After three fishermen raved about the beauty of hiking in Cheesman Canyon, it was time to explore the Gill Trail in Cheesman Canyon.
The Forest Service website says, “Although open year-round, access during the winter may be limited due to snow.” After a couple dry weeks, we decided to give it a try in late February.
The lower trailhead has a sign that says Cheesman Canyon, a small parking lot, a map sign and a bathroom. While the Forest Service website said the trail was 3.5 miles, the sign showed a 5-mile route through the canyon, with a way to loop back on Forest Service Road 211. That’s what we decided to do.
The trail starts behind the sign and goes through the trees, over a bridge and through another section of forest before it comes to a road. This is Forest Service Road 211. Take a good look around, because if you do the loop, you’ll want to turn back on the trail here. For now, cross the road and continue hiking up the trail.
This is your first incline on the trail. There are quite a few ups and downs on this hike. While some are short, a few are pretty serious, including a 600-foot incline near the end of the canyon.
About 0.6 miles into the hike, you’ll come to a sign that says “Cheesman Canyon, 3 miles of Gold Medal Fishing.” The sign points out more than a dozen fishing spots along the river. The Gill Trail turns right here. As you hike along the trail, you’ll need to pay attention to which trail you’re on. There are several spots where trails turn off to take fishermen to the river. In most cases, hikers should stay on the upper trail. There are a few spots where the hiker’s trail winds along the river, but for the most part the hiker’s trail stays slightly uphill.
The Gill Trail winds through trees, rock outcroppings and along the very scenic river path. Everyone in our group was pleasantly surprised at the beauty of this canyon. The trail though? It’s not for everyone. The trail has some steep drop-offs, it’s often slick with small gravel and it gets faint at times. There were several trip reports on the Internet from parents who said it’s not a good choice for small children and other hikers who complained about the scrambling. We dealt with some ice, some overgrown spots, some rock scrambling and some steep switchbacks. There were two spots where we questioned which way the trail went, but we found it.
About 3.7 miles from the start, we came to a rock and a trail split. The rock had a paper sign on it that showed a four-way intersection. It showed the Gill Trail we were on, the Gill Trail going toward the dam, a River Access Trail turning off and a 4th trail turning off toward the upper parking lot. Fortunately, I read an article from a hiker who went to the dam. He said there’s no through way and the dam is off-limits. He said he ended up meeting a ranger who wasn’t very happy to see him. We decided to head for the upper parking lot.
This is where you start the highest climb of the day. The trail now gains 600 feet. However, as you climb up the hillside, you’ll start seeing Cheesman Dam and wow! Cheesman Dam was the world’s tallest dam at 221 feet when it was completed in 1905, according to Denver Water. It’s a beautiful dam with natural rock and brick. As you hike, you’ll likely spot the outflow hole in the middle of the dam. However, when we visited the outflow was coming from a lower structure on the dam. As you get higher on the trail, you’ll begin to see the water of Cheesman Reservoir.
About four miles into the hike, we came to a great rock outcropping with a view of the dam, the lake and the mountains. This is the perfect spot for lunch, a snack or just a break.
After lots of photos, we continued on the path as it wound around the reservoir another 1.5 miles to the upper trailhead. At this point, you’ll notice that you’re hiking through a burn zone. The 2002 Hayman Fire was the largest fire in Colorado history, burning 130,000+ acres in four counties. The trail goes through part of the burn zone.
Soon you’ll reach the upper trailhead. While the signs said the trail was five miles long, my GPS registered 5.5 miles. If you’ve pre-parked a car here, your hike is done. If you’re doing the loop, you’ll need to turn right and hike up the access road. It’s about a half mile to Forest Service Road 211. Turn right here and walk the road back about two miles to the turnoff for the trail you started on. Be careful on Forest Service Road 211, it is a dirt road with traffic on it, so it can be dusty as vehicles go by and drivers likely aren’t expecting people to be walking on this road.
Read about the repair work at the dam in 2010. Read about the hike on the Forest Service’s website. Find more Park County hiking trails, Pike National Forest hikes and Colorado hiking trails in this extensive list. Don’t miss any of my trip reports, find the “subscribe to author” button at the bottom of this page and follow me on Facebook.
Details: The loop hike is about 8.2 miles with 1,700 feet of elevation gain with all the ups and downs.
Directions from the Forest Service (lower trailhead): Take U.S. Hwy 285 to Pine Junction. Turn south onto Jefferson County Road #126 leading to Pine and Buffalo Creek. Drive on Hwy #126 for 21.9 miles (from Pine Junction) to reach the trailhead. The road is paved all the way. There is a small parking area on right side of the road. The parking lot fills early because of the trails popularity with fishermen.
Upper trailhead: From the lower trailhead, continue south on Highway 126 and turn right on Forest Service Road #211, a dirt road. Drive about two miles to the turnoff for Cheesman Reservoir. Drive about a half mile to the parking lot.