I hiked the Hogan Park trail last Sunday. It was beautiful.
Since I’ve only seen a few write-ups of this trail online, I thought it might be helpful to post my experience.
One important caveat is that I did this trail in the summer (July), and I did not realize that Hogan Park Trail is a rare trail that is maintained in the winter but not in the summer. In fact, there basically is no trail in the summer. If the idea of orienteering overland with no trail is unattractive to you, then you probably will not enjoy this hike.
The hike starts on US 40 through Rabbit Ears Pass, specifically across the road from Walton Peak parking lot, and traditionally ends at the base of Morningside lift on the back of Steamboat Ski Area. But, in summer, Morningside lift does not operate, so it would be more accurate to say the summer hike ends at the gondola, which offers free downhill rides to hikers.
So this is a one-way hike that requires either a drop-off or a pick-up at the Rabbit Ears Pass end.
The beginning of the hike at Walton Peak trailhead does have a few blue trail blazes, but this is deceptive because he blazes disappear almost immediately (I counted three blazes) and the orienteering begins. In fairness to the USFS, there is no discernible trail, even at the start, so I can’t say the trail disappeared, because it was never there in the first place.
Without a trail, either a GPS is required, or a map, compass, and very good orienteering skills. I went with GPS via an app on my phone called Backcountry Navigator PRO, which allowed me to download the USFS topo map onto my phone before going offline. Then the GPS unit on my phone tracked my location on the downloaded map. However, the phone map did not have the trail marked on it, so I carried a paper topo map, too, and tracked my GPS location against the trail on the paper map. It was less confusing than it sounds.
Almost immediately, the GPS trail took me through a meadow that is more of a bog in summer. This became a running theme throughout the hike. The wide, expansive meadows, which must be a joy to ski in winter, become ankle deep swamps in summer.
Since there is no trail, I utilized GPS to skirt the edge of the swampy meadow. This required traipsing through the edge of the woods and hopping over downed trees.
The route involves crossing a number of creeks, including a few branches of Fishhook Creek, as well as Hogan Creek. By calculating the elevation at which the trail (existent only on the map) crosses each creek, I was able to approximately get my bearings, although hiking by following contour lines is difficult.
Once the climb topped out, I entered some wide open meadows that were completely overgrown with shrubs taller than me. After some unsuccessful bushwhacking, I went back to my earlier practice of hiking along the treeline and avoiding the meadows.
The last half-mile into Morningside lift was especially difficult, as I wound up hiking above where I needed to be, then below, then back up and along some nasty contour lines until I finally hit the lift. Surely there is a better way to do that.
Along the Way
On the way to Morningside, I would occasionally hit a faint trail, sometimes possibly a game trail and sometimes clearly a human trail. Invariably, the trail would peter out and I would be on my own again. I also spotted a few rare Forest Service blue diamond trail markers, although these sprung up bizarrely – sometimes 2-3 in a row, then nothing for miles.
The elevation gain was more than I expected – about 1000 feet from trailhead to Morningside lift, and then another 600 feet to the ridgeline. Particularly on skis, it would be more fun to traverse this route starting at the ski area. Assuming, of course, I had a pass to ride the lifts up.
Along the way I saw a family of elk, some deer, a chipmunk, and lots of birds. Fortunately, no bear, although I advise carrying bear spray.
Steamboat Ski Area
To my chagrin, I discovered that Morningside is completely abandoned in summer. I hadn’t expected the lift to be operating, or even to see any bikers, but I had thought there would be a graded service road up to the top of the ski area. Wrong.
The paths that look like they were once service roads have now been completely overgrown and covered with fallen logs and swamp. I painstakingly switch-backed my way up to the top of Sundown lift, then strode over to the top of Storm Peak.
From there, I was lured by the vision of Four Points Lodge and a graded road, and I made the mistake of painstakingly switch-backing down the face of Storm Peak. Instead, I probably should have walked further and followed a bike path through the woods.
Once I finally stumbled onto the deck at Four Points, the last mile got a lot easier. I just wandered the graded road down to the gondola, and took the free ride down to the base.
In retrospect, I did not appreciate what an epic adventure this would be. I brought a couple bottles of water, which was enough, but no food, which was a bummer. I also should have brought a backup battery pack for my cellphone. It’s been a long time since I’ve navigated by compass, and I would’ve had serious problems had my GPS gone out.
A machete also would’ve been handy, although I don’t know if that would’ve violated USFS policy.
To preserve my cellphone battery, I shut off all services except GPS during the hike. Occasionally I did get a Verizon signal and made brief calls to let family know I was alive. That’s helpful.
Good, water-resistant hiking boots were essential.
I wore long socks, shorts, and a t-shirt, although long pants would’ve been better. I didn’t encounter any adverse weather, although I prepared for it and brought more clothes in my pack.
All told, the trip took me about five hours and 11 miles of hiking. Doing it again, I probably could shave an hour off that just by not getting lost, particularly on the last mile into Morningside.
There are only a few spectacular vistas on the hike, but being out in the backcountry all by myself, off trail, was gorgeous. If you have the time and the desire, it’s a certain type of fun.