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West Fork Trail and the Elk, Zirkel Wilderness, CO June 23, 2007

August 28, 2007

Posted August 27, 2007

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So, on a Saturday, June 23 of this summer of 2007, I decided to head over to Hog Park. Hog Park is in the Medicine Bow National Forest close to the very northern end of the Zirkel Wilderness area. Actually, Hog Park is “just” north of the Colorado/Wyoming border. But the area I would be ending up in was just inside the Colorado border. It’s an area that I had been in once before, along with Will, my youngest son, but had not yet had a chance to do any hiking.

Before I go any further in the trip’s description, here is my standard comment. Please check my photo galleries here for all the larger and higher quality photos for this trip. The photos in the gallery are a quantum leap in size and quality compared to the little teaser photos found here.
In addition, you can use this link to view a topo map of both the West Fork river and the Encampment river trailhead (they both start at the same location and then split after half a mile). A Google Earth map can be found here (you may need to adjust the scale bar on the left side of the Google map).
All links open a new browser window.

This time of year is right at the beginning of when a person can hike up into the high country (timberline) without needing skis or snowshoes. So, I decided to “stay low” one more hike. This, as it turned out, was a great idea. In addition to seeing a new trail, I decided to travel to the area over the Forest Service road that is a continuation of the access road that leads to Big Creek Lake (my last trip). Have to say, very nice road. Went through a lot of forested areas, but it also passed by, and through, some rather large “parks”.

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Eventually I ended up at the Encampment River valley (which goes through part of Hog Park). I could hardly constrain myself looking over the valley. I just love hiking through large meadows : )

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Again, I was struck with the “lack” of people. This was a Saturday, summer in full bloom, so where was everyone (not that I was complaining)? Here is a photo of the packed trailhead parking. Yes, Big Blue was all alone. And that’s exactly what it looked like at the end of the day.

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Here is a sign for some mileage to a few lakes. Conor will recognize the “Seven Lakes” reference. Part of a very nice loop, but it includes some serious hiking.

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Now, my idea was to hike up the Encampment River. Looked very nice on the map. So up into the meadows I headed.

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However, I soon ran into a small detail that would cause me to end up NOT hiking up the Encampment River. Yes, I’ll need to write my congressman, because they forgot to build a bridge across the river! Later on in the summer that would not be an issue, but at this time of the year it was about knee deep, fast flowing, and cold.

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Stuck on the wrong side of the river (similar to “up the river without a paddle”). So, I headed upstream to find a log to cross the river : )

The idea is, in these types of situations, you just mosey up the river until you find a nice log to walk across to the other side. It looked like others had been in the same situation. There was a faint trail to follow.

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And, it’s supposed to happen relatively quick. But, I think I hiked up the wrong side of the river for almost a mile before I found a log(s) to cross (or, one that I trusted). But, turned out to be a good solid set of logs that even I could walk across without falling into the river (near the bottom of the photo).

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Once across the river I did two things. One, I marked the trail so I would remember to cross over on the same logs as I came back down the trail later in the day.

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Two, I took a look at the map I had and figured out that this was NOT the Encampment River, but was instead the West Fork. O well, looked like a nice hike, so I went ahead and took off up the West Fork. Turned out to be a good idea.

Went about another mile and found that the trail crossed the river again. Lucky for me, there was a log right next to the crossing that I was able to get across the river on.

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No picture of the log, but this is the trail right after crossing. Very nice. Oh, did I mention NO insects (flies, mosquitoes, etc.)? Well, not sure why (still early in the season?), but there were no insects to speak of. And, no people. And, as can be seen, pretty nice weather. Yes, very lovely hike : )

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It didn’t take too long before I realized that the trail was leading me right into a very large meadow/park.

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With good photo opportunities.

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Well, mostly good. : )

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Had to grab a closeup of a flower, of course.

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Here I zoomed in to the end of the meadow. Good effects from the clouds passing over. Few patches of snow still showing just a little higher than my current elevation. If you look closely, you can just see rays of sunshine. Why? Because the air was full of pollen from the pine trees. I saw clouds of pollen rippling off the ridges like sand blowing off the top of sand dunes.

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Finally, I approached the forest once more. It’s always interesting since you just never know what lies behind the wall of trees.

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It could be a mysterious tunnel.

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Or, a tree filled park.

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But eventually, I reached a “turn around” point. This sign indicated that I had come 4 miles. So, the hike back would give me a total of 8 miles, which sounded just right to me (I got back to Fort Collins around 10 pm that night).

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Once I turned around and headed back, I began to see the “elk of West Fork.”

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Somewhat better positioning.

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I played tag with this particular elk (young bull) for about 15 minutes trying to get a better photo, but he finally got wise to me and took off further into the trees. Pretty fun though since I was within 30 yards or so of him.

O well. I kept on down the trail, happy I had at least seen one elk. Eventually I got back to the large meadow that I had crossed earlier.

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I had just started to work my way into the meadow when I spotted a herd of elk off to my left. Right where the forest met the meadow. And, looks like at least one of them spotted me.

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Of course, right after I took the photo, I got the “battery low” warning light : ( Bummer. So, I slowly stepped back into the trees, changed the battery, and then slowly edged back into the meadow. Yep. They had gone. Well, better one photo than none.
So, I proceeded to cross the meadow which looked nicer now than earlier due to the better afternoon lighting. Obviously, need a photo of this : )

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Just after I took that photo, I noticed some elk starting to cross the meadow about half way down the length of it. I figure it must be the same bunch I saw earlier. So, zooming out to max I was able to get a few somewhat usable photos (note – must get new camera : )

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I sat down to get a stable position (elbows resting on knees, breathe slowly, squeeze the shot; hmmmm. reminds me of hunting with a rifle, but I like doing it better with a camera now) and took a few as they were crossing.

All strung out.

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At the end they want to get back in the trees in a hurry.

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Now, the issue is, they knew about me and were not real happy about having to cross the meadow. In fact, not all of them did. What happened was that a couple of yearlings got across, but their mom stayed on the other side. So, they wanted to go back across the meadow, but couldn’t really figure out what I was (maybe I was the first human they had seen). They spent a little time running around trying to work up enough courage to cross back over the meadow.

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One of them finally decided that maybe I wasn’t that much of a threat. But, just to make sure, started coming closer to check me out.

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Well, the eyes didn’t help. Maybe catch a bit of a smell in the air? Sniff, sniff.

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Yes, time to just trust speed and go.

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I have to figure she found momma. Of course, all this time I had been sitting on my butt not moving much. Instead of glancing around before I got up, I just acted like an idiot and stood right up. The crash made by the elk standing right behind me as he scrambled for the forest took approximately 3 years off my life : )

I got across the meadow, but still kept seeing some elk. I think from the same herd. This is a max zoom also, but I was closer this time.

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Found my way back to the special crossing I had marked, got across the log safely, and kept on hiking towards the trail head. Ran into a slightly different animal and took a photo. I had to really watch where I was going as the “trail” I was following was not normally traveled and the spiders had been stringing webs everywhere.

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Hit the meadows near the trailhead. Hard to capture the beauty of the place.

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Close to the end of the trail I came across a deer out for it’s evening meal.

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It was much more relaxed about me sharing it’s space than the elk had been.

Classic photo.

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Non-classic photo.

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Finally, as I was driving across Hog Park on my way to Riverside/Encampment, WY (I took a different way out of the mountains), I came across a rather large bird-like creature. Some sort of crane.

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A rather great hike. Lovely terrain, perfect weather, interesting wild life. Just doesn’t get much better. Next time I’ll try crossing the river (where it’s supposed to be crossed) and see where that takes me. It’s all good.

– Geoff Weatherford

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    April 17, 2012 6:47 pm

    That was really cool. I haven’t been to that area in 30 years! Its as lovely as it was then. Thanks

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