Where the prairie ends and the mountains begin; the high point of the Wet Mountains of Colorado, Greenhorn Mountain
In the midst of a cold and damp Winter I felt the urge to see the eastern side of the Great Divide where I had formally made my home. Knowing that I was about to embark on a long day of driving, hiking and exploring I rose at the first light of dawn to get myself and the shepherds, Draco and Leah, ready for the trip ahead. All loaded and geared up, I stopped at the local all-night convenience store to fuel up, grab a quick breakfast and the requisite coffee. We left Gunnison on U.S. 50 and drove eastwards towards the massive promontory that is the Continental Divide. The sky contained mostly clouds but enough of a gap existed to allow a gorgeous sky of bright crimson, oranges and yellows to glow overhead.
I allowed plenty of time to enjoy the sunrise by driving only forty-five miles an hour in the sixty-five zone. This precaution I took to avoid crushing one of the numerous deer that were grazing in the low area along Tomichi Creek. The highway shares the same southern face where the ungulates like to graze during deep winters and collisions were occurring near daily in the region. While most locals slowed down especially during the crepuscular hours many out-of-towner’s refused to heed the advice of the electronic signs warning of the deer migration. Some would become irritated at having to follow me or others who didn’t want to crush deer. It is simply amazing at how impatient some folks can be, who are willing to thwart their own self-interest in shaving off a few minutes from what usually is a three to four hour drive regardless.
Slowly we made our way, but make it we did and before the Sun had crested the distant eastern horizon the dogs and I had crossed over the Great Divide and entered the headwaters of the Arkansas River, one of the larger tributaries of the great Mississippi River that empties into the Gulf of Mexico and, consequently, the Atlantic Ocean. I usually stop atop the summit but as the canines seemed to be especially reposed I decided to continue on down the road. We drove past Poncha Springs and Salida and on into Bighorn Sheep, nee Arkansas River, Canyon. At Texas Creek I pulled over where access to the river isn’t complicated by bureaucratic regulation. Much of river access is managed as a state park and requires a daily fee to use the facilities. But I know where the Bureau of Land Management allows access without any fanfare. Thus, we stopped and I kind of rolled my eyes when the dogs didn’t even show any interest in gulping up some of the water proffered. We hiked up Texas Creek Gulch a short distance, walking under the railroad bridge that carries the old mainline of the Denver, Rio Grande and Western Railroad. Returning to the car, I began driving again, along the river in this especially winding stretch of U.S. 50.
Just above the Royal Gorge the highway must leave the riverside and climb a tall mesa to avoid the narrow confines of that restrictive canyon. Descending the eastern face of the highlands we enter Canon City where I stop for more coffee. We leave U.S. 50 to follow Colorado 115 south of town. This highway follows the old original alignment of U.S. 50 through a number of small towns. While not nearly as fast as the main route I find this road to be a bit more to my taste. At the small city of Florence I pilot the car to the south via Colorado 67, a road that I used to traverse with regularity. Even now, after many years absence, I still enjoy the visceral thrill that this road holds for me as it skirts the eastern base of the northern portion of the Wet Mountains. At a signed point-of-interest I pull over to let the shepherds out again. I read the sign about Hardscrabble, an Eighteen-Thirties trading post, and try to imagine the landscape sans highway and fence lines. I stand facing west, towards the mountains, buffeted by the fierce winds that are racing out of the canyons on their out towards the Great Plains.
At the hamlet of Wetmore Colorado 67 ends at Colorado 96, another road that I used to be familiar with. Towards the east the highway leads to Pueblo but I turn west where the road rises steeply to cross over the mountains. I drive only a few miles along the paved route before turning to the south on Custer County/San Isabel National Forest Road 306. Driving thus in the foothills, the road winds around a bit through both extant and burned forest. Crossing the divide between Hardscrabble Creek and the St. Charles River, the road became surprisingly steep and needs switchbacks to make the grade. Approaching from the north, I stopped at one place to admire the view back the way I came and could see out across the distant Arkansas River towards the much more distant Pike’s Peak. We left Custer County and entered Pueblo County where the road became 212. Entering the village of Beulah, I couldn’t but help admire the beautiful setting in a lush mountain meadow among rising hills covered in ponderosa pine. A short distance south brought us to the Pueblo Mountain Park. Many cities in Colorado own a parcel of land in nearby mountains where picnicking, camping, hiking, biking, horseback riding and numerous other outdoor activities may be pursued. Knowing that this park has numerous hiking trails I decided to see if any where snow-free enough for actual hiking.
The entry road had been plowed but not too far along and I parked the car under a grove of trees. This made me a bit nervous as the wind was gusting somewhere in excess of forty miles an hour and the ponderosa trees were waving their branches with vigor. The accumulated snow piled up to about a foot or so. While not too comfortable for walking, I found a trodden path that led back towards a water collection site. Returning to the car I decided to walk up one the roads, following the tracks of others, until I reached the Tower Trail. This trail rises above the picnic grounds and leads up to a fire lookout. A bit of a challenging hike due to the snow, although some parts of the trail were exposed enough to the Sun’s warmth that it had melted out. Reaching the small summit after about a mile of hiking, I found the wind to be even more abominable, gusting somewhere in the region of gale force. The tower, which I had hoped to climb as it is open to the public to do so, was swaying in such a manner that I decided against it. In fact, I almost immediately left this place since the trees were being blown so hard that I began to fear for my and the dogs safety. I was, in fact, sure that the tress couldn’t survive this assault and would snap off all too soon. I led the dogs back down the trail until the wind had abated.
One of my favorite views from this little adventure was looking out towards the east, through the foothills barely able to discern the Great Plains beyond. But the prairie was there, and I stood for a brief moment enchanted with the sight. The trees proving more hardy than I had worried they might, I was happy to find my car unscathed. In reality, the branches generally held to the boles and the only thing fallen were needles that now blanketed the snow. I drove out to Colorado 78 and turned back towards the west. This highway we followed until its terminus at Colorado 165. The former highway is also something of an anomaly, and is only one of two state highways to remain unpaved, something that I find interesting. Considering the relative proximity to the highly developed Front Range, it amazes me that the Wet Mountains remain yet so underpopulated.
I followed Colorado 165 south and east as it wound through the Wet Mountains. The wind continued to howl and I was happy to exit the mountains near the town of Rye before the highway became blocked by downed trees or some such thing. At Colorado City I made junction with Interstate 25 and drove south so that I could look at the eastern front of the Wets. Now out on the open prairie my view was unobstructed for miles around. The wind blew perpendicular to the freeway and I thought to myself that the people driving the big rigs must be a bit tense on a day like this. I pulled over at Apache City, which is really just a place, at Exit 67 and admired the stunning sight of the Wet Mountains rearing up over the prairie. Its amazing that nearly a thousand miles of relatively flat plains could end so suddenly and dramatically. The stop was brief and I continued south towards Walsenburg before turning back to the northwest via Colorado 69. Now driving into the wind, the car rocked back and forth as it was buffeted by the strong gusts. I stopped one more time at Huerfano County Road 614.1 to again admire the views of the mountains as seen from the perspective of the Great Plains.
To the south reared up the great masses of the Spanish Peaks, twin peaks evolved from intrusive magma. These peaks are separate from the nearby Culebra Range, and are also known for the dikes of intrusive granite that radiate out and form some of the best known examples of such dikes in the world. Designated a National Natural Landmark for the unique geology, the peaks were also a well known landmark on the old Santa Fe and Taos Trails. In some places they can be seen from up to one hundred miles away. Within the region, a person often sees the moniker Huajatolla (Wa-ha-toy-ya) applied to the peaks. This is a Spanish spelling of a Ute word that means “breasts of the Earth”, and it is hard to deny the appellation. There are a number of spellings for this word and I have given the most common. This area holds much history, from the early traders using the trails to the more recent coal mining as well as a big chapter in my own personal story. Thus, despite the winds that nearly blew me off balance, I stood and gazed at this area for a while, reliving my own life. I can still recall the first time way back in Nineteen Ninety-one when I first exited the Interstate and drove up to the small town of Gardner. I never knew such a place existed and I was immediately smitten and after college moved here to work at a nearby wolf sanctuary.
Although I could have lingered I realized that even under the best of circumstances it would take nearly three more hours to get home. So I continued up the highway until it crossed over Promontory Divide and on into Westcliffe and eventually rejoined U.S. 50 at Texas Creek. I usually take a short-cut to Cotopaxi, but hadn’t taken the former route in many years and wanted to see the changes, if any. At the main route I headed back west towards Salida and then continued up to the summit of Monarch Pass. Now I understood the reason for the fierce winds. While a few clouds had scudded across the firmament when out to the east, I immediately reentered a storm system that was depositing large amounts of snow upon the summit. The clouds had backed up against the Great Divide, which acts like something of an air dam and the entire eastern slope can be thought of as a great sluice for the air to race down on its path eastwards.
I let the shepherds run amok atop the snow while I huddled against the blowing cold, happy to be nearly home. Fortunately, I had been imbibing coffee most of the day and remained perky for the drive back to Gunnison. This had been a long day of mostly driving with a few short stops thrown in. The hiking was short, and I should have brought my Nordic skis, but it did satisfy my Travelling Jones and I got out of it a first-hand account of the snowpack on the eastern side of the mountains. As I would have expected, not nearly as much snow had fallen as had on our Western Slope, and in a typical year some eighty percent of precipitation falls on the latter. With the exception of the Pueblo Mountain Park, I hadn’t really seen anything new but I would say that this is one of my favorite places to revisit!
Leah on Monarch Pass
Dawn colors over Tomichi Creek
Arkansas River at Texas Creek, the bridge is for Fremont County Road 27
Looking upstream on the Arkansas River, from Texas Creek Gulch
Leah on Texas Creek Gulch, beyond the old Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad bridge is the Arkansas River and the old grade to Westcliffe
On Colorado 67 south of Florence lies Hardscrabble, now a “point of interest”
The Wet Mountains near Hardscrabble
Looking north from Hardscrabble, across the Arkansas River towards Pike’s Peak
Looking up the Arkansas River drainage, near Hardscrabble
Looking north from Custer County Road 306, near the summit of the divide between Hardscrabble Creek and the St. Charles River
Signage for the Pueblo Mountain Park
Ponderosa in Pueblo Mountain Park
In Pueblo Mountain Park, near Beulah, Colorado
Windy but sunny day in Pueblo Mountain Park
Clear sky belies wind, an otherwise warm day
Walking along roads in Pueblo Mountain Park
At the trailhead for the Tower Trail
Map posted at the Tower Trail
Looking east from the Tower Trail
Looking north from the Tower Trail
From the Tower Trail, looking over Beulah and North St. Charles River and out into the Great Plains
The eastern ramparts of the Wet Mountains near Beulah, Colorado
The Great Plains seen from Pueblo Mountain Park
The view from the summit on the Tower Trail, looking west into the fierce wind
Looking south from the summit of the Tower Trail
Leah on a melted out bit of trail
A basin on South Creek, seen from the Tower Trail
Colorado 78 west of Beulah, crossing the Wet Mountains
Colorado 78 entering the San Isabel National Forest
Unpaved Colorado 78 descending towards the junction with Colorado 165
The western terminus of Colorado 78 at the junction with Colorado 165
The southbound on-ramp for Interstate 25 at Exit 67, the Spanish Peaks seen on the horizon. Bicycle are allowed on the shoulder of this stretch of freeway
Looking north on Huerfano County Road 614.1 at the southern end of the Wet Mountains; Badito Cone on the left and Greenhorn Mountain on the right
Looking south from Huerfano County Road 614.1 towards the distant Huajatollas; the Black Hills int he foreground
Leah and Draco posing on Monarch Pass on what proved to be a blustery day
Draco exploring on Monarch Pass
Where the prairie ends and the mountains begin; the high point of the Wet Mountains of Colorado, Greenhorn Mountain