Barns are an iconic symbol of the ranching lifestyle in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. One of my favorite historic barns is Mad Creek Barn. The hike is four miles round trip in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area north of Steamboat.
The first ten minutes of the hike are a gradual incline with no shade. Make sure you’re wearing sunscreen and have plenty of water on this hike. You’ll feel your heart pumping right off the bat since most of the 440-foot elevation gain is in the first 10-15 minutes of the hike. In under seven minutes, I was high above Mad Creek. You can hear the water, especially when snow melt has the creek flowing fast, as you follow the creek for most of the hike. You’re hiking on “Canyon Road,” which was constructed in 1920 to give Courtney and George Ives easier access to their “dude ranch.” About 12 to 15 minutes on the trail you hit a couple of shady spots. The instant temperature drop is a welcomed change from the full sun exposure. The trail also starts to level out with easy rollers or very gradual incline the rest of the way.
I got my first glimpse of the barn about 30 minutes into my hike. When you get to a pretty aspen grove, you’re almost there.
Mad Barn sits in a picturesque meadow. It took me about 40 minutes to get there, even with stops to take pictures and video. The barn was built in 1906 by local rancher James “Harry” Ratliff as his homestead. He would later become the first forest supervisor of the Routt National Forest. The barn was restored in 2001.
You can go inside where you see stalls and troughs. There’s a wooden ladder you can climb to the loft. This was my fifth or sixth time to hike to Mad Creek Barn. My favorite spot is sitting in the loft window to enjoy the view. The barn doors and windows creak in the wind to add some ambiance to the old barn. When you’re by yourself, like I was, it can be a little eerie. As I was sitting in the window, I envisioned what it must have been like in the 1920s and 1930s and the cowboys who would have been in and out of the barn.
After about 20 minutes or so of exploring the barn, I hiked a little farther to get down by the creek. There’s was a father and son fishing and a family of six having a picnic. It’s a great spot to do both.
You get a different view hiking back as you look down the canyon and out to the Yampa Valley. It took me about 40 minutes at an easy pace to get back to the trailhead from the creek. Allow 2-3 hours to enjoy this hike, explore the barn and spend time along the creek.
If you don’t want to do an out-and-back hike, you can continue on to Strawberry Hot Springs, but you’ll need someone to pick you up there or take Mad Creek to Red Dirt for a 10-mile loop. To get to the trailhead I started from, take U.S. Highway 40 just west of Steamboat Springs and head north on Routt County Road 129. The trailhead will be on your right just after 5.5 miles. There is a Mad Creek Trail sign. Right after that is a gravel parking lot with a restroom. You’ll see the sign for Swamp Park Trail No. 1100 on the left side of parking lot, opposite of trail near restroom. That trail will take you to Mad Creek Barn.
Author Jennifer Broome has traveled extensively across Colorado and is an expert on outdoor adventure in the state. Check out the Explore Colorado section for more adventures. There are great restaurants in Steamboat. Her favorite place for breakfast is Creekside Cafe. If you’re heading to Steamboat in the winter, do the short hike to see the iced over Fish Creek Falls or snowshoe on Rabbit Ears Pass.