It seems like spring is on the way here in Gunnison Country. The weather has been warming up, and the mornings are now likely to be fifteen degrees above zero rather than below. This last storm was epic and although I had originally thought that perhaps a deep cold would follow, the reality has been that the air temperatures increased somewhat dramatically.
In my chronological progression of hikes, I am still working on May of 2006. And although May is still months away, this recollection of thoughts and photos reminds me, the intrepid trekker, that the white will turn to green soon enough. The aspen are now in slumber, but soon the buds will begin to enlarge and then the aspens’ catkins will bloom and suddenly one day, the leaves will greet the sun after a long winter’s respite.
I titled this hike “West Elk Creek – May of 2006”, and indeed that is where the terminus of this particular hike was at. However, this hike followed what is called on maps “Lion Gulch Trail”. In fact, the trail does start at Lion Gulch and passing through Elk Park reaches a summit that divides water between Lion Gulch and West Elk Creek. This trail is also called TR536, and may be accessed from Red Creek Road (FR723).
West Elk Creek is one of three major drainages on the south side of the West Elk Mountains. This is some rough country. Being one of the first ranges of the Rocky Mountains, this small chain receives more than its share of moisture and consequently, the forest is thick and dense. Because the West Elk’s are not only volcanic in nature, but formed of easily eroded breccia, the gullies and canyons are steep and difficult to move around. I don’t know why the United States Forest Service built this trail, but it follows Lion Gulch for two miles to a small pass and then descends another two miles over numerous switchbacks until fading out at West Elk Creek. I have never attempted to go up or down stream because the terrain and vegetation seem daunting. The creek at this time of year was also in flood stage and any crossing would have been treacherous to say the least.
I took this hike during mid to late May, and the leaves of the aspen still have that early season green. Not the darker green of high summer, but a lighter green signifying newness and rejuvenation. I took a handful of flower photos, and they are all early season flowers: Red columbine, clematis, lupine and arnica are abundant wherever conditions permit.
This is a fairly easy trail, although it is about eight miles total round-trip distance, and requires over a thousand feet of vertical gain to extricate oneself from the deep canyon. The lower portion of this trail allows for close-up view of the breccia common in this area. The breccia is soft, comprised of volcanic ash that engulfed large pieces of harder volcanic rock (See “Roadside Geology of Colorado” by Chronic and Williams for a better description). When subjected to millions of years of water, ice and wind, the results are steep and deep canyons and numerous hoodoos and palisades throughout the region. There may be pinnacles with one lone hard rock suspended by a column of softer ash. The volcanoes in the area are long extinct, having erupted 25 to 35 million years ago, but their legacy lives on.
Naturally, I had the pack with me. My three amigos, Lady Dog, Lucky Dog, and Sheba. This is a very quiet and secluded hike, no mountain bikes or other mechanized vehicles allowed as half the trail is within the West Elk Wilderness. The dogs and I had a good rest and lunch in a small meadow, where we were accompanied by bird song and the constant din of the nearby West Elk Creek, swollen with snow melt and muddy brown, reminding the viewer of the unending process of erosion occurring at one’s feet. They, the dogs that is, found an old elk metacarpal or metatarsal and promptly set about to chew and gnaw on what little remained of the hide; the hoof however was a singular treat of much delight.
This is another hike that has had much of its emotional concentration diluted by time and the constant addition of other memories. I have a vague recollection that I have done this hike once, maybe even twice, again (Hmmm….I found photos from June 05, 2009 – I’ll post them at the proper time). I look forward to comparing that hike with this. What I notice about this hike, looking at my photos, are some things that belong to this hike alone and others that are more general themes. Generally, I see that some of my landscape photographs are tilted and that the horizon isn’t as level as should be. I have attempted over the past few years to solve that problem and generally get it right. The big limitation to this point-and-shoot camera is a lack of manual focus when using the camera in macro mode. That can create difficulties when trying to use the auto-focus on flowers and other up-close objects. The camera doesn’t always focus on what I would like, but over time I have begun to figure out ways to trick the auto-focus. The red columbine, like little red rubies under the aspens, for some reason have been difficult for me to get a good photo of over the years. One time, I used a friend’s SLR-style camera that had a manual focus and what a difference it made. Specifically to this hike, I notice the rugged canyon of West Elk Creek. The odd geology and erosion of the breccia captivated me. The harder rocks suspended in the relatively softer rock have allowed strange formation to exist as time patiently works its magic.
Enjoy the photos, and keep on hiking!