A mountain looms over the valley of the East River. One that I had driven by repeatedly on my regular commute from my home in Gunnison to my job in Crested Butte, Colorado. For years I had wanted to hike up to the summit of Cement Mountain, guardian of the creek of the same name. I had tried one time before only to be turned back by excessive snow pack. This day dawned with a nearly clear sky, only speckled here and there by a few lone puffy clouds, and I knew that the snowpack this year had become minimal enough to not impede me. I left fairly early in the morning after having consumed a quick breakfast. Draco and Leah, my two stalwart German shepherds and regular hiking companions, anticipated the mood and danced about the kitchen as I loaded the pack with our usual gear. I fed elder Lady Dog and left her something good to chew on as compensation for having to leave her behind. After I shut the door to the house the shepherds skittered about the yard until I opened the gate, and they then burst out and pranced about the car until I let them in.
We drove north out of town on Colorado 135, imitating my journey to the job, but about half way I turned off the highway onto the Jack’s Cabin Cutoff and piloted the old automobile up to the saddle that divides the Taylor and East Rivers. Those two waterways join together in Almont and form the Gunnison River. For whatever reason the East River has been the epithet assigned to the western fork. Regardless of the nomenclature, I found myself parked at the terminus of Gunnison National Forest Road 813.2A in the great expanse of the sagebrush steppe. Everywhere I looked on this exceptionally salubrious June day a sea of wildflowers spangled the otherwise ubiquitous grey-green of the sagebrush. The Mule’s Ears, a montane sunflower, grows in fecund profusion here, to the extent that the flowers lend a yellow tint to patches of the steppe.
Having previously made use of this access to the National Forest, I knew that I could expect a spectacular display of wildflowers. As I mentally prepared myself for the upcoming trek I admired the blooms readily visible to my naked eye. Not only had I already been blessed by this floral expanse but I excited myself with the prospect of visiting two higher life-zones where I would probably see many additional species of flowering forbs. Typical for the canine wont, the shepherds completely ignored the flowers unless some small rodent happened to pique the dogs predatory instinct, or some coyote had maybe piddled on it leaving an intriguing scent for their domesticated cousins. Nonetheless, as I admired my surroundings enjoying the quietude, Draco and Leah ran about in ever increasingly larger concentric circles until I readied myself and guided us up the road.
New batteries and an empty memory-card ensured that I would be able to photograph every single species of wildflower that I came across. To document all the different species I mandated as my goal for the day, besides the arduous hike that I had planned. So, as the pups scampered about from chipmunk to ground squirrel, I languished behind on the road immersed in various blooms colored the spectrum of refracted light such as often seen in a rainbow. This first mile of hiking provided me with some stunning views of the nearby mountains encapsulated in verdure under a deep blue sky. Lingering snowpack added to the scenic majesty and I floated along figuratively on a euphoria that often overcomes me when out walking around in a mountainous environment. Although I wandered around a bit, I also made haste so as to find some shade and water for the dogs. Although early and none too hot, the Sun would soon warm up this exposed steppe and I looked forward to our immersion in the cool shade of the conifer and aspen forest ahead of us.
Some parts of this hike lie on exposed southern slopes and I happily crossed those knowing that the cool aspen would both enchant and provide relief. The dogs and I followed the road to its conclusion near Roaring Judy Creek where a trail of the same name begins. Crossing said stream provided some cool relief and led to our first real challenge. We had to climb a steep, sunny gulch that could be called parched. Once past that we would continue our climb up a ridge, exposed to the Sun beating down on us, until we reached the gates of rock well above us. There is a trail of sorts that shows up on some maps but not others. According to the signage, this is Roaring Judy Trail No. 552. Regardless of its topography, it does receive a fair amount of use and is easy to follow. Although some aspen provide shade this hike is very sunny and there wasn’t much the dogs and I could do but endure the rays beating down on us. I found the views exhilarating but I could tell from the elongated tongues protruding from the shepherds jaws that they would be just as happy with some shade and water. Gratefully, we hiked into a conifer forest where patches of snow had yet to melt. Both dogs rushed forward and began to eagerly munch the snowpack as they lay upon it absorbing the cooling power. Since the trail coincidentally leveled out it seemed only natural that I too stop and doff my pack so that I too could enjoy some liquid refreshment.
Hiking onward we shortly made the junction with the Cement Mountain Trail No. 553 and soon afterwards left the forest for an open glade filled with newly green grass and some higher elevation wildflowers. We crossed a fork of Roaring Judy Creek and I decided that to climb Cement Mountain this would be a good place to leave the trail and make the mile and a half bushwhack up to the summit. There was a path of sorts, barely discernible, that I would suppose had been made by a few other hardy height seekers. The route I took wound through a dense forest but I had no real trouble with downfall. My only real concern was my motivation. I began to lose strength and had to mentally coax myself forward. Having the same trouble in the past on occasion, I just reminded myself to enjoy the scenery and wildness of this ecosystem. I did give a prayer of thanks when I left the forest and crossed into the tundra, thus allowing me to see my progress and future route, as well as the scenic basin rimmed in snow on the southwest flank of the mountain. Here, I did briefly worry about exposure due to the hot Sun shining down onto the easily-warmed dogs, but needn’t have. Enough snow remained in scattered patches to both cool and quench.
As soon as I gained the ridge I began to get hints of the view I would see upon reaching the summit. The Elk Mountains stretched out in a panoramic view still mostly clad in snowy accouterments. Puffy clouds dotted the sky from horizon to horizon all in a single layer that created a ceiling of sorts. Cement Mountain rears up to twelve thousand and two hundred feet above elevation, thus putting the dogs and myself with certainty into the alpine life-zone. I thrilled at the new species of wildflowers that I saw. By new, I mean for the season or day, for I have seen all these species on other hikes in the past. One step at a time, I continued on my trek, marveling at the glory of life around me.
Although by now extremely tired I could see the summit up ahead and made my strides slowly but without pause until I had reached that lofty goal. I paused to study the surroundings and then continued on another short distance until I found a place on the precipice of a small cliff area that allowed me to face north and bask in the glorious mountain setting. The lower elevations had taken on the unique green of late Spring when all the vegetation exuded a freshness that makes the vernal months something to revel in. Sitting down with my water and food I soon satiated my cravings and got to contemplating the majesty of life. Oh, glorious day! How blessed I am to have been there at this time. The snapshots help me remember but in reality nothing can replicate the expansive feelings that come over me when I am on top of the world.
Sometimes in places like this I feel a certain form of eternity overcome me. The vast infinite reminds me that as much as I am sometimes forced to ford the currents of our mainstream lifestyle, I am also strong and capable of finding those eddies of awareness and being that make it all worthwhile. After a while, without thinking about it, I rose and began the long trek back to the trailhead. This quest of mine to reach the summit had been completed, but now the arduous part awaited. I didn’t take the exact route down that I had used on the way up. Instead I followed the ridgeline all the way until the pass that divides Roaring Judy Creek from Rosebud Gulch. I enjoyed this bit of extra excursion as it kept me above treeline a bit longer. Rejoining the Cement Mountain Trail No. 553 I headed west back into the Roaring Judy drainage and walked down to the glade. This setting exudes a salubrious bearing and I paused to wander about the marshy creek banks and create more snapshots of some species of wildflowers that I had missed on the way up.
Returning to the junction with the Roaring Judy Trail No. 552 I forewent that trail and continued on the left fork via the Cement Mountain Trail No. 553. We crossed the creek and entered a thick forest until reaching the end of the trail at the Rarick Road. Also called Gunnison National Forest Road 813.A2, this route allowed me a shorter albeit steeper route back to my waiting automobile. Besides, it also allowed for a diversity of scenery and I generally prefer to make a loop hike when I am able. Most of the remainder of the hike went by like a blur. I continued to stop and snap photographs of wildflower species yet to be seen or documented on this day’s hike. Mostly, however, I concentrated on keeping my trek from turning into a trudge. While truly too beautiful for me to suffer much, I did acknowledge my physical frailty as I worked my way down through the lodgepole pine and aspen forests that blanket this ridgeline.
Leaving the gully behind and its cooling Douglas fir I initially dreaded the last mile of hiking across exposed sagebrush steppe in the hot late afternoon Sun. I needed have worried. In the cool aspen forest where the Rarick Road ends at Gunnison National Forest Road 813.2A the pups found enough water to keep them hydrated and refreshed. The hike had taken such a long time that by then the late afternoon Sun had morphed into a cooler early evening Sun. Enough clouds sailed overhead to also provide a bit of shade cover. As I hiked along I noted that the shepherds seemed able to muster enough energy to continue on pursuits of hapless rodents. Likewise, I still possessed enough vigor yet to pause and admire the streaks of color that ran through the sagebrush. These gardens are a natural wonder to behold in their own right, and I again felt blessed to be here at this time. Approaching the car I knew that my odyssey for this day at least had come to an end. I let out a cheer before unlocking the doors and airing out the hot car. The dogs loaded up, I put down the windows and cranked over the engine. I drove us down to the Taylor River and back to Almont before heading home to Gunnison. So many people bustling about on the highway but I know that most of them only dream of the type of day I just had, exemplified by exploring the wildlands and a bit of self-reliance, all mixed with a dash of mental fortitude and a soupcon of physical prowess. I smiled as I drove on, arm perched on the window sill, in no particular hurry. What a great day.