Upper Piney River

Distance: 6.4 miles round trip
Elevation: 9,350 ft - 9,910 ft
Elevation Gain: 851 ft (cumulative)
Bathroom at the Trailhead: Port-o-lets
Dogs: On leash, Eagles Nest Wilderness
Date Hiked: 13 July 2014

Cow Parsley along the side of Piney Lake on the Upper Piney Lake Trail.
Upper Piney River Trail in the Eagle's Nest Wilderness out of Vail has views that will make you hyperventilate. The route starts at Piney Lake, one of the highest lakes in Colorado you can drive to, and heads towards the Gore Range's "Grand Traverse", a series of jagged peaks reminiscent of Wyoming's Grand Tetons. Getting to the trailhead, however, is an hour-long journey (at 10 mph) up bumpy dirt road, passable, but not fun, in a 2WD vehicle.

Parking lot at the Piney River Ranch. The trail starts at the lake.
The start of the trail
To get to the Piney Lake, take exit 176 off of west bound I-70 to the frontage road, then turn right onto Red Sandstone Road. A short distance up Red Sandstone, and at a hair pin turn, Forest Service Road (FSR) 700 splits off to the left. This intersection is disconcerting because the paved road whips to the right and the dirt road is straight across. What you don't know, because you come up too fast, is that there is a stop sign for cars coming down Red Sandstone Rd so it is safe to cross. FSR 700 is a long and rocky dirt road that will make you wonder where on earth you are heading. It twists and turns, goes up and down, and splits in several locations. At every intersection is a sign pointing the way to Piney River Ranch, located at the lake, so you should not get lost. At 6.7 miles you'll pass the trailhead to Lost Lake, another nice hike in the area.

Past the lake the valley becomes a verdant marsh.
Fairy trumpets along the trail
Once you get to the Piney Lake there are two parking lots. The one closest to the lake is technically on private property. Since we spent half of our inheritance on some cold drinks after the hike, I did not mind using the lot.

Entering the Aspens
The trail leaves the valley floor and winds up the left side with views of the rocks ahead.
The trail starts right at the lake and heads along the shoreline. At 0.4 miles you enter the Eagle Nest Wilderness. Take a moment to gasp at the view.  Once past the lake, the trail looks down on a verdant marsh. Upper Piney River winds lazily in one continuous S-curve down the valley. Just looking at that peaceful setting made we want to slow down, take deep breaths, and sigh. Isn't it amazing how much effect water has our psyche? 

Looking down on the marsh as the trail begins to ascend
Getting close to the end of the valley
Also in this area is the Marmot gauntlet. There were large boulders overlooking the marsh every 20 yards. Each one had a Marmot family on it with you-tube cute youngsters peaking out from every crevice. Check out these baby Marmots from the American Basin Trail.

After the trail shifts to the right, the terrain is filled with large boulders.
The falls that is the destination of this hike
At 1.0 miles the trail starts to leave the valley and head into the trees. From this point onwards, the trail winds in and out of Aspens as the valley narrows toward a rock wall. At 1.4 miles the trail starts to gain altitude in a series of switchbacks. You know you are getting close when the trail turns sharply to the right at the back of the valley.

At 3.2 miles the trail appears to dead end into a flowing cascade. Follow the social trails to the right to a series of boulder overlooking the torrent. Supposedly an indistinct trail continues for another 4 miles to Upper Piney Lake.

Looking back down the valley near the falls
I have been wanting to do this trail for the last 4 years, ever since we popped up to Piney Lake after hiking to nearby Lost Lake. I had to wait until my dog was old and calm enough to keep on a leash...still not easy! You may not have the restriction, so hold on to your fillings and brave FSR 700, the views are worth it and so much more!


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