Steamboat Springs If there is an upside to this summer of evaporating snow banks and receding creeks, it's that hikers in Routt County are enjoying unprecedented early access to wilderness trails.
Ed Patalik of the Hahns Peak Ranger District of the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest confirmed Wednesday Buffalo Pass is open to its 10,300-foot summit and beyond. Motorists can continue down the east side of the Park Range to North Park. That's an event hikers typically must wait for until after July 4.
Buffalo Pass offers immediate access to the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.
"It's early. About as early as I've ever seen it," Patalik said. "The last snowdrifts have been pushed through and you can go on down the other side. The road is dry."
Buffalo Pass is accessed by traveling from Old Town Steamboat on Strawberry Park Road (County Road 36) and making a right turn onto County Road 38. The summit is about 11 miles of rough road from the turnoff.
In his role as a recreation planner with the Forest Service based in Steamboat Springs, Patalik is intimately familiar with the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. He said the dry conditions this summer mean all the provisions of "leave no trace" camping and hiking more important than ever.
In particular, wilderness travelers should pitch their tents away from lakes and streams.
Patalik said his colleague, Kent Foster, was at the summit of Buffalo Pass Tuesday and reported that just a few feet away from melting snow banks, the soil is already parched. Normally in June, the ground surrounding just-melted snow banks would be muddy, Patalik said.
Elsewhere in Zirkel, Patalik said he has heard hikers are already negotiating the much-traveled Gilpin Lake/Gold Creek Lake loop.
It's not uncommon for creeks with runoff to block the path of hikers until late July.
Vince Gigliotti confirmed Patalik's impression that this year's opening of Buff Pass is ahead of schedule.
"We're easily three weeks to a month early across the board," said Gigliotti, who has been giving advice to hikers at Ski Haus for a couple of decades.
Gigliotti recalls summers following heavy snow seasons when he and a band of friends planned to drive up Buffalo Pass in late July with skis in their roof racks. They headed north to ski a couple of lingering snow fields.
"We used to go and ski Mount Ethel on the last day of July," Gigliotti said. "My guess is you could get up there right now."
People who drive to the summit of Buffalo Pass will arrive at parking areas adjacent to Summit Lake, virtually on the southern boundary of the wilderness.
Their options are to head south, away from the wilderness area on mountain bikes, or throw their packs onto their backs and hoof it north along the Continental Divide Trail, which ultimately leads to Wyoming.
Cyclists who head south can link up with a designated mountain bike trail that leads all the way to the top of the Steamboat Ski Area.
Bikes aren't allowed in the wilderness, but hikers who head north have all of the lakes of the wilderness area in front of them without the need to make the arduous climb to 10,000 feet.
Patalik said even in this drought year, June hikers should expect to walk across snow on north-facing slopes. He urged people to respect the statewide ban on open fires under the prevailing "Stage 2" fire restrictions.
Backpacking stoves are permissible, but hikers still need to exercise extreme caution.