Mad Creek Trail is Forest Service Trail 1100.  The trail head is 5.5 miles north of the intersection of Hwy 40 and CR 129 near Steamboat Springs on the right side of the road.  Look for the trail head signs.  This trail is also described in Hiking the ‘Boat II by Diane White-Crane.



ArcGIS online map of the Mad Creek Trail – Trailhead (TH) at the lower left, Mad Creek Barn (MCB) location is symbolized as the blue building on white background  .Mad Creek Trail Elevation Profile:  Open the profile, click on the trail and choose the mountain profile icon – lower right of gray box.
Mad Creek is a tributary of the Elk River that drains water and sediment from the Zirkel Wilderness.  The geology of the hike from the trailhead to the Mad Creek Barn is diverse.  Igneous and metamorphic rocks as well as glacial sediment are exposed along the trail.

Geological Map of Mad Creek Hike

Hikers on Mad Creek Trail can investigate different type of Igneous rocks including types of granite and basalt.  Metamorphic rocks include gneiss, schist, and quartzite.  The Igneous and Metamorphic Rocks are age constrained by Rb-Sr radiometric isotopes to ~1.7 Billion Years Old (Snyder, 1978) and represent deep-water sedimentary (turbidites) rocks that have been buried deeply and metamorphosed (Tweto, 1975)

In contrast to the very old igneous and metamorphic rocks, the glacial and river sediment (yellow on the map) tell the story of the mountain glaciers that flowed down from the Zirkel Mountains over the past several hundred thousand years (Atwood, 1937).


Rock Descriptions from Snyder, 1980

Qtd: Till (Pleistocene) – Hummocky, boulder till with closed depressions and sharp lateral moraines; includes Qts of Hail (1968) on east side of range

Qtc: Till (Pleistocene) – Smooth surfaced till, less boulder than Qtd; only remnants of lateral and terminal moraines are preserved, generally within or at mouths of canyons just beyond the limit of

Qtd; includes Qt2 of Hail (1968) on east side of range

Qge: Terrace Gravel (Holocene? And Pleistocene?) – Alluvial gravel in terraces 0-3 m above modern flood plains

Xgn:  Felsic Gneiss to Amphibolite Metavolcanics (Precambrian X) – Mainly prominently to faintly layered feldspar – quartz- biotite gneiss, feldspar- quartz- biotite-hornblende gneiss, and many varieties of amphibolite.  Includes biotite schist and small lenses of all other Precambrian rocks not otherwise mapped.

Yp: Porphyry Dike (Precambrian Y) – Fine grained porphyry dikes of intermediate composition



Atwood, W.A. Jr., 1937, Records of Pleistocene Glaciers in the Medicine Bow and Park Ranges; The Journal of Geology, v. 45, n 2., p 113-140.

Snyder, G.L., 1978, Intrusive Rocks Northeast of Steamboat Spring, Park Range, Colorado; USGS Professional Paper 1041. 42 p.

Snyder, G.L., 1980, Geologic map of the northernmost Gore Range and southernmost Northern Park Range, Grand, Jackson, Routt Counties, Colorado; USGS  Miscellaneous Investigations Series Map I-1114. Map Scale 1:48,000.

Tweto, O., 1975, Laramide (Late Cretaceous – Early Tertiary) Orogeny in the Southern Rocky Mountains; in Curtis, B.F., ed; Cenozoic History of the Southern Rocky Mountains, The Geological Society of America Memoir 144.

White-Crane, Diane, 2003, Hiking the ‘Boat II, Versa Press, Inc., East Peoria, Illinois, 289 p.


Glacial Geology of the Mad Creek Hike, Steamboat Springs CO

(an excerpt from a geological fieldtrip guidebook that is written for a participant who is scientifically literate, but a non-scientist)

To learn about past mountain glaciation of the North Park Range, we will integrate multiple types of data including aerial images and hiking observations with published literature.

Google Earth images provide the aerial perspective.  Google Earth is a readily available open-source computer program that integrates and provides access to ~100 years of public- and private- funded data including digital elevation data, satellite data, other aerial photos, and mapped data (Sheppard and Cizek, ,2009).

Scientific literature exists on the timing and extent of Pleistocene Southern Rocky Mountain glaciations (Richmond, 1965; Porter, 1983; Pierce, 2003; Dahms, 2004), but little recent work has focused on the North Park Range specifically.  In 1937, Atwood published North Park Range glacial extent maps that are still relevant today (Figure 1).   According to Atwood (1937), glaciers flowed down high-elevation valleys and terminated at approximately 7000 ft.


Figure 1.  North Park Range – Pleistocene-age mountain glaciers with Mad Creek glacier highlighted in yellow. 1-last glacial moraine; 2- areas covered by glaciers; 3- outwash deposits; 4 – older moraine; 5 nonglaciated areas.    Modified from Atwood, 1937.


Glaciers produce characteristic erosional patterns and landforms (Figure 2) that are preserved in the landscape long after the glaciers have gone.  Glaciers erode and transport rock and sediment while reshaping the valley into a characteristic U-shaped valley.  Glaciers also carve bedrock drumlins, tear-drop shaped erosional features cut into the hard, resistant underlying rock.

Glaciers transport all types and sizes of sediment including mud, sand, gravel, cobble, and house-sized boulders.  Two types of deposits observable on the Mad Creek Hike include moraine and outwash deposits.  The glacier concentrates the unsorted sediment in a base layer called a moraine.  The outwash plain is composed of deposits of gravel, sand, silt, mud that are carried away from the glacier by meltwater streams.

Figure 2.  Generalized Illustration of a Mountain Glacier erosional and deposition system (modified from concepts in Benn and Evans, 2003).


Mad Creek Valley exhibits the characteristic shape described as a U-Shaped valley.  Bedrock Drumlins (composed of metamorphic and igneous rocks) are also present in the Mad Creek Valley (Figure 3).



Figure 3:  Mad Creek Valley looking northeast, updip of Mad Creek Hike. The creek, Mad Creek, flows down the center of the valley. Modified from “Mad Creek Valley” 2016: Google Earth©.

In the Mad Creek valley around the Mad Creek Barn (Figure 4), glacial sediment drapes the bottom of the valley.  White dots in the photo are boulders visible on the ground.  The boulders are sitting on and surrounded by poorly sorted brown mud and sand with cobbles.  This deposit is interpreted as a moraine (Figure 4).  Other sediment within the valley exhibits a characteristic appearance of outwash deposits.  These are interpreted as sinuous gravel-rich sediments deposited by braided meltwater streams (Figure 4).

Figure 4.  Mad Creek – bird’s eye view – looking down – north is to top of map.  Modified from “Mad Creek Barn” 2016: Google Earth©.



Landforms and deposits formed by glaciers are evident along hiking trails in the North Park Mountain Range.  By integrating multiple sources of information, we can learn about these geological features along the Mad Creek trail, and train our eyes to recognize them elsewhere.


Atwood, W.A. Jr., 1937, Records of Pleistocene Glaciers in the Medicine Bow and Park Ranges; The Journal of Geology, v. 45, n 2., p 113-140.

Benn, D.I., and Evans, D.J.A., 2003, Glaciers and Glaciation, Arnold/Oxford, London/NY, 734 p.

Dahms, D.E., 2004, Glacial limits in the Middle and southern Rocky mountains, USA, south of the Yellowstone ice cap; Quaternary Glaciations – Extent and Chronology, Part II. Ehler, J., and Gibbar, P.L., Eds.

“Mad Creek Valley” 40⁰ 36’ 07.67”N and 106⁰ 50’ 22.49” W,  eye alt 10752 ft,  Google Earth. 6/18/2014. 2016 Google

“Mad Creek Barn” 40⁰ 35’ 10.50”N and 106⁰ 52’ 10.36” W,  eye alt 7284 ft,  Google Earth. 6/18/2014. 2016 Google

Pierce, K., 2003, Pleistocene glaciations of the Rocky Mountains; Developments in Quaternary Science, v 1, p 63-76.

Porter, S.C., Pierce, K.L. & Hamilton, T.D., 1983, Late Pleistocene glaciation in the Western United States. In: Porter, S.C. (Ed.), The Late Pleistocene, Vol. 1, of: Wright, H.E., Jr. (Ed.), Late Quaternary Environments of the United States. Minneapolis, Minn., University of Minnesota Press, p. 71–111.

Richmond, G.M., 1965, Glaciation of the Rocky Mountains.  In: Wright, H.D., Jr. & Frey, D.G. (Eds), The Quaternary of the United States. Princeton University Press, Princeton,New Jersey, 217–230.

Sheppard, S.R.J., and Cizek P.,, 2009, The ethics of Google Earth: Crossing thresholds from spatial data to landscape visualization;  Journal of Environmental Management, v 90, p 2102-2117.