Just south of the Wyoming border in the Routt National Forest, the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness occupies 140,000 acres of unspoiled alpine terrain. This is high country10,000 - 11,000 feet and a treeline somewhere down below.
As with much of northern Colorado's high country, you've got a small window to enjoy it: July through September at best. Even in August, you're likely to see the occasional backcountry skier packing in boards for a summer run down a lingering snowfield.
The Mt. Zirkel Wilderness is big-view country: open tundra dotted with shimmering turquoise tarns, mountains towering overhead. The open terrain and easy accessibility to water gives you a wide selection of campsites, but do remember to use low-impact techniques. Although by Yosemite standards this wilderness is not overcrowded, its delicate alpine environment makes it especially vulnerable.
The trails are passable by July, and you can make a 60-mile loop by linking together the main north-south routes. One of them runs smack through the middle of the wilderness, the other hugs the east side of the wilderness boundary. The link between them takes you right past 12,180-foot Mt. Zirkel. If you want to add on a couple of days to your trip, you can spice it up by bagging a few of the wilderness's peaks or exploring one of the many side trails.
Location: Routt National Forest, northwest Colorado. The trailhead is a short but difficult drive from Steamboat Springs. The unpaved road to Buffalo Pass is bumpy and infrequently traveled. From Buffalo Pass, you'll head north about two miles to the intersection of Trails 1101 and 1132, where the loop actually begins. When you come back out, you'll need to retrace those couple of miles.
Distance: 60 miles.
Maps: Trails Illustrated's"Hahn's Peak" (#116) and "Clark/Buffalo Pass" (#117) cover the area. Maps are also available from the Routt National Forest.
The Route: The basic route follows Trail 1101 north, cuts east on 1150 and 1127, and then heads south on 1126. For the last few miles, you'll need to navigate a series of backcountry roads and trails to find your way from 1126 back to the junction where the loop began.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication