Explore Colorado / Explore The Outdoors

Hiking the Shoulder Season in Breck

If you think May just means mud in the Colorado mountains, you’re wrong.  It’s a transition from snow and the grays and browns of winter to the vibrant shades of green of summer.  The shoulder season as it’s called is a secret season for folks like me who enjoy strolling through a quaint mountain town with no crowds, taking in the fascinating process of snowmelt runoff, and watching the natural world wake up from it’s winter slumber.  The shoulder season runs from when the lifts stop running for skiing until early to mid-June, excluding the busy long holiday weekend for Memorial Day.  It’s a time to really snag some great lodging and dining deals, along with enjoying less crowds.

I’m game to hike anytime, any time of year.  So while in Breckenridge for a few days recently, I hit a couple of my favorite trails.  One of those is right along the Blue River.  Just park at the Rec Center, or if staying in town you can walk and hit the trail.  You get great views of snow covered peaks, including Breckenridge Ski Resort, both ways.  This trail is a favorite of tourists and locals.  With temps in the low 60s I couldn’t not take a stroll along the Blue with my friend Austyn and her dog Barley.

The day before, I did two hikes in one day.  It was another glorious day with temperatures climbing into the 60s.  My friend Kristen joined me for the first hike.  We took off on the Sallie Barber Trail from the French Gulch Road Trailhead, which sits at 10,335 feet.  This is a popular trail in summer so I was hoping to take in the scenery and mining history that dates back to 1880.  We crossed over a creek with patches of snow still along its banks and embarked on a peaceful trek along the shaded trail.  We traversed a trail dry in spots and covered with about a foot of snow in others.  There was one spot with a small snowmelt runoff induced waterfall.  I just had to stop and take in the perfect scene of spring in the Rockies with moss turning a vivid green, water trickling in a waterfall, but with winter still trying to linger with the snow that’s yet to melt.  We hit a big curve on the trail covered with snow.  It was there we decided to turn around.  Guess Sallie Barber will have to wait until summer for me.  Nonetheless I relished in the beauty of seasons changing and chatting with a dear friend on the trail.

When we got back to our cars, I decided I would give another trail a try and headed over the Gold Run Gulch Trailhead off of Tiger Road.  I had done a winter hike with my friend Melissa and thought I would just venture up to the old Jessie Mill to see how much snow was still up there.  North and east facing mountains will hang on to snow a lot longer than south and west facing ones.  On this hike I was more south and west facing so as I headed up Peabody Placer Trail I immediately found a lot of the snow gone.  Yes, there was some mud from snowmelt, but the trail was actually pretty dry to the old Jessie Mill.

From the late 1880s to the early 1900s, the Jessie buzzed with mining activity.  The large wooden structure is the stamp mill.  Miners would haul the blasted ore to the surface then transport it to the stamp mill by a gravity-powered cable tramway from the Glenwood tunnel, one of the seven mine openings to the underground network in the hillside.  The stamp mill would crush the “run-of-mine” gold, silver, and lead ore into sand-sized particles.  The Jessie is the only stamp mill still standing in Summit County.

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The water was already swiftly flowing in the creek that separates the trail from the Jessie.

I noticed a board across the stream and crossed it to get a closer view of the old mill.  From that vantage point I got a great view of not only the mill, but also the snow covered mountains.

My original destination for this short hike was supposed to be just the Jessie.  But, I decided to hike a little higher to revisit the ghost town I had gone to with a friend in January.  Curiosity got me and I wanted to see what was under all the snow.

The snow melt was flowing along side the trail, and sometimes in the trail.  In one muddy spot, I looked down as I was walking and noticed a bear paw print….freshly made.  There are bears, moose and other wildlife in the area so I started making noise clapping my hands, singing to myself, whistling, and slapping my legs as I hiked.  Usually noise keeps the wildlife away.

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When I got to what’s left of the Extension Mill, I knew I was close to Preston ghost town.  Extension Mill was a stamp mill like the Jessie, and you can see the concrete stamp pads exposed in the crumbling pile of wood.  A lot the wood was covered in snow when I saw it the first time.

I continued up the trail and saw the tin A-frame of a building that had collapsed.  In January all I could see was the tin roof.  This hike I could see more of what was at one time one of the highest post offices in America.  I took a moment to just take in the view.  Boy, did those folks in the late 1800s know how to pick a homestead with a view!

While standing near the old post office, I noticed a cabin that looked in pretty good shape so I hiked up the hike to check it out.

From that cabin I saw one that wasn’t as in good shape but still intriguing.  As I was exploring around it, listening to the snowmelt runoff, I could help but think how happy the folks living in Preston must have been when winter let go of her bitter cold grip and spring started waking up all around them.

The founding date of Preston is uncertain, but it definitely existed by 1875 when its post office opened.  By 1882 the town had 150 residents and had a produce shop, boardinghouse, and head offices of two mining companies.  In the next few years it gained a dressmaking and millinery shop, offices of a third mining company, two stamp mills, a dairy, and the produce shop expanded into a general merchandise store.  But, by 1888, the town’s population fell to 50 and then to only 10 by the early 1890s.  There’s a mix of a couple of cabins still standing to piles of lumber from collapsed buildings.  There’s also a lot of metal fragments like old drums and I even saw what’s left of a mattress with grass and weeds going through it now.

After spending about 10 minutes wandering around, I headed back down the trail….playing music on my phone and singing along the way.  That was my tactic to keep the bear at bay and it worked as I enjoyed the views of retracing my steps back to my car.

If you’re heading to Breckenridge this summer, put this hike on your list.  You can add several more miles to it as there are several loops.  To get to the trailhead, take Tiger Road.  After the golf course, be on the lookout for Gold Run Road in the Highlands Park subdivision.  Take that road 1.25 miles to trailhead.

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