Large snow drift blocks east side of Buffalo Pass
Steamboat Springs — It’s a fact of life in Steamboat Springs: You can’t have a heavy snow winter without the following summer being noted for high runoff in the rivers and lingering snowbanks on National Forest roads in mid-July.
Backcountry hikers have plenty of options this weekend, but some of the key Forest Service roads that lead to high country trails still are closed by locked gates because of wet conditions and snowdrifts that block the roads. That includes Buffalo Pass Road, one of the primary access points to the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area and the easiest way to set out on the Continental Divide Trail from Steamboat.
The road spans the divide providing an alternate route to U.S. Highway 40 and Colorado Highway 14 to reach North Park and the town of Walden.
The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest issued a news release Thursday saying that from the Steamboat side, the road is closed by a locked gate 3 miles east of Dry Lake Campground and above the switchbacks.
“While the late-season snowpack will be beneficial to many natural resources, it has reduced early summer access and we appreciate the public remaining patient,” Hahns Peak-Bears Ears District Ranger Chad Stewart was quoted saying. “We will monitor conditions on both sides with the intent of opening up as soon as feasible, possibly within the next couple of weeks.”
A good alternative for wilderness hikers is further north at the Three Island Lake and Slavonia trailheads, which are reached via Routt County Road 64 northeast of Clark. Forest Service personnel were advising hikers prior to the Fourth of July weekend that the hike to Three Island Lake was relatively free of snow on the trail.
Forest Service forestry technician and law enforcement officer Steve McCone said Friday that he monitors the condition of Buffalo Pass Road through regular trips to check air quality monitoring devices on the pass. The chief problem on the road is just over the summit of Buffalo Pass, where there is a 5-foot deep drift that is 20 feet in width and straddling the road, he said.
The road to the summit from the west side is drive-able, he said, but the Forest Service has not opened the road to the summit and closed it beyond that point because experience has taught personnel that people intent on using the road to reach North Park will drive around the snow drift, resulting in habitat damage in a natural bog surrounding it.
“They do it all the time,” McCone said. “You can put of a sign and they still do it.”
Other Forest Roads in close proximity to Steamboat that remain closed include the Elk Park Road, which begins near the northern end of Strawberry Park off C.R. 36, and Forest Road 311 above Dumont Lake. The latter leads to the Base Camp Trailhead and the relatively easy family hike to Fishhook Lake. The road also is a key link in the mountain bike ride from Rabbit Ears Pass to Buffalo Pass.
However, there is a large persistent snowbank every year about 2 miles above the locked gate. This year, there are several more snowbanks significant enough to prevent automobiles from passing.
McCone said the existence of the snowbanks is evidence of wet trail conditions further up that could result in trail damage if mountain bikers pushed on. He urged cyclists to be patient and wait for better conditions.
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