Highline Lake offers optimum location for watching birds
Although the James M. Robb Colorado River State Park is one of the most unique parks in Colorado, and the one that gets the most local notoriety, it’s not the only state park in the Happy Valley. Highline Lake State Park north of the Loma metroplex is a great place to escape, especially this time of year when there’s NO ONE around.
Birding on a Wednesday morning? What a tough job. When the park closed for boating season Oct. 1, it became a prime spot for bird viewing. In fact, Highline and Mack Mesa lakes both closed to boating Oct. 1 in order to provide a peaceful place for resting waterfowl in the midst of their migrations.
It’s a great place to see a lot of different species of birds, not just waterfowl. Approximately 210 species have been spotted at Highline Lake. The list includes an incredible variety of birds, from Red-throated and Pacific Loons to Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Belted Kingfishers.
In this past decade, the park has worked hard to make bird viewing, hiking and bicycling easy. Two migratory waterfowl overlook sites on both sides of the lake provide excellent spots from which to watch as thousands of ducks and geese journey to the park.
Bicycle and hiking trails are well-marked, yet leave only a small print on this landscape dominated by mat saltbush shrublands and saline bottomland shrublands.
The Colorado Audubon Society identified Highline Lake as an Important Bird Area. Started in Europe in the late 1980s by BirdLife International, the Important Bird Areas program has been a powerful conservation tool, protecting millions of acres of habitat.
There’s a well-marked 3.5 mile loop — the Highline Lake Trail — that’s open to hikers, bicycle and horseback riders. Another trail, the Mack Mesa Lake Trail, travels around that small water impoundments just a few yards above the main lake. There are other loops from these trails as well.
All trails are built on gravel/dirt. Rolling hillsides surrounding the reservoir bristled in the early morning chill. Rabbit tracks and a few deer prints spotted the dusty landscape. One or two human footprints, a few dog prints, and a couple of fat tire tread marks were all I could follow as I journeyed around the lake.
To find this trail in this park, travel west on Interstate 70 to Loma, Exit 15. That’s Colorado Highway 139. It eventually takes you over Douglas Pass and into Rangely.
You don’t have to go that far. Stay on Hwy 139 to Q Road. Turn left and go to 11.8 Road. Turn right and go .5 mile to R Road. You can either turn left on R Road and go to the next entrance another half-mile down the road, or stay on 11.8 Road into the main entrance.
Either way, you’ll find a self-service fee station. Pay your $6, unless you already have your annual Parks Pass or special Aspen Leaf discounted seniors pass.
I took the R Road entrance because there’s construction near the main entrance. This is a long-term project, affecting the east ramp area.
A portion of the Highline Lake Trail, between the inlet bridge and the vault toilets on the east side of the park, is closed because of the east boat ramp construction. However, you can still access the East Bluffs Loop and Greasewood Flats Trail Loop from the Mack Mesa Trail head.
Highline Lake, completed in 1969, has 160 surface-acres of yet-unfrozen water and provides good fishing and solitude, as long as you’re not here during water-skiing season.
Solitude diminishes quite a bit then, although the fishing remains good, and those into motorized boating sports absolutely love this place. This is my time of year to visit, however, because of the lack of boats and lack of people.
I saw no other humans, and heard only one shotgun blast at the far end of the lake that’s clearly marked for waterfowl hunting. Don’t worry.
Temperatures are finally dropping in the valley, so make sure you’re prepared for the cold. You won’t take advantage of the nice swim beach near the grassy picnic area since swimming is only allowed between Memorial Day through Labor Day. Leave your swim suits at home, but bring your binoculars. Some of the more common bird species you may see this time of year include American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, Golden and Bald Eagles, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Wilson’s Warblers, Horned Larks, magpies and ravens, Spotted Towhees and Dark-eyed Juncos.
The best time for birding, or most wildlife watching, is in the mornings and evenings, but any time you can get out would be a good time to be hiking along the Highline Lake Trail.
And, you’ll probably have the whole place to yourself.