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I had come to Steamboat to join my pal Eric for a few weeks of Colorado peakbagging. Joining us was his sister, Ingrid, and her husband, Christian, who live in Hawaii most of the year. We had been talking about Mt. Zirkel for a few years now. As the highpoint of Routt County and the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, this summit on the Continental Divide is a long hike from the nearest trailhead. The closest TH is Slavonia at the end of Seedhouse Rd, making for an 18mi outing with about 3,800ft of gain. We had hoped to do it the previous summer, but the 2021 Morgan Creek Fire had closed off the northern half of the Wilderness, shutting down a large section of the Continental Divide Trail and Wilderness access. The weather was a bit iffy this week in Steamboat, but our best day looked also to be the first one all four of us were in town, so we set our sights on Zirkel upon our arrival.
We left Steamboat around 4:30a, taking an hour to reach the TH where it was still quite dark. We plied the first hour of trail along Gold Creek with the sounds of the creek below us to our right, and just our headlamps through the forest ahead of us. The trail goes east, gradually turning north as it follows the immense canyon carved out of the western side of the Continental Divide. We turned off our headlamps after half an hour as daylight slowly broke. We reached the first creek crossing at 9,000ft shortly before 6:30a, using a log bridge that made it an easy effort. Reaching Gold Creek Lake half an hour later, the views begin to open up around here. We soon passed a junction with the Wyoming Trail, then had another crossing of Gold Creek, this time a rock-hopping effort without the aid of a log bridge. Our trail then begins to climb out of the bottom of the drainage, passing the junction with the Gilpin Lake Trail. Our route begins to turn north where it becomes the Red Dirt Pass Trail. The sun was soon to rise from behind the divide to the east, alpine meadows now taking over the landscape from the forest. We could see Red Dirt Pass clearly while still several miles away. Mt. Zirkel lays somewhere north of the pass, still out of view.
High clouds never developed into much of a threat, but they obscured the sun and muted lighting over the landscape for most of the day. The trees give out completely on the last mile up to Red Dirt Pass where we arrived around 9a. The trail ends here, offering nice views looking east and west across the divide. We took a short break here to allow our party to regroup before heading north from the pass towards Zirkel. The cross-country is very easy, a narrow plateau rising to the north. Over the first rise, we could finally see Zirkel in the distance further north. There were three or four points along the divide that might be the highpoint, too hard to tell yet from our vantage point. The going is mostly class 1 across alpine grasses and small, flowering plants, with views off one side of the ridge or the other, depending on the line one follows. As one <>P20>nears the summit points, the going becomes class 2 over broken talus, fairly well-settled. We found the highpoint to be the third point along the ridge moving north, a fourth point clearly lower another quarter mile to the northeast.
It was 9:45a when we topped out and took a short break. Mountains and deep canyons characterized the views around us, looking across a large swath of Northern Colorado and even into Wyoming. In better weather we would have stayed longer, but the weather was starting to turn and it seemed prudent by all that we didn't stay long at the summit. It wasn't yet 10a when we started back. We hung together as a group for the first hour or so, but Christian was keeping a steady pace ahead of us while Eric was starting to slow down in the rear. Ingrid slowed to keep him company, and they had much to talk about since they hadn't seen each other in many months. I tried to keep myself between Christian and the others, but eventually let the others get further behind and followed Christian down the trail and the Gold Creek drainage for the last several hours. Thunderstorms were forming as we returned past Gold Ceek Lake in the early afternoon, but we stayed dry still. It was nice to get to see the creek with its many small cascades that we had missed with the early morning start. Some rain drops fell on and off for the last half hour, but nothing that did more than chill the temperatures some. Christian and I would get back to the TH by 1:30p, then a waiting game for the others. We managed to finish off our beers and most of a bag of Ruffles before the others showed up 45min later. It was good that they showed up when they did as we had begun contemplating having their beers as well...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Zirkel
This page last updated: Mon Sep 19 12:16:09 2022
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