday morning for the Butler Gulch trailhead near Empire, Colorado. This is an area frequented by backcountry skiers, and the adjacent Jones Pass trail is popular among snowmobilers. However, the trail is open to hikers and snowshoers as well.

That being said, I don’t recommend visiting this trail on a winter weekend. At one point, I stepped to the edge of the trail to adjust my snowshoe and very nearly got run over by a skier who came flying around a curve at full speed and barely managed to stop in time. I imagine there are far more skiers on weekends, and I personally wouldn’t want to deal with the constant worry of getting run over.

Aside from that, this was a pretty great hike! We began at the winter parking area, which required a short walk up the road to the Butler Gulch trailhead. The road to the parking area was only semi-plowed and we were glad to have Chelsea’s AWD car.

Trailhead

This is a groomed path and we didn’t need microspikes or snowshoes through this section. It wasn’t until we approached tree line that the groomed path disappeared and it was time to break trail.

Trail views

I always forget just how hard snowshoeing is. Even with snowshoes, we were sinking into the fresh powder. While the snow was hardened by wind in some places, in other places it was soft and fluffy. We both sunk in up to our hips at times, even with snowshoes. After one particularly deep post hole, Chelsea realized that the softer sections were snow-covered bushes (as evidenced by the fact that her legs were now in the bushes). The wide-open views were gorgeous but eventually we reached the point of being too tired to push on any further despite the beckoning scenery.

(We also were careful to stay in the middle of the gulch, well away from the steep slopes full of fresh powder. It’s good that we were smart about this; there was a human-triggered avalanche nearby the very next day.)

Butler Gulch

During our hike, Chelsea mentioned that Bulter Gulch was also a pretty summer destination. So a few months later I found myself back at the trailhead, this time with Pat, excited to see wildflowers and the old mining remains that were completely buried in winter. It was a much easier trek with solid ground beneath our feet instead of snow. It’s still a steep hike, though, gaining about 1500 feet (455 m) in just a little over 2 miles (3.2 km).

As we climbed through the forest, I was surprised to find a beautiful creek cascading down the hillside. In fact, the trail crosses this creek multiple times. It was completely buried in the winter so I hadn’t seen it at all.

There were thousands of wildflowers as well. Dark purple monkshood was the prominent species down low in the forest. Once we reached tree line, the main species were various colors of Indian paintbrush and a yellow flower that I believe is part of the aster family.

And then there’s Butler Gulch itself and the loop trail through it. Most reviews recommend going counterclockwise around the loop so we heeded their instructions. Admittedly, we completely missed the turnoff to go clockwise so it’s a good thing that wasn’t our plan. We did find the turnoff on the way back down – it’s marked by a small cairn – so if you’re specifically looking for it and/or using a GPS app to track your hike, it shouldn’t be too difficult to locate.

The cairn and trail junction are in the lower left; for counterclockwise, continue straight

When traveling counterclockwise, the first things you’ll encounter are views and wildflowers and some small, hearty pine trees that manage to survive up here.

Next is the remains of the Jean Mine. There is old mining equipment all over the Colorado mountains and we’ve stumbled across pieces of it on a handful of other hikes. But this was one of the more intact collections of equipment, including a rusted out old truck, an ore cart, and some other items that we couldn’t identify. If anyone with some mining knowledge knows what these are, I’d love to learn!

Jean Mine

There is no signage and it’s not a wilderness area, so we took that to mean it was okay to walk up to everything and look around. We kept in mind Leave No Trace, though, and didn’t touch or step on anything. While researching to write this post, I learned that this is an old lead and zinc mine, which makes me think maybe we should have kept our distance.

Once looping around past the mine area, the trail ascends to a ridge behind the gulch. On a nicer day, we would have completed the loop and climbed to the high point. But not on this day. Most of the state was inundated with forest fire smoke from the west coast. Using smoke forecast maps, I’d found this small pocket of cleaner air at Butler Gulch. It was the first blue sky we’d seen in about 3 days, and would remain the only blue sky we’d see for most of the next week. Since most of the scenery was obscured by smoke, we figured there was no point climbing to a view and not being able to see anything. Instead, we skipped the rest of the loop and headed back around the way we came.

Our “view” to the east
One final view of Butler Gulch

As with most Colorado trails that I’ve hiked in both summer and winter, I have trouble deciding which season I liked better. I’ll let you all be the judge!


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: from I-70, take exit 232 toward Berthoud Pass (US Highway 40); turn onto Jones Pass Road (just before the first hairpin turn) and proceed to the trailhead near the Henderson Mine
  • Fees and passes: none
  • Hiking: the entire loop trail is about 6.5 miles (10.5 km) with 1800 feet (550 m) of elevation gain
  • Where to stay: this hike is easily done as a day hike from Denver, Boulder, or any of the towns along I-70 in Clear Creek County
  • Other: while it is okay to explore the mining equipment, please don’t step on it, touch it, or sit in the old vehicles; they are fragile and easily damaged

31 thoughts on “Colorado Day Hikes: Butler Gulch”

  1. If you put up all those blue sky winter photos, then yes, I love winter too😊 But I would rather prefer the Indian paintbrush on the long run😊
    How lucky we are to be able to enjoy all four seasons around!
    Christie

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gosh, 4:30pm is sunset 😯 … even in the peak of our winter, the sun is still sitting high in the sky that time of the day!
    The snow once again is pretty, but I (who know nothing about snowshoeing) would be very apprehensive when I sink hip high into the snow! I would definitely be more comfortable in spring time … and wow, it’s so lovely!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely hard work when you’re sinking into the snow. And there’s a risk of getting stuck. It’s never happened to me but don’t snowshoe alone for that exact reason. Just in case.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can completely relate to your first sentence (mostly, I don’t live in Colorado, but I do adore the state). Since Beer Flu cancelled our travel plans for 2020, 2021, and the beginning of 2022, we found ourselves hiking during the colder months in the US instead – Colorado, Utah, Maine and Vermont most notably. Snow covered hiking trails dominated the landscape, and while in Vermont a few months ago, we both realized we LOVE snowy, winter hikes. What happened to us?!?!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. How great to have such a big open meadow to explore in winter! And really nice to see the summer version alongside, especially those gentians.

    I hear you about the PNW winters but we find that getting out into the snow really helps, even on a cloudy day. Just as long as it isn’t raining in the mountains… Snowshoeing in the rain is the worst.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Beautiful summer or winter! Did the skiers yell at you? It’s difficult here when the trail area is shared because it’s difficult and even dangerous to ski over snowshoe tracks, but I know it’s easier to snowshoe on the well worn ski tracks. It has resulted in a few arguments between the two groups. Glad you’re loving winter now 🙂 Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fortunately no one yelled at anyone. The trail was groomed so we weren’t walking in any tracks and it’s designated as multi-use. The guy was just going wayyyyy too fast for a low visibility situation like this.

      Like

  6. That sunset photo is a standout, Diana. The old mine site photos were intriguing and, I was captivated by the creek and wildflowers. What a wonderful post! It took me away to a beautiful place with rugged mountains and snow, very different from SW Florida. Thanks for the tour.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So beautiful as usual! It’s amazing how much snow the east coast can get dumped on them. I think maybe I would be a winter person if I lived in the mountains. Now I like snow for Christmas and maybe two other days haha

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same here, I’m okay with snow from about Thanksgiving through January down here in Denver. But up in the mountains it’s so pretty (plus it doesn’t cause so many rush hour traffic jams haha)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. You live in such a beautiful part of the world, Diana, and it is so amazing to see the landscape change throughout the seasons! I love nothing more than seeing wildflowers, but then there’s something magical about the snow-covered landscape too as snow is beautiful. And meditative (if you take a pause to watch it fall from the sky). It brings vast white snowfields, puffs of snow floating on pine tree branches and then melting, drip by drip, off the tips of pine needles. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for sharing this walk, it’s always interesting to read about your new discoveries.
    What you wrote about the Washington weather, seems to be like the weather here in Belgium…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I love the PNW, but I agree with you, I couldn’t do the winters there, despite the volcanoes and mountains and awesomeness! And I lived in NJ after college, and the dreary, rainy, cloudy winters drove me NUTS!! The great thing about Colorado (and Wyoming) is it is still very sunny in the winter months – a saving grace!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s incredible just how drastic Butler Gulch changes from winter to summer, from pure, white snow to lush, green valleys. Growing up in a part of the US where there isn’t any four seasons, I can’t imagine how stunning it must be to live in a part of the country where such well-defined seasons exist. Looks like you’ve called Colorado home, and I can imagine you must be proud of living in the state! PS no worries on the very-belated post: I have drafts and scheduled posts of trips that happened a year ago, still waiting to be published!

    Liked by 1 person

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