The Mad Creek trail is a much-beloved Steamboat Springs standby. Marked as trail #1100 on Routt National Forest maps, it’s iconic for its high mountain scenery and hard-enough hitting terrain that includes an 800-foot elevation gain over the first mile or so. Plus, it follows a steep snowmelt creek that feeds the Elk River and fills the soundscape with rushing water. The single track trail starts high above Mad Creek’s deep canyon and meanders to meet up with perfect lounging boulders at the water’s edge. This makes Mad Creek as popular with dogs as it is with people.
With a lot of sun exposure, the Mad Creek trail is good for early-season and late-season hiking – while winter is a mandatory snowshoe adventure. The trail is popular with bikers and horses too, so it can get busy on summer weekends.
What to Expect on Your Hike
The out-and-back trail starts with a steep climb. Pines eventually give way to aspens, and then it opens up to alpine meadows filled with wildflowers. At the two-mile mark, visit the Mad Barn, a 1906 homestead barn that has been restored for your exploration. It makes for quite a photogenic picnic spot too.
Just past the three-mile mark, you’ll enter the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. This is where bikes have to turn back (and the name changes to the Swamp Park Trail), but hikers can continue deep into the wilderness, where a myriad of opportunities arise to turn a day hike into a multi-day backpacking adventure.
Directions to Trail
The Mad Creek trailhead is five miles north of Steamboat Springs on Routt County Road 129, known locally as Elk River Road. The parking lot and trailhead are on the right. While there are some extended loops to be made off the Mad Creek trail (especially for mountain bikers), most of them require a brief trek along the shoulder of the busy county road. The Mad Creek trail is so beautiful that it always seems silly to venture off the main trail.