The view from above

Mount Werner hiking trails will take you to new heights

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— Veteran local hikers might be prone to overlook the trails and slopes of the Steamboat Ski Area when casting about for their next trailhead. But any weekend when work or social engagements preclude driving an hour each way to get to a wilderness hike, Mount Werner is a great option.

The big advantage at the ski area is that the gondola is usually running to shave an hour off the hike, or in some cases, save the extra exertion.

Hiking from the very bottom of the mountain to the very top of Storm Peak is doable in a day for seasoned hikers. But even locals will take the gondola up to Thunderhead, climb 1,200 vertical feet to Storm Peak, hike down to the gondola and ride back down. Anyone who begins the trek to Storm Peak at the bottom of the mountain, but descends only to Thunderhead and takes the easy way down is no wimp. In fact, this is a great way to train for bagging a 14,000 foot peak, without having a major setback.

For my money, the best trip on the mountain is the designated Thunderhead Hiking Trail, which begins at the bottom of the gondola and winds its way across several ski trails to arrive at Thunderhead.

Mountain bikes are not allowed on this trail and it can stand up to any forested trail in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area in terms of enjoyment. For example, the hike to Three Island Lake or Gold Creek Lake isn't anymore scenic than this trail.

On any given weekend, by far the majority of the traffic on Thunderhead Trail will be headed down from the top of the gondola. Visiting families often receive a coupon for a gondola ride with their room package. Hiking down from the top of the gondola is an easy way to get a feel for the vastness of Mount Werner.

Hiking down works for locals too, especially if they still hold a season ski pass from the previous winter. Season passes are honored in summer too.

However, there is a free gondola ride back to the bottom waiting for anyone with the grit to hike up to Thunderhead. What you may not realize is that your dog is welcome to ride down the gondola with you the lift attendant at the bottom even has a jar of doggie treats.

The mellowest hike on the mountain is the Vista Nature Trail, which begins at the top of Thunderhead and ambles along a one-mile loop. The first half-mile is a broad gravel path and the second half is a dirt hiking trail. The trail offers nine stations describing native flora and fauna.

Families with children along might want to start their hike in the Nature Den outside the gondola building. In addition to stuffed animal mounts and educational play areas, it contains information boards that explain the natural role of wild fire in the Rocky Mountain ecosystem. The Nature Den is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with the help of Partners in Interpretation and Yampatika. The Nature Den is staffed from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursdays, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday and 1 to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays. Guided hikes depart at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays.

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