The Mighty Zirkel: Take a hike to the tallest peak in Routt County | SteamboatToday.com
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The Mighty Zirkel: Take a hike to the tallest peak in Routt County

A herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep stare down from a hillside near the summit of Mount Zirkel. The bighorns residing along the Continental Divide in the Park Range are the result of a reintroduction project where 41 bighorns were released into Red Canyon in 2005, about 20 miles west of Walden in Jackson County.
Scott Franz

Plan your own backcountry adventure

Your adventure begins at the Slavonia Trailhead. To get there, take Elk River Road north to Clark and turn right on Seedhouse Road. Continue on Seedhouse (FSR 400) for 11.9 miles until it dead ends at the trailhead.

One of the perks about the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area is you can choose your own adventure.

For an easier ascent up Mount Zirkel, most will hike to the Slavonia Mine Camp and set up a base camp. (Turn right to take the Gold Creek Trail).

From the camp, it’s a much easier hike 2.5 miles to the summit.

Due to our time limitations and work schedules, we opted to camp our first night just past Gold Creek Lake.

From there, we hiked to the summit of Zirkel, hiked back past the Slavonia Mine, took the trail up and over to Gilpin Lake and camped about a half mile below the jaw-dropping body of water.

It was then an easy downhill hike to return to the Slavonia trailhead and complete the Zirkel Circle.

When you are finished, consider getting a large juicy cheeseburger and an ice cold beer at Hahn’s Peak Roadhouse.

Or if Hahn’s Peak Café is open on the day of your hike, they’ve got the Philly Cheesesteak Burrito, one of the best dishes in Routt County.

Provisions

What you need:

■ Topo map

■ Compass

■ Sunscreen

■ Windbreaker

■ A device to filter water (we had a life straw and a SteriPen, both of which worked great. Natural streams and rushing creeks abounded.)

■ River shoes (You are going to get your feet wet this time of year.)

■ First aid kit

•For a full list of the 10 essentials you need, click here.

Luxuries:

■ Camera

■ Steak and a French baguette (Cook steak over an open flame and stuff it in the baguette.)

■ Summit beer (Pack it in, pack it out.)

Keep in mind

■ The creek crossings in July can still be tricky. There are points where you will either need to balance on a long log with a heavy pack or wade through water that can get knee deep. The trickiest creek crossing we found was at the base of Red Dirt Pass, where it required a leap across a raging creek that was covered in several areas by snow fields that should not be crossed. The creek had intensified upon our return and required a different crossing point.

•It is best to summit Zirkel in the morning when storms are less likely to threaten. Do not attempt to summit if lightning threatens.

■ Use caution when creating a fire in the backcountry. You will find several fire rings have already been created in amazing campsites along creeks. We’ve seen this fire season how devastating a poorly extinguished campfire can be. Don’t mess this up for everyone else.

— The hardest part of summiting Mount Zirkel wasn’t the daring leap over a raging, ice-cold creek on the trek up Red Dirt Pass.

A slip, or too short a jump, would put you in danger of falling down into a dark cavern the creek runs into below a blanket of snow.

The hardest part wasn’t the two false summits and the tricky rock scramble at the end of an already exhausting 5-mile hike that started 2,627 feet below.



It wasn’t the half-mile I trekked around Gold Creek Lake by myself in total darkness the night before the ascent to meet one of our fellow summiteers, who got off of work late and needed to see a headlamp to know where we had set up our backcountry campsite.

It wasn’t even all those tiring steps I had to take in winds on the Continental Divide, which were so brutal, it felt as though someone was pinching my neck every time a stray strap from my backpack was blown into my skin.



No, the hardest part of summiting Zirkel was reaching that rock at 12,182 feet and having to condense my hours of joy, trials and discovery into only three words in the small box marked ‘comments’ on the summit’s register.

“Epic! But tiring,” I wrote on the gusty peak, before returning the piece of paper to a small glass Mason jar tucked between the craggy rocks.

Behind me, smoke from the raging Beaver Creek Fire rose higher and higher, as the blaze got into new portions of the Routt National Forest and made a run for Wyoming.

And, aside from two other men from the Czech Republic, who were starting to make their way up, and a herd of bighorn sheep, my two friends and I had the summit and the surrounding tundra all to ourselves.

Reaching the highest point in Routt County has been on my Steamboat bucket list ever since I arrived in the Yampa Valley.

And everyone who does it comes back down with a story much longer than can fit on the summit register.

The story has many highlights.

I watched the herd of bighorn sheep walk effortlessly along the Continental Divide before disappearing down a sheer cliff face a half-mile from the summit of Zirkel.

I boiled water from Gilpin Creek and made a natural refrigerator to keep a beer cold in the icy cold water of Gold Creek.

I stared at the final saddle we had to climb before making the descent into Gilpin Lake after summiting Zirkel and questioned how the heck I would summon the energy to make it up with the heavy pack on my back.

I watched the last rays of light illuminate fields of stunning wildflowers on the shores of Gilpin.

In that moment, I didn’t so much care how sore my feet were.

My first Zirkel Circle has made all the other hikes I’ve done in Routt County feel juvenile.

Too easy.

When you spend two days with a tent and provisions on your back, drinking out of streams, collecting dead trees to make a fire and using a compass and a topo map to navigate to a mountain summit, car camping feels like cheating.

Up here, in an area hidden from view of the Yampa Valley, the payoff is more epic.

There aren’t crowds, as there are on the 14ers.

The Milky Way is brilliant, and the only sounds you’ll hear up at Gold Creek Lake are the splashes of trout as they jump from the water.

But, at times, every step is a struggle.

Then, you pause and look up at the peaks that tower thousands of feet above you. It is then you summon your last bits of energy, because you want to see what’s beyond that saddle.

And that walk through the chaotic aisles of City Market on Rainbow weekend to grab the food you will cook over a campfire?

I’ll take the occasional traffic jam of two hikers waiting to walk over a single log crossing a raging creek.

When the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area was first designated as a primitive area in 1931, a reporter at the Craig Empire Courier declared the area would be “readily kept in its primitive condition, so that future generations may see the nature of the land which met the eyes of the first settlers within the Rocky Mountain Region.”

Aside from the ruins of old cabins at the Slavonia Mine Camp, which are filled with rusted metal bed frames at 10,000 feet, and the footpaths that have now been created, this promise still rings true.

Zirkel beckons.

Go and make your own adventure.

Plan your own backcountry adventure

Your adventure begins at the Slavonia Trailhead. To get there, take Elk River Road north to Clark and turn right on Seedhouse Road. Continue on Seedhouse (FSR 400) for 11.9 miles until it dead ends at the trailhead.

One of the perks about the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area is you can choose your own adventure.

For an easier ascent up Mount Zirkel, most will hike to the Slavonia Mine Camp and set up a base camp. (Turn right to take the Gold Creek Trail).

From the camp, it’s a much easier hike 2.5 miles to the summit.

Due to our time limitations and work schedules, we opted to camp our first night just past Gold Creek Lake.

From there, we hiked to the summit of Zirkel, hiked back past the Slavonia Mine, took the trail up and over to Gilpin Lake and camped about a half mile below the jaw-dropping body of water.

It was then an easy downhill hike to return to the Slavonia trailhead and complete the Zirkel Circle.

When you are finished, consider getting a large juicy cheeseburger and an ice cold beer at Hahn’s Peak Roadhouse.

Or if Hahn’s Peak Café is open on the day of your hike, they’ve got the Philly Cheesesteak Burrito, one of the best dishes in Routt County.

Provisions

What you need:

■ Topo map

■ Compass

■ Sunscreen

■ Windbreaker

■ A device to filter water (we had a life straw and a SteriPen, both of which worked great. Natural streams and rushing creeks abounded.)

■ River shoes (You are going to get your feet wet this time of year.)

■ First aid kit

•For a full list of the 10 essentials you need, click here.

Luxuries:

■ Camera

■ Steak and a French baguette (Cook steak over an open flame and stuff it in the baguette.)

■ Summit beer (Pack it in, pack it out.)

Keep in mind

■ The creek crossings in July can still be tricky. There are points where you will either need to balance on a long log with a heavy pack or wade through water that can get knee deep. The trickiest creek crossing we found was at the base of Red Dirt Pass, where it required a leap across a raging creek that was covered in several areas by snow fields that should not be crossed. The creek had intensified upon our return and required a different crossing point.

•It is best to summit Zirkel in the morning when storms are less likely to threaten. Do not attempt to summit if lightning threatens.

■ Use caution when creating a fire in the backcountry. You will find several fire rings have already been created in amazing campsites along creeks. We’ve seen this fire season how devastating a poorly extinguished campfire can be. Don’t mess this up for everyone else.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10


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