After spending the night in Leadville at the Columbine Inn (which was a bit of an adventure in and of itself since they lost 3 of our 8 reservations) we took our time to depart to the trailhead. The trail was about 4 miles from the hotel and, given the short length, we opted to leave town around 10am so we wouldn't arrive too early at the hut.
Buckeye Gulch trailhead is about 4 miles outside of Leadville and is incredibly easy to miss: it’s not really marked from the road and its narrow road cut is easy to miss - thankfully traffic on Hwy 91 is light and turning around is quite easy. The trailhead is not actually on Buckeye Road (as I had originally thought) - it’s a few hundred yards past it. The trailhead could hold about 10 vehicles, so it easily fit our party plus the folks coming out of the hut. (Pro tip: park on the north side of the lot to ensure your car is in the sun when you return.)
By the time we hit the trail it was about 40 degrees out. There hadn’t been any fresh snow in over a week, so the trail was very sun baked and crusty in the shadows. Since the first half of the trail was forested, most of the trail was very icy.
The start of the trail in the forest was wide and mellow, but shortly before it intersected with Buckeye Road it narrowed to a very tight track on an angled slope about 100 ft above the road. This was an awkward section of trail since it required the snowshoers to dig in their crampons into the icy slope and the skiers to sink their edges in as much as possible. Since this portion of the trail also climbed and dropped frequently, it made for an awkward skinning experience for those on skis. Thankfully, this section was brief and made better by stupid jokes told on the trail (Hey anteater, why the long nose?)
The trail joined the road briefly about .25 miles before the critical junction where we climbed up the gully. The turn was well marked (in fact the whole trail was well marked by blue diamonds) and we crossed the small creek with a bridge.
Shortly after the turn, the trail broke to the left of the valley floor (following the blue diamonds) - this fork could be easy to miss if you aren't watching for diamonds and instead are just following tracks; the good news is that a few hundred yards after the fork you can cut left back onto the trail.
The trail slowly climbs the valley wall, gaining altitude on the hut that is directly across from you (but above you by about 500 feet). This portion of the trail is largely in the shade so the snow was much softer and less crusty than before the junction.
Near the end of the valley the trail breaks from the trees and climbs a large clearing that provides a great view behind you. The trail re-enters the forest and twists around a bit before you reemerge near treeline on the far side of the valley. At this point it feels like the hut is close…it’s not.
We hiked about another .8 miles once we were on the far side of the valley. The trail here was mostly flat (all but 150 feet of the elevation had been already gained ) but it had small rolls that made descending on skins awkward.
After hiking about another 45 minutes we finally saw the hut...Hiding, as always, in the trees. Just as we arrived an avalanche of roof snow slid from the roof dropping the 2-3 ft of snow onto the east side of the hut and making a huge racket! The slowest group started at 10:30am from the trailhead and arrived at the hut at 2pm - 3.5 hours. (The fastest group had arrived after only about 1.5 hours of hiking).
The hut has a similar layout to Jackal and Fowler Hilliard - full south facing deck, multiple seating areas inside, 5 propane burners, wood burning oven, two sinks with a cistern pump and a typical upstairs layout. What IS different about Sangree is the learning center downstairs: the hut is on top of a (locked) classroom - this, surprisingly, doesn't really change the floor plan of the hut much. The only real difference is that the wood room and cold storage is downstairs in the entryway to the classroom. Unfortunately, since the cold storage room has a large south facing window, it’s not very cold during the day -- we put our food in pots in the snow to keep it cold in daytime, then put it in cold storage over night (which did a great job of not freezing our food). The outhouse was a hundred feet from the hut via a boardwalk that had been excavated out of six feet of snow: shoveling this was a real chore!
We spend two nights at the hut with one communal breakfast and two communal dinners. The volunteer for meals purchases all of the ingredients (for which the group reimburses them) and then all of the food (and weight) is distributed through the entire group to carry up.
On our off day, most of us scattered to explore. A small group went off to tackle Buckeye Peak, another went off searching for turns, and another group climbed the small knob behind the hut. We all set off via the continuation of our inbound track that switchbacked up and to the left behind the outhouse (and was marked with blue blazes). This trail quickly popped us up above the hut and above treeline to a great view of the Sawatch range and the Arkansas River valley.
The trail was marked with blue blazes above treeline however the slope was so wind blown that you could pick any direction to travel in without risk of sinking in the snow; plus the slope was gentle enough that there was little risk of any avalanches. The skiers hiked towards the saddle (between the two knobs) in hopes of finding skiing just north of it in the trees in the next drainage over. The other group of snowshoers climbed up one of the knobs above the hut. No matter which direction you traveled in, it granted a fantastic view of the surrounding Arkansas River Valley, Sawatch Range, and Mt. of the Holy Cross.
The skiers found “soft” snow on the other side of the ridge, but it was hardly great skiing (we had no fresh snow in the high country for at least a week). The ski down off the ridge was unpleasant, but manageable.
Later in the day, some skiers went back out (after a storm moved in and started to drop snow) to try to find some turns and managed to find a little fresh snow below the hut in the trees (that wasn’t too sun baked).
The Hike Out
The storm that moved in the night before left 8” of fresh snow for us in the morning (plus much larger drifts in the corridor to the outhouse). The skiers took the opportunity to ski a few laps before we had to depart - we dropped in about a hundred yards west of the hut on a nice open slope which made for some great turns!
After cleaning up the hut and packing up, we all departed the hut. The snowshoers left about 30 minutes before the skiers (to keep us from getting all jammed up on the trail), and one group of skiers took an alternate route down. Stephen and Kevin scoped out the snow directly below the hut using Stephen’s drone and determined that route to be okay for descent on skis -- unfortunately, their drone reconnaissance was not quite detailed enough to show them how steep and tight the trees got. They had to re-skin and backtrack a little once the slope became unmanageable, but they still got down into the side valley safely and was able to easily ski out to the road in Buckeye Gulch.
The rest of the skiing group took another alternate route: we skied up above the hut (following the same route as on our rest day) and contoured to the west above treeline. Our hope was that we could skin up, then shed our skins and skip the first half mile of trail that was somewhat rolling (and not particularly ski friendly). We climbed about 0.3 miles from the hut before de-skinning and slowly descending across the gentle, wind blown slope.
We had to pole a bit, but we were able to descend slowly across the bowl until we came across the real trail. Once on the trail, we had a fast (and really fun) ride down the trail to the main gulch. There were a few small uphill sections that required poleing, but overall the trail down to Buckeye Gulch was a great ski out (with 8” of fresh snow, anyway). Once we reached Buckeye Gulch, we followed the road and then trail down to the car. The lower we got, the less fresh snow was present on the trail (and the more sun baked it had become) which made the descent go even faster. Our skier group left the hut at 9:30am, had our skins off by 10am, and we were back at the car by 10:40am. The snowshoers (who left about 30 minutes before us) were back at the car by 11am (about a 2 hour hike out).