Tom Ross: Mica Basin puts on a snowy show

Tom Ross
Snow cornices still hug the ridge lines above Mica Basin in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.
Tom Ross

— The good news is that icy Mica Creek has dropped sufficiently to permit a safe crossing into Mica Basin and some of the most dramatic scenery in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.

The surprising news is that large snow banks still run right to the edge of Mica Lake itself, and visitors to the lake get the feeling the ice might have gone off only last week. Can you imagine how difficult it must be to survive as a cutthroat trout finning around in a habitat where there are only seven weeks of the year when it isn’t winter?

The fireweed is prospering among the trees burned in the 2002 forest fire, but it won’t bloom for some time yet. It’s still glacier lily and marsh marigold season in Mica Basin. And I’ll bet you have never seen this much snow on the surrounding peaks this late in the summer.

If you’ve witnessed more August snow than what we have in 2011, you’ve been around for a very long time.

We returned from a satisfying overnight backpack into the basin Sunday afternoon and marveled at the number of cheerful day hikers coming down the Gilpin Lake Trail on the return to the Slavonia Trailhead. There were many families, some carrying infants in backpacks, and lots of well-behaved dogs. We learned from casual conversations that many hikers never reached Gilpin Lake, which is understandable — it’s a good stiff march, but not as stiff as the 5-mile hike to Mica Lake.

The “Historical Guide to Routt County,” which was updated and re-released by Tread of Pioneers Museum in 2010, records that Mica Lake was named by Charles and William McCormick, who found mica and silver deposits on the shallow bed of the lake.

To enter Mica Basin, hikers walk the first 1.5 miles of the Gilpin Lake Trail before taking a well-signed cutoff to the left. It isn’t long before the trail climbs steeply to reach a saddle that represents the gates to Mica Basin.

The extra efforts reward hardy folk with relative solitude when compared to the Gilpin trail. We are slow hikers and with the weight of camping gear on our backs, we took three hours to reach the upper basin just below the lake. We flew down the trail in 2.5 hours Sunday.

A lunch break on the way up the trail was an opportunity to change out of hiking shoes and into river sandals for the stream crossing. People who go to extremes to lighten their backpacking loads would scoff at carrying sandals (I use a carabiner to attach them to the outside of my pack). It’s not just about keeping my shoes dry on the rocky stream crossings. I’m much more comfortable in camp when I have a change of footwear.

The ford at Mica Creek is easy and the water reached mid-calf.

For the duration of the hike, the unfolding views of peaks like Little Agnes and Big Agnes led us to exclaim out loud. I’ve never seen the meadows of the Park Range this green this late into the summer.

Of course, large expanses of dead and dying pine trees are a fact of life in the Zirkel Wilderness for the rest of our lifetimes. I was reminded this weekend of how many truly large trees burned during the forest fires of 2002.

That was a drought year, and this has been just the opposite. Call this the shortest, sweetest summer in memory, and make the most of what is left for us to revel in.

At the end of a long day’s hike with a full backpack on Saturday, I completely immersed myself in Mica Creek just before the sun went behind the ridge. I’ve never felt so refreshed.

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