Steamboat Springs August should be prime time for day hiking and backpacking in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness area. The mosquitoes have peaked and are in decline, the nights are cold and crisp with the promise of a meteorite shower, and the trout are slurping caddis flies with abandon. But this year is different.
A lightning-caused forest fire has led the U.S. Forest Service to close some of the most-visited hiking trails in the wilderness.
The fire has been propelled by arid afternoons and dead timber felled five years ago in a freak windstorm
The danger to hikers became self-evident after a hiking party had to be rescued by helicopter form the Dome Lake area Thursday.
Just a week ago, on Aug. 11, more than 20 people signed the wilderness register at Slavonia and reported they were headed for the Gilpin Lake/Gold Creek Lake loop, or Red Dirt Pass and the Summit of Mount Zirkel beyond.
This week, Gilpin and Gold lakes are off-limits because of fire danger; trails 1150 and 1161 are closed.
Would-be wilderness visitors can't even drive all the way to the trailhead at Slavonia; Seedhouse Road (Forest Road 400) is closed east of the turnoff to Forest Road 443.
The latter leads in turn to the trails for Three Island Lake, Wolverine Basin and Dome Lake.
Those trails are also closed.
There was no sign on Aug. 11 that the prophetically named burn ridge would erupt in flame a day later from a lightning strike the previous week.
A squad from the U.S. Forest Service had already extinguished three small blazes in the Hahn's Peak and Willow Creek areas to the northwest before they grew beyond an acre in size.
Gilpin Lake is easily the most heavily-visited destination in Zirkel.
Far fewer hikers take the fork to the northwest off the Gilpin Trail on Trail 1162 into Mica Basin. No more than seven people hiked the trail last week while Gilpin/Gold was crowded.
The Mica Basin Trail leaves the Gilpin Trail (1161) after 1.5 miles.
Immediately the trail cuts through a patch of blowdown timber, then switches back up a ridge.
The trail shifts into a straight climb that leads to a small waterfall where alert hikers could have spotted ripening raspberries before the fire broke out this week.
After crossing Mica Creek, the trail alternates between easy meadow hiking and moderate climbs for about 2 miles.
The views from Mica Lake are dominated by views of two peaks both Big Agnes and Little Agnes.
The mountains are both taller than 11,000 feet and were named by Robert McIntosh, who prospected for gold in the area around 1875.
Presumably, both mountains were named for the same woman.
McIntosh determined the mica in the area was not pure enough to justify the difficulty of extracting it from the rugged mountains.
Hikers can find flakes of mica that wash down from the peaks with snowmelt every year.
There are small cutthroats in the lake for anglers to pursue, and there are plenty of camping sites.
But that may have to wait now, for another season.
Ironically, the current issue of Outside magazine highlights Steamboat, and specifically the Gilpin/Gold loop as a highly desirable weekend escape from Denver.
Not this weekend.