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Hike 12/41: Eagles Nest Wilderness, Ptar’d and Feathered

The coronavirus pandemic raging, weather uncertain in the next few days, an upcoming elk hunt, a large hunt trip just returned from … there was a lot going on in my life. I handled it the way any grown adult family man would — I ran back to the mountains. Only for a little bit. I’d just returned from hiking and hunting in North Dakota with a friend of mine — the gear pile hadn’t even settled yet when I jumped at the oppurtunity for what might be my last ptarmigan hunt of the year. I’d gotten so, so close a couple weeks prior. So when my wife told me I could have a nice long day, I dove right in. Into the Eagles Nest Wilderness between Dillon and Vail Colorado off of I-70.

One Last Ptarmigan Hunt

I knew the terrain would possibly hold ptarmigan given it’s altitude as well as its ruggedness. I could only hope though that the trailheads wouldn’t be too busy on a Friday, and that any archery elk hunters would already be spiked out somewhere deep off trail.

When I arrived at the trailhead at about 7:30 there were horse trailers, several cars, and trucks emblazoned with hunting stickers. Not too crowded given the single trailhead serves four or so trails in the area. My wife and I had previously been turned away not once but twice from a trailhead on the other side of the Wilderness in Silverthorne because of how busy it gets on the weekends. My goal was to gain extreme elevation and hunt around an alpine lake that had several boulder slides around it.

Heading into the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area
The march up the mountain was not an easy one, but there was no lack of fall colors.

About 1200ft into my trip I decided to check the regulations just to be sure. Was it two, or three ptarmigan? If I encountered a beaver at the ponds would I be legally allowed to take it? I checked the PDF I’d already downloaded to my phone. Three ptarmigan bag limit in… oh dear… the seasons have switched. Thankfully I’m still in dusky grouse territory. The GMU I was in was closed for ptarmigan now, but over the ridgeline from where my destination was had the season open. Well, maybe if I have enough energy after climbing I’d check it out. Until then, ptarmigan have defeated me once more. For being a bird so easily killed once found, they sure have circumstances and scarcity on their side.

A Pivot to Grouse

Sometimes you have to make the decision on these trips, as I have before, whether you want to finish out your hike because you’re a completionist or whether you want to hunt. I love hiking to water features, regardless of whether they are waterfalls, high mountain streams, or alpine lakes. They all appeal to me as much as sweeping views of a mountain or the valleys below me by thousands of feet. During this hike I chose getting to a few lakes to potentially scope them out for later trout fishing opportunities, I just happened to be carrying a shotgun.

Deluge Lake nestled in the high country of the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
Deluge Lake nestled in the high country of the Eagles Nest Wilderness.

The trail itself is a perfect mix of age class aspen both young and old as well as stands of conifers. There is plenty of blue grouse habitat and forage, I just didn’t see any along the trail. Pushing into some of the smaller creek drainages you’d see more rose hips, aspen buds, grouse whortleberry, and bearberry so you will find blue grouse when the conditions are right and you’ve put in the miles. The Eagles Nest Wilderness is full of promise when it comes to hunting and fishing opportunity, if you can beat the crowds and survive the hike.

Out of Steam

Once I got to the alpine meadow just below the lake I finally spied some game, likely spooked by the poor trail runner I startled by hunting off trail. I imagine if you’re in the zone listening to music you don’t suspect a guy in a blaze orange vest attempting to come back onto the trail. She ran off uphill at a pace I couldn’t attempt to match if I tried, and a herd of mule deer spilled off the ridgeline back towards me,

Mule deer careening down the mountain in the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
Mule deer careening down the mountain in the Eagles Nest Wilderness.

Eventually I crested the ridge myself, and the view opened to Deluge Lake and Snow Lake. I probably should have bright my fly rod, because despite the habitat, there were no grouse to be found on that day. Any ptarmigan around the lake were spared by the season and my sore legs.

A cabin from what is likely an inholding inside of Eagles Nest Wilderness
A cabin from what is likely an inholding inside of Eagles Nest Wilderness

It’ll be almost another full year before I’ll be able to chase ptarmigan again, and every season I appear to be getting closer to bagging one. For a bird that is claimed to be so easy to kill as to be able to bag one with a water bottle or stick — you first need to be able to routinely find them. I’m working with my dogs to be more comfortable at high altitude and the pinnacles and boulder fields that often house the mottled white birds. Next year, next year we’ll be ready.

The terrain in the Eagles Nest Wilderness is as aggressive as it is beautiful.
The terrain in the Eagles Nest Wilderness is as aggressive as it is beautiful.

About the Trail

The Deluge Lake Trail leaves out of East Vail and is a 9 mile round trip hike gaining 3444ft of elevation through mixed conifer and aspen. It’s considered a difficult hike, so be in moderate shape or plan quite a long time to be able to make the round trip. There are plenty of good opportunities to camp along the way, especially in the bowl just below the final ascent to Deluge Lake. This is a great place to do some leaf peeping or foraging for rose hips, spruce tips, and other wild edibles.

Why am I doing this? I’m on a quest to hike, camp, hunt, or fish on all of Colorado’s federally designated Wilderness Areas. Check out all the articles here!
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Tags: , Last modified: December 3, 2020
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