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Ellis and West Fork Loop with Will, Zirkel Wilderness, CO, August 2, 2009

July 10, 2010


Last summer (yeah, still working my way through those trips : ) Will and I did the infamous two day, 40 mile Bear Lake to Grand Lake and back hike.  Well, the hike on this page (Ellis and West Fork Loop) was done in preparation for that Grand Lake loop.  The Ellis and West Fork Loop came real close to a 20 mile hike.  But, missing a little altitude.  O well.

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 (and there are more of them). In addition, 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. (If you want to see all my trips, this link will direct you 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 (care of the great National Geographic TOPO program( ) that one of my sons purchased for me : ) of the Ellis trail. Please note that all links open a new browser window.

One quick note.  This loop starts off following a 4 wheel/ATV forest service road/trail (No. 499; also shown on some maps as the “Ellis Trail”).  We spent about half the trip (the long hot part : ) following 499 up to an intersection with the Continental Trail (also a 4 wheel drive road at that point).  Then, we continued following 499 for another 3 (roughly) miles where it skirts the boundary of the Zirkel Wilderness area.  At that point we entered the Wilderness area and the rest of the hike was on a foot trail in that wilderness area.  Also, the photos and area was much nicer once we dropped into the wilderness (although the hike along the road was pretty nice).


In addition to the Google map link above, below is a Microsoft Live map. The red tack shows the general location of the trail from Fort Collins, CO. You can click on the map to bring it up in a “live” mode and zoom in or out (and move the map around) to get more detail.

Map image

This hike is on the northern edge of the Zirkel Wilderness area.  So, NW of Walden, CO.  Takes about 3 hours of driving to get to the trailhead.  But, we got there and the day started off nice and sunny.  Unfortunately, it stayed that way (yeah, I’d be complaining if it got cold and wet : ).


Now, I’d been on a small part of this “trail” before (see here).  Basically, it’s a 4 wheel/3 wheel/two wheel/ road that skirts the wilderness area.  But, at one point it cuts right next to a section that you can drop down into the wilderness and hike back down a great set of meadow ending up back at the trailhead.

Course, being able to drive along the road means you get all kinds of people that don’t like signs.


The last time I came this way the water was too high to get across.  No problem now.


Lots of flowers along the stream.


Close up.


I hadn’t ever been past the stream before, so once we crossed it, the “trail” was all new country to me.  There were some pretty meadows along the way.


Sans people.


So far, we’d only seen one person.  And that was a forest ranger driving down the road as part of a swing through the “back country.”  But, when we started going uphill, we did run into a group of dirt bikers that were moving at a pretty high rate of speed.  This section of uphill turned out to be quite long (and, it was getting a little warm).


We eventually topped out on the “continental divide trail”.  Which at this point was more of a road than a trail.  But, still nice.  We took a short break (so I could try and figure out which dirt road to hike up to get to our turn off).


Yeah, this was a bit of an intersection.  But, I had a couple of maps, and there were a few signs, so we were able to pick the correct direction.  You basically want to stay on “499” which was to the left of everything else.


As it turned out, we spent a long time on this section of the trail/road.  We weren’t quite sure where it was headed, but it basically headed in this direction to some ridges that can only barely be seen off in the distance.


We did get some good views of the surrounding country. I think that’s Hahn’s Peak off in the distance.


Zoom in some.  Pretty sure it has a fire lookout on top.


Looking out west of us.


Course, the trail/road ended up having to do a lot of rough and rocky climbing.  And, it was now officially HOT.  So, you can imagine our joy at finally coming to the point of dropping into the wilderness area and, hopefully, into a little cooler environment.  That little bald spot in the distance was the drop off.  Everything behind that is in the Zirkel Wilderness Area.


Will is waiting for me and prep’ing for the final push to the top : )  There is a trail that splits off to the right at this point, so, again, bear left and don’t get side tracked or you’re likely to end up in Steamboat Springs.


Will gets some fluid : )  It was a very hot and dusty section of the trail that we just covered.  So, lots of fluids were in order.


So, need to keep left here as another trail heads down to another destination.  The trail to take (the trail we were on) was the Manzanzanares Trail No. 1204.  This will cut over across the ridge and down into the Zirkel Wilderness area.


Up ahead, Will comes to our actual departure from the Continental Divide Trail/Road.  We will head left (again : ).  There are a couple of signs ahead of him.  The trail we want splits off to the left just ahead of Will (you can barely see the sign to his left).


Here is what the sign looks like.  As you can see, since the trail heads down (almost immediately) into the Zirkel Wilderness, no motorized vehicles (or, non-motorized bicycles even) are allowed.


Will looking out over the West Fork valley and beyond.  Great view once you get to the top.


Actually found some nice Indian Paintbrush on top.


Similar to the other photo, except this one I don’t have my hat on.  Obviously, I like the other one more : )


Looking down into the West Fork and up towards West Fork Lake, 7 Lakes, etc.  That little pond in the photo is NOT one of those.


This is looking straight down at the area we will be dropping into.  It’s sort of a “bench” (bunch of meadows and small ponds) that then drops down into the actual West Fork valley just beyond.  Once we get down to the bench, our trail will split.  We will head to the left.  If you are on this trail and going to West Fork Lake, 7 Lakes, etc., then you would take the split to the right.


Here (looking to the left of the photo above) is looking down the West Fork.  Which is where we were headed.


Zoom in a little on that section of the valley above that shows a peek of a meadow.


Zoom just a bit more.  Yeah, a ways off.  But, that’s where we are headed.  Remember that meadow.  You’ll be seeing more of it.


Will at the sign letting us know that we are entering the wilderness.  At this point, I consider the rest of the trail to be one of the best sections of trails I’ve ever been on.  Or, at least, pretty darn nice.


“….Dad, hurry up.  It’s all downhill to the car.  We can be there in 30 minutes.  Really…..”
Ok.  That’s not what he said, but he and I both were happy to be at this point. That said, it was roughly 3-4 miles down to the main valley of the West Fork.  Which ended up being a fairly steady drop in altitude.  But, once at the West Fork, it was almost level walking for the next 4-5 miles (but, slightly downhill and very pretty, so quite nice if long).


And that first step over the ridge section was “quite” steep.  It was covered in loose rock and gravel.  Will is going down slightly sideways for a reason : )


Slightly better view.  Also, after the initial few yards, we found out again how to walk downhill.  We’d been so used to walking uphill all day, that it was a little bit of a shock to head down.  Took the body a little bit to get over the “What the heck is this?  Oh, yeah, you can’t lean forward going downhill.  Got it.” learning period.  Yeah, all that country out in the distance is in the Zirkel Wilderness Area.  And a lot more that you can’t see.


And then slowly, as we lost altitude, we entered a totally different world than what we had been hiking in prior to this.  It was cooler, wetter, darker, prettier.  Nice.






We hit a junction of trails.  Both lead down to the West Fork, but the one to the “right” went upstream and the one “left” went downstream.  They hit the West Fork with over a mile separating them.  Not too many people traveled the route we took down to West Fork.


I think this is Manzanares Lake.  Barely stopped long enough to take a picture.  If I remember, the mosquitoes may have been busy in the area.


Quite a bit of the trail led down through sections like this.  Kinda neat.


On the West Fork at last.  All of the sudden, it’s not uphill, it’s not downhill, it’s pretty much just strolling along on the level.  Kinda neat.  Of course, we’d been hiking for going on 15 miles, so I was getting just a mite tired : )  But, it was sooooo nice.


And then, we were at the West Fork Meadows.  Let me tell you, this is one big meadow.  Close to a mile in length.  At this time of the year it was still fairly “wet” in sections.  Earlier than this and there would be a couple of inches (or more) of standing water everywhere.  Another month from how and it would all be dry (relatively speaking).


I let Will find the trail.  It’s pretty good part/most of the time.  But, it does have a tendency to kinda disappear on you in the middle.


Like here for instance.  Not much of a trail.  Course, all you got to do is just keep walking towards the end of the meadows.  But still, kinda fun.  Looking back the way we had come.


This section in particular was quite wet.  Will is off trying to get across the “least wet” areas.  We both got our feet wet anyway.


We actually had to cross the West Fork twice.  Once here and then one more time close to the end of the trail.  Both times we were able to find logs to walk across.


So, no more photos after this.  The last two miles it got kinda deep shadows and we just put our heads down and kept the pace up in order to get back to the car before dark.  Which we did.
All in all, a very nice, if slightly longish, hike.  The question was, could we do two of these hikes back to back.  Twenty miles one day and another twenty miles the next.  Because that is what the Bear Lake to Grand Lake loop would require.  The answer was yes, but only just : )

Also, the day’s adventure was not over.  On the drive back I proceeded to get a flat and had to put on the “50 mph max” small emergency tire.  So, the drive back ended up taking quite a bit longer than what we were expecting. Got back into town too late to even go to Coops.  Had to stop by Taco Bell in Fort Collins and get some starvation food for Will.

Oh yeah, there was the part about trying to find an open restaurant in Laramie, but the less said about that, the better.  Laramie is a strange place.  Not a bad place at all.  Fact, I like it.  But, it is just …….. different.

Anyway, a nice, if long, hike.  Some just awesomely great country back in there.  Need to go back. Hmmmm.  There is another loop close to that one. Hafta think about this.

– Geoff Weatherford

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2010 9:39 pm

    Just beautiful views there – it’s good to see now all the different paths that you share with us. Then we’ll probably try to find some circle that can be walked in one day, probably max 8-9 miles and with best scenery. 🙂

    Some of our hikes/trips are here: You’re welcome to visit.

    • July 20, 2010 2:18 am


      Thanks for stopping by. I did check out your Flicker photo area. Very nice. Refreshingly different from mine : )


      Geoff Weatherford

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