The View from Mount Zirkel

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Ask any hiker in Routt County -- they'll tell you they've been to Zirkel.

Anyone who loves the outdoors and calls the Yampa Valley home hardly can avoid the 160,000-acre Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area named after geologist Ferdinand Zirkel.

The question remains: Have you ever set eyes on Mount Zirkel, let alone stood on its summit?

Answer? Probably not.

From the west side of the Continental Divide, people who are curious about Mount Zirkel itself must go well out of their way to get a look at it. That's because the bulk of a mountain with the curious name of "Big Agnes" blocks views of Zirkel's summit from many popular hikes from the Slavonia Trailhead in North Routt County.

The truth is, it's fairly easy to glimpse Mount Zirkel from the driver's side window of a passenger car on the east side of the Continental Divide. But I know of only one spot on the map where this is possible, and most people aren't aware of the location on Jackson County Road 6W, where Zirkel's summit looms above Fryingpan Basin. It's not as if there is a sign on the side of the unpaved road to Big Creek Lakes, pointing out scenic landmarks. Mount Zirkel's northeast flank is there, waiting to be photographed, but you've got to slow down and look at a map to orient yourself. If you make the effort, you'll spot it.

From Steamboat Springs and the west side of the divide, the route to Mount Zirkel is no big mystery. It is meticulously described in Diane White-Crane's indispensable volume, "Hiking the Boat II."

All it takes to gain a view of Zirkel is a willingness to hike 17 miles roundtrip and climb roughly 3,700 feet of vertical from the Slavonia Trailhead.

From the parking lot at Slavonia, follow Trail 1150 up Gold Creek. Keep your eyes peeled for large patches of ripening thimbleberries just before and after the wilderness boundary sign. The trail climbs at a moderate rate up the Gold Creek drainage, with views of several small waterfalls along the way.

Hikers will reach Gold Lake at the three-mile mark. There is no camping allowed within a quarter mile of Gold Lake, and for people making a two-day trip out of the climb to Mount Zirkel, the best camping begins two miles later.

Just beyond the lake lies another stream crossing, and this one is wide enough to require some very nimble rock-hopping or a pair of sandals and a hiking pole.

About a half mile beyond the lake, the trail begins to climb again toward the junction with the trail leading to the back door of Gilpin Lake. Watch for the signed trail junction leading to Red Dirt Pass. You'll traverse along a northeast-facing slope with a lush valley below and the continuous ridge of Flat Top mountain on your right. Small rivulets frequently interrupt the trail. Evidence of numerous avalanche paths is obvious on the opposing ridge.

If you're carrying a backpack with overnight camping gear and beginning to feel like you want to put it down, there's only one obvious camping spot -- on a small knob with a flat top before you reach the ruins of the old Slavonia gold-mining camp.

The camp is about 2.5 miles beyond Gold Creek Lake -- if you can make it there, it's worth the effort for the open meadows and the opportunity to explore the ruins.

Some hikers complete the Mount Zirkel summit trip as a day hike. But an overnight stay along the route affords the best opportunity to gain the summit before building clouds pose a threat of lightning. After all, this is the highest point in 160,000 acres of wilderness.

From the Slav-onia Mine site, you'll tramp into Alpine meadows and across a large avalanche run-out before beginning the steep climb above timberline to Red Dirt Pass at 11,500 feet. Upon gaining the pass, you'll be standing smack dab on the Continental Divide. From here, the walk to the Zirkel summit ridge is off trail.

A topographic map will aid you, but the route is fairly self-evident. Climb a steep slope of wildflowers and boulders to your left, crossing snow patches on your way toward a series of four jagged peaks. Behind you, the flat crown of Lost Ranger Peak and the obvious dromedary's hump of The Dome come into view. Ahead of you, the third peak from the left is your destination -- the summit of Mount Zirkel.

At the start of the summit ridge, you'll begin some easy boulder scrambling that requires careful placement of your feet. You won't need to use your hands to pull yourself up, but you might find yourself placing your hands on the sharp boulders for balance. Take each of the first and second false summits in turn.

The actual saddles between peaks 1 and 2, and again between 2 and 3 (the actual summit), are somewhat exposed to significant drops on the northwest side of Mount Zirkel -- but in favorable hiking conditions, there is no need to fear the last 200 feet to the summit. If the airy heights bother you, it's possible to make the final approach a few feet lower to the northeast amid the boulders and away from the exposed ridge.

The reward for all of this effort is a spectacular view of the northeast side of Big Agnes as well as the tiny crescent of Gilpin Lake's southwest shore.

In my book, this lengthy hike is more special than climbing several of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks and a must for everyone who aspires to know Zirkel.

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