Summit County, Colorado is known for its hiking trails. From 12,000 feet, the west Loveland pass trail can be turned into a cross-country loop crossing a beautiful basin.
Less than an hour from Denver, Loveland pass on Highway 6 is an optional route to the Keystone Ski resort. Several trails start at the 12,000-foot pass, leading to even higher viewpoints. The popular “west” trail begins across the road from the parking lot, and is about 2 miles in length.
The Trail West From Loveland Pass
The trail begins at the Loveland Pass sign and leads left around a bluff overlooking the parking lot. As one comes around the bluff, another unmarked trail descends from the main trail to the right. This is the return trail from the loop, but hikers should stay on the main trail (left) rather than attempt the loop in the opposite direction.
The trail starts southwest, with the entire basin to the right exposed to view. A sweeping high ridge runs south to north above the basin and the trail follows this ridge. Year-round snow banks lie below the ridge, and melting snow feeds a stream that winds through the basin below.
From this vantage point, one can see the entire route of the trail, which leads west, then turns north along the ridge. Hikers should start slowly, since the trail climbs steeply across broken rock in the first 200 yards. The trail levels out long enough to allow hikers to catch their breath, and then ascends again to an overlook before turning north. From this point, hikers can see 3 ski areas, Arapahoe Basin, Keystone and Breckenridge. The elevation here is 12,360, and it is about a half mile from the trailhead. If the weather is at all threatening, this is a good spot to turn around.
Turning North on the Loveland Pass
From the ski area overlook, the trail turns north and climbs up the ridge line to 12,445 feet, levels out and then ascends to the high point, 12,508 feet. From this summit, one looks east across the basin to the pass and the parking lot, all clearly visible. The return trail up out of the meadow is also visible, which is the route out if one decides to make a loop hike.
The trail ends here at the ridge line summit, Hikers can continue north along the ridge to its end about a half mile distant, where the total distance from the trailhead is just over 2 miles. Most hikers turn back somewhere along this ridge, following the trail back. Although it might be tempting to descend right (east) off the ridge to cut across the basin, this is not a safe route. The talus slopes are steep, and the snow banks between the ridge and the meadow are soft, steep and treacherous in late summer. However, it is possible to reach the meadow and return in less distance by completing a loop.
Completing the West Loveland Pass Trail
To cut a mile off the hike and return to the trailhead across the basin, one can descend the final ridge to the north and then switch sharply back 180 degrees to the south. It is too steep to descend directly into the basin from this point, but hikers can follow the ridge line back in the direction they came, staying below the snow line. Looking to the southeast, the final leg of the trail up and out of the basin is clearly visible, although there is no trail across the basin.
To reach the basin, hikers should continue south back under the ridge line until they are past the heavily brushed slope which drops into the conifers. As that area is passed, the slope becomes more gentle and exposed, allowing hikers to pick their way down into the creek area. There are still some steep rocky sections, so hikers should continue to traverse this last slope carefully.
Once at the stream level, the safest route to reach the trail out is to the south (right), swinging around an otherwise steep drop. The trail out remains visible in the distance, and hikers can easily connect with it by keeping to the right around this final basin ridge. Once on the trail, it is an easy and short hike up and back to the pass parking area.
Regardless of the weather, carry warm layers and a rain jacket or wind breaker
Carry plenty of water, snacks and a first aid kit
Wear sturdy hiking shoes
Let someone else know that you are hiking the trail as a loop
Taking the trail as a loop is not recommended for children
If unaccustomed to hiking at 12,000 feet, keep your hike short and avoid the loop
If weather threatens before reaching the summit, do not continue the hike as a loop
The West Loveland Pass Trail Loop Option
The west Loveland Pass trail is one of many scenic hikes in Summit County. Turning the West Loveland Pass Trail into a loop opens up a beautiful stream fed basin rife with wildflowers and birds, adding a new dimension to the hike. The final mile of the loop, however, is not a marked trail, and requires a cross-country descent from a high ridge. Hikers choosing this option will be rewarded, but need to be high-elevation acclimatized, well prepared and careful during the descent.