Steamboat Springs Hikers in Northwest Colorado can bag two wilderness lakes with a moderate hike during the Labor Day weekend and say goodbye to summer without remorse.
The trailhead for the hike to Lake Katherine and Bighorn Lake begins on the "other side of the mountain," or in this case, on the other side of the park range from Steamboat Springs in North Park. Trail 1129 represents the bulk of the hike to both lakes, with total distance to Katherine an easy 2.5 miles. The right fork of the trail (numbered 1040) continues an additional eight-tenths of a mile to Bighorn. This last stretch also offers significantly more strenuous hiking, but adults should be able to easily visit both lakes in a day.
The Medicine Bow Routt National Forest describes these lakes as being among the most heavily visited in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area -- they are an obvious destination for hikers from Fort Collins who enjoy a relatively quick shot over Cameron Pass to reach the trailhead.
That could mean heavy foot and horse traffic on Labor Day weekend, and Steamboat hikers might take advantage of Sept. 1, when Front Range visitors are headed home. However, on Aug. 16, a Saturday, there were only three cars in the spacious trailhead parking area at midafternoon
Bighorn and Katherine are not ideal final destinations for backpackers simply because the terrain around the lakes limits campsites to just a few, and half of those sites have been taken out of the pool because of revegetation projects. Strong hikers can access the Continental Divide via a trail that angles to the right of Bighorn and traverses a ridge above it to the north.
Lone Pine Creek, which carries the combined outlets of both lakes, was still flowing briskly in late August, and the slanting waterfall on the upper section of the trail to Katherine was well worth the effort.
Anglers will want to forsake the puny brook trout in Katherine (the Mackinaw rumored to be in Katherine will be down in the depths) and head for Bighorn, where the cutthroats are abundant and range to 15 inches. For a Labor Day trip, small yellow humpy's might be a good fly pattern to start with. As always, don't go to a high-mountain lake without a selection of terrestrials, including winged ants.
The moon will be in its first quarter during Labor Day weekend, resulting in optimum stargazing. By Sept. 14, 6 inches of snow is a likely possibility in the high country, and two weeks later, hunters will rule the woods.
The weekend ahead represents one of the last best chances of 2003 to head into the Zirkel Wilderness.
Accessing the trailhead to Lake Katherine
Finding the trailhead to Lake Katherine and Bighorn Lake requires negotiating Jackson County roads that uniformly have good driving surfaces but sometimes make you think you are in a maze.
Steamboat hikers have the option of taking Rabbit Ears Pass or Buffalo Pass. The distance is about the same, but the unpaved roads over Buffalo Pass will add about 30 minutes to the trip, which can take almost two hours.
The most straightforward route is over Rabbit Ears.
At the east side of the pass, take an immediate left on Colorado Highway 14. For drivers unfamiliar with North Park, the best plan is to follow Colo. 14 almost all the way into Walden.
About a quarter mile beyond the junction with Colo. 125, turn left on Jackson County Road 12W and stick with it until you reach a T in the road.
The right fork goes north toward Sheep Mountain. Take the left fork, which bends west toward Lone Pine Ranch. It is a public road that passes through private property until you reach the Routt National Forest, when the road becomes Forest Road 640.
Hikers and anglers who are familiar with the shortcut to Delaney Buttes Lakes, also in North Park, can shave an easy 20 miles off the trip.
When the car odometer indicates you have traveled 49 miles from Steamboat, begin looking for a left turn off Colo. 14 onto C.R. 9 -- it's not easy to spot, but the turn will spring up just after the car summits a small pass through low hills. If you reach mile marker 27 on Colo. 14, you've gone too far.
After following unpaved C.R. 9 for three miles, the road ends in a T intersection at Colo. 18.
Turn left on Colo. 18, then right on C.R. 5. Follow C.R. 5 past the three Delaney Buttes Lakes to its intersection with C.R. 12W and turn left.
The T intersection is just beyond the turnoff.
As in the previous directions, take the left fork.