Length: About 2 miles (one way)
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Why We Love It: It’s a beautiful, leisurely path for hikers and a varied enough singletrack trail for newbie mountain bikers to get comfortable in the saddle.
When To Go: July/August (for the wildflowers) or September/October (for the aspens)
Pre-hike Buzz: Your closest dose of caffeine can be found at the Clark Store, a green-slat building on County Road 129 that serves coffee, tea, chai, and a surprisingly varied breakfast menu.
Distance from Denver: About 180 miles
There aren’t many reasons to leave the Home Ranch, a small luxury guest ranch in Clark. The reposeful property, nestled in the shadow of the Sawtooth Range, invites a slower pace even as your days are filled with horseback riding and fishing and, if you do want a change of scenery, the rodeo in Steamboat Springs, about 20 miles south.
But, on a recent visit, I felt the need to stretch my legs with a walk in the woods, so I hopped in my car and drove about 15 minutes, over the Elk River, to the start of the South Fork Trail. (As it happens, there are a number of South Fork trails in Colorado. The one I’m referring to is No. 1100.3A.)
The large gravel parking lot was empty when my hiking buddy and I pulled in late on an August afternoon, a pleasant tip-off that we’d have the route—open to hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders—all to ourselves.
The trail is a connector to a broader zig-zag of paths in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness area, part of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests. (Translation: It wouldn’t be hard to end up on another, much longer, trail, so pay attention.) South Fork begins in an exposed meadow swaddled by pine- and fir-speckled hills. The easy-to-follow dirt path then curves in and out of the shade, with aspens lining much of the way. All of the snow and rain this year created a lush landscape between the trees, with grasses and wildflowers growing nearly thigh-high in some areas.
A little less than two miles in, you’ll reach a fork. This is where South Fork connects with Swamp Park Trail (also referred to as Mad Creek Trail #1100 by the USDA Forest Service). A trail sign—a blue square nailed to an aspen tree—will direct you toward the right, where you’ll climb slightly up into yet another large meadow and continue on along the trail. The flowers here were so abundant and overflowing with greenery the day I visited that the path was barely visible beneath them. (Expect your hiking pants to be covered in yellow dandelion pollen.)
If you turn left at the aforementioned fork, you’ll travel down a short hill to the South Fork of the Elk River (the water was relatively deep, and I wasn’t in the mood to remove my hiking boots and socks), from where you can connect to the Burn Ridge Trailhead.
It was here that we turned around—a wine tasting was calling our name back at the Home Ranch. We ended our afternoon stroll taking in rolling green hills that seemed to stretch all the way up to the fluffy white clouds and the bluebird sky beyond.
Getting There: From Steamboat Springs, drive one mile west on U.S. 40. Turn right on County Road 129, which you’ll follow for about 20 miles. Turn right on County Road 64 (Seedhouse Road). After about five miles, you’ll see a sign for Hinman Park Campground; turn right. Follow the gravel road less than a quarter mile to a large parking area on the left (if you reach the campground, you’ve gone too far).