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Colorado Hiking, Birding, Camping

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

This was a long trip, so strap in for an extra-long blog post. There were basically three phases: (1) a four-day weekend with my wife centered in Boulder, filled with lots of hiking and good eating; (2) a three-day birding journey around east-central Colorado (crashing with two good friends in Boulder and Colorado Springs); and (3) a three-night camping, rafting, and hiking adventure in Buena Vista with my two friends. I ended up with a whopping 48 life birds for the trip, a feat I don’t expect to replicate again within the continental US.

Part 1: Hiking


My wife and I flew into Denver early Friday morning. On our drive into Boulder, we caught a glimpse of what would be an all-too-common sight: Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (my first of 8 new mammals for the trip). Our first stop was a 7-mile hike along the Mesa Trail, from the South Mesa trailhead to the Chautauqua trailhead. It was a good introduction to the higher altitudes and drier climate of Colorado, but wasn’t too strenuous and offered a nice cross-section of habitats in the foothills of the Flatirons.

While I wasn’t birding per se during this hike, I nonetheless picked up 7 lifers, including some rather common western birds (Spotted Towhee, Western Wood-Pewee), a few more interesting western birds (Green-tailed Towhee, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Black-billed Magpie), and a couple downright exciting birds (an up-close MacGillivray’s Warbler, and a distant White-throated Swift). I also saw a lifer subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco (the Gray-headed race), tons of Red-breasted Nuthatches, and both Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees. And, foreshadowing what would become a common source of frustration during the trip, the first of many unidentifiable hummingbirds buzzed by without pausing to allow an ID. This certainly helped me appreciate how nice it is to have only (basically) one species of hummer to identify on the east coast.

After our hike, we settled down at our svelte airBnB studio in the Table Mesa neighborhood before heading into downtown Boulder to eat. We grabbed an early seat at Izakaya Amu, which turned out to be the culinary highlight of our trip. This (obviously) isn’t a blog about food, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a plug for this amazing place. If you’re in Boulder and want a truly unforgettable experience, with an authentic Japanese atmosphere (no shoes!), good spirits, and excellent food, look no further than Amu.


Saturday morning, like Friday morning, began with a new mammal: a group of Desert Cottontails in the front yard of our Table Mesa studio. Our main event Saturday was a high-elevation hike from Brainard Lake (10,320 ft) to Blue Lake (11,420 ft). After lots of research and advice from a friend in Boulder (whom I would visit later in the trip), this turned out to be the goldilocks of high-elevation hikes: it was reasonably close to Boulder, not too strenuous (1,100 foot gain over 7 miles out-and-back), and transected a variety of habitats, including a pristine alpine lake framed by the high peaks of the continental divide. This was our first experience above the treeline, and it was one of the most scenic places I’ve ever been.

Without trying too hard, I scored another 5 avian lifers on our hike, almost all of which were interesting montane species: Clark’s Nutcracker, Canada Jay, Pine Grosbeak, Golden Eagle, and a heard-only American Three-toed Woodpecker (don’t worry, I saw one later in the trip!). Other interesting species above the treeline included many White-crowned Sparrows and a pair of American Pipits. While the high-elevation birds were nice, the mammals around Blue Lake stole the show. On the hike up, we saw a massive bull Moose (lifer) in a distant pond/wetland clearing, and on the way down we saw two more bulls hunkered down in the same area. Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels (seen once before in CA) and Colorado Chipmunks (lifer) were plentiful up to and just above treeline. Finally, on the rocky alpine slopes surrounding Blue Lake, we encountered both quintessential small alpine mammals: Pika and Yellow-bellied Marmot (both lifers)!

After our hike, we made a quick pit stop in Nederland before returning back to Boulder to relax and eat an early dinner (we pretty much stayed on Eastern time the entire trip). After dinner, I checked out Harlow Platts Park, a small community park in the Table Mesa neighborhood. The park had some decent birds, including two lifers (Willow Flycatcher and a Broad-tailed Hummingbird that sat still long enough for me to snap an ID-able photo), some western species I’d only seen once or twice (Western Tanager, Lesser Goldfinch), and some birds that are cool no matter where you are (a group of 4 Common Nighthawks).


We spent all Sunday morning on a 10+ mile loop hike just south of the Flatirons. Our route followed Shanahan to Mesa to Bear Canyon to Bear Peak West Ridge to (almost) Bear Peak (from 5740’ to 8600’, for a gain of around 2860’), then down the (steeper) Shadow Canyon Trail to Mesa to Upper Bluestem and back to our car. Red squirrels ushered us up the mountain through one gorge, and Colorado Chipmunks announced our descent down another (steeper) gorge. We passed through a good variety of habitats along the way, including excellent views to both East and West from the ridges (including a large patch of burned-out ridge forest), and a bluestem prairie provided a relaxing end to the journey. Again, this was a hiking-over-birding trip, but I still managed some notable birds, including Swainson’s Hawk (lifer), Canyon Wrens (good looks at an adult feeding young!), another MacGillivray’s Warbler, American Kestrels, Western Meadowlarks (lifer), Vesper Sparrows, etc. The best wildlife encounter of the day (for me; less so for my wife) was a Prairie Rattlesnake, which another hiker carefully moved off the trail before we passed. After an exhausting day, we took the afternoon and evening off.


On Monday (Labor Day), we left the foothills and headed east. First stop was Bobolink Trail, which featured some interesting creekside riparian habitat, but had few notable birds. Our second stop was more interesting: Boulder Valley Ranch. Hundreds of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs—unafraid of both humans and canine companions—blanketed the meadows, along with a few Desert Cottontails. The birds were good, including a few lifers (Say’s Phoebe, Violet-Green Swallow, and Lazuli Bunting) along with other interesting grassland species (Lark and Vesper Sparrows, Western Meadowlarks, Swainson’s Hawk). I also photographed a Woodhouse’s Toad (my only amphibious lifer for the trip) alongside the path.

Next, we spent a couple hours wandering around the Denver Botanic Garden. This was a visually overwhelming experience. I’d highly recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in flora or landscape design. The fauna wasn’t remarkable, but included a Woodhouse's Toad, some Great Spreadwings, a Red-eared Slider (probably a former pet), and a Western Fox Squirrel (different subspecies than I’ve seen in NC).

Our last stop for the day was Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR. The 98-degree afternoon sun made an initial two-mile hike more exhausting than it otherwise would have been, so we explored most of the refuge from our air-conditioned car. Notwithstanding the heat, both the mammals and birds were exceptional. We saw both White-tailed and Mule Deer (including some huge Mule Deer bucks shading themselves close to the road), a herd of 35 or so Bison (which were reintroduced to the refuge in 2007, so are sort of a native wild species), and hundreds more Prairie Dogs. (It wasn’t until we were leaving the refuge that we learned that these cute critters are actually a black plague vector!) The birds weren’t as phased by the heat as I might have expected, and we had a group of Western Kingbirds (lifers), a Horned Lark, a daytime Nighthawk, a Willow Flycatcher, some American Avocets and Baird’s Sandpipers, American White Pelicans, and a large assortment of ducks that I didn’t have the time to sort through.

After we finished the wildlife loop in our car, I drove my wife to the Airport. She returned to normal life, and I began the next phase of my vacation. My first stop was back in Boulder, catching up with a good friend in Boulder Canyon, far from cell service.


Part 2: Birding


Like most days, Tuesday began before dawn, with a Great Horned Owl beckoning me back outside. I left my friend’s house and headed east, this time for a full day of birding. My first stop was Walden/Sawhill ponds, an interesting collection of impoundments reclaimed from an old gravel mine. Highlights there included Kestrel, Swainson’s Hawk, Brewer’s Blackbirds, Bullock’s Oriole, Wilson’s Snipe, lots of Wood Ducks, and a few Cinnamon Teal (lifers) among the Blue-winged Teal.

Next came the main event: Pawnee National Grasslands. It was a bit of a drive, but I got to the Crow Valley Campground by 9:40 to look for passerines in the trees lining the dried creekbed. Unfortunately, it was fairly windy and the birding was consequently slow. Nonetheless, I managed to see a few good birds, including an Olive-sided Flycatcher (lifer), a to-be-identified empid (likely either a Dusky or Hammond’s Flycatcher), and the first of many Clay-colored Sparrows (lifer). En route to the grassland proper, I stopped to check out a distant herd of 60 or so Pronghorn—North America’s only native antelope species and a new mammal for me. I only drove a small portion of Pawnee (from Merritt’s pasture to the shooting range), but tallied lots of interesting grassland birds along the way, including Northern Harrier, Loggerhead Shrike, dozens of Horned Larks, 9 Lark Buntings (lifers), a couple Lark Sparrows, a few Western Meadowlarks, a Sage Thrasher (lifer), and a Yellow-headed Blackbird (lifer). Heading south from the shooting range, I picked up more of the same species, plus all three Spizella sparrows together—Chipping, Clay-colored, and Brewers (lifer). I’m only familiar with Chippies, so differentiating these three species required a close study of my photographs. Finally, at a Prairie Dog town close to the paved county road (CR 90­­­­­), I was treated to a Ferruginous Hawk (lifer!), 3 Burrowing Owls (lifers), plus a small group of Pronghorn.

Leaving Pawnee, I headed to some farm ponds in Weld Co. (CRs 74 & 61) that were quite productive for waterbirds. Here, a group of 75 Franklin’s Gulls (lifers) loafed alongside a decent variety of ducks (including Cinnamon Teal). But the 10 species of shorebirds were the real attraction, including around 20 Wilson’s Phalaropes (lifers), a few Red-necked Phalaropes, and varying numbers of Black-necked Stilts, Stilt Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, Lesser Yellowlegs, plus Bairds, Least, and Semipalmated Sandpipers (since I listed the rest, I might as well mention Killdeer too).

As I progressed towards Colorado Springs, my final birding stop for the day was Barr Lake State Park. Birds blanketed the partially-protected expanse of water, but my efforts were severely limited by the lack of a spotting scope, harsh afternoon light (backlighting everything as I viewed from the east), and a lack of time. Highlights that I could make out included at least 150 Western Grebes (lifers, and I bet there were some Clark’s mixed in that I couldn’t make out with my binocs), at least 400 American White Pelicans, at least one California Gull (lifer), Baird’s Sandpipers, and another Fox Squirrel.

A rewarding but exhausting day of birding completed (with 13 lifers!), I finally met up with a been-far-too-long friend in Colorado Springs, my gracious host and home base for the next two days.


Wednesday’s birding adventure had a single focal point: Chico Basin Ranch. This privately-managed cattle ranch, located 40 miles southeast of Colorado Springs, allows public entry for birding and other such uses. It’s an interesting place, like nothing I’ve ever seen before (although that could be said of nearly all the locations I visited this trip). Much of the ranch is almost desert-like, covered with Tree Cholla and Prickly Pear cactus, and the most exciting birds of the day were mostly desert specialists generally found much farther south. However, the ranch also features a number of ponds and a few heavily vegetated oases, providing diverse bird habitat.

The arid grasslands offered two lifers (Cassin’s Sparrow and Curve-billed Thrasher), along with other specialists like Loggerhead Shrike, Western Kingbird, Say’s Phoebe, Lark Bunting, Lark Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, Sage Thrasher, Blue Grosbeak, and American Kestrel. I also drove around for a half hour unsuccessfully looking for the location of a previously-seen Mountain Plover… I probably should have asked for directions.

Exploring the ponds near headquarters yielded Virginia Rail and Sora (both heard only), Eared Grebe (lifer), Redhead, Ferruginous Hawk (second one of the trip!), Red-headed Woodpecker, Bank Swallow, and a flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Rose Pond held many more ducks, including all three teal (Green-winged, Blue-winged, and Cinnamon) plus Northern Shoveler, and the surrounding vegetation held Wilson’s Warblers and an Orange-crowned Warbler. Wandering the wooded areas in the northeast portion of the ranch (near the bird banding station), I got great looks at Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Canyon Towhee (both lifers), Black-chinned Hummingbird (lifer), and a perched Common Nighthawk that I accidentally flushed.

After Chico Basin Ranch, I headed back to my friend’s house and enjoyed a low-key afternoon hanging out and catching up. I also began the arduous process of reviewing (and deleting) hundreds of photos. Given how long it’s taken me to write this blog post (around three months), I’m glad I got a head start.


On Thursday, I spent an exhausting but rewarding day birding the Colorado foothills around Colorado Springs and en route to a campsite in Buena Vista. (The latter is amusingly pronounced “Byoona” Vista, so the locals call it BV, perhaps in part to avoid this embarrassment.)

First up was the awe-inspiring Garden of the Gods. I arrived just before dawn and was greeted by two Common Poorwills calling (lifer). The other birds quickly warmed up their vocal chords, with Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (an abundant lifer) and Canyon Wrens making the most noise. I also heard the distinctive screams of a Prairie Falcon not too far away, but couldn’t get a visual on this heard-only lifer, which was pretty disappointing. Throughout the morning, the spectacular rock formations were encircled by a large group of White-throated Swifts and a smaller flock of Violet-green Swallows, and a group of Rock Pigeons seemed better suited on the rocks than their typical city/overpass abodes. I hiked the trails through the Pinon-Juniper scrub just north of the garden, picking up a few more local specialties, including two Bushtits, three Townsend’s Solitaires (lifers), a Virginia’s Warbler (lifer), and a couple heard-only solitary vireos that were either Cassin’s or Plumbeous (the latter would’ve been a lifer). The park also featured a cooperative group of Mule Deer and more (desert?) cottontails than I could count. All in all, Garden of the Gods was an amazing place to start the day.

Next up was the Red Rock Canyon Open space, just a bit south of the Garden. It was a decent location with some interesting rock formations (though modest compared to the Garden) and decent birds, including more scrub-jays and a surprise pair of Lewis’s Woodpecker (lifer). After a two-mile hike, I departed Colorado Springs and headed south to loop around the south side of the front range on the way to BV.

So, why would I take the long way to BV, instead of cutting directly West through the mountains? To see more birds, of course. The location of interest was Brush Hollow Reservoir, a sort of random state wildlife area near Penrose featuring a 100 acre lake and—more importantly—recent sightings of a fair number of hard-to-find target species. Getting around the area was a bit of a challenge, with a crisscrossing network of ORV roads covering only a portion of the lake’s perimeter. I was thoroughly exhausted by the end of my 4-mile sojourn, which included some bushwhacking. The lake was very low, so I began hiking the mudflat lakeshore, picking up a decent selection of shorebirds (Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Least Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs) and a juvenile White-faced Ibis (which I’ve only seen once before, in Louisiana). As I left the lake and explored the rocky Pinon-Juniper hills, more target species revealed themselves. In addition to Canyon Towhee, Sage Thrasher, and Western Kingbird, I also got eyes on a Cassin’s Kingbird and three Rock Wrens (both lifers). I couldn’t locate any Pinyon Jays or Juniper Titmice, but I’ll save those Pinon-Juniper target birds for next time. I also saw a Prairie Lizard (lifer) while hiking the rocky hills—one of only two native reptiles seen on the trip.


Part 3: Camping

Thursday (cont’d)

Arriving in BV Thursday afternoon marked the beginning of the third phase of my trip. The town was neat, and after an early dinner at the local Eddyline Brewery I made a quick trip over to Cottonwood Lake, unsuccessfully looking for sheep on the sheer cliffs. Next, I headed over to the Arkansas River Headwaters Recreation Area to scope out a campsite. A few Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels near the riverside road were the most noteworthy animal sightings. When my friend from Boulder arrived, we found an ideal spot—plenty of room for multiple tents, out of sight from the road, far from other humans, and just footsteps from the rushing river waters. The site even included two built-in fire pits safely nestled against some large boulders. My friend and I stayed up quite late catching up, which resulted in our sleeping in far too late the next day. But I guess there’s nothing wrong with sleeping in at least one day while on vacation. That’s what normal people do, right?


The first part of Friday (once it began, that is) featured a rafting trip down the Arkansas River. We put in about 10 miles north of Salida (Stone Bridge), then floated/paddled downstream to our takeout a couple miles south of Salida (Salida East).

This was my first experience rafting, and it was a blast. Our twelve-mile stretch of river was a mix of smooth sailing and the occasional rapids (up to Class II or III). I spent most of the trip hunkered down on a cooler, soaking in the view. My friend let me take the reins for a relatively mild mile or two, and I did have to navigate a couple small rapids. Working two oars to maneuver a raft in shallow water is a lot different than navigating a kayak with a single two-ended paddle. It’s fair to say I’d need a few more hours under my belt to profess any proficiency in rafting.

The scenery along the Arkansas River was spectacular—mostly unpopulated wilderness, with a new vista emerging around every bend and the Collegiate Peaks serving as a towering backdrop to the west. And, while the moving raft made passerine ID difficult, the birding along the journey was pretty good overall. A strong raptor showing included five Ospreys, three Swainson’s Hawks, a perched Peregrine Falcon, and an American Kestrel. We also flushed at least thirteen Spotted Sandpipers along the rocky riverbanks and got good looks at a group of Common Mergansers on the water. Interesting Western songbirds included Mountain Bluebird (my final lifer for the trip), Brewer’s Blackbird, Clark’s Nutcracker, Western Kingbird, Warbling Vireo, and some Violet-green Swallows.

After the paddle concluded, we returned to our campsite in BV, where we were joined by my friend from Colorado Springs. The three of us had some good old-fashioned fun relaxing at the campsite before calling it an early night.


Saturday morning came early, with a big day ahead. We hopped in my AWD rental car (a must for this trip) and headed west into the Collegiate Peaks. Beginning at the Horn Fork trailhead, we hiked up to Bear Lake, a stunning alpine lake situated above the treeline at around 12,400 feet, surrounded by sheer rock slopes leading to Harvard Peak and Columbia Peak. Although we ran into a few people who made the additional 2000-foot climb to Harvard, that was certainly beyond my capacity and luckily my friends were content with stopping at the alpine lake. Even ending where we did, this was probably the most strenuous day hike I’ve completed—over 10 miles and 2536 feet in elevation gain. I could do more, but I’d be uncomfortable (especially if I don’t buy some lighter hiking boots!).

The birds on the mountain were quality-over-quantity, with an American Dipper near the trailhead and great looks at an American Three-toed Woodpecker midway through the subalpine spruce-fir forest. Typical alpine species included lots of White-crowned Sparrows and an American Pipit. The mammals were more interesting, including lots of Red Squirrels and a (Colorado?) Chipmunk in the subalpine forest, followed by alpine views of at least one Pika (many more heard) and a Yellow-bellied Marmot. I also saw one new butterfly above the treeline—a Rocky Mountain Parnassian—as well a few striking Mormon Crickets. Part of me wishes I had paid more attention to invertebrates on this trip, but I had my hands full appreciating all the new vertebrate species and breathtaking vistas.

After leaving the mountain, we grabbed some “Mexican” food in BV, then returned to our campsite, kicked up our tired feet, and kicked back a few cold beverages. There’s no better way to catch up with old friends than sitting around a campfire, away from the distractions of modern life.


There isn’t much to say about the last day of the trip. I awoke before dawn, drove three hours to the airport, then flew home and prepared myself for a return to reality. And that’s the end of this story.


Recap by the numbers

If you’ve read this far, you may have lost track of all the things I saw and did. I know I have. (And remember, the intended audience of this blog is future me, rather than my unfortunate family and friends who I expect are my only external audience.) More to the point, I’m a numbers guy and need to assign some metrics to the trip to satisfy my OCD. Over the 9 full days and nights in Colorado, I (for parts of the trip, “we”) covered a lot of territory, flying around 3000 miles, driving around 1000 miles, hiking around 55 miles, and rafting around 10 miles, all across 8 different counties. I observed 149 species of birds (including 48(!) lifers), 13 species of mammals (including 8 lifers), two new reptiles, one new amphibian, and a couple new invertebrates. I won’t even try to quantify the number of hours spent curating (mostly deleting) photos and preparing this blog, but it approaches or exceeds the time spent on my Florida Everglades/Keys blog from earlier this year.

My wife recently asked whether I enjoyed all the time spent on preparing these blogs, my website, and other similar pursuits. While the prep work has its ups and downs, the end result is certainly worth it (to me). I don't expect others to feel the same.


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