Explore Colorado / Explore The Outdoors

The Least Busy Trail on Guanella Pass: When a Trail Mishap Turned Into a Fun Discovery Hike

My friend Mindy said, “It wasn’t the trail we meant to take, but it was a hike meant for us.” We were supposed to hike Shelf Lake, but instead found the least busy trail on Guanella Pass. In 7 miles we only saw 5 people – a group of 3 and a couple. Admittedly, both of us have been so busy we didn’t do our due diligence on downloading directions to Shelf Lake Trailhead. Once we lost cell service we just decided to go on a discovery hike instead. Sometimes you just need to hike without a definite destination. This hike is an excellent training hike. We started at 9,813 feet and climbed to 11,174 feet for an elevation gain of 1,298 feet. Most of that was in the climb on South Park Trail 600 in Kirby Gulch then hiking up and over to Bruno Gulch.

Trail Stats: We did a 7-mile loop of Buno Connector Trail No. 792.A to South Park Trail 600 to Buno Gulch Trail 792 with a short walk through the campground back to our car. For a shorter hike, do an out and back hike on Buno Gulch Trail 792 to see the beaver ponds, aspen tunnels, and the “butt tree.” That’s about 4 miles round trip.

Getting to Trailhead: If you want to hike Shelf Lake, go to Duck Creek Picnic Area and follow the rough dirt road to the trailhead. The Duck Creek Campground is located on a dirt road just south of the picnic area, about 7 miles up Guanella Pass from Grant on Highway 285. Going Highway 285 from Denver, instead of I-70 is faster to get to with Duck Creek Picnic Area or Campground. Drive the dirt road until you see the horse corral next to Buno Connector Trail 792.A sign.

After a false start and driving to the Duck Creek Picnic Area and deciding that wasn’t the right area (which it was for Shelf Lake), we drove back to the Buno Connector Trail No 792.A trailhead. On maps it’s Bruno Gulch but the trail sign says Buno. We started at 8:25am and it was a brisk 50ºF. That trail goes through forest, a lovely meadow, forest, and opens up to another meadow as the trail intersections another trail. We went left and headed back into the forest.

Shortly after crossing a small wooden bridge the trail intersects South Park Trail 600. We encoutered the group of 3 near the bridge. When we turned left on Trail 600, the climb part of the hike started. Instead of heading toward Shelf Lake, we were following a creek hiking into Kirby Gulch. At our 3 mile mark, we reached a beautiful open area where we saw a couple looking for mountain goats while scouting for hunting season. They knew the area well and helped us figure out a loop hike instead of an out-and-back one.

As we left the meadow, we crossed a log over a stream and went back into the forest. This was also uphill as we climbed through a couple of really muddy and rocky sections. We reached our max elevation of 11,174 feet before hitting a flat area and starting a descent. There was a stellar view point before we came out of the pines at our 5-mile mark.

The couple we chatted with told us to look for the “butt tree.” Once out of the trees, we saw the butt tree in Buno Gulch where South Park Trail 600 intersects with Buno Gulch Trail 792 in Bruno Gulch. It’s a tree burl that looks like a booty. We had a good laugh, took some pictures, and walked down to the stream, but the bugs were pretty bad so continued on our way.

The next 1-1.5 miles was the prettiest section of our hike as we went through a beautiful aspen tunnel. We stopped for some pictures when we got to the beaver dam pond. There are so many aspens on this trail we felt like we had hit the aspen jackpot. Both of us said this is a must hike during the fall to see the golden aspens without crowds. You can easily do it from the Buno Gulch Trail 792 trailhead for a 3-4 mile round trip out-and-back hike. At our 6.5-mile mark, we had a couple of switchbacks and then some fast rollers on the trail before finishing on a fairly flat section following the creek to trailhead for Buno Gulch Trail 792. There is a small parking area at the trailhead. From here we walked about a quarter of a mile back to our car at Buno Connector Trail 792.A trailhead. It was a wonderful discovery and training hike without crowds, a rarity on Guanella Pass.

Author Jennifer Broome has hiked extensively in Colorado. For more hikes like Paradise Cove and fun adventures in the Centennial State, check out the Explore Colorado section.