Saturday, August 27, 2011

Eccles Pass Loop - Eagles Nest Wilderness

This run had it all...gorgeous high country scenery, acres of colorful wildflowers, a hornets nest and a blood-covered mountain man. What else could one want in a 15-mile wilderness trail run?

Time: 3:51
Distance: 15.07 miles
Effort: Easy
Body: Average
Weather: Mostly sunny

A week or so I go, I saw a message on the Boulder Trail Runners listserv from Charles Danforth about a run he did in the Eagles Nest Wilderness in the Gore Range.  The route, at a relatively modest 15 miles, promised spectacular high country scenery, some wilderness solitude and was only 40 minutes from home.

All that came as advertised, however I got a few bonus items, including a trailside hornets nest and the a blood-covered mountain man.

The route was the Eccles Pass Loop. After a bit more research, I found a post from Woody about his run around the same route. He too sang the loop's praises. I have been itching to get into them thar hills for some adventure, so with Woody and Charles' descriptions flitting about in my head, I decided to get up early and head to the Gores.

These signs always make my heart go pitter-patter!

I hit the trailhead around 6:40 a.m. and was soon off running up the Meadow Creek Trail. The plan was to run the loop counter-clockwise, so I took a right at the Lily Pad Lake Trail junction and made my way though much beetle-killed lodgepole to the namesake lake.  It wasn't much to look at, but it certainly was an appropriately named body of water.

Lily Pad Lake - Eagles Nest Wilderness

After passing the lake, the trail continues on through dense forest, leaving the wilderness area, and dumps one out on a water storage tank service road. After a few minutes of head-scratching, trying to figure out how I could be on the edge of a residential neighborhood, I headed downhill onto a short stretch of asphalt and quickly found the Buffalo Cabin Trail trailhead.  Soon, I came upon a sign gave me pause. After a quick map check, I hung a left and started climbing an old mining road. Before long, the singletrack began and the real climbing started as the rocky trail switchbacked steeply upwards. After five minutes or so, I came across a pair of hikers who politely informed me that I was climbing Buffalo Mountain, not cruising over to the Gore Range Trail.  Glad I stumbled across those astute map readers or I would have added far more than just a couple hundred extra feet of elevation gain to my day. I realized that while I looked at my map at the last trail junction, I didn't actuallyread the darn thing.

Back down I went, headed to the last trail junction where I hung a left onto the Willow Creek Trail, which was very rocky and dropped very steeply down to Willow Creek.  Soon, I was at the Gore Range Trail junction, where I started climbing up along Willow Creek.

First stop:  Willow Creek Falls (just 50 yards off the trail - worth a quick stop!).

Willow Creek Falls

From the falls, the trail climbs steeply for a bit, then eases some and winds its way in and out of forest before things finally start to open up. As the meadows begin to get bigger, one can see a ridge looming above that promises something special. But wait, there's much to distract the runner before the ridge...the wildflowers! The place was a palette of color, with yellows, purples and reds everywhere.

The wildflowers were exploding with color.


After one final stretch of climbing, I crested a small ridge and was treated to the perfect alpine basin...bursting, yet again, with wildflowers, ringed by rugged peaks and embracing a number of small tarns. Spectacular.

Heading west toward Eccles Pass.

The first unnamed (at least on my map) lake I came to. Red Mountain (?) in the background.

Same lake from above. Buffalo Pass is that low spot in the center left of the pic.

A second unnamed lake just below Eccles Pass - the low spot in the pic's center.

Looking east to Buffalo Mountain.

Buffalo Mountain and Willow Creek Valley, the route I came up.

The final stretch up to Eccles Pass.

Once at the top of Eccles Pass, the views to the west were just as dramatic, with the rugged Gore Range to the north and west, Copper Mountain Resort to the west and range after range visible in the distance.  Here's a video panorama from the top of the pass:

Looking west from Eccles Pass

Looking back up toward Eccles Pass from the west side after descending.

Trail sign down in the west side meadows.

As I came around a bend approaching a copse of trees, I was surprised to run into this guy. Turns out, today was the first day of bow hunting season and he'd already dropped a bull elk.  I ran into him just as he was returning to camp with a trophy "for the barn." He'd butchered the elk up in the trees, hung about 300 pounds of meat and was headed back to camp to get his horse to haul it out.

The fruits of a day's hunt.

I spent about 15 minutes chatting with the guy and learning a bit about elk bow hunting. Turns out he had a couple of look-out spots where he'd caught glimpses of several moose, some mountain goats, a herd of deer and a small group of bull elk, including the unlucky one that met his fate today. The guy was fascinating to talk to, very friendly and a font of outdoors wisdom. 

Butchering an elk is bloody business.
After the surprise conversation, I continued on downhill, winding my way through trees, over small streams and, finally, down a long old mining road back toward Frisco and the trail's end. For some reason, I couldn't get the movie Jeremiah Johnson - one of my all time favorite flicks - out of my head.

There was one more surprise, though, left. This time in the form of a basketball-sized hornets nest, literally, right next to the trail. I stopped for a couple of pics before running (fast) on down the trail.

These things just give me the chills.

A solid day in the hills. This is a great loop. The early slogs through the dense lodgepole forests are a bit uninspiring, but knowing that the gorgeous alpine meadows up high await is more than enough to propel one forward. Also, there are several options to add some mileage, if one desires, such as cruising up and checking the views from Buffalo Pass before heading onto to Eccles Pass.

4,049 feet o' elevation gain.


  1. Wow, I had never heard of this loop -- instant classic! Awesome bowhunter pics, too!

    Glad you're back in the game!

  2. Man!! That just might be the best run in pictures I've ever seen.
    Rick Merriman

  3. Is the trailhead for Eccles Pass just off of 70 near Dillon? I think I ran out and back to the Pass a couple of years ago with my cousin.
    He immediately wanted to go back with his skiis.
    Beautiful country there for sure.

  4. Eccles is a great loop to run. Great to see you hammering it out and digging the pics in this post! Nice work!

  5. Jay - the trailhead is, indeed, right off I-70 at the first Frisco exit (if you're headed west). It's wild that the wilderness area is so close to an interstate.

    It's a great loop. Not too tough...very scenic. One could easily complete it much quicker than I did. My time included many picture stops and a 15-20 minute conversation w/ the bow hunter.

  6. Ain't that the case with CO?
    ..Beautiful country right next to the interstate.
    ..Too many things to take pictures of.
    ..Interesting folk on the trails.

  7. Well, I'm quite jealous now. I've been trying to complete that loop for 2 years. All the pictures I had seen looked a lot like yours. Lakes, wildflowers, and lots of GREEN everywhere. As you know, my experiences have featured lots of WHITE everywhere. I guess I need to plan for a mid-August jaunt up there! Nice work...and the encounter with the Grizzly Adams is about the coolest thing I've read in a run recap!