Published with permission from the guide book: Mellow Mountain Trails Hiking Guide to Colorado’s Upper Arkansas River Valley
by Nathan Ward.
Rainbow Trail – East
The Rainbow Trail is a long trail that stretches all the way from Silver Creek all the way down the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains toward Westcliffe. Part of it was built during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide jobs and access for fire fighters. Today, it’s nearly 100 miles of beautiful singletrack.
This hike covers a tiny portion of the entire Rainbow Trail where it crosses Poncha Pass, then climbs and switchbacks steadily up the side of a big ridge. It’s a long climb, but the reward at the top is a beautiful view of the Collegiate Peaks to the west. There are flat open meadows on the way up where you can catch your breath and a small aspen forest at the top that is perfect for a picnic.
For a longer hike, simply continue east along the trail when you reach the top of the ridge. Hike it as far as you like and retrace it back to Poncha Pass. Alternatively, hike up the Rainbow Trail west of the parking area on Poncha Pass/US 285. It’s another great section of trail but you have to hike a long way before you get the big views. This section sees much more mountain bike and motorcycle use.
Trailhead Access & Facilities
From the intersection of US 50 and US 285 in Poncha Springs, turn south and toward Poncha Pass on US 285. Drive 5.3 miles to a pullout on the right side of the highway. There is a sign announcing the Rainbow Trail on both sides of the highway. Park here. To get to the trailhead, cross US 285 to the east side of the highway and look around for the small trail marker by the road. You should find the trail rather easily.
There are no facilities at the trailhead or along the trail.
Location: Poncha Pass, Just Southwest of Salida
Distance: 4.8 Miles – Out & Back
Hiking Time: 3-4 Hours
Best Months: May to October
Trail Type: Singletrack
Difficulty: Strenuous – Loose, Rocky Trail, Climbing
Dog Friendly: Yes – Be Careful Crossing US 285 to Trailhead.
Elevation in Feet: Low Point 8,425; High Point 9,618; Climbs/Descends 1,785
Land Status: San Isabel National Forest
Maps: Trails Illustrated #138
Note: This trail is also open to mountain bikers and motorcycles so keep an eye out for them. You won’t see many, if any.
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.
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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