Week 26: A Landmark Up Close, Hidden Waterfall, and My Longest Hike Ever
Rabbit Ears Peak: A recognizable landmark on U.S. 40 about 20 miles east of Steamboat Springs, CO. It gets its name from the two rock columns that jut vertically out of the mountaintop.
From Highway 40, it’s a notable sight that always tells me we’re getting close to Steamboat, but it’s also a small enough landmark (and high enough) that you can easily miss it if you’re not looking in the right area and upward.
It wasn’t until my most recent trip to Steamboat that I got to meet the Ears personally. It was that hike that my brother, Chase, and I did to start my second weekend in town.
Hike 3: Rabbit Ears Peak
Rabbit Ears Pass is a stretch of road on U.S. 40 that frequently closes entirely to traffic during winter storms. And U.S. 40 is the main road in and out of Steamboat, so you can imagine how that can hamper your plans. The hiking trail up the mountain is best used only between June and August; that narrow window of opportunity gives you a sense of how wicked the winter weather can be in this area.
Lucky for me, we were there in August, and the wildflowers were in their full, blooming glory. All along the trail, as we hiked about 2.8 miles up to the peak at 10,654 feet, flowers of every color guided the way.
The Ears are volcanic rock, the remains of pyroclastic rock and ash. The rock is unstable and crumbly, so this landmark will not be around too much longer; a portion fell just recently. I loved seeing it up close where I could better understand the towering scale of a sight that looks quite insignificant from the road below.
Looking out beyond the rocks themselves, the view at the top is stunning, but it’s not a seat for the acrophobic. I may have felt completely stable on the Devil’s Causeway, but the ledges and drop-offs on this peak made me stick closer to the center line. The drop was a doozy.
Hike 4: Secret Fishing Hole
As the title suggests, the location of this excursion will remain a secret.
Our Rabbit Ears hike didn’t exhaust us, so after a satisfying lunch and few hours of rest back home, Chase took me on an unmarked venture to one of his favorite fly-fishing spots that included a nice little waterfall.
This wasn’t a hike so much as it was a walk in the woods, off a trail, to a mountain stream that tumbled over boulders and created small pools where brook trout like to gather.
Chase showed me to the waterfall, where he knew I would want to take photos (and I did), then he boulder-hopped downstream to see if the trout were hungry.
The spot felt wonderfully undiscovered, like we were the only people who may know this place exists. Instead of our usual mapped hiking trails, this was instead just a secluded and beautiful watering hole in the national forest.
I stayed at that waterfall for several minutes, soaking up the sound and scene, then followed in the direction Chase had disappeared. I love getting to climb from rock to rock in a river. It makes me feel like a kid. And hopping from one to the next, making my way downstream with the goal of staying in the middle of the water without ending up in the water is like solving a big, interactive puzzle: what’s going to be the best, most stable, driest route to get me there without backtracking? It’s immensely satisfying.
When I finally caught up to him, Chase had caught and released about a half dozen small trout (and I believe he wasn’t exaggerating). I stayed back at a distance that would keep me out of the way of his casting and also far enough away to hopefully not scare away any of his potential targets.
We stayed until the sunlight was really fading, then we climbed back up and out of the canyon and headed back to civilization.
Hike 5: The Zirkel Circle
Hikes like this one are the reason warmups are a good idea. And, oh, what a finale it made.
On my final Sunday, we drove into the Zirkel Wilderness of Routt National Forest to the Slavonia trailhead not far from the tiny town of Clark, CO. Clark is only about 18 miles north of Steamboat, but its weather patterns are different enough from the more temperate valley of Steamboat that locals call it the “Clarktic Circle”. The only way you know you’re in Clark is a simple wooden sign along the road and an old-fashioned, offers-everything general store.
The Zirkel Wilderness has many hiking trails, but we were there to do the Zirkel Circle: an 11.2-mile loop connecting two beautiful, off-the-beaten-path alpine lakes.
I recognized the remoteness of this trail by the presence of a log book at the trailhead. If you don’t notify anyone else of your plans then go missing, your entry in this well-worn notebook is the only clue that will help rescuers find you.
With Chase’s experience to guide us, we chose the counterclockwise direction of the Circle, which offers a more gradual ascent (ha) and took us first to Gold Creek Lake. We’d actually considered doing this full Circle hike one time before but were chased off the mountain by an approaching thunderstorm. This time, we got an earlier start and got luckier in our gamble with Mother Nature.
Gold Creek Lake is about three miles or so into the hike. By that time we’d been hiking up, up, up alongside a roaring river and surrounded by nothing but trees and wildlife. I knew we were getting close when the canopy ahead appeared to break. Then over one final ridge, we were standing on the shore of a cool, calm, clear lake over which a bald eagle was soaring.
I could have spent all afternoon hanging out in the quietude of this lake, but because we were on a mission to complete the 11+ miles without encountering a thunderstorm, we stopped just long enough for appreciation and a big drink of water.
Between Gold Creek Lake and Gilpin Lake, the trail became significantly steeper and more difficult. Multiple times, I stopped, glanced up, thought optimistically that the mountain we were on must be the very top, then crested it and saw the trail climb even higher.
We climbed above the tree line, then toward and past 10,800 feet, and finally, about three miles after Gold Creek Lake, we made it.
I’d thought Gold Creek Lake was beautiful, but Gilpin Lake was incredible. Pristine, visibly untouched, and decorated by last winter’s snow even in mid-August. The turquoise blue of this lake among the craggy gray mountaintops was surreal.
I think I audibly said, “Wow,” and “This is amazing,” and other exclamations of awe a dozen times as we descended toward the shore. I could hardly take my eyes off it to watch where I was walking (an important task).
We found a couple boulders along the rocky shoreline where we could break for lunch. Neither of us spoke much as we visually drank it all in. A few other pairs and small groups of hikers were there with us, quietly scattered around the lake, several with dogs that were unfazed by the ice-cold water and still wanted to fetch sticks and balls tossed in.
I hated leaving it after my peanut butter sandwich was gone (and devoured quickly). It took so much effort to get there, I wanted to stay longer, but we still had five more miles to hike out and complete the Circle.
Our timing was good again, because we had to pick up our pace for the last couple miles when the sounds of thunder and shadows of dark clouds threatened. We stayed dry and safe, though I wondered about the other hikers we’d passed who were just starting their own treks.
When we got back to the truck, Chase and I were both pleasantly tired, ready to release our feet from their sturdy hiking boots, and thirsty for a cold drink.
For dinner that night, we split a large pizza and finished off every single stray topping that tried to stay in the box.
I’d say we earned it!