GREENHORN MOUNTAIN WILDERNESS • Five minutes into the hike, I knew I shouldn’t have come.
Not here. Not now.
In a few more weeks, the wooded slopes of the behemoth known as Greenhorn Mountain will be panorama of colors, perhaps the best aspen hike within an hour and 15 minutes of Colorado Springs – and certainly the quietest.
For those who venture higher, the mountain will be one of the last alpine refuges of summer, where climbers an attain a summit far above treeline when most of Colorado’s peaks have settled into winter’s embrace.
On this late August weekday, it was simply a lovely, if grueling, hike, and the mountain was mine alone. The day lacked the chromatic display I could expect in late September or the views of distant snow-packed peaks in October, but solitude was in full bloom.
This is unvisited Colorado.
“The Greenhorn wilderness is used very little,” said Carl Bauer, with the U.S. Forest Service in Cañon City.
Prominent in the Pueblo skyline, and visible from the east side of Colorado Springs on clear days, Greenhorn Mountain is the high point and the eastern end of the Wet Mountains, a wooded ridge that runs 50 miles northwest to near Florence.
The Wet Mountains see a lot of use. The range offers plenty of road-side camping and hiking and ATV trails, as well as popular destinations like Lake Isabel and the Bishop’s Castle. But far fewer people make it to Greenhorn, which just pokes above treeline at 12,347 feet.
The peak is named for Cuerno Verde – “green horn” in Spanish – a Comanche chief who wore a green horn on his head and dared to defy the Spanish in the 1770s, raiding settlements and stealing horses. In 1779, Lt. Col. Juan Bautista de Anza caught up with him and killed him in a sharp but brief battle somewhere to the east of Greenhorn Mountain.
“All our people tell me that his death will be mourned with great feeling, but I believe that feeling will not exceed the pleasure it has given our people, who have suffered no greater misfortune than a slight bullet wound to one soldier, and who have recovered five rifles of a make that abounds among those infidels from the enemy dead,” Anza wrote in his journal.
The area became wilderness in 1993, and it is hard to imagine the violence of that day when you visit.
Most people access the wilderness from the north, taking Forest Service Road 360, Orphir Creek Road, to 369, , Greenhorn Road, which involves driving 25 miles on bumpy and wash-boarded roads passable by passenger cars.
Said Bauer, “People have to really make an effort to get there.”
This trail is the busiest in the wilderness, but that’s not saying much.
From the trailhead, it’s little more than a stroll – 2 miles, 1,300 feet – to the summit, and hikers can spend ample time above treeline, exploring the several sub-peaks that make up Greenhorn.
“It offers some spectacular scenery. It’s the tip of the mountain range and you can see down into the valleys and the cities below. You can see the dominant skyline of the Sangres to the west,” said Bauer.
Easier access from Colorado Springs is at the lower trailhead, in the sleepy burg of Rye. This is the route I chose, a grueling uphill slog that begins in prairie and ends in tundra, passing through aspen glades, steep canyons and a massive avalanche chute. Wilderness advocates say no other wilderness in Colorado offers such a variety of landscape types, but you pay for it – it’s 7.8 miles one-way, with 3,800 feet of elevation gain – and by the time I reached treeline I had renamed the trail “Cuerno Verde’s Revenge.”
It wouldn’t even make a nice backpack, because there’s no water after the first few miles, which Bauer said further limits its use.
The east and south sides of the wilderness are visited even less, since a fire made the Santana Trail impossible to follow. This area has been called one of the least-visited places in Colorado, and hardy travelers should expect heavy bushwacking.
Though the wilderness lacks any jagged mountains, or even a single lake, it is spectacular in its own way. It is exhilarating to ascend past aspens, firs, spruce and lodgepole pines and emerge above treeline, the distant prairie stretching endlessly before you. To the north, Pikes Peak is king. To the south, the Spanish Peaks stand guard. To the west, the Sangre de Cristo range forms an imposing wall.
But here, above the plains where the beloved chief fell, Cuerno Verde still reigns supreme.
GREENHORN MOUNTAIN WILDERNESS
Elevation: 7,600 to 12,347 feet
Area: 22,040 acres
Year established: 1993
Special considerations: Standard wilderness rules – no bicycles or vehicles, parties limited to 15 people, no camping within 100 feet of creeks.
Getting there: Upper trailhead: Take I-25 south to Pueblo and turn west onto Colorado Highway 96. Follow 96 through Wetmore and Hardscrabble Canyon to a junction with Colorado Highway 165. Turn south onto 165 and drive nine miles to Ophir Creek Road (FS 360). Drive 8.2 miles to the end of the road and turn right onto Greenhorn Mountain Road (FS 369). Turn right and follow the road 16 miles
Lower trailhead: Take I-25 south 65 miles to Colorado City and turn west on Colorado Highway 165. Drive 8 miles to the town of Rye. Go toward the mountains for 0.6 mile on Main Street to Cuerno Verde Road. Follow Cuerno Verde Road for 1.5 miles to the Greenhorn Trail parking area.
For more information on Greenhorn: click here.