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We had hoped to be able to climb Mt. Zirkel sometime during my stay in Steamboat Springs, but a fire burning near the middle of the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness had closed off the access road from the southwest to the Slavonia TH. Luckily, the Forest Road to Buffalo Pass remained open, allowing us access to the southern part of the Wilderness. We couldn't reach Mt. Zirkel from the Buffalo Pass TH, but we could visit a number of lesser summits in the southern part of the Wilderness. Our route would closely follow a similar route taken by John and Alyson Kirk back in 2018.
The road to Buffalo Pass is somewhat rocky, but maintained well enough for anything with even moderate clearance. We found a moose walking the road on our way to the trailhead, the first moose I had seen in the wild. To Eric it was a more common sight and he didn't show nearly the excitement that I did. We got to the TH on the Continental Divide and started off just before 7a. Much of the day would be spent hiking the CDT. Signs at the TH told CDT hikers that the trail would be closed ahead due to the fire, requiring a large detour west to SR129. We had seen backpackers hiking the road earlier in the week, looking none too happy about the detour. Luckily for us, the closed section was beyond where we planned to travel today.
This portion of the CDT is also called the Wyoming Trail, and we followed it for more than an hour heading north. The trail is easy to follow and quite scenic as it stays close to treeline, following the gently undulating crest. We passed by the Newcomb Creek Trail junction (it drops down the east side of the divide) after 45min, then a second, unsigned junction near an unnamed lake on the crest. This second junction is easy to miss - it is for an old, no longer maintained trail that drops off the west side into the Mad Creek drainage. We would use this old route on our return later in the day. We continued north on the CDT another half mile before leaving it to head for South Atlantic Point. The Continental Divide in this region drops precipitously off the east side, making for dramatic relief. South Atlantic Point sits out at the end of a point on the crest with sharp drops on three sides. Haze marred what would otherwise be an impressive view looking down into the Newcomb Creek drainage. We followed the edge of the crest cross-country to the north to the higher North Atlantic Point with its own dramatic relief off the east side. The two points are separated by a short distance that took less than 15min to cover.
We returned to the Wyoming Trail and followed it northeast for 3/4mi to a high saddle east of Peak 11,173ft. Most of this section of trail had burned in the 2020 Middle Fork Fire. An easy cross-country jaunt through open country leads to the summit. We found a register placed by Mike Garratt in 1996, old by Colorado standards. There were only seven pages to the register, listing a total of less than 20 parties in 26yrs. Three of these entries were repeat visits by Mike Garratt.
We next set our eyes on Peak 10,970ft, about two miles to the southwest and well off the crest. The cross-country route would traverse two drainages of Mad Creek, requiring several drops and then regaining the lost elevation. Most of the route traveled through the southeastern extend of the 2020 fire, making travel less scenic, but easier than it would otherwise be. After traveling almost a mile and a half to the south, we landed on the old Mad Creek Trail described earlier. It's really more of an old road that was built up the Mad Creek drainage from the west, but without vehicle traffic in decades, it looks more like a use trail in most places. We followed it along the ridge dividing the Mad and Soda Creek drainages, leaving it when the trail turned right to begin dropping down the Mad Creek side. The fire had burned intensely along this ridge leaving every tree decimated, unlike other sections that were more patchwork, leaving many trees to recover. We followed a game trail up from the saddle to Pt. 10,945ft, then northwest for a quarter mile to the highpoint at 10,970ft. The summit was a class 3 boulder with a small cairn on top, no register that we could find. The summit is perched on the edge of the Mad Creek drainage and the 2020 fire. Huge swaths could be seen where every tree was scorched, but there were other areas with green trees in pockets and larger areas that will help reseed the more devastated one.
After our summit stay, we reversed course and headed back down to the Mad Creek drainage from whence we'd come. We picked up the old road/trail that we could follow up to the crest where it joined the Wyoming Trail at the unnamed lake we had passed by earlier in the day. At Eric's suggestion, we took a short break by the lake to rest up before continuing on our way. We still had another hour and a half or so to get back to the TH, which we managed shortly before 2p. Before heading back to Steamboat, we took some time to visit a minor summit on the south side of Buffalo Pass. We were able to drive the Jeep to the top of Peak 10,620ft where a communications installation is located, but found no views due to surrounding trees. After our short visit, we headed back to town...
This page last updated: Sun Oct 3 16:30:38 2021
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