If you like solitude and spectacular views, chances are you will like the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, located in the northern Park Range
and Sierra Madre
of Colorado. Only a few of the peaks get much attention (namely Mount Zirkel, Mount Ethel, Lost Ranger Peak, and Big Agnes), but even then the popular peaks are much less crowded than many of the other places in Colorado. On our ascent of Buck Mountain North, we found that the register indicates four parties in the last six years, including one by a solo climber.
Buck Mountain North is the second highest mountain in the Sierra Madre, a relatively unknown range in Wyoming and Colorado. It is second only to Buck Mountain South.
It must be mentioned that there is some confusion as to which range Buck Mountain Belongs to. Most maps, including the USGS 1:24,000 scale map label Buck Mountain as being in the Sierra Madre, while the USGS 1:250,000 scale map labels it in the Park Range. The 1:100,000 scale map isn't clear either way. Joseph Kramarsic's book, which included much of the history on the mountains, says the boundary between the Park Range and Sierra Madre is the North Fork Elk River and the Encampment River. This seems logical and would put mountains such as Black Mountain, Buck Mountains, and Farwell Mountain in the Sierra Madre.
Although the peaks in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness are lower than they are in some other parts of Colorado, the Mount Zirkel Wilderness receives more snow on average than any other part of Colorado (nearly 500 inches of snow a year according to SNOTEL data), thus lower mountains have a much more alpine appearance than they would for similar elevation mountains in other parts of Colorado. Despites its relatively low elevation, snowbanks on Buck Mountain last throughout the summer in almost all years.
Buck Mountain itself is perhaps less spectacular than the most impressive peaks in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, but if offers the best views of the Sawtooth Range, which is one of the most rugged mountain areas in all of Colorado. The views of the Sawtooth Range are probably the primary attraction of climbing Buck Mountain.
Buck Mountain actually has two peaks that are each considered individual peaks by Colorado standards. Buck Mountain North has a prominence of 392 feet and its parent Peak is Buck Mountain South. Buck Mountain South
is slightly closer to the Sawtooth Range, but Mount Zirkel is in the background of some of the more rugged peaks, such as the Castle. Buck Mountain North is slightly farther away, but Mount Zirkel stands apart from the entire Sawtooth Range, so the individual peaks stand out more. Both peaks offer equal views of the Sawtooth Range for these two different reasons.
Buck Mountain North has a real wilderness feel to it and it a tough peak to climb in a single day. At least an overnight trip is required for most of us mere mortals. The peak also has a beautiful cirque basin on the east which contains Gem Lake, another attraction of climbing the mountain.
Buck Mountain North as seen from the ridge between the two Buck Mountains. The mountain itself is rugged, but it offers really good views of the surrounding rugged mountains.
Mount Zirkel (left) and the Sawtooth Range as seen from Buck Mountain North.
There are many possible trailheads that can be used to climb Buck Mountain North.
If you are approaching Buck Mountain North from the southern routes, the Slavonia Trailhead and Diamond Park Trailhead are the two main trailheads. The Slavonia Trailhead can be reached by passenger cars, but road to the North Fork Elk River Trailhead is considered to be a 4wd road. A 4wd is preferable, but the road, at least of August 2013 is barely passable for AWD vehicles such as a Subaru Outback.
From Steamboat Springs head two miles NW on US 40 to CR 129 (Elk River Road) and turn right at the stoplight. Head 17.5 miles, past Clark, to Glen Eden, and turn right again at Seedhouse Road (a.k.a. CR 64 and FR 400) and follow the road and signs about ten miles to the trailhead. Seedhouse Road is passable for passenger cars to the trailhead.
Diamond Park Trailhead
Follow the directions above to the Slavonia Trailhead. Just past the Seedhouse Campground there is an intersection with FR 433 (a.k.a. Lost Dog Road).
Turn north on FR 433 and follow it 3.9 miles to the junction with FR 44.1. To this point, the road is good for most vehicles, but the rest of the route to the trailhead is considered to be a 4wd road. Turn left (west) here and and descend 2.1 miles to the bridge. Continue North on FR 431 and follow it 1.5 miles to the trailhead.
The Castle as seen from just above camp on the North Fork Elk River.
Routes OverviewGem Lake Routes
The easiest route to the summit of Buck Mountain North is probably from Gem Lake to the Southeast of the peak. The west wide is more gentle, but no trails approach the mountain.
Gem Lake can be reached from the Diamond Park Trailhead southeast of the mountain, which is probably the shortest route. Even so, the climb is about 20 miles round trip.
Gem Lake can also be reached from the north and via the Encampment River Trailhead. Either the West Fork Encampment River or the Encampment River Trails can be used. The approach is a bit longer than the one from Diamond Park, but gentle for most of the distance.
Approaches to Gem Lake from the east from around Big Creek Lakes are possible, but these are longer routes and have more elevation gain.
From Gem Lake, the easiest route up Buck Mountain north climbs to the saddle southwest of Buck Mountain North. There is an old sheep trail climbing to the saddle. From there it's an easy ridge walk to the summit.
See the Route Page
for details on the Diamond Park/Gem Lake Route.
On the approach to the saddle just south of Buck Mountain North.
Red = Buck Mountain North via Gem Lake.
One obvious route up or down Buck Mountain North is the ridge traverse between Buck Mountain North and Buck Mountain South. The ridge itself is pretty easy.
Buck Mountain North could be climbed from the north via West Fork Lake, but there may be downed timber to contend with.
The west slopes of Buck Mountain North are quite gentle, but the approach to get close to the mountain may be challenging since there aren't any trails approaching the mountain from the west.
No permits are required. Standard wilderness regulations apply.
Additional Regulations for the Mount Zirkel Wilderness area as follows:
Camping is prohibited within 100 feet of any trail, wilderness lake or stream. Camping is prohibited within 1/4 mile (1320 feet) of Gilpin Lake, Gold Creek Lake and Three Island Lake. Camping, leaving camping equipment or personal property or otherwise occupying national forest system lands for a period longer than 14 days within a 30-day period on a ranger district is prohibited. Camping within 200 feet of a posted sign reserving a site for a commercial outfitter is prohibited.
Storing equipment, personal property or supplies is prohibited within the wilderness for more than 14 days within a 30-day period, including time the area was used for camping.
Building, maintaining, attending or using campfires is prohibited within 100 feet of any trail, wilderness lake or stream. Building, maintaining, attending or using campfires is prohibited within 1/4 mile (1320 feet) of Gilpin Lake, Gold Creek Lake and Three Island Lake.
Dogs must be leashed or under control.
Possessing, discharging or using any kind of firework or pyrotechnic device is prohibited.
The maximum group size is a combination of 25 persons and/or pack/saddle animals, with the maximum number of persons being 15.
Shortcutting switchbacks is prohibited.
Tread lightly in the wilderness. This is Gem Lake on the approach route to Buck Mountain North.
When to Climb
Mid July to early September is the most popular time to climb here. July is fine, but this area gets more snowfall than anywhere else in Colorado, so winter snows tend to stay late and through most of July. Stream crossings can be problematic in June and July and it should be expected that the meadows will be really wet.
June and July would be the ideal time of year for snow routes, especially on the east side cirque basins.
Fall is a fine season as well, but wear blaze orange during the hunting season. Big snowfalls usually don’t come until late September or early October.
Winter ascents of Buck Mountain are certainly possible, though it’s a long trek in when the road is closed. Because of heavy snowfall, trail breaking will not be easy and be aware of avalanche danger. For the well prepared climber, a winter ascent would prove a worthy challenge, but plan to have several days at your disposal.
A snowmobile would cut down the distance to the trailhead significantly in winter and spring.
Looking down on Gem Lake, lower left, from the approach up Buck Mountain North on a nice late summer day.
There are several developed campgrounds along Seedhouse Road for those making the standard approach.
There are also several undeveloped campsites along FR 44.1 and FR 431, especially near the bridge. The Diamond Park Trailhead also has acceptable campsites.
Backcountry campsites are surprisingly scarce along the North Fork Elk River due to wetlands and downed timber. Some that look inviting are too close to the trail or river to meet Forest Service regulations.
There is one good campsite along the trail down on a bench maybe 1/2 to the point where the trail begins its climb out of the North Fork Elk River Valley. We found a marginal campsite right near where the trail leaves the river, but it wasn't the best location.
Encampment Meadows has many inviting campsites. The meadow below Gem Lake has some good ones as well. You could probably find acceptable campsites around Gem Lake as well, though you may have to look around for them.
Encampment Meadows makes a fine campsite and is a good base in which to climb Buck Mountain.
For current information, contact:
HahnsPeak/Bears Ears Ranger District
925 Weiss Drive
Steamboat Springs, CO 80487-9315
CLICK HERE FOR THE WEATHER FORECAST FOR MOUNT ZIRKEL WILDERNESS
Below is the National Weather Service Climate Summary of Steamboat Springs. The data is from 1908-2012. This is the closest long term weather station, but be aware that higher elevations will be much wetter and colder. Steamboat Springs is at 6695 feet elevation, so expect the temperatures on the higher elevations of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness to be 15-20 degrees colder than in Steamboat (except for cold winter nights).
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