This September 2018, me and my father wanted a nice 2 day backpacking trip while I was visiting Colorado. I wanted to get my boots on the famous CDT as well as see some amazing viewpoints.
Trip Summary: Our chosen route involved traveling 6 miles up the North Lake Trail until it meets the Wyoming Trail and Continental Divide. Next we hiked north along the Wyoming trail and camped on the ridge line. Finally, the second day we completed the Gilpin Trail section of the popular Zirkel Circle hike. Luckily we had a driver for this trip and therefore our loop did not begin and end at the same location. The total hike was about 19 miles.
To begin, you must find the trail head at the end of forest road 443. This road is a mix of gravel, dirt, and large rocks. High clearance vehicles are highly recommended. We actually left our ride a mile before the trail head due to rough driving conditions. The Subaru did great, but I would recommend you have a spare tire and drive slowly!
The trail head is marked with a CDT badge. This is where through hikers get down off the official continental divide. There is also a log book for checking in/off the trail. The North Lake trail is well marked and hard to miss.
We began by gaining elevation quickly. This section of trail is heavily covered in trees and offers some great natural environments. Be ready for switchbacks and elevation gain. After climbing for 4 miles you will reach a very interesting section of trail. There is a dead expanse of trees that is eerily beautiful and slightly foreboding. I have never before witnessed a burned area with this many standing trees left intact. The wind literally whistles between the trunks and adds something special to the North Lake trail.
The trail levels out for the next mile but is still heading upwards at a slower pace. We trudged onward until reaching this trails namesake — North Lake.
After leaving North Lake, you do not have far to travel before reaching the ridge line and continental divide. Again the junction is well marked and the Wyoming Trail leads you either North or South. For our purposes, we headed North (left) towards Zirkel Circle.
After reaching the Wyoming Trail, you will officially be out of the forest an on top of the ridge line. Be ready for high winds and expansive 360 degree views. The ground is covered with long grass and it makes the trail difficult to see. Keep your eyes open for the wooden pylons that will keep you on the trail.
We hiked along this section for 2 miles while looking for a camping destination. My dad knew of a spring he had utilized in the past and eventually we did find a trickle of water coming from some rocks. In September, the spring was not flowing much, but it did allow us enough moving water to fill our bottles and camp nearby. The views are quite amazing in this section and the swaying grass is peaceful. However, beware that conditions were VERY windy for us and that made sleeping a tad difficult on the ridge line. Most experienced backpackers would have foregone this section, as ridge camping is never recommended 🙂
Our campsite was after passing the Three Island Trail junction and before reaching the Long Pine Trail junction. I suggest you use a mapping service like HikingProject to determine your GPS location and help follow the journey.
If you trek off-trail to the east for about 1/4 mile, you will find the viewpoint overlooking Bighorn lake. Try to keep your bearings when hiking off trail. The view from this location is well worth the added effort.
In September the continental divide dropped in temperature dramatically after sunset. I was fully insulated with base layers and using a 20F rated sleeping bag. This seemed like a comfortable sleeping combination but expect a cold morning whenever backpacking at elevation.
After awakening to a cold morning, we spotted a huge Coyote staring at us from the tall grass. It quickly loped away after noticing we had spotted it watching, but it did provide some needed distraction from the frozen air. Next, some coffee and breakfast, then we broke camp quickly. Hiking is the only way to alleviate your bones and muscles on a freezing cold morning. Again, this section of trail is tricky to follow and involves keeping an eye on the wooden pylons for guidance. You will pass the junction of Long Pine Trail and begin dropping in elevation towards the Gold Creek Lake Trail.
After traveling about 1.5 miles and quickly dropping into the valley below; there are several nice camping spots near running water. The view might not be as nice, but the wind conditions were almost assuredly better. If you choose to follow our hike here, I would recommend camping in this location. This is almost immediately before encountering the Cold Creek Lake Trail (AKA Zirkel Circle).
After reaching the trail junction, you could choose to quickly exit the hike by heading west on the Cold Creek Lake Trail for 3 miles to the Slavonia Trail Head. However, we wanted to see the beautiful Gilpin Lake and therefore headed Northeast on this loop and took the roughly 8 mile route around the Zirkel Circle.
There is a river crossing on the trail that might require some tactful maneuvering. It was easy during September, but my Father said it generally has high water during summer months.
The next major obstacle is a series of switchbacks to get up and over the rocky ridge and into Gilpin lake.
Next, we capped the rocky peak and stood in amazement — the viewpoint is fantastic. One second I was huffing and puffing….next second I was staring at a bowl of stone, filled with magic.
After cresting the ridge and enjoying this moment of glory; It is time to head down into the valley, circle the lake, and head home.
Throughout the duration of this hike we had yet to encounter another soul. I knew that North Lake trail and Wyoming trail were infrequently traveled this time of year, but I never expected to have a completely deserted hike.
Reaching the Zirkel Circle meant also reaching popular Colorado hiking trails. While circling the lake, we passed an amazing sheer rock climbing wall. I had a little fun myself by scaling up to a safe level (without a harness).
We continued circling the lake and enjoying the surrounding mountains. Hikers were numerous but the conversations were good. It was fun running into fellow trekkers after a full day of seclusion.
Eventually we reached the opposite side of the lake. From here you can look backwards and view the ridge crossing that originally dropped you into the Valley.
Finally, we exited the Gilpin area and hiked the final few miles towards Slavonia trail-head and our waiting car. My Stepmom Beth was nice enough to provide transportation for this semi-loop hike. Or else we would have had to get creative to enter and exit this two day backpacking trip.
We were lucky enough to visit while the Aspen trees were turning a miraculous yellow/orange. This natural colorful landscape made the final section enjoyable and it was also nice to be hiking downhill for a change!
Overall, this backpacking loop took us two full days. It totaled about 19 miles of hiking and will go down as one of my favorite treks in the United States.
Please let me know if you have any questions.