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.
QUICK TAKE: Eagles Nest Wilderness, CO
DRIVE TIME: The trailhead is 92 miles (13/4 hours) west of Denver.
THE WAY: From Silverthorne, drive north 16 miles on CO 9 to County Road 30, turn left, and head 5.3 miles to Cataract Creek Road (Forest Road #1725). Turn left and continue 2.5 miles to Surprise trailhead.
TRAILS/MILEAGE: Nineteen trails cover 180 miles within the wilderness. The 11-mile out-and-back hike to Upper Cataract Lake takes the Surprise Trail (#62) to the Gore Range Trail (#60) and its junction with Upper Cataract Trail (#63). For a strenuous but spectacular 24-mile ridgetop trek, continue to the Elliott Ridge Trail (#1889). Hike north to Forest Road 1831, then descend to the trailhead via the Gore Range Trail and Eaglesmere Trail (#61).
ELEVATION: The lowest point on the circuit described is the Surprise trailhead
at 8,570 feet; the high point is 12,390-foot Meridian Peak.
CAN'T MISS: The tumbling waterfall from Upper Cataract Lake offers Kodachrome moments, as does sunrise on Eagles Nest Mountain.
CROWD CONTROL: Avoid daytrippers by going midweek and staying high. Spring and fall are less crowded, but plan on snow until mid-June and again in October.
PIT STOP: Roost on the outdoor patio at Murphy's Food & Spirits in Silverthorne, where $6 gets you the pub's signature half-pound burger.
WALK SOFTLY: If you camp near Upper Cataract Lake, stick to several well-worn campsites near the outlet. Bearproof your food.
MAPS AND GUIDES: The map Green Mountain Reservoir/Ute Pass, #107 (Trails Illustrated; 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95) covers the area.
MORE INFORMATION: Dillon Ranger District, White River National Forest, 680 River Parkway, Silverthorne, CO 80498; (970) 468-5400. Trailhead parking costs $5/day.