Published with permission from the guide book: Mellow Mountain Trails Hiking Guide to Colorado’s Upper Arkansas River Valley
by Nathan Ward.
This hike follows the old railroad grade from the ghost town of Hancock to the East Portal of the historic Alpine Tunnel, one of the great railroad engineering feats of the late 19th Century. The tunnel entrance has collapsed, but the gently climbing rail bed will give you an idea of the difficulty early railroaders faced in the Rocky Mountains. There are interpretive signs along the way to teach you the history of the Alpine Tunnel and the struggle to live and work in this alpine world. The trail climbs high above the valley and the mountain views are spectacular.
For a longer hike on singletrack, turn left at Mile 2.8 and follow this to the top of the ridge. From the ridge you can either descend to the West Portal to look at the restored buildings and old roundhouse, or you can follow the singletrack higher as it winds toward Tin Cup Pass. Either way, follow the same trail back.
Trailhead Access & Facilities
Drive 16 miles north of Salida via US 291 to US 285 or 8 miles south of Buena Vista on US 285. Turn west on CR 162 and follow this road 15 miles. It will turn from paved to dirt along the way, but a passenger car should make it fine. Just before Saint Elmo, turn left (south) on FSR 295 going uphill. Follow this road to Hancock, 5.7 miles. Park in one of the wide spots here, just after going over the Chalk Creek bridge. This is the old ghost town of Hancock, although there are no buildings left.
There are no facilities at the trailhead or along the trail. Toilets and food can be found back in Saint Elmo during the summer.
Location: South of Saint Elmo
Distance: 5.8 Miles – Out & Back
Hiking Time: 3-4 Hours
Best Months: June through September
Trail Type: Old Railroad Bed
Dog Friendly: Yes
Elevation in Feet: Low Point 11,044; High Point 11,582; Climbs/Descends 628
Land Status: San Isabel National Forest
Maps: Trails Illustrated #130
Note: After the hike, be sure to spend some time wandering around the ghost town of Saint Elmo. It’s a photogenic place with great old buildings.
0.0 Trailhead – Begin at the kiosk near the Arkansas River/Steam Plant. The kiosk gives you some interesting facts about the Arkansas River. Turn around and head south on the paved trail. The Steam Plant Theater and Conference Center is on your right – it once housed a 1000-kilowatt steam generator and provided electricity to Salida from 1892 to 1958. Elevation 7,121 ft. (N38°32.28, W105°59.49)
.04 Cross Sackett Street – as a pedestrian you have the right-of-way, but most drivers here don’t know this. Watch for vehicles on all street crossings during this hike.
.06 On the right is the AHRA headquarters and it’s worth visiting to learn more about the Upper Arkansas River Valley.
0.1 Cross First Street.
0.2 Cross Second Street.
0.3 Cross Third Street. If you wish, walk to the right here a few yards to visit Monarch Spur Park. The flowers and trees are native to this area. The park is named after the Monarch Spur railroad line, which once ran along this trail.
0.4 Cross Fifth Street. Note the trail sign. This trail is funded by the Colorado State Parks and the City of Salida.
0.6 Cross Seventh Street. Look for the “Angel of Shavano” on Mount Shavano (14,229 ft.) several miles to the northwest. You can see this snow formation in the spring or late fall.
0.7 Rest on a bench on the right of the trail.
0.8 Note the structure to the right. What is the origin of this?
0.9 The apple tree on the right produces nice apples every year. Tasty.
1.2 Cross Holman Avenue. The trail here is lined with Russian Olive Trees, a non-native species.
1.7 Bench on the left.
2.0 End of the best part of the trail. You can continue on a bit farther to Walmart (N38°31.63, W 106°01.45)
Turn around and go back the same way to the river. The small mountain on your left as you travel back is Tenderfoot Mountain, or “S Mountain” as the locals call it. In the winter, it’s decorated to look like a giant Christmas tree. No kidding.
4.0 Back at the trailhead.
We want you to have a safe and enjoyable trip into Colorado’s backcountry. Be prepared it could be a long walk out. Be sure to read this list of equipment you should bring on your ride along with tips to make your biking trip more enjoyable.
The Colorado backcountry is popular – bikers, hikers, motorcycle riders, hunters and equestrians use the trail system in the Arkansas Valley, and everyone wants a private piece of heaven. Even if you don’t agree with everyone’s motives or methods of travel, please treat them in a courteous manner.
If you require search and rescue services, it can be costly. Buy a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) card to protect yourself. Funds from the CORSAR program go into the Colorado Search and Rescue (SAR) Fund. If a CORSAR card holder becomes lost or injured in the backcountry, the Colorado SAR Fund pays eligible search and rescue expenses.
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