Quite the fun offroad route from U.S. 285/24 in South Park to Buena Vista, the Lenhardy Cutoff offers plenty of adventure for all types of activities. Lenhardy Cutoff is simply another example of a road which exists solely to support the industries of the youthful western state of Colorado. Late season adventures brought me here, and we ran the trail from east to west after the nearby Sevenmile Creek Road.
Lenhardy Cutoff is one of two offroad routes from U.S. Highways 24/285 to Buena Vista, and is overall not technical, although a difficult section near the eastern end could prove troublesome for some vehicles.
The eastern portion of the trail is the most challenging; the most challenging obstacles are near the eastern end which could pose issues for lower-clearance vehicles. There are no bailout points from the eastern start of Lenhardy Cutoff on road 309 until after the most severe rocks.
The Fourmile Recreation Area
Lenhardy Cutoff is in an area known as the Fourmile Recreation Area, in the mountains just to the east of Buena Vista and the Arkansas River Valley. The Fourmile Area has plenty of fun offroad trails, and consists of a network of roads. It’s easy to spend a day of fun here.
In the maps below to visualize the area: road 309 runs north-south, heading north from U.S. Highway 285/24. 309 intersects with Lenhardy Cutoff (376), Sevenmile Creek Road (311), and finally Salt Creek Road (435, not shown); of these three roads, Lenhardy Cutoff and Sevenmile Creek run west through to Buena Vista.
As with all forest roads now used chiefly for recreation, Lenhardy Cutoff wasn’t originally built for recreation. The road was constructed by George Leonhardy in 1872, who was an early county commissioner for Chaffee County. The road was a toll road for travel and became the regular route for mail service to Granite and Leadville. Keep in mind, this road was built well before the existence of the U.S. highway system, and some years before rail service arrived in the area, when the Denver & South Park railway superseded the Lenhardy Cutoff as the regular mail route.
After the rocky section heading westbound, the road drastically improves. There are numerous bailout points from here on out, that will bring you down to the highway just to the south. Heading westbound, these are all going to be left turns, are well signed, and clearly shown on the area Motor Vehicle Use Map.
There are many great dispersed campsites along Lenhardy Cutoff and its spurs. There are numerous spots with excellent views of the Collegiate Peaks and into Buena Vista. You generally have cell service at the high points and points with a line of sight to Buena Vista. There are good spots to shoot, just make sure you have a good backstop, as there are roads in nearly all directions at least some distance away. There are also plenty of off-trail hiking opportunities (e.g. to the top of a mountain) and the Midland Mountain Bike Trail follows the Lenhardy Cutoff.
Lenhardy Cutoff keeps descending, in some places rather steeply, for the rest of the route before intersecting with Chaffee County road 375 to Buena Vista. There is a rather drastic change from a forest ecosystem to a desert-type ecosystem, echoing that of the Western Slope rather than central Colorado.
Lenhardy Cutoff takes you from a Ponderosa/Aspen forest environment, into a desert-riparian environment rich with willows, and back up into a high-desert type environment with sagebrush, yucca, and Piñon pines. It’s actually quite cool.
The whole eastern side of the Arkansas River Valley, despite being at 8,000ft+, is quite drier than the 14,000ft+ peaks of the Collegiate Range on the western side. This is because the eastern side is in the rain shadow of the Collegiate Peaks, and gets much less moisture. Even in late fall and early spring, you can expect nice temperatures on the eastern side in the mid-50’s, and minimal snow, in contrast to the several feet of snow and below freezing temperatures the Collegiate Peaks experience through as late as May.