Vail Hiker column: Beautiful Buck Creek home to tiger salamander
Editor’s Note: Mary Ellen Gilliland is the author of the ever-popular “The Vail Hiker” book. She just released a full-color, sixth edition of the guidebook, available for purchase at The Bookworm of Edwards and outdoor stores for $19.95.
Hikers will love beautiful Buck Creek. The wild stream leaps, churns and tumbles over rocks, logs and boulders in a deep crevice that the rushing waterway itself has created. Moments away from busy Avon, the secluded canyon shelters walkers from a busy world below.
The footpath ascends along the creek to emerge into a sun-bathed grassland, your destination. There a curious pond amphibian awaits discovery.
Drive I-70 to Avon exit 167. The trail lies on the north (right) side of the highway. Stay right in the roundabout to access Nottingham Road. Drive this 0.2 miles west to Buck Creek Road and turn right. Proceed 0.7 miles to the trailhead, which comes up abruptly on your right. Go downhill into the parking area. The footpath begins at the north end of the parking lot.
The trail makes its initial climb on a steep and rocky slope. Hikers cross Buck Creek four times (no bridges at this writing, but a late-summer crossing proved easy). Before long, the trail becomes smooth and alternates hill and flat. The terrain varies. Forest gives way to meadow; meadow yields to aspen grove; the stream runs beside the trail then dives deep into the canyon cleft.
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Pass an aging U.S. Forest Service Avon Ranger District headquarters used from 1907 to 1930.
Open glades provide an opportunity to look backward for views of Beaver Creek, where early day ranchers raised beef cattle, potatoes and peas to feed a horde of prospectors gleaning silver in the gulches near Red Cliff. Later, during Prohibition, whiskey stills for moonshine sprouted there as well.
The south-facing trail allows use a little earlier than most and extends the season a bit longer. Early season runoff, which swells the creek, may then present difficulty at the initial crossings. If water runs high, hikers can walk Buck Creek/Morning Star Drive to its first left hand turn after the bridge, then easily step over a guard rail to drop downhill to the trail. Immediately, the creek is crossed for the last time, but on a sawn log bridge more easily navigated.
This hike’s destination lies at a large, sweet grassland at 2 miles. Hikers pop out of the canyon to the open space where the Buck Creek Trail meets the historic Nottingham Ridge Trail in a T-intersection. Hidden in the grass, waist-high in late September, are small deep ponds, home to the primeval tiger salamander. Its prehistoric appearance, with its shiny, black, gold-spotted body and long gold-striped tail, intrigues youngsters and the not-so-young alike. The creatures, like canaries in an underground mine, signal the purity of their watery home. Pollution causes their disappearance. This writer tramped all over, looking for one mysterious pond, and never found it-till an easier search online at Google Earth later revealed its location.
The Buck Creek Trail climbs another 1.4 miles, a pretty path, which meets the Red and White Mountain jeep road.
This column is copyrighted by Mary Ellen Gilliland. 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, and written 16 books. Visit summitandvailhikes.com.