Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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The word is out about a quiet corner of the Routt National Forest that many people have never set eyes on.
The May issue of Sunset magazine touts Big Creek Lakes in the Routt National Forest as one of the best campgrounds in Colorado. This beautiful spot, far from any city, is closer to Encampment, Wyo., than it is to Steamboat. But don't pack up the sport-ute with sleeping bags and camp chairs this weekend - the road to Big Creek Lakes is piled high with snow and set to remain that way for five or six weeks.
Becky Romios at the Walden Ranger District said the road usually is accessible by the first week in June. The snow melted even later in early summer 2008.
That's kind of the way it goes in Colorado this time of year. We come home from spring break wearing river sandals and a sunburn, having made a full mental transition to summer, only to find snow showers blowing through the budding aspen trees.
But snow isn't the only issue at Big Creek Lakes this spring.
The bad news at Big Creek is that there aren't as many pine trees in the campground as there once were. The good news is that there is now an uncluttered view of Red Elephant Mountain from your picnic table.
Romios explained that, like the campgrounds at Steamboat Lake, Big Creek has been hit by the pine beetle infestation. Sawyers will be busy again early this summer removing trees that pose a danger.
The larger west campground loop is expected to reopen this summer after a short period of continued tree removal. The east campground loop is likely to remain closed through the summer.
You can call Romio at 970-723-8204 for updates about the snowmelt and the status of dead tree removal from the campgrounds.
We enjoy Big Creek as a trailhead for an ambitious hike up to the Continental Divide near Seven Lakes - it's spectacular alpine terrain. But you can stop at mile two and enjoy a beautiful waterfall. And even if you never set foot on a hiking trail, it's worth driving to Big Creek Lakes for the view of Mount Zirkel - not the wilderness area but the mountain peak itself. I know of only two places where you can glimpse the 12,180-foot summit from your car. And neither of them is on the Steamboat side of the Park Range.
Driving north from Walden, watch for the left turn on Jackson County Road 6W. After about eight miles, you will crest a steep hill overlooking a beautiful valley. The pointy peak that comes into view is the northeast flank of the seldom seen Mount Zirkel.
You don't have to enjoy camping to justify this trip - you can just pack a picnic and continue beyond the left turn to Big Creek (Jackson County 6A), through Hog Park and then Whiskey Park to complete a loop to Steamboat via the Elk River Valley.
Of course, you don't want to attempt that automobile trip before checking with Forest Service officials, either.
Even Memorial Day is touch and go as far as camping on Colorado's Western Slope.
Steamboat Lake State Park is one of the most scenic campgrounds outside a national park that you'll ever find. But for many Steamboat families, a trip up the Elk River Road on May 23 doesn't cut it. It's just not enough of a getaway.
On any weekend in May, however, you can drive into the loop at Indian Crossing and Bridge Hollow campgrounds on the Green River and encounter half a dozen of your friends from Steamboat. At about eight miles across the state line into Utah, it's a destination that's just far enough away from the mountains to make all of the packing and unpacking worthwhile. You get there by driving west from Steamboat on U.S. Highway 40 for 73 miles to Maybell, then hanging a right on Colorado Highway 318 and winding through the sage and juniper country until you reach the Utah border. You'll encounter the mighty Green River eight miles later and turn left toward the campgrounds.
At Indian Crossing, there's dependable river fishing in the Green River, a mellow float trip through Swallow Canyon and a fascinating historical site in the Jarvie Ranch (pioneer ferry operator John Jarvie knew Butch and Sundance personally).
You also can count on seeing wildlife and experiencing adventurous hiking. If there's no sign of an imminent downpour, the scramble down Red Creek Canyon to the main stem of the river is fascinating. You'll quickly understand why hikers are warned to stay away when rain is a threat as soon as you glimpse tree trunks wedged into the rocks 15 feet above your head. Flash floods here are the real deal.
Camping season in Steamboat may be five or six weeks away, but you can jump-start the season by heading west. Just stay away from campsite No. 8 at Bridge Hollow - I already have it reserved.