Wilderness Wanderings: Run or backpack the Elk Park Trail loop
Trail runners and backpackers have another loop route to check out. It includes the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area and awesome views, and the trailhead is 15 minutes from downtown Steamboat Springs. Give up?
How about a loop that includes all or part of the following trails: Mad Creek, Swamp Park, Elk Park, Lower Bear and Hot Springs?
This combination of trails and two short dirt road sections is approximately 14 miles. It offers long flat sections, some climbs and awesome views to take away the pain.
Elk Park Trail has been somewhat forgotten, mainly because it is all but impossible to drive Elk Park Road to the trailhead. This four-wheel drive Jeep track is so badly eroded and rutted that it even deters Jeep owners.
But choose either Mad Creek or Bear Creek trailheads and the driving is easy. And you will be there in minutes.
Another deterrent that has been keeping people off Elk Park Trail is the dozens of fallen trees. The few who have been on that trail in recent years — most likely hunters — probably haven’t been back since.
But in early August, Friends of Wilderness sawyers cleared 160-plus trees from this 3-mile trail. And they were impressed with what it has to offer.
The 14-mile length will deter all but a few hikers. But trail runners and backpackers looking for a different, close to town getaway will enjoy it.
Let’s highlight the route, using Mad Creek Trailhead as the starting point.
Head up Mad Creek/1100 Trail until you reach the wilderness boundary after approximately 4 miles. Here the name changes to Swamp Park Trail. After another mile you’ll cross a feeder stream for Mad Creek — an easy rock hopper when we saw it but much deeper and with a swift current in the spring.
Immediately after the crossing, fork right at the trail sign onto Elk Park Trail and you’ll quickly come to a wider stream. When we crossed, it was nearly dry except for a small channel we could jump.
You’ll next see a large meadow backing up to a rock wall. If you’re backpacking, this is an ideal place to spend the night.
Continue on and you quickly reach the South Fork of Mad Creek. It is the best water source on this section of trail but there were enough large rocks that we didn’t get our feet wet.
Then you’ll start climbing, especially when you reach a series of switchbacks. Take in the views in this section — ranging from the Zirkels to the north to South Fork canyon immediately below.
Also, notice the short rock walls that help to stabilize the trail through the steepest of the switchbacks. This type of trail work was commonly performed in the 1930s.
After the trail levels out, you’ll cross outside the wilderness and then come to the Elk Park Trailhead.
Continue down the rutted road for about 1 1/2 miles. When you reach the shallow stream crossing, there will also be the intersection with Lower Bear Creek Trail. Go right and run/hike about 2 miles to the trailhead.
Follow the road one-half mile down to Strawberry Park Hot Springs where you’ll also find Hot Springs Trail. Another 2 1/2 miles and you’ll hit Elk River Road. Go right and follow alongside the road one-quarter mile and you’ll be back at Mad Creek Trailhead.
Try it and tell us what you think.
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 about the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops wilderness areas. For more information, visit friendsofwilderness.com.
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