Trailhead to "the cabin" = 1.5 miles
"the cabin" to Belford summit = 2.5 miles
Belford summit to Oxford summit = 1.5 miles one way, 3 miles round trip
Elkhead Pass/Belford Trail split to "the cabin" = 3.8 miles
Those distances are all slightly rounded but fairly accurate as I had my Garmin on the entire hike.
For more photos and a video of our summit approach head over to my blog -- http://runaroundaroo.com/2013/07/12/mt-belford-mt-oxford/
We got to the trailhead around 5:30pm on Sunday with plans to hike up to the tree line and camp near the cabin we saw referenced is so many trip reports. As we hiked it started to thunder but no lightning was visible. This was all in the forecast so we were prepared, just seriously hoping the rain would hold off until we had set up our tent.
I'd never been legit backpacking before (always car camping) so we took our sweet time getting up to the cabin, which I blame entirely on the weight on my pack. It wasn't overly heavy but the switch backs up to the cabin were a bit daunting. After the meadow of switch backs we started searching for a place to camp. Just to the left of one of the meadow switchbacks was a spot that looked perfect...with a tent already set up. We continued on and ended up left of the trail a few hundred yards before the cabin. There were two spots close together, one with more tree cover than the other. We took the tree cover which turned out to be a good choice as the other spot got pretty washed out in the rain overnight. There was someone camping in the cabin and on our hike up the next day we found a few more spots to the right of the trail just past the cabin.
We crawled into our sleeping bags early with an alarm set for 3am. It was a quiet, peaceful night...until about midnight. Then another storm rolled in. This storm was not in the forecast but it was incredible to listen to. The clouds hid all the stars and moon so it was so dark having my eyes opened or closed looked the same. This made the lightning even more intense. I love thunder so I thought this was the coolest thing ever. Before long it was pouring rain - we were about to see just how waterproof our gear was!
The alarm went off at 3am and we were still dry, so I'd say that was a successful night! The skies were clear and the stars. It was a New Moon, so there was no moon, which made the stars seem even brighter.
We were on the trail at 3:45am (no idea what we did with 45 minutes...apparently getting out of a warm bed isn't any easier in the backcountry!). This is the earliest we have ever started a 14er but the forecast called for scattered thunderstorms starting around 11am so we wanted to get our butts up the mountain before the clouds got ornery. In retrospect, I am really glad we hiked up Belford in the dark. It would have been very demoralizing to stare up at all the switchbacks as my legs loudly protested to the climb.
The hike up the switchbacks seemed to take forever, even in the dark. I was not moving very fast - the previous weeks of pounding out some hard miles while running had my legs exhausted. We made it to Mt Belford's summit before 7am. This is the earliest we have ever summitted and it was really neat to see the rising sun, the alpenglow move down the mountain and listen to all the critters wake up. We didn't stay on Belford for long...just long enough to convince ourselves we had to do Oxford because we never wanted to climb the Belford switchbacks again.
Mt Belford Summit
Belford Summit, looking southwest
Mt Belford Summit Marker
About half way down the descent to the saddle between the mountains we stopped to eat then continued on to Oxford. The stretch of nearly flat ground along the saddle made our legs very happy and the climb up Oxford was quick and painless. We made it to the Oxford summit by 8:30am. It looks like it might take forever, but it isn't that bad. If you are on Belford and dreading another summit...just hike to Oxford. It isn't nearly as bad as the climb up Belford, I promise!
Mt Oxford Summit
Mt Oxford Summit Marker with Belford in the background
Although the hike back from Oxford is more difficult...it feels like you are summitting your 3rd mountain of the day, but without getting the credit for it.
The trail from Belford to Oxford
The trail from Oxford to Belford
As you are hiking from Belford to Oxford you can see a few different trails leading off to the right/west. These trails will lead you to the Elkhead Pass trail. Once we completed the climb back up Belford (but not actually summitting, we were south of the actual summit) we took a trail leading east hoping it was the Elkhead Pass trail. Elkhead Pass goes almost 1.5 miles out of the way but we read that it was much more gradual than the Belford switchbacks. Gradual to us means easier on the knees and that is always a good thing.
Hiking along Elkhead Pass with Missouri on the horizon
We were on the right trail, although for a while we were actually hiking southwest, which felt off considering our car was northeast. After a wide loop we passed the split off for the Missouri Mountain. At this point it was only 10:30am and the sky was still clear so we contemplated another summit...then got our senses back and continued down the valley. Before long we were hiking along the creek. It was a really beautiful hike and the descent was so gradual it didn't feel like we were coming off a 14er. If you can talk your legs into the extra distance I'd highly recommend this route. It may have been longer but it was so much easier than switchbacks I'm willing to bet it was faster than the other route.
The Belford/Elkhead split - the Belford switchbacks take you up ridge
Just before noon we were back at our campsite where we packed up and headed back to the car. Somehow I'd completely forgotten how far up we had hiked...the hike back to the car seemed to take forever. We got back to the car before 2pm and the first thing I did was take off my socks and shoes. My feet have never before been so happy to walk barefoot on gravel!
Backpacking in only 1.5 miles may seem a little silly but I am so incredibly glad we had 1.5 fewer miles to climb upward on the day of our summits. Maybe my legs are just being extra wimpy, but it was really nice to have some distance already covered when we got up to hike. And its not hardcore backpacking. The hike in is rather intense with a heavier pack but on the way out I was too lazy to properly pack the packs and ended carrying our tent out in its stuff sack by hand...it was a short enough hike that this wasn't a big deal.
Overall, it was a great day. We learned a few new things about 14ers...like starting before 4am really isn't a bad idea. I think we'll be starting really early more often. Sure, a 6-7am start usually gets you up and down the mountain before afternoon storms, but being to your car at 2pm is amazing. And hiking in the dark is pretty neat too.