Now that it’s July, why not start your Denver hike from up high? Three paved passes beckon, each over 11,000 feet in elevation, each with a trailhead at its high point. And each is only an hour and fifteen minutes from downtown! No need to wait for the weekend; you can easily drive up after work for a big dose of high mountain soul time.
Guanella Pass leads to Mount Bierstadt and a host of alpine lakes; Loveland Pass gives access to the catbird seats of Mount Sniktau and Grizzly Peak. And then there’s Berthoud Pass, bisected by the Continental Divide Trail. Hiking west from this pass, it’s only 2 miles and 1,000 vertical feet to the tundra crest, and from there you might want to keep on walking forever.
But before you do that, the Ten Little Indians are bound to give you pause.
The road to Berthoud Pass is old, having started out as a wagon toll road in the 1870s. It was upgraded for automobiles in the 1920s, and then, in the 1930s, something special happened: the highway department started keeping it open all winter! This meant there was no better place to try out the burgeoning sport of skiing than Berthoud. Early enthusiasts could ski down either side from the pass and get driven back up to do it again, and again. By 1937 a rope tow was installed at the top and, ten years later, the pass became home to the country’s first double chairlift.
The lifts are now gone, but as you begin hiking up the hillside west from the pass you can almost hear the shouts of joy from bygone ski kids, echoing through the woods. And the scenery is achingly beautiful, especially in the first half of summer when long fingers of snow grace the mountainsides near and far.
Then you reach the place where the main chairlift ended, and a special treat begins. Ahead is a big hump of green hill, with 14 switchbacks zigzagging up it. This is the “fun” part of the hike, but it’s not the treat.
To the right, to the west, a cirque appears which is so gorgeous in how it is scooped out of the tundra that it is hard to peel your eyes off it. This is Current Creek Cirque, also known as Ten Little Indians. The nickname comes from its approximate number of extreme skiing chutes, which hold snow into July. Even if you haven’t skied the Ten Little Indians, you may have drunk them. Although the cirque is located west of the Continental Divide, a circa-1900 aqueduct sends its meltwater to Denver area faucets through a tunnel that runs beneath the parking lot at Berthoud Pass.
In addition to water, cirques deliver some of the most eye-catching vistas in the Front Range, and Ten Little Indians is among the prettiest in my opinion. Another name for the amphitheater-like formation is “corrie,” which is a Scottish Gaelic word for “cauldron.” Here in the Front Range, cirques are found mostly on high northeast faces. It’s fun to look at topographic maps and see the strings of curved pits carved from the peaks and ridges. It’s even more fun to visit them!
Cirques are most common on the northeast faces because that was where bygone glaciers received maximum shelter from the sun and prevailing winds. Here they grew to be their biggest and heaviest. During the yearly cycle, upper sections accumulated more ice than they lost, and the opposite happened on the lower sections. This made the glaciers top-heavy, and they flowed. Along the way, assisted by freeze-thaw action in the upper interfaces, glaciers plucked off huge hunks of rock and entrained them, thus heightening their “sandpaper” effects as they flowed downhill. Often, a glacier created an over-gouged divot at the cirque bottom which became a tarn, or high mountain lake, once the glacier retreated.
Ten Little Indians has a couple little tarns in its bottom, but for the most part it is readily skiable in winter all the way down to Highway 40.
Back on the trail, those 14 switchbacks make for a stiff after-work workout! And they lead to vast high and easy roaming along the Continental Divide. But it is completely understandable if you want to stop halfway up, take a seat, and watch the evening colors ripen over Ten Little Indians. It’s tempting to stay past sunset, and very doable. You may not even need a flashlight to get back, thanks to the alpenglow that illuminates the easy 1.5 mile trail down to the car.