It’s incredible how this route, sandwiched between the towns of Fairplay and Buena Vista ["BYOOnah Vistuh"], can really carry you away to feeling like you are nestled deep in the wilderness. On the day we visited these peaks, we encountered exactly zero people, but an entire herd of cow elk and calves, a Big Horn ewe and the biggest heap of bear scat I’ve stumbled across in Colorado. I remember on the outhike, seeing the Jeep emerge from the woods, thinking to myself: Where the hell have I been for the last few hours? This was amazing! What an escape! I urge you to bring your sharp navigational skills with you and enjoy this route to these two beautiful peaks!
This route, often referred to as the “Eastern Route” due to the road approach from Hwy 24 (though could arguably be called the “Northern Route” due to the hiking approach), is one of two primary routes to the summits of East Buffalo and West Buffalo Peaks (the other being referred to often as the “Western Route” coming up from Buena Vista to the south). Leveraging a tangle of old roads at the beginning, the route eventually converges on a brief section of cairned footpath before degenerating into elk paths and finally to open tundra and talus walking. The ridge between the two peaks is scenic and dramatic (though gentle and non-intimidating even to the beginner scrambler) and the views of the Sawatch to the west are constant companions while on the higher reaches of the route.
Roundtrip Distance: 10 Miles
Elevation Gain: 2,900 feet
YDS Class: 2+
Other: This route requires a high degree of comfort with off-trail navigation through timber on what I would classify as not particularly straight-forward terrain in spots.
From the East
This access (not really a trailhead) is approximately 15 miles away from Fairplay. The main access point on the east side of the Buffalo Peaks is Forest Service Road 431, also known as the Buffalo Peaks Road. This road is reached by traveling south from Fairplay approximately 12.4 miles or north from the US-285 US-24 junction for 8 miles. Turn west on the signed road and drive 8 miles to a small saddle. Park here, or continue briefly southwest on an old dirt road until encountering a dirt berm blocking the road. (Beyond the saddle, the road descends into the Rough and Tumbling Creek drainage, and this will be your indication you have driven too far.) The Trailhead is not signed.
While I do not recall 4x4 being necessary to reach this trailhead in dry conditions, 4-wheel drive is certainly the preferred mode of transport to get there.
Through the Trees
|Cross over the dirt berm and ascend a faint trail through the woods. Inevitably, it seems, you will either loose this faint trail or begin stumbling over old roadbeds. No map I encountered seems to accurately reflect the spaghetti mess of old roads in this area. Your job at this point is to head primarily southbound and uphill toward the saddle between East Buffalo Peak and UN 12644. Inevitably, your journey will include navigating around and through a lot of deadfall.|
Across the Slopes to the Saddle
|Nearing the saddle, through the trees, a stronger trail will emerge from among the many game paths. Briefly, you’ll even encounter a faint cairned route while side-stepping across the meadow toward the saddle. The cairned footpath generally follows the path of least resistance through willows and trees, so leverage it! Ascend tundra to the saddle between UN 12644 and East Buffalo Peak. (Note that an elk herd tends to favor hanging out in this area!)|
Up East Buffalo Peak
From the saddle, we found the easiest footing to be just to the southeast side of the ridgeline running up to East Buffalo Peak. Faint use-paths can be found occasionally ascending the peak, otherwise the ascent is a mix of tundra and talus. The slope relents suddenly on the summit plateau of East Buffalo Peak.
Across the Beautiful Saddle to West Buffalo Peak
The saddle between East Buffalo Peak and West Buffalo Peak is one of my favorite places in the Mosquito Range! The scenery is non-stop, with especially fine views of the Sawatch Range, as you work your way across tilting slabs, blocky outcrops and among red hoodoos. The going can be kept at Class 2 through this section, but the most scenic and exhilarating line follows the ridge line to enjoy easy Class 3 scrambling combined with a long-way-down pondering of the massive east-facing cirque between these two peaks. As when gaining the summit of its eastern neighbor, reaching the summit plateau of West Buffalo Peak means an abrupt end to the talus slog to reach a gentle, level summit area.
Descending West Buffalo and Crossing the Basin
Do as I suggest, not as we did! We descended directly north from the summit of West Buffalo Peak and the going was steep, loose and tiring. I suggest swinging first westward toward the saddle with point 12917, and the beginning the side-hill across the east-facing basin.
Crossing the basin is one place where selected paths will most diverge. Some parties cling high in the basin above timber. Others cut deeply into the drainage and reclimb to regain the slopes below the UN 12644 / East Buffalo Peak saddle. Our team opted for the middle-ground, attempting to balance maintaining as much elevation as possible by contouring around the cirque just below timberline, while not getting sucked too deeply into the drainage. The sidehilling was brutal at times, but we hit paydirt upon encountering well-trodden elk paths in the woods north of East Buffalo Peak.
Gaining Elk Trails to the Grassy Slopes
|The aforementioned elk trails will bring you back to familiar terrain below the UN 12644 / East Buffalo Peak saddle, where you’ll re-encounter familiar foothpaths and cairned routes across the sloping meadow. Head back into the trees to navigate the on-again, off-again pathways and cross the mysterious roads to nowhere.|
Bring it on Home
|Trend in a generally northward fashion, balancing leveraging the old roadbeds for easy footing and just cutting straight downhill through the forest for expediency. A GPS comes in very handy at this stage of the trip to quickly locate your truck and avoid any overstepping and retracking to return to the vehicle.|
Essential Gear• Outerwear appropriate to the season
• Map, compass & GPS
• Colorado Gazetteer for road navigation
• Flotation in snow season plus an ax for navigating slopes