Hike Northwest Colorado | SteamboatToday.com

Hike Northwest Colorado

Access to hundreds of wonderful trails can be found close to the 'Boat

Dave Shively

Northwest Colorado offers access to hundreds of trails to hike in the Routt National Forest.

— A good hike should be approached according to the worn adage that life is about the journey, not the destination.

At least that’s how Karen Vail, long-time local naturalist extraordinaire, sees it.

“A hike up Mount Zirkel or Hahn’s Peak can be pretty neat, but my ‘wows’ are different than some people’s,” Vail said. “For me, ‘wow’ is seeing seven different kinds of orchids.”

And while the Steamboat area boasts plenty of destination-oriented hikes with vertigo-inducing landscapes and dramatic vistas (see page 54 for a list of a few of the best), it also has plenty of what Vail calls “hikers’ hikes.”

These hikes are geared for those hoping to soak in the full range of flora and fauna along the way. And without the hype factor of some of the other routes, having one of these easily accessible hikes to oneself is always a possibility.

Mad Creek

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With a trailhead just north of Steamboat (five miles up Routt County Road 129), Mad Creek offers a scenic two-mile hike up to an original U.S. Forest Service cabin homestead preserved from the early 1900s.

The trail features canyon landscapes as well as pine meadows and aspen groves as the trail follows Mad Creek along the Swamp Park Trail (1100) to its headwaters on the Continental Divide. A couple of loops – like the Red Dirt Trail (1171), popular with mountain bikers – branch off the main trail. Maps are available at the trailhead.

“It’s amazing, the spring flowers are really diverse – you’ll see some pasque flower, native clematis, and some early balsamroot,” Vail said. “You still get a good backcountry experience and stop hearing the road when you get into Mad Creek Canyon.”

Service Creek Wilderness Area

This heavily-forested, low-elevation wilderness area is often overlooked.

“People don’t realize how unbelievably rich it is,” Vail said. “The diversity of flora and fauna is mind-boggling – there’s one hike with seven species of orchids on it, the area’s home to bears, mountain lion, bobcat and huge herds of elk.”

The Silver Creek (1106) and Service Creek (1105) trails can be hiked from trailheads accessed from Buffalo Park Road (Forest Development Road 100), which heads south off U.S. Highway 40 atop Rabbit Ears Pass.

Hikers can enjoy both moderate uphill climbs from the bottom end as well, beginning at the north side of Stagecoach Reservoir or off Lynx Pass Road (C.R. 16) on the south side of the reservoir. Driving to the reservoir from Steamboat (north), take a left off C.R.14 onto C.R. 18 at the Stagecoach State Park entrance, drive 3.2 miles to access the 1105 trailhead past the dam or turn left at C.R. 16 on the far, west end of the reservoir and proceed seven miles south to the 1106 trailhead. The Service Creek trailhead falls in the boundaries of the 311-acre Service Creek State Wildlife Area on the northwestern end of the wilderness area, so hikers without fishing or hiking licenses need to purchase a $10.25 Colorado Division of Wildlife Habitat Stamp wherever licenses are sold.

Black Mountain Creek Trail

Hikers interested in hillsides full of blooming flowers and sweeping views in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area can head for the Pyramid Peak area, accessed from C.R. 25 southwest of Oak Creek to the trailhead at Sheriff Reservoir.

“It’s just full of columbine, larkspur and golden glow like you can’t believe – it’s like going through a John Fielder picture,” Vail said.

A 2.5-mile moderate hike with short, steep sections (trail No. 1117) gets you to a high saddle at the foot of 11,532-foot Pyramid Peak (with its pointed summit another mile to the west), affording views of Dunkley Pass, Black Mountain, Trappers Mountain and the Devil’s Causeway.

Vail recommends a U.S. Forest Service map, Trails Illustrated or Sky Terrain map for the Steamboat Springs/Mount Zirkel area. Ski Haus has a nice selection of area trail maps (1457 Pine Grove Road, 879-0385), as does the U.S. Forest Service Hahn’s Peak-Bears Ears Ranger District (925 Weiss Dr., 879-1870).