Series of lakes atop Buffalo Pass provides easy, beautiful hikes
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Springs is known for many great things. One of them is not its learning curve.
The most obvious example is Mount Werner at Steamboat Ski Area: a great mountain featuring lots of great snow in winter and plenty of trail options. But it’s not the easiest place for beginners to find wide trails with gentle grades.
Much of the same can be said about summer sports here. There aren’t many options for cross-country mountain bikers between the extremes of the lazy Yampa River Core Trail and trail directions that begin with “ride up that mountain.”
I was looking for some middle ground in hiking when I set out Wednesday, bumping and bouncing, shaking and rattling up Routt County Road 38 to the top of Buffalo Pass, looking for an easy and quick lake hike.
Despite several plans derailed by beetle-kill mitigation closures, that’s exactly what I found — fun, easy exercise and, more than anything else, jaw-dropping beauty in a series of quiet lakes hidden near the top of the pass.
Looking for options
My inspiration was my parents, who now are at or approaching 60. They brought along several other couples with whom they frequently take trips, and I was in charge of recommendations.
They hit the highlights during their stay here: a Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo performance, a visit to the hot springs, a cruiser bike ride on the Core Trail and tubing on the river. I even sent them on one short “hike” — the gotta-see-it quarter-mile stroll to Fish Creek Falls.
They left the next day, and that was fortunate because I was running out of great ideas. They’re all fit. My mom, for example, accompanied me to the top of Rabbit Ears Peak several summer ago, but that would have proven a bit much for some others in the group. Mad Creek isn’t too difficult, but its tranquility is guarded by a steep ascent at the start of the hike. Spring Creek is nice, but it never quite drops my jaw.
I set out Wednesday looking for a new place to send them, something that might qualify as more of a real hike than the walk down to Fish Creek Falls while not being the several-hour investment a worthwhile trip anywhere else might require.
A prospective paleontologist in my youth, Lake Dinosaur on Buff Pass seemed perfect, but the access road (Forest Service Road 310) is closed for tree cutting for at least another week. Jonah Lake and the other lakes tucked behind Summit Lake on Buff Pass proved far more than adequate, however. In fact, they earned themselves a spot on future itineraries for visiting friends and family.
The drive to the top of Buffalo Pass actually is part of the appeal. There’s no death-defying cliffs, but there are some awesome views of town and the valley and plenty of serene meadows and pine and aspen groves. It’s pretty. It’s Colorado. It’s possible in just about any car, but take an all-wheel drive vehicle if possible.
Summit Lake is the prize that awaits at the top of a bumpy eight-mile drive. It left me in awe Wednesday when a rainbow — there’s a good crop of them this year — formed overhead as I was hiking back toward my car.
Jonah Lake, along with a series of other lakes behind it, is the prize that’s hidden behind Summit Lake.
The hike to Jonah Lake heads down an unmarked trail — another small part of the appeal, perhaps? Fortunately Diane White-Crane outlined the course in her popular book “Hiking the ’Boat II,” and I managed to follow directions well enough to stumble upon it.
The hike departs from the campground just on the west side of Summit Lake, or it would were that campground not shut down for a week, also for beetle-kill tree removal. I parked on the east side of Summit Lake and hiked around on a well-established shore trail, then found the Jonah Lake exit off the campground road, right next to the outhouse. One piece of singletrack splits off to the toilet, the other to Jonah Lake.
The trail is easy, but it’s not flat. There’s some undulation, rocky outcroppings and ups and downs. They add to the appeal.
It’s only one-quarter mile to Jonah Lake, but it’s feels like far more of a Colorado mountain trail than does the trip to the base of Fish Creek Falls.
Jonah Lake is distinguished by three rocky islands strewn across its surface. Sit down, soak it up and enjoy it. It’s an easy hike back. The fun doesn
’t have to stop there, however. Jonah is just the second, after Summit, in a string of bewitching lakes. The trail goes from “not officially marked” but well worn to barely in existence. Head right around Jonah, stick to the trampled grass and climb over several boulder-strewn rock faces. Whale Lake lies a short distance farther through the woods.
Beyond Whale is Martha and Shoestring lakes.
They were begging for fishing poles Wednesday, and indeed a family following up on that same thought reported plenty of success.
The word is out
One of my very first stories I wrote in Steamboat Springs — written five springs ago, now — proclaimed Buff Pass as “Steamboat’s worst kept secret” for backcountry skiing. Now with some time under my belt, that seems like an understatement.
I couldn’t help but feel like I stumbled across something somewhat secret again. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The fishing family was plenty friendly and cooperative as I took photographs, but they were dismayed to hear I planned to include the spot in the newspaper.
What can I say? The sweet treats atop Buff Pass are just what I had in mind. Walking through the meadows and up to the shores of deep blue lakes, I couldn’t help but feel like I was somewhere special, and I’m going to tell people, including my parents.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com
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Explore a mix of in-person and virtual events happening this weekend in Routt County.