Of the better known locations up Poudre Canyon northwest of Fort Collins, Mt. McConnel is one of the more popular and easiest to reach destinations, save for Greyrock of course. Being only 35 miles from the college town of Fort Collins (Colorado State), the change in scenery and vegetation is abrupt and noticeable. Since there is a huge and well-maintained campground (Mountain Park) located at the bottom and a well developed class-1 trail to the summit, bathrooms and potable water on site, it's really no surprise that this is a popular site for hikers.
Named for the FIRST Forest Ranger in the United States (R.C. McConnel), he served in the Poudre District of Roosevelt National Forest in the early 1900's. Mt. McConnel was included much later into the Wilderness area (1980). The trail and various sections were constructed piecemeal as much of the Larimer County Trail-system was during the 1930's by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). Mt. McConnel is one of only two named peaks in the Poudre Wilderness Area, the other being Bear Peak. And at just over 9,000 acres, it is the second smallest in Colorado.
To be honest, there isn't much especially notable about Mt. McConnel. The summit is a small pile of jumbled rocks (par for the course) well below treeline that due to its low altitude, lacks the grand views of higher peaks in the Mummy Range or Medicine Bow. However, the summit does have some clearing that offers vistas out west to the Mummy Range. Views can be had up and down Poudre Canyon while hiking the lower portions of the trail. The mountain is accessible in the winter due to the low elevation of the trail-head (6,660ft) even though the parking lot/area is gated and closed.
The Cache la Poudre River is one of the heaviest maintained and controlled waterways in Colorado as it supplies much of the Northern Front Range and plains with the seasonal snow melt. Referred to as 'Minni Luzahan' meaning "Swift Current" in Sioux, it was eventually renamed Pateros Creek by white settlers because of a lost Frenchman who was taken in and saved by Native Americans during a blizzard. The current name of 'Cache la Poudre' (hidden powder) comes from an old story in 1820 where, caught in a bad blizzard, a band of french fur trappers decided to bury their gunpowder instead of simply abandoning it alongside non-essential provisions, wasting it...hence the name.
Due to the High Park Fire in 2012, much of the trail and summit were burned. This was a naturally occurring fire started by a lightning strike. The fire lasted 21 days and burned a tad over 87,000 acres. One 62 year old woman was killed in the fire. Because of the damage, vistas have substantially changed.
Trailhead elevation: 6,660ft.
Trails Illustrated: #101 Cache la Poudre Big Thompson
USGS 7-1/2'Quad: Big Narrows
Pets must also be kept on leash, no mechanized or motorized equipment and groups must be kept at a maximum of 12 people to limit impact.
In winter, the parking area is gated off and locked just after the bridge crossing over the Poudre River. However, there is plenty of space to park at the small turn-around before the gate as well as a few dirt spots along Co. 14. Also, something to keep in mind for day-hikers, there is a separate parking area at the trail-head, evidenced by the trail placard that serves as day parking. The remainder of open spaces are reserved and meant for campers. I don't know if citations would be doled out if one parks in a space designated for a camping site but I probably wouldn't want to find out. Just an FYI.
On the summit
From Fort Collins, drive north on Co. 287 for approximately ~10 miles to the intersection with Co. 14. This is going to be a "T" intersection and Co. 287 does not stop.
There is a Conoco gas station located here and the whole locale is usually referred to as 'Ted's Place'. I believe it's even referenced to as such on maps.
Turn west onto Co. 14 and drive up the scenic Poudre Canyon for 23.4 miles. The turn will be on the left (south).
Cross the bridge and stay to the right to the designated parking area.
What to expect
As said, the Mt. McConnel Trail is a class-1 trail. However, it is for all extrinsic purposes, split into three segments: the Kreutzer Nature Trail #936, the Mt. McConnel Trail (#992) and a short summit spur (unmaintained #992-1). As one leaves the trail-head, the Kreutzer Nature Trail, at about .6 miles in length is what you'll be hiking first. There are about 22-23 interpretative signs that outline the local ecology, vegetation & wildlife. This switchbacks through dry and dense forest connecting with the Mt. McConnel Trail.
On a quick side note, William Kreutzer was the first official Forest Ranger in Colorado in 1898. He was only 20 years old!
From the junction, one can hike either left or right as the trail is basically a 3.5 mile loop. The summit spur trail is only a .15 walk to the summit. There are plenty of nice spots to have lunch, rest or whatever.
In the summer, this is a dry hike. Bring water or fluids as it gets intolerably hot and dusty. The plentiful bitterbrush, current and Ponderosa Pine can testify to that!
The west fork (right) is especially a nice path.
The High Park Fire of June 2012 radically changed a lot of the views. Portions of the trail, including the summit were burned. The views have opened up, burned trees still stand alongside dead-fall and soot remains. I imagine it will take the Forest Service some time to remediate the mountain. Thanks to Bill Reed for the update on this.
Oh, and as this is a class-1 hike, expect plenty of company on the trail.
Mountain Park Campground is located 23.5 miles west of Highway 287 on Highway 14 at an elevation of 6,660 feet. The campground is situated amongst ponderosa pines along the Cache La Poudre River. There are 55 sites in the campground. All of the sites are suitable for RV camping and most of the sites are wooded (privacy). Each site has a picnic table and fire ring or grate.
The maximum vehicle length that can be accommodated is 45 feet. Many sites have electrical hookups and showers are available in the campground. Definitely a nice feature!
The roads through the campground are paved. There are 11 water hydrants and seven restrooms. All of the restrooms will accommodate disabled persons. There is a day use picnic area, a group camping area and the group area will accommodate up to 75 campers. Volleyball courts and horseshoe pits are available. Reservations are accepted by calling #970-295-6700. Sites 1-32 at Mountain Park accept reservations and have electrical hookups. Sites 33-55 are first-come, first-served and offer no electricity. The season for Mountain Park Campground normally runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Spur length of 40 feet
Playground -of sorts
Group Camping Area
Disabled facilities on site
Showers on Site
Reservations accepted for sites #1-32
Next to river
The Kreutzer Nature Trail has been recently adopted by the Rocky mountain & Meadowlark churches out of Fort Collins and the summit trail (Mt. McConnel) has been adopted by BSA Troop #83 also in Fort Collins as caretakers!