Wilderness Wanderings: Deep snow persists on upper Zirkel Circle
June 13, 2018
How much fun can you have postholing through hip deep drifts of snow? If you said "zero," you're like me – it's hard work and no fun.
Unfortunately, that's what you can expect if you hike the ever popular Zirkel Circle during the next couple of weeks. Deep snow persists on the trails and high, fast moving water makes stream crossings dangerous on Gilpin and Gold Creek Lake trails. The lower sections of those trails, which have been dry for several weeks, are lulling hikers into thinking the snow has also melted off from the trail sections above their namesake lakes.
That's far from reality, according to longtime Friends of Wilderness volunteer Denise Scifres who has been talking with hikers while on foot patrol. "The top of the Zirkel Circle is not ready for regular summer hiking yet," she said. "The snow is deep, slushy and messy."
Scifres confirmed there is less snow than normal this time of year but "there's still a lot of snow up there, especially on north facing slopes and where the trail is shaded by tree cover." Even the last 1/2 mile of trail below Gilpin Lake has heavy snow, she added.
Areas around 9,500 feet in elevation still have patchy snow, and it becomes more consistent higher up. Relatively speaking, altitudes are 9,555 feet for Gold Creek Lake, 9,878 feet for Three Island Lake and 10,338 feet for Gilpin.
Volunteer Carl Foulk hiked Gilpin Trail on Sunday and witnessed "a guy up there skiing and other people turning around. The water is high on Gilpin (outlet stream) and Mica Creek, so falling in is not an option," he cautioned.
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Better choices currently, especially for someone planning to fish, are to hike as far as Gold Creek Lake or even Three Island Lake. There is still snow near those lakes but the trails can be hiked.
And there's an advantage in hiking to the snowline – abundant wildflowers, some of which came and went from the Yampa Valley two months ago. Carpets of glacier lily, patches of marsh marigold and small groups of trillium are found where the snow has recently receded.
Another good hiking option is the popular Rainbow Lake Trail on the east side of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. This trail is clear of snow and FOW volunteer sawyers were planning to cut out the fallen trees this week. The drive is not much longer than driving to Slavonia trailhead and the reward of three alpine lakes makes it worth it.
Hiking distance is 6.5 easy to moderate miles roundtrip if you go all the way to Rainbow Lake which sits at an altitude of 9,854 feet and at nearly 100 acres is the largest lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Towering over the lake is 11,924-foot Mount Ethel – a definite photo opportunity. Along the way you'll pass Lower and Middle Rainbow lakes.
Contact the local U.S. Forest Service office at 970-870-2299 for information on other forest trails and up to date conditions.
Bob Korch is president and trail crew leader with Friends of Wilderness which assists the U.S. Forest Service in maintaining trails and educating the public about the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops Wilderness areas. For more information, visit friendsofwilderness.com.