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Ute Pass, with Conor and the bears, Zirkel Wilderness, CO August 2, 2007

October 27, 2007

Posted October 27, 2007


So, on Thursday (I took the day off), August 2, 2007, my son Conor and I did a little hike up in the Zirkel Wilderness Area of Colorado. Basically, up Bear Creek, over Ute Pass, down Ute Creek, and back to the truck. Just a little circle hike.

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 I put in this site’s trip narrative.
I have two other links that will help locate the area if you are interested in making the hike yourself. A Google Earth map can be found here. Use the scale bar on the left side of the Google map to help zoom in or out to help locate the area based on where you live. (Look on the right side of this web site for a link to a Google map that shows ALL my trips.)
In order to help you with the actual trail itself, you can use this link to view a topo map of the Trail #1126 trailhead. It starts just prior to getting to the Katherine Lake Trailhead on the right hand side of the road.
All links open a new browser window.

Due to this, ummm, little hike, Conor now has a routine he puts me through prior to any hike we now go on:

Conor – Where are we going to hike.
Geoff – Oh, just a place I haven’t been to yet. Looks nice.
Conor – Well, is it a long hike?
Geoff – No, ummm, not really.
Conor – Ha ha. Yeah, whatever. Where did I put the tent?

I really don’t understand. I mean, I had us back in Fort Collins (just) before midnight sitting in CooperSmith? And the hike the next morning was (probably) shorter. I think.

Well, anyway. The trail started off pretty nice. Lots of aspen with just a gradual climb. No other people on the trail then, or later.


Interestingly enough, this first section of our hike was over Trail # 1126 which runs pretty much along the entire eastern boundary of the Zirkel Wilderness Area. It is a “multiple-use” trail. Which means at some times during the year you can use motorcycles and ATVs on the trail. So, this trail allows access to a large part of the wilderness that cannot be reached any other way since access roads to the area are fairly restricted (due to all the ranches). That said, this trail sees minimal use in many areas, and then only during the hunting season. I would rate the Ute Creek and Bear Creek trails as very “under utilized”.
The trail meandered past many of the beaver ponds in the area.


After a couple of miles (the exact length is heavily debated; depending on if the measuring is done at the beginning of the hike or the end of the hike), we came to one of the few signs we would see during the day. Yes, this was the Zirkel Wilderness entrance. Note how exactly “which” entrance is somehow missing?


The Bear Creek trail (or, my assumption is that it was the Bear Creek trail) followed a pretty stream up into a relatively narrow mountain valley. It was very nice and the time went fast.
We came upon the ruins of a cabin that, based on some nearby mine tailings, had probably been used by miners. Conor takes a quick peek inside.


Conor managed to spot several grouse during the hike. Here is one of them.


At times the trail led through fairly thick growth………..


But we did start to cross more open meadows as we gained altitude…….


This gain in altitude eventually provided some views of the “high country”.



Someone lost a shoe : )



I tried it on, but it was too small. It’s too bad, as the bottom had a lot of good tread left. I’ve never been around stock that used them, but they are supposed to be pretty nice. All you have to know how to do is trim the hoofs. No need to have any experience with sizing a horseshoe, how to nail and crimp, etc.

Got into some nice levelish (new word : ) meadows prior to hitting the last steep climb.



Nice trail.



Did cross an occasional little stream. I remember when we would just dip our cups into the water and drink away. Those days are gone (I guess, I’ve never really tried since a long time ago. Really not worth the possibility of getting sick.). Anyway, nice to look at. You can still stick your feet in the water or use a filter and have a drink.



Finally started getting enough elevation to see down into North Park.



And then, finally, there it was. The pass. Actually, no that’s not the pass. But, close enough. Those last few switchbacks went pretty quickly. Hmmmm. Notice the blue sky?



Right before heading up the last switchbacks, I took a photo of a small pond and the mountains in the background. Looking south.



So, Conor and I took a little lunch break at the top of the “pass”. This is looking back down Bear Creek (what we had just come up).



Zoomed a little. Remember that photo of the miner’s cabin? It’s right down there at the end of the valley at the base of that rocky looking bluff.



There is a lake over on the south side of the Bear Creek valley. The trail turnoff we passed that goes to it was pretty “vague”. So, anyone wants a lake to themselves during the summer can probably find it right there. Tough to see the lake in this small version of the photo. You can just see it in the better version in my gallery (see link above).



I zoomed in a lot. Pretty bad photo, but better than nothing.



And here is a panorama (made of 2 photos) of the valley we came up and the big mountain ridge that hides the valley we would descend. Ute creek. The trail follows along the ridge from the left out to about where the ridge starts to go back up. There the trail drops off onto the other side into the Ute creek valley.



Zoomed in some.



This is the view from on top (or, somewhere around the top) of Ute Pass looking west. I believe that is the Gold Creek valley which a trail follows for about 6 miles down to a trailhead. Note that the sky has a few clouds. I knew that there was a thunderstorm on the way and wanted to get off the ridge before it hit. So, we did not dawdle : )



And here is our first view down Ute Creek. We would need to follow this all the way down to where it intersected with Trail #1126 and then follow 1126 back to the truck. Nice view of North Park.



Zoom in a little on that. Yes. Somewhere. Down there. Was. Trail #1126. Hmmmm. How do I get into these situations?



The head of Ute Creek basin is a pretty nice open tundra/meadow area. Lots of good camping spots, with no sign of anyone being up here lately. If we had more time (and weren’t trying to beat the thunderstorm), I would have liked to head over to the ridgeline and peak over to see what was on the other side. Looking north across the upper Ute Creek basin.



Anyway, Conor and I got down to treeline before it started raining. And for a while the rain was pretty light, although we could hear the thunder on the ridge behind us that we had just vacated. It did get a little dark. Here is a shot of some of the trail we followed down. Not very heavily trodden.



Same general photo as above, but I’ve metered for the foreground (which is why it now looks so light). But, as you can see, that totally “blows” the sky and North Park (both of which can be seen in the prior photo). With a better camera, I could show everything (foreground and background) as it really looked to our eyes. O well.



We did see one rather shy elk on the way down. Tough shooting.



In all my years of hiking in Colorado, I’ve never seen a bear in the wild (but, I have seen plenty of bears in the wild in Wyoming, Idaho, and British Columbia). However, I was hiking in front of Conor, came over a slight rise, and saw……



So, as soon as I saw the bears, which seemed to be interested in something on the ground, I motioned to Conor to head uphill and around the bears. I did this for two reasons. One, and the primary, reason is it is just not a good idea to mess with a bear and it’s cubs. The mother black bear was probably not more than 300 lbs (probably a lot less than that), but that includes a really nice set of claws and teeth : ) And they are somewhat unpredictable in such situations.



The second reason was that I wanted to see if I could move around and get a better photo. But, such was not to be. They smelled/heard us and ran off under into the trees (again, a better camera could probably have caught that action).
However, at least one cub decided that the best thing to do was climb a tree. So, I did get a bunch of good “bear cub up in a tree” photos.



There was another bear (the other cub, I think) in another tree, but not nearly as easy to see. No, I did not walk up to the trees for a better photo. Anyway, Conor and I enjoyed watching the bear cub for a few minutes, then took off down the trail.

The rest of the trail down was uneventful. Went through a lot of forest, part of which was during a rainstorm. There were some pretty spots. But mostly it was just steady hiking to the intersection of 1126.



I knew I was getting close to the trail when we came upon some sort of research equipment.


I’m assuming it was to capture weather/air quality data. But, not positive. Kinda strange.



Now, by this time I was keeping an eye out for our trail intersection. And, becoming a little worried about not seeing it. The issue would not be that we could get lost, but that it would take longer to get back to the truck on a different trail/4wheel road that I knew was somewhere below us. We did in fact hit the 4 wheel road and I thought we had added 2+ miles to our hike back. But, after hiking along the road for a mile or so, we came upon Trail #1126 where it splits from the road. So, we did end up back on 1126 and I felt much better. Little did I know.



The trail initially took us through some very pretty country side. Rolling grassy meadows filled with aspens, beaver ponds, and streams.


The issue was, I thought that all we had was a 2 mile hike back to the trail intersection where we had turned off 1126 earlier today to go up Bear Creek. But, I was wrong. We really had close to 4 miles to the intersection and then the other 2 miles to the truck. So, we had a ways to go. Including over a couple of forested ridges.

O well. As I said, it was a very pretty area. So, I enjoyed it while I could. This is looking back north along the eastern edge of the Zirkels. I believe, if I remember correctly, we ran into a few mosquitoes in this area : )



Looking south at a beaver pond we hiked around. Lots of moose tracks, but we did not see any moose.



The trail led, for quite some time, through groves of very large aspens.



Ummmm, can we go now? : )



Although the sky remained mostly overcast, the rain had quit.



Looking down into the private ranch lands. It looks nice now, but the price paid during the winter months is pretty heavy. The winter here is much more intense than what we go through in Fort Collins.



Part of the winter harshness can be seen in the aspens.



But, in general, the aspen groves provided a welcome change to our hike.



After a couple of miles of this, we would enter the pines again as the trail headed back over the ridges. So, it made the time spent in the aspens doubly enjoyable.



Anyway, we did, eventually, get back to the 1126 trail intersection with the Bear Creek trail (that we had gone up so many hours ago : ). Once there we knew what was remaining to finish our hike (although I thought the trail had lengthened from the morning : ).

By the time we got back to the truck it was around 8pm. We made it back to Fort Collins just after 11pm. Long day, long hike, but a great time.

– Geoff Weatherford






5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2007 3:55 am

    Thanks for the pictures and the description of the trails. I own the ranch at the end of Sheep Mountain.
    I have hiked 1126 across Bear Creek and to the beaver ponds. I have not done the trail up Bear Creek and appreciate seeing the pictures and description of that and the route over to Ute Pass. It is very nice of you to post these descriptions and pictures.

    Charlie Tombras

  2. December 28, 2007 3:35 am

    Thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the photos. I envy you for being able to see part of this beautiful country all the time (well, ummm, maybe not the winter part : )
    Someday I’d like to hike the entire length of 1126, but not sure when (there are so many trails and so little time).

    Thanks again,

  3. May 25, 2010 6:04 pm

    This is a great hike! Thanks for the photos and description. The weather station you saw was the “Zirkel” SNOTEL station, maintained by the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA. It is mainly used to keep track of precipitation information, namely snowfall and snowdepth.

    • May 29, 2010 3:55 pm

      Hey, great info. Although, I was really hoping it was an alien outpost. Or, maybe a secret gov’t site : )
      Anyway, appreciate letting me know the reality and a link to more info.

      Geoff Weatherford


  1. Grizzly Helena Trail No.1126 (north end), CO, June 27, 2009 « Paths Trails and Beyond

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