After a long wait for the snow to melt this summer, we organized a group hike around the infamous Zirkel Circle, an 11 mile loop located just north of Steamboat Springs in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area. This hike is a bucket list item for Steamboat locals for good reason. I have spent about 6 years in Colorado, and this was by far my favorite hike I’ve done.
There was a total of seven ladies, and two dogs for this hike. The group was very diverse and included new faces to Rocky Mountain Sportswomen! It was a crisp morning with a stillness in the air. Yet, we were all filled with excitement and nerves.The majority of us had never done the Zirkel Circle. After reading many reviews on AllTrails.com, we had heard about the river crossings, possibility of lots of snow still, and the daunting overall distance.
We arrived at the trailhead just before 9am, and chatted with a lovely Forest Service volunteer who eased our nerves with detailed updates on the trail. She provided us with a map, and suggestions on how to approach river crossings. After a little restroom break and a snack stock up from Altitude Snacks and Sweetwood Smokehouse, we were ready to hit the trail!
After hearing lots of advice from friends who had done the Zirkel Circle before, we decided to do the loop counterclockwise. There were many benefits to this approach including stopping at Gold Lake for a break on the way up, knocking out the longer stretch of the hike before reaching the ultimate Gilpin Lake, getting the majority of the river crossings out of the way, and also rewarding yourself with the incredible view of Gilpin after hiking up the steepest part of the trail.
The first several miles seemed to fly by. We were feeding off of one another’s excitement while chatting and getting to know one another. The weather was perfect..The day began cloudy and cool. The distant clouds were slightly daunting, yet we were pleasantly surprised when the day continued to be mostly sunny.
Less than a mile from the trail head we came across the first river crossing. The river wasn’t too wide, but the water was moving pretty quickly. Alayna, our youngest participant (16 years old), walked across the log bridge with the pup, Oakley with no problem. A few of us opted to scoot across. When it was Chevy’s turn (Jaime’s loyal and handsome German Shepherd), he became nervous, shaking and walking unsteadily. Not being much of a water dog, Jaime tried assisting him to cross the river. Chevy lost his balance and was swept under the bridge by the rushing cold water. With nothing but instincts kicking in, Caitlin immediately jumped into the river in an attempt to rescue Chevy. Luckily the water was only about waste. Chevy made it to shore pretty easily, but we were all grateful for Caitlin’s valiant efforts to save him in case the situation had escalated. We finished crossing the river, and Jaime ended up having to beast-mode it and carried poor Chevy across the river, barefoot. We took a quick rest after this exciting event, dried off Jaime and Caitlin’s feet, and carried on. Chevy made it across the rest of the creeks pretty well after the first one. He must have decided it was easier to be brave!
After talking, and chatting along the way, we were feeling good and the weather wasn’t too hot. Suddenly we had completed several miles and came across Gold Creek Lake. It was a beautiful spot to take a break and eat some Altitude Snacks and Sweetwood Smokehouse jerky sticks. Caitlin brought along her fly rod, and decided to test the waters. Caitlin is a very enthusiastic fisherwoman and will try any method to get one in her hands. This was her first summer with a fly rod, and she has skills! Within 10 minutes or so, she caught a beautiful native brookie out of the lake. She caught two in total, and had one slip off the line. We were all ecstatic for her! After the successful break, we packed up and continued on the trail.
With the high we were all feeling from being out together, getting to know one another, and completing a trail a lot of us had been wanting to do for a while, we ended up missing a sharp uphill turn that takes us up to Gilpin Lake, the ultimate destination for the loop. Without noticing we continued traversing along the ridge and ran into some other hikers who alerted us to our mistaken route.. It was a beautiful detour, but it added a couple of extra miles to our already long hike. A few of us got frustrated, but with some encouragement from the rest of the group and another snack break, we continued on with pride.
The hike up the mountain to crest over Gilpin Lake was the most challenging part of the loop. We naturally spread out a little due to different hiking paces, and took a few rests on the way up. We came across some snow, and trudged across it,nearly missing the path again! However, the last several hundred yards, we could tell we were nearing the top! We were all in awe as we crested the ridge, looking out over Gilpin Lake. One of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. e all caught our breath, and with renewed excitement, continued the hike down towards the lake with the incredible view in front of us the whole way.
The trail at this point was mostly visible, but there were several large patches of snow heading down the slope. Caitlin, being the fun, adventurous person that she is, decided to slide down both of the slopes, making it a much quicker way down to the bottom of the bowl. It was very entertaining for the rest of the group watching her slide down!
After reaching the lake we took a short moment to view its crystal clear waters and feel the fresh water on our hands. Due to our accidental detour, we unfortunately didn’t have much time to spend at Gilpin Lake. But, we certainly took in the view for a while with another snack break.
On the way down, we separated out into smaller groups, based on our paces. The hike down the Zirkel Circle was beautiful, and the sun was shining brightly! As we made our way back to the trailhead, we were wondering how long we would have to wait for the remaining two participants who were in the back. But, suddenly we heard something behind us, and Misty and Rebecca were running down the trail to catch up! Misty and Rebecca were our oldest participants, and did an amazing job the entire day! This was the longest hike they had ever done in one day. We were all so proud of them for completing such a long hike, all with a smile!
Overall, our Zirkel Circle hike experience was certainly unforgettable. It is officially my favorite Colorado hike, and I can’t wait to do it again. Our slight mishaps were a great learning experience for us all, pushing each of us out of our comfort zones.The support that women bring to each other is unstoppable, and this is what I love about Rocky Mountain Sportswomen. Now, who’s ready for Zirkel Circle Hike 2020?!