Wilderness Wanderings: It’s time for some trail love | SteamboatToday.com
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Wilderness Wanderings: It’s time for some trail love

Bob Korch
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Big Horn Lake sits at an elevation of 10,106 feet in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. (Photo courtesy of Jay Gallagher)

The weather is fine, hiking trails have mostly dried out, and the most popular ones have been cleared of fallen trees.

So it’s time for a little trail love. But that doesn’t mean what you think it means. No, not that, either.

Sometimes, the best way to care for and love something is to step away from it and give it a rest instead of overusing it.



Everyone is going to the most popular trails, whether it’s to a favorite lake, an overlook or even a 14er, and the stream of hikers might look like a conga line.

Know before you go

Trailhead driving directions:

Lake Katherine and Big Horn: From Steamboat, go east on U.S. Highway 40 over Rabbit Ears Pass. Turn left onto Colorado Highway 14 and drive 40 miles. In Walden, turn left onto Jackson County Road 12. Travel 12 miles and turn left at the T onto Routt County Road 16. Drive another 7.5 miles, and you’ll dead end at the trailhead parking lot.

Rainbow Lake: From Steamboat, go east on U.S. 40 over Rabbit Ears Pass. Turn left onto CO 14. When you come to the turnoff for Buffalo Pass, continue straight on 14 for another 5 miles. Just after you crest the long grade, look hard to your left and turn onto County Road 9. Drive 3 miles and turn left at the T onto County Road 18. Travel another 4.5 miles and turn left onto CO 5. Go another 1.8 miles to the intersection with CO 22. Continue straight onto 22 (5 goes to the left). Go another 4.3 miles and bear right at the fork. Travel another 3 miles, and you will dead end at the trailhead.

Parking areas fill up early with vehicles overflowing even a half-mile down the road. Yes, late arrivals add another roundtrip mile to your hike.



The trails for the Zirkel Circle and Devil’s Causeway are especially getting loved to death.

When everyone uses the same few trails in legally designated wilderness, it defeats a primary intention of what those areas are supposed to offer — the feeling of solitude.

How about giving them a rest this summer, or at least until the fall when less people are out hiking?

There are plenty of alternative hikes, and some have prettier lakes even than Gilpin or Gold.

Here are several that won’t disappoint you. In fact, we think some of you will discover one to be your new favorite trail and lake.

All are on the eastern side of the Zirkels, accessed via Colorado Highway 14, which runs between Rabbit Ears Pass and Walden. And all three trails were recently cleared of fallen trees by Friends of Wilderness volunteers.

Rainbow Lake Trail

Rainbow Lake Trail actually takes you to three lakes — Lower Rainbow, Middle Rainbow and Rainbow Lake, the largest lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness.

Rainbow Lake has stunning, deep blue waters, the result of its depth of 91 feet. It’s a photographer’s delight, nestled tight against the eastern side of Mount Ethel.

The trail itself is easy to moderate, with an altitude gain of 1,100 feet spread comfortably over 3.3 miles.

For those choosing to backpack in and spend at least one night, the trail continues on to other lakes including Slide, Upper Slide and Roxy Ann.

Lake Katherine Trail

At just 2.8 miles one way, Lake Katherine is the shortest of these featured lake hikes. The trail’s ascent of 900 feet is hardly noticeable until the last one-half mile.

Katherine sits at the end of its trail, tucked into a cirque, with the Continental Divide another 1,000 feet above.

Depending on the time of year and water levels, you should count on at least one water crossing, so be prepared with your water shoes.

On the left side of the trail, just as you approach the lake, you’ll find what’s left of a stone and mortar dam that gave way in 1961. Please enjoy this relic of our past and leave what’s left intact for others to explore as well.

Big Horn Lake

Big Horn Lake is the highest of these three lakes, sitting at 10,106 feet. It shares the first 2 miles of trail with Lake Katherine before forking right at the junction for the final 1.2 miles.

The trail climbs 1,150 feet from the trailhead, seemingly most in the final mile. You’ll want to bring your water shoes in case the water is too high to safely cross via the available logs or rocks.

Big Horn is also photo worthy, with its far shores tucked against talus and granite slopes.

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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