Steamboat Springs Few wilderness adventurers who aren't on horseback will have the resolve to hike all the way up the Mad Creek Trail through Swamp Park and on to Luna Lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. It's just too easy to pass on the arduous climb and wait for Buffalo Pass to open, later in the summer. From there, hikers can make the trek in to Luna and Mount Ethel along the Continental Divide Trail without having to gain 2,500 feet in elevation.
It's alright that the Mad Creek trailhead isn't the easiest way for backpackers to access Zirkel, the trail is also among the most popular in Steamboat for early season hikes. A moderate 1.5 mile walk leads to one of the most historically significant log structures in the region the Mad Creek Barn.
The barn has been the subject of recent restoration efforts, and it's a worthy piece of history. It's original occupants were key players in the establishment of the National Forest here and the transition to permitted grazing on public lands.
The Mad Creek Barn was added to the Routt County register of historic places in March 2000.
The barn was built in 1907 by James "Harry" Ratliff. He got in a bit of a jam after he used trees he illegally cut from the National Reserve to build the barn. The National Reserve is a name that preceded the family Routt National Forest (now, officially the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest).
Loren Ebner, a modern-day contracting officer with the Forest Service, has recounted the history of the barn. Ebner said forest guard Jack Ellis contacted Ratliff about the illegal harvest of the trees and an argument ensued. No one, not even Ebner, is sure how the disagreement was resolved. But what is known is that two year later, Ratliff replaced Ellis in his role as forest guard.
Ellis resigned the post because of a conflict arising from his practice of grazing his own cattle on the Forest Reserve, local historian John Ross said.
The transition from a wide-open range where stockmen grazed their livestock and harvested timber on public lands as they saw fit, to one where such uses required a permit, was a difficult one, Ross relates.
Ross cites a document written by the legendary Queen Anne Bassett that sheds additional light on Ratliff's activities.
Bassett was the Browns Park resident believed to have consorted with a handful of famous desperados. She wrote that Ratliff had to withstand harassment from Bill Patton, foreman of the large Two Bar Ranch owned by Ora Haley.
Patton was the ramrod who promulgated a campaign to "over-run the beef cow country in parts of three states to keep it free and open for the Two Bars and nobody else," Bassett wrote. She said a stampede of 25,000 cattle was started by Patton near Ratliff's camp in an apparent effort to "discourage" Ratliff from his mission.
Ratliff stood up, and the rest is history, waiting to be discovered in Mad Creek Canyon.
Just give the fragile old barn the respect it deserves.