Mica Lake stands nearly 2,000 feet above the trailhead, and it’s not an easy hike. Despite the ravages of beetles, blowdowns and fires, the view still is stunning.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Mica Lake stands nearly 2,000 feet above the trailhead, and it’s not an easy hike. Despite the ravages of beetles, blowdowns and fires, the view still is stunning.

Lush lands await hikers in Zirkels

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If you go

What: Mica Lake hike

Where: Trails 1161 and 1162 in North Routt County, at the end of Seedhouse Road near Clark

Distance: Eight miles roundtrip. 200 yards to the first turn, 1.2 miles to the second and 2.6 to the lake. Exploring around the lake easily can tack on another mile.

What to bring: Bug spray to keep mosquitoes and vicious flies at bay, sunscreen, snacks and plenty of water

Time: Five to six hours roundtrip. Don’t forget to plan time to spend at the lake.

Difficulty: It’s pretty difficult, though nothing a remotely experienced hiker can’t handle. The trail gains 2,000 feet in elevation over four miles. That’s considerable.

— The word “lush” hasn’t been getting tossed around all that much this spring, not when the region has dealt with a drought that’s sparked an at-times paralyzing fear of wildfire and turned much of Steamboat Springs’ typically emerald summer into a brown tinderbox.

Maybe by typical July standards, the hike to Mica Lake, four miles off the trailhead at the end of Seedhouse Road, isn’t lush. A mid-July trek to the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area typically can be a daring call; after most winters, it’s just now melting out, and where there’s no longer snow, there’s definitely soggy ground and abundant water.

By the standards of 2012, however, the trip to Mica Lake feels like a hike into Eden. The snow is long gone, but the water is running, the brooks are babbling and the views — craggy peaks looming over green meadows — are luscious.

Sweaty but sweet

The hike to Mica Lake certainly isn’t the easiest around. The route — a combination of Trails 1161 and 1162 — gains nearly 2,000 feet from Seedhouse to lakeshore.

There are only a few sections where it’s steep enough to drive a hiker from breathing hard to exhaustion. The never-quite-flat nature of most of the miles, however, adds up, and the last few hundred yards over the final rise and to the edge of the lake are a panting party.

The hike is unique. Maybe it doesn’t stand out all that much from its fellow North Routt destinations, but the mountains of the Zirkel Wilderness seem only distantly related to the rounded peaks closer to Steamboat Springs or the flat ones in the county’s southern reaches.

Here, the mountains are postcardesque. They are steep and rugged. No one ever has wondered whether it would be possible to summit Mount Werner. But can you climb to the top of the sheer rocky spires that help Big Agnes stand out? Do people scale the steep, rugged faces of the mountains that dominate this hike?

Along the way, there is plenty to momentarily distract from those questions. There are several awesome sets of waterfalls and long stretches of trail that parallel rushing creeks. This is what hiking in Colorado looks like in the movies. It’s life along the trail through the Mica Basin.

The region’s recovery from the still-obvious damage wrought by a massive blowdown in the late 1990s and an ensuing forest fire a decade ago only offer more food for thought.

Follow the directions

Reach the trailhead by heading north from Steamboat Springs on Routt County Road 129, along the ranch land and into Clark. Follow the sign down C.R. 64, pointing to Slavonia, on the far end of the town, and just keep driving until there’s no more road, paved or dirt.

Park and start down the only trail there is and follow signs left at the first fork, where a register book awaits.

The first mile of Trail 1161 is comparatively uneventful. There’s a nice creek for sections, though smaller but easier-to-approach ones await after another left 1.2 miles into the hike onto Trail 1162.

That trail builds up toward and then through a rocky ridge. It’s fun to see the water tumbling down from that ridge and, after having hoofed it up and over, to see the slow stream that fuels it.

The trail crosses that creek several times and hops over several more side streams, building toward the looming Big Agnes and Little Agnes mountains. They always seem close, but only after plenty of sweat is a hiker actually at the glacier-formed Mica Lake and the mountains’ base.

Take some time to hike around the lake, up off the trail through fields of boulders and to vantage points that offer beautiful views of the suddenly small cup of water that is the first stop for snow cascading off the weathered Agnes peaks. Hop over the many fingers of water rolling down the slopes into the lake and be sure to relax in the green grass. The hike back is mostly downhill, but for many, sore feet are assured by the time the car is back in sight.

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

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