An Insider’s Guide to the Best Fall Hiking and Biking
Like most beautiful things, fall in Steamboat is as spectacular as it is fleeting. The Aspen trees don their autumn sequins and the whole valley is aglow in gold, but only for a few short weeks. That’s why there’s no better time of year to explore Steamboat’s network of world-famous mountain biking and hiking trails than in the fall when the temperatures are cooler, the foliage is firing, and the summer crowds have dispersed.
There’s a reason the Yampa Valley’s trail systems are some of the best in the country. Steamboat was the first city in the United States to create a full endowment fund for the maintenance, improvement and development of its trails. Founded in 2016, the Trail Maintenance Endowment Fund is managed by the Yampa Valley Community Foundation (YVCF) and under its leadership and discretion, has accomplished a lot in the three short years since its inception. It’s easy for hikers and bikers to donate to the fund; just look for the refurbished parking meters around town on all the most popular trails (including the Yampa River Core Trail, Emerald Mountain and Howelsen Hill, and the Spring Creek Trail, among others). These meters serve as donation stations to collect money that help preserve and protect the trails and their surrounding habitats—all major credit cards accepted!
We caught up with Helen Beall at YVCF for the inside scoop on new trails, trail improvements, and some hidden gems that are off the beaten path.
Spring Creek Downhill
“This trail is so new it doesn’t even have a name yet,” Beall says of the addition of a downhill specific route to the much beloved (and sometimes too well traveled) Spring Creek Trail. This bike-only directional trail not only alleviates heavy traffic, but creates a top-to-bottom downhill that parallels the uphill route and includes all the fun rollers, jumps and other features (as well as ride-around options for less experienced riders) that makes this one of the most popular mountain bike rides in Steamboat. This smooth, rolling single track zig-zags through Aspen groves, fern covered forest, and several creek crossings with bridges (including one that’s brand new this fall). Whether you like to haul fast or take things slow, now you know it’s all downhill from here.
Dry Lake Campground Trails
Accessed from the top of the Spring Creek Trail or by driving up Buffalo Pass, a network of new, beginner-friendly trails are the perfect place to bring friends and family who want to get a taste of Steamboat’s spectacular fall colors without facing anything too strenuous. “These trails offer fantastic views of the valley and are great for families with kids or for folks who want to take it easy,” Beall says. Fiddlehead and Panorama are new trails that have been built in the past two years. “These are my go-to for visitors because it’s never too crowded and these are easy hikes with great views.”
For a hike that’s close to town and also near Strawberry Park Hot Springs, check out Lower Bear, a four-mile round-trip hike through sage brush and rock outcroppings with ample views of the Flat Tops and the Steamboat Ski Area. “This is a great trail for the fall because there isn’t a lot of shade, so it’s better when the temperatures have cooled down, and it dries out really quickly when other trails are muddy,” Beall says. “It gets you up close and personal with Rocky Peak and Crystal Peak and has really great views. Plus, you can go for a soak at the hot springs when you’re done.”
South Fork Trail
It takes a little drive to get there, but the expansive, remote, untouched beauty of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness area, located in Clark (about 20 miles north of Steamboat) is well worth it. This four-mile (roundtrip) out-and-back trail is relatively flat and perfect for a leisurely stroll where the rewards require little in the way of effort. It’s also a great place for beginner mountain bikers to get a taste of the goods without the need for white knuckles. “This trail takes you up the south fork of the Elk River Valley that’s incredibly beautiful in the fall and has great views of The Dome, a giant granite peak that’s really spectacular,” Beall says. “It’s off the beaten path but so worth it.”
Continental Divide Trail
“A lot of people don’t realize that the Continental Divide Trail, which goes from Mexico to Canada goes right through our backyard,” Beall says. Also known as the Wyoming Trail and just the “1101” there are many ways to explore this trail from multi-day backpacking trips to one-way shuttle routes or just a simple out-and-back with many access points. “Steamboat just received the designation as a Gateway Community to the Continental Divide Trail, which we’re really excited about.” Beall says. There are also multiple routes that run from the top of Rabbit Ears to Fish Creek Falls, Buffalo Pass, and even Steamboat Ski Area. Because of the distance involved, it’s a popular ride with mountain bikers who love the ability to log big miles without ever having to hit the pavement, but shorter sections are ideal for day hikes, too. One way to access the trail is from the Summit Lakes Campground at the top of Buffalo Pass, which does require a high clearance 4WD vehicle. “It’s an adventure in itself just getting to the trailhead, but it’s totally worth it,” Beall says. “The trail goes in and out of treeline with 360-degree views in every direction and elevations as high as 10,000 feet.”
Regardless of which of Steamboat’s 55+ miles of trails that you choose, autumn is the perfect time to explore.
For more information on the Trail Maintenance Endowment Fund, go to yvcf.org/trails