Let’s Go Exploring! Elkhead State Park offers pristine winter recreation without much travel

The sign welcoming visitors to Elkhead Reservoir.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
A new series brings Moffat County’s wonders to you

We’re pleased to introduce our newest twice-monthly feature: Let’s Go Exploring!

This every-other-Friday effort will give Craig Press readers — from lifers to visitors to everyone in between — a peek at the glories of our area, with the idea in mind that a day trip in Moffat County or nearby is as good as just about anything you can do even with more time available.

Moffat County and its surrounding area is packed chock-full with wide-open wonders and unique eccentricities. We know our home is beautiful, but sometimes we don’t know exactly how to appreciate that beauty. That’s what Let’s Go Exploring! is all about.

In partnership with local experts, we’ll scout out the area’s great day trips and suggest what to bring, what to do, when to go and what to avoid when there.

We hope you enjoy this series. It’s a magical world, friends, Let’s Go Exploring!

Our next destination to explore is just minutes outside of town, but feels like miles from nowhere.

Nestled among foothills just to the east and north of Craig is Elkhead Reservoir State Park, a bucket of water that is ever so much more.

In the summer, Elkhead Reservoir is a camping, hiking, swimming, boating, fishing and picnicking destination that can hardly be beat. With amenities like bathrooms, docks, picnic stations, campgrounds and fire circles, it’s easy to lose one’s self in the Northwest Colorado wilderness without actually getting lost.

But in the winter, a blanket of white descends on the rolling hills and coats the frozen reservoir, offering ice fishing opportunities as well as all varieties of snowshoeing — from groomed hiking trails to, well, wherever you want to wander. Maintained by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, driving paths throughout the park are plowed regularly, making access easy to much of the nearly 1,300 acres of land surrounding the 4-mile-long reservoir easy.

Elkhead Reservoir stands quiet and clean, covered with snow on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press

What to do

“This time of year there’s a lot of ice fishing going on,” said Kirk Mahaffie with the CPW office that maintains Elkhead as well as nearby Yampa River State Park. “The best access for ice fishing is the boat ramp area, which is on the west side of the lake. There’s a northeast access too, that’s a road we keep open to the parking area to get fishing on the east side of the lake, the Hayden side. You can go wherever you want, but that’s what we keep open and plowed regularly.”

Snow machines are allowed on the ice to access ice fishing when it’s sufficiently frozen, Mahaffie said, though when it’s warmer the slush on the ice makes it harder for the machines to drive.

Snowshoeing is a big activity both on- or off-trail, Mahaffie said, pointing out that the city of Craig Parks and Recreation does weekly snowshoe events.

“The month of February they do every Saturday, a different trail each time, and they provide the snowshoes,” he said. “Snowshoeing is quiet, so you can see animals, birds. That’s a good way to get around, too. People walk on the trails, so they get pretty packed, but you can snowshoe off it also.”

Wildlife including pronghorn, some elk and many birds including large birds of prey can be found, as well as — less frequently — bears, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions.

Ice fishers will want the standard gear — augers, fishing gear, jaw-jackers if they’re so inclined — and can usually find pike and crappie, Mahaffie said. Good cold-weather gear is obviously highly recommended for ice fishing.

A wood fish sculpture stands atop a hill near the water at Elkhead Reservoir Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press

How to get there

From Craig, drive east out of town on U.S. Highway 40 to Moffat County Road 29, a left turn not far past Ike & Son Transmission. Turn left on County Road 29 and wind along through the foothills about 4 miles until a well-marked right turn takes you into the park.

A state park pass is required, but day passes can be purchased for $9 at sef-serve kiosks throughout the park or at the main office headed toward the boat ramp, where a credit card can be used.

“As long as you’ve got the right gear, you can pretty much come any time,” Mahaffie said. “It’s been cold for fishing, but I hear the fishing’s been pretty good”

A mirror at the boat station at Elkhead Reservoir shows a reflection of the landscape Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press

Being a good visitor

As anywhere, “Pack-in, pack-out” is the watchword for visitors. Leave no trace by bringing home everything you bring to the park.

“There’s the boat ramp and northeast access and two vault toilets open for use,” Mahaffie said. “Dogs are welcome, just have to be on leash. Winter time it’s more limited what you can do, but we’ve got 10.5 miles of trail open all year, though some are blown with snow in the winter. You can go anywhere you want — don’t have to stick to trails. You can snowshoe across the ice, visit the other side. Some people ski, though there’s no ski track.”

Quiet hours are between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Visitors are requested to use provided grills or rings for fires and to extinguish fires fully before leaving.


More Like This, Tap A Topic

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Craig and Moffat County make the Craig Press’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.