Morning Hike to the Summit of Carbon Peak – August 09, 2017

2017_08160154

Draco and Leah just below the summit of Carbon Peak, looking east towards Whetstone Mountain (on the left)

The clouds from the monsoonal season had settled in over the valley, but I decided that it would be nonetheless a good morning to rise early and climb up to the top of Carbon Peak.  That eminence rises up near the head of Ohio Creek, the latter constituting a major tributary of the Gunnison River.  The peak itself is eminently visible from the north side of Gunnison, Colorado, where I make my home.  It sits magnificently, looking like a pyramid with flutes radiating from the summit to the base.  What looks to be a challenging peak to climb at first glance is belied by the gentle slope to be found on  the unseen north side.  I know this because I have been up to that rocky point three or four times previously.

Most maps show that a road or trail, either way denoted 564, leads up to Carbon Peak but this route has been closed to motorized and mechanized vehicles for some years now.  Part of the reason, aside from the ecological damage caused by such use, is that the road crosses private property on the lower end of the western slope.  Even though the property isn’t posted, the road is overgrown and requires skilled navigation and determination to cross the meadow and find the remnants on the forested hillside.  The better route is to continue driving up the Ohio Creek Road to Gunnison National Forest Road 730.1B, a short dead-end road that follows the old grade of the never-completed Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad.  Don’t drive out over the talus to the end of the road as there is no place to turn around.  However, the first quarter of a mile has ample camping opportunities and turns-around.  Why the Forest Service keeps the last half a mile open I can’t really say, although an all-terrain vehicle could turn around easily enough, I would suppose.

Personally, I park on the main road, Gunnison National Forest/Gunnison County Road 730 at a wide place on the corner just below the spur road.  From there I walk over the old grade, through the aforementioned large bed of talus until reaching the unfinished balloon-loop that would have allowed the railroad to gain elevation towards Ohio Pass.  Sometimes it is difficult to imagine what might have been, had the railroad actually been completed.  This area encompasses a high quality of quietude, so I would have to say that I am happy it has remained so.  I enjoyed the peacefulness of the abandoned works, the mist adding a shroud of dankness to the entire setting.

Naturally enough I had brought along my two shepherds, Draco and Leah, and they skittered about with animated bursts of energy.  Parking near the aspen jungle, I am always enthralled with the unforeseen density of the undergrowth.  This soon gives way to a conifer forest and open meadow.  A fine place for wildflowers, although I was a bit late for the season on this hike.  Because of the potential for traffic on the main road and furthermore not wanting to upset the equanimity of the campers whom had gathered I kept the pups close by, although their wont would be to chase any hapless rodents that scurried across their path.

About three-quarters of a mile out the road abruptly ends, as aforementioned.  At that point begins Gunnison National Forest Trail No. 436, also known as the Carbon Trail.  A further quarter of a mile brings the intrepid hiker to the balloon-loop, where the old grade folds back on itself.  At this point the trail continues to the east between Mount Axtell and Carbon Peak, on towards Whetstone Mountain and Gibson Ridge before descending to Green Lake.  There is also a small crescent-shaped drainage upon which a user-made trail runs up the west-side ridge.  Finding it requires some intuition but if you are looking for it you will most likely find it.  I led the dogs over to this unmarked trail, diverging from the main path and then having to cross the creek where the grade had remained unfinished.

The user-made trail runs up through a nice forest, occasionally allowing some views to the east but most often not.  If you know where to look, about half way up, the old trail and abandoned road from Ohio Creek merge with the path.  As the climb continues, the path gradually swings from southbound to eastward, and the small drainage that had been parallel to the ridge fades out.  Here the trail begins to climb the west face and the forest becomes less dense as elevation is gained.  On this morning the mists also bean to dissolve under the steady beating of the Sun’s rays.   Eventually the trail braids and three or four options present themselves, all marked with cairns.  Small meadows become apparent, and soon enough the high ridge is met.  Now a fine view to the east, north and west are had.  Also, the glacial gouge that scooped out a large chunk of the mountain’s northeastern flank is seen for the first time.

From this point the route to the highpoint is obvious.  The dogs and I cruised up to the talus-encrusted peak where an orange alternating with  white pole has been erected.  I looked around and gazed out across the wide expanses.  The view to the south exposed the entire valley of Ohio Creek, while to my north the Ruby Range and West Elk Mountains could be seen beyond Mount Axtell.  To my west rose the volcanic highlands of the West Elk Mountains, while in the opposite direction numerous laccoliths dotted the landscape.  Beyond the valley of Ohio Creek I could see the San Juan Mountains, so far away.  I studied the map, identifying those peaks that I didn’t already know by rote.

The talus didn’t make for pleasant sitting so after about ten minutes I walked us back down below the rocks and found a nice grassy patch to sit upon.  The shepherds sat down in some providential shade while I gathered in some of the warming rays from the morning Sun.  The misty clouds continued to ebb and flow, sometimes allowing uninterrupted views of the surrounding eminences while at other times that same view would be suddenly blotted out.  As the next hour or so proceeded the cloud cover continually waned until naught but cerulean sky constituted the heavens above.

I almost always dislike having to get up from my mountain repose to make the return to civilization despite the allure of ease and comfort.  My dislike is especially heightened when I know that despite me being temporarily ensconced in wildness I am expected to return to a job that I find no real pleasure in beyond the pecuniary.  Thus, with a hearty sigh, I labored to gather my gear and bearings and begin the trek back down the mountain.  The only tricky part now is finding the route back, because there isn’t really a trail at the upper level and the cairns keep the unaware from veering off into impenetrable forest or into some impassable cliffs.  I had checked my bearings on the way up and made note of a few identifiable objects that I could use to reconnoiter my position.  All went well on the trek down, and I soon found the trail along which I simply reversed my course.

I did some minor exploring hear and there, finding the remnants of what might have been a timber camp.  Old oil cans and antifreeze cans littered one site but otherwise whatever had gone on up here has been subsequently grown over and forgotten.  Towards the bottom of the trail, near the old balloon loop, I stopped to admire the view of Whetstone Mountain.  The vegetation continued to radiate with verdure, and as the clouds wore off the day became even more sublime, further causing regret at my premature return.  Walking back on the Carbon Trail No. 436 I did enjoy a stunning view of The Castles nestled under West Elk Peak.  Ohio Peak presented another fine view and brought into fine focus the reason why I love this end of the valley.  All in all, a fine preliminary to my shift, for no matter how bad said shift might prove I could at least shut my eyes and think of this morning.

Reed Gulch and Prayer Pole Hill – August 05, 2017

2017_08160145

The view south from Prayer Pole Hill, looking over Promontory Divide and Black Mountain, towards the Sangre de Cristo Range and Medano Pass

A long day trip ahead, I left my home in Gunnison, Colorado, early and began to drive eastbound on U.S. 50, up and over that gap in the Great Divide known as Monarch Pass.  My goal today was to visit a couple of locations in the upper Huerfano Valley to which I show a great fondness.  First, I would make a short hike on Reed Gulch and then I would later visit the wolf sanctuary where I used to live and work.    Regardless of my exact destination, I would follow U.S. 50 all the way through Salida and on towards the small hamlet  of Cotopaxi, located on the banks of the Arkansas River in its canyon.  Turning off the main highway I followed Fremont County Road 1-A up from the canyon and onto the pediment of the Rocky Mountains.  To my right rose the majestic crest of the Sangre de Cristo Range and ahead the wide expanse of the Wet Mountain Valley.  At the upper end of the county road I turned right onto Colorado 69 and piloted the car towards the south.

Crossing over Promontory Divide I descended into the upper Huerfano Valley.  This used to be home, many years ago.  I still have a strong affinity for this place, and every time I enter the valley I feel as though I’m having a homecoming of sorts.  An expansive view of the valley combined with the surrounding mountains and I ticked reveled in this glorious setting.  Although its been well over a decade since I last lived in this area I still know every named peak in the vicinity, and I named each in its turn.  As I continued down the road I could see the southern end of the Wet Mountains where the Huerfano River departs the mountains for the plains.  Well before then I turned back to the north on Huerfano County Road 634, a route I know well.  After seven miles the road enters the San Isabel National Forest.

Just after the boundary I parked the car at what is locally called Wylie Gulch, a large flat with amble parking and dispersed camping.  Wylie Gulch is actually the eastern fork of Sand Hollow.  The latter drains into Williams Creek and that tributary of the Huerfano River diverges from the parent just a mile east of Gardner.  The other western fork of Sand Hollow is Reed Gulch, where I would soon be hiking.  This entire portion of the drainage is called Devil’s Hole, bounded by the escarpment that leads up to the high country of the Wet Mountains on the east and Promontory Divide to the west.  I paused to take photos of the wildflowers, interested to see what grows in common with my home in the Gunnison Country and what grows here but not there.

I walked up San Isabel National Forest Road 435 a couple of miles to where it meets the edge of a tract of private land.  At this point I turned around and trekked back down to the car.  Here on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains the precipitation is significantly less than the west.  Thus at an elevation in the Gunnison Country that I might expect to find dense vegetation I find instead an open ponderosa pine park with interspersed grasses.  Dotted here and there with vibrant wildflowers and emitting a pleasant smell I recalled the days of my young adulthood when such sensations where my everyday experiences.  The totality of this place elicits a strong response in my spirit.  My olfactory senses especially responds to the scents.  It had just rained the day before and that dampness added another dimension to the complex Rocky Mountain perfume.

Once back at the car I drove up the Road to visit Mission: Wolf, and experiential education facility and captive wolf refuge.  I lived here off and on for over a decade, caring for the charges who through no fault of their own could not live a free life.   Those wolves who didn’t mind the human presence are ambassadors for their species, allowing the public a chance to be in the presence of an animal they are otherwise unlikely to see in the wild.  Thus, back in the day, I conducted tours explaining the plight of the specific individuals as well as the situation of their wild cousins.  Today I met one of the ambassadors and then watched the feeding.  I also climbed to a small eminence that the folks at the sanctuary call Prayer Pole Hill, a name not to be found on any official publication but which sits squarely on the section line between sections 15 and 16 at a point about where the northern hypothetical quarter-sections would be demarcated.

I came back down after surveying the immediate vicinity of Devil’s Hole and the farther horizon comprised of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  This view brings forth a strong emotional response in me, and a flood of days-gone-by flooded through my mind.  I descended from the peak, passing the pinyon pine and admired the scene below as I returned to the parking lot.  At this point I socialized with some of the staff but couldn’t do so for too long since I still had a long drive ahead of me and my own canines to care for.  I took some back roads out to Colorado 69 and drove back the way I came.  I should have paused to take some snapshots along the way, since the highways transect some interesting and beautiful country.  But like so many people I find myself in a hurry and failed to stop along the way, instead caught up in the flow.  Nonetheless, I had had a good day, and felt gratified at having gotten out to see some seldom-seen-by-me countryside.

Curecanti Creek via the Trail Creek Trail No. 872 – August 04, 2017

2017_08160047

Draco on the Trail Creek Trail No. 872 in the West Elk Wilderness, looking down into Curecanti Creek; across is the Dry Fork and beyond Point 11725

Although nearly a year has since passed I can still recall most of the pertinent details of this adventure out to the far reaches of the Gunnison National Forest.  I started late in the day, relatively for hiking in the thunderstorm-prone elevations of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  The drive itself took over two hours to reach the trailhead to the redundant-sounding Trail Creek Trail No. 872.  I drove west from my home in Gunnison, making use of U.S. 50, that handy no-nonsense two-lane thoroughfare posted at, mostly, sixty-five miles an hour.  It took half an hour to reach Colorado 92, a highway as scenic as it is slow.  Most of its windy curvature is posted at a plodding thirty–five miles an hour, which does have the advantage of allowing a cautious driver ample opportunity to gaze down into the upper reaches of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River.

At one point I drove far enough west to enter Montrose County.  Leaving the canyon the highway’s speed-limit increases as tangents become more numerous, but for this automobile commander such niceties were moot as I soon turned off on the graveled Crystal Creek Road, known here also as Montrose County Road J82.  A couple of miles on I drove back into Gunnison County and the Crystal Creek Road’s control number changed to Gunnison County Road 713.  This road became narrow and twisted, following Crystal Creek and then East Crystal Creek up to the dividing ridge with Curecanti Creek.  Here, the road turns to the north and I continued on until reaching the upper end of South Dyer Creek, where I parked the car at the beginning of the trail.

The trail is fairly well marked at the road, and a handful of other vehicles were parked here.  This surprised me a bit due to the considerable effort just about anyone would have to make to get here.  Nonetheless, I felt uncrowded and let the dogs out of their mobile confinement.  Naturally, they ran amok eager for any rodent to poke its head out of some reclusive spot.  Not finding any takers they instead diverted their attention to the olfactory sensations accorded to what I would consider the unsavory leavings of other canines.  I concluded the necessary preparations for our departure and headed off down the trail.  Draco and Leah soon followed.  This narrow meadow continued on for a half a mile or so, flanked by low rises swaddled in forests of conifer.  Lupines abounded this day, adding a purple tinge to the otherwise verdant expanse.

Reaching the divide the trail then drops off into the upper reaches of Trail creek, a small tributary of Curecanti Creek.  Here the meadow is converted into forest and the trail becomes less pronounced.  There is a feeling of lack of maintenance as many blow-downs lie across the tread.  In a couple of places the trail itself becomes a challenge to follow when overgrown by tall grasses.  About two-thirds of the way down the forest recedes and a fine verdant view of Curecanti Creek and the Dry Fork is afforded to the intrepid voyager.  I immediately fell in love with this remote corner of the West Elk Mountains.  The blanket of grasses and forbs seemed lush and shone with its own green luster spangled with yellow sunflowers.

It is gratifying to see that the conifer forest here is still healthy, having as yet to be decimated by the plague of beetles that has irrupted throughout the western United States.  The dark forest green contrasted with the bright greens of the meadow and aspen groves.  When we reached the Curecanti Trail No. 870 I led us upstream.  We crossed the creek soon after and went to the other side of the narrow valley where we passed the junction with the East Curecanti Trail No. 454.  From this point we continued hiking up another couple of miles to East Creek.  I was especially curious as to the existence of a trail leading up this drainage.  Current maps don’t show it but older publications do, that is, a trail leading over towards Porcupine Cone.  Indeed, I did find what appears to be a trail leading up East Creek.  I regret that I didn’t have more time or energy to explore further but rather decided to call it a day and settled down here for a snack.

Along the hike up I had seen a beautiful mule deer buck, looking sleek with his summer coat of new reddish pelage, antlers still in velvet.  It presented no wonder to me that this regal beast should reside here, where the vegetation grows heavy and water flows amply.  Choosing a relatively flat spot on a prominence above the two drainages, I sat back and surveyed my surroundings while masticating my victuals.  The dogs lay down nearby and rapidly gobbled their kibble that I had hoisted to this location.  This pleasant repose continued until the canines’ intrinsic wanderlust began to work at dislodging the pups from their rest.  First would come a short ten foot jog over to some point of interest, soon to be followed by a wider circuit of peregrinations that would soon lead them to widespread mischief.

At this point I knew that my reclining pose was to be soon ended, and thus I rose and gathered my gear before making my way back down the trail I had just climbed.  During our sojourn near East Creek a goodly number of thunderheads had welled up, puffy towers of cumulus clouds sailing indolently across the heavens rubbing up against one another and discharging their static electricity in thunderous bolts of lightening.  While in the somewhat sheltered confines of the narrow valley I felt safe even though I was exposed.  My main concern would be the final half a mile once I had climbed out of the valley.  Thus, I walked back slowly, without a hurry and then made a short side trip up Dry Creek to explore the condition of the trail.  The grasses grew so tall that I had to angle my arms up slightly from horizontal to skirt the seed heads with my hands.

I had idled long enough so that the main emitters of lightening had flowed past on their eastward journey and I now found it safe enough to climb up to the high ridge and complete the hike.  Once on the high ridge I became again amazed at the profusion of wildflowers and paused to admire their violet tint.  The hike back I concluded at a sluggish pace, just to further absorb the magical emissions from this natural wonderland.  I passed the car, although stopping to unburden myself from my pack, and explored South Dyer Creek so as to ascertain for myself the existence of a any trail that might lead down the drainage.  It shows up on a variety of maps but seems to be the remnants of an old road and has no control number or any other hint of officialism beyond some signage indicating prohibition of motorized use.  Still, its a route, and I may make use of it some day just for the sheer pleasure that such random explorations create in my being.

Driving back down the gravel road I noted many various trailheads from which I could conduct further ramblings should I desire.  Despite living here for over a decade I am still surprised at how many of the far-flung expanses of Gunnison County I have yet to see in person.  The drive back to Gunnison challenged my ability to stave off bouts of drowsiness.  I reached home just as evening changed to dusk and happily began to lounge outside in my backyard where I could observe the pastel colors of the Summer’s sunset.  Lady Dog still lived then and was happy at our return, especially at being fed.  As the day faded I thought about my day and rejoiced at my happy wanderings, all three dogs prone in canine contentment, some twitching in rhythm to their unconscious dreams.

Mountain Lion on Little Mill Creek – August 02, 2017

2017_08160033

A mountain lion none too amused. Draco, my German shepherd, is at the base of the tree.

My life is often a contrast.  Much too often I am found in a windowless commercial kitchen where ongoing stress, ceaseless agitation and rampant commotion, coupled with occasional boredom, reign supreme.   But when not chasing down the money side of life I can be found in places where what is left of the natural order still holds sway over the daily rhythms of life.  I prefer the latter yet am beholden by the former.  Thus, I decided on this morning to get up early and drive out to that Mill Creek which drains the eastern flank of the West Elk Mountains.  From this oft-used trailhead I can go on hikes long and short.  The plan was to hike up Little Mill Creek to the summit of the divide with Beaver Creek, about six or seven miles round-trip.  A short hike, but one that fit my schedule well.

Parking just shy of the Gunnison National Forest boundary on Bureau of Land Management property I eschewed the half-mile of additional driving over a narrow, bumpy road.  This is ostensibly the winter trailhead but I use it during every season now, and will only walk beyond this point.  As usual, the dogs, my two German shepherds, were wound up and upon disembarkation began to run amok around the parking lot.  Appropriately enough, they also marked the pit toilet.  I let the pups scurry about while I gathered my wits and gear, and then we all headed up Gunnison National Forest Road 727.  This area is dominated by a dense aspen forest that mingles with thick conifer as elevation is gained.  Pretty and green during the high Summer the verdure belies the cataclysm that formed these mountains some thirty million years ago when a series of volcanic eruptions dramatically changed the landscape.

There exists in this area a number of unofficial trails and following the designated Little Mill Creek Trail No. 455 can present some challenges to the uninitiated.  The trail is well-signed where it leaves the road and climbs steeply before leveling off somewhat.  The first problem occurs when the trail seems to abruptly end at an old water supply ditch.  The frustrated hiker is left with a confusing choice of directions, right or left.  The map suggests left and that is indeed the correct choice.  The right leads back to Mill Creek, which of course is a fine destination but if not where intended to head can then create consternation.  A quarter of a mile of hiking leads to yet another fork but this one is signed and hard to miss unless obliviousness is the order of the day.  Leaving the ditch a well-trod path ensues.  A further quarter of a mile is where the real confusion occurs.  The official trail, and I use the term loosely, forks to the right while the heavier-traveled path continues to the left and loops back, eventually, to the parking lot from where I began.  Alas, no signage occurs here and unless the avid hiker is very aware that individual is likely to walk right on by the correct trail.  The problem is that the Little Mill Creek Trail is fairly faint at this point and easily missed.  However, once past a small, grassy swamp the switchbacks and cut hillsides are obvious and the hike up to the summit straightforward.

Along the way the small creek is not frequently heard, the sound hushed by the thick forest.  The only sighting of the small stream occurs towards the bottom where a crossing is affected.  There are some grassy slopes that allow a view to the east as well as a closeup gander of the West Elk breccia that forms some unusual hoodoos, spires and such throughout the eponymous mountains.  The trail climbs somewhat steeply until the top is reached when the gradual rounding off of the gully indicates an end to the grade.  From the dense forest we popped out into a flower-strewn meadow atop the aforementioned divide.  To the south a two-track allows access to the motorized masses although I’ve yet to see anyone actually drive up here.  Most likely the heaviest use occurs in Autumn during hunting season.  Continuing west would take me down into Beaver Creek following a little-used, steep trail.  At this junction the West Elk Wilderness begins.  To the north is a small eminence about a quarter of a mile away.  I have hiked down into the Beaver Creek drainage a few times but that was more than I had time to do today so instead I “peaked out” to the north where I found a fine patch of shade to sit in.  Here I ate a snack, imbibed some water and fed the dogs.  A pleasant rest ensued.

Two things appealed to me.  One, I could continue to lounge under the large conifer where I then currently reposed, or, two, I could explore further.  Alas, I had time for neither, although both options appealed to my naturalistic sensibilities more than that which I chose:  the third option, which was to head back down the trail and return to the waiting automobile and subsequently head off to my shift work.  So far, just another day in the life of this intrepid voyager, that is, when I’m allowed to voyage.  I gathered up my gear and rustled up the dogs and began to slowly make the descent.  I paused often to examine the wildflowers, which like elsewhere in the basin where having a banner year.  I noted that the trail is marked with signage on this upper end as well.

As we walked down the trail the shepherds pursued their regular habit of agitating the local rodent population.   Plenty of squirrels and chipmunks were scurrying about the fallen and upright boles, and the dogs had no trouble filling their quota of rodents harried.  The pups would dodge off the trail some fifty to a hundred feet and become completely hidden from view although I could locate them audibly from the clinking of dog tags.  Draco likes to stand up against the trunk up which some squirrel is chirping in alarm.  Since the little beast is some fifty to sixty feet up in the air the additional three or four feet gained by his perching is of little consequence.  Yet there is no explaining this to a dog, and I just grin, enjoying the spectacle.

This forest, like most such, is filled with plenty of healthy trees and a few snags.  As I strode along I noted one seven or eight inch diameter snag swaying more than the norm and my thought was that Draco ought to be careful lest the deadwood come crashing down.  I continued on some ten or twenty feet and looked back over, so as to perhaps decide to recall the pups to my side, something I do when their agitations become a bit too pronounced.  I then noticed that Draco was thirty feet up in the tree, and I immediately wondered how my German shepherd managed to perform this feat of climbing, something a dog shouldn’t be able to do.  That is when I realized that Draco was not in the tree.  Perched there instead snarling down at the dogs was a mountain lion, Puma concolor.  Immediately I recalled the dogs.  Leah came back instantly with the guiltiest look of contrition possible upon a canine’s countenance.  Simply put, she came slinking back.  Draco came back but really wanted to get that cat.  He would amble about twenty feet then stop and turn back, one paw raised, to stare at the large predator.

I really wanted to go over for a closer look but decided against it out of respect for the beleaguered creature.  I really wasn’t worried about my safety.  I’m large and with the two dogs there would be no real contemplation on the cat’s part of leaping down from the safety of the snag to take us all on.  Later, recalling the story to friends one acquaintance said that I was lucky, meaning I suppose that the dogs or I didn’t get mutilated.  I disagree with this assessment, as I feel that if anything the catamount was lucky that I am not some yahoo with a high powered rifle who feels entitled to shoot any predator on sight.  Although I really wouldn’t want the dogs to tangle with a large carnivore of any sort I also appreciate the ecology of fear.  The cat would rather escape than fight, like most such creatures.

The remainder of the hike wasn’t nearly so eventful.  I studied some of the breccia and admired the long-views to the east.  I returned us the way we came, via the Little Mill Creek Trail No. 455, Gunnison National Forest Road 727 and Bureau of Land Management Road 3115a, the latter two of which are the same and change name only because the management does.  I must admit to having felt somewhat exalted at seeing the mighty cougar even if the dogs really did the work.  Most likely, nobody in the Gunnison Country had a better day than I.  No mountain biker had a more epic day, nor fly-fisherman a better catch, than I.  I’m glad to see one large predator hanging on despite concerted efforts to rid the world of them.  Now if we could only get wolves and grizzlies back to Colorado I would be content.  Well, except that we would need some free-range buffalo, too.

Tour de Teocalli Mountain – July 28, 2017

2017_07280334

Looking down at Twin Lakes, and over towards Pearl Mountain, from the top of the Twin Lakes Trail No. 402

This is one of the more epic hikes that I made in the Year Twenty-Seventeen, making a circuit around the great mass of Teocalli Mountain.  Ambitious with the seed of exploration, my mind bore fruit with this jaunt up the west side of the raised monolith of uplifted sedimentary strata, over the back and then down the east side.  A mental struggle coupled with the regular physical almost prevented me from making the loop but I persevered, as did my hiking companions, and the result was not only a better understanding of the interconnected drainages of the Elk Mountains but a deeper appreciation of the complexity of the geology of our shared Earth and the life forms that inhabit said planet, the only one we know of that harbors life in the otherwise lifeless void of empty space.

For a number of years I had wanted to make this hike, having seen the potential on the map.  However, I had had my doubts due to the necessity of bushwhacking two miles on the western flank of Teocalli Mountain.  The topography suggested a relatively benign gain in elevation but without reconnaissance one could never tell what topographic surprises lay in wait.  So, finally, on this day I decided to rise early and get started before the Sun rose.  I wanted to avoid the thunderstorms what would inevitably gather during the latter part of the day, especially when I would be on some high, exposed ridges, and I also desired to have plenty of time to complete the hike.  I figured that the worst thing that would happen, barring something extraordinary such as a broken limb, is that I would have to turn around and give up the route to what could have been.

Also, I pledged to myself that I would document the vast majority of all the wildflowers that I saw.  This year had been a wonder of wild blooms, and I had the notion that such a year wouldn’t necessarily occur in the future.  Thus, I drove myself and my two hiking companions north from our home in Gunnison, Colorado, on State Highway 135 towards Crested Butte.  A couple of miles shy of that destination I turned off onto Brush Creek Road, also known as County Road 738.  I followed that narrow road past the end of the pavement and on across the East River before parking near the confluence of West Brush and Brush Creeks.  I parked at my usual “trailhead” since without a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle I could travel no further on the bumpy, steep roads.

We started our travels at about a quarter after six, with the new day’s sunlight striking the highest peaks in our vicinity but leaving the gulches covered in shadow.  While my hiking buddies, Draco and Leah, ran amok from aspen to aspen attempting to capture any unsuspecting chipmunk, I strolled around in the veritable garden amazed as usual at the diversity of flowering plants.  Knowing that this would be a long hiking day, I attempted to keep my two German shepherds from expending all their energy prematurely but to little avail.  After studying the map one last time, I hoisted my pack onto my shoulders and headed up the steep slope that led from my parking spot on Gunnison National Forest Road 738 to the narrow two-track designated with the route number 738.2A.

Looking towards the north I could see the mighty eminence of Teocalli Mountain rising up, slopes covered in verdure and crested with pockets of snow.  Four miles of hiking along the narrow two-track, parallel to West Brush Creek, would lead me and the dogs to the base of the mountain and the end of the trail.  Having had a wet year the wildflowers grew with an amazing fecundity.  I took a few snapshots but wanted to wait until I had gained a bit more morning light.  I walked in silence beyond the sound of my own footfalls and that of the pups’ paws pattering on the dusty trail.  Some bird songs added aural animation reminding me that this world lives.  Gravity tugged at us on our uphill climb and drew down the fluid water, the crashing of which added yet another note to our trek.  So constant the sound of water is that I lose conscious recognition of the crashing of the clear liquid upon the red rock.  Although open to motorized use, this early in the morning found the discordant thrum of internal combustion engines pleasantly absent.

Reaching the junction with the Teocalli Trail No. 554 I reached the end of the road and the boundary of the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness within the Gunnison National Forest.  As I reached the interchange the Sun crested over Teocalli Ridge, changing the flat colors into a vibrant glossiness.  The green declivities radiated an almost neon glow, interrupted only by the flower-spangled bursts of yellows, reds, oranges, whites, purples and blues.  I paused to take numerous snapshots of the numerous species of flowering plants.  The sunlight also induced an emission of plant smells pleasing to my olfactory senses.  There is something indescribable about the cool fineness of these Summer mornings in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, or any mountains anywhere I would suppose.  I tend to find that that initial ray of light streaking down has a awakening quality to it, something to revel in and feel blessed to be alive.

Perusing the map, I saw that an unmarked, unnumbered and unnamed trail leads up from the end of the road and then abruptly terminates at the banks of West Brush Creek just over a half a mile upstream.  Indeed this is exactly what occurs.  Not a trace of any such path continues onward.  So, I now became faced with the necessity of finding my own course.  I chose to pilot ourselves up the east side of the creek and within a few hundred yards immediately came upon a challenging dilemma.  Reaching the edge of a small but deep gully, I had to decided how to cross it.  Fast water moving down from the flanks of Teocalli Mountains had scooped out a small chasm fifteen to twenty feet deep by about ten feet wide.  Too steep the slopes to cross, I chose to ascend the slope and did so over many hundreds of feet until I reached a point where I could safely lead myself and the canines over the gap.

Occasionally, a trace of a trail could be seen but it could not be relied on as a navigational tool.  Two miles of such bushwhacking ensued, a colorful adventure, daunting not by dint of mileage to hike or elevation to gain but rather by the ankle-twisting expanses of talus covered in gripping willow.  I thought often of turning back and either heading home or choosing an easier alternate hike.  I couldn’t even be sure that the trail I expected to find at the pass and which would subsequently allow a relatively easy descent down past Twin Lakes existed.  I dreaded that thought of another slog through tangling willow jungle.  We persevered, guided by scant knowledge of people claiming to have hiked to the lakes, thereby suggesting the existence of a path, and by me own common sense of the topography involved.  Inexorably albeit slowly the dogs and I continued our climb, finally departing from the thick and nearly impenetrable conifer and willow.

Entering the true alpine above treeline, I found expansive meadows of tundra, percolating streams of water, glaringly white patches of snow and towering ramparts of rusty red sedimentary rock.  I could see the pass due south of Point 13162 and now had only to climb up steep slopes.  I also noted the existence of a potential route up to Coffeepot Pass, and the impracticality of passing over a western saddle.  At first, from about half a mile away, I thought that certain rocky ramparts would be unassailable but I found relatively easy passage.  Having risen up to a somewhat level plateau I rested below the pass with only a few hundred feet to gain and looked back on my progress.  I was amazed and satisfied with this exploration.  I really hoped that the downward trail did indeed exist because I certainly did not want to retrace my steps.  I sat contentedly in this alpine wonderland, for the time being, staring at the grandeur I saw in all directions.  In the bosom of the Elk Mountains I can understand why John Denver and so many others are fascinated by this one chain.

Having rested I now began to ascend the last steep slope.  Covered in grass and forbs the going was fairly easy excepting the pitch.  One footstep at a time I made my way up.  The shepherds, using four-paw overdrive made short work of the acclivity and paused patiently until I was able to catch up at the summit of this unnamed pass.  From the pass I rose up a ridge that is part of the same divide and gained an amazing view of the surrounding Elk Mountains.  Teocalli Mountain rears up to the south now but is obscured from view by a lesser highpoint on the ridge.  The sedimentary strata, tinted red, is supposedly the remnants of the ancestral Rocky Mountains, lifted up during a previous orogeny and subsequently eroded into uniform beds of cobbles and stones worn smooth by the passage of water and time.  Having been laid down they have now been lifted up into the atmosphere by the current mountain building event.  I sat in awe at not only the animated nature of our natal planet but at the vast expanse of time spent in this process.

I was struck dumb by the beauty of the whole landscape and the individual components, a colorful feast for the eyes.  The soaring improbability of these mountains continued to confound my feeble mind.  I stared up at Point 13162, strata of which points incongruously up into the sky, and marveled at the forces needed to accomplish this feat of natural sculpturing.  My mind burst with an explosive openness and brain waves rippled out across the topography.  Such was my comprehension of the local scene.  I didn’t want to leave this slice of heaven atop some seldom seen pass between two linked drainages.  Yet while my consciousness took in this unlikely scene my subconscious kept prodding me with an updated awareness of the gathering thunderheads.  I had noted much earlier the quickening of the gathering clouds but had ignored the chiming warning bells.  Now, my mind rapidly imploded and fully gathered in the dispersed conscious.  I found the promised trail and began the descent to the lakes and beyond, thinking it would be a good idea to limit my exposure to the potential electrical elements.

I now found myself on the Twin Lakes Trail No. 402.  A short but steep descent found me on the banks of the lakes.  I paused briefly to take in the scene and then continued hiking down past some cascades below the lakes.  The verdant expanses continued unabated and I kept finding new species of flowers to take photographs of.  Rising up to my right the towering Teocalli Mountain reared up once again, showing another face.  So far, this day, I had passed by western, northern and eastern flanks of this mountain.  I would soon pass the southern flanks and complete my Tour de Teocalli.  I followed the trail down to its beginning on Gunnison National Forest Road 738.  I also left the designated wilderness behind and encountered some vehicular traffic, but not much and it is good, I thought to myself,  to see people out and about.

Once I had reached the Twin Lakes Trailhead I began to think that my hike was practically over.  However, once I perused the map I quickly disavowed that notion.  Still ahead lay five to six miles of hiking along the Brush Creek Road, just to the east of Teocalli Ridge.  The first mile of hiking led me along a wide meadow, where I viewed a stunning mixture of deep summer green and maroon rock.  Looking back I could see the southeastern face of Teocalli Mountain towering up towards the ever-darkening clouds.  The theme here was the verdure to be seen wherever I cast a glance.  Some dark green of the conifer forest, an interesting mix of spruce and lodgepole pine, contrasted darkly with the bright green of the aspen.  I strolled along contentedly, as the shepherds kept up an easy pace.

The clouds sprinkled a bit of rain here and there.  This minor precipitation combined with the damp clouds to keep that late afternoon temperatures at a nice moderate condition.  Leaving the open park behind for the steep-sided canyons we immersed ourselves into the aspen under the canopy of which grows a dense understory that is more of a jungle and often presents a challenge to navigation.  Here I found yet another suite of wildflowers that I had not yet seen.  I snapped off some photographs but otherwise continued to trek down to the East Brush Creek Trail No. 400 without pause.  I had been following what is called Middle Brush Creek down from the last trailhead, but now with the confluence of East Brush Creek I rejoined the major stem of Brush Creek.  Also, the next mile downstream passes through another park that affords wide open views of the surrounding Elk Mountains.  This park lies on the northern flank of Double Top Mountain.  Because this park is lower and faces to the southwest on its long axis the conditions are drier and I was able to find even more species of wildflowers, ones that thrive in the drier climate.

Where the road leads down out from the open park the canyon closes in again.  To my right, as I hiked west, rose the steep slope of the southern face of Teocalli Ridge.  The road leads up to the right so as to cross over a small ridge.  This route allows a bypass of the old road that used to cross a very steep sided slope formed of slippery shale.  This must have been very treacherous and I can understand why the Forest Service spent the funds on relocating the road.  Now a single track trail follows the same route and although informal it is used by hikers and bikers.  Even for those modes of transportation a fall could be lethal or cause serious injury.  Still, its a nice alternative to the road and is fairly scenic despite the hazard.  I found a couple of species of flowers here that I hadn’t seen elsewhere, and I would suppose that they prefer dry, shaly soil.

Rejoining the road, we continued to walk along the road and followed its sinuous route through some grass-covered hills.  I led the dogs through the ford of West Brush Creek and then followed the road up to my waiting car. I snapped a few additional photos of wildflowers as I strode up wearily along the narrow road.  Here the throngs had massed, as a multitude of humanity had parked their cars and erected tents.  I grinned at the whole scene, not really minding the crowd but wishing that the bureaucracy-in-charge would spend more funds keeping the masses from running roughshod over the nature they were all so busy appreciating.

Reaching the car I thought about my own impact on the natural world.  Personally, I think I too could use a bit more regulation on where I am allowed to drive a motorized vehicle.  I didn’t dwell on these thoughts too much, for I was also busy rejoicing at having completed the Tour de Teocalli.  I must admit to have felt exhausted along with my smiling exaltation.  I documented over fifty species of wildflowers along the way, although when I look at the images of meadows or hillsides with wildflower gardens I realize that I probably missed at least a dozen more species.  I may have also omitted to record images of smaller flowers or ones that I know from experience are difficult to photograph.

The dogs and I loaded up into the vehicle.  I put the windows down and drove off slowly towards the East River.  I looked at all that peaks in the vicinity that I could name, and as is my wont ticked off their names and recalled whatever adventures I had made in conjunction with them.  This area I consider to be somewhat crowded with humanity but I can hardly blame anyone for wanting to bask in the aura that these mountains exude.  I feel luck to live here, in the basin of the Gunnison River, where so much open land exists.  Similarly, I feel that the public is blessed as well to have such a grand estate and inheritance though I believe that  Nature should have more places inviolable to our rapacious appetite for natural resources and machine-aided transportation.  Quietude rules!

A Hike to Boulder Lake in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness – July 26, 2017

2017_07280183

Parnassia fimbriata, part of Parnassiaceae, found near Boulder Lake – a small but incredibly intricate flower.

What a difference a year makes, so I think to myself as I sit here in the loft and write these words, the German shepherds sprawled out snoring nearby.  Last year the snows clung to the hillsides and mountains, the flowers bloomed with abandon and rain was never too far distant, even on days with cerulean skies.  This year the snowfall fell in minimal amounts, the cobalt skies seem threatening with dryness and the snowpack has mostly melted off, with certain notable exceptions here and there.  As I look back I realize how blessed we were to have such a year, something that I recognized at the time, too.  Some of our hillsides never grew significant grass and thus didn’t lose the dun color familiar throughout Winter.  Last year the grasses greened up and colored the Earth with a bright verdure.  Maybe the monsoonal rains will arrive, as they normally do this time of year – or maybe the drought will continue unabated, adding to the woe and anxiety felt throughout the community.

For now I’ll dwell in the past and relate my adventure to the Boulder Lake in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness.  This wilderness area exists within the Gunnison National Forest, part of the vast public estate found in the western United States.  I left my home fairly early in the morning, arriving at the trailhead by quarter to seven.  The trailhead is named after the adjacent waterway, in this case that being Gold Creek.  I frequently start hikes here, and can go any number of different directions.  Today, I started out hiking up the Fossil Ridge Trail No. 478, rising up a short distance and passing the Mill Lake Trail No. 532.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, alternately led or trailed behind, skittering up and down the path hunting rodents.

The mist hung low over the surrounding mountains, sometimes producing a bit of rain.  We traversed a number of switchbacks until reaching Snowslide Gulch, where it seems that some sort of occurrence had taken place during the last winter.  A great mass of snow, I would believe, had slid down from the precipice at the top of the gulch and obliterated a narrow swath of forest.  It was stunning to behold, and hard to believe that such a thing could happen.  The foggy mist only added to the oddness of the scene.  We continued up more switchbacks until reaching the ridgeline and passed over into Boulder Gulch.  The Sun occasionally broke through the clouds, and there was light!

But that streaking sunlight didn’t last long before the clouds closed in and obliterated our life-giving orb.  We continued hiking until we reached a small meadow where I paused and observed the flowers growing there.  It was a nice place to meander before we continued on our way to the lake.  There is a sign post at the trail junction.  The trail to the lake is marked as Trail No. 479, but I believe that that designation is also used for the nearby Willow Creek Trail.  Topographic maps suggest the designation 478.3A, but I’m not sure it matters as the trail to Boulder Lake is fairly short regardless of its number.

I had thought that the wildflower season was over or nearly so, but the riot of color and diversity that I found near the lake convinced me otherwise.  I found quite a few species of wildflowers, including all of my local favorites.  Perhaps the monsoonal rains had revived the fading blooms, but whatever the cause I felt blessed to see so much beauty in one small basin.  I barely noticed the lake set in its basin, surrounded by the tilted layers of uplifted sedimentary strata.  I wandered over to the east side of the lake and found a bounty of mountainous glory.  I laid my pack aside and, while the shepherds busied themselves with rodents, I attempted to capture an example of every plant that I could find.  It was a daunting but highly enjoyable task.

Returning to the trailhead I espied a white mass that seemed incongruous.  Sure, I would expect snow in the highest and shadiest nooks of these Rocky Mountains, but at the lower elevation it should have all been melted out.  I knew that my mind was playing tricks on me, or perhaps there was a more rational explanation.  Upon examining the mass I discovered it to be an outcropping of pure quartz.  The rocky lumps stood out in stark contrast to the the rust-colored needles on the forest floor.  This sort of intrusive dyke or sill often enough contains minerals eagerly sought by prospectors in days gone by.  I’m sure that they would have noticed had any economic value been attached.  For my part, I was happy to see this heap of stone in its natural state.  Continuing on, we returned to the car and drove back down to my home in Gunnison.  I had to work in the evening, but I felt blessed to have had this opportunity to get out and enjoy the natural wonders found in this corner of the Colorado Rockies.