The Circle the Zirkel tour is a Northwest Colorado classic encompassing a complete circumnavigation of the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness area. Utilizing the Routt/Medicine Bow National Forest as well as the backroads of Routt and Jackson Counties the Circle the Zirkel tour is 153 miles of mostly dirt roads that span from the high alpine environment of Buffalo Pass to the wide open rangeland of North Park and the lush Elk River Valley. There are no services along the route although the Columbine cabins occasionally has doughnuts and Hahn’s Peak Village and its cafe is just a mile or so off the planned tour route. There are ample camping opportunities and plenty of good water sources in the mountains while North Park and the Elk River valley are drier and more private.
The seasonal opening of the Circle the Zirkel route is determined by the snowpack on Buffalo Pass. With a summit elevation of 10,295 ft. above sea level Buffalo Pass is the highest point of the entire route and often receives some of the highest snowfall amounts in the entire state. The pass is sometimes open by June but on a good snow year it won’t open up until well into July. The fall closure of the route will also be decided by snowfall. A September snowstorm may make the pass into a difficult crossing but it is often still rideable well into October, checking the local weather and being prepared for snow are crucial if you are planning a late season tour. One stretch of county road north of Steamboat is impassable when wet. County Road 52E is bad news if it has been raining, and you will have to divert back out to the highway (CO Hwy. 129).

The Circle the Zirkel tour can be done in two or three days. You can bring your fishing rod and take a whole week, which is encouraged, and it can be done in a day or at least a 24 hour period, which is not encouraged, but can be done. If you are planning on a two day tour remember that Buffalo Pass takes an extra toll on you and plan accordingly. The entire tour except for the Spring Creek trail can be driven in a high clearance vehicle if you would like the extra support.

Starting in Steamboat Springs and riding the route counter-clockwise takes you immediately up the Spring Creek Trail a road turning into a trail that climbs up to the Buffalo Pass Road and a long climb up into the high country before cresting past Summit Lake and beginning the long descent toward North Park. Riding along the western edge of the expansive space of the North Park you will pass the Delaney Lakes and continue to far northwest corner of the park past the abandoned townsite of Pearl and up into the mountains again. Dropping into the Encampment River you will cross the river and briefly enter Wyoming. Taking in a scenic tour of Hog Park Reservoir and then turning back to the south the Circle the Zirkel tour follows Forest Road 550 all the way to Big Red Park and to the shoulder of Hahn’s Peak where you will meet the pavement at the historic townsite of Columbine. Dropping down to Steamboat Lake and taking the long dirty way around the lake the tour descends to Clark and meets the pavement again before following a series of backroads through the Elk River Valley back to Steamboat Springs.

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