Fall in the Gore Range Hiking Kneeknocker Pass, CO Trip Report

I’m not going to beat around the bush, I’m a total slut for fall. I’ve been anxiously bouncing too and fro awaiting the season of colors. This year, due to other obligations (like driving to Nebraska to buy a teardrop camper), I thought I would miss the wonder and beauty of the Aspens turning in Colorado. Not that I need any excuse to get outside, but buying a new camper seemed like a good opportunity to do some camping and go hike Kneenocker Pass in the beloved Gore Range.

The Spirit of the Gore Range, Colorado

The Gore Range is a place people go to find epic beauty and tremendous struggle. Trails are often not well maintained, routes are long and usually require excessive elevation gain that the average person would consider suicidal. The trek to Kneeknocker Pass is no exception. This is not a beginner trail and like anything in this fantastic range, hiking Kneeknocker Pass requires endurance, skill, and proper preparation.

Views of the Gore Range
The Gores. I’m kind of obsessed.

Camping Near the Upper Piney River Trailhead

For having to travel for nearly an hour over washboard-ridden dirt roads, there is a surprising lack of camping. I’m sure some of the offshoots from the main road, but other than a few fenced-in campsites (gross) near the trail, there isn’t much in the way of camping.

At the last junction before the road borders private land, we managed to find a great little site for a teardrop, Tacoma, and a tent. This little slice of awesome is as good as it gets along the main road. We knew we were in for a cold night, so we got the fire going and enjoyed relaxing around the fire with some good company.

upper piney river road
Meet the Foxy Lady. The newest addition to the adventure arsenal.

Hiking Kneeknocker Pass, Colorado

I invited a few friends to join me for a fall frolic in the Gores. After heading to bed semi-early, we settled on a sunrise start. The temps were so cold that the lake let off a misty aura. Despite weather reports, the sky was clear and we were surrounded by stunner peaks. We saw a moose across the valley hanging out with his moose friends grazing at sunrise.

hiking kneeknocker pass
Kneeknocker Pass way out in the distance.

Kneeknocker Pass sits high in the alpine directly between Mount Powell and Peak C. From afar the pass itself looks imposing, steep, and near vertical. I felt great, so I chirped words of encouragement to my sleepy partners. The fall season just makes me giddy by nature.

The Enchanted Aspen Forest

Before connecting with the unofficial trail to Kneeknocker, you first travel along the mellow Upper Piney River Trail. This trail is around six miles out and back (so three miles one way) and gradually ascends around 854 vertical feet. The first three miles of this trail is easy. Upper Piney River is one of the most popular trails in the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness.

Upper Piney River Trail in Fall

The highlight of the trail is meandering through a large aspen grove. In the fall, this grove lights up with all of that Colorado Aspen magic. Since we had arrived early, the trail was practically empty. Simply a gorgeous scene that kept our spirits high.

Turning onto Kneeknocker Pass Trail

The climber’s trail to Kneeknocker Pass is distinguished by a small cairn, that only one of us saw. For whatever reason, we kept going until it was obvious that we needed to turn left and climb. The trail from this point is only another 2 miles to the top of the pass. However, the elevation gain is tremendous. At times the trail is at a 70% grade, seriously no joke.

Since the trail seems to start and stop at will, bushwhacking is required. However, you can see the surrounding peaks for a majority of the journey, so it’s easy to navigate. Of course, no bushwhacking is complete without some fallen trees and willows, so be prepared for all terrain types on this trail.

The gore range

Entering the Mount Powell and Peak C Bowl

Eventually, the trail levels out for about a quarter mile and the hard work pays off with stunner views of the imposing Peak C and false summit of Mount Powell. The final climb to the airy ridge that marks Kneeknocker pass is extremely steep going. Most of the terrain stays class 2, with a few steep class 2+ areas. The exertion is well worth the views from the pass.

Mount Powell and Kneeknocker Pass
Kneeknocker Pass is the gully on the left. Commanding Peak C just to the right. The false summit of Mount Powell is just out of view.

Our original plan was to scramble around on the airy ledges near the ridge. However, snow and slick rock made conditions far too dangerous to scramble, so we enjoyed the view instead. Once we had our fill we quickly turned back as the weather began to roll in.

Trail Facts

The trail hovers around treeline for the second portion of the route. Do keep an eye on the weather, it often comes over Mount Powell and may be on top of you before you see it. Travel for the last two miles is often slow as you pick your way through various obstacles along the never-ending incline.

Kneeknocker Pass Peak C Gore Range
Peak C showing off at the top of the pass. I scouted the rock, it was all slick and dangerous.

Getting to Kneeknocker Pass

Getting to the Upper Piney River trailhead takes a minute. Wind up Red Sandstone Road until you reach a subtle dirt turnoff to Piney Lake Road. Continue down the washboard until you reach the Piney River Ranch. To avoid paying for parking, park outside the ranch gate.

Is Kneeknocker Pass Dog-Friendly?

Yes. My adventure pup Nina handled the steep terrain with ease. The talous isn’t too big if you hug the left wall of the pass, making it easier for 4-legged travel. I would recommend using some type of paw protection for the final pitch. We mostly had Nina off-leash, however closer to the main trail and ranch, it’s best to leash up with the crowds.

Total Distance

To get to Kneeknocker Pass you first must do the majority of Upper Piney River Trail and then turn off to the climber’s trail. The total distance is around 10 miles.

Total Elevation Gain

According to my GPS, the trail gains over 3,500 vertical feet. Don’t be fooled, the trail gains 2,700 in the last mile. That’s over 1,000 feet a mile. The last segment of the pass is a 35-degree incline. Such drastic elevation gain is no joke. This trail certainly lives up to its namesake.

hiking kneeknocker pass

Difficulty

This trail is comparable to a moderate 14er. Certainly an expert level trail due to the length and drastic elevation gains. I asked one of my friends if he thought that Kneeknocker was more difficult than Mount Bierstadt in blowing snow. He answered yes.

Kneeknocker Pass provides plenty of adventure and a chance to get up close and personal with some of the sexy peaks the Gores have to offer. If you’re a seasoned hiker and looking for a beautiful challenge, Kneeknocker Pass is a hike for your hit list.

Discover one of Colorado’s best kept secrets – Kneeknocker Pass outside of Vail, Colorado. Follow the climber’s trail to stunning views on one of Colorado’s most difficult hikes. Hike during the fall to experience a magical aspen grove and plenty of sweeping mountain vistas. #hiking #travel #colorado #Coloradohikes

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Meg aka Fox is a 30-something who's born to explore. Her mission is to get you out on your greatest adventure. She'd rather be dirty than done up.