Hiking in Gore Range – Eagles Nest Wilderness, Summit County
Updated: Mar 28, 2020
Here in Colorado, the mountains to explore are far and wide. The state is home to some of the most incredible mountain ranges in the world such as Sawatch Range, Mosquito Range, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, to name a few. Not everyone driving along Interstate 70 (I-70), which is part of the National Highway System, knows what lies within these mountains.
One mountain range you will pass by along I-70, from Silverthorne to Vail, is the Gore Range in Summit and Eagle Counties. This range stretches for about 60 miles northwest-to-southeast. Though much of the range is located within the Arapaho and White River National Forest, part of the area is protected within the Eagles Nest Wilderness, which means foot or horseback traffic only.
Gore range is not quite as popular as some of the others, nor as big and as the well known as the other ranges either. That’s partly because there are no fourteeners here. But the jagged peaks (some unofficially named), which are mostly over 12,000 feet, are challenging enough to attract mountain climbers, especially "ridge scramblers". Trails here can be long and strenuous, but you have a choice, you can always turn around. But then again you will wonder what you have missed at the end.
Hiking in the Gore Range can be accessed from I-70, on the southern and southwestern part, from Silverthorne to Vail. We hiked a few trails here, several of these beginning at the same trailhead. Some of the best hikes we did are in this range, as is one of our least favorite hikes.
- EASTERN SIDE OF THE GORE RANGE -
TRAILHEAD TO EAGLESMERE LAKES, LOWER CATARACT LAKE, TIPPERARY & SURPRISE LAKES
We hiked several of the trails (Eaglesmere Lakes, Lower Cataract Lake and Tipperary & Surprise Lakes) in this east side of the Gore Range. All of these trails (including Gore Range Trail, Surprise Lake Trail, Mirror Lake Trail, Elliot Ridge Trail, Upper Cataract Lake Trail) begin here or can be accessed from this same trailhead. Some are easy and some are long and strenuous.
To reach the trailhead to these trails, from I-70 exit 205 at Silverthorne and head north on Highway 9 to Heeney Road (Road 30), for about 17 miles. Then turn west and follow the Heeney Road for about 5.6 miles to Cataract Road. There are three parking areas at the end of the road; you can park in any of the three, but if you want to make your hike a tiny bit shorter, then feel free to choose whichever is nearest your hiking trail of choice. At the junction, head to your right to Eaglesmere Lake parking or turn left to Lower Cataract Lake Loop Trail and Surprise Trail.
This area is mountain lion and bear habitat, so you might find some evidence that they are around. We did - right at the beginning of the trail we found animal bones freshly stripped of their meat.
Don't be put off by this though, we haven't seen any bear (or lion) while hiking here even though this is where we've seen most of the evidence of wild animal activity. Poop mixed with berries beside the trail and claw marks on trees? Yes! They are around, and active. We do carry bear spray and I hope we don't get to use it. We're not so sure that the spray will keep mountain lions at bay but any deterrent will help, if ever (knock on wood!).
EAGLESMERE LAKE (8 miles)
The Eaglesmere Trail leads to two lakes at the end of the trail. Both are surrounded by pine forest and marsh. Using a GPS, we hiked this trail for about 8 miles.
We didn’t stop just by the lakes, we walked around them, as we always do when we can. Why you ask? Ask my husband. Actually, by walking around the lakes we usually find great photo opportunities. It's an additional distance but worth checking out.
LOWER CATARACT LAKE LOOP TRAIL ( 2.5 miles)
This is an easy hike around the lake, suited for families. You can start the loop in either direction which begins across Cataract Creek. In summer there are wildflowers in the meadows and in Autumn the golden color of aspen trees is really wonderful, so don’t forget your cameras. There are no dramatic views here but if you like fishing, you can spend the day catching trout, there are several types, just make sure you have a Colorado fishing license.
This was a leisurely hike for us, mainly to see the autumn colors, the brilliant gold of aspen trees. There is a waterfall here but no official trail to its base and it is strongly discouraged to go there due to steep terrain and slippery conditions.
TIPPERARY & SURPRISE LAKES LOOP (10.3 miles)
We did the Tipperary and Surprise Lakes by hiking the loop trail. This is a long hike, but you can shorten it by either stopping at Surprise Lake and then go back to where you started, about 3 miles one way. But if you want to continue on to Tipperary Lake, you might as well do the whole loop. Add another two miles from Surprise Lake to Tipperary Lake, and then another five miles to complete the loop.
Starting at Surprise Lake trailhead, there are steep grades in the first two miles. Then there are two creeks to cross. Surprise Lake is partially hidden by trees so be aware. Maybe that's how it got its name. The area around the lake is marshy with plenty of yellow Pond Lilies. Tipperary Lake is big and open but also marshy around its shores.
- WESTERN SIDE OF THE GORE RANGE -
On the western side of the Gore Range, trailheads can be easily accessed along Interstate 70 (I-70). Take note though so that you don’t get confused. You will find two "Lost Lakes" in this part of the Gore Range, one can be accessed from Piney Lake north of Vail and the other from Gore Range Trail, across from the Copper Mountain ski resort.
PITKIN LAKE TRAIL (11 miles)
Hiking here is best in autumn when the valley is golden because of the changing of the aspen trees. This is a beautiful hike, but long and strenuous. The trail is steep even at the beginning, so there's no warm-up. Then there are switchbacks and several false summits that might be frustrating for some. I can't imagine back-country campers with heavy backpacks hiking this trail. But they do it.
But if you are looking for a Colorado wilderness experience, this is one of them. There are not too many people hiking here, at least not when we did the hike. Maybe on weekends there is more foot traffic here.
The trail begins at East Vail. You won’t be able to see the trailhead from the highway. From I-70 drive to Exit 180, then turn right. There’s a small parking area at the end of the road (Fall Line Drive) past some condo units. Parking is very small, just about ten cars so you have to be early. Alternatively, you can park in the parking structure in Vail and take the free bus to the trailhead.
The trail follows a deep valley. You will be in the thick forest of aspen trees in the first mile or two of the trail - in autumn their golden leaves are gorgeous. Then comes a view of the beautiful mountain landscape as you go higher. It will inspire you to keep going, even if the trail is steep.
It was autumn but we still found some pockets of wildflowers along the trail just below the lake. It's like hiking two seasons in one. Bring along your camera, you never know what you will find, there are plenty of photo opportunities here.
There are several false summits, but eventually the trail ends at Pitkin Lake. The lake sits just below the rugged ridge of the Gore Range. There were campers here; we found one tent near the lake but there was nobody around except us. The campers were probably out somewhere exploring, or most probably climbing the peaks. We pretty much had the place to ourselves. But we didn't linger much, the journey was only halfway done and we had to hike back down (sigh).
WHEELER LAKES (7.5 miles)
The Gore Range Trail leads to Wheeler Lakes, Lost Lake and to the top of Uneva Pass. The trailhead is easy to find - from 1-70 (westbound), take Exit 196, Scenic Overlook, just before the Copper Mountain ski area.
The trail follows the highway for about less than a mile before it begins to ascend heading north. You will have a good view of the Tenmile Range and the ski area on this stretch of the trail. Unfortunately, the noise of the highway traffic is unavoidable, but soon enough the open hillside will change into thick forest. You will start to feel like you are in the wilderness.
After about a mile, the trail gets quite steep for about the next two miles, the hardest part of the hike, then it's mostly level all the way to the lakes. Remember to bring cameras with you, there are meadows full of wildflowers here, even before you reach the lake so it's all worth huffing and puffing all the way to the top.
But you need mosquito repellent here - those tiny flying vampires are there waiting to get anyone with warm blood. Wearing long sleeves and pants is not enough to deter them, they will get you no matter what. But these tiny buggers are just a little nuisance, part of the experience when hiking in the wilderness. Deer fly are also present here.
There's a detour above the lakes where you will see Uneva Pass. This pass can also be access on the other side of the ridge, on a different trailhead.
PINEY LAKE TO LOST LAKE (7 miles)
The beginning of the trail to Lost Lake is from Piney Lake. To get there from I-70 Frontage Road (heading west), exit Red Sandstone Road/Piney Lake Road (700) from Vail. It will change to Piney River Road (701) which lead all the way to Piney Lake and the resort. It’s a long and winding road to the lake and you might want to drive a 4WD at times when the road gets muddy. It was no problem for us with a regular car.
If you want to see moose, this is the lake you want to visit. You might get lucky to see several feeding in the lake. Even better if you are staying in the resort, or camping nearby, then you are most likely to see one, or more. Just don't go near them, they can move fast. And they are known to have attitudes.
This lake is very picturesque with the Gore Range as a backdrop. You will see Mount Powell from here, the highest peak in this range.
The trail to Lost Lake is “kinda” boring since the trail is mostly within the trees - well, we are probably just spoiled from all the beautiful trails we have hiked. Don't expect to see any views until you reach the lake.
Lost Lake is about 10,180 feet in elevation - Piney Lake is about 9,352 in elevation. It's a beautiful lake, especially when Pond Lilies are in bloom. You will see the Gore Range here as well, but its lower half is hidden by pine trees, many of which unfortunately were totally dried out, killed by beetles. This has been a big problem for pine trees over the past few years.
NORTH TEN MILE CREEK TRAIL (6 miles or longer)
This trail is an easy hike and the trailhead is easy to find, just across the town of Frisco along I-70. It’s a well maintained trail with aspen groves at the beginning of the trail and then gradually changing to pine forest. It does not have open sweeping vistas but along the trail is the North Tenmile Creek where you can rest and listen to the sound of the stream.
We hiked here twice, once with a couple of friends. Both times during autumn when the aspen leaves had changed from green to gold. That is the best time to hike here I think, not only because of the autumn colors but also because the weather is a little cooler which is preferable when hiking at lower elevations.
After your hike, you might want to detour to the beautiful town of Frisco. Just drive across I-70, and you can quench your thirst there with a local brew, walk around town and check out some of the gift shops or spend a little time by the Frisco Bay, one of the bays of Dillon Reservoir.
Dispersed back-country camping is allowed in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. Groups of up to 15 people are allowed. Dogs are allowed (on a leash no longer than six feet), as are horses, but no motorized vehicles or bikes.
In the wilderness area, mosquitoes are rampant, so bring repellent with you. These tiny buggers can get through your clothes. Wearing long sleeves and long pants are not a deterrent. Believe me, I'm always a victim even with repellent.
Fishing is permitted within the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, but Colorado license is required. Also, afternoon thunderstorms are common, it’s best to hike early. Bring bear spray, this area is bear habitat.
MOUNTAIN RANGES IN COLORADO
Front Range, San Juan Mountains, Mosquito Range, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Sawatch Range, Elk Mountains, Park Range, Gore Range, Medicine Bow Mountains, Flat Tops, Rabbit Ears Range, White River Plateau, Grand Mesa, Laramie Mountains, Uncompaghre Plateau, Ute Mountains, Raton Mesa.