Just a short drive north of Steamboat Springs, you’ll find the Mount Zirkell Wilderness. This area is home to the headwaters of several major rivers, as well as some 70 lakes, high mountain peaks and a portion of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

Small waterfall along Gilpin Creek

The trek to Gilpin Lake is one of my favorite day hikes in this area. Depending on the route you take, the total distance of the hike can vary from around 8.5 miles to 11+ miles. I took advantage of the mid-week holiday to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown and retreat into the wilderness.

Wildflowers along the Gilpin Lake trail

I take the short 35 minute drive north from downtown, past the small town of Clark, before turning onto Seedhouse Road. The road eventually turns to gravel, and after about 11 miles, I arrive at the Slavonia Trailhead. This is a popular hike, especially on the holiday, so the parking lot is already half full when I arrive.

I lace up my hiking boots, grab my pack, and take off up the trail.

As I start hiking up the trail, it quickly forks, and I keep left to continue towards Gilpin Lake. After about 1.5 miles, I officially enter into the Mount Zirkell Wilderness. The trail tightly hugs Gilpin Creek for the majority of the hike, offering ample shade and cool breezes. Despite the hot, dry weather we have been experiencing, I am treated to lush vegetation and several small waterfalls. The wildflowers are on point this time of year, and as I climb through the valley towards the lake, I am surrounded by a sea of color in all directions.

Sunflowers along the Gilpin Lake trail

While the majority of the mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs are expansive, they are more moderate and mellow in appearance. The mountain peaks in the Zirkell Wilderness are in stark contrast. The peaks climb steeply from the valley floor. They are jagged and rugged like the teeth of a wild animal.

Jagged peaks in the Mount Zirkell Wilderness

I continue to make my way along the trail through thick forests of conifer trees and wildflower meadows. After a small creek crossing, the trail becomes steep, and I climb the last mile towards the lake. As I come over a small rise in the trail, I find myself along the shore of a glistening mountain lake.

The water of Gilpin Lake is a beautiful shade of turquoise, and I feel as though I am standing on the shore of a Caribbean island. I continue along a small game trail until I reach the far side of the lake. I find a large rock overlooking the water and settle in for a picnic lunch.

After lunch, I wander down to the water’s edge and dip my feet in the water. There are still several small snow piles surrounding the lake, so the water is frigid, but also very refreshing on a hot day. I continue to explore around the lake, soaking in the views of the rugged Sawtooth Range and the warm summer sun.

If you are up for a longer hike, you can follow the trail up and over the saddle behind the lake and continue hiking towards the Gold Creek Lake Trail (also know as the Zirkell Circle) but I opt to go back the way I came.

Aspen grove along the Gilpin Lake trail
Colorado’s State Flower – Columbine

I casually cruise back down the trail, stopping frequently to talk to other hikers and take pictures of the beautiful wildflowers. Even at over 8,000 feet, it is hot when I arrive back at my car, and I find myself craving a cold treat.

I drive back down the road towards Steamboat, but make a quick pit stop at the historic Clark Store to reward myself with some ice cream. I sit on the back deck in the shade of a large willow tree, slowly working on my cookie dough cone, daydreaming about my next adventure.

Emily Hines is the marketing and special events coordinator for the City of Steamboat Springs. Emily was born and raised in the Yampa Valley and attended the University of Oregon, where she received a Bachelor of Science in business administration with concentrations in marketing and sports business. In 2013, after seven years working on the East Coast for a lifestyle and sports marketing agency, she found her way back home to Steamboat. She loves the outdoors and enjoys sharing her adventures and all that Steamboat has to offer.

Read more from Emily here.

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