Author(s): Andrew Spencer, Nathan Pieplow
County Seat: Lake City
County Size: 1,115 square miles
Low Elevation: 7,592 ft. - Piedra River on the Archuleta border
High Elevation : 14,309 ft. - Uncompahgre Peak
Best Birds : Rose-breasted Grosbeak (2001; pending acceptance)
Checklist : Download pdf | View HTML
Introduction: This is the least populated county in the state and one of the least visited by birders. During the tourist season there are more Texans here than Coloradans. Hinsdale County is dominated by the high San Juan Mountains, and only in the southern end of the county are there extensive stands of ponderosa pines. The best birding spots are several good lakes in the southeast portion of the county. Unfortunately, the county ends in the north before it reaches extensive sagebrush habitat.
West Fork Road (FR 860)
Description - This road is only accessible by car from the Owl Creek Pass Road. In addition to awesome views of Chimney Rock on Courthouse Mountain, it has extensive Spruce-Fir habitat that has produced the first Colorado breeding record of White-winged Crossbill in addition to more regular mountain species. Three-toed Woodpecker can be found in the area, and Boreal Owl should be present.
Habitat - Spruce-Fir Forest, Stream, Streamside Willow, Mountain Meadow
Directions - Note: distances are approximate. From Ridgeway (Ouray County), from the intersection of state route 62 and US route 550, go north on US route 550 for almost 2 miles and take a right (east) onto CR 10. Follow CR 10 for 4 miles, making sure to stay on CR 10 at all the many intersections, to the intersection with CR 8. Bear right onto CR 8 and go a little over 11 miles, over Owl Creek Pass and into Gunnison County, to the intersection with FR 860A. Turn right onto FR 860A and go south exactly .5 miles to the Hinsdale County line. FR 860A continues for 3 miles as a road passable to passenger cars. From Gunnison, go 42 miles west on US route 50, over the Montrose County line, to Cimarron Rd. Take a right onto Cimarron Rd., and go 6 miles south to Montrose CR P77. Take a left and follow CR P77 for 13.5 miles, over the Gunnison County line where the road becomes FR 858, and go to the intersection with FR 861. Take a right onto FR 861 and then take the next right onto FR 860. Follow FR 860 for 6.3 miles to the intersection with FR 860A.
Delorme - 67 C5-D5
Roads of Colorado - 115 B2
Lake Fork of the Gunnison State Wildlife Area
Description - This SWA just south of the Gunnison County line along C-149 has some of the lowest-elevation riparian habitat in the county. White-throated Swifts can be seen along the canyon walls, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and other riparian birds are possible here.
Habitat - Lowland Riparian, Spruce-Fir Forest, Streamside Willow
Directions - The SWA is just off CO 149, along a small, unmarked road that angles sharply off to the NE of 149, 7 miles north of Lake City, and 38 miles south of the intersection of CO 149 and US 50.
Delorme - 67 C7-D7
Roads of Colorado - 116 A2-A3
Cebolla State Wildlife Area
Description - This remote SWA has mature coniferous forest with some streamside willow. Most of the higher mountain species can be seen here, including Gray Jay.
FR 788 (CR 5) south of Cebolla has an interesting mix of habitats, with rocky cliffs, wet meadows, streamside thickets and high elevation woodland. Species that have been seen along this road include Rock Wren, Lazuli Bunting, Savannah Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Brewer's Sparrow and Song Sparrow.
Habitat - Mixed Conifer Forest, Stream, Streamside Willow, Cliff Face, Spruce-Fir Forest
Directions - From the north, from the intersection of CO 149 and Gunnison CR 27, go south on CR 27 (which becomes Hinsdale CR 5) for 15 miles to entrance to the SWA on the right. From the west, from the intersection of CR 5 and CO 149 at Slumgullion Pass, go NE on CR 5 for 16 miles to the entrance on the right. From the east, from the intersection of CO 114 and Saguache CR NN14, go south on CR NN14 for 4 miles to the intersection with CR KK14 and take a right (west). Take CR KK14 (which becomes Hinsdale CR 45) for 23 miles, over the Hinsdale County line, to the intersection with Hinsdale CR 15. Turn right on CR 15 and go a little over 1 mile to the intersection with CR 5 and go north (right) for 1 mile to the entrance on the left.
Delorme - 68 D1
Roads of Colorado - 116 B3
Description - This beautiful high-elevation basin is on the southern part of the Alpine Loop, up the valley from Lake San Cristobal. With caution, most passenger cars should be able to make it to the basin, but certainly not much farther. You will need to hike to get ptarmigan and rosy-finch, but this is probably the shortest hike to these birds in the county. If you've got four-wheel-drive, you may be able to save yourself some exercise.
Don't neglect the spruce-fir forests and the willows on the way up. Just a few miles up the valley from Lake San Cristobal there is a pond below the road that may attract swallows and possibly migrating waterbirds. Swainson's Thrush can be heard singing from along the stream in summer. Much of this route is closed in winter.
Habitat - Alpine Tundra, Spruce-Fir Forest, Streamside Willow, Stream
Directions - South of Lake City, take the road to Lake San Cristobal and keep going past the reservoir. About ten miles past the lake, keep right at an intersection. The road past this point is called CR 4, and this is where it gets a little rougher. Drive as far as you feel comfortable driving with your car. If you make it to a fork in the road, the right branch of which heads to Cinnamon Pass, go ahead and park. You're at the bottom of American Basin.
Delorme - 77 A5-A7
Roads of Colorado - 115 E4-F4
Aliases - Pete's Pond, Lake San Cristobal
Description - The most charming town in Hinsdale County is also the only town in Hinsdale County. Its charm is not limited to beautiful scenery and colorful history, but also includes a lack of Rock Pigeons, two fine birding cemeteries, a nice pond with associated riparian area, and a legacy of hybrid grosbeaks, descendants of a Rose-breasted male that took up residence here in 2001.
The two cemeteries are about a half-mile north of town along C149; the smaller of the two, the Lake City Cemetery, abuts the road on the east; the cemetery of the International Order of Odd Fellows is about a quarter-mile off the road to the west. Between them the two cemeteries comprise the only accessible ponderosa stands in the northern two-thirds of the county. They can be good for Clark's Nutcracker, Red Crossbill, and three species of nuthatch, as well as assorted migrants in season.
Pete's Pond occupies the northwest part of Lake City. It has some decent waterbird potential, and the tall deciduous trees along the west edge have hosted the aforementioned hybrid grosbeaks, among other riparian birds. The adult male Rose-breasted frequented feeders in the neighborhood, so these are worth a check. Lake City can host three species of hummingbird in late summer, and we've also had a number of other good birds right in town, including Cassin's Finch, Evening Grosbeak, Red-naped Sapsucker and Common Grackle (not so common at this elevation). There are a number of ponds along Highway 149 both north and south of Lake City, but they never seem to have many birds.
Lake San Cristobal, the second-largest natural lake in Colorado, is too high and too deep to be terribly attractive to waterbirds, but Western Grebe and Gray Catbird have been found there. Barrow's Goldeneye may occur in late fall before the lake freezes. Two late October trips by the authors have failed to find ANY birds on the lake, but others have reported better success at this time of year.
Habitat - Lowland Riparian, Urban/Suburban, Spruce-Fir Forest, Ponderosa Forest, Streamside Willow, Pond/Lake/Reservoir
Directions - Lake City is along CO 149, 45.5 miles south of where it leaves US 50 at Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, and 70 miles NW of where it meets US 160 at South Fork. To reach Pete's Pond, from the intersection of 8th St. and CO 149, go west on 8th St. and then right on Bluff St. The pond is at the end of Bluff St. To reach Lake San Cristobal, go south on CO 149 for 2.5 miles to CR 3 and turn right. The lake is along CR 3 from 1.2 to 3.3 miles from CO 149 along CR 3.
Delorme - 68 D7
Roads of Colorado - 116 A3
Engineer Pass Road
Aliases - Mount Uncompahgre, Nellie Creek, Alpine Loop
Description - This road connects Lake City with Silverton and forms the northern part of the Alpine Loop. Engineer Pass requires 4WD and high clearance, but accesses some of the most beautiful tundra habitat in the state. Those without 4WD can hike up the Nellie Creek road (or drive it in a high-clearance vehicle) to the trailhead for Mt. Uncompaghre, highest peak in the San Juans. The spruce-fir habitat around the trailhead is excellent for the likes of Three-toed Woodpecker and Pine Grosbeak, and we highly recommend that those in condition continue on to the peak, where ptarmigan and rosy-finches await. These roads are closed in winter.
Habitat - Spruce-Fir Forest, Streamside Willow, Krummholz, Alpine Tundra
Directions - Follow CR 20 along Henson Creek west of Lake City to the Ouray County line at Engineer Pass. The Nellie Creek road heads north from the Engineer Pass road about five miles west of Lake City. It is no problem at all to make it to the base of the Nellie Creek road in a passenger car, but you'll have to hike Nellie Creek from there.
Delorme - 67 D5
Roads of Colorado - 115 E4
Aliases - Spring Creek Pass
Description - This pass, along with Spring Creek Pass just to the south, form the high points along CO 149, and the highest points accessible in a passenger car in the county. The dense spruce-fir habitat in the area is good for Boreal Owl, and most of the other normal high-elevation species can be found in the area. We found both species of crossbill here in October 2003. A side attraction is the Slumgullion Earthflow, a still slowly moving enormous mudslide responsible for the formation of Lake San Cristobal.
Habitat - Spruce-Fir Forest, Streamside Willow
Directions - Slumgullion Pass is along CO 149, 9.5 miles south of Lake City and 21 miles NW of the Hinsdale/Mineral County line.
Delorme - 77 A7
Roads of Colorado - 116 A4
Rito Hondo State Wildlife Area and Continental Reservoir
Aliases - Continental Reservoir
Description - Rito Hondo State Wildlife Area comprises a small lake not far off the main highway which has a certain attraction for diving ducks--scaup numbers were impressive here in October 2003. It is definitely worth checking out. Continental Reservoir lies another two miles west by good dirt road. It, too, has diving duck potential, although the overlook is a fair distance from the water.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Spruce-Fir Forest, Sagebrush
Directions - From Lake City, go south on CO 149 for 23.5 miles to the intersection CR 11 (6.5 miles north of the Mineral/Hinsdale county line), and go NW on CR 11. Follow CR 11 NW, bearing right at the fork, for 3 miles to Rito Hondo Reservoir. Bearing left at the fork will bring you to Continental Reservoir, 5 miles from CO 149.
Delorme - 78 A1-B1
Roads of Colorado - 116 A4-B4
North Clear Creek Falls
Description - This magnificent waterfall is a place worth stopping at just for the scenery! As one would expect from falls like this in western Colorado, there is a breeding colony of Black Swifts nesting here, but seeing the swifts here is quite difficult even at dawn and dusk, since the parking lot is at the top of the falls and the swifts tend to come in below the skyline. Nonetheless, watch the skies in the area at all times; the swifts have been seen as far away as the North Clear Creek Campground, 3 miles distant. American Dippers nest at the falls as well, and Northern Harrier has been seen here.
Habitat - Stream, Streamside Willows
Directions - North Clear Creek Falls is just west of state route 149 on CR 16, 6.5 miles from the Mineral/Hinsdale county line, and 23.5 miles south of Lake City.
Delorme - 78 B1
Roads of Colorado - 132 B1
Brown Lakes State Wildlife Area
Description - By far the best birding location in Hinsdale County, these small lakes can hold a surprising number of waterfowl and other species. Most common dabblers can be seen here in season, along with Eared Grebe, Spotted Sandpiper, all swallows except for Bank, Belted Kingfisher, and some divers including Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, and Lesser Scaup. The willows just below this lake hold Fox Sparrows and Red-naped Sapsuckers, and Savannah Sparrow has been seen in the grassy areas near the bathroom. The marshes on the west end of the lakes provides your best shot in the county at Sora and Virginia Rail. The highest elevation breeding colony of Black-crowned Night-Herons in the state is at the nearby Hermit Lakes, and these birds can often be seen at Browns Lakes. Bald Eagles are fairly common in the area in the late fall and probably the spring as well.
A few miles beyond Brown Lakes up the mountain is FR 514, which runs through some nice spruce-fir forest. Three-toed Woodpecker was quite common here in 2005.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Mixed Conifer Forest
Directions - From Lake City, go south on CO 149 for 26.5 miles to FR 515, on the right (3.5 miles north of the Mineral/Hinsdale county line). Go west on FR 515 to the SWA. To get to FR 514, continue past the lakes to a fork in the road and keep right on FR 516. Follow it about three miles to the top of the hill and turn right again onto FR 514.
Delorme - 77 B7, 78 B1
Roads of Colorado - 132 A1
North Clear Creek Campground
Description - This large campground is not only a great place to camp in the San Juans, but also a very good place to clean up on the mountain species for Hinsdale County. Most of the expected mountain breeding Passerines can be seen at and near this campground, including Pine Grosbeak, Fox Sparrow, Cassin's Finch, and Gray Jay. Northern Saw-whet Owl has been heard near here, and Black Swift has been seen flying overhead.
Habitat - Spruce-Fir Forest, Streamside Willows, Mountain Meadow
Directions - From the north, go south along CO149 to the intersection with CR 16, on the left (23.5 miles south of Lake City). Take a left onto CR 16, and go south 2.4 miles to the campground on the left. From the south, go north on CO 149 to CR 16 on the right (1.7 miles north of the Mineral/Hinsdale county line), and take a right. Go north 2 miles to the camground, on the right.
Delorme - 78 B1
Roads of Colorado - 132 B1
Rio Grande Reservoir and Road Canyon Reservoir
Aliases - Road Canyon Reservoir
Description - These two reservoirs are just south of Brown Lakes SWA, but can only be reached by driving into Mineral County and heading back west into Hinsdale. Road Canyon Reservoir is a small reservoir that often has some diving ducks on it, such as Ring-necked Duck, Redhead, and Lesser Scaup; White-faced Ibis has also occurred. Rio Grande Reservoir is the largest lake in Hinsdale County and the least productive, steep-sided and narrow with few if any ducks. Northern Goshawk has been seen here, though, so keep an eye out.
Habitat - Pond/Lake/Reservoir, Mixed Conifer Forest
Directions - From CO 149, about 0.2 miles east of the Hinsdale/Mineral County line, turn west onto Mineral CR 520. The county line is about 1500 feet from this intersection, marked by a fenceline to the left. Road Canyon Reservoir is four miles from CO 149 along Mineral CR 520/Hinsdale CR 18, on the left. Be sure to bear left with CR 18 instead of going straight onto Hinsdale CR 33 at mile 2.8. Rio Grande Reservoir is 11.5 miles from SR 149 along Hinsdale CR 18.
Delorme - 77 B7-C7, 78 B1
Roads of Colorado - 132 A1-2
Piedra Road (Hinsdale section)
Description - The southeast corner of Hinsdale County is unique because of its extensive Ponderosa Pine forests and lower overall elevation than the northern parts of the county. Western Bluebirds can be seen in the area, as well as Lewis's Woodpeckers. The Ponderosa almost certainly has Grace's Warblers, but to our knowledge, no one has found them yet. Wild Turkey has been seen just over the county line in Mineral, so be on the lookout for this potential first county record.
Coming into the county from the south along Piedra Road, you quickly cross the Piedra River. Taking the right turn just past the river will take you to the Piedra Picnic Area in a half mile. The picnic area has a nice mid-elevation riparian tangle that can harbor the likes of Song Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, Yellow Warbler and potentially other lower-elevation species and migrants in season. If you follow FR 635 past the picnic area, it will eventually loop back around to Piedra Road through some magnificent mature ponderosa forest, all of which is on private land and must be birded from the road. The entire loop is good for Lewis's Woodpecker, and the ponderosa sections are also good for things like Western Bluebird.
If you turn right just before crossing the Piedra River, onto FR 714, you will reach some fields in the SE corner of the county that have breeding Savannah Sparrow, and maybe even rails in wet years.
If you continue up Piedra Road about three miles from the county line, you can take a left turn onto FR 639. This goes through some of the very best habitat in the county. The Ponderosa, oak and aspen habitat here can produce Virginia's Warbler, Flammulated Owl, Band-tailed Pigeon, Evening Grosbeak and many other fine birds. If you follow the road to the top where it splits three ways and take the right fork (on foot if the road is too rutted for your car), you will get to an area that is good for Williamson's Sapsucker. Somewhere up here there are Grace's Warblers...we just know it!
If you continue up the Piedra Road several miles, past the turnoff to Williams Creek Reservoir and across Weminuche Creek, you'll enter a little-traveled area of mixed-conifer forest that transitions into spruce-fir. This is another great area to get high-elevation birds including Gray Jay, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Evening Grosbeak, Red Crossbill and Three-toed Woodpecker. Odds are this is the best road for Dusky Grouse in the county. If you like your woods deep and your roads remote, this is the line for you.
Habitat - Ponderosa Forest, Mixed-Conifer Forest, Streamside Willow, Aspen Grove, Spruce-Fir Forest
Directions - Two miles west of Pagosa Springs on US 160, head north on Archuleta CR 600 (Piedra Road), and stay on this road for 15.5 miles to the Hinsdale County line. This road then becomes Hinsdale CR 631.
Delorme - 77 D7, 78 D1, 87 A7, 88 A1
Roads of Colorado - 132 A3-B4
Williams Creek Reservoir
Description - This is the largest reservoir in the southern part of the county, and it can occasionally have a Western Grebe or an interesting duck when it is not overrun by boaters and fishermen. Osprey has bred here in the past, but has not been seen recently. The waterbirds tend to congregate at the northern end of the lake, but don't neglect the small axillary pond just off the road in the SW corner.
Continuing north past the reservoir, you will go through some mid-elevation riparian areas where you might find the likes of Red-naped Sapsucker. Thick willows along the stream in the valley floor harbor Fox Sparrows among other expected species, and Wilson's Snipe winnow overhead on summer evenings. At the end of the road you can pick up the Williams Creek Trail, a beautiful path through mixed-conifer and spruce-fir forests where you could find birds like Cassin's Finch, Hammond's Flycatcher and Three-toed Woodpecker among others.
Habitat - Lake, Ponderosa Forest, Streamside Willow, Mixed-Conifer Forest, Spruce-Fir Forest
Directions - Two miles west of Pagosa Springs on US 160, head north on Archuleta CR 600 (Piedra Road), and stay on this road for 15.5 miles to the Hinsdale County line. This road then becomes Hinsdale CR 631. To get to Williams Creek Reservoir, continue north for 6.2 miles to CR 640. Go north on CR 640 for 1.5 miles to the reservoir. Continue past it to the end of the road if you want to reach the Williams Creek Trailhead.
Delorme - 77 D7
Roads of Colorado - 132 A3