Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Editor's note: This story was modified on June 18 to correct the name of the Thunderhead Hiking Trail.
The trails at Spring Creek and Emerald Mountain get all of the traffic, but the best hike that jumps off inside the city limits has to be the Thunderhead Trail that begins at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area and runs all the way to the top of the gondola.
The trail is carefully designed to skirt around mountain bike trails and service roads, providing a near-wilderness experience as it follows switchbacks through the forest on the front side of the ski area.
The majority of people who hike this trail in the summer will ride up the gondola up and hike down. And it’s difficult to blame them — you can enjoy all of the same views of downtown Steamboat, the ski base and the south valley. And you’ll see just as many wildflowers as will the people who are huffing and puffing their way up the hill.
However, if you have ambitions of hiking a bigger mountain a little later this summer, this 3.8-mile trek with a vertical rise of almost 2,200 feet can become a big part of your preparation for reaching the summit of one of Colorado’s 14ers.
Interestingly, the steepest portion of the entire walk comes just a few hundred yards after it begins. We favor parking in upper Ski Time Square and walking past the T Bar restaurant to merge with the Right-O-Way trail. Walk another 50 yards and look for the sign directing you up a gradual switchback to begin the hike.
The first little bit of the trail is noteworthy for several well-marked intersections with mountain bike trails where you may encounter cyclists moving at a good rate of speed. But very soon you’ll leave two-wheeled traffic behind as you climb the See Me ski trail. The Thunderhead hiking trail is shown as a magenta line in the ski area’s online map of mountain bike trails.
The steep pitches begin as the trail zig-zags through the stripe of gambel oak between See Me and Voo Doo. I take hiking poles on this climb, not because I’m infirm, but because I actually get a mild upper-body workout from using the poles to help push the pace a little. You should try it.
From the open area at the top of See Me, watch for the trail to lead you off toward another line of trees between Jess’s Cutoff and Sitz leading to the snowmaking plant. The hiking trail crosses the Valley View cycling trail here and then leaves it for good as it switches back first across Vertigo and later Ted’s Ridge.
The best wildflower viewing is in this section of the hike. Right now, the mountain ash shrubs are covered in a profusion of white blooms, and closer to the forest floor you can spy the trumpet-shaped lavender blossoms of the clematis vine, which wraps around other shrubs.
If you look down at your feet you might also spy the small, snow-balled shaped white blossoms of false solomonseal, which is destined to grow into a plant standing 2 to 3 feet tall.
Nearing the top of Thunderhead Peak, just when you think you might be in the home stretch, the Thunderhead Trail crosses Heavenly Daze to take hikers on one last loop through the woods on the southwest side of the peak. Toward the end, hikers are likely to notice that they are paralleling the intermediate Rustler’s Ridge bike trail. At about the same time the sound of gondola cars entering the upper terminal becomes obvious, and it’s good to know you can step into a gondola car and take the easy way down.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com