Coulson Gulch | Roosevelt National Forest
Lyons, CO | 05/06/21 | 6.12 miles | 1,070′ gain
Coulson Gulch had been on my list for a long time. I’d originally planned to hike just the standard six-mile out & back trail, but after some further research, it looked like I could complete a loop around North Sheep Mountain. A loop would of course be preferable to an out & back hike, but the only problem was that the bridge across North Saint Vrain Creek had washed out in the 2013 floods. As it’s now been nearly ten years, I can’t imagine this bridge will ever be replaced, and I wasn’t sure if it was possible to cross without it. I figured I’d check it out when I got there, worst case I would turn around and skip the loop.
I didn’t arrive until late morning, but as expected, there were few people around on a weekday in the shoulder season. Since the main trailhead was closed, everyone was parking along the road below the gate. The trailhead kiosk was a short walk past the closure and I quickly reached the start of the trail. Unlike most trails which head up to a destination, the Coulson Gulch Trail heads down, and what goes down must come back up again. The trail starts at the top of Coulson Gulch, descending first through a meadow and then into the forest. The descent was generally gradual but I couldn’t help but think of how I would have to climb back up later.
The Forest Service website describes the Coulson Gulch Trail as “crossing back and forth across a mostly dry streambed”. I have to wonder if most of the year this statement is accurate, but it certainly wasn’t in May. Coulson Gulch was swollen with snowmelt and far from “mostly dry”. Further down the gulch, the stream grew as it collected small rivulets on its way to the Saint Vrain. The creek crossings started out easy with plenty of stepping stones but became more difficult as the creek grew deeper and wider. As I progressed, it became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to continue without getting wet feet.
The trail continues its descent toward Higgins Park, an open meadow bounded by North Sheep and Cook Mountains. The meadow is occasionally visible through the trees. To reach it, the trail descends a couple of steep switchbacks, the last of which passes by an old cabin. Bear Gulch dumps into Coulson Gulch near the cabin, nearly doubling its size.
In Higgins Park, the Coulson Gulch Trail meets up with an old road. The road’s east branch leads to Ralph Price Reservoir and the south branch heads down to North Saint Vrain Creek. My planned route took me south and I continued along the road. Although there were no signs at the junction, the Forest Service doesn’t recommend hikers continue past this point. Not only had the 2013 floods washed out the bridge across the Saint Vrain, they also damaged the lower reaches of Coulson Gulch. The streambed as well as the trail were often washed out, with debris and boulders strewn everywhere. Creek crossings were difficult and the trail was often challenging to follow. I don’t know when or if the trail will ever be repaired or why the Forest Service wouldn’t just close the trail entirely, but regardless, use this section of trail at your own risk.
I picked my way along the creek, trying to stay on the trail when I could find it. Soon I could see and hear North Saint Vrain Creek. I thought it looked more like a river than a creek and I didn’t have high hopes that I’d be able to cross.
The Saint Vrain was raging with spring runoff, the sound of water crashing against rock ringing in my ears. I ate my lunch on a boulder above the “creek”, keeping a close eye on my dog Otis lest he get too close to the edge as he is wont to do. I could see the attachments where the bridge used to be and I thought I could see where the trail continued on the other side. I eyeballed the various boulders sticking up above the rushing water. If only the water was a bit lower, I thought, I might be able to get across. Another option I considered was to skip the crossing and continue along the north side of the Saint Vrain, but I couldn’t see around the bend to know if there was a safe passage. I ultimately decided it wasn’t safe to continue. We sat in the sun a little while longer before making our way back up Coulson Gulch.
I was expecting the return trip to take me quite a long time considering that it was all uphill, but I moved surprisingly quickly. The gradual to moderate incline seemed to work well for me, and I cruised along, back up the gulch, through the forests and meadows, and across the creek over and over again.
I hope to eventually return to complete the loop around North Sheep Mountain. After doing some more research, it is possible to follow the edge of the Saint Vrain without crossing, but it involves quite a bit of scrambling and route-finding. When I make it back, I plan to bring a partner (for safety), leave the doggies at home (for safety), and probably come during the fall when water levels are low (mostly to avoid wet feet but also for safety). I think this adventure will be a fun one.
I would like to acknowledge that the Coulson Gulch Trail is on the ancestral land of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute), Cheyenne, and Arapaho.