You can find lots of different ways to explore Chaffee County’s vast open spaces, including hiking, biking and all-terrain vehicles, but one of the most enjoyable can be riding horseback.
On horseback you can follow the Colorado Trail, cross the Continental Divide or find hidden natural gems like small alpine lakes. You can explore the Collegiate Peaks and Buffalo Peaks wilderness areas, Browns Canyon National Monument or the San Isabel Wilderness.
Before leaving, you should always check the weather and be prepared for possible changes, which can happen quickly.
Riders should also inform someone else where they are going riding and approximately when they will be returning. If possible, ride with one or more friends for safety.
Use a trail map and take along a GPS or compass. While cell coverage is spotty, it is possible to make contact in some areas, and cellphones may be useful.
Water, sunscreen, snacks and your rain gear are essential if you are horseback riding, bike riding or hiking as well. It is also a good idea to have a first aid kit.
Browns Creek Trail to Browns Lake
Beware, this trail is not for the faint of heart. The trail is extremely technical. Do not take a novice horse on this trail. Make sure your mount is sure-footed. You will be on ledges and climbing up rocky trails.
The lake makes a great lunch or fishing spot. Views of Jones Peak (13,571 feet) to the south and Mount White (13,667 feet) to the north are thrilling.
Trailhead: From U.S. 285 turn west on CR 270. Follow the signs to Browns Creek Trailhead.
The ride: The start of the trail is just past the restrooms. Start climbing west on the trail. Not far from the signs you will have to dismount and open a gate. Please close the gate behind you.
The trail will intersect with the Colorado Trail at 1.4 miles.
Follow the Colorado Trail south for 0.2 miles and then turn right on Browns Creek Trail. Forest Service signs help you out.
At 2.8 miles a side trail will take you to Browns Falls, with an elevation of 9,863 feet. It is worth the trip and adds only 0.2 mile.
Continue up the trail, which is highly technical, with lots of rocks to climb and ledges. You will reach Browns Lake, elevation 11,286 feet, at 5.75 miles.
To return, continue until you reach U.S. Forest Service Road 278, where you can ride to Little Browns Creek and back down for a long loop.
Total mileage: To Browns Lake and back is 11.5 miles.
Elevation gain: To Browns Falls, 919 feet; to the lake, 2,342 feet.
Best time of year: Summer and early fall.
Rating: Easy to the falls, difficult to the lake.
Another pair of alpine lakes awaits you on this ride, so take your fishing gear and your camera.
A multitude of wildflower species grows along the trail. Look for elephant heads, larkspur, monk’s hood, bluebells, Indian paintbrush, columbine, Parry’s primrose and more as you ride.
Trailhead: Where you park depends on how much road riding you want to do.
From the Mount Princeton Hot Springs drive it is almost 11 miles on CR 162 to the junction of Hancock Road. There is a small parking area here or go toward St. Elmo and park in the lot there.
If your rig is a smaller one, you can drive 2.9 miles down Hancock Road and park at the junction of Forest Service Road 297 (Pomeroy Lakes Road). Check it out ahead of time and make sure you are comfortable taking your rig on this road.
The ride: The ride will start at the junction of CR 162 and Hancock Road.
Follow Hancock south for 5.7 miles to the historic Hancock town site.
Along the way you will see old mine buildings and probably the most photographed leaning building in Colorado.
Turn left onto FSR 295. Stay south on this road following the Continental Divide Trail signs. There are many offshoots but stay on the main road.
At 7.1 miles you will arrive at the actual Hancock Lake trailhead. Follow the single-track trail, picking your way through the marsh at the very beginning.
You will reach the lower lake in 7.2 miles, where you can fish or continue on.
It is another 0.5 mile to the upper lake. The trail heads into a very rocky creek bed. You can get around most of the rocks through the willows and cross the creek.
You will come to a sign pointing you to the Continental Divide Trail left or Upper Hancock Lake right.
If you want to continue on to Chalk Creek Pass, stay low. From the sign you can look slightly to the left and see two trails.
The upper is the Continental Divide Trail, the lower is the one you want, although it is faint in spots.
There is a boulder field on the Continental Divide Trail that is not horse passable, but you can get around it on the lower trail.
Skirt the edge of the willows and the lower edge of the boulder field and you will see a rock cairn where the trail starts again.
You can ride to the saddle at 8.5 miles. There will be a couple spots where you will have to navigate around rocks, but it is doable.
Total mileage: For this ride 17 miles, but it can be shorter of you park on Hancock Road.
Best time of year: Midsummer to early fall.
Elevation gain: 10,018 feet at CR 162 and Hancock Road. The lower lake is 11,615 feet, upper lake is 11,800 feet and Chalk Creek Pass is 12,170.
Rating: Easy to moderate for the lower and upper lakes. Difficult to the pass.