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100 Classic Hikes Colorado covers some of the best hikes the state has to offer. Although the main focus is on the central mountainous region, the book also covers a few hikes on the Eastern Plains and in the Plateau region.

nat geo mount zirkel trail map
The Nat Geo Hahns Peak map covers the Routt National Forest and the Mt Zirkel Wilderness area.

Gilpin Lake Loop

Trail Features: Outstanding views, Lakes, Wildflowers gilpin lake loop
Trail Location: Slavonia Trailhead
Roundtrip Length: 9.9 Miles
Trailhead Elevation: 8400 Feet
Total Elevation Gain: 2400 Feet
Avg. Elev Gain / Mile: 485 Feet
Highest Elevation: 10,790 Feet
Trail Difficulty Rating: 14.70 (strenuous)
Parking Lot Latitude 40.7841
Parking Lot Longitude -106.7214

Trail Description:

The Gilpin Lake / Gold Creek Lake Loop hike begins from the Slavonia Trailhead in the Routt National Forest, located near the town of Clark, Colorado (roughly 30 minutes north of Steamboat Springs). Most of this hike travels within the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.

With the passing of the Wilderness Act in 1964, Mt. Zirkel was among the first designated wilderness areas in the country. The Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area encompasses more than 160,000 acres, and straddles the Continental Divide along the Park Range, as well as the southern edge of the Sierra Madre Range. It contains the headwaters for the Elk, Encampment, and North Platte Rivers, has more than 70 lakes, and has roughly 170 miles of hiking trails. There are 15 peaks in the wilderness that surpass 12,000 feet in elevation, with 12,180-foot Mount Zirkel being the highest. The wilderness and the peak are both named after Ferdinand Zirkel, a German geologist.

From the Slavonia Trailhead you'll begin your hike along the Gilpin Lake Trail (trail 1161). Less than a quarter-mile from the trailhead you'll reach the Gold Creek Lake Trail (trail 1150) junction, which represents the starting point of the loop portion of this hike. Although hikers can proceed in either direction from this junction, we proceeded in a counter-clockwise direction because the gain in altitude is more gentle. So, at this junction, we turned right onto the Gold Creek Lake Trail.

gold-creek-lakeThroughout the early portions of your hike you'll quickly notice some of the devastation from the freak windstorm that struck the area in 1997. Known as the Routt Divide Blowdown, winds in excess of 120 miles per hour were recorded during the height of this early winter storm. The devastating force of the storm brought down more than four million trees within a swathe of land 5 miles wide and 30 miles long. The Routt Divide Blowdown is regarded as the largest blowdown ever recorded in the Rocky Mountains.

As you proceed towards Gold Creek Lake hikers will pass a picturesque 35-foot waterfall along the way.

Roughly 2.8 miles from the trailhead hikers will reach Gold Creek Lake, an 8-acre lake surrounded by fir and lodgepole pine. The trail skirts around the western and northern shore, while offering several different vantage points along the way. You may want to note that Gold Creek Lake is a very popular destination, so it's likely you won't be alone here.



The next major destination on the loop is the huge meadow below Ute Pass. This incredibly beautiful, glacially carved valley is a great place to relax, or maybe do a little exploring. Actually, it would make for an outstanding destination in and of itself! As you look towards the east the prominent backdrop to the valley is Flattop Mountain, Ute Pass and the Continental Divide.

Just beyond the edge of the meadow you'll arrive at a fork in the trail where you'll turn left onto the Gilpin Lake Trail. From here the trail makes a relatively sharp climb to the top of Gilpin Ridge where you'll have your first views of Gilpin Lake. The view of the cobalt blue lake, 450 feet below, is stunning and dramatic – perhaps one of the best in the Rockies. You'll also have your first views of Mt. Zirkel and Big Agnes Mountain, which frame the lake on the opposite side.

gilpin lake from pass

From here the trail descends rapidly towards the lake. Throughout this section, and just below the lake area are a plethora of wildflowers.

Although the lake looks like a blue sapphire from the top of the pass, it's actually crystal clear when viewed from the shoreline.

gilpin lake

After passing Gilpin Lake the trail begins following Gilpin Creek for most its way back to the trailhead. After passing a few more wildflower-filled meadows, the path drops below tree line, and eventually passes through a beautiful aspen grove before returning back to the Slavonia Trailhead.

This is really a great hike. In fact, I would have to rank this loop as one of my all-time favorite hikes.