West Elk Creek Via Lion Gulch Trail No. 536 – November 14, 2017

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Looking down into West Elk Creek, a remote valley in the West Elk Wilderness

Mid-November found the German shepherds and I out and about on Lion Gulch on the south side of the West Elk Mountains.  Having a day off, I had no reason to worry about having to rush myself.  We drove out west from home in Gunnison, Colorado, on U.S. 50 and into Curecanti National Recreation Area.  At the Red Creek Road we left the pavement and drove a few miles up a bewildering patchwork of federal and state land agencies’ property.  It is difficult to know whether I was on land managed by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management or Colorado Parks and Wildlife.  The confusion, albeit of the academic sort, was lessened somewhat once we crossed over the boundary of the National Forest, where all the land is managed by the Forest Service.  The Forest Service has designated the road with the number 723, and generally it is well maintained and easily traversed by the Family Truckster.

Just past the boundary lies the Lion Gulch Trail No. 536.  Although signed at the trailhead and printed on commercial maps, oddly enough the Gunnison National Forest use map doesn’t show this route.  Most of the use occurs during hunting seasons, and because we where hiking during that time I had myself and the dogs gussied up in our best bright orange finery.  One rifle season had ended and another had yet to begin so the trailhead was empty on this blustery day in mid-Autumn.  Despite the lateness of the season only a skiff of snow covered the shadowy aspects; where the Sun blazed down the snow had been long melted off.  We started off on the trail within a forest of aspen, Draco and Leah busily rushing off ahead to investigate rodent activity.

This trail has two phases:  On the eastern side, where the trailhead is, Lion Gulch is a pleasant walk up a slight grade that brings the path to the divide between Red Creek and West Elk Creek.  Near the summit is a large open meadow that has earned the sobriquet Elk Park.  I have seen elk here before but on this day the park is empty and quiet.  I let the dogs do their thing, keeping an eye out for big game and their predators.  Excepting the depths of Winter I have hiked this trail in all seasons and thus wasn’t surprised when after crossing the divide the trail descended steeply via a series of switchbacks down into West Elk Creek.  The mellow rolling hills found on the Red Creek side of the divide swiftly gave way to a deep gorge, the tortured geology of which captivates all but the most indifferent people.  Here, like so many other places within the West Elk Mountains, the breccia has been eroded into hoodoos, fins, spires, cliffs, and other oddities.

The divide between the two drainages also serves as the boundary to the West Elk Wilderness, and I am happy to know that this area has been protected from the excesses of our mechanized society.  Near the top of the switchbacks a couple of views upstream present themselves.  Towards the bottom a fine view to the south, across Blue Mesa Reservoir, of the San Juan Mountains is afforded.  Near the end of the trail the path has been laid out near some of the hoodoos and closeup inspections of the breccia can be had.  A small meadow lies at the bottom, next to the creek and here the official trail ends.  I remember that the first time I came down here was in Spring time and then the creek was a rushing torrent and I had no interest in going any further.  That mindset never altered over the years, but since then I have found out that an unofficial user-created/game trail runs south to the reservoir.  Today, with low water making crossing much less perilous, I decided to continue on to the south and see what I could.  My goal was to reach a large meadow easily espied from above, and located about a mile south.

While not up to the standards of a mainline trail, the path was surprisingly easy to follow and the only real mystery to me was why I had never noticed before.  The shepherds and I walked through a heavy forest along the creek until crossing the shallow water.  No real challenge at this time of year, but it would be during the high flow of a heavy runoff.  A nice campsite used, I would presume, by mostly hunting parties is located on a flat and within a stand of spruce.  On a hillside nearby the user trail continues up into the large park that I had oft espied from above.  I led the pups up and into a open area of grasses, sagebrush, spruce and aspen.  We went on another quarter to half a mile before finding a patch of grass to sit on.  Here we had lunch and rested.  I enjoyed the sunshine and breathed in the clean air, exalted in my relative freedom.  Naught else to do but watch the clouds sail by overhead, that is what I did.

I studied the map for a time and realized that this large outpouring of debris that forms the park sits under Carpenter Gulch.  Due to the specific topography I could not easily locate it when I looked around.  I noted that the trail seems to continue south indefinitely and would guess that it connects with Blue Mesa Reservoir a few miles downstream where a boat-in campsite is administered by the National Park Service.  I’ve been there by foot, having bushwhacked my way in once or twice.  There are a couple of old bladed roads rising up from the campground that I believe lead to or form the trail in that vicinity.  As a long term goal, I am interested in closing that gap of a few miles but it will require either an overnight trip or a shuttle-assisted day trip.  Some day…

As much as I wanted to stay the Sun’s low angle upon the cerulean dome above demanded my action.  Languidly I rose from my grassy nest, and as I did the dogs, generally keyed to my movements, produced some gaping yawns while rising with wagging tails.  We hiked back upstream and I admired a field of hoodoos on the canyon walls, gray mounds rising above the dark green spruce.  The cataclysms that produced the pyroclastic flows can be implied from the remaining evidence, that is, the immense amounts of material that had been belched forth from the volcano.  The coarse chunks within the breccia are remains of exploded rock, suggesting a explosive force beyond anything our civilization has seen.  And this went on for how many millions of years?  It all seems so peaceful now, with only the power of erosion helping to remind me of the strange foreboding nature of this landscape.

The shepherds and I recrossed West Elk Creek and then found the trail that leads back up to the divide.  This end of the trail is not marked in the least and if a person didn’t know where to look they could be in for consternation.  There doesn’t seem to be any trail that leads north, but I’m not entirely sure about that statement.  Regardless, having carefully noted the location earlier, I led the dogs back up the switchbacks, myself admiring the hoodoos, the huge cliff now dominating the view, the park we had recently visited and the upstream canyon on West Elk Creek.  Reaching the divide the scene changed rapidly.  The heavy forest of spruce and Douglas fir, flanking the deep canyon of West Elk Creek, gave way to the gentle slopes and aspen forest of Lion Gulch and Elk Park.  Where the aspect is warm and sunny, the sagebrush grows but must compete at this wetter elevation with the grasses that dominate the moist areas.  After the stiff climb out of the canyon I was all to happy to ramble down the gentle grade along Lion Gulch.  Having now been ensconced in the depths of West Elk Creek on a few occasions I heartily look forward to my return for a time longer than a few hours.

Hermit’s Rest and Crystal Creek Trails, Curecanti National Recreation Area – November 08, 2017

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Overlooking Morrow Point Reservoir, the Hermit’s Rest Trail seen winding down, the San Juan Mountains on the distant horizon – Curecanti National Recreation Area

While I generally support fair-chase hunting practices there are some folks who don’t believe that rules or ethics apply to them.  Thus, I’m a bit edgy during the four big-game rifle seasons here in Colorado.  Having two tawny German shepherds adds to my paranoia.  Too many tales of frustrated hunters shooting at the first coyote they see bounce around in my head, and thus during this season I am amply dressed in bright orange and the pups wear panniers.  But I also look for the hikes where the twin criteria of hunting is prohibited and dogs are allowed.  Most National Parks prohibit dogs, at least in the backcountry, and that is well and good.  Most National Forests are open to hunting, and I don’t want to upset good-people’s hunts nor encounter the thoughtless’s wanton behavior.  Of course, I also believe in standing up for my rights and will hike on the public lands under the auspices of “multiple use” when I see fit to do so.  But today I decided to visit the Curecanti National Recreation Area, an area with limited hiking trails but which is closed to big-game rifle hunting and allows dogs on trails.

A light snow had fallen the day before but on this day the clouds had mostly parted and the Sun shone down with warmth and light, warming the otherwise cool gusts.  Having loaded up the dogs in the car we then drove out west on U.S. 50 from Gunnison, past the length of Blue Mesa Reservoir.  At the junction with lightly-trafficked Colorado 92 we turned off on that narrow two-lane highway and crossed the dam.  The highway follows the Black Canyon of the Gunnison from its upper reaches for a number of miles, usually eight to twelve hundred feet above the rushing waters.  The winding nature of this road has earned it a thirty-five mile an hour speed limit, and the way is slow going.

The NRA is managed by the National Park Service, and the NPS has established three recreational trails along the length of the highway.  We drove past the first and an hour and change after starting we reached Hermit’s Rest.  This trail drops eighteen hundred feet in three miles.  It is on a south facing slope and is a fine hike during Spring and Fall.  The heat can be a bit much during Summer.  Regardless, the trail is wide and always well maintained.  There are plenty of benches for those wishing for a seat.  On this Autumnal day nobody else was in the parking lot, and while I gazed out at the San Juan Mountains to the south only a couple of cars drove by on the highway during the ten minutes I languished in the lot.  Quietness reigned, and the silence only increased as we descended below the canyon’s rim.

A number of switchbacks lead the intrepid hiker down past pinyon and ponderosa pine, Gambel oak and sagebrush.  In the deeper pockets a few spruce and Douglas fir grow.  Descending at a rapid rate, sometimes almost jogging so as not to retard my pace with my knees, the dogs and I reached the bottom well under an hour.  There we found the campground used during more clement weather by both hikers and boaters.  Hermit’s Rest sits on the Morrow Point Reservoir, the middle of three blockages on the Gunnison River.  The shepherds swam in the waters a bit while I wandered around gathering stones that interested my sense of curiosity.  I found some pieces of translucent mica, and these engaged me for half an hour as I picked apart the layers and studied the play of light through them.

A nice place to relax, under the pinyon pine, I sat at one of the tables in the campground while fiddling with the silicate and ate some snacks of my own while the pups feasted on their kibble that I had hauled down.  After an hour or so we began our hike back up to the highway and parking lot.  This hike always seems to go fast, as the switchbacks break up the hike into distinct segments.  We made good time on the way back up and found only one other car-load of tourists taking in the view.  Because we had driven out so far, I decided to continue on a short distance and visit the Crystal Creek Trail.

The Crystal Creek Trail goes out some two and a half miles from Colorado 92, but unlike the previous trail gains or loses a minimal of elevation.  To quote the Park Service, “(s)weeping views of Cimarron Valley, the West Elk and San Juan Mountains can be viewed along the way.”  Two different overlooks near the end of the trail provide dramatic views of the Black Canyon and Crystal Reservoir, some eighteen hundred feet below.  Although this portion of the canyon is upstream of the famed National Park it still provides much of the same amazing scenery that the park does, albeit a bit more industrialized what with all the dams, roads and electrical transmission lines.  I can only attest to the drama of the sweeping views proclaimed by the Park Service.  I am especially a fan of the view to the north, where Crystal Creek drops down from its highlands and the West Elk Mountain rear up, snow-capped and majestic.

Again this trail is well maintained, although the parking area isn’t as well appointed.  Sometimes I tend to think of the hiking in the NRA as somewhat perfunctory but I have also enjoyed quietude and appreciation of nature.  I had seen some bobcat tracks on the hike up out of Hermit’s Rest, and sign of elk and deer on Crystal Creek.  Usually raptors sail overhead at some point, and ravens seem especially at home here.  Their calls and acrobatics overhead enliven the granite walls.  As Winter got ready to set into the valley, I was especially happy to get out and walk on the ground while I could.  The Sun had kept our hiking warm and salubrious, and as we drove home I kept the speed down simply to enjoy our passing.  The Gunnison River has taken eons to cut out this gorge in the uplifted granite and its concomitant dykes of intruded quartz.  The Earth and the life that has evolved to survive on it never ceases to fascinate me, and I drove my pack home satiated after another fine day out of doors.

Beaver Creek Above Gunnison State Wildlife Area – October 14, 2017

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Autumn colors and blue sky day on Beaver Creek

Beaver Creek:  One of those ubiquitous names that appears throughout the Rocky Mountains and interior western United States.  I’m sure that a hundred such creeks could be renamed and still their would not be a dearth of such denominated creeks.  This particular Beaver Creek is a few miles west of the City of Gunnison and drains from the north directly into the Gunnison River.  The first few miles of its length flow through the Gunnison State Wildlife Area though the headwaters begin miles up in the West Elk Mountains and Wilderness under the Baldies.  A few days previous I had hiked nearby and realized that had I had more time I could have hiked on Beaver Creek itself, something that I hadn’t done in a decade.  So, on this day, having a full day off, I decided to have an open-ended out-and-back hike, meaning that I would hike up as many miles as I felt like before turning around.  Simultaneously, though, I thought to myself that it would be nice to reach the forks of Beaver Creek, about six and a half miles upstream.

A fine high-pressure bluebird day awaited us.  The dogs and I loaded up in the Outback and drove west out of town on U.S. 50 until reaching the turnoff for the state wildlife area via Bureau of Land Management Road 3228/Gunnison County Road 726.  The trailhead is at road’s end after a bumpy last couple of miles.  Here on the southeastern flank of the West Elk Mountains this relatively low elevation trail begins on the east side of Beaver Creek in a flurry of cottonwood and conifer.  However, the slopes above that lead to long ridges cut through the breccia remind me of great swells on the sagebrush sea.  This lower country is semi-arid and fairly open to the Sun’s exposure.  As the valleys tighten the moisture collects in greater aggregation and within a couple of miles the sagebrush has been replaced by forest.

The Subaru gamely forded the low water in Beaver Creek and the relative solitude of the trailhead was broken by our motorized approach.  The quietude was further rendered when the pups burst out of the car to spend some pent up energy, though the drive was barely twenty minutes.  They raced around and hassled the local rodent population while I gathered my gear, and wits, before locking up the mechanical beast.  I then called the shepherds over and donned them with their panniers.  This I did not so much for their hauling ability but rather to make them more visible during these nascent days of big game rifle season.  I feel a bit better about our safety when we are adorned in bright orange.  Then, leaving the shady cottonwood grove, we began hiking upstream, passing by a few hoodoos and other geologic oddities carved from the breccia.  The Sun felt warm on this cool day, and I strode along with a grin.

Technically, this hike began on state land and then passed onto the BLM property before passing into the Gunnison National Forest.  The BLM calls this trail 3228t, denoting the continuation of the road.  The Forest Service calls this the West Beaver Creek Trail No. 447, and that is how I shall refer to it.  The trail is fairly level and the first mile and a half of hiking brought us quickly to the Forest Service boundary.  An old, dilapidated sign greeted us, along with abandoned fencing.  I can’t help but feel that this area used to receive more use than currently, as I believe this trail traverses an old road that has been closed at the current trailhead.  As we progressed upstream the forest became increasingly dense and the patches of sagebrush became less predominant.  We slowly but inexorably transitioned from the sagebrush sea to the montane forest.  Cottonwood continued to grow on the creek bottom, but I could see the aspen forest not too far away.

The trail continued to follow the creek until the crossing about a mile and a half upstream from the boundary we had passed.  Here  I found the remnants of an old bridge, a sad artifact from when the Forest Service was willing to invest more resources to recreation.  Like the boundary sign below, a certain feeling of abandonment pervades.  At low water, this crossing presented no real problems, but I wouldn’t want to do it when the creek rushes forth as a freshet.  Once across, we began to climb up and over a rise that affords some fine views of the surrounding country from an elevated vantage.  Presumably, this has been done to avoid a constriction in the creek bottom.  What a fine day, I thought to myself, as we hiked along this bench above the noisy creek below.  Aspen became fairly common but had already mostly lost their leaves.  Still, the dark green conifer forest, yellow grasses and blue sky created a palette of color that radiated salubrious joy.  Now on the west side of the creek, some of the northern aspects began to show a skiff of snow that Draco and Leah happily lapped up.  We continued onward towards April Gulch.

At April Gulch a relatively wide bottom contains a meadow and road access via Gunnison National Forest Road 726.2A.  It is also the lower limit of the West Elk Wilderness.  I had hoped to continue hiking up towards the forks of Beaver Creek but the trail was so overgrown and criss-crossed with huge fallen boles that I decided not to continue upstream the last half a mile or so.  Considering the dilapidated bridge I had found earlier I wasn’t too surprised to find that no trail maintenance had seemingly occurred in the last decade.  Instead of picking my way through the dense sub-alpine forest I led the dogs across the creek and we explored some of the meadows about the gulch.  We found a nice place to sit for a while, where I could soak up some of the gorgeous Autumn Sun.

The dogs and I had gotten a late start on our hike this morning and consequently we arrived late at the trailhead on our return.  The Sun had set below the ridge above us, inundating the valley in shadow.  We walked back downstream along Beaver Creek via the West Beaver Creek Trail No. 447.  Along the way I found an old trail sign that simply said “445”.  I don’t know what the number refers to.  A misprint?  An old control number for this trail?  A nearby ghost trail?  There are a number of the latter in this area but a perusal of some old maps, by no means exhaustive, elucidated not this mystery.  As the dusk approached we arrived at the trailhead where the low light, Autumnal colors and cooler temperatures enhanced the sense of oncoming Winter.  With the pleasing odor of sagebrush in my nostrils I loaded up the dogs into the station wagon and then drove back down the bumpy road to that made from gravel.  At the transcontinental highway I turned left, eastward, and drove home, beguiled by the beauty all around.  When I got home I found my aspen so joyously colorful that I snapped off a quick photo to memorialize my appreciation of this season.

Sunny Day on Steers Gulch – October 11, 2017

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On the first high point, Steers Gulch Road (BLM 3089/USFS 726); looking east over the Gunnison River towards the very distant Sawatch Range

I live in town, in the City of Gunnison in the State of Colorado, what some folks may consider to be the middle of nowhere but what is actually the heart of the Gunnison Country.  Nowhere is relative.  Sure, amenities may lack compared to a major urban center, but I can get into the wild after a short walk from my back door.  What surprises me after nearly a decade and a half living here is how many opportunities to get out, hike and explore exist within a short five, ten or fifteen minute drive.  What truly stimulates that wandering Jones is finding a new place to explore that lies within those parameters.  Thus, on this day in Twenty-Seventeen I drove out a short distance to the Gunnison State Wildlife Area on Beaver Creek.

Because this area has shared jurisdiction between two Federal agencies as well as the State and County (of Gunnison), determining who is responsible for the road network can be a shade confusing.  One road has a Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and County designation.  I parked along the main access road (which I believe is BLM Road 3228 and might be Gunnison County Road 726) to the state wildlife area near the junction with the Steers Gulch Road.  I’ve used this makeshift trailhead before for a slightly different hike.  Regardless, this road has been denominated 3089 by the Bureau of Land Management while the United States Forest Service has kept the County’s tag 726.  Especially confusing is that the County Road seems to diverge from the main, easily-traversed-by-passenger-vehicle road to the two-track suitable for high-clearance four-wheel-drive machines.

Regardless of the number, the shepherds and I followed this road four miles until it reached Steers Gulch.  A fine sunny day in mid-October, the air was still and the views crystal-clear.  Once we walked up a short distance I could see some forty miles to the Continental Divide, and I felt like I could reach out and touch it.  Well into Autumn, the day was chilly but soon warmed up.  Some frost had precipitated out onto the vegetation overnight and I stopped occasionally to stare at the crystalline formations.  This hike has no shade and is exposed on a south slope, so on this cold day it was a fine place to walk around.  Summertime temperatures would make this same hike a chore.  Except during hunting season, this area receives little human use and I saw nobody during our walk.

We hiked on towards BLM Road 3089c and down into Steers Gulch.  Stopping at the junction with BLM Road 3113, we had by this time gained enough elevation so that we had entered the lower portion of the aspen forest.  Only a few groves in choice locations grow at this relatively low elevation but they and the other deciduous vegetation still retained some of their Autumn color.  Yellow dominates but red hues and a few shades of orange could be discerned.  A bit of snow from an earlier storm lingered in shady areas but with the Sun shining down would soon become deliquescent.  This region is relatively dry and much of the ice sublimates, as well, leaving no moisture in the soil.  As is my usual custom, I found a nice place to sit.  Here I soaked up some of the Sun’s rays and nibbled on a snack, while the dogs gobbled up a mound of kibble.

Sitting here on the southern flank of the West Elk Mountains I could look out and see the City of Gunnison and the great mountain valley, or hole, where Tomichi and Ohio Creeks confluence with the Gunnison River.  The volcanic tablelands rising above me mingle with the uplifted rock and create some interesting geology. This southwest corner of the West Elks are also home to a huge band of elk and while I don’t see any today (I would guess that they were still higher up) I can feel their presence.  In fact, this area is fairly heavily restricted during the Winter and Spring months so that they can graze unimpeded by human presence.  After an hour’s rest the shepherds and I hiked back to the car.  Along the way I didn’t do much more than note some minor topographic details that might be of use in a future hike.  I also gazed out over the world, attempting to recall by rote the names of all the peaks in view.  I would be walking along and think to myself that if I crossed over that ridge I could get to that other drainage, and so forth.

Returning to Beaver Creek, I was taken aback by the gorgeous color of the cottonwood.  There is something about this time of year that I find so stimulating – the cold desiccated air embracing my cheeks, as the natural world prepares itself for the annual sleep that comes with Winter to be followed by the yearly rebirth of Spring… and the cycle goes on.  The sun-drenched slopes both soaking up the warmth and radiating it outward make a cold body feel good.  A salubrious locale on a chilly day, I remember thoroughly enjoying the sense of simply being, each step a footfall of grace in this peaceful place removed from the frantic pace of daily life.

Evening Walk on the Lower Loop Trail System – October 10, 2017

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Mount Crested Butte and Slate River

I gladly left my day of work behind me.  Having brought Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, up to doggy daycare I retrieved them and set out on a short evening walk just north of the town of Crested Butte.  This late in the season I knew that I wouldn’t have much time before darkness overtook us.  Thus one aspect of this hike that I took advantage of was the easy access to the trailhead, barely a quarter mile from town on Gunnison County Road 4.  I parked at the first, southern of two parking lots.  Signage advises using this lot due to the limited parking at the end of the road.  Although I found out that I could have parked there this day I wouldn’t have even bothered to try during the busy Summer season.

I’m not exactly sure who maintains these trails.  Some of the property is land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees much of the land in the western United States.  Some is owned by the Crested Butte Land Trust, and some of the trail seems to be easement through private property.  I made a minimal attempt at searching the internet to find out that information and can only conclude that some sort of collaborative effort between the two aforementioned organizations as well as the Town of Crested Butte has been arranged.  While perusing the ethereal database the typical descriptions that I read about this part of the trail network, for many trails extend well beyond the Lower Loop, were “mellow”, “easy”, “level”, “all skill levels”.  One description said “moderately trafficked” but that seems a bit too sanguine unless using Fifth Avenue as a reference for “heavy”.  This trail is, in my book, heavily used, but can that be any wonder?  Sublime scenery so close to town that nearly anyone can walk or ride out, and most do.  During Summer, nearly everyday someone on my crew name-checks this trail network as what they did before work or will do after.

Departing the trailhead the dogs immediately entwined themselves within the canine spectrum of perception.  I admired the visual aspect of the scenery, and the natural order of things as much as my limited senses of hearing and scent allow.  The scenery is grand, as laccoliths have pushed up seemingly out of the ground, although their formation is a bit more complex than that.  My sense of sight does allow me to appreciate the tapestry of life that graces the topography: the willow growing in masses, grasslands replete with forbs, dense forest of lodgepole pine, spruce in the danker aspects, aspen colonies en mass.  I can hear the birds, and smell the conifer, and the overall sense of being in the mountains pervades.  I, the modern man, despite my proclivity towards the outdoors, have lost, nay, never truly activated much of my ability to sense the world around me.  Still, I have learned much over the years and love to see what grows and lives, thrives and dies, on the Earth.

The hike I took was fairly straightforward.  Walking along the road I had a great view of Slate River, Peanut Lake (including signs warning of toxicity, a relic of the coal mining in the area), Mount Crested Butte, Anthracite Mesa and Gothic Mountain.  At the end of the road I continued on the wide version of the Lower Loop.  There is also a single-track version that parallels the other.  Most of the trail is planted on top of the old Denver and Rio Grande Western narrow-gauge railroad.  Earlier I had walked past “The Gronk”, remnants of an old coal tipple.  This odd-looking concrete structure has earned a place in local lore.  The trail follows the Slate River closely for much of the hike until towards the junction with the Gunsight Road.  A large meadow spreads out there, at the junction, and it is approximately where I ended the hike.  I lingered a bit but as the shadows increased in magnitude I soon restarted my hike in the opposite direction.  The shepherds dutifully followed, or raced ahead, depending on what caught their attention.  We returned to the car just as dusk settled over the region, filling the sky with the softer palette of colors found at crepuscular light.  The dogs had been stimulated all day, running around with the pack, and had now worked off their energy in a positive way.  The same might be said about me!

Snowy Day at Cooper Ranch – October 09, 2017

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The Gunnison River at Cooper Ranch

Cooper Ranch is a part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area.  When the Gunnison River was inundated, this parcel of land was initially spared the eminent domain condemnation of private property below this point.  My understanding is that although the stilled waters never reach this land the ice flowing downstream would back up.  Thus the owners compelled the Federal Government to purchase the land.  The NRA was formed to promote recreation.  At Cooper Ranch there are two small trails leading from the lower parking area.  The upper parking area connects with the eastern most of the two trails.  It is a very short hike leading to a small bluff that overlooks the Gunnison River.  On a clear day, which is most of the time but not on this day, there are some nice views of the Elk Mountains, Fossil Ridge and the Sawatch Range, the latter forming the Great Divide.

The western trail leads off about a quarter of a mile and ends at some benches.  A fisherman-trail continues a short way.  The National Park Service oversees this area and has set up about eight picnic table with fire pits.  I have used this area often, finding it a great place for a cookout.  Many of the tables are riverside and all are under towering cottonwood.  I sometimes bring the pups out here to walk them but generally I don’t take snapshots.  Nonetheless, it is one of my favorite respites from the perils of civilization.  A great place for being outside in early spring when the going is tough all over.  Aspen may get the raves, but one year the cottonwood here along the Gunnison River set up a wall of yellow that I have never seen equaled.  If I’m seen with an awkward smile on my face and a far away look replete with a welling of tears its likely that that glowing image is being replayed in my mind.

Cooper Ranch is only four or five miles west of my home in Gunnison, Colorado.  It is very popular with fly-fishermen during the Summer season but can be busy on all but the worst weather days, or during the depth of Winter.  Especially after work many locals zip on out to cast a line for the trout.  On this snowy day I found myself alone but tracks in the snow indicated that some other intrepid soul had found there way outside on this blustery Autumn day.  In Summer the pups enjoy the cool waters of the Gunnison River but today showed not inclination to enter.  In retrospect, I’m not sure why I brought the camera along on this day, except maybe a conscious recognition that I don’t take too many photos of the nearby walks I frequently, and without any real preparation, take.

To say the least, Draco and Leah thoroughly enjoy themselves here.  A cookout might mean some tethered-up tedium while I enjoy my steak and beer but they are always compensated with a bone upon which they gnaw ceaselessly.  Those cookouts are always anteceded or followed by a walk.  Squirrels chattering overhead or chipmunks scurrying on the trail provide canine stimulus.  The fresh snow did not exclude such rodent activity and the canines were excited.  The snow soaks up sound and thus the traffic on nearby U.S. 50 I could barely hear.  A fine little outing in a place I have come to appreciate over the years.

Chalk Creek Pass, Out and Back – October 07, 2017

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Near the headwaters of the Middle Fork South Arkansas River, looking downstream; Mount Aetna to the left and Mount Ouray in the distance

I had some unfinished business to attend to.  For years, nay, three decades, I had been driving by on U.S. 50 through the town of Garfield wondering where this particular little access road led off to.  Of course, I always had an excuse not to stop, usually filed under “making time”, or mileage anyhow.  Other times I was more curious about some other nearby obscure or obvious trailhead.  Finally, in the last couple of years, I began to explore this somewhat hidden access.  As I write this I recall that part of my inhibition exploring this route was due to private property issues.  One day I gathered courage and pulled off the highway to finally figure it out, steeling myself for the inevitable opprobrium and scrutiny that comes with overt trespassing.  To my delight I found that no direct conflict would occur as there was a very legal and unimpeachable right to access here.

That day I hiked up about a quarter or half a mile or so before the snows overwhelmed any desire to continue afoot.  But I had solved the dilemma of access and parking.  Now knowing my way around, I tried to hike up the road again in late Spring but had found deep snow towards the end of the road.  Plenty of wildflowers where abloom but I had hoped to hike up towards Chalk Creek Pass two miles beyond.  Thus this day in early October I determined to quench my curiosity by imbibing a large quaff of heady exploration.  Some snow had fallen in the region within the last week or two but I concluded that it wouldn’t hinder a simple hike along a well-trod path.  In keeping with recent tradition I had risen with indifference to time, fired up a quart of hot black coffee, enjoyed a hot breakfast of my own creation, typed away at a blog post and basically enjoyed an indolent morning of dilettantism before finally hoisting my rear-end up and out the door.

As is their accustomed wont the two German shepherds, Draco and Leah, excitedly loaded up in the old Subaru and gaily stuck their heads out the windows as we cruised east out of Gunnison, Colorado, via U.S. 50.  To get to Garfield from Gunnison involves crossing Monarch Pass, through the southern part of the Sawatch Range.  Doing so took me from the Pacific to the Atlantic drainage.  At Garfield I pulled off the road, gratefully, and parked on what I believe is an old alignment of the highway.  Crossing the Great Divide means locally that I also left the Gunnison National Forest for the San Isabel National Forest.  Gunnison County was exchanged for Chaffee.  Once we were ready, I led the pups up San Isabel National Forest Road 230.  This road neatly follows the Middle Fork South Arkansas River until the road ends some three miles up.

Hiking on roads isn’t my favorite thing but as this road dead-ends and is furthermore usable only by the truly intrepid I had not too many complaints.  Besides, this late in the season the crowds had been long gone.  Besides a limited amount of private property the main attraction on this road are the two trailheads that allow access to the Continental Divide Trail.  The first trailhead allows access to the south.  The trail formerly was routed over the road, but has been since realigned further up the slope.  The reroute doesn’t show up on my map and adds elevation and distance to a hike.  I followed the road since the vehicular traffic was light.  The first distance, nearly two miles, of the road passes through a green tunnel with minimal views but with a few tantalizing hints at what might be found further up.  After my initial snapshot at the road’s beginning I didn’t take another until above this trailhead where Mount Aetna rises up with stunningly surreal abruptness.

Below this point the dense sub-alpine forest dominates the scene.  Above this vista the glaciers had created areas where meadows could flourish and thus openness becomes more common.  I remember these meadows flush with Marsh Marigolds and Globeflowers, but now all had become dormant for the oncoming Winter.  On such a gorgeous Autumn day the blue sky, green forest and earth tones combined with the golden cured vegetation to create a fine ambiance.  While a few vehicles had been parked at the lower trailhead nobody had driven up to park at the second trailhead where San Isabel National Forest Trail 1422 begins.  This trail leads up and over Chalk Creek Pass and to Hancock Lake.  Thus the other name is the Hancock Lake Trail.

Part of the Continental Divide Trail, this route is therefore closed to all use but foot and equestrian.  It also receives a bigger helping of the maintenance budget than other trails and thus the blow down had been sawed through and a easy pace could be made without being interrupted by tedious detours around fallen logs. Leaving the trailhead and road behind the shepherds and I continued up the trail.  The forest thinned and fantastic views of the Great Divide presented themselves.  A number of small, unnamed lakes added to the salubrious nature of the hike.  By now the Middle Fork South Arkansas River swung from a westerly course, looking upstream, to one trending more northward, paralleling the divide.  To the west rose Clover and Vulcan Mountains, and my personal favorite Monumental Peak.  The trail is fairly level throughout the first mile or so and I kept on cruising up to the pass.

Towards the upper end of the small valley a small rise leads up to another set of unnamed lakes.  Once upon the lip I could see the pass a short distance ahead and also had grand views of the valley looking downstream.  The trail passes up against the eastern wall of the valley where a field of talus has fallen to the valley floor.  As we began the last steep to the pass the trees fell away in earnest and as the summit approached treeline denoted the oncoming alpine tundra.  I felt blessed to have such a warm and sunny day to visit this pass.  There is no shade here but this late in the year I was plenty happy to soak up the rays.  I found a nice rock to sit on and enjoyed the expansive views to the north, a whole lotta Sawatch Range, where a long line of mountains arched over the valley below.

Chalk Creek Pass doesn’t allow access between the two sides of the Continental Divide but rather lies just east of that topographic feature.  The pass I sat on divides two forks of the Arkansas River, Chalk Creek being a major prong in all but name.  Although I found myself in the hall of satisfaction the shepherds began to grow restless and somewhat warm.  After we had consumed our victuals and rested a bit I led the pups back down to the upper lakes where they could quench their thirst.  The hike back was a fine walk through meadow, willow and ultimately much forest.  Some of the forest has been affected by the beetle epidemic that has afflicted other areas with much more devastating effect.  However, this forest, blessedly and for the time being, has remained mostly verdant and for that I am grateful.

On the hike back down-valley I decided to walk along the rerouted Continental Divide Trail.  This reroute exists in two sections.  The upper section more or less parallels the road and I found this a fine walk, one that would be especially pleasing should vehicular traffic be heavy.  Along the way I saw some bristlecone pines, whose elder status in the forest cannot be denied.  These trees I always find inspiring.  The lower section I found much less to my liking.  I am not opposed to switchbacks, and generally enjoy the pace set when employed.  However, I didn’t care at all for the minimal grade set on this reroute.  It couldn’t have been much more than one or two percent along much of the trail.  The upper switchbacks were particularly interminable as I walked along for hundreds of feet looking up at the next ledge wondering why the trail just didn’t get to the point.  To separate the trail from the road a cliff band had to be avoided, and that is fine but I believe that this reroute adds too much unnecessary mileage to compensate for avoidance of the road.  I might change my tune during the busy Summer season but next time I’ll stick to the road.

Reaching the road I crossed it to hike a further short distance of the Continental Divide Trail.  Reaching the lower of the two trailhead on this forest road I veered off to take a gander at the bridge the trail uses to cross the river.  I thought briefly of heading on up to Boss Lake Reservoir but decided to finish the hike and return home to Gunnison.  My elder canine, Lady Dog, had patiently been waiting for our return the entire time, although I’m sure much of that had been spent gnawing on the bone I had left her.  Nonetheless, I would have felt it improper to leave her much long than I already had.  Thus the shepherds and I walked quickly down the road to the waiting car.  An especially fine day we had enjoyed just below the spine of the Rocky Mountains.