Mount Ethel is located in the southern section of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. Like Lost Ranger Peak
, it is one of the more isolated peaks in the state of Colorado. Mount Ethel is a mountain of contrast. The west side is so gentle that you hardly notice that you are climbing a significant mountain when climbing from that direction. The east side of the mountain is very rugged and holds several snow and technical rock routes. When approaching the mountain from the east, it appears to be very difficult to climb. Mount Ethel is also the 6th highest peak in the Park Range
, though it only misses being #5 by one foot and being #4 by 8 feet! Because of the rugged east face and nice views, this is one of the best summits in the area.
Since the peak has a lot of area above timberline, it is ravaged by storms. According to the Forest Service, the Buffalo Pass and Mad Creek drainage areas are the snowiest places in Colorado, beating out their rival, Wolf Creek Pass in the San Juan Mountains, by a healthy margin. Because of the heavy snowfall, many rather large snowfields on the peak last year round, despite the peak’s somewhat low elevation by Colorado standards. The area stays green for much longer in the season than many other mountain areas in Colorado. Since the peak is surrounded by alpine tundra, it can be tricky to descend to a safe altitude when storms do blow up.
Since the peak is right near the Wyoming Trail/Continental Divide Trail, it sees a fair amount of ascents, but most people walk right by it without taking the extra effort it takes to summit.
Park Range: 11,000+ Foot Peaks with 300+ feet of Prominence
Mount Ethel as seen from the south. August 10 2014.
Mount Ethel from the north on August 9 2014.
The two main trailheads for climbing Mount Ethel are the Buffalo Pass and Rainbow Lakes Trailheads.
Buffalo Pass can be reached from the Walden area on the east and the Steamboat Srings area on the west. I am familiar only with the western approach. Be aware that the road over the pass isn’t usually open until mid-July and sometimes later. Even in dry years the pass is usually still closed in early July.
From Steamboat Springs and on the main drag (Lincoln Avenue/Highway 40), turn north on 3rd Street. Drive one block and turn right onto Amethyst. After 1.6 miles, the road joins Highway 323. Stay right and drive 2.4 miles before turning right onto CR 38, which is signed for Buffalo Pass.
Drive 13 miles up the sometimes rough road to the pass. Most passenger cars can make it when dry. Park in the parking lot on the south side of the road signed for Trail 1101.
This is Divide Pond, which is not far from the Buffalo Pass Trailhead.
Rainbow Lakes Trailhead
From Walden, drive Highway 14 west for about 0.6 miles. Turn right onto CR 12W and follow it for about five miles. Keep left. The road becomes CR 18 which is driven for about 4.5 miles to an intersection. Turn left onto CR 5. The pavement ends here.
Follow CR 5 for 1.8 miles and keep straight on CR 22. Keep right at an unmarked junction. Drive to the end of the road and park. The last part of the road is rough, but is passable to most vehicles when dry.
The two main approach routes to the peak are from the south and Buffalo Pass and from the east and Rainbow Lakes.
Via Buffalo Pass
This is the very slightly the longer of the two routes described, but because the trailhead elevation is high, it is the easiest approach to Mount Ethel. The road to the trailhead usually doesn’t open until sometime in July.
This route follows the Continental Divide/Wyoming Trail north from Buffalo Pass. This is a beautiful route and much of it is above timberline. Since there aren’t many places to descend along much of the trail, this isn’t a good route when you have a bad weather forecast.
The route follows the rolling Continental Divide from the trailhead and is at least 19.4 miles round trip, depending on route variation. While a strong hiker and climber could do this route in a long day, assuming the weather is good, most hikers and climbers will want to camp at least one night. There are many side hikes to various peaks and lakes, so it’s easy to spend several days along the route.
Along the Continental Divide south of Mount Ethel.
Via Rainbow Lakes Trailhead
This route on the east side of the Park Range climbs a ridge along a trail which descends into a pretty basin containing the Rainbow Lakes. From there the trail climbs past the Slide Lake and then to the Continental Divide/Wyoming Trail before heading south and east to Mount Ethel.
This route is at least 19.1 miles round trip and can be done in one very long day, though two days will be more pleasant.
Mount Ethel from the north and from along the Rainbow Lake approach (August 2012-a severe drought year).
West Side Approach Routes
These will not be described in detail, but there are several trails and routes that you can use to approach Mount Ethel from the west. These routes are longer and have more elevation gain than the routes described above, but they pass through some really varied terrain.
The Mad Creek Trailhead, Red Dirt Trailhead, or the Elk Park Trailhead can all be used to access the Swamp Park Trail. All three approaches converge before Swamp Park and you can then use the Luna Lake Trail to access Luna Lake. From Luna Lake, the Crags Trail heads northeast and meets the Wyoming/Continental Divide Trail not fat northwest of the summit of Mount Ethel.
Via Lost Ranger Peak
You can also climb Mount Ethel from any of the trailheads and approach routes for Lost Ranger Peak. See the Lost Ranger Peak
page for details.
As mentioned, the west side of Mount Ethel is very gentle. You can approach this face from any of the approach routes. From the Buffalo Pass approach, simply climb Mount Ethel directly from the west. There is really nothing to slow you down. From the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead you will probably want to climb Mount Ethel from near where the Crags Trail and the Wyoming/Continental Divide Trail junction.
Nearing the summit of Mount Ethel from the west. The west side of the mountain is so gentle that you hardly notice that you are climbing a significant mountain. Once on top though, the mountain drops off steeply to the east.
East Face Routes
Joseph Kramarsic's book mentions three routes on the east face of the mountain. The Northeast Face
and Southeast Face Couloir
are moderate snow routes requiring iceaxe and crampons. In most years the snow should be in good condition throughout most of the year. The East Ridge
is a class 4 scramble, with a knife edge in one section.
There are several technical routes on the east face as well.
No permits are reqired. Standard wilderness regulations apply.
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.
In addition to the red tape mentioned above, make sure to take proper bear precautions. We saw this bear track right along the Continental Divide.
When to Climb
August and early September is the most popular time to climb here. July is fine too, 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 along some routes can can be very problematic in June and July.
The road to the Buffalo Pass Trailhead isn't even open until Mid-July and sometimes later.
Be aware that if you do climb in July, be aware that the area has one of the biggest mosquito populations in Colorado. My first attempt on the peak was a failure due to mosquitoes. By August, the mosquitoes taper down in most years.
Mount Ethel as seen from Slide Lakes in August 2012. 2012 was an extreme drought year so usually there is more snow on this side of the mountain.
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 Mount Ethel are certainly possible, though it’s a long trek in when the roads are closed. Because of heavy snowfall, trail breaking will not be easy, though there are routes with minimal avalanche danger. For the well prepared climber, a winter ascent would prove a worthy challenge. The easiest route up Mount Ethel in winter, if you have access to a snowmobile, will be from Buffalo Pass. If you don't have access to a snowmobile, the route from Mad Creek may be the best bet, but be prepared for a lot of tough trailbreaking!
CampingCampgrounds and Vehicle Campsites
There is a campground at Summit Lake right near Buffalo Pass. There are also some informal campsites along the access road.
There are no campgrounds at or near the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead, but there are many informal campsites near the trailhead.
There are many backcountry campsites in the area, but there are no good campsites around the peak itself because of its exposed nature.
Buffalo Pass Route
If you are using the Buffalo Pass route, Luna Lake would be the most popular campsite in the area, but it can be somewhat congested.
Some really nice and secluded campsites are located six miles in from Buffalo Pass and just east of the saddle south of elevation 10969 on the map. There is a spring here that feeds Newcomb Creek.
An ideal campsite near the head of Newcomb Creek.
Divide Pond makes an OK campsite.
Rainbow Lakes Route
The Rainbow Lakes area is a popular campsite, but you must camp away from the lake and there is no camping allowed between the trail and the lake. More secluded campsites are located a bit farther up the valley.
For current information, contact:
Hahns Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District
925 Weiss Drive
Steamboat Springs, CO 80487-9315
CLICK HERE FOR THE WEATHER FORECAST FOR THE 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 Lost Ranger Peak to be 15-20 degrees colder than in Steamboat (except for cold winter nights).
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