Clear Creek County
Author(s): Nathan Pieplow, Andrew Spencer
County Seat: Georgetown
County Size: 396 square miles
Low Elevation: 6,900 ft. - Clear Creek on the Jefferson border
High Elevation : 14,270 ft. - Grays Peak
Best Birds : White-throated Sparrow (2002-2003)
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Introduction: Sadly, Clear Creek County ain't what it used to be. This small mountain county just west of the Denver Metro area contains what used to be the best-known and most often visited spots in Colorado for ptarmigan and rosy-finches, not to mention the highest paved road in North America--but the Loveland Basin Ski Area has taken down the feeders that used to attract rosy-finces like supermagnets, and the county decided it could no longer afford the expense of paving the Guanella Pass road in winter, making the white winter ptarmigan a much harder bird to see. Despite these new difficulties, the mountain specialties can still be found in the county, although not as easily as before; and summer remains a great time to play and bird here in the high elevations...so take heart, and see what you might be able to find!
Description - Loveland Pass can have all the specialties of the alpine tundra, and now that the Guanella Pass road is no longer plowed in winter, Loveland Pass is the easiest place near Denver to get White-tailed Ptarmigan in winter and spring. Avalanche danger can be a problem here, however, so take care before leaving the road here. In summer, the birding can be very good, though weather can still be dangerous. Brown-capped Rosy-Finch is usually easier to find on the rock areas to the south of the pass, and White-tailed Ptarmigan to the northwest of the pass (in Summit County). In the warmer months, pipits abound and the willow thickets have White-crowned, Fox, and Lincoln's Sparrows as well as Wilson's Warbler.
URL - Loveland Pass
Habitat - Alpine Tundra, Krummholz
Directions - To get to the pass from the east, leave I-70 at exit 216, shortly before the Eisenhower Tunnel, and follow Highway 6 past Loveland Basin Ski Area.
Delorme - 38 C3
Roads of Colorado - 71 D2
Loveland Basin Ski Area
Description - What Guanella Pass is to ptarmigan, Loveland Basin was to rosy-finches, at least until the ski area took down the feeder, blaming Forest Service regulations. Despite the noise and constant traffic, flocks of rosy-finches used to visit the feeder more-or-less regularly from around Thanksgiving, when the ski area usually opens, to at least the end of April and often the beginning of May.
Other birds once regular here include "Gray-headed" Junco, Pine Grosbeak, Mountain Chickadee and (for some strange reason) Red-winged Blackbird. The feeder also attracted Gray and Steller's Jays, Cassin's Finch, Pine Siskin, and Red Crossbill. In 2002-2003 it was frequented by a migrationally challenged White-throated Sparrow.
Some people have seen White-tailed Ptarmigan while skiing at Loveland Basin, so if you are skiing, keep an eye out.
Habitat - Spruce-Fir Forest
Directions - The ski area is on the south side of I-70 at exit 216. Do not confuse Loveland Basin Ski Area with Loveland Valley Ski Area, which is a couple hundred yards downhill.
Delorme - 38 C3
Roads of Colorado - 71 D2
Georgetown and Silver Plume
Aliases - Silver Plume
Description - Georgetown got its fame as a birding town from the Rosy-Finch flocks that used to frequent local feeders in the winter. Although rosies do not seem to be regular anymore, you may see Red Crossbill, Cassin's Finch, Clark's Nutcracker, and others. The large pond at the east edge of town is the largest body of water in the county, and has hosted a few duck species.
The nearby hamlet of Silver Plume, a tiny former mining town, is as picturesque as they come. Sometimes feeders here attract rosy-finches in the colder months. The Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas found Black Swift nesting nearby, so if you're here in summer, look up. (Way, way up.)
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Urban/Suburban, Stream, Mixed Conifer Forest
Directions - Georgetown is on I-70 at exit 228. Silver Plume is two miles west at exit 226.
Delorme - 39 C5
Roads of Colorado - 71 E2
Description - Until recently, Guanella Pass was famous for being unquestionably the easiest place in the Lower 48 to find White-tailed Ptarmigan in its white winter finery. Alas, no more; the county has quit plowing the road, so Guanella is strictly a summer destination now. Ptarmigan can be found at Guanella in summer, but not in large concentrations, and only well above the pass. If you do manage to find rosy-finches at Guanella, it will probably be far up one of the trails.
The Guanella Pass Campground is a traditional spot for Three-toed Woodpecker. Other species to look for include Gray Jay, Dusky Grouse, Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, and potentially Boreal Owl and White-winged Crossbill.
Habitat - Spruce-Fir Forest, Stream, Streamside Willow, Alpine Tundra
Directions - The Guanella Pass road (FR 381) climbs out of the south end of Georgetown. The campground is along the road one mile short of the pass. Ask about road conditions at the Georgetown Gateway Visitor Center at I-70 exit 228 (phone: 303-569-2405).
Delorme - 39 D5
Roads of Colorado - 71 E3
Description - Look in town during summer for Band-tailed Pigeon and for hummingbirds at feeders, and at other seasons for finches in town or for dippers along Clear Creek. However, perhaps the best birding is along the road which heads south from the center of town. Just across the river are some open fields, followed by some fish hatchery ponds on either side of the road, surrounded by willow. Look here for dabbling ducks. Past the ponds the road climbs steeply and deterioriates in quality. The open ponderosa forest uphill from the road can produce birds like Plumbeous Vireo, Townsend's Solitaire, Western Tanager, and Green-tailed Towhee. A primitive parking lot at "Empire Pass" high above Interstate 70 marks the end of the road's accessibility to passenger vehicles.
Habitat - Ponderosa Forest, Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Streamside Willow, Aspen Grove
Directions - Empire is on US Highway 40 just west of where it splits from Interstate 70 at exit 233.
Delorme - 39 B5
Roads of Colorado - 71 E1
St. Mary's Glacier
Aliases - James Peak
Description - (Contributed by Bill Schmoker) To enjoy the peak birding season for this high-elevation area, plan on a hike in July or early August. The walk up to St. Mary's Glacier takes you through spruce/fir forest, with chances for birds typical of this habitat, including American Three-toed Woodpecker. When you emerge at St. Mary's Lake you will notice nice willow habitat along the north side. Watch and listen here for Lincoln's & Fox Sparrows and Wilson's Warblers. Use caution climbing the steep face of the glacier. Stick to the northeast (right) side as you climb. Once the glacier levels out a bit you can cross it safely and climb up to the Krummholz habitat of dwarf spruce and bristlecone pines above the glacier. Brewer's Sparrows are a special high-elevation treat if you can find them here, and White-crowned Sparrows will be abundant. Continue northwest towards James Peak, crossing a wide alpine tundra flat with patches of Krummholz and willows. Rocky outcrops may house Rock Wrens in addition to pikas and marmots. When you begin ascending the flanks of James Peak, go slowly and listen closely--this is a good spot to see or hear White-tailed Ptarmigan. The cliffy areas above Loch Lomond and the snowfields on the flanks of James Peak are likely spots for Brown-capped Rosy-Finches but be careful--you wouldn't want to misstep here.
Habitat - Spruce-Fir Forest, Streamside Willow, Krummholz, Alpine Tundra
Directions - Leave I-70 at exit 238 just west of Idaho Springs and head north on Fall River Road (275 Rd). Follow the road up past the small town of Alice to the well-signed trailhead.
Delorme - 39 B5
Roads of Colorado - 71 F1
Description - By far the largest town in Clear Creek County (though not the county seat), Idaho Springs is not very interesting birdwise, but it can have flocks visiting local feeders, and American Dipper in the river. While Eurasian Collared-Dove has not yet been recorded in the county, this is the town where it is most likely to show up.
Habitat - Urban/Suburban, Stream
Directions - Idaho Springs is on I-70 at exit 240, about twenty miles west of Golden.
Delorme - 39 C6
Roads of Colorado - 71 F1
Description - Nowhere else on the continent can you drive as high as the end of the Mt. Evans toll road. Check the forests on the way up for any and all high-elevation species, including Williamson"s Sapsucker, and check the rocky areas around Summit Lake for Brown-capped Rosy-Finch (a decent spot for the species in summer). White-tailed Ptarmigan is around, but hard to find. Concentrate your search around the switchbacks above Summit Lake.
The Echo Lake Lodge at the base of the Mt. Evans toll road has some very productive hummingbird feeders, which in the late summer can have Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds, plus an occasional Black-chinned Hummingbird. Rare species have been reported from here, so keep an eye out! The extensive willow habitat here has Lincoln"s, Fox, White-crowned, and Brewer"s Sparrows, plus MacGillivray"s and Wilson"s Warblers, and the spruce forests can have sapsuckers and an occasional Three-toed Woodpecker. A Boreal Owl spent one winter here, so even that is not out of the question!
The Chicago Creek road leaves the Mt. Evans road a few miles south of Idaho Springs and leads up to the Chicago Creek trailhead, providing access to some excellent willow, aspen, ponderosa and lodgepole habitats. Look for both sapsuckers, various Empidonax flycatchers, and Cassin"s Finch. If you are in condition to hike to the end of the trail, you will find vast expanses of treeline willows with Fox Sparrows galore. Rosy-Finches have occasionally been seen in winter at feeders along this road.
Habitat - Stream, Cliff Face, Streamside Willow, Aspen Grove, Foothills Scrub, Ponderosa Forest, Lodgepole Forest, Spruce-Fir Forest, Krummholz, Alpine Tundra
Directions - The Mount Evans Highway (CO 103) heads south from I-70 at exit 240 in Idaho Springs. The Chicago Creek road (FR 188) keeps going straight when the highway bends left in its first major hairpin curve, about six miles from Idaho Springs. The Echo Lake Lodge is another few miles up the road, near the junction where Highway 103 veers off downslope and Highway 5 takes over the job of finishing the climb. Highway 5 is closed except in late summer; a fee is charged for access when the road is open. Summit Lake is on the west (right) side of Highway 5 about five miles above the visitor�s center and about two miles below the peak.
Delorme - 39 C6-D5
Roads of Colorado - 71 F1-F3
Clear Creek Canyon
Description - Canyon Wrens, White-throated Swifts and dippers unfortunately have to share this narrow canyon with the busy Highway 6. Birding can only be safely done from a few wide parking pullouts.
Habitat - Cliff Face, Stream
Directions - The brief Clear Creek County section of this canyon is the stretch of Highway 6 between its junction with CO 119 and the junction with US 40, starting some eight miles west of Golden.
Delorme - 39 C7
Roads of Colorado - 72 A1
Mount Evans State Wildlife Area
Aliases - Echo Lake Lodge, Chicago Creek Road
Description - Not to be confused with Mt. Evans (which is pretty close as the crow flies, but not so close by road), this SWA actually has some of the lowest public land in the county, and it's filled with beautiful mature Ponderosa forest, with all the benefits thereof, including some good potential for Flammulated Owl. Note, however, that the SWA is completely closed to public access between January 1 and June 14. Furthermore, vehicles are seasonally restricted after Labor Day; when vehicle restrictions are in effect, visitors must park at the gate to the property and walk an extra mile or so to the parking lot and trailheads.
Habitat - Ponderosa Forest
Directions - From I-70 exit 252, head south on the Evergreen Parkway (CO 72) 6 miles to Evergreen Lake. Turn right on Upper Bear Creek Road. After 6.5 miles, turn right onto CR 480. The SWA is three miles ahead.
Delorme - 39 D7
Roads of Colorado - 72 A2