A hiker descends from 11,000 feet on the Continental Divide Trail toward Elbert Lake this month. Luna Lake, substantially larger than Elbert, is just out of sight to the left, and Lake of the Crags is tucked up against the unnamed 11,577-foot peak to the right.

Photo by Tom Ross

A hiker descends from 11,000 feet on the Continental Divide Trail toward Elbert Lake this month. Luna Lake, substantially larger than Elbert, is just out of sight to the left, and Lake of the Crags is tucked up against the unnamed 11,577-foot peak to the right.

Dropping Steamboat temps mean last call for Zirkel trip

Backpacking to Luna Lake provides scenic vistas, good fishing

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A band of reintroduced Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep frequents a rocky peak not far from 11,924-foot Mount Ethel and Luna Lake this summer.

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A fishermen has a fish on just after sunset in Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.

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Luna Lake, 9 miles north of the summit of Buffalo Pass, offers ample campsites set back a proper distance from the lake with minimal danger from the dead and falling trees that ring many lakes in Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.

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A typical cutthroat trout from one of the lakes in Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, where trout often are willing to take a dry fly even when there is no insect hatch.

— Any resident of Steam­boat Springs with a rugged vehicle or a passenger car they don’t mind bouncing over a rocky road has quick access to the Continental Divide Trail.

So, it’s amazing how many years can pass between multiday trips north of Buffalo Pass into Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. Members of our party that backpacked to Luna Lake earlier this month have made numerous day-hikes into Zirkel during the past five years, but a full 15 years had zipped by since last we hefted our heavy backpacks and set out for Luna Lake.

For my money, August is prime time in the Zirkel Wilder­ness. It’s true, you have to pack as if the forecast calls for snow, and you’re always rolling the dice as far as monsoon thunderstorms go. But the best thing about August in the high country around Steamboat is that the mosquitoes are almost a non-issue.

During a quick trip to Luna on Aug. 14 to 16, we noticed the pesky insects only after 7 p.m. (when you wanted a zip turtleneck anyway) and again briefly before breakfast.

Our GPS confirmed what some of the guidebooks say — that it’s every bit of 9 miles from the trailhead on Buffalo Pass along the Wyoming Trail to Luna. This hike is an interesting mix of easy tromping through almost flat Alpine meadows and heartbreaking descents where you quickly give up 150 to 200 feet of elevation, only to have to regain it immediately upon reaching the bottom of a drainage. The elevation change is no big deal for a day hiker, but put your house and your kitchen on your back and it’s a different matter.

If it sounds like too much for you, consider carrying your full backpack for three miles, making camp, and rising the next morning for a day hike to Elbert Lake. It’s almost as good as hiking the whole enchilada.

The tempting news is that this hike up the spine of the Rockies offers views of some notable peaks, even when there’s a bit of blue haze in the air.

Just a mile up the trail is one of the best views anywhere of 11,924-foot Mount Ethel, which also can be seen quite easily from the top of the Storm Peak Express chairlift at Steamboat Ski Area. Turn your back on Ethel and fix your gaze on the familiar Rabbit Ears formation and your mental geography should be locked in.

After 2.5 miles of hiking, you’ll make a modest climb and find a band of steep cliffs on your right. From this point, you should be able to gaze eastward and pick out Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you are familiar with the view of the toothy Nohu Crags from North Park, Long’s Peak is farther south and recognizable for its squared-off top.

After traveling about 5 miles, hikers who stop and turn to face the south will easily recognize the Gore Range beyond Kremmling and be able to guess where the peaks near Vail are. Walk another two miles and the same aspect will reveal a hazy mountain with twin peaks. I can’t swear to it, but I feel confident that it’s Mount Sopris, south of Carbondale in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Fishing Luna Lake

Luna Lake is almost 500 feet below the high point of the hike, which tops out at 11,000 feet. But it’s a great destination because it allows anglers and day hikers to easily check out a few other lakes, including Lake of the Crags, Elbow Lake, Lakes Margaret and Edward and Big Creek Lake (not to be confused with the other Big Creek Lake farther north).

We learned that Luna is full of 14-inch cutthroat trout, but they did not become active until 7 p.m. or even 7:30 p.m., when the sun was about to slip behind the ridge.

It took us a little bit of experimentation to learn that the trout were feasting on cinnamon-colored winged ants and preferred to have them sink an inch below the surface. Once we dialed it in, the fishing was cinnamon-hot during the last 45 minutes of daylight.

Freeze-dried dinners

It’s a funny thing, but prepared meals you would turn your nose up at if you were dining at home can taste marvelous in a mountain camp. We relied heavily on freeze-dried chicken meals with rice, pasta and mashed potato side dishes, and weren’t disappointed for the most part. One of the best things to be said about these meals that cost about $7 for a filling two-cup serving is that you don’t have to make a messy cooking pot to enjoy them. Just put two cups of boiling water in the foil pouch, mix and let them sit for three or four minutes. Eat right out of the pouch.

The directions warn that if you’re at high altitude, you should simmer the food in a pot over your backpacking stove, but we learned that by adding a little extra water and letting them sit longer, we could get by without creating dirty dishes.

Prepare for any weather

Three of us had to climb 1,500 feet of vertical in a heavy snowstorm during a Zirkel expedition in August 2008, and we were glad we were prepared with heavy wool socks, waterproof jackets, pants and gloves.

It didn’t snow on us during the hike back to our vehicle Aug. 16, but we had to sit out a violent thunderstorm when we were within two miles of Buffalo Pass. The temperature quickly dropped to hypothermia territory — 44 degrees — in no time.

It’s not too late to plan a quick trip into Zirkel Wilderness for Labor Day weekend. But the seasons are beginning to change in the high country. Take the Alpine environment seriously — bring along a wool hat and gloves, rain gear, a large lighter meant for cigars and tinder, plus a heavy vinyl space blanket with a few lengths of clothesline for a quick bivouac.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to stop by your local fly fishing shop to pick up a few cinnamon ants.

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