The Uranium Mine Trail: A hike through history |

The Uranium Mine Trail: A hike through history

Matt Stensland
Yampatika naturalist Karen Vail describes the geology in the Fish Creek Canyon area while leading a hike of the Uranium Mine Trail with Steamboat Springs Middle School students. Yampatika gives free snowshoe tours of the trail Fridays.
Matt Stensland

Uranium Mine Trail

Getting there: Take Fish Creek Falls Road out of downtown Steamboat to its end in the U.S. Forest Service parking lot. From the lot, hike about 120 paces back down the road to the trailhead on the right.

Cost: The parking lot is a day-use area with a $5 fee per vehicle, payable by cash or check.

— The Cold War is over, but the Uranium Mine Trail continues to be a popular hike for Steamboat Springs residents and visitors.

Perhaps its popularity is because of the dramatic views it offers of Fish Creek Canyon. Maybe it is the desolate feeling encountered while still being so close to town. Possibly it’s the free guided snowshoe tours offered by Yampatika on Fridays that last about three hours and offer a wealth of education about the local geology, wildlife and nature.

The hike to the uranium mine is about 1.5 miles with an elevation gain of about 800 feet. To get to the trailhead, drive to the end of Fish Creek Falls Road to the U.S. Forest Service parking lot. This is a day-use area, and there is a $5 fee payable by cash or check. Then strap on your snowshoes and hike about 120 paces from the bathrooms back down the road. The trailhead is on the right. It is nice to have snowshoes — especially if it snowed overnight — but they are not essential.

Karen Vail is one of the naturalists who lead the tours that start at 10 a.m. Fridays. Vail works for Yampatika, a Steamboat-based nonprofit that has a mission to inspire environmental stewardship through education. The tours of the Uranium Mine Trail are for people 12 and older. Registration is required. Call 970-871-9151.

Yampatika also works closely with the local schools. On March 1, a group of Steamboat Springs Middle School students were treated to a private tour by Vail. The students were participating in an activity offered by Everything Outdoor Steamboat, a program that takes students out of the classroom for outdoor educational opportunities such as the Uranium Mine Trail hike.

“We’re not just snowshoeing,” Vail said.

A series of switchbacks at the beginning of the hike brings the trail to overlooks of the canyon. Vail makes the first of several stops to point out the topography in the area. Across the canyon is a lush forest, while the landscape where the group is standing is mountain shrubland. Vail explains the difference is due to the exposure of the terrain to the sun.

“Isn’t that amazing?” Vail asked. “One side of the hill to the other side, it’s completely different.”

Vail stops to point out the berry bushes that area wildlife such as bears feeds on. She takes the opportunity to talk to the students about humans developing areas that previously had been wildlife habitat and how that can create conflict.

Overlooking the canyon, Vail talks about the geology of the area that can be described as a hanging valley where two glaciers came together at the north and south forks of Fish Creek. She stops next to a rock to point out the fungus and algae growing on the rock that over time broke down the rock and turned it into the soil that led to the first vegetation in the area.

Farther down the trail, the hikers find themselves in a bowl surrounded by aspen trees. The aspens like the sheltered area, Vail said. Also in the area are bushes that have been stripped of their branches by elk. Vail explained that elk can train their bodies to use the wood as an energy source.

It is hard to imagine, but the narrow, snow-covered trail actually once was a road used to access the uranium mine.

A sign on the left side of the trail marks the entrance to the mine. It has been gated to prevent people from entering because of potential roof collapses and radon gas. There is another reason why humans might not want to go inside: The gates were designed to allow a bat colony to move in and out of the mine.

According to the signage, prospectors dug for about 1,000 feet in the early 1950s looking for uranium. At the time, the United States was in an arms race with the Soviet Union, and the uranium was needed to develop the country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. Mining the claim proved to not be economical so the mine was abandoned.

Today, it offers a wonderful destination for a gem of a hike on the outskirts of Steamboat Springs.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email

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