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Wilderness Wanderings: Follow the elk to the high country

Late spring hiking in the high country can have its challenges, such as lingering snow on sections of trail and impassable stream crossings. But it also has its rewards.

Early wildflowers such as glacier lilies carpet either side of the trail, and there are fresh animal tracks on the trail, sometimes less than several hours old. We followed elk tracks up Gilpin Trail in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness on a recent hike to assess conditions for an upcoming trail maintenance trip. We were later surprised to find that elk were also following us when we encountered two cows while hiking back toward the trailhead.

Elk usually move at night and in the early morning hours, but those we encountered must have been enjoying the midday sunshine as much as we were after several weeks of overcast skies. Fortunately, the elk saw us first and headed off trail and into the woods before scampering behind a hill.



We also saw numerous piles of elk scat, signs of deer and even the tracks of a bear that had recently come out of hibernation. But it’s elk that predominate this time of year as they migrate back to the high country parks where they summer and raise their offspring.

Among wildflowers, patches of trillium can be found in shady areas during spring hikes, as well as yellow violets and buttercups, which give way to marsh marigold in the early summer. We also saw several primrose, but it’s the glacier lilies that predominate the spring as they are the first to bloom behind the melting snow. You’ll be able to follow them up the trail over the next month or two — the spent ones at lower elevation and those in bloom higher up.

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Look for other signs of nature. You may be lucky enough to see where beavers have cut down small aspens with their sharp teeth to repair dens that may have been damaged by spring flooding.

We chose to hike the Gilpin Trail based on our knowledge of the order the Zirkel trails usually open up from winter snows. Three Island Trail is usually first, followed by Gold Creek Lake Trail, then Gilpin, North Lake and Mica. We also check with the Forest Service to be sure they have opened the road gates that provide access to those trail heads.

Following are suggestions for trail safety:

• Never approach wild animals, especially in the spring when newborn are prevalent. Moose and bear are especially protective of their young. Give them plenty of room and slowly back away if you’ve surprised them with your presence. Always keep your dog on a leash or under voice command for its protection as well as yours.

• Be especially careful at wide stream crossings. The current is swift and can easily sweep you off your feet into the icy cold water. Logs are not always stable enough to use as a crossing. Again, it may be wiser to turn back and return to the trail in a few weeks when the water level has lowered.

• Please walk single file on the trail, even in wet and muddy sections, so as not to increase the width or create braided or side-by-side trails. Remember the principles of wilderness: “Lands that are set aside so as to preserve natural conditions … an area that has primarily been affected by the forces of nature with the imprint of humans substantially unnoticeable.”

• Carry a map and compass; don’t rely on a GPS alone. Wilderness trails can be especially challenging to follow when trail segments are snow-covered or blocked by fallen trees. There are no trail blazes on trees to lead your way. An alternative is to look for cut logs where fallen trees were cleared from the trail.

Bob Korch is a vice president and trail volunteer with Friends of Wilderness, which assists the U.S. Forest Service in maintaining trails and public education in the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops Wilderness. friendsofwilderness.com.


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