Exploring Steamboat: An anniversary camping trip to Mica Lake
August 12, 2015
Steamboat Springs — While hiking up to the Royal Arch in the Flatirons of Boulder two weekends ago, I decided it was time for me to push my boundaries a bit. It had been 29 years since my husband Mike and I had last done a real backpacking trip, so we decided that's how we'd spend our 30th anniversary weekend — hiking up to Mica Lake in the Mount Zirkels Wilderness Area and camping overnight.
In the two years since moving to Steamboat Springs, I've trekked up Mad Creek, Hahn's Peak, Gold Lake, Uranium Mine, Upper Fish Creek Falls and Devil's Causeway, to name just a few of my favorite hikes, but I had yet to do a backpacking/camping trip.
When I shared my plans with a few members of the Steamboat Pilot & Today staff, I got mixed responses. Eugene Buchanan and Greg Johnson were enthusiastic and gave me two thumbs up, Joel Reichenberger said he'd hiked there a few years ago and gave me a non-committal nod and Tom Ross expressed his reservations in light of the fact I hadn't carried a backpack for almost 30 years.
So, with a little trepidation and a lot to prove, my hubbie and I set off from the Seedhouse Trailhead at 9 a.m. Saturday morning with backpacks loaded full of gear. I should come clean and explain that my backpack weighed about 20 pounds and Mike's around 60, but for someone who had just ridden a mountain bike more than 2,700 miles on the Continental Divide, I felt he could handle the extra load.
It took a while to get the backpack adjusted correctly so that I was carrying the weight on my hips and not my shoulders, and I quickly realized the extra 20 pounds really did make the ascent more challenging as Tom had warned me. As my heart rate accelerated and I found myself getting out of breath more quickly, I began worrying if I was up for the task. But right in the middle of all that self-doubt a simple phrase came to mind — "there's joy in the journey."
From that point on, I stopped thinking about my labored breathing or the pack rubbing a raw spot on my left hip and, instead, began focusing on the incredible beauty surrounding me.
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I noticed the sound of the wind rushing through the aspen groves, the butterflies landing daintily on the wildflower blooms that decorated both sides of the trail and the striations of pink, gray and white quartz and mica that patterned the rocks underneath my feet. I also saw natural sculptures all along the trail — the exposed roots of downed trees now studded with sand and stones of all shapes and sizes embedded among the twisting, weathered wood.
Because the weather looked stormy, we had the trail almost completely to ourselves. We passed only eight people descending the trail on our way up, and the incredible views at every switchback made the climb go quickly. At mile 2.6, we stopped at a waterfall to eat a sandwich we'd picked up at the Clark Store. Our choice for a lunch spot was perfect, and the 15-minute refueling gave us the energy to make the final ascent up to the lake.
Once through the rocky switchbacks, we entered a series of meadows that crisscrossed Mica Creek, and the wildflowers can only be described as incredible, representing a glorious palette of colors that only God could create. In some places, we walked through patches of blooms that reached past our chins.
After hiking for a little over two hours and reaching mile 4.6, we caught sight of Little Agnes ahead. Then, there were a few more switchbacks before we came to the top of the trail and saw Mica Lake below. It was a magnificent welcome, and we were thrilled to discover we were the first ones there that morning.
Mike quickly claimed a campsite at the highest point above the lake on its south side. He set up camp while I took a little snooze under the now cloudless sky, and then we decided to take a stroll around the lake. On Mica's north side, I spotted another prime camping spot, and after a little cajoling, I talked Mike into moving our camp. I stayed at the new site to stake our claim while Mike took down the tent and the hammock and repacked our food, sleeping bags and cookware, and hauled it all to our new "perfect" spot.
By the time campsite #2 was set up, it was mid-afternoon, and Mike and I decided we had enough daylight left to hike up to the Little Agnes saddle. The climb was steep, but the payoff once we reached the summit, at around 11,200 feet, was worth it. We had views of Steamboat Lake, Hahn's Peak and the North Elk River Valley to the west, and Mica Lake and Big Agnes to the east.
The hike down from the saddle was a bit treacherous, and at some point, I got separated from Mike. I decided to take what seemed to me to be the quickest route, which ended up leading me down a scree field. As the rocks began sliding out from under my feet, I decided the safest way to maneuver the shifting ground was to crab-walk down the steepest part.
Finally reaching the bottom, I found Mike waiting for me and also discovered I'd lost my cell phone somewhere along the way. So, as if once wasn't enough, Mike and I made our way back up the steep incline until we spied my phone, and then together, we managed to get back down to our campsite without further drama. If anyone had happened to be watching us through binoculars, they'd either have called search and rescue or been doubled over with laughter.
Back at camp, Mike built a fire and cooked a dinner of pasta and hamburgers over a camp stove. With a full tummy and a chill in the air, I grabbed my Big Agnes sleeping bag and wrapped it around my shoulders for extra warmth. In the quietness, I watched the flames dance, then looked up and saw Big Agnes. I smiled to myself as I realized I was in the mountains, having survived my first backpacking trip in nearly three decades, and was now finding comfort in a sleeping bag manufactured by a local company named after the towering mountain in front of me.
It was another one of those "only in Steamboat Springs" moments that I've grown to expect and love. I hope our trip to Mica Lake is the first of many more backpacking adventures, and for the record, I promise not to make my very patient husband change campsites two times in one trip or search for a cellphone at 11,000 feet. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll try a 50/30 pound backpack ratio the next time around.