High Mountain Hike Near Denver, Colorado Offers Birding and Flowers
At 12,000 feet, Loveland Pass in Summit County is a lofty spot to begin a hike. An optional 3-mile loop trail from the pass crosses a basin full of wildflowers and birds.
Loveland pass, on highway 6, is less than an hour’s drive from Denver. The pass, just a short distance from Interstate 70, is a link to Arapahoe Basin and Keystone Resort, two of Summit County’s four major ski resorts. The county is also well-known for summer hiking, and the West Loveland pass trail is one of the more accessible and popular high country treks.
West Loveland Pass Trail
A trail starting at the pass on the opposite side of the highway from the parking lot gives hikers a good taste of high country hiking with some spectacular views. The trail circles a treed basin on a rocky ridge line, ending about 2 miles from the trailhead. Most hikers return along the same path for a 4 mile round trip at elevations between 12,000 and 12,500 feet. Experienced hikers can cut a mile off this distance by crossing the basin.
Note that this hike involves a steep unmarked descent and is not recommended for children or those unaccustomed to cross country hiking. Review the details of this hike carefully before attempting it. The loop route drops down into the basin, which is below the tree line and bisected by a year-round stream. This area is particularly rich with wildflowers and birds.
Summer Wildflowers Along the West Loveland Pass Loop Trail
From July well into August, wildflowers are abundant along the West Loveland Pass trail. Western Aster is common throughout the area, and Western Indian Paintbrush can be found along the rocky slope near the first third of the trail. From this section and continuing along the ridge line, numerous flowers are found, including Arctic Gentian, Alpine Yarrow, American Bistort, Alpine Thistle, Elephant’s Head, King’s Crown, and Rocky Mountain Phlox.
As the cross country section doubles back below the ridge line, Giant Red Paintbrush is widespread below the snow line, together with Alpine Avens. Descending from this area into the basin, hikers encounter a cascading stream and good specimens of the Colorado state flower, the Colorado Blue Columbine. Other flowers found here also include Nodding Sunflower, White Marsh Marigold and Parry Primrose.
Birds Found Along the West Loveland Pass Loop Trail
White-crowned sparrows, including fledglings, are the most common bird seen around the beginning of the trail. As the trail ascends to its high point at 12,508 feet, hikers should watch the sky both above and below the trail, since both Red-tailed Hawks and Golden Eagles are seen here. The hawks have been spotted harassing Golden Eagles along this ridge line. Mountain Bluebirds are also fairly common along the initial ridge line, together with Yellow-bellied Marmots and Picas.
Once in the basin, with a running stream and small conifers, Wilson’s and Yellow-rumped warblers can be spotted, as well as Dark-eyed juncos, Mountain Chickadees, Northern Flickers, American Robins, and more White-crowned sparrows.
Precautions for High Mountain Hiking
- Mountain weather can turn quickly from summer to winter even in July and August
- Wear layered clothing and carry a day pack and windbreaker or rain jacket
- Carry plenty of water, energy snacks, and a first aid kit
- Wear sturdy hiking shoes or boots and carry a walking stick
- If possible, don’t hike alone
- Acclimatize before hiking at 12,000 feet
- If a storm approaches before you reach the summit, do not continue the loop
Loveland Pass for Wildflowers and Birds
Loveland Pass is one of many scenic stops for travelers between Denver and the ski resorts of Summit County. In the brief summer of July and August, those willing to hike the thin air trails will be rewarded with a spectrum of wildflowers and migratory birds.