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Wilderness Wanderings: Wilderness volunteers share favorite alpine lakes

Bob Korch/For Steamboat Today
Mica Lake in early autumn offers opportunities for wilderness solitude.
Photo_1_Mica_Lake_early_autumn

Know before you go

• Though camping is prohibited within one-quarter mile of Gold, Gilpin and Three Island lakes, you’ll find that most other lakes have restrictions of 100 feet. Still, choose your site with thoughts of being concealed so wildlife, such as elk and deer, will be more likely to come to the lake and drink.

• The final stretches of most roads to wilderness trailheads are dirt and become extremely dusty during summer. Please be considerate and slow down for bikers, equestrians or others you may encounter.

When is the last time you hiked to your favorite lake and had it all to yourself?

Know before you go

• Though camping is prohibited within one-quarter mile of Gold, Gilpin and Three Island lakes, you’ll find that most other lakes have restrictions of 100 feet. Still, choose your site with thoughts of being concealed so wildlife, such as elk and deer, will be more likely to come to the lake and drink.

• The final stretches of most roads to wilderness trailheads are dirt and become extremely dusty during summer. Please be considerate and slow down for bikers, equestrians or others you may encounter.

That might have been the case had you hiked — or rather, post-holed — in the snow in June to Gilpin or Gold Creek lakes, but certainly not if you go in the height of the summer hiking season.

The more likely scenario is an overflowing parking area at Slavonia trailhead, dozens of hikers on the trail and scrambling for a legal place to camp if you’re spending a night or two at Gilpin, Gold Creek or Three Island lakes.

Isn’t that contrary to the expectation of “solitude” and “untrammeled by man,” as outlined by the Wilderness Act under which the Zirkel Wilderness is regulated? Yes, but the simple fact is, our most popular lakes are being loved to death.

Believe it or not, special qualities can be found at other lakes in the Zirkels and the Flat Tops, and some of those lakes have even more spectacular views, better fishing and legal camping just 100 feet from shore. And, yes, they also offer the opportunity to be the only ones there.

Several of us were recently awed by the beauty of Rainbow Lake, the largest in the Zirkels. Tasked with clearing a large, recently fallen tree from the trail, we accessed the trailhead by driving toward Walden. Bonuses on the 3.3-mile trail were views of Lower Rainbow and Middle Rainbow lakes and views of Mount Ethel. The only other souls we encountered were three backpackers and their dog.

Other easily accessed lakes on the eastern side of the Zirkels include Catherine, Bighorn, Slide and Upper Slide. All offer pristine lake and camping conditions and greatly increased chances for solitude.

Volunteers with Friends of Wilderness hike and camp all over the local wildernesses and have their favorite destinations, which they reluctantly reveal. But they’re sharing them here knowing you will be enamored with these lakes, as well, and in the hope you will help protect their special qualities.

Through the past 28 summers, longtime volunteers Robert and Denise Scifres have explored almost every lake in the Zirkels. They agree their favorite is Lake Diana, due to its remote location and pristine qualities. It’s a six mile hike each way, but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the Sawtooth Range and Encampment Meadows. And if you fish, you’ll find native Cutthroat trout.

Elaine Dermody doesn’t give out her favorite easily but ranks Mandell Slide and Black Mandell lakes as her preferred destination in the Flat Tops.

“They are beautiful and wonderful for a day hike or camping,” and there’s also Mandell Pass — “11,980-feet with fantastic views,” Dermody relates from her many experiences.

Tom Baer discovered Trappers Lake in the mid-1960s, when he first became “enamored and fell in love” with this area that was the inspiration for Arthur Carhart’s push for wilderness preservation. It’s a long drive from Steamboat, but a little pre-planning will ensure you’ll have a cabin or campsite waiting for you. Or, backpack there from Stillwater Reservoir near the town of Yampa.

The trail to Mica Lake is served by Slavonia trailhead, but the experience is night and day, if compared to Gilpin and Gold. Mica is Rosalie Summerill’s favorite “because of the views, especially of Little Agnes, Big Agnes and Mount Zirkel. It also offers solitude.”

The road to Buffalo Pass is a rough one, requiring high clearance vehicles, but it takes you within reach of a multitude of alpine lakes to choose from. Jonah, Whale and Martha lakes can be enjoyed via a 3-mile loop hike, but be sure to bring a map and compass to help find your way, as the trail disappears from time to time.

The drive doesn’t discourage Suzanne Munn, who sets out for Lake Elbert on 1101 Trail for three or four nights of base camping with day hikes to Luna, Crags and Big Creek lakes. She loves the vistas and recommends the next few weeks as being the most ideal time to visit there.

Better yet, plot a lake and trail to it on a map explore. You’ll be much more likely to find solitude, pristine conditions and a new favorite lake you’ll be reluctant to share.

Bob Korch is a vice president and trail volunteer with Friends of Wilderness, which assists the U.S. Forest Service in maintaining trails and educating the public in the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops Wilderness areas. The group can be reached at friendsofwilderness.com


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