Venerable Old Monarch Pass – January 08, 2019


Rimed conifers on Old Monarch Pass Road

My fourth day in a row of skiing took me out to Old Monarch Pass.  Unlike the previous three days, I had to work a shift in the evening and thus needed to limit myself with regard to distance and time.  Skiing the old pass fits all requisites and is an easy way to enjoy the high country in Winter.  The Old Monarch Pass Winter Trailhead is about three-quarters of an hour away, just over Monarch Pass on U.S. 50.  I loaded up the shepherds and we all drove east out of Gunnison sometime just after nine in the morning.  The remnants of the previous storm lay blanketed all over everything but the clouds had flown off elsewhere leaving behind a nice clear day.  Reaching the trailhead I offloaded the dogs onto the high berm adjacent to the highway.  This was an advantage for me, as I could more or less safely contain the canines away from traffic while I gathered my gear.

Gear donned we headed up the hill and followed San Isabel National Forest Road 237, most of which used to be old U.S. 50 up until the current highway was built in the mid to late Nineteen-Thirties.  I don’t believe the old route was ever plowed during Winter especially since the technology and mandate hadn’t yet existed.  Today, though, I relished the exhilaration I always feel when outdoors in the Rocky Mountains, up on the Great Divide, the Spine of the Continent.  No wilderness, there are power lines, the highway, Forest Service Roads and Monarch Ski Area all packed into a relatively tight space.  Still, the area may be considered backcountry and needs to be respected as such for common sense safety reasons.

The result of beetle killed forest is a patchwork of destruction similar to wildfire.  Thus the area is also home to salvage logging, a practice I find a bit dubious as I believe the nutrients found in the old trees are better left in place. Many trees perish but some survive.  Dead trees may not be pretty but they do provide habitat and shade.  I’m not really in the mood to go off on a tangent nor deliver a treatise on the problems of the world, but let me say that I support quiet non-consumptive use of our public lands.   Let Nature heal her own wounds.  The dogs led out front, exploring the scent of other dogs while I ruminated on the situation.  I let the thoughts fade away as I focused on the beauty found all around.  The old road skirts the ski area, and as I climbed uphill an number of people swished on down on the opposite side of a rope barrier.  Leah, naturally, wanted to walk via the groomed ski trail instead of the loose snow where the old road sits.

This short ski trek can be terminated at the summit, where a fine view to the west unfolds.  Looking back down into the Gunnison Country I could also see out across the vast distance towards the San Juan Mountains.  Despite the modern constructs this area still seems remote and in my mind’s eye I can feel the wildness of the realm, what it might have been prior to settlement.  The pups and I continued another quarter of a mile on the western side of the pass.  The wind had poured a large cornice up onto the road and this I mounted to get a better view.  Almost every time I had past visited Old Monarch Pass the wind has poured through the gap on its way east but today only a small breeze pushed the air around.  The sunshine kept things fairly comfortable, and the rime covered trees created a bit of iced magic.

As much as I admired the view, and enjoyed breathing in the fresh cold air scented with conifer, I still had to clock in to my shift in the not-too-distant future.  I turned my skis around and piloted them back to the pass, where I posed the pups near the sign erected by the Forest Service to denote the parting of the waters by the Great Divide.  In a fairly short time we had retraced our route back down to the car.  I kept the dogs in check until I could get the car unlocked and the gate open so they could immediately hop up into the back.  My gear loaded up I drove back over the pass and down into the Gunnison Country, and made it home with plenty of time to spare for a shower, lunch and commute.  In other words, just another great day…

Skiing to Brush Creek – January 07, 2019


A blustery day on Brush Creek Road

Precipitous storms had been active the previous twelve hours, fresh snow blanketing the valley and region.  Finding myself in a fine Winter groove I decided to journey out to the Brush Creek Trailhead, though I was in no haste.  Having made an enjoyable morning of sumptuous breakfasting (hot black coffee and my very own patented bachelor one-frypan stir-fry), chore mismanagement and goofing-off on the computer, I had strategically avoided the peak of the storm.  I waited so long that I enjoyed a light lunch at home, and when I reached the trailhead at half past one there were only two cars in the lot.  Because of the accumulation on their hoods I deduced that their owners may have gone for an overnight in one of the huts located up-valley.  I pulled in and donned my Winter gear as the dogs scurried from one scent-post to the next.

Mid-week I didn’t expect to see many people but I was surprised by the total lack of fellow recreationalists.  Driving up from Gunnison to Brush Creek, Highway 135 was fairly busy with traffic and there were a handful of people walking along Brush Creek Road, also known by its associated designation as Gunnison County Road 738.  Pondering this mystery I skied down about a quarter mile over plowed road and passed the county sign, painted that particular shade of yellow that denotes a warning message, that no Winter maintenance beyond this point could be expected.  Over-the-snow machines are allowed but mostly people go touring out this way.  Thinking that I had beat the system by getting a late start, and thus having other folks make tracks, I was just a bit startled when I realized that nobody else had been out.  Imagine my chagrin when I realized I would have to push aside my own snow!

Fortunately for me, Draco the shepherd was in a fairly adventurous mood and ran ahead looking for rodents and canine message boards.  I still had to push aside some eight to sixteen inches of new snow but at least it had been broken up a bit.  Normally the views here near the confluence of Brush Creek with the East River are fairly extensive and impressive.  The Elk Mountains rear up to their crest, layer upon layer of ridges rising one above the other.  Numerous peaks great and small flank the valley, their slopes covered in extensive forest of aspen and conifer or meadows of wildflowers.  Today, though, all this was obscured by the dense cover of clouds spitting out flurries of snow.  I began to understand why people had eschewed this area today.  Still, there is something enjoyable about a storm – the freshness of it all, a certain vital energy in the pulsing gusts… Pushing through the snow I exerted myself enough so that I decided to strip a layer off.  The gusts, nominally cold, felt more cool and carried away my accumulated heat.

From the trailhead I skied out about two miles before deciding that I had had enough of pushing aside the deep snow.  The dogs and I had crossed the bridge over Brush Creek and gone a bit further before ending at the base of small hill.  It is difficult to say what exactly is on a dog’s mind, but I started to get the feeling that the way Leah was wallowing through the snow she was thinking to herself how comfy the couch is.  As we had headed along the snow had become deeper and Draco pushed it aside with is chest.  We stopped for a bit, but just long enough for me to quench my thirst.  The clouds were a kaleidoscope of constantly morphing shapes, and the Sun would occasionally burst through the swirling masses.  Turning around, Leah suddenly became more animated and trotted off ahead, just behind Draco.  Heading back, into the wind, I reapplied the doffed layer and enjoyed the frozen landscape with their tricks of light.  So imposing, the icy expanse, but, yes, with this ample snowpack the flowers will be sublime later on.  I shall wait.  The shepherds trot out ahead, Leah still waddling a bit but now with a certain rekindled enthusiasm.  The couch is barely an hour away!  Spring, aye, that is weeks away, and the willow and aspen slumber waiting out the chill for their annual rejuvenation.

Skiing on Long Branch – January 06, 2019


At the site of the old guard station on Long Branch, looking downstream on a cloudy day

I don’t have an exact count from the previous Winter with its warm temperatures and concomitant lack of moisture, but I believe that with this outing I have equaled the total skiing days from last year.  We have been enjoying a more typical Winter, with cold overnight lows and a good snow base.  Because of this recent storm that blew in during the previous afternoon and night, the air feels a bit warmer.  A bit of wind combines with the humidity to create a much colder feeling than might be apparent, but regardless the air itself has taken on a odd tinge of warmth despite the ten degrees registering on the thermometer.

I decide to head up-valley on Tomichi Creek, towards Sargents.  This small town, formerly a depot on the Denver and Rio Grande Western where “helpers” would be added to the train for the climb up to Marshall Pass, sits at the base of Monarch Pass somewhere around eighty-five hundred feet in elevation.  The old water tank still stands, but that history I eschew for a ski on Long Branch.  This creek confluences with Tomichi Creek about a mile shy of Sargents and heads up towards the Cochetopa Hills, a relatively low point on the Continental Divide in Colorado.  I arrive at the trailhead at ten after a drive out from Gunnison on U.S. 50.  Blustery but quiet, nobody else uses Gunnison National Forest Road 780 much during winter.  I’m more likely to see snowmobilers here but even so its overall unlikely that I’ll see anyone.

It’s a gray day outside, absolutely no color beyond white, black and the aforementioned combination.  Even the conifers en mass take on the dark color and unless the needles are examined closeup the green is missed.  For an otherwise colorless day, the only exception beyond myself and the dogs might be the willow bark that even now has a hue of red or yellow, depending on the species.  We ski up Road 780 and with a certain melancholy I watch the traffic on U.S. 50 zip by, folks on their way somewhere else.  Part of me wants to join the rush, the journey elsewhere, almost a reason to exist in itself, an American existentialism… but I don’t care for the constant pushing and shoving from the folks who only relate to their destination and not the travel itself.  I watch the cars pass for a bit, but traffic is light and often no vehicles may be seen nor heard.

After a quarter of mile of gliding on the quiet road the hiss of traffic has diminished excepting the rumble of the semis.  Sound evaporates, not even birds sing on this day, and I’m left with my own thoughts about my journey through life.  The swishing skis are the musical accompaniment on my travels for the moment.  The shepherds, Draco and Leah, are busy running up and down the empty road but no rodents stir and thus they content themselves with odors. We cross over into the National Forest after passing through private property.  Due to the odd way that county lines were drawn both this area and Sargents are part of Saguache County.  I’m sure that this must be a county road but I don’t know the designation.

I ski on up about two miles to the confluence with Claire Creek, a fairly minor drainage.  What is significant, and to me sad, is that this is the former home of the Long Branch Guard Station.  I don’t have a good date for the buildings but that too is somewhat irrelevant as I find that they have been unceremoniously torn down.  I’m sure that they were rat infested and unhealthy but that could have been remedied and the buildings rented out to the general public for overnight, or even week-long, use.  This happens elsewhere, so why not here?  I feel that sometimes the Forest Service in Colorado is fairly hidebound in their approach to recreational opportunities.  Why do they try so hard to advocate for the motorized recreation that is destroying Taylor Park when they don’t maintain trails and then  close campgrounds?  Partly the shift towards constant firefighting is to blame, but the lure of an easy dollar must be examined as well.

The road had been packed down earlier but above the old guard station, where they did manage to salvage onsite the outhouse, the dogs and I are creating our own tracks.  We pass through the dark forest at times but there are many openings that allow views up and down Long Branch.  Up ahead I can see the high point of the Cochetopa Hills, Long Branch Baldy.  The forest smells good, the perfume of the conifers mingling with the sagebrush and each breath I draw in through my nose is pleasantly tingling.  We continue on about a mile and a half until the road ends and branches into two trails.  I figure this is as good of a place to stop as any.  There is more sign of life in this area, and rodent, rabbit and weasel tracks abound.  Draco wanders off and on the road, threading his way between sagebrush going where his nose leads him.  Leah, who isn’t as adventurous, parallels Draco’s movements from the safety of the road, sometimes venturing out when lured by an especially strong scent.  Moose tracks also weave in and out of the willow, and these beasts I am wary of.  I make more noise especially where my line of sight is minimal.

After stopping a bit to take on some water and enjoy the solitude the dogs and I turn around and ski back down the road we came up.  A faint breeze stirs but generally the weather has been fairly mild despite the cloudy and threatening nature of the atmosphere.  This has been a good ski in one of my favorite out-of-the-way locales.  Returning to the car I note the increase in traffic on U.S. 50.  I wonder at who is going where and what we are all trying to accomplish.  Pecuniary gain or self-expression?  Or both?  Since our collective destination is all the same I figure that it’s best to enjoy the journey.  With that somber thought in mind, I load up the pups and drive over to the lone gas station in Sargents.  I procure a tankard of gasoline.  Not having had a snack on my ski journey I raid their store.  Draco has his head out the window to take it all in like a canine does; my alternative is to pop a treat into my mouth every minute or two as the miles pass by.  My drive home is gastronomically incorrect, but hey…

Skiing on Mill Creek – January 05, 2019


Crystalline aspen catching the morning light on Mill Creek

Ten straight days of work behind me and my thoughts immediately turned to the day’s outdoor activity, in this case a pleasant ski up along Mill Creek on the eastern side of the West Elk Mountains.  During the intervening week and a half since my previous, and first of the season, ski I had been jogging in the morning, walking in the afternoon or evening and going to the gym every day to continue my stretching and strengthening so as to combat the sciatica that had impeded my lifestyle these last many months.

Unlike last year, Winter actually arrived here in the valley and piles of snow have been heaped everywhere.  I am especially grateful that on this initial day off the clouds have mostly blown over elsewhere and the skies shine down with an almost glowing blue.  It’s cold this morning, fifteen below in Gunnison.  It will be a bit warmer up valley but nonetheless I wait to get going until the Sun has safely crested the horizon and pours its radiant warmth onto our blessed souls.  It’s devilish cold out, but there is no wind nor humidity and my layers keep me warm and dry.  The car is none too eager to start but does anyhow, and soon we leave town via Colorado 135.

The recent storms have left the Gunnison Country blanketed in snow.  Turning off on County Road 730, the Ohio Creek Road, we zip along with a plume of snow billowing out behind us.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, accompany me on this frigid day, the former with his head out the window despite the cold.  The pups like fresh air and I bless my seat heaters.  The drive up valley is sublime.  Conical Carbon Peak dominates the head of Ohio Creek and the Anthracite Range’s craggy nature reminds me of its other name, The Devil’s Backbone.  Nine miles on and I pilot the car onto CR 727, the Mill Creek Road.  This road ends three miles up at the Winter trailhead and the canines burst forth to run amok in the empty parking lot.

Now the real fun begins.  I gather my gear and strap the trusty three-pins to my feet.  Off we go!  Government shutdown be damned, I’m accessing my public lands!  The Gunnison National Forest has kept the same designated number for the road, and I am reminded that I am fortunate to live in a community where the Federal and local governments generally get along and cooperate on common sense matters.  It is, I reflect to myself, a shame that a bit more of this type of neighborliness doesn’t translate up the chain and on to our nation’s capitol.  Enough politics! my mind shouts to itself, and I focus up on the ski ahead.  A few moderately steep climbs await and I am glad to be in the shady aspect, protected from the Sun by the forest of conifer and aspen.  As cold as it is, in a bright Sun I’ll get overheated quickly.

The snow is so nice.  Packed down with a few inches of fresh fluff atop.  Hoarfrost has adorned all the aspen, the moisture being wicked out of the air.  The quietude beyond my skis’ swishing denotes the lack of wind and I laugh out loud and whoop it up a bit.  I am usually fairly tranquil in the woods but this day calls for an audible but brief celebration commemorating the joy of being alive.  Some brave squirrels are working their middens and the shepherds notice.  I admonish the dogs to leave the poor beasts alone and we move on.  The Sun shines brightly, and the filament is uninterrupted cerulean.  The various hoodoos, fins, spires and towers of West Elk breccia can be seen through the forest from time to time, and especially near the end of the road.

Where the road ends the dogs and I follow the Mill-Castle Trail No. 450 as it parallels and old abandoned irrigation ditch.  There are numerous ski trails in the area, but I take the most direct and popular route.  We continue on about another mile until a creek crossing deflects my intent.  Its not worth hassling with, I rationalize to myself, and I turn back and instead visit a small meadow that heretofore I had not.  Fine views of Mill Creek abound but now that my exertions have ended I begin to chill, even in the sunlight.  The unpacked snow swallows up the shepherds and they wallow out to my small perch.  We stay a short time, long enough for me to gulp down a bit of water and admire the view.

The ski back is a bit more challenging as I have never figured out how to turn on three-pin skis.  Well, at least with any semblance of grace.  In a couple of places I snowplow my way down the trail but I do manage to keep my balance.  Where I feel comfortable I zip on down, knees bent and center of gravity lowered.  I fly by the shepherds and they race to catch up.  I see a couple of other people coming up the trail and we exchange greeting and salutations.  The parking lot is packed with cars and I’m guessing most folks opt to head off on a different route, since I haven’t seen them all.  It is a Saturday morning and despite the cold the clear blue sky is a siren call to many.  Most people around the valley roll their eyes at the bickering going on in the upper echelons, and I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t send our county commissioners and local managers of the public land agencies off to Washington to help resolve the crisis.

Good Ol’ Willow Creek – December 25, 2018


Leah at the old cabin, looking upstream towards Fossil Ridge

Twenty-Eighteen as a whole had been somewhat disappointing.  Plagued by injuries, work and a dry year, I just didn’t have the moxie to get out and do what I love.  One of my dogs died, too.  Upon reflection, I made some really wonderful hikes, but just not enough of them.  This June I begun a battle with sciatica that has only recently begun to turn towards my favor.  I returned from a visit to California at the end of the first week of December and decided to put off all outdoor excursions for about two and a half weeks while I worked out the kinks that age and hard living have bestowed upon my body.  The Christmas season in a Colorado resort town is somewhat zany with the crowds, but lasts only two weeks instead of months on end.  I had decided two or three days earlier that I would get out and ski on this Holy Day, as it has become something of a tradition of mine.  Besides, it would be my only day off within a two week span – ten days of slinging pizza and rushing out orders of wings awaited beginning the next night.

With the pain in my hip more or less dissipated I began to have confidence in my body but nonetheless didn’t want overexert myself.  Thus I loaded up certain shepherds and cruised out to the Quartz Creek valley just shy of Ohio City and parked at Willow Creek.  This is one of my regular ski runs, and I am not even sure how many times I’ve been out there on ski and foot.  Draining the southern flank of Fossil Ridge, an uplifted mass of fossil bearing sedimentary rock, we would ski up this road about a mile and a half.  What I know is that the mile and a half up gains little elevation.  I hope to get a read on my physique.  Along the way outcroppings of the granitic bedrock protrude from the hillsides.  Aspen grow in large groves, most of them one large organism.  Conifer, mostly Douglas fir but also some spruce and lodgepole pine, grow on the hillsides.  Snow has been draped over everything courtesy of the early season storms that blessed us with the white bounty.

Christmas Day shines radiantly under the blue sky.  The Sun is warm and seldom blocked by the few clouds scudding by on their way east somewhere.  Regardless of those masses’s activity, the wind at ground level is nonexistent. In other words, I’m blessed to be out and about in this Rocky Mountain setting.  As we set off I am immediately pleased that the nerve pain abides by my wish for it to be gone.  Draco and Leah bound out ahead, their predator senses denoting all the recent rodent activity.  The most recent snow has fallen only a day or two before and only a few tracks can be seen.  Gliding up Gunnison National Forest Road 882, the only sounds are the soft hiss of my skis, bird calls and the not quite crunchy sound that the dogs’s paws make punching through snow.  Leah races out ahead, scouting for squirrels while Draco lingers behind to make sure none are hiding nearby.  All is well in my world, I think to myself.

I slide on past Devil’s Hole Gulch and can see the end of my ski on this day.  Up ahead on a small hillside otherwise covered in sagebrush stands a tall singular snag of an ancient conifer.  This sun-drenched aspect has already been melted out and it sticks out compared to the whiteness that surrounds it.  Reaching its base I am now at the confluence with East Willow Creek as well as the junction of Gunnison National Forest Road 882.1D.  Draco and Leah mill about, investigating the remains of cattle who had grazed here over the Summer while I find a rock that offers both sunshine and partial shade.  My torso and legs are warmed while my face is soothed by the coolness.  I take off my skis and sit, the dogs likewise curling up in a sunny patch of snow after their initial curiosity wears a bit thin.

I had brought snacks but am not hungry enough to fuss with the hassle of eating in the snow.  I do quench my thirst with the water I brought along.  The Sun’s warmth is now apparent.  I think about skiing onward but decide against it.  I want to ease my body into activity and also I know that the snow will heat up enough on this warm day so that it will become a bit sticky.  The repose lasts about a quarter of an hour and then we begin the ski back the way we came.  The snow sticks readily to my skis and I discover that I have not prepared my pack adequately for Winter activities.  Specifically, I have left behind my scrapper and liquid wax.  I can get away with using a credit card to substitute for the first item but the insect repellent (sans DEET) serves no useful purpose except to remind myself of my apparent thoughtlessness.

The gliding come to a rapid halt as I hike a patch of warmed snow.  I quickly add ten pounds to each ski and gracelessly stomp along.  To add to my chagrin I find that somebody had attempted to drive up the road thus ruining the ski tracks that I and others have placed along the road.  While not illegal I am disturbed by the attitude displayed.  In about twenty feet I have to laugh and shake my head at the odd nature of this situation.  By churning up the snow the truck has mixed the warm snow with the cold below it and suddenly I can ski again.  I turn a corner and find the individuals responsible stuck and nearly put into a culvert after attempting to back out of the deep snow.  They have no tire or tow chains, shovel nor adequate winter clothing.  I’m incensed on many levels but I ski down the last quarter mile to retrieve my shovel anyhow.  Sigh.  Well, I suppose we all attempt, at some point, to challenge the limits of our technology and skill.  I calm my internal tempest and try to find the grace that this day ideally stands for.

Willow Creek (But Which One?), Camp Creek and Vulcan – November 30, 2017


Looking downstream on Willow creek, at the confluence with Camp Creek

Fifteen months after the fact, I am having difficulty remembering my exact route for this hike that I took on the Last Day of November of Twenty-Seventeen.  Besides the time differential, I have a vague recollection of running out of space on the memory card in my camera, thus limiting the number of photographs that I might take.  That was somewhat thoughtless of me, especially since I could have easily brought a backup.  But, more relevantly, to answer the question posed in the title I was on that particular Willow Creek that flows into the eastern end of Blue Mesa Reservoir.  Aye, there are some half a dozen or so Willow Creeks strewn throughout the Gunnison Country.  Some I have never visited, some maybe once or twice and others are among my favorite haunts.  This one is somewhere towards the middle, a place that I have only begun to explore mostly due to the confusing nature of land ownership.  A mix of Bureau of Land Management and private property, discerning exactly where I can and can’t go has been more of a challenge than the topography.

Unlike many other areas in the vicinity this area south of the City of Gunnison has no good map that I can rely on.  I must use four:  United States Geological Survey 7.5 minute by 7.5 minute quadrangles, the Gunnison Basin Public Lands Map published by the BLM and United States Forest Service, a map posted here and there throughout the valley by the BLM that shows legal roads, property boundaries and contours and, finally, the Colorado Atlas and Gazetteer published by DeLorme.  A handy fifth map might be the 1:100,000 scale surface ownership map published by the BLM.  The reason behind my map schizophrenia?  The quads don’t show private property nor BLM road numbers, but they are the nes plus ultra for topography.  The GBPL map has no contours but good boundary and legal access (country roads, for example) information.  The BLM stubbornly refuses to publish that fine map that they post here and there and I must resort to making snapshots of said map so that I can make use of them.  Besides, they are too large scale for hiking.  The gazetteer helps link it all together but is too big and large scale for hiking, as well.  That fifth one is handy but also, at this point, redundant.

Having made myself ready for this hike by mentally collating all relevant information I finally set out with my two German shepherds, Draco and Leah.  We left town westbound on U.S. 50 and drove some eight miles until turning south on Colorado 149.  Driving eight miles along this road brought us to an inconspicuous pullout near BLM Road 3042.  The dogs leaped out of the car and began to scurry around while I gathered my gear.  We began the hike in the gulch that parallels Colorado 149 from the reservoir up to Nine Mile Hill.  It is unnamed on all maps.  Within a quarter of a mile we crossed over a small divide that took us into an unnamed gulch that is part of the Willow Creek drainage.  This is open country, grassland where not part of the sagebrush steppe and my views where extensive to say the least.  Many mesas loomed nearby, their basalt caps resistant to erosion.

After hiking another three-quarters of a mile, I led the dogs up a short hill along an abandoned and closed road.  This road we followed a mile north until we reached a boundary with private property in section fourteen.  I considered climbing up to a nearby mesa, Point 8725, but didn’t want the hassle of crossing a tightly wound barbed-wire fence so retreated instead back to BLM Road 3042 and then continued down to Willow Creek itself.  Once nestled in the hills a bit, the water collects and willow, aspen, cottonwood and a few conifers grow where conditions allow.  Road 3042 was a glorified two-track but the road along Willow Creek is a better maintained for general traffic.  This is BLM Road 3043, but because it serves private property upstream it also carries a Gunnison County designation as Road 31.  I don’t like walking on the shoulder of busy roads, and although the traffic is fairly light I instead walked along cattle trails that parallel the creek.

A half a mile upstream and the road leaves Willow Creek and follows Camp Creek another three and a half mile towards the old mining town of Vulcan.  Only a light skiff of snow seems to have fallen in this area in the recent weeks.  Near Little Willow Creek I stop for a short break, enjoying the relatively wide-open meadows in the area.  Continuing onward, we climb a bit and find more aspen until reaching the old townsite.  Not much remains except some old tailings piles and rotten wood.  A few modern trailers and such now occupy the private land.  I had always wanted to see what lay back here and now I know:  Not much, but if I had the means I would probably live in this backwater cranny of the Rocky Mountains.  Nice rolling country, a mix of grassland and aspen forest, its too bad that public access isn’t a bit less complicated.

Not wanting to sit near people’s houses and make anyone uncomfortable, I took a couple of snapshots, mindful of my limited storage capacity, and turned around to walk back down Camp Creek to the confluence with Willow Creek.  I usually take more photographs on the way up than down, but since I had been hording my opportunities I now took a few snapshots of interesting aspen groves and bottomland along the creek.  At Willow Creek is also a junction with Road 3043a, which follows said creek upstream.  But instead of following that road I took another abandoned road that makes a shortcut to Road 3042.  This old two-track shows up on the quad but nowhere else.  Rising from the creek bottom the dogs and I hiked up onto the bench that lies below the high mesas and above the creek.  I could see the West Elk Mountains clearly to the north and the Sawatch Range to the east.

The remainder of the hike was fairly uneventful, except that I enjoyed thoroughly being out in the wildlands of the Gunnison Country.  The brisk wind, cold this late in the season, staunched the heat of the Sun but that made the hiking fairly comfortable, especially for the canines.  I regret not taking more photos, especially since I walked some twelve miles.  I didn’t document what I saw nearly as well as I would have liked.  I suppose that means that I will have to return, perhaps in Spring when this area is more green.  Many of these roads are gated then, closed temporarily to vehicular use to protect both roadbed and wildlife during the Spring thaw.  Despite the challenges presented by both topography and land ownership, this area has a seemingly limitless number of routes to choose from.  Good country, just watch where you step!



Mason Gulch – November 24, 2017


On the Divide between Hardscrabble and North Red Creeks, looking north towards Mock Hill

I had decided not to take the dogs out during the final portion of the big game season here in Colorado.  Feeling a bit pent up I chose on this first day post-hunt to get out of the Gunnison Country and head east towards the great plains.  There I expected to find warmer weather and snow-free landscape.  Thus I loaded up the pups into the Outback and drove out of town on U.S. 50 eastbound all the way until I reached Cañon City where I turned off onto Colorado 115 and drove to Florence.  I had crossed over Monarch Pass and then followed the Arkansas River until reaching the latter aforementioned city.  There I turned south onto Colorado 67 until that highway ends at Wetmore and Colorado 96.  Turning back to the west I drove up Colorado 96 until forsaking the state highway for Custer County Road 389 followed by Road 388.  On that latter road I parked (finally) at the boundary to the San Isabel National Forest.  Gratefully, I let myself and the dogs out of the car and we all stretched and oriented ourselves.

Although now well established on the Western Slope I originally began my Colorado adventures living on the eastern side of the Great Divide.  Thus I have a familiarity with the Wet Mountains, where my pack now found itself.  Mostly inconspicuous relative to the better known mountains found in the central part of the state, the Wets are easily visible from the Great Plains in the vicinity of Pueblo, Colorado.  Driving between Pueblo and Walsenburg on Interstate 25 gives the occupants of the vehicle a fine view of the chain rising up from the rolling grasslands.  I miss having the plains nearby; I thought them something akin to an ocean of land.  Hardscrabble Creek flows near where the car had been parked, and takes its waters out directly into the shortgrass prairie.  I breathed in the fresh air with a smile on my face, as I prepared to make ready for our hike.

I could have driven the Subaru another mile on the road but have decided that this will be my trailhead on this trip and all future endeavors.  The road deadends at private property so I expected, rightly, that traffic would be light.  We started up the road through a ponderosa forest.  After a quarter of a mile or so we reached a small divide between Hardscrabble and North Red Creeks.  The upper watershed of the latter contains Mason Gulch and looking across the open grassy hillside I could clearly make out its course.  Ramparts of rock loomed hear and there but the most striking aspect was the remains of a forest fire that had swept through here some years ago.  Burnt boles lay scattered across the landscape and the whole could appear grim.  Fortunately, new trees had already began to sprout and the grasses and forbs had obviously grown back fruitfully.  Looking north I could see Mock Hill and other forested ridges of the Wet Mountains.  We continued along the road, descending until reaching the boundary with the private property, about another three-quarters of a mile.  Here I walked along San Isabel National Forest Road 388A and found San Isabel National Forest Trail 1363.

The trail isn’t on the topographic quadrangle for the area, but besides being marked on the ground does show up on the San Isabel National Forest map.  The dogs scurried ahead, their interest in the rodents of the Wet Mountains commanding their attention.  The shepherds might not have noticed but to me it quickly became evident that this trail receives minimal use and maintenance.  The path was tough to follow and the route ambiguous.  The route apparently ends at an inholding about a mile up Mason Gulch.  Perhaps more folks hiked here before the fire burnt through.  I had thought that perhaps a user-created trail continued further up the gulch but I never found out.  I was happy to find a small flow of water so that the dogs could slake their thirst.  We found a small flat protuberance that jutted out of the hillside and here sat amid the ponderosa pine.

We returned down Mason Gulch towards the trailhead at Road 388A.  Since I had driven all this way I thought it worth the effort to explore San Isabel National Forest Trail No. 1364, as it too junctions with this same trailhead.  The quadrangle map does show this trail but it has since been rerouted to avoid private property.  The San Isabel National Forest map shows the reroute but because that latter map shows not the contours it is only useful as a general guide.  We followed the trial out about half a mile or so after finding it even more fully blocked by fallen snags.  I just wasn’t feeling it, or perhaps I was.  A certain pall fell over me and I decided to terminate our explorations for the day.  I had walked out far enough so that I could look down North Red Creek and see a small piece of the Great Plains.  That was gratifying to me.

Turning around we hiked back along Trail 1364, Road 388A and finally Road 388, once more crossing the small saddle that divides North Red Creek from Hardscrabble Creek.  Along most of the hike back I could clearly see Mock Hill rising about three thousand feet above my then current elevation.  I drove back to Gunnison on a slightly different route, following Colorado 96 to the west and its terminus in Westcliffe.  Decades ago in what seems like another lifetime I used to live here and have never forgotten how gorgeous this town’s setting is, what with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rising their snow-capped summits up thousands of feet above the Wet Mountain Valley.  Where the one highway ended I began to follow Colorado 69 north to its ending at U.S. 50 at Texas Creek.  From there I simply followed that transcontinental highway back out of the Arkansas River drainage, over Monarch Pass and then down Tomichi Creek until I reached my home in Gunnison, Colorado.  This day was one of my least productive hiking days especially when compared to the number of miles I had driven.  Sure, I had wanted to return not too late to care for my elderly dog that I had left behind but nonetheless many questions that I had hoped to answer I didn’t.  Perhaps I will be able to return sometime in the future and better explore this small nook in the Wet Mountains.  Rough country it is, and I believe it was up Hardscrabble Creek that Old Bill Williams led Fremont on his ill-fated fourth expedition.  No wonder this region appeals to me.