The Mount Zirkel Wilderness is located in north-central Colorado near the town of Steamboat Springs, and lies within the Routt National Forest. With the passing of the Wilderness Act in 1964, Mt. Zirkel was among the first designated wilderness areas in the country.
From the Slavonia Trailhead, about a 30 minute drive from Steamboat Springs, we started down the Gilpin Lake Trail (trail 1161) before reaching the Gold Creek Lake Trail junction less than a quarter-mile into the hike. For this loop, I would recommend taking the Gold Creek Lake Trail (trail 1150) first.
Throughout the early portions of our hike we noticed some of the devastation from the freak windstorm that struck the area in 1997. Known as the Routt Divide Blowdown, winds in excess of 120 miles per hour were recorded during the height of the early winter storm. The devastating force of the storm brought down more than four million trees within a swathe of land 5 miles wide and 30 miles long. The Routt Divide Blowdown is the largest blowdown ever recorded in the Rocky Mountains.
Along the route to Gold Creek Lake we passed a nice 35-foot waterfall:
At roughly 2.8 miles from the trailhead we reached Gold Creek Lake, an 8 acre lake surrounded by fir and lodgepole pine. The trail skirts around the western and northern side of the lake, offering several different vantage points. Hikers should note that the lake is a very popular destination.
The next major destination on the loop is a huge meadow below Ute Pass. This glacially carved valley is an outstanding place to relax or do a little exploring. Looking towards the east, the prominent backdrop to the valley is Flattop Mountain, Ute Pass and the Continental Divide.
Beyond the meadow you’ll reach another fork in the trail where you’ll be turning left onto the Gilpin Lake Trail. From here the trail climbs up to the top of Gilpin Ridge.
At the top of pass you’ll have your first views of Gilpin Lake. The view of the deep blue, alpine lake is stunning and dramatic – one of the best in the Rockies. You’ll also have your first views of Mt. Zirkel and Big Agnes Mountain. At 12,180 feet, Mount Zirkel is the highest peak in the wilderness area, and is one of 15 peaks over 12,000 feet in elevation.
From here the trail descends rapidly towards the lake. Through this section and just below the lake we saw a variety of wildflowers.
Although the lake looks like a blue sapphire from 450 feet above, it’s actually crystal clear when viewed from the shoreline.
After passing Gilpin Lake, the trail generally follows Gilpin Creek for most of the way back to the trailhead. After passing a few more wildflower-filled meadows, the path descends back below tree-line before eventually passing through a beautiful grove of aspens.
After a long day on the trail we made a beeline to the Old Town Pub for some wings and beer.
With a mixture of western flavor and yuppie ski resort status, Steamboat Springs seems to be a nice enough town. The town does have a bit of pretentiousness about it, but not nearly as bad as other Colorado ski towns such as Vail, Breckinridge or Aspen. Filthy Rich Cattle Drive, the CMT reality series you may recall from a couple of years back, was filmed in and around the town.
I'm definitely planning to return to hike the Gilpin Lake Loop again, as well as some of the other trails in the wilderness area. With close to 170 miles of trails in Mt. Zirkel, there’s still a lot of exploring to do.
Gilpin Lake / Gold Creek Loop
RT Miles: 9.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 2370 feet
Max Elevation: 10,790 feet
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