Tom Ross: Go Mad early in the season
Forest road offers clear views of Deer Mountain, Flat Tops
June 5, 2010
Steamboat Springs — Mad Creek was visibly angry this week, but it's still your best bet for a satisfying day hike close to town. Just don't go there this Sunday.
We set out May 30 with a couple of longtime hiking buddies and their guest from Denver on the 4.5-mile Mad Creek Loop and weren't deterred by the fury of the creek. It is roaring with snowmelt coursing down from the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, but thanks to a sturdy bridge, hikers can complete the loop.
If you are tempted this weekend, make your hike today and avoid Sunday because of all the traffic associated with the Steamboat Marathon. If I cause any extra commotion up there on race day, the organizers are apt to throw me off the Mad Creek Bridge.
Early June can be a frustrating time of year for avid hikers — mud season finally has relented on the valley floor, the purple larkspur and lemon yellow glacier lilies are in full bloom, and the hiking trails beckon. But travel 1,000 feet up in elevation, and if you are able to ford the creeks, you're certain to encounter deep snow.
You could overcome the lingering drifts with snowshoes, but you might find yourself putting them on and taking them off again as you traverse from mounded drifts to bare ground. Another option is to wear heavy hiking boots with snow gaiters to keep the slush out of your cuffs. But post-holing through the rotten snow gets old when you sink to your fanny.
Realistically, it is the creeks that cut off many an early summer hike in Routt County. The whitewater poses a serious safety issue, even on small creeks, so don't push your luck.
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The Mad Creek Trailhead is just around Cullen's Corner, 5.5 miles from Steamboat on Elk River Road (Routt County Road 129) and offers several hiking options. Watch for the well-marked parking lot on your right in Mad Creek Village.
Most people are satisfied with a 3-mile round-trip that ends in a wide-open meadow along the creek where you can admire the Mad Creek Barn. Be warned that rattlesnake encounters are not unheard of on the hike to the barn. Although we've never seen a rattler there, I had an acquaintance who was bitten, along with his dog, quite a few years ago.
The barn, often called simply the Mad Barn, was built by Harry Ratliff, who began ranching in the little valley in 1903. You can look for his photograph and a handsome informational sign at the site.
On the hike back, don't forget to admire the remarkable stone walls that support the trail — it's closed to vehicles but almost certainly allowed Jeep traffic in the early part of the 20th century.
From the Mad Barn, hikers have the option to take much longer treks toward the high country by linking to the Red Dirt Trail, or continuing up the Mad Creek Trail to Swamp Park.
At this time of year, I don't really have my hiking legs yet, and I was grateful our party decided on the shorter loop created by turning south onto U.S. Forest Service Road 128.
From the Mad Creek Barn, angle down to the creek and spot the bridge. We stood on the span and marveled at the speed of the current as it swept past us.
Immediately upon crossing the bridge, you'll begin a long, gradual climb to a saddle leading to a huge meadow that must have been hayed at one time. It was along the climb that we encountered the only seriously wet spot on the entire hike.
The meadow offers unobstructed views of Deer Mountain in the foreground and the Flat Tops in the distance. It's a great place for a picnic lunch.
Beyond the meadow, hikers will start to descend steeply to the Elk River Valley. Expect to encounter mountain bikers easily climbing the steep grade on their 27-speed cycles.
Just before you reach the bottom of the hike and pass by a private ranch house, look for the junction with the Hot Springs Trail on your left.
When you reach Elk River Road, you will be left with a quarter-mile hike up the road on a footpath to your car.
A good way to learn more about early season hiking is to pick up a copy of Diane White-Crane's indispensable book, "Hiking the 'Boat II."
Bookmark the description of the Hare Trail and save the thought for a little later in June. You won't believe the views.