Red Dirt Trail winds up from Routt County Road 129, flowing, after six grueling miles, into Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. The trail has a bit of everything, from flowers, to pines to aspens.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Red Dirt Trail winds up from Routt County Road 129, flowing, after six grueling miles, into Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. The trail has a bit of everything, from flowers, to pines to aspens.

Challenging Red Dirt Trail offers great views at a steep pitch

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Red Dirt Trail

How to get there: The trailhead is a half-mile north of the Mad Creek Trailhead on Routt County Road 129, about nine miles from downtown Steamboat Springs.

Difficulty: With nearly six miles of climbing in the first part of the trail, it’s not for everyone. The trail rises 2,500 feet by the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area border. There’s little letup in the grade until after that point. The trail continues on, connecting to larger trail networks in the area.

Length: One popular turnaround point is a little more than six miles in, just past the Zirkel border, making for a 12-mile day. Other turnaround points can make the trail six or eight miles, as well.

What to bring: Bring plenty of water and a few snacks to handle the length and difficulty of the trail. Sunscreen and bug spray should always be packed along, as well.

When to hike it: It’s not really ready, after the first three miles, anyway. Give it a few more weeks to allow the rest of the snow to melt and the trail to dry. Typically, the trail is clear and ready from mid- to late May through the fall. Conventional wisdom dictates hikers stay away from the area in the height of summer, but the latter portions of the 12 mile out-and-back route reach 9,000 feet, which is cool enough for any time of year.

— I was 10 steps from my car, parked at the Red Dirt Trailhead, when I first asked the question that would dominate my dance with the Red Dirt devil.

“Is this worth it?” I wondered to myself.

After nearly six hours and 12 miles, after climbing over dozens of trees and around endless mud holes, after climbing more than 2,500 feet from the sanctuary of Routt County Road 129 to just beyond the border of Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, I could only barely answer the question.

I tackled Red Dirt Trail thinking I’d find a version of the popular Mad Creek Trail, maybe with a little more climbing but definitely with fewer people.

Mad Creek is a popular trail half a mile down the road, one where beautiful views somehow mingle with a not-too-tough hike. This was no Mad Creek, however. That much was obvious 10 steps from the car.

Mad Creek: no relation

The Red Dirt Trailhead is just a little farther north than the Mad Creek Trailhead on C.R. 129. It’s a fraction of the size, but there’s plenty of room for five or six cars, or one and a horse trailer, as was the case Friday morning.

Everything anyone needs to know about the trail is obvious in the first 15 minutes of the hike. The trail juts steeply away from the highway, along the mountainside that towers over the rushing Elk River and the ribbon of a highway that cuts through the area. The grander of one of Routt County’s often forgotten emeralds — the Elk River Valley — is plainly obvious as the trail works its way up, the brilliant green of the area popping from beyond the last of the ridges that shelter the Red Dirt and Mad Creek trails.

Such cool views don’t dominate the trail but pop up here and there and are a defining characteristic.

Just as defining a characteristic is the steep pitch, which is unrelenting. All that most people starting at the trailhead will see is climbing. It’s not always steep — there’s no scrambling here or slipping in the mud — but it is persistent.

The trail weaves in and out of varied environments, like many area trails do. There are groves of pines, some healthy and others in various stages of mountain pine beetle infestation. There are groves of aspens, and there are plenty of flowers, bright yellow blooms opening early in the hike and a variety of others taking over later, littering the sides of the trail with color.

There are plenty of fine places to choose to turn around. The trail, No. 1171, intersects with Saddle Trail, No. 1140 about 1 1/2 miles in. Take that breakaway, and hikers end up at Mad Creek and that trail system. It would make for a fine loop.

There are two troughs on the trail, one not quite three miles in and the other closer to four. Water pumps into them from pipes strung through the area. I wouldn’t drink the water, but a dog or a horse should love it, and both are in wide clearings begging for a break and a granola bar.

Hurdles aplenty

There may be plenty of places to stop, but I didn’t. With Diane White-Crane’s “Hiking the Boat II” as my guide for the day, I was determined to make it to, then a little past the Zirkel border, as she recommended in her book.

The trail — or more accurately a late Steamboat Springs-area summer — seemed bound and determined to stop me. There is one break in the climbing. About five miles, in the trail turns down. It breaks up again before the Zirkel border, but it momentarily gave me some unfortunate hope. Truly, the last two miles of the trail isn’t in any condition to be hiked. The surely underappreciated souls in charge of cutting and clearing fallen trees haven’t made it there yet this season, and a hiker is seemingly constantly hurdling over them.

There’s enough snow still on or near the trail to be an annoyance, but not enough to stop anyone. The melted snow is however, and long sections of the trail still were swampy Friday.

But I’d set out to hike as far as White-Crane, and though I nearly turned back a dozen times, I kept going, climbing atop snow banks and over, under and around the many trees.

Finally, after I spent probably a mile assuming it was around the next bend, the Zirkel sign appeared. A few steps beyond and the reason for the hike became clearer. The views open up wide on the Mad Creek drainage, first 20 yards past the sign and again, even more impressively, a half-mile later. That creek, raging in its own right, barely appears a trickle, nearly 2,500 feet below.

It’s a stunning view.

Is it worth a long day on the trail and dealing with endless obstacles?

Plenty of trails in the area offer challenges equal to or greater than that of the Red Dirt. Devil’s Causeway sits atop a brutal hike, for instance. That one has a payoff never to be forgotten, however.

The payoff of Red Dirt proved beautiful, but it’s far from the slam-dunk Routt County classic that so many area trails are.

There are far worse ways to spend a day than hiking the Red Dirt Trail. There are several better ways, too. It’s worth it but barely.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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