Editor's Note: Mary Ellen Gilliland is the author of the ever-popular "The Vail Hiker" book, now in its sixth edition. The book is available for purchase at The Bookworm of Edwards and outdoor stores for $19.95.
Fluttering aspen, fern groves and flowers punctuate the trek to the "Bighorn Hilton," an early day homestead cabin. The homestead's back yard, just beyond the intact cabin, is a haven for wildflower fans. Brilliant splashes of pink paintbrush, Parry's primrose and rosy queens crown leap from a wet meadow of vivid green. Though private property, Olive Goodale's circa-1925 retreat remains unlocked as a storm shelter.
Drive on the south frontage road east 0.7 miles from I-70 East Vail exit 180 to Columbine Drive. Turn left and proceed through a highway underpass 0.2 miles to the trailhead. Parking is very limited. You may wish to arrange with a friend for drop-off and pick-up or ride the bus to 0.4 miles below the trailhead.
The trail scales the hillside at a stiff rate for the first 0.5 miles. Then it follows a pleasant grade through thick aspen and pine into the primitive Eagles Nest Wilderness.
Where the trail levels off, watch for signs of an old wagon road used by miners and homesteaders. You will walk through red firecracker penstamen, purple monks hood and blond yarrow in July and enjoy the valley's butterfly population. Soon, wade through acres of Bracken's fern, rarely seen among these high aspen woods. A nice opening onto Bighorn Creek provides a rest stop. Just beyond is a cool campsite among huge, ancient pines. A moment later, pass remains of an early silver camp, with ruins of several structures. To date these old buildings, look for the presence of square nails. Since round nails became available mostly after the 1880s, early structures can be identified by their square-nail construction.
A shorter hike for families or hikers with limited time is possible by continuing to a point just past the fern grove. There, two aspen trees at left "point" to a side trail on the right. It leads to a nice picnic spot, a rocky outcropping with plunging views to Bighorn Creek. (Caution: watch the kids.)
Continuing hikers will encounter the first of two rock fields. In the first, continue straight ahead, then veer right to pick up the trail. Watch for cairns (rocks piled as markers). In the second rock field, stay right.
Get ready for great views at mile 2. Sweeping vistas down the valley to Vail compete for attention with the white cascade of Bighorn Falls on the cliff wall at left. Note thick pockets of Colorado's state flower, the blue columbine, in late June and early July.
Now trek over a lung-buster ridge that divides the lower and upper valleys. Rewards are Indian paintbrush, red as a circus lady's lipstick, and a level wooded trail to the cabin beyond. Idyllic in its setting, the cabin is dwarfed by surrounding peaks.
Aggressive hikers can access the Grand Traverse from upper Bighorn. This dizzying route, a continuous ridge at 12,000 feet, connects this area's Gore Range peaks and high drainages. Stay on the creek's right fork and head northeast for 12,340-foot Central Pass, which provides access to Summit County's Rock Creek drainage. (For Rock Creek see Mary Ellen Gilliland's trail guide, "The New Summit Hiker," Alpenrose Press.) Just below the cabin lies an unmarked route east over the East Traverse to Deluge Creek. These routes are extremely steep and hazardous, for experts only.
Hiker, historian and author Mary Ellen Gilliland lived first in Vail and then Summit County since January 1970. For more information, visit summitandvailhikes.com.