Editor's Note: Mary Ellen Gilliland is the author of the popular "The Vail Hiker" book. She just released a full-color, sixth edition of the guidebook, available at The Bookworm of Edwards and outdoor stores for $19.95. The Vail Daily will be excerpting hikes from the book each weekend this summer.
July 15 to Aug. 1 is peak wildflower time on Vail Pass. Both Shrine Pass above and Wilder Gulch just below offer sun-splashed meadows with many subalpine zone flowers. Look for larkspur, kittens paw, queens crown, Indian paintbrush and fields of mariposa lily. The hike to a green saddle called Ptarmigan Pass offers seclusion and beauty. Wilder Gulch is a good hike for families with kids beyond the "little" stage. Just be careful on the bike path.
Drive I-70 east to the Vail Pass summit, exit 190. Park at the south end of the roomy rest stop parking area. Geologists say that mountain passes began eons ago as faults or cracks which collected water, widened and created a high passage.
The trail, unsigned at this writing, begins on the south side of the parking lot with a quick drop to the creek. Then the path traverses a wet meadow southwest to climb into trees before dropping into Wilder Gulch. Turn right.
Hike an old road uphill on the north-northwest creek bank (right side) along a meadow. In early July, mariposa lily carpets the slope. The track stays in the meadow for two-thirds of the hike, then enters conifer forest. Curving through trees, the path heads up an old telephone line cut, first moderately, then in a steep climb. This area becomes wildflower heaven in July. Soon you emerge from the trees to view Ptarmigan Hill, a 12,143-foot bump, and Ptarmigan Pass, 11,765 feet. Pink and red Indian paintbrush and fuschia elephant head bloom in profusion here.
A dirt road winds to the summit. You may encounter jeep travel. Ptarmigan Pass offers great views of the Sawatch Range and the jagged Gore Range in the Eagles Nest Wilderness north-northeast. Ptarmigan Hill at right is a fun climb for those with extra energy. It's 0.5 miles and 400 feet elevation gain for a great view. Be sure to choose your route downhill carefully-a very steep slope here presents some slippery scree.
Hiker, historian and author Mary Ellen Gilliland lived first in Vail and then Summit County since January 1970. She has skied and hiked backcountry trails for more than 40 years. She has written 16 books. For more information, visit summitandvailhikes.com.