VIDEO: When glaciers covered Steamboat’s Mount Zirkel Wilderness
August 23, 2017
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — If the term "glacial erratic" strikes you as a name for a personality disorder, you've got the wrong picture. Glacial erratics are one of the most fascinating features of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area in the Park Range, right out Steamboat Springs' back door.
And with autumn almost upon us, it's time for one last fling in the local wilderness area.
The Park Range, where the Continental Divide runs south to north just east of Steamboat, is one of eight glaciated regions identified in the Colorado Rockies, according to glaciers.us.
Most of those glaciers were at their peak in the late Pleistocene era, around 125,000 years ago, when valley glaciers covered many Colorado Mountain ranges.
In the early 21st century, only very small remnants of these former glaciers remain.
Small glaciers, permanent ice fields and permanent snowfields can still be found primarily in northern Colorado. It's the permanent snowfield category that best applies to the Park Range and the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. Even in August and September, hikers can find persistent, dense snowdrifts, many formed on steep, east-facing slopes.
But there is another reminder of the period of glaciation in the mountain range that dominates the views from Steamboat – they can be found in large boulders, some oblong, but many that are large, almost rectangular, blocks of hard rock – gneiss, quartz and schist – perched strangely, all by themselves, on slabs of flat rock.
These boulders are particularly evident in the vicinity of Lake Elbert, seven miles north of Buffalo Pass, in a bowl just below 11,000-feet elevation.
When one pauses to ponder these geologic remnants of the glacial period, the question that comes to mind is, "How did these rocks get here?"
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These awe-inspiring rocks, referred to by geologists as "glacial erratics," were dragged across the landscape by the immense power of the rivers of ice and dropped in place when the glaciers eventually subsided.
Glacial erratics are also commonplace in the Sierra Nevada Range of California and closer to Northern Colorado in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. Steamboat backpacker Jim Comeau recalls waiting out a violent lightning storm in the Winds beneath a glacial erratic boulder the size of a one-car garage, close to the shore of Elbow Lake.
Of course, a late summer dash through the Mount Zirkel Wilderness offers more than boulders.
• Surreal trout: There are startlingly bright cutthroat trout in the lakes of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness that are intent, in late summer, on packing away a little more energy and therefore quick to strike at bushy fly patterns.
• Backcountry spa treatment: Remarkably, the inlet streams to Lake Elbert and nearby Luna Lake have created sand beaches that extend into shallow areas of the lake. Yes, the water temperature is falling this time of year, but it's worth summoning your nerve and plunging into the lake. Or, simply soak your weary feet in the lake.
• High country pollinators: A surprising variety of wildflowers are still hanging on in Zirkel but not for much longer. Bees and other insects are exploiting the opportunity.
• Vienna sausage myth: Regrettably, there is a quirk in human nature that causes some backcountry hikers to believe they can burn up the little steel cans that contained theVienna sausages they lugged into the wilderness.
• Local landmarks: from the saddle above Lake Elbert, one can see the distant northeast face of Hahn's Peak.