Happy trails

Options for winter fun available outside of elk, deer areas

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When winter blows in, so do the lower temperatures and harder-to-find food, which present significant challenges for deer and elk.

Add eager people and dogs to that mix, and the animals can become more vulnerable to weather, predators or other stresses.

Deer and elk end up using more energy to stay away from intruders, and in the winter, "they need everything they can get," said Rachel Kennon, U.S. Forest Service recreation program manager.

That's why the U.S. Forest Service is asking people to stay away from popular lower-elevation trails where elk and deer are spending the winter.

Those trails include: Spring Creek (outside city limits), Lower Bear Trail, Hot Springs Trail, Mad Creek Trail, Red Dirt Trail, Greenville Mine Road and Coulton Creek Trail.

But people can obey the U.S. Forest Service's request without hanging their snowshoes up to dry all winter. There are various other Forest Service trails across the county, as well as other public trails, where people can snowshoe and ski, many times with their whole families and dogs.

Here are a few of the Forest Service's suggestions:

Fish Creek Falls

This gorgeous summertime attraction also is a top-notch winter trail. Just a short drive from downtown Steamboat, it's a good alternative to the winter-range trails people are being asked to avoid.

Snowshoers easily can hike up a couple of miles to the second bridge, said Steve McCone, U.S. Forest Service trails manager. The steep terrain, however, can be difficult for most cross-country skiers.

Dogs are welcome, but they should be kept on a leash and cleaned up after.

The trail can be busy in the winter, as many downhill skiers choose to ski out of the Steamboat Ski Area bounds and into the Forest Service land, coming down the trail, McCone said.

The upper and lower parking lots are plowed all winter, and the upper restroom is open for skiers, snowshoers and other users. There is a $5 daily use fee, but an annual pass can be purchased for $30 for a calendar year.

To get to the falls, drive up Fish Creek Falls Road from Steamboat for a few miles. Parking is on the left, at the end of the road.

South Fork Trail in Hinman Park

This trail is a good option in the North Routt area and is about a 30-minute drive from Steamboat.

The terrain is slightly rolling but is less steep than many other ski and snowshoe trails in the county, so it is a great place for beginners and families, as well as for dogs, McCone said.

The trail is not as well marked as trails on Rabbit Ears Pass, however, so users should be sure to have a map and compass and pay attention.

Users can make a 6-mile loop with this trail, or they can do a shorter out-and-back trip. This time of year, an out-and-back trip is usually a better option, because the loop requires crossing the south fork of the Elk River.

The trail is in an area designated for nonmotorized uses.

To get to the trail, drive north on Routt County Road 129 and turn right on Seedhouse Road. Travel on the road until the plowing ends, then turn right on Forest Service Road 440. Cross the bridge, and the parking area and trailhead are on the left.

Rabbit Ears Pass

The Rabbit Ears Pass area, about a half-hour drive from Steamboat, offers a network of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails. Anyone interested can get a brochure at the U.S. Forest Service's office about the different trails, which describes the length of each trail and its difficulty.

The 1A, 1B and 1C loops begin from the West Summit Parking area, which is 13 miles east of Steamboat on U.S. Highway 40. The loops provide stunning views of the Yampa Valley and Flat Tops Wilderness. They range in distance from 3 to 4 miles, so they can be combined for a long day. The terrain is rated as moderate to most difficult, the latter rating including steep ascents and descents through areas with dense trees.

Bruce's Trail, accessible from a parking area a mile farther east on U.S. 40 from the West Summit Parking area, is 3.1 miles long and of moderate difficulty. It is groomed for skate skiers in the early winter, and there's space for skate and cross-country skiing.

Fox Curve Loop is 3 miles and travels over varied terrain, including steep ascents, open meadows, rolling hills and a creek crossing.

Outside U.S. Forest Service land

There are also dozens of options outside of Forest Service land. Steamboat Lake State Park offers extensive groomed trails, and Stagecoach State Park has options for cross-country and snowshoe adventures as well.

In Steamboat Springs, the Yampa Core Trail is cleared of snow, providing a good spot for winter joggers and walkers. Lower Spring Creek Trail is open from the parking area off of Amethyst Drive to the forest boundary.

Kennon reminded anyone using the backcountry to be prepared with plenty of warm, water-repellent clothing, because weather conditions can change quickly, and to bring water, food, maps and a compass. She also reminded users to obey etiquette rules -- for instance, snowshoers should stay outside of the ski trail so the ski tracks stay intact, dogs should be under control and cleaned up after, and skiers going uphill usually have the right of way.

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