Vail Pass to Uneva Ridge, Eagles Nest Wilderness

This marvelous example of Rocky Mountain vistas starts, oddly enough, directly beside Interstate-70 at Colorado’s 10,585′ Vail Pass. The trail winds through forest and meadow, then climbs steeply above treeline to Uneva Ridge, 1,500 feet above. Along the way you will enjoy breathtaking views of four distinct mountain ranges as you pass into Eagles Nest Wilderness, and experience the high mountain air. If you still have some energy left, you can continue to either Uneva Pass, or Uneva Peak, another solid 500 feet higher. Regardless of your turnaround point, expect a good workout, and great fun. My brother Dave and I climbed to Uneva Ridge on Friday, July 14, 2017 beginning at 6:45AM and ending about 1:45PM. Our plan was to hike to the summit of Uneva Peak, but with me still acclimating to the 12,000 foot elevation, we stopped at Uneva Ridge.

Hike Length: 6 miles Hike Duration: 7 hours

Hike Rating: Difficult. First half pretty easy, second half quite strenuous.

Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: Blue, until the wilderness boundary

Elevation Change: 1,550 feet Elevation Start: 10,585 feet

Trail Condition: Mostly good. Some blowdown. Some snow fields. Second half of the hike is above treeline across high mountain meadow with no defined trail.

Starting Point: East side of I-70 at Vail Pass rest area.

Trail Traffic: We encountered one jogger, and another out walking her dogs.

How to Get There: From Vail, CO take I-70 eastbound 15 miles to the top of Vail Pass. Park in the rest area and walk across the bridge over the interstate. The trailhead is on the east side of the highway.

 

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This unnamed trail dives into a pine and fir forest and begins climbing for the first quarter mile until it spills into a vast, wide-open valley that runs for miles between the interstate and Uneva Ridge. Look for herding wildlife to be grazing here in early morning and late evening. The trail in White River National Forest is also used by cross country skiers in winter as evidenced by the blue blaze marks high up on trees.

Once in the open, the double-track trail parallels the meadow for close to a mile. There is an oddity here: tree stumps that stand anywhere from four to eight feet high. We wondered if this area was logged decades ago, and they just happened to cut the trees when there was quite a bit of snow on the ground, resulting in the tall stumps. Vail Pass certainly gets a lot of snow.

It isn’t particularly quiet here, as you’re still in close proximity to I-70. Don’t worry though, that will improve as you continue. Behind you, to the south, are the imposing Jacque, Atlantic and Pacific peaks. Still covered with a large amount of snow in July, I had to get a closer look. I put the telephoto lens on my camera for a series of shots of these impressive pinnacles.

We discovered a wealth of wildflowers along the pathway, including multi-colors of indian paintbrush, large swaths of bluebells, robins plantain, giant dandelion, and the aptly-named elephant heads. This somewhat goofy, tall purple flower has multiple florets per stem that mimic the appearance of an elephant’s trunk and floppy ears. I was fascinated by these every time we happened upon a cluster.

The light is stunning just a couple hours past dawn as it peeks above the mountain ridges and through the boughs of the fir trees. They call it the golden hour. Another feature of early morning is the gradual warming of the air. It was 44°F when we started, even in mid-July. As we approached Corral Creek winding through the picturesque valley, there was a mist rising slowly from the stream bed, likely to return as rain later in the day in another valley not far away.

After a mile or so in this luscious meadow valley, the trail once again enters the evergreen forest and begins its serious ascent. Look for large bushy arrays of bluebells here. I’ve never seen so many in one place. The noise of the interstate begins to dissipate and the songbirds become more evident.

At the end of a steep rise, the trail pops once more into the wide open as you enter the boundary for Eagles Nest Wilderness. On your right is a talus field, breakdown from glacial activity millennia ago. If you look very closely, you will discover the rocks here are home to collections of Colorado’s state flower, the beautiful columbine.

 

Columbine or aquilegia grow annually in the high country of the Rocky Mountains and are known for their stunning colorings and spurred petals.

 

Beyond the talus slope you will see Corral Creek descending from the snow fields above. Lined with blackfoot daisies, it is quite the floral scene. As you cross the creek, look to your left (west) for the first view of the Sawatch Range and the giant Mt. of the Holy Cross, one of Colorado’s famous 14ers. We took our first break here, pausing for a timelapse video, a snack and a breather.

The exertion begins in earnest now. As you climb the drainage from Corral Creek, you are above treeline and headed into a large bowl below the shoulders of the Uneva Ridge. Topping the rim of the bowl, you’ll see it is still filled with large snow fields. We managed to wind our way around the snow, avoiding the likelihood of post-holing through the melting white stuff.

You pass through a willow thicket, and then the trail simply disappears. From here on you’re crossing alpine tundra on one large grassy mountain meadow. Small wildflowers dot the surface of the rounded, rolling ridge. The terrain is steep, very steep. We created our own switchbacks by walking in a zigzag pattern up the expansive ridge.

With this being my first hike on this visit to Colorado, and also the first hike after an unplanned ER visit caused by a previously unknown adult-onset allergic reaction to cashew nuts, I tired very quickly. It became apparent to me that our goal of reaching Uneva Peak would be, shall we say, unreachable. I managed to press forward to the crest of the ridge, but that was it for me.

This point was still quite rewarding. We could see the spiked peaks of the Gore Range to the north and the Tenmile Range and Uneva Pass to the south. To the west is an even better view of Mt. of the Holy Cross and the Sawatch Range, and to the east are even more tall summits of the Front Range. We stayed here for half an hour, eating lunch and taking a few selfies, including the one at the top of this post. We could see the tiny silhouette of the alpine jogger who had passed us earlier now at the summit of striking Uneva Peak.

 

 

The wind began to freshen, and the clouds were moving faster as the morning approached afternoon. There’s a saying in Colorado that is a very good rule of thumb for summer safety. “Be off the mountain by noon.” It was time to heed that advice as the thunderstorms come fast and furious to the Rockies in summer.

Descending the tundra was so much easier than was the ascent, and a lot quicker too. Thank goodness my knees aren’t bothering me yet like with so many hikers, so I much prefer the down to the up. The sun was playing peek-a-boo as the clouds thickened. There were even more wildflowers out now that the morning chill was gone and the warmth of the sun opened the blossoms.

We stopped a couple of times for brief breaks along the way, but mostly the return trip was uneventful. As we got within a mile of the trailhead we could once again hear the drone of the interstate, signalling our return to civilization. It is hard to go from wilderness to commotion in just a matter of minutes.

Summarizing, people who live in Colorado and hike regularly would probably call this a moderate hike to 12,522′ Uneva Peak. It is an 8-mile round trip with just over 2,000 feet of elevation gain. I can do that too, at home, 6,000 feet lower. But the first day out after being sick, this one wore me out at the 6-mile and 1,500′ mark. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the forest and the wildflowers, and especially the vistas in every direction. Access is quite convenient. This was a good one.

Thanks to Dave for the video summary above.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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  • gambolinman

    NICE!