Colorado Mountain Trip: Day One (Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area — Gore Mountain Range)

July 17, 2018

A white-tailed ptarmigan on the alpine tundra of Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area in the Gore Range of north-central Colorado.

Every summer for the last several years, I’ve visited my friends Alan and Carol at their mountain cabin north of Silverthorne, Colorado, along the White Mountain National Forest. The cabin itself is a joy with nighttime temperatures in the low 40s and afternoons in the 70s. After our morning hikes, often starting at 4:30 A.M., we enjoy a variety of meals, filled with savory meats and accented with unlimited vegetables and fruits, often from the farmer’s market in town. Sometimes we sit on the deck and listen to the brook as it babbles past, right at our feet, and at night I leave my window open so I can hear the Blue River raging past the cabin to the east. When at the cabin, there is no TV to distract us and if we want to look something up, we have to find a book. If we want directions, we use a map. Remember those days? They weren’t so long ago.

During the evening, Alan and I are usually so beat from our morning adventure that we are in bed by nine with the clock set for 4:30 again. If we’re not too tired, we head to Silverthorne for an art show or Dillon for a free concert at their Muny-like venue, sans chairs. On one night we watched the National Repertory Orchestra, consisting of about 100 brilliant, young musicians as they performed works ranging from John Williams to Gershwin and Vivaldi. I think I got more than a few looks as I relaxed in my camo turkey chair with its homemade rope sling.

On the first morning of this summer’s stay, Alan and I headed to one of my favorite places:  Elliot’s Ridge (Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area) in the Gore Mountain Range. Our day started an hour before sunrise with a bouncy drive in the 4Runner nearly to the top of the mountain. Upon arrival, I assembled my camera gear and we continued on foot toward the alpine tundra, an eight-mile round-trip. We were hoping to find mountain goats but we were also looking for pika, marmots, elk, mule deer, ptarmigans, and maybe even a bear or a cougar. We never found the mountain goats but we had a glorious day atop the mountain.

The first thing we saw while still below the tree line was a beautiful mule deer buck in velvet near a copse of trees. We knew it would be a great day.

We kicked off our hike with this nice mule deer sighting.

As soon as we cleared the tree line, we were welcomed by American pipits, which were nesting on the tundra. They sang from perches on colorful rocks, and sometimes a female would do the broken wing routine if I accidentally wandered close to her nest.

An American pipit on a mountaintop rock, awash with brightly-colored lichens.

Pipits are not a showy bird but they are quite intrepid and filled with personality.

Another look at one of the American pipits of Elliot’s Ridge.

Each time we topped a summit, farther than we had hiked in previous years, we were met by another higher summit. Views from the tundra included bull elk and cows with spotted calves below us among the trees. We even spotted a nice mule deer buck with a doe, strangely mingling with a small herd of elk. I have images of these encounters but the elk and deer were too far away for a dramatic photograph. I’m always relieved when I know I can’t make a decent image because I’m then able to just relax and watch the show through my binoculars — no pressure!

About the time we gave up on mountain goats, we ran into a pair of white-tailed ptarmigans loafing near a snow field. The male of the pair can be seen in the featured image. I loved his reddish eyebrow and gorgeous white tail. Below, I’ve provided a closer look at the male as he peeked at me from behind a rock.

A closer look at the male ptarmigan.

The female ptarmigan was beautiful in her buff and black plumage, almost more striking than the male. Both birds were extremely tame, although Alan and I rarely see anybody else atop the mountain.

A female, white-tailed ptarmigan strikes a regal pose.

The female ptarmigan among the flowers of the tundra.

That evening, I thought about the ptarmigans and how they spend each day on Elliot’s Ridge in complete solitude except for their own interaction and the very occasional visiting biped. Even then, I’m sure most hikers walk right past them. It’s hard to tell with critters, but the ptarmigan pair seemed extremely happy with their summer home.

An iPhone image of our push to the next-to-the-last summit. Down to the left we spotted mule deer and elk. The center-right snowfield is where we found the ptarmigans.

An iPhone image of the alpine tundra about two summits from the top.

Alan contemplates life as I fuss over another image of a pipit.

The series of three images above was meant to give you a “sense of place” at this wonderful wilderness area, often free of any other hikers. On this day, we saw a group of four heading up for an overnight camping adventure as we were descending the mountain.

Mountain flowers were everywhere.

As the day warmed, we saw a variety of pollinators in the cool, thin air.

On our way down, we saw hummingbirds working the past-prime paintbrush of the mountain. Although I was getting hungry for one of Alan’s epic breakfast preparations and my feet were trying to develop blisters behind each big toe, I had to stop for almost an hour in an effort to make some nice images. Alan was patient, as always.

A female, rufous hummingbird hovers above some paintbrush atop the mountain.

The colors of Elliot’s Ridge!

Columbine seemed to grow right out of the rocks.

When we made it to the last boulder field before the parking lot, we stopped and looked for marmots and pikas among the rocks. I had photographed both in previous years at the same location but we were shut out this year. Although Alan looked hard in hopes of coming through for me, I wasn’t disappointed at all. I had just had one of the best mornings of my life, with or without a marmot.

Thanks for looking,


Thanks to everybody who purchased tickets for my presentation on July 21. The event sold out in less than two hours! We are already receiving requests for a third presentation from fans and nature lovers who missed out on the first two events. Bryan and I are working on confirming a date in October. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks to William Rowe and Mike Arduser for vetting some of my IDs in this edition.

Email:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

Gallery of Images and Print Information:

America is beautiful. I vote to keep it that way.







2 comments on “Colorado Mountain Trip: Day One (Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area — Gore Mountain Range)”

  1. The image of Alan is amazing. I loved working with him. I have great memories of him being across the hall from me at WHS!


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