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The North Fork of the Purgatory Trail, part 2

You’re there, now hit the trail

HUERFANO— This hike begins from the North Fork Trailhead parking lot adjacent to the Purgatoire Campground. (Note that on some older maps this campground is called the Potato Patch Campground) The trail heads to the west at an easy incline.  One is immediately greeted with a taste of is what is to come; thousands of wildflowers.  A sign from the United States Forest Service reminds us that the trail is for hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers only.  Motorized travel is not allowed. A short distance in is the trail register and over the next half mile or so, hikers coming here in the spring and early summer are provided with a unique treat, that being – rare red columbines!  Most of us in the Colorado know that the blue columbine is our state flower, and is illegal to pick.  And one can see other colors of columbines in local nurseries. But the wild red columbine

is a sight to behold.  Delicate and slight in its build, shining and bold in its color – this beauty is well worth seeking out.  One will mainly see them on the uphill side of the trail and a few can be found around the nearby campground.  Once again, DO NOT pick! The NF trail heads off to the west and is gentle at its start, making this trail suitable for families with kids and grandparents alike.  The trail slowly climbs in altitude and can be rocky in places but remains an overall easy to moderate trail. (Special Note: Some early versions of the United States Geological Survey topographic map for the beginning of this trail are dated and show the trail crossing the river near the start of the trail, putting the trail on the right hand side of the river. But this is incorrect. The trail was rerouted decades ago and now runs on the left side of the river until just below Parsons Cow Camp. From that crossing on the trail is on the right side of the river.) There are two or three minor river/side creek crossings (depending on precipitation) but all are easy.  Be sure to have only one person cross at a time for safety reasons.  Wear hiking boots as this trail can be rather muddy at times.  All along this entire trail, there are wildflowers in abundance. Deep blue larskspur flowers are contrasted by bold yellow monkey flowers near the creek side. In the first half mile a subtle yet powerful odor of honeysuckle permeates the air, as it wafts up from bedstraw flowers on the forest floor.  These plants were used by both Native Americans and early settlers to make pillows and bedding.  Imagine sleeping in a bed of honeysuckle scented bedding. Talk about sweet dreams! About a mile and a half in, a shallow pond is seen off to the right and serves as habitat for rare boreal toads.  It is a nice place to take a break.  In wet years other smaller ponds can be found around the main pond.  It should be noted that one of the best aspects of this trail, is that backpackers can find dozens of places to make an easily hidden overnight camp.  These sites will be obvious and it is always in good form to hide one’s camp.  Yet water and trail access are still close by. Immediately after crossing the stream from Toby Canyon coming in from the left, the trail will open up into a small but incredible meadow filled with wildflowers.  But the real prize is just ahead.  Crossing over the north fork of the Purgatory, the trail empties into a huge meadow.  Many wondrous flowers can be found along the river here.  Keep an eye out for the elephant heads. Crossing the meadow it is easy to spot a distinctive camp off to one’s right.  This is Parson’s Cow Camp, named after a local ranching family that grazed cattle here in the past.  It can be a fine place to camp, or have lunch, turn back or one can continue. From this point there are several beaver ponds on both sides of the trail filled with brook trout and other varieties off trout.  The fishing is great, but these are smart fish.  That is how they got to be so big!  Soon the trail begins to get steep and rocky as it climbs to a trail junction with the Wildcat Trail. Once at this junction, several choices are available: 1) Stay the course and head up the North Fork Trail as it peaks on a ridge/pass that descends from Trinchera Peak, before dropping down to the Trinchera Peak Road and back to Blue Lake Campground, or 2) Take off to the right up the Wild Cat Trail, or 3) Climb Trinchera Peak, or take a nap, watch clouds, sniff flowers, or…… This author rates this trail as easy to moderate, for it is only about three miles one way to the junction with the Wildcat Trail and is only steep over the last half mile.  The following USGS topo maps are suggested in order of the trail’s progression: Cucharas Pass Quad and the Trinchera Peak Quad.  Also bring the USFS San Isabel National Forest map, as it provides a more current and a larger overview of the trail.