Wilderness Wanderings: Snow, high streams impact hiking season
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Kris Tratiak’s annual ritual of hiking with friends to Mica Lake for her June 10 birthday celebration is in serious jeopardy this year. The longtime local, retired emergency room nurse and Friends of Wilderness trail volunteer has missed only three or four times in more than 25 years.
Tratiak is doing well, thank you, but she’s always dependent on the U.S. Forest Service opening the northernmost section of Seedhouse Road before mid-June. However, in years of lingering snowpack or late snowfalls, such as we are experiencing this spring, the gates are not unlocked until the road surface dries to protect it from rutting.
Hiking along the road to and from Slavonia trailhead is more than Tratiak and her friends want to add to an already tough 8 mile hike. They have to wade through a “really, really cold,” thigh-deep Mica Creek and usually navigate at least the last mile over 4 feet of solid snow, she said.
“Sometimes you follow the trail and then sometimes they move the lake,” Tratiak jokes as she relates losing track of the trail route in Mica Basin and finding their final approach to the lake was a little off.
Maybe Tratiak should have long ago taken her fellow hikers’ advice of moving her birthday to July. Her dilemma is a great reminder of what our wilderness mountain trails have in store for hikers this summer.
Climate change may have spoiled us the past few years, especially in 2018 when Seedhouse Road was opened all the way to Slavonia trailhead before Memorial Day weekend.
Robert Scifres sees this year as being more normal. He and his wife, Denise, have been maintaining Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area trails every year since 1989. For most of the first 20 years, early June meant 2-plus feet of snow on trails until mid-June. And that was just the lower section from the trailhead. The trail sections closer to the lakes, and especially on the top of the Zirkel Circle, were usually impacted by deep snow into mid- or late July.
And then there was the spring and summer of 2008 which followed a winter of more than 500 inches on snow on Mount Werner. “Even in August, there was 5 to 6 feet of snow along the (Continental) Divide, and it never melted out all summer,” Scifres said.
So, short of strapping on snowshoes in June, where’s an avid hiker to go? The best current option is the network of trails around Mad Creek.
Mad Creek Trail has been clear of snow for the first 3 to 4 miles since late April. If one wishes to hike further past the wilderness boundary for a longer 10-mile round trip, there may still be patches of snow in the final half mile before turning around at the creek crossing.
Red Dirt Trail, although known more as a bike trail, is another good alternative. And it offers outstanding views of the Elk River, Sleeping Giant and Emerald Mountain.
One can make a nice 5-mile loop hike by going up Mad Creek Trail and turning left onto Saddle Creek Trail prior to reaching the historic barn. Turn left again onto Red Dirt Trail which will take you to the trailhead and then a half-mile walk along Elk River Road back to the parking lot at Mad Creek trailhead.
Another loop alternative is to hike in Mad Creek trail 2 miles and cross the bridge on the right. Turn right again onto the old road and follow it back to Elk River Road. Follow the road to the right for a half mile back to Mad Creek parking lot. The trailhead south of the parking lot also provides access to the Hot Springs Trail – 3 miles to Strawberry Hot Springs (entrance fee needed).
Other good hiking options for the next several weeks are Uranium Mine, lower Fish Creek and Spring Creek trails and those on Emerald Mountain.
We would normally suggest the lower end of Silver Creek Trail near Yellow Jacket Pass but last week several of our volunteers encountered deep snow after the first mile climb up to the ridge.
The best trail advice we can offer for this spring and summer is to call the U.S. Forest Service office in Steamboat Springs at 970-870-2299 to get an update on whether roads and trailheads are open and what to expect with stream crossings and snow depth.
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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