August 31, 2019 · Zirkel Wilderness
Zirkel Circle is a loop in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness inside of the Routt National Forest, about an hour north of Steamboat Springs. The trailhead is in a remote location and is best to use a 4WD vehicle to get there. It's a moderately trafficked trail and given that I was on the trail during the Labor Day Weekend, there was a bit more traffic on the trail than usual.
There were several people on their way in and out that were there for a multi-day trip; I did this trek in one day. Being in Northern Colorado the rock has a slightly different appearance than that of the Central Rockies between Frisco and Eagle, it's a lighter color – or so it appeared so to me.
The day started out with blue skies and a little bit of haze in the air, it had rained hard the night before. I did the trail clockwise and the first quarter of the trail is a gentle rise through a semi-humid area of broad leafy ground cover and thick stands of Aspen trees. Gradually, the Aspens give way to thin conifers and open green meadows.
I think this is where I felt the difference between the trails in the Central Rockies and here in the Northern Rockies, it feels a bit flatter and more spread out along the Zirkel Circle trail. That coupled with the slightly lighter granite makes for a "everything feels further away" feeling. It is beautiful here; you get a sense of a broader survey of the surroundings.
The bushes and shrubs are beginning to show signs of the changes in seasons, they have tinges of rust in them; Fall is coming quickly. The rivers have slowed to become gentle streams in most places and are very peaceful to watch and listen to. Just before the turn to Gilpin Lake there is a large meadow with spectacular views of Mt. Zirkel, Big Agnes Mountain and an unnamed peak that hides Mica Lake.
The push to Gilpin Lake from the clockwise route is, in my opinion the better option. While there are some steep parts along the final push to Gilpin Lake, it is nothing compared to what the final push to Gilpin Lake via the counterclockwise route is. If you remember to look behind you from time to time, the clockwise route offers an ever-expanding view of Mt. Zirkel. Since you're not in return-to-the-trailhead mode, you'll still be very interested in the views.
The last bit to Gilpin Lake is along a gentle upslope to the lake's edge. From there the view of the lake opens to a dramatic view with the lake sitting in a bowl. The face of the bowl is mostly scree with hints of bright green grass growing out of it. I happened to arrive at the lake when nobody else was there, so I got the best view along the shore for lunch.
The weather had started to turn at this point in the day. The clouds were forming over Mt. Zirkel and rolling in towards Gilpin Lake. To complete the loop there is a saddle to cross just beyond Gilpin Lake. So, I wrapped up lunch quickly and started for the saddle. At times along the way to the saddle it seemed as if the clouds would break but they kept coming in and getting thicker.
The push around Gilpin Lake to the saddle just above the lake is a bit steep and along a narrow trail that hangs off the side of a ridge just above the lake. It took a surprising long time to make it to the saddle as I stopped often to take in the views of the lake and Mt. Zirkel as the clouds changed the texture of the surrounding mountains, giving off very dramatic visual effects of Gilpin Lake with Mt. Zirkel in the background.
Once at the saddle, there were several people coming up from the counterclockwise route and had stopped for lunch. A group of young women asked me to take a group picture for them and they took my picture as well; that was nice of them.
Just after crossing over the saddle the rain started up, a sprinkle here and there then a break, then steady rain and wind. This pattern repeated itself for the rest of the trek back to the trailhead. As such the return took a bit longer than anticipated due to stopping putting on some rain gear, stopping to take off rain gear, and then putting it back on. It was only a hat and a rain jacket, but it takes some time, and there's always the decision to either just leave the gear on or suffer through it and get drenched.
Since the total elevation is not very high for this hike, just 10,750 feet at the saddle, you quickly descend back into thick stands of conifers and with the fluctuating rain it gets rather humid on the way back. The return takes you past a smaller lake called Gold Creek Lake. I did see several people here heading up for a multi-day trek.
One of the nice things about this loop is that it follows a river both on the way to Gilpin Lake and on the return, and at this time of year, the rivers have calmed down and are running slow and low. There is always a gentle sound of the river in the background. It makes for a very peaceful trek.
All in all, this loop turned out to be 11.9-miles roundtrip. It's an interesting hike. Since the maximum elevation is just below 11,000 feet it is a bit warmer than most of the treks I do, which are typically over 11,500 feet. It was a very nice day on the trail, and I met some nice people along the way.