Published with permission from the guide book: Mellow Mountain Trails Hiking Guide to Colorado’s Upper Arkansas River Valley
by Nathan Ward.
Poplar Gulch lies just outside historic Saint Elmo, a photogenic ghost town with many original buildings. The trail begins at the base of Tincup Pass and winds through pine and aspen forests before switchbacking up the mountain. It climbs along a rushing mountain creek to a flowery meadow with incredible views of the mountains and the headwaters of Chalk Creek. One of the best hikes in the area.
Continue along the trail for many more miles to Green Timber Gulch. Hike as far as you want and 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 drive 15 miles to Saint Elmo. The road turns from paved to dirt along the way. In the middle of Saint Elmo’s main street, look for a right turn for Tincup Pass and turn right. Cross the bridge and turn left (west) onto CR 267. Park at the bottom of the 4WD road up Tincup Pass, there is a small parking area. Behind you to the right, at the base of the pass, you’ll see the old trailhead. The new trailhead has been moved 0.2 mile up Tincup Pass. That is where you need to go.
There are no facilities along the trail, but toilets and snacks are available in Saint Elmo.
Location: Saint Elmo, West of Nathrop
Distance: 4.2 Miles – Out & Back
Hiking Time: 3 Hours
Best Months: June through October
Trail Type: Singletrack
Dog Friendly: Yes
Elevation in Feet: Low Point 10,113; High Point 11,243; Climbs/Descends 1,284
Land Status: San Isabel National Forest
Maps: Trails Illustrated #130 & #129
Note: You will encounter ATVs on the first 0.2 miles of the hike and also in Saint Elmo.
0.0 Trailhead – Begin at the Tincup Pass sign. Elevation 10,014 ft. (N38 42.24, W106 20.92) Walk up the rough road toward Tin Cup Pass.
0.2 Sign for Poplar Gulch Trail to the right. Turn right here onto a flat road. (N38 42.24, W106 21.07)
0.3 Walking north, you see a junction of two roads to the right. Do not take these, but note the trail sign straight ahead. Hike onto the singletrack trail here and sign the trailhead register. Enter a mature aspen forest that is stunning in the fall when the colors change.
0.4 Entering a pine forest. The hike is mostly flat in this area.
0.7 Begin to ascend the mountain. From here, you’ll climb steadily.
0.9 Switchback left. You’ll see the old trail coming in from the right. Do not take this trail. The trail continues to switchback.
1.1 Note the views to the left. You can see the town of St. Elmo below, as well as Mount Mamma (13,553 ft.) and Boulder Mountain (13,528 ft.).
1.2 Rest on the bench. Enjoy the views! Elevation 10,631 ft.
1.4 You can see and hear the creek below the Poplar Gulch drainage before entering a dense pine forest. Cool and dark.
1.5 Note the creek to the right, cascading down the mountain.
1.7 A good place to rest by the creek.
1.9 Look left to see the wetlands of the headwaters of the Poplar Gulch drainage.
2.1 The trail opens here to a beautiful meadow and the turnaround point for this hike. Before you head back, walk down into the meadow toward the creek for a fantastic view of the alpine world surrounding you. Elevation 11,251 ft. (N 38 43.46, W106 20.80) Hike back the same way
4.2 Back in Saint Elmo – take time to explore this historic town. The buildings are private property so just check them out from a distance.
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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