Over Labor Day weekend, I went backpacking in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I spent three days on a 21-mile section of the Continental Divide Trail, and here’s my advice: if you’re looking for an alpine hike that feels like cheating, this is it.
There are two reasons why this journey is so unique. First, it hugs a wide-open ridge for most of the distance, gently ascending and descending and often running level, with 360 views all the while. Second, if you hike northbound you’ll start high and end low, so there’s literally no big climbs despite so much quality time above tree line. Over the entire distance the route ascends about 3,000 feet and drops almost 5,000 feet. The only catch? The trailheads are both a schlep (about an hour from town in opposite directions), so managing a shuttle takes some time. But it’s worth it.
From Buffalo Pass trailhead, the CDT climbs gradually through sparse trees and open meadows, which were midsummer green even on Labor Day. Colorado’s big snow year meant wildflowers were still blooming even this late in the season. At about mile 7, the trail passes a cluster of lakes nestled on both sides of the divide. If you’re not in a hurry, I recommend dropping down to one of these gems to camp. Luna Lake, one of the biggest, has a near-perfect campsite near the inlet, on the edge of a sprawling meadow and with a sunset view across the lake.
If you decide to keep going, another great camping option is Pristine Lake at about mile 14. It’s the highest of three lakes in Wolverine Basin, and the best choice because it’s tucked into a gorgeous, rocky cirque (the lower two lakes are surrounded by dead trees). Getting to Pristine requires a short but steep scramble down from the CDT, with no official trail, so only do this if you’re comfortable with the terrain.
Once past Lost Ranger Peak (the high point at almost 12,000 feet), you’re in for a long cruise through more meadows before dropping back into forest for the descent to North Lake trailhead. The final few miles pass through an eerie forest of dead trees, and then a lush zone where we found plenty of late-summer berries. Ambitious hikers could easily do this whole section as one huge day, but if you have a weekend, you won’t regret spending it here.