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Rainbow Lakes, Zirkel Wilderness, Aug 15, 2009

October 3, 2010


Walden Lake

There is a, ummm, “location”, in the Zirkels that confounds me.  I periodically make a pilgrimage to it.  And each time, I get turned away from getting past a certain point.  This was one of those trips.

Decided to head up to Rainbow Lakes up in the Zirkel Wilderness area one weekend back last summer (August, 2009).  It’s a really nice place.  In fact, as the Zirkels go, outside of the southern end which is just a playground for Steamboat Springs, it’s one of the most popular areas I’ve seen.  Up to a point.  That point would be Rainbow Lakes.  Past that point, say, up the remainder of the trail which goes all the way to the continental divide (and beyond, possibly ending, but I have yet to validate, somewhere in Tibet), you see no one.  Or, at least I never have.  Which is interesting, because the trail to Rainbow Lakes is very nice, and the lakes themselves are very nice, but the nicest area is when you go past the lakes.  That said, something doesn’t want me to go past a certain point.

But, I digress.

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 Rainbow Lakes trail. Please note that all links open a new browser window.

The day started off very nice.  I probably did not get up quite as early as I should have.  But, I got up to the mountains in pretty good time.  As can be seen, there were some early morning clouds, but they eventually cleared off.


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 picture

Slightly different perspective.


You need to keep your wits about you when driving up to the trailheads in the Zirkels.  Many, if not most, of the access roads will take you through ranch lands with all sorts of branching dirt and gravel roads.  But if you watch your map closely, and keep track of the intersections, you should have no problems.  Just stay off the roads that say 4wd (unless you have a 4wd vehicle).  And, even on the “good” roads, watch your speed.  The roads can be narrow and winding.


Looked like they had been doing some work on the parking area and surroundings.  Maybe clearing off all the dead beetle killed trees in case of a future forest fire.


There is a rather large “park” (Livingston Park) that can be seen just below the trailhead (and, viewed along the trail for some time).  I walked down into on one overnight trip.  It was quite interesting.  Looked like good fishing and hunting.  The trails are all overgrown.  Nice for some day hiking.


The initial part of the trail goes up through some mixed forest.  They have gone through and cut out the pine kill.  Leaving mostly aspen.  They really have done a good job and taken some care.


Through the trees I catch a glimpse of the mountains I’m heading towards.  Really towards those high snow capped peaks to the left in the background.


The trail gains steady elevation staying mostly on a ridge for quite some time.  Since this is among some aspens, with views off to the south, it’s really a pleasant section.

Here is a little bit of what, in hindsight, should be an obvious photographic rule.  Watch your light.  Photography is all about catching light waves being reflected from interesting (supposedly interesting) content.  In fact, with the right light, even a “common” scene can look pretty good.
Here is an example.  This scene is taken with the sun behind a cloud.


Mere seconds later, this is the same exact scene.  But this time with “good light”.  Quite the difference.  That’s why sometimes I’ll hang around a particular spot for a long time just waiting for the right light (however, since my trails are somewhat long anyway, I have to keep those occasions to a minimum : )


Of course, the above scene would look even more different in the long slanging rays of a late afternoon sun instead of a “straight overhead” sun.  Not only would the shadows be different, but the light itself would change color.

Where was I?

Oh yes, the trail.  Eventually you get to the “yes, you are now in the wilderness” sign.  I always like to see this.  For some reason it makes everything feel different.  Not quite the same as going “into the bush” up in Alaska or Canada, but, hey, you have to take what you can get : )


Just in case you were wondering, no, you MUST leave your hang glider at home.  Obviously, since they are not mentioned, skate boards are allowed (well, I’m not sure about that, so check with the local forest authorities if you wish to take your skate board : )


You eventually leave the ridge and the trail goes for a mile (or more) along the side of a valley through relatively deep woods with large pine trees.  You are going uphill, but it’s not extreme.  Neat section.


The trail eventually “tops off” and you come to a small stream crossing.


Little waterfall.  I like little waterfalls : )


I also like old stumps.  So, old stumps PLUS flowers are just great.


And then, if you are paying attention, you note that there is a lake behind the nearby trees.


And you soon get to a view of the lower Rainbow Lake.


Upper Rainbow Lake.  The trail continues on to those snow covered mountains in the background.


It was a little breezy on the lake.  No problem with insects : )  Here you can see the whitecaps.  GREAT place for a lunch break.


The trail continues along the “left” side (so, the south side) of the lake.  It goes through some nice lush forest.


Here is a nice ‘room poking it’s red head up through the ground.


There are some nice views across the lake as you make your way to the other end.  Hmmmm.  Clouds?


Approaching a crossing of the main stream that you follow up the valley if you continue up the trail after the lake.


The bridge across.


You can’t hear it now, but it’s quite a roar of water coming down.  From this point on for some time, the trail follows the stream as it crashes it’s way down the mountainside.


Closeup of the bridge.  Earlier in the summer, the water will be flowing over the log as well as under it.


Here is a section of the trail along the roaring creek.  Believe me.  It is ROARING.


After a steep climb, you enter an area of meadows mixed with shorter stretches of steep sections of trail.  Here is where I could also see some clouds beginning to spill over into the upper valley.


But, I enjoyed the sunshine while I had it.




There were really some very pretty stretches of trail here.  Quite a few flowers still around.  Probably due to the abundance of water in the upper valley.  Or, perhaps due to the periods of rain : )


I was now getting a few drops of rain.  But, as long as it wasn’t thunder and lightening, I kept going.


Few small ponds in the area.


Along with a extremely clear, and slowly meandering, stream to walk along.


Nice little side stream.  It wanted me to walk up along side it instead of the main trail.  I resisted, but it was tempting.


Okay, the thunder and lightening showed up along with more rain.  So, time to turn back.  However, it seems like that little meadow up ahead was calling me.  Must check it out.


Ah, here is what was calling me.


I think I saw a few elves slip away in the surrounding trees.


Even though I had turned around and was hiking back in the rain, with thunder all around me ………
So, it’s interesting that I get myself in these situations.  Crashing thunder around me, clouds dipping into the rocky walls on either side, rain steadily falling, and really not what you would normally consider a pleasant time.  Yet, amazingly enough,  that is when some of my best hiking occurs.  The world around you changes in sight, sound, and smell.  It even feels different due to the rain and wind.  Of course, it really helps if you can stay mostly dry and warm during all this : )
…..the views were still, ummm, enchanting.

I looked off to one side and saw an old friend.  On another hike on this trail the waterfall had been quite larger and more impressive.   That said, through the rain it had a kind of surreal look.  As if you where looking at something in a lost world.  There is a better photo on my smugmug web site.  But, I’m showing this one due to the size limitations of this web site.


Wet rainy meadow in the distance.


The river is picking up volume and speed as it approaches the steep pitch back down to the lake.  There is quite a bit of country back away from the trail that the river flows through.  Be nice to hike over to it and see what’s over there.  Another time.


And then, back to sunshine at Rainbow lake.  It felt very strange.  But, it looked very nice : )


At the other end of the lake I looked back at where I’d been.  Uh, yes, well, probably a good idea I came back down.  Still looks a tad stormy.


On the way back down, took a photo of the southern section of North Park. Rabbit Ears is just out of sight to the right in the photo above.  Had to put on my fleece and parka on the way down.  Got chilly enough to see my breath.


Low clouds hanging around the peaks when I got back to my car.


As can be seen, it was getting towards dark thirty when I actually got headed back to Walden.  So, got to watch the sunset on the way.  Stopped to take a few photos naturally.


Here is one with Delaney Buttes.


Looking towards the Zirkels over Walden lake.  Walden Lake is just on the west side of town.




Muskrat (probably).


Anyway, got back to Fort Collins fairly late.  But, it was worth the drive.  Great day in the mountains : )

– Geoff Weatherford

2 Comments leave one →
  1. jerry hoelker permalink
    January 3, 2016 4:06 pm

    what a beautiful site in 1967 I and my father drove from iowa to walden in 1965 impala convertible up to the trail head and carried 80 pound packs to rainbow lake thankyou for the memorys jrry hoelker

  2. January 5, 2016 7:31 pm

    Glad you enjoyed it, Jerry. I hope to get back there in the upcoming summer.
    – GeoffW

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