Wilderness Wanderings: Middle Fork Fire burns Zirkel Wilderness trails

Bob Korch
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Many trails in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area were affected by last fall’s Middle Fork Fire. Map courtesy of U.S. Forest Service.

When we last corresponded with you in September, the Middle Fork Fire was raging just 10 miles north of Steamboat Springs in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.

Elsewhere, the Cameron Peak fire was burning to our northeast. And less than three weeks later, the East Troublesome Fire struck Grand County.

Combined with the Pine Gulch and Grizzly Peak fires to our southwest and others throughout the state, 2020 was the most devastating year for wildfires in Colorado history.

The Middle Fork Fire burned 20,433 acres, a significant portion of MZW’s 159,935 total acreage, and was not declared fully contained until Jan. 7, 2021.

Know before you go

Portions of the following trails experienced burning during the Middle Fork Fire:

• Swamp Park Trail

• Ditch Creek Trail

• Roaring Fork Trail

• Luna Lake Trail

• Fish Hawk Lake Trail

• Crags Trail

• 1101/CDT/Wyoming Trail

• Rainbow Lake Trail

• Newcomb Creek Trail

• Elk Park Trail

The U.S. Forest Service has opened most trailheads for the summer season. However, there is still considerable snow around and above most of our alpine lakes, especially on north facing slopes above 10,000 feet in elevation.

As points of reference, Gilpin Lake is at 10,338 feet, Mica Lake 10,428 feet, Three Island Lake 9,878 feet and Bighorn Lake 10,106.

If you plan to hike the Zirkel Circle or other alpine areas in June, be prepared to hike through snow, and know that you will need to cross streams with cold, fast moving water.

Friends of Wilderness sawyers and other crews are working hard to clear trails of fallen trees, but it will be weeks before they might get to the trail you plan to hike. Be prepared to climb over trees and through tree branches.

Trails that have been cleared thus far include South Fork Trail from Burn Ridge trailhead and the lower 3 to 4 miles of Silver Creek and Three Island Lake trails. Seven miles of Mad Creek/Swamp Park Trail is clear.

A late May visit with another volunteer to the easternmost reach of the burned area revealed the fire was very real. Hundreds and hundreds of trees — both standing and already on the ground — were burned charcoal black. And charred trees are now falling.

What should a hiker or horseback rider expect to encounter in the upcoming weeks and months when visiting the Zirkels?

Fortunately, the Middle Fork Fire was an interior fire and well away from trailheads and the most popular trails. Most visitors will never see the burn.

Overnight backpackers and hunters are more likely to encounter the fire’s aftereffects. There will also be charred soils and erosion. Meadows above tree line may simply be charred grasses and brush, which may quickly be disguised with this year’s green growth.

Standing and snagged burned trees are an entirely different matter, and it is best not to linger in or even enter these areas, especially during high winds. Partially burned and standing trees are structurally weakened and thus, very unpredictable and dangerous.

Various trail crews will remediate some of the fire damage this summer, but it would not be fair to think they can remove all the hazards and damage. It’s best to temper your expectations and be safe.

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

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