Watch: Bootprints Hiking Guide to Buffalo Cabin-Meadow Creek point-to-point via Eccles Pass
WILDERNEST — As the hiking season winds down, and with the fall foliage at its peak, I wanted to figure out a hike in the Eagles Nest Wilderness that would both be full of fall beauty and ascend to some classic Gore Range spots I hadn’t been to before.
Eccles and Red Buffalo passes were at the top of the bucket list, so I decided to route an approximate 10-mile point-to-point hike from a high point — Buffalo Cabin trailhead at the top of Wildernest — to a trail I hadn’t hiked before — Meadow Creek — on the other side of Eccles Pass.
As any hiker knows, even after analyzing and dissecting a topographic map the day before, a longer hike like this always has its surprises and rarely has the same distance and elevation gain you expect from calculations connecting trail to trail on a map.
This point-to-point hike around Buffalo Mountain and to a couple of mountain passes in the Gore Range turned out longer (12.3 miles, two miles more than my estimation) and steeper (500 added feet of elevation gain) than I expected. That was all thanks to the steep and rugged descent to the Gore Range Trail in the direction of South Willow Creek.
After hiking through the Buffalo Mountain burn zone from the Buffalo Cabin trailhead at about 9,800 feet and hiking into the Eagles Nest Wilderness boundary, I lost nearly 500 feet I didn’t account for. The beauty and power of the narrow valley between Buffalo and Red peaks was worth it though. I encountered the impressive sight after continuing from the Buffalo Cabin junction on the South Willow Creek Trail to the Gore Range Trail, about 2.5 miles into the hike.
Hiking through here was a pleasant surprise, from the beautiful South Willow Falls tricking despite it being the end of a warm, dry summer, to the colorful vegetation hugging the cascading South Willow Creek area along the way. You’ll have to be careful when hiking over ebbs and flows in the creek on the early portion of the hike. Still, downed logs help to bridge the trail, it is not that hard to follow.
Distance: 12.33 miles point-to-point
Elevation gain: 2,900 feet
Elevation loss: 3,519 feet
Starting elevation: 9,778 feet
Highest elevation: 11,917 feet (Eccles Pass)
Elapsed time: 5 hours, 47 minutes and 10 seconds
Average speed: 2.13 mph
Average pace: 28.16 minutes-per-mile
Ideal for: Wildlife and wildflower viewing, long-distance trail run, long hike with dog, near-360-degree views, fall foliage, wilderness experience
Parking: Park one car at Meadow Creek Trailhead off Interstate 70 Exit 201 and shuttle over to drop off at Buffalo Cabin trailhead at top of Ryan Gulch Road in Wildernest
From there, hike through impressive blowdown and deadfall on the north side of Buffalo Mountain — a statement to the howling winds through this valley. After some steady moderate gain, the trail eventually gives way to the wider above-timberline portion of the valley.
At the 5.5-mile mark of this hike, after 2,000 feet of gain and up around 11,400 feet, you’ll reach a pristine Alpine lake. Here I took the singletrack trail leading toward Red Peak to gain the views from Red Buffalo Pass. The winds were menacing as the westward view into Eagle County and Uneva Peak opened up.
After hiking past the Alpine lake, and some more elevation gain, another beautiful vista comes into view.
Hiking up toward Eccles Pass, epic-sized boulders are within arms reach of the trail, another statement of the power of the Rocky Mountains. At just under 12,000 feet, Eccles Pass was 7.5 miles into the hike, and provided phenomenal near-360-degree views.
Headed down the backside of Eccles, there is an above-timberline junction where I continued straight on the Meadow Creek Trail, with the Gore Range Trail branching off on the right, down toward a junction that leads to Exit 201 in Frisco.
Over the final 4-plus miles of the hike on the Meadow Creek Trail, there are a couple spots where you will need to be careful to stay on the right path, but it’s relatively clear. Down at 9,800 feet, over the final mile or so of the hike, the aspens were in all their glory, as were the crowds parked along the Meadow Creek Trailhead road.
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