Steamboat Springs Novelist Thomas McGuane has a name for places like North Park, Colo. he calls them "The High Lonesome." McGuane typically writes about Montana, but his expression fits Jackson County, Routt County's neighbor to the east, perfectly.
The county seat of Walden is about 1,000 feet higher in elevation than Steamboat, at just over 8,000 feet. And there are times when one's only company will be a red-tailed hawk and the seemingly incessant wind that blasts off the high peaks of the Park Range.
Aside from the obvious attractions of being high and lonesome, the Park Range, which divides the two counties, defines the outdoor experience.
There is great trout fishing on certain days in the three Delaney Buttes lakes and in Lake John to the north. And North Park is a great destination for a road trip in the spring, when wild iris are blooming in the roadside ditches and every gravel road holds the promise of an old homesteader's cabin, a classic western barn or a couple of cowboys moving cattle down the trail.
Up in the range, the Mount Zirkel Wilderness offers spectacular hiking. And in many cases, the approaches are more direct and easier than they are from trailheads on the western side of the Divide, out of Steamboat.
From Muddy Pass on the west side of Rabbit Ears Pass, drive about 50 miles on Colo. 125 to within one mile of Walden. From there, you can head for the trail to Rainbow Lake, or the twin destinations of Lake Katherine and Bighorn Lake. Begin by turning west off Colo. 125 on Jackson County Road 12. To reach the jumping off point for Lake Katherine, stick with CR 12 for about 8 miles before taking a left on County Road 16 to the trailhead. To reach the trail to Rainbow Lake, follow the same directions to County Road 12 and travel to CR 22 and CR 5.
The Medicine Bow Routt National Forest map reflects these routes nicely.
The hike to Katherine is a moderate 2.5 miles, and the aquamarine lake is backed up by a spectacular wall of talus and cliff face.
The hike to Rainbow Lake climbs comfortably up the spine of a ridge, offering glimpses of the Rabbit Ears formation to the south. This trail offers a very doable day hike for most adults and sturdy children, with all of the advantages of a wilderness expedition.
The views of Mount Ethel are superb. Ambitious hikers can go all the way to Slide Lake, 6 miles from the trailhead.
North Park visitors who want great views of Zirkel don't have to leave their car if they don't want to.
Drive 10 miles north of Walden to Cowdrey and turn left on Jackson County Road 6. As travelers head west, they'll find themselves looking into the northern end of the Zirkel Wilderness and a view that few hikers in Steamboat ever see.
The peaks include the massive Red Elephant Mountain. The best views are revealed about 9 miles from Colo. 125 near a spot with the picturesque name of Dead Horse Draw.
Reversing direction, motorists can return to Cowdrey, then head a mile further north on Colo. 125 to visit one of North Park's most unusual features, the BLM's North Sand Hills Special Recreation Management Area. Watch for a right turn on County Road 6 and drive two miles to a primitive parking area. Dispersed camping is allowed in the area and there are outhouses, but no drinking water.
Visitors should be forewarned that the area is set up for the enjoyment of all terrain vehicle and dirt bike enthusiasts. But on week days, there is plenty of room for hikers to explore this unusual area where the wind has created tall dunes at the foot of the Medicine Bow Range. The dunes are least hospitable at midday, and most enjoyable in early morning and evening.
The BLM regards the dirt bikes, ATV's and dune buggies that buzz around the trails and dunes as Off Highway Vehicles (OHV's). Resident of Colorado who have unlicensed vehicles of this nature are required to have a Colorado OHV registration sticker on the vehicle when used on any public lands.
Check with your dealer, or contact the Kremmling field office of the Bureau of Land Management at 970 724-3437.
The Parks Ranger District of the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest has a well-staffed visitors center on Walden's north side. Watch for it on the left side of the highway. Or call (970)723-8204. Hal Wentz is the resident expert on the Mount Zirkel Wilderness area.