Front Range Pika Project (Aug/Sep)

We love pikas. :-)

American Pika near Crater Lake, Maroon Bells, Colorado

We travel with a stuffed pika named "Petey" on our dashboard and I hike with him in my backpack. He's an American Pika, of course. :-)

Petey Pika on the Alaska Highway

So when I learned about the Front Range Pika Project I knew this was the citizen science project for me. Pika Patrol volunteers hike to specific sites along the Front Range from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, and west about as far as Breckenridge to study the little lagomorphs (they are not rodents!) and their habitat. The first rule for Pika Patrol members is no hiking alone, so I was thrilled that Mike not only agreed to accompany me on pika hikes, but wanted to go through the volunteer training as well.

Play the video above for a promo about the Front Range Pika Project.

Classroom training came first. We learned so many new things about pikas as well as what our duties would be on Pika Patrol. During the training presentation we were moved to see several images donated by the late Dick Orleans. Dick was a local Estes Park photographer, musician, and nature lover who passed away unexpectedly earlier this year, and he too loved pikas.

Front Range Pika Project field training

The primary purpose of the FRPP study is to observe and document the presence or absence of pikas at specified locations over a 10 year period, and note any habitat changes. Pikas can't survive very long in warm temperatures, so climate change is a concern to their survival. We learned to determine the presence of pikas not just by visual or auditory means, but by finding fresh haypiles or scat. In all the years we've been hiking, neither of us had taken note of a pika haypile or knew that the orangey-white marks often seen on alpine tundra rocks are pika latrines.

We were given a handbook with maps, location descriptions, data collection protocols, forms, and other information. We also were given a tape measure to measure talus, and a thermometer to record temperatures.

A pika "latrine" with fresh scat

Next, measurements and characteristics of talus, the pika's habitat, and surrounding area are noted. Current weather conditions are recorded and a few photos of the surrounding vegetation are taken before leaving the site. If fresh scat is found, it is collected for DNA analysis to evaluate pika stress hormone levels.

The second training session was conducted in the field. We met with researchers and about 25 other volunteers at a pika location near Loveland Pass to test our pika finding skills and put into practice the protocols we learned in the classroom. Since most of the study sites are off-trail, GPS route-finding skills were taught.

We were also shown how to enter the data we collected into an observation record at the Pika Project website. Now we were ready to hit the trail.

Field training for FRPP, near Loveland Pass

Our first pika hike was to Bighorn Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. From the Lawn Lake Trailhead, we hiked in a couple miles then bushwhacked our way up through a steep, rocky and thickly forested area before reaching the GPS point in a large talus field.

Susan about to bushwhack up a difficult talus slope on the way up to the Bighorn Mountain pika location

The entire hike was only 5 miles round trip, but the challenging terrain of fallen timbers and slick rocks, combined with 2,500 feet of elevation gain made the walk more difficult. We completed our observations, and were pleased to both hear and see pikas and be able to collect fresh scat samples.

Susan collecting a scat sample from a pika "latrine"

We loved seeing this pika near its haypile

View from our pika location citizen science "laboratory." Chiquita, Ypsilon and Mummy Mountains in background

From this pika location, the summit of Bighorn Mountain was not far, but straight up and I was exhausted from all the bushwhacking. With some encouragement from Mike, I pushed on and it was so worth the extra effort. The broad flat summit was scattered with a few large rocky outcroppings. What a fun place to play and take in the panoramic views from a new perspective!

Panorama from near the Bighorn summit. Mike is a tiny dot at far upper left.

Susan at the Bighorn Mountain summit; you can see Lake Estes and Estes Park above and to her right

Mike uses duct tape to repair the PVC pipe summit register 

Susan heading down. Mt Tileston is above her, with Mummy Mountain at far left.

Our next pika site was at Trap Lake, off of Hwy 14 north of RMNP. This time we enjoyed fall color on the long drive and had only a short walk at the lake to our GPS coordinates. Again, success at finding pikas and collecting scat specimens. We took the long way home through Walden, stopping at the River Rock Cafe at the Antlers Inn for a meal before completing the big loop across Trail Ridge Road back home.

The "parking lot" at Trap Lake on Long Lake Rd, near Hwy 14

Susan on the talus slope above Trap Lake (note road and our car just right of center)

Pika observed near its haypile at the Trap Lake location

Looking up the talus slope above Trap Lake

Mike collects a scat sample
Our most recent pika hike was along the Mount Audubon Trail near Brainard Lake. We were curious about the hike and wondered why we hadn't hiked this beautiful area sooner as it is no further from home than some parts of Rocky.

View along the trail on the way to our Mt Audubon pika location

Susan indicating direction of the camera from our first location; part of our data collection protocol

We ended up visiting two sites on this bluebird day because they were so close together. The second site was especially fun because it gave us a great view of the Longs Peak area looking north, the opposite direction we normally see it from.

Mike arriving at our 2nd pika location for the day; Longs Peak in background

Another spectacular view from our field lab

With the experience of two previous pika hikes under our belts, we completed our work at both sites quickly. Unfortunately we hadn't packed enough water to go on to summit Mount Audubon, but we've added to our ever-growing "next time" list. :-)

Our last view of Longs Peak for the day

We look forward to the end of season party in November and sharing experiences with other volunteers. If you are interested in citizen science, pikas, hiking, or would consider joining the 2015 Pika Patrol, please visit


  1. Nice work! Since you're birders, you'll appreciate this: Based on molting patterns, it looks like the pika you saw on Bighorn Peak was a juvenile, while the one at Trap Lake was an adult. -Chris Ray

  2. Great story and pictures! Thanks for sharing!