Greg Johnson: Exploring the Zirkels
July 28, 2015
Steamboat Springs — Back in 2009, a friend of mine pointed to a spot on a map, just on the north side of Big Agnes and Mt. Zirkel, that was supposedly a hidden gem. It would take a little bush whacking and navigation to get to, but I was told this was one of the best areas the Zirkel Wilderness has to offer.
That summer, I took my first solo backpacking trip to that spot with little direction other than follow the river over the pass and camp near the lake. I made it there after a beautiful, sunny hike. It seemed like a fairy tale, with jagged peaks, crystal clear lakes and not a soul in sight. A spot like this was what I had dreamed about when I moved to Colorado. The trip left a lasting impression and has always been in the back of my mind.
Needing some time in the mountains, I finally got back there last weekend with two friends. I convinced them merely by giving the same description I was given six years ago.
Our adventure started out with sun on our shoulders and an easy first leg to our journey. We hiked a crowded trail with people enjoying a beautiful July day and headed to Mica, or Gilpin Lake.
After a few miles, we split from the crowds, into the unknown for a bushwhack to our destination. My backpacking mates gave me inquisitive looks, searching for answers as to where we were going.
"We head that way and try to follow the river until it splits off," I said.
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My vague direction didn't instill a ton of confidence in them, but off we went. Through marshes and heavy brush, we hiked slowly as we gained elevation. Multiple streams that are not on the map trickled into the river along our way.
I wasn't exactly sure which one I was supposed to follow, but tried to keep that to myself as I reassured them, "No, not that one, trust me."
As we hiked, we split from our river and head upwards to a saddle in the mountains we couldn't see, but I promised was there.
Hiking at the base of a mountain cirque, we each chose a path of least resistance through snowfields and the beginnings of what would eventually become streams and spill into the Elk River. As the green saddle came into view, I was relieved. I knew in the back of my mind we were headed in the right direction, but I had my doubts as our hike went on.
I had hinted on our way that we might run into snow on the hike, especially on the north facing slope after the saddle, but I didn't tell them the last mile of our hike would be down multiple, steep snow fields. In reality, I didn't really know what would be there. Last time, it was full of snow in July, but conditions change right?
Tired, and now with soaked shoes, we slid down. With vague information and a storm that was quickly forming overhead, my companion's spirits were low. Then — finally — our majestic destination came into view, and all was forgiven.
We walked into our camp with pure joy. We all agreed that the hike was worth it to be in a place that remained untraveled and serene in its own beauty.
At camp the lingering sunlight seemed to never fade away. The Alpine glow gave a spectacular show, lighting up the peaks just above us and making the distant fields and forest sloping up mountains a color of green that can't be described. The stars at night gave their own performance, and we stared into never-ending universe, contemplating our place in the world.
The next day, we woke to the sound of a thunderous storm. The goal of the trip, at least for me, was to reach the lake just on the other side of a ridge toward the base of Big Agnes. I once again told my friends to trust me as we had to hike up and over a steep ridge to gain access to an unnamed lake.
The hike in and out pushed us a little past our comfort zone, but the lake and the surrounding cirque transported us to a magical place. It didn't seem possible, but here it was, right in our own back yard. Pictures wouldn't do it justice.
Colorado is filled with other places that have a magical feeling to them. Sometimes, you are informed by some magazine article as to the best places to go. Those places are great, but the real magic is finding a place that remains off the beaten path, where it's you and the outdoor world, living in your own fairy tale, even if just for a day.
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