TLDR: The ridge north of Big Agnes is full of interesting soft-ranked peaks with sections of rolling alpine, surprising challenges, and bomber rock. It can be roughly split into two parts, a higher section from the shoulder of Big Agnes to the “Incisor,” and an end-cap with the “Castle” and its unnamed neighbor, both of which look like minimum Class 3 scrambling. This report covers a Slavonia start, Micah Basin approach, ascent of “Middle Agnes,” and a jaunt north over every high point to the Incisor and a smaller, hidden (but really fun) high point behind it. Then, you loop back to the highest of two unnamed lakes in what I think is the prettiest basin in the region. Pick your line of least resistance to the saddle with Mt. Zirkel, turn south and piece together a connection to the Gilpin Lake Trail. From there, bust on back to the car. What you get: clash of environments, forest, alpine, off-trail hiking, short bouts of Class 3-4 scrambling on good rock, a series of high points, two stunning unnamed lakes, lots of off-trail exploration and, ultimately, a loop back to where you started. I don’t think this hike will appeal to too many checklist people when you have Zirkel, Big Agnes, and Flattop Mountain as the area’s only 12ers and this hike covers none of them. I saw the potential for this route from a previous scramble of the west ridge up Big Agnes and wanted to check it out. I’d consider it more of an exploration-type adventure than a summit bagging or scrambling adventure (even though it has both). This hike made me reexamine the role arbitrary elevation lines have had in limiting mountain discovery because on a map it doesn’t look like there’s much to love, but when you get back there, it’s a whole different ballgame.
-Roundtrip distance: ~13 miles (+4,150 ft.) *roughly half of the distance is off-trail, your pace will slow and orientation skills are a must*
Go Pro video of the ridge/scrambling portions only.
Table of Contents
Click on a heading to jump to that section. At the end of each section is a “Back to Table of Content,” phrase, click on it to return here.
- Preface/Rating System
- Regional Intro
- The Approach
- To the “Incisor” (Class 4)
- Extra Credit (Class 3)
- Tarns, basins, and off-trail beauty (Class 2+)
- Return to Gilpin Trail (Class 2)
Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and mark-up some of my pictures for route clarification.
- Black/white lines= general directions, landmarks, and/or Class 1 sections.
- Blue Lines=Class 2 sections.
- Red= Class 3 sections.
- Purple = Class 4 sections.
- Orange = Class 5.
The class system is based on the YDS rating scale. Please note that these colors are different than other sites. If you are unsure of what a color means, I usually leave a quick reminder in the picture caption.
- Highest point: 12,010 ft. on Middle Agnes
- YDS breakdown
- Approach to Micah Lake: Trailed Class 1
- Spike Bypass saddle NE of Micah Lake: Class 2
- Middle Agnes to Highpoint 1: loose Class 3 traverse or Class 5 downclimb, Class 3 ascent
- Highpoint 1 to “Molar Tooth”: Class 3 descent, Class 2 ascent
- “Molar Tooth” to “Golden Tooth”: Class 3/4 descent, Class 3 ascent
- “Golden Tooth” to “Incisor”: Class 2-3 descent, Class 4 summit pitch (for both summits)
- “The Incisor” to optional highpoint “Flathead”: Class 2+ descent, Class 3 ascent
- Descent to highest lake “Timo’s Tarn” for simplicity, officially unnamed: Class 3
- Follow the basin east toward Zirkel: Class 2+
- From low saddle west of Zirkel south to Gilpin Trail: Class 2
- Gilpin Trail to Trailhead: Class 1
For a very long and probably overly detailed explanation, click here.
The Park Range has three pieces. The southern piece is called the Gore Range, the middle part is low and forested (think Rabbit Ears Pass), and the Northern Park is largely in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness. The southern and northern portions have exquisite scrambling, and after completing the Big Agnes West Ridge Route (with the Spike add-on), I wanted to explore all the ridges around there.
The area I’m focusing my efforts on is the Sawtooth Range, the spindly ridges that lead up to and around Big Agnes. You access this area from Slavonia Trailhead, which is about an hour north of Steamboat, near the town of Clark.
This particular journey includes a series of soft-ranked summits on a north-south oriented ridge north of Big Agnes and some quality off-trail navigation.
Weather, always check the weather. This area does not have a hugely reliable forecast; expect high variability and come prepared. Unless you live in Routt County, make sure someone has a detailed plan of where you are going and how long you plan to be there.
For general lower trail conditions, you can use the Clark 7-day forecast. For the higher portion of the hike, Mt. Zirkel is the most reliable forecast.
Here are some local emergency numbers as well; stay safe out there.
- Routt County Sheriff: 970-879-1090 (offices in Steamboat Springs)
- Routt National Forest: 970-723-2700 (offices in Walden)
There are some resources that shed light on this region. Summitpost has a good Park Range page with mountain profiles; there are occasional Zirkel and Big Agnes reports on 14ers.com, and List of John has regional trail reports. The following photo journal is also a great resource for the Sawtooth Traverse, but it is a photo journal and doesn’t go into too many scrambling specifics. The definitive guidebook for the region was written by Joe Kramarsic, but it is not well distributed. You’ll have to hunt in local gear shops in Steamboat or perhaps Winter Park to find it. It’s listed on Amazon as “Mountaineering in the Park Range. A Guide to the Mountains of the Mount Zirkel-Dome Peak wilderness,” but has been unavailable every time I’ve checked. Hopefully, this guide helps fill in some knowledge gaps.
Directions to Trailhead: Type Slavonia Trailhead or Seedhouse Road into your phone and follow the directions. If you’re coming from the Front Range, expect somewhere between 4 and 6 hours.
Since the approach is the same for the West Ridge of Big Agnes, I just copy/pasted from that guide. If you’re interested in that scrambling route, here’s a link to that post.
From the trailhead, pick up the only trail as it heads northeast-ish. Only a few points of a mile into the hike, you’ll come across a trail junction. Take the left branch (Gilpin Trail); the right one heads to Gold Creek Lake. Continue along the trail as it ascends a smaller valley and skirts a larger burn area. You’ll be seeing lots of burn evidence on this hike. The late 90s saw a devastating wind event in the region, followed by a pine beetle infestation and a couple of fires (~2002). Combine that with the deeep regional snowfall (~500+ inches a year), and I think trees have just had a really hard time bouncing back. It’ll look a little bare on the approach, but for the first 1.25 miles, you stay in a treed area and only skirt the scars.
The next junction is with the Micah Basin Trail; take a left and head up the valley. The approach into the basin is a good 700 or so vertical feet in less than a mile. It’s not so bad in the morning, but from late July-early September, if you go up this stretch, put on some sunscreen, it gets bright.
Once you get into the basin, the elevation gain lessens, and you meander along the trail as it winds higher among fields, burn scars, and babbling brooks. Eventually, you cross a crest of land and can stare down a small rise to the shores of Micah Lake. Your introduction is over. Micah lake is about 4 miles in, so it’s really not a bad approach, and all on easily identifiable trails.
To the “Incisor” (Class 4)
Instead of heading directly north to the low saddle visible from Micah Lake, you want to head northeast into the higher part of Micah Basin. A good visual cue is to head right from the lake shoreline and keep the rock towers of “The Spike” clearly framed to your left.
Once you get beyond the towers, a steep but Class 2 slope will present itself and you can get onto the ridge without too much difficulty.
The key to this ascent is to stay to the left of a thick patch of Krummholz. These low-lying subalpine pine shrugs are very hardy plants and will scratch the shit out of you if you try to break through a patch. It’s much easier to just go around them until you hit the ridge.
The blue arrows in the picture above show the ascent route to the ridgeline. Everything from Big Agnes to the left is part of the prominent N-S ridge that makes up the bulk of what’s considered to be a part of the “Sawtooth Range.” There are other components of the range on the other side of Big Agnes.
Once you hit the ridgeline, you can turn west (left) and see the isolated but very gratifying set of rocky towers known as “The Spike.” There’s also a smaller north-south ridge that has a prominent rock tower on it called “The Grand Central Tooth,” according to ListofJohn. Other online references to this rock are rare or nonexistent; I’ll use the name’s I can find. If I can’t find a name, I’ll create one to help with orientation. A lot of the peaks around here don’t have names, and if they do, they are unofficial.
The “Grand Central Tooth.”
If you’re looking at Grand Central Tooth, head east (right), following the ridgeline as you skirt to the left of the Krummholz patch and ascend a Class 2 grassy slope up to “Middle Agnes.” As you ascend, you’ll get stunning views of one of the most dramatic cliff lines in the area (Mt. Zirkel’s west slope being the other contender). Now, these aren’t the most dramatic cliffs in the state, probably not even the top 100 (or 200, tbh), but for the region, they are stark, shapely, and give you a preview of the summits you’ll be on. Rest assured, the other side is easier to scamper across, but I wonder if there’s a scrambling way up those cliffs that does two things 1. stays fun, 2. avoids roped climbing pitches. Further exploration is required.
At one point there’s a small cluster of rocks on the ridgeline, you can just hop around it to the right to keep everything in the Class 2 range.
Stay to the right of the rock cluster on the ridgeline.
If you haven’t yet, hop up to the top of Middle Agnes, an obvious high point in the shadow of Big Agnes’s North Wall. Instead of working your way to Big Agnes, you’re going to head north (left if you’re looking at the view in the picture below).
From Middle Agnes, looking over to Zirkel.
The ridge from this perspective doesn’t nearly as intense as it did from the ascent up Middle Agnes, but it has a few surprises waiting for you.
Here, again, is the link to a GoPro video detailing all ridgeline issues and challenges. It does not show how to get back, only the scrambling parts!
The first question you should ask yourself is, “how do I get off this thing?” Which, as it turns out, is not so easy and makes up your first challenge.
Blue=Class 2, Red=Class 3, Purple=Class 4, Orange=Class 5
There are two options, you can head north from the summit of Middle Agnes and piece together a relatively short but very significant Class 5 downclimb to the next saddle, or you can take the loose way around (Class 3).
The Class 5 downclimb looks like this from the next saddle to the north.
Short but consequential Class 5 downclimb off of Middle Agnes.
You don’t really get a look at the downclimb until you’re on top of it, so I decided to find a way around. Turns out there is a navigationally easy alternative but probably my least favorite part of this hike. It’s not long, it’ll take you only a few minutes, but everything moves. It’s San Juan scree meets off-trail Cascade volcanic crap. Is it doable? Yeah, absolutely. But go slow, check every hold, and don’t be surprised if you slide and/or have to kickstep a bench out of the loose slope to stabilize yourself.
This part kinda sucks, but it’s not long; just go slow and double-check everything. The good news is that you do not have to do this part again if you make a loop out of your route.
Once you make it to the first saddle, you need to scramble up Class 3 blocks to the top of Highpoint 1. This one isn’t that visible from the approach and only has like 40 feet of prominence, but it’s in your way, and you need to deal with it.
What’s not apparent from the short scramble to the top is that the majority of Class 3 scrambling on Highpoint 1 comes on the descent to the following saddle. It’s stable for the most part, 3.5/5 if 5 is the sturdiest bomber rock you ever held, but there are a few places where careful foot selection will help you out. You can descend about 2/3 of the way along the ridge crest. However, the endcap is a bit of a cliff. Bounce right and traverse around to avoid having to backtrack.
Looking back up at Highpoint 1 from a section of Class 3 scrambling.
The scrambling is pretty involved and interesting, but the best view of this stretch of the route isn’t from the ridge. On your return journey, you’ll be able to snag the view below.
Once you get off the rocky ridge, you’ll end up in a Class 2 saddle. The rest of the ascent to “Molar Tooth,” which was probably the most obvious high point you saw on the approach, is a pretty easy Class 2+ affair. The only real scrambling is a couple feet near the top.
This part of the route is lovely and rolling. Enjoy it while it lasts. As you descend off of the “Molar Tooth,” make sure to stay closer to the ridgeline so you can enjoy the dramatic western profile of the ridge.
You’ll descend toward the notch between “Molar Tooth” and “Golden Tooth”, which seems to go at an easy Class 2 until you hit the Trench. This gouged-out section of the ridge forces you into some brief Class 4 downclimbing. It’s only a couple of moves but may come as a shock given the gentle nature of “Molar tooth.”
The view ahead as you get closer to the Trench shows the gnarly sides of both “Golden Tooth” and the “Incisor.”
Like the Class 5 downclimb off of Middle Agnes, you don’t really see the Trench until you’re right on top of it. The best perspective is actually down by one of the two lakes you’ll visit later. I’m calling it Timo’s tarn bc it doesn’t have a name, and since there are two lakes, it’ll be easier to reference later in the report, but you can call it whatever you want.
The descent isn’t long, and despite the near-vertical look, there are two variations that stay Class 4 and make use of a slanted boulder that keeps the difficulty from shooting into the Class 5 range. (Check out the footage here.)
Once you’re down in the trench, you’ll notice that the rock lining the other side has a few more breaks in it, which gives you more to work with. There’s a nice Class 4 climb (optional) and an easier Class 3 traverse to a Class 2 slope.
Whenever you’ve picked your route, work your way out of the trench and reclimb up to “Golden Tooth.” If you took the easier traverse, the scrambling is majority Class 2, with a short/fun Class 3 section near the top.
The Class 3 scrambling section up to the top of “Golden Tooth.” The rock is sturdy and a nice break from the rolling tundra you’ve been moving through, but like previous sections, it’s over pretty quickly.
“Golden Tooth” is the last summit before you get to the “Incisor.” Again, summit is a bit of a stretch. I think we’re looking at like 80 ft. or prominence…maybe. But it has nice scrambling, and the views keep getting better the farther north you go. I think the best perspective I’ve found for “Golden Tooth,” was taken on a subsequent trip up Little Agnes. It hides from most perspectives, but when you’re climbing up it from the Trench, it certainly feels like enough of a highpoint to warrant acknowledgment.
There’s a bit of Class3 downclimbing but nothing substantial, and before you know it, you’re knocking on the “Incisors” door. To me, this was the most consequential summit. There are two summit blocks, both require a little Class 4, and the rock is glorious. Despite the exquisite scrambling, both sections are short, which is another staple of the route. I believe the western summit is higher, and it also has the most gratifying scrambling on it. The best way to dispense with it is to move up between the two summits, drop your pack, and hit the western one first.
Generalized look. Purple=Class 4, Red=Class 3, Blue=Class 2
The western summit is basically one intact rocky slab that has an astounding amount of exposure to the north. The exposure to the south is less scary, but a slip will absolutely send you tumbling head over heels down to more dangerous terrain. This is very clearly a no-fall zone.
I climbed up according to the alt. route in the picture below, but you can squeeze in a little extra Class 3 before a few non-negotiable Class 4 moves if you hit the ridgeline between the two summits first and then turn left toward the western summit.
Despite the short duration, this is the best section of rock on the whole ridge. You can find a few variations to work with; the rock quality is 5/5, and if you combine this summit with the eastern one, you get to stretch the scrambling out for longer.
Careful up top; not a whole lot of room. Looking back east, you can zero in on the route up the other summit block, which wasn’t 100% visible from below.
Both summits are really fun, the western one feels more dramatic and exposed, but the eastern one has better views toward Zirkel and the massive untrailed basing between it and you. What’s nice from this perspective is you can piece together a visual route into that basin, cuz if you do the loop, that’s where ya going. (If you have the time, you want to do this, but it is longer and has way more off-trail navigation.)
Once you’ve had your fill of the “Incisor,” you could start to head down into the basin with the lakes, but I would recommend going a bit farther. There’s a high point that’s been hidden this entire time, and it’s a fun 3rd Class scramble. Plus, you get some great looks at the rock walls on the “Incisor’s” north side.
Extra Credit (Class 3) “Flathead Rock”
The first cool part about this added little section is that you can descend reasonably close to the Incisor’s dramatic north face without having to do anything more than Class 2+.
The descent is Class 2 to the next saddle.
The scrambling on Flathead Rock is fun. You start right on the ridgeline and ascend up to just below the summit block; this gives you great sections of Class 3 scrambling. Once you make it up to below the highest part, the easiest thing to do is traverse to the right and scout a way around.
You’ll start on a grassy bench that narrows down to a slanted rock. Traversing the slanted rock is solidly Class 3 with exposure behind you. Once you turn the corner, you’ll end up on another bench.
Now, turn to find the highest rock (hard left) and scamper up (Class 3). I ended up taking a nice long break up here, it’s a cool spot with killer views of the Incisor to the north, the Castle, and whatever sharp, mystery peak is in front of it.
From here, the main ridge you’ve been on dips to its lowest col before climbing back up to the Castle. It makes for a natural break. My original plan was to do the whole ridge up to the Castle but sometimes life shits on your plans. I got a bead leak in my tire pulling into Steamboat so my early start was replaced with 2 hours of waiting for a shop to open and another 2 to get it fixed, plus another hour to the trailhead. I don’t think I hit the trail before 10:30, so by the time I got to Flathead Rock, the afternoon was in full swing and I had hours of off-trail travel ahead of me. Flathead ended up being the last summit on the day but because of the views, probably my favorite on the day. I’ll have to come back for the Castle and it’s crazy looking neighbor.
Chronogically, Gopro video coverage ends on the top of Flathead Rock.
Tarns, Basins, and Off-Trail Beauty (Class 3)
From the Flathead Rock/Incisor area, though, you have the easiest exit off the ridge. If you went out to the Castle, you’d have to budget another hour or two for going out and coming back. I don’t know if the ridge north of the Castle goes and if it does you’ll just end up farther from where you started. Coming back over the ridge seems to be the best one-day option.
Work your way back to the saddle between Flathead Rock and the Incisor. From there, head SE toward Timo’s tarn.
There’s a grove of krummholz here that you can try to skirt to the south, though you then have to deal with loose traversing. You can also pick a path through the krummholz veering left to stay on its northern side, where the scrambling is less. Between the krummholz are a few lines of rock steps, so be prepared for those (Class 3).
Once free of the steepest part of the descent, it’s an easy Class 2 stroll to the lakeside. However, the shoreline has a lot of rock alongside it, so anticipate some Class 3 scrambling to get to the outflow stream when you’re ready to leave the area. If it’s a hot day, the lake is deep enough for a jump and, at least when I was there, had a wonderful greenish hue.
The echo is also pretty good here, so if you take a dip, follow that up with a nice shout to see if you can hear it bouncing off the ridges. All in all, this is a very cool place and still allows you two options to get back. Reclimb the few hundred feet to the ridge and backtrack, or head downhill and deeper into the basin.
If you go deeper into the basin, your first challenge is getting away from the shoreline. The best thing to do is climb above the shoreline and traverse across until you can hop down to gentler terrain on the southern edge of the lake.
Once you’re clear of the lake, follow the drainage down, clinging to the left (north) side for easier movement (Class 2). The outflow stream starts underground before reappearing farther down, but anything close to the water will be slippier.
On this stretch, you get some interesting views back up to the ridgelines around Big Agnes, including a cool look up to the South Summit of Big Agnes from below some gnarly cliffs.
Looking down the valley, you get an idea of where you want to go. Ideally, you want to stay closer to the ridgeline on your right (which looks super gnarly and is on my scramble list).
Looking back up from where you came you can see that the easiest descent (or ascent) route is hugging the north side of the drainage.
I think there’s probably a way to rope in a shoreline traverse of the other unnamed lake in the basin, but it won’t make for your fastest route. In my situation, running out of daylight, I was going for the easiest route out of this wild, trailless, and miles-from-my-car mountain basin. Below is the route I settled on. It worked well.
The high route in the pic above (high as in you never quite descend down to the other lake) is the faster way out of this basin. There’s a decent amount of sidehilling, but it’s not more than a few Class 2+ moves. Essentially, you descend down to the outflow stream, cross it, and find a way to attack the grassy bench just to the south of the lake. Then, wrap-around, regaining a bit of elevation, until you can see a diagonal slot (pointing up and to the left) that’ll take you around another finger of land.
Even if you had the time to go down to the lake, I’d recommend skipping it and traversing above because of the views of the Castle. They just keep getting better and better.
And look, once again, these aren’t 14ers, they don’t have thousand-foot uninterrupted cliffs, but this area is surprisingly rugged, wild, and beautiful.
Anyway, now that you’re traversing above the lake, time to look for your next marker.
Forgive the bad quality of the pics above; however, they do a great job of showing the whole traverse. Once you make it to the end of the ramp, turn right and enter another basin, this time with the flanks of Mt. Zirkel just to the east of you.
Work your way up forgiving ground in a S-SE direction, taking care not to lose elevation or cliff out. Eventually, a super loose gully will separate you from the pass you’re going for. DO NOT TRAVERSE THIS SLOPE. I did, and it blew chunks; wasted a lot of time in there. Can you? Yeah, but if you’re doing this loop the way I’m describing, this far into the journey, you’re going to be tired and more susceptible to mistakes. Mentally, it may be tough, but the best thing to do is drop a couple hundred feet to more stable ground and then reclimb up to the pass.
The reason traversing high is crap is because it’s steep, there’s no grass or solid slope to get traction, and the rocks are all small, meaning any bit of movement starts a slide. Plus, for your convenience, you’ll be traversing below crumbly cliffs that almost certainly contain rockfall danger. It’s just crap; drop down and go around.
Once you finally make it to the saddle, you’re out of one trailless basin and into another. Luckily, now you’re on the right side of the range. Let’s take a look at a map of your progress since Flathead Rock.
Nice! You cover a good amount of distance in this basin, but there is an issue. Do you see any indication of Gilpin Lake Trail in the pic above? Nope, because it’s still far below the bottom frame. It’s off-trail till you reconnect, but thankfully, it’s downhill and fairly intuitive.
Return to Gilpin Trail (Class 2)
Follow the drainage down. From the saddle, connect fields and rocky benches together in a southward direction. You want to eventually get on the right (west) bank of the stream that starts from a small tarn you can see from the saddle. The ground is uneven, and this late into the hike, perfect ankle-rolling territory, Be cautious!
As you make your way down the valley, you’ll notice the Pt. 11,580 sticking up like a sore thumb; the easiest route is to stay relatively close to its flanks.
This strategy works well for a while but finding a good place to meet the Gilpin Trail takes a little creative navigation. If you stay on your trajectory, using Pt. 11,580 as a wall to your right, you could end up trending parallel to the trail without connecting, which is a grand ole way to waste more time and energy (says the guy who did exactly that). On a follow-up mission to scramble Bulwark Ridge, I did find what I think is the best reconnection strategy.
It’s not foolproof, but eventually, the terrain features a series of bogs and meadows. The temptation is to stay to the right to avoid them, however, if you find yourself on a rib of rock. Turn to the right and see if you see this view.
If you can, turn around and veer downhill and diagonal left (east-southeast). You’ll pass through a few more fields, some wetter than others, but there are many game trails to follow. Keep a true south trajectory when able, and you should pop into the trail right here.
Back on the trail, bust ass to your car, just remember, it’s still a few miles to Slavonia.
Conclusion and Future Adventures
I loved this hike for a variety of reasons. The scrambling on the Incisor was short but very fun and well-worth the ridge walk. Flathead Rock was kind of the surprise hit, I really enjoyed that highpoint. The tarns are also delightful, and worth an alpine dip. The trailless basin you end up in has some of the best views of the whole region and it all feels very wild. Plus, you can make a loop out of it. This is an unexpected and surprising route for those interested in getting way more than the map suggests you will.
My next adventure in the region was a route up to and across Bulwark Ridge (my name, it officially doesn’t have one) which ended up being more committing and, in my opinion, more of a classic high peaks scramble than Big Agnes’s West Ridge. Stick around for that one!