Wilderness Wanderings: Hike the trails less traveled
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A hiker doesn’t have to be crowd adverse during the COVID-19 pandemic to want to distance oneself from other trail users. Sometimes, we just prefer to be alone with nature.
This may be especially so in designated wilderness areas such as the Zirkels, Flat Tops and Sarvis Creek, which were given that legal status due to their special qualities, including solitude.
On any given summer weekend, one should expect to find upwards of several hundred hikers and overnight backpackers on our most popular wilderness trails including those that take you to Gold Creek Lake, Gilpin Lake and the Devil’s Causeway.
So what’s a solitude seeking hiker to do? That’s easy — hike trails that are less traveled.
You might have to drive or hike a little farther if your intention is to have lunch at a lake, for example. Following are alternative trails that experience much less visitation, yet still offer the scenic beauty highly sought in our region.
If you get to Slavonia trailhead at the end of Seedhouse Road and find the parking lot and road packed with cars, make a slight detour. Backtrack down the road and turn left onto Forest Service Road 443, which will lead you to several other trails.
Several miles down 443 look for a small parking lot on your right and Burn Ridge Trailhead, which serves South Fork Trail.
This multiuse trail follows the South Fork of the Elk River and offers great views of the rugged peaks of the Zirkels. At 3.5 miles in length, the mostly flat trail takes you in and out of lush meadows and aspen and pine forests.
Farther down 443 is Three Island Lake Trail, a 3.5-mile moderate hike to its namesake lake. You’ll cross several seasonal streams and have views of cascading Three Island Creek. Three Island Lake is one of the largest lakes in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness.
East side Zirkels
The east side of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area experiences significantly less visitor traffic than does the west side. If you’re willing to drive a little farther, you will be awarded with hikes to a handful of high Alpine lakes.
The largest lake in the Zirkels — Rainbow Lake — is just 3.3 miles up its namesake trail, otherwise known as 1130. The hike also features two smaller lakes along the route — Lower Rainbow and Middle Rainbow.
Lone Pine Trail 1129 offers a “two-for,” whereby you can visit both Lake Katherine and Bighorn Lake off short, secondary trails.
Follow 1129 approximately 1.5 miles from Lake Katherine Trailhead and look for the junction: turn left onto 1157, and you’ll find Katherine after another three-quarters of a mile. Backtrack to the junction and follow 1040 1.2 miles to Bighorn.
Avoid the multitude of hikers going to Devil’s Causeway with other nearby trails that offer as much or more in the way of scenic views.
From the same trailhead at Stillwater Reservoir, go south across the dam and follow 1122 North Derby Trail 2.1 miles to an open saddle with majestic views in all directions.
From here you can follow 1860 Trail for a mile to Hooper and Keener lakes. Or, go east approximately 2 miles to ascend 12,354-foot Flat Top Mountain.
Another option near Stillwater Reservoir is Mandall lakes via Trail 1121. You’ll find the trailhead on the right side of the road approximately 4 miles from Stillwater.
There are four Mandall lakes off this trail — Mud, Twin, Slide and Black. The first three are accessed via a side trail approximately 2.5 miles from the trailhead. Black Mandall is another 1.5 miles on 1121 from the turnoff, and Mandall Pass is another mile up the trail.
Know before you go
Obtain maps and trail descriptions from the U.S. Forest Service office or its website. Or pick up a copy of the book Hiking the ‘Boat II.
We are in Stage 1 campfire restrictions in the Routt National Forest, which means no fires in the backcountry. Also, please check trailhead kiosks for other regulations specific to the trail and areas where you plan to hike.
Bob Korch is trail crew leader with Friends of Wilderness, which assists the U.S. Forest Service in maintaining trails and educating the public about the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops Wilderness areas. For more information, visit friendsofwilderness.com.
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