In Colorado, where the word rugged enters backpacker chatter about as often as “snow” gets tossed about at an Eskimo fest, the Eagles Nest Wilderness has a way of rendering hikers speechless. When applied to the 50-mile-long rampart of 13,000-foot peaks known as the Gore Range, somehow “rugged” just doesn’t seem up to the job.
The very qualities that today attract mountain-loving backpackers in earlier times repelled fortune-seeking prospectors, thereby preserving the wilderness’s pristine character. The forbidding terrain and thin ore convinced nineteenth-century miners to look elsewhere, sparing the 133,688-acre wilderness the mine shafts and tailings piles that pockmark other Colorado high country.
Most trails into this wilderness dead-end in high, glacially carved valleys, usually beside an aquamarine alpine lake. Upper Cataract Trail is an exception to this one-way rule, and can be used for out-and-back hikes or as a high-country hub to stitch together extended trips.
For a sensational high-country circuit, follow the Upper Cataract Trail past its namesake lake, and toil the switchbacks above Mirror Lake to the Elliot Ridge Trail. Your every move is shadowed by 13,091-foot Eagles Nest Mountain. Once on the ridge, peak freaks will undoubtedly want to sidetrack 1 mile and scale 12,390-foot Meridian Peak. But don’t dawdle too long while savoring the view of four major mountain ranges. The Ridge Trail ambles for 4 miles above treeline with no bail-out options, which can be hazardous if you aren’t off the ridge before the afternoon thunderstorms hit. The safe havens are tucked in the trees around Mahan and Eaglesmere Lakes.
As to the naming of the wilderness, yes there are plenty of eagles. You’ll see bald eagles lazily riding the updrafts around rocky turrets. You’ll have to work a little harder than the raptors to reach them, but the same soaring views can be yours.