Hiking in Steamboat Springs: Zirkel Circle

Credit: Deb Stanley

By Deb Stanley, Examiner.com

If you like loop hikes, put the Zirkel Circle on your “to do” list. The 11.2 mile trek near Steamboat Springs features two alpine lakes, scenic meadows, a waterfall and numerous cascades.

The hike starts at the Slavonia Trailhead, about 29 miles from town (directions below). The dirt parking lot has a bathroom and signboards. There’s one trail from the parking lot, but there are more trails along the path.

Just 0.2 miles from the parking lot, hikers come to their first trail split. A sign has an arrow pointing right for Gold Creek Lake (Trail No. 1150) and left for Gilpin Lake (Trail No. 1161). You can hike the loop in either direction.  The Gold Creek side is longer so the elevation gain is more gradual. The Gilpin Lake side is harder, but once you hit the lake, you can see the last ridge you have to climb before it’s all downhill.

The Gilpin Lake side is great in the summer months for wildflowers. In the fall, the aspens put on quite a show. When the trees open up, you’ll enjoy beautiful meadows with views of the peaks in the distance. Gilpin Lake sits at the top of this valley on the right side. As you hike, you may get your feet wet. The trail crosses over several streams. Sometimes there are rocks and logs to help you cross, sometimes there are not. As you can hike, you’ll likely hear a loud river nearby, don’t worry, there are close-up views of the cascades occasionally as you hike toward Gilpin Lake. The trail has lots of ups and downs as it gains about 1,000 feet over that first three miles. As you hike the last mile to the lake, there are three sets of steep switchbacks.

When you come over the ridge to the lake, it will be all be worth it. An open field leads right to the shoreline of Gilpin Lake. The lake sits in a bowl below tree line. The lake’s rocky shoreline is surrounded by trees and peaks. Find a spot in the open field for lunch or find a secluded spot on a rock in the trees.

At the lake, you’ll see the ridge you’re climbing next. That’s 450 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile. It’s steep, but the switchbacks help. And you’ll likely be taking lots of breaks on the way up for photos of Gilpin Lake.

At the top, it’s down a different valley to Gold Creek Lake about 2.7 miles away. Like the first valley, this valley features scenic meadows, cascading creeks and water crossings. There are two water crossings on this side that are a little tough. Take your time to scope out the best way across.

Gold Creek Lake is smaller than Gilpin Lake and while Gilpin was dark blue, Gold Creek Lake is green. It’s an odd shape lake so it’s hard to get a good picture of it, but as you hike around the shoreline, you should find some good spots. Take a break, enjoy the views, then it’s about 3.2 miles back to the trailhead. Don’t worry, it’s not a boring trip out. There is thick forest to hike through and an impressive waterfall in this last stretch.

Details: 11.2 miles RT with an elevation gain of about 2,300 feet.

Directions: From U.S. 40 in Steamboat Springs, drive west through town to Elk River Road (County Road 129) and turn right. Follow CR 129 about 18 miles to Seedhouse Road (also known as NFSR 400/CR 64) and turn right. This is a dirt road that can be rough, but manageable for passenger cars. (Check with the Forest Service for the latest conditions.) Drive 11 miles to the end of the road at the Slavonia trailhead.

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