Wilderness Wanderings: Bring skis for a trip to Zirkels
June 1, 2017
Spring is arriving late in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness this year. Even the low to middle sections of the most popular hiking trails are still covered by heavy snow, and the best methods for getting around are skis and snowboards.
Friends of Wilderness volunteers made a couple of reconnaissance work trips Memorial Day weekend and found Gold Creek Lake and Gilpin trails completely snow-covered beyond the wilderness boundary, just a mile or so up from the Slavonia trailhead.
Volunteer Robert Scifres came across a backcountry skier who said he was able to ski back down from Mount Zirkel, except the last one-half mile of trail nearest the Slavonia parking lot.
Other volunteers, including Bill Sanders, who were clearing deadfall from Gilpin Trail, passed two snowboarders from the Front Range.
They told Sanders they also had attempted to hike up to Mount Zirkel, but the snow made the going so tedious, they picked out a slope just south of the Mica Trail junction for their backcountry snowboarding adventure.
One could look off through the trees and see their evidence — snowboard tracks winding down the slope. First ever first tracks on that ridge, no doubt.
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In addition, several groups of backpackers from the Front Range who had planned to overnight in the Zirkels Memorial Day weekend had to amend their plans when they found Seedhouse Road was still gated shut just north of Hinman Park.
If you think it is going to be a long while before you can hike the Zirkel Circle, you're right. Scifres is beginning his third decade as a Forest Service volunteer in the Zirkels, and it has been more than a few springs since he's seen so much snow.
Spring is still "two to three weeks, probably closer to three weeks off," he said Memorial Day. And that's with a long string of consistently warm and sunny days. That means a visit to Gilpin or Gold Creek lakes won't be realistic until Julym depending on stream crossings.
So where can an avid hiker go for a day hike until the snow recedes from the high country?
Lower Silver Creek Trail is one of the best nearby options. It's less than an hour's drive from Steamboat, near Yellow Jacket Pass. Turn left onto Routt County Road 16 at Stagecoach Lake, and travel 7 miles before reaching the trailhead on the left.
One can hike 3 to 4 miles on this trail, recently cleared of downed trees, before encountering patches of snow.
Another option, albeit well-worn, is Mad Creek Trail, off Routt County Road129, just 5.5 miles north of U.S. Highway 40, but you can easily change your scenery with several other options off this trail.
Just 1.75 miles from Mad Creek trailhead is Saddle Trail, which branches off to the left just as the trees open up to reveal the Mad Creek Barn. Look for the open gate. This trail will take you just over a mile through an aspen forest before linking up with Red Dirt Trail.
Or, continue past the historic barn, where the trail changes names and becomes the southern end of the Swamp Park Trail. This trail is mostly level and takes you into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness before coming upon a tributary of Mad Creek that is rushing too fast and high for fording during spring runoff.
A third option off Mad Creek Trail is to cross the bridge over Mad Creek at the barn and follow the old roadbed back to C.R. 129, where you'll need to hike a short distane along the side of the road a short distance before completing your loop at Mad Creek Trailhead.
Red Dirt Trail offers another alternative in the Mad Creek area. Examine a map, and you'll see potential loop hikes utilizing Saddle and Mad Creek Trails.
Bob Korch is president and trail crew leader with Friends of Wilderness, which assists the U.S. Forest Service in maintaining trails and educating the public in the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops Wilderness areas. For more information about the organization, visit friendsofwilderness.com.