High Summit County, Colorado Hike With Waterfalls, Flowers & Birding
- High Summit County, Colorado Hike With Waterfalls, Flowers & Birding
An hour’s drive from Denver, Summit County offers multiple high mountain hiking opportunities. McCullough Gulch, under Quandary Peak, has cascades, flowers, and birds.
Summer visitors to the Breckenridge area are just a few miles from a short but rugged hike to waterfalls and a lake between two major peaks, Quandary Mountain and Pacific Peak.
Breckenridge Ski Resort in Summit County, Colorado
Breckenridge, a charming village best known as one of four major ski areas in Summit County, is an easy drive from metropolitan Denver. Summertime activities have expanded to draw year-round visitors, offering everything from alpine slides to blue-ribbon fishing. Bicycling is popular, as is hiking, and Breckenridge is surrounded by established trails that beckon the outdoor enthusiast.
Quandary Mountain and McCullough Gulch
Quandary Mountain dominates the high mountain landscape south of Breckenridge. Colorado is known for its “Fourteeners”, mountains that are 14,000 feet or higher. Although the Quandary peak is 14,265 feet in elevation, there are 14 other Colorado mountains that are higher. Lying between Quandary Mountain and nearly-as-high Pacific Peak (13,950 feet) is McCullough Gulch.
McCullough was home to numerous mines, and the surrounding area produced significant amounts of gold and silver. Miners also found an unidentifiable ore, probably Molybdenum, that they called “Quandary”, and gave its name to the high mountain.
Getting to Summit County’s McCullough Gulch Trail
From Breckenridge, continue south on Colorado State Highway 9 for about 8 miles, past the little community of Blue River, at 10,000 feet. Look for CR (County Road) 850 on the right, not an easy sign to see driving south. The highway crosses Hoosier Pass, and if you reach the pass, you have passed the turn and need to return 2 miles down the mountain where the CR 850 sign is more visible.
Turn right (headed up the mountain from Breckenridge) on CR 850, and then almost immediately turn right again on CR 851. Follow this road for 2 miles to a parking area (along the end of the road) for McCullough Gulch Trail. Note that the road is very rough and pot-holed, although passable in a regular automobile. Note also that close to a mile along the road, the road forks. Take the upper left fork. At the end of the road, there is a small area where cars turn around and then park on the right side of the road heading out.
McCullough Gulch Trail
There is a gate across the end of the road and a trail sign to the left. The trail begins to climb immediately and crosses McCullough Creek. It passes private property on the left and then climbs to the southwest. The wide rocky trail quickly becomes narrow and fairly rugged. The distance to the falls is only 1.1 miles, but the trail is mostly uneven, ascends 500 feet, and is not particularly easy. The trail begins at 11,112 feet and reaches 11,603 feet at the base of the falls. With much nearby water, the trail is often plagued by mosquitoes as well. Just before a short drop to the cascades, the trail also crosses a wide swath of talus.
Near the falls, the trail forks, with a sign pointing left to the falls. For hikers wanting to see the lake on the ridge above the falls, the trail continues right and up the remaining slope, a climb of about another 300 feet.
Birds Along the McCullough Gulch Trail
American Dippers can be found along the creek near the beginning of the trail, and this area is also a good place to find Yellow-rumped Warblers, Pine Siskins and American Robins. As the trail climbs, look for Gray and Steller’s Jays, Wilson’s Warblers and Townsend’s Solitaire.
The trail winds through some marshy conifer forests, a good place to find Mountain Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos and Pine Grosbeaks.
Wildflowers Along the McCullough Gulch Trail
In July and August, wildflowers are abundant along the trail. Colorado’s state flower, the Colorado Blue Columbine, is found, along with Western Indian, Rosy, Orange and Giant Red Paintbrush. Mountain Gentian, Western Aster and Fireweed are common. Among the many other flowers, hikers will find Harebell, Monkshood and American Bistort.
Waterfalls, Flowers and Birds in Colorado’s High Mountains
Summit County, Colorado offers numerous hikes to mountain lakes and waterfalls. Many of these showcase wildflowers and excellent birding in the summer. McCullough Gulch is a good choice for those looking for cascades, flowers and birds in a short, moderate day hike.