One of my favorite places in the world. I can still remember the day I first came to the valley below, to visit the remote captive wolf sanctuary known then and now as Mission: Wolf. I drove down the interstate from the Denver metro area in my beater Ford Maverick and spent the night in Walsenburg. The next morning I drove up from the plains, passing Badito Cone and into the mountains towards the community of Gardner. I had never known such a place existed and was immediately taken aback by the wide open nature of the upper valley. Initially, I had planned on spending a few hours watching the wolves (the reason I had come down to visit) and go skiing for the remainder of the spring break I was on. But after spending a day at the sanctuary I was motivated to put my time and talent to work here in this location. I never did go skiing and remember returning to class work riding high on a cloud. I was a neophyte in the world of wolves and my visit cemented my desire to work with canis lupus.
The natural beauty of the surrounding area captivates and enchants and has held a grip on my soul for these many years. From the perch nestled in the western foothills of the Wet Mountains the view shed includes the Upper Huerfano Valley and the southern part of the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Huerfano Valley drains out onto the Great Plains and contains the remains of the old Taos Trail. In fact, huerfano is Spanish for orphan and the word was applied to a small but significant volcanic butte that served as a route marker for the early travelers along the trail. From Mission: Wolf I can see Medano Pass, crossed by Zebulon Pike during his ill fated journey that resulted in his capture by Spanish forces. There is also Pass Creek Pass and Sangre de Cristo Pass, and one of these locations supposedly was the location of a Spanish fort. This area was the location of some of the last wolves in Colorado. And although visitors are always welcome, the sanctuary was a refuge for some of us humans as well as our captive lupine charges.
A refuge where I found a connection with the land and nature in general. In those days, most of the 1990’s, I was passionate about wolves. Now, my passion is tempered by including the wolf in my appreciation of all aspects of the natural world. I think life is a miracle, regardless of how you look at it. From the common blade of grass to the self-awareness that humanity possesses. I was happy to spend a couple of nights at Mission: Wolf this visit and remind myself why I like the windy and dry eastern face of the Rocky Mountains. I have been living in the wetter Western Slope for a decade now, and it is certainly more green and full of flowers. But something about about the dryer Arkansas and Platte Rivers just feels and smells right to me. I suppose best case scenario is having a foot in both camps. I enjoy the novelty of a new vista every now and then.
While at Mission: Wolf, I helped to install the hose I had brought along as a donation. I went for a short hike up to Hota Hill, the staff’s informal name of a local eminence, and was able to see far north, to the mountains that look down onto Leadville. I also helped to slaughter a horse, which had been donated by the owner. There are some unsavory realities to caring for captive carnivores and one of those is that they eat a great quantity of meat; and the most cost effective way to feed the wolves is not to buy meat from the supermarket or even wholesalers, but to do the butchering ourselves. It is a great lesson and gives a direct connection to the food we provide the wolves and by extension to our own food chain.
I miss living at Mission: Wolf. Living in that remote environment suited my personality and I didn’t mind keeping the hordes of humanity at arm’s length. It was a challenge at times, the community-living being directly in contrast to the nuclear family environment I had been raised in. I took some lumps, but overcame them and applied myself to other challenging situations. Now, I am living in town and although fairly remote as far as towns go, in the ten years of living here I haven’t had as much nature in all that time as I would get while living at Mission: Wolf for a single year. But, Gunnison is a good place to be and is also my current paradigm. After a couple of nights, I said my farewells to the crew and returned home.
Looking south towards the Huajatollas on the left
The classic Mission: Wolf view of the Sangre de Cristo chain
Early morning clouds over the Mission: Wolf village
The north side of the Blanca Massif
Rolling foothills prelude the Blanca Massif
The Huajatolla Peaks
From Hota Hill, the Sawatch Range – distant and far
Humboldt Peak on the right, the Crestones in the middle
From Hota Hill on Promontory Ridge, the view out to the plains. Badito Cone is the small dimple on the left helping to form the horizon
Mission: Wolf nestled in the foothills of the Wet Mountains; Greenhorn Peak is the high point
A close-up of Greenhorn. The aspens haven’t leafed out yet
Black Mountain is the foreground. The background include numerous 14er’s – peaks and summits that are above 14 thousand feet
The open, grassy eastern foothills of the Wet Mountains
The aspens are flowering and catch the morning sun at Mission: Wolf
The immediate vicinity of Mission: Wolf
Tee-pees and the visitor center at Mission: Wolf
Early morning aspens at Mission: Wolf
Te-pees at Mission: Wolf
All electricity at Mission: Wolf is generated on sight
Ah, spring… the temperature warms up as the sun spends more time in the northern sky, which in turn melts snow that subsequently releases energy that creates turbulent weather patterns. The clouds kept on slipping by all night obscuring the stars … it was especially dark as the new moon made no contribution of light. But it didn’t rain nor threatened to. I have been rained on in this gorge before and the thought of hiking up the rocky trail slickened by rain was in my mind. Typical of spring, the clouds were moving fast and expeditiously on their way east over the rim in my immediate view and then further over the Great Divide whose snow melt was now pouring forth from the various gulches and draws and down past The Mesa converging on the river now at my feet. The water here is relatively clear owing to it passing through three upstream dams that effectively remove sediment; more pleasing to the eye, perhaps, but also habitat changing and creator of the “bathtub rings” that are so ugly to look at.
Upon waking, the shepherds and I moseyed about a bit investigating some old ruins and rocks and grass and where trails went and all the things that make spending a quiet night in the wilderness an experience to remember. I just saw a definition of adventure that related it to the height of emotion felt during an experience. So, in that vein I would say that I had a memorable and emotionally satisfying adventure to the Gunnison Gorge. I marveled at the Creator’s construct…. the geology that shapes our planet’s surface, the physics to turn the sun’s light into warmth and the (generally) blue sky, the biology of flora and fauna, the water that shapes stone and sustains life, and human awareness to appreciate it all… it you’re tuned in, that is.
I dawdled before packing up camp and making for the trail. The Ute Trail is about three miles long, so I had plenty of time for a side trip to a sandstone spur that jettisoned out from the parent formation to created a dramatic sculpture that also generated an equally dramatic view of the river and its environs. I took the trail slowly at times to gaze at the desert wildflowers and the resultant blaze of color. Once at the trailhead I unloaded the pack, stretched out a bit to gaze at the Uncompahgre River valley stretching off to the west and the canyons draining the east side of the Uncompahgre Plateau. We then hiked along an old mining road just beneath the rim on the eastern side and up to Point 6878 that had been surveyed with and elevation by the U.S. Geologic Survey in 1951.
Although the hike was over, I continued to enjoy the grand view in all directions. The valley below to the west and the further distant ridges and mountains, the declivity beneath my feet leading down into the gorge and the distant view of the West Elk Mountains, the Grand Mesa and a variety of other far away peaks and eminences. I never tire of these long distance views found in the mountains and the interior western states in general. My heart soars over hundreds of miles in one view, and my imagination recalls trails and rivers and forests and all the hikes that connect them together. What can be found there at that distant peak or gush of water that pours out from a deep vee-shaped cleft of rock and forest. Alas, I made for the car and began the drive down the rocky road to the less-rocky road that would lead to the gravel road that led eventually to a paved county road and thence to U.S. 50, that storied highway that connects the coasts and passes through the interior of our great nation. I followed the highway home to Gunnison and my house just a scant block and a half off the mainline and now laugh at the obvious contradiction inherent when using our modern conveyances to access the ancient and primeval wilderness.
The Gunnison River below the sandstone spur
The sight of the Bench Mark; Elevaton 6878 feet
The Gunnison River downstream
The Gunnison River upstream flows in from the right. Long Gulch is to the left
Upstream Gunnison River view
Dawn’s sky over the Gunnison Gorge
A small, unnamed gully has created this vee in the rock
The gorge’s steep slopes descend right to water’s edge upstream from the park I camped in
A narrow gauge railroad tie that must have floated downstream from now nearer than the Cimarron River
Draco and Leah are geared up and ready to move out
A last look upstream on the Gunnison River near camp
Sand Verbena? Abronia fragrans? Family Nyctaganiceae, or Four O’Clock
The sandstone spur
Selfie, of sorts…
Brassicaceae, or Mustard, Family?
Full view of mystery plant that may be part of the Brassicaceae, or Mustard, Family
What may be Streptanthus cordatus, part of the Brassicaceae, or Mustard, Family
Close up of what may be Streptanthus cordatus
Out of focus photo nonetheless gives good idea of arrangement of Streptanthus cordatus flowers on stalk
There are many yellow species of the Family Asteraceae; this is one of them
From the western rim of the Gunnison Gorge looking west towards the Uncompahgre Plateau
Western peaks of the West Elk Mountains
Broader view of the West Elk Mountains
Just north of the Ute Trail is this benchmark
Leah runs by the benchmark
This was an overnight backpacking trip that I took with Draco and Leah into the Gunnison Gorge. The Gunnison Gorge is more or less the lower canyon below the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It is part of the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area and the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness, both managed by the Bureau of Land Management. There are a number of trails that descend into the gorge. I chose to take the Ute Trail because there are more extensive bottom lands for exploring. Most of the people who hike the gorge are fishermen who enjoy the good fishing found here. As it was, I didn’t see any other people during my adventure, fishermen or otherwise.
One of the most memorable parts of this hike was the ability to see large-scale geology laid bare. Part of the Gunnison River seems to flow along a thrust fault that has moved sedimentary layers some thousand vertical feet. The boundary between the ancient basement rock and the more recent sedimentary layers is also visible. As the trail descended the various layers of sedimentary rock changed composition and color. The bedrock was dark and foreboding, fitting for such and ancient rock hewed in the deeper reaches of the earth’s bowels.
Once at camp and all the chores were complete, I was able to stroll about in peace and serenity, watching the river flow by. Despite the high flow, the river in this grand park had a friendly feel to it, gurgling and cooing in a soothing sort of way. Make no mistake, a fall into the river could prove fatal due to cold water and suck holes. Nonetheless, I walked to where the sand bar was played out by the canyon wall and sat for an hour or so to watch the occasional merganser pass by and to feel the clouds slide by on their way east over the Rockies. As the sun set and the evening lapsed into night, I sought the refuge of my tent from where I could lay down and peer out the entrance all the while slipping off to slumber.
The last of evening’s light in the Gunnison Gorge
Night is arriving in the Gunnison Gorge
Leah at the trailhead on the rim of the Gunnison Gorge
The western face of the West Elk Mountains peer over the rim of the Gunnison Gorge
Red Canyon drains the eastern side of the Gunnison Gorge
Desert landscape on the slopes of the Gunnison Gorge
The sculpted sandstone along the Ute Trail
Late April on the Ute Trail descending within the Gunnison Gorge
Above the junipers is the horizontal banding of the sandstone the composes the eastern rim of the Gunnison Gorge near the Ute Trail
The lower portion of Red Canyon forms sheer walls similar to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison
I wonder how authentic the dates are
The Gunnison Gorge downstream from the Ute Trail; the Smith Forks flows out from the sunny gap in the eastern rim
My destination for the evening, the Gunnison Gorge above the Ute Trail
The Gunnison River flows from the right-hand canyon and Long Gulch flows from the left
The thrust fault has moved the sedimentary layers some hundreds of vertical feet
A rocky grotto on the western side of the Gunnison Gorge
Leah and Draco romp near the Gunnison River within the gorge of the same name. Long Gulch is the drainage from the left background
The Gunnison River glides by swiftly yet peacefully by this park at the bottom of the Gunnison Gorge
The remnants of an old structure within the Gunnison Gorge
I made a quick hike up onto the plateau above Almont, Colorado to get a view around and see what was growing. The wildflowers are still elusive, not much growing yet except some phlox and paintbrushes and bluebells. The lower country has mostly melted out, but the snow was still lingering this day where the sun didn’t make it’s reach. This road is closed during spring to protect both the nesting Gunnison’s sage grouse and to keep the roads themselves from getting destroyed during the muddy spring melt. So, I tend to hike these areas while they are de facto wilderness areas. Actually, that isn’t entirely accurate as the roads are open to bicycle use but I rarely see any sign of bike use.
This road is located just south of Almont, across from the campground. It climbs through a steep gully and tops out on a ridge that gives a great view of the lower East River. From this ridge I walked west a bit and nestled myself in one of the lower aspen groves that swath the slopes of Flattop. Like most of the lower aspen groves, this one has been dying back recently. Is this the first sign of global warming or the natural reaction to the decade and a half long drought that has kept the area dry? Many of the mature trees are dead or dying, and many have already fallen over; but there is also some renewal here and there. Well, the dead trees do provide a place for numerous species of insects to live which in turn feed the songbirds and other critters, and they then feed the raptors and smaller predatory mammals – so the wheel goes round.
Naturally, it was windy out – typical spring weather for the Rockies. I made a work day out of the better part of the day and this was a nice break to get out of town and enjoy the splendor of nature. The olive green of the sagebrush sea is the dominant color at this time of year. But soon, the bright lime-green of spring will be evident on the aspen and cottonwood, and the grasses and forbs will render the hillsides verdant pricked with blotches of yellow, white, red and blue flowers in a riot of color. This is a good precursor, watching nature perform her yearly miracle.
Taylor Canyon’s lower reach is visible in the center
Draco stomps around a dying aspen grove
Round mountain, center left. The high Elks to the left.
One of the aspen groves under the east rim of Flattop
Woodpeckers and bluebirds make their home here
I had spent the day pursuing more “practical” activities and came to the conclusion that the shepherds and I needed to get out for a bit of forest time. The forests below 10,000 feet have melted out on the south face but the less sun exposed facets still harbor deep drifts of soft, slushy snow. I drove up to the western base of Old Monarch Pass Road and hiked up about a mile or so and found this nice perch under ponderosa. I sat, buffeted by the gusty wind and let mankind’s hectic energy sap slowly away into the loam. The hike up was through patches of the nearly melted snow already alluded to; a challenge to say the least. The return was via an even-older road that paralleled the current way, but was more exposed to the sun and consequently easier to traverse. Its hard to believe now what with modern Monarch Pass allowing a swift passage over the Great Divide, but before about 1939, Old Monarch Pass used to be signed U.S. 50. This was a quick hike, but a relatively nice quiet place to sit in the mountains, smell the fragrant trees and feel the energy generated by the wind. Refreshed, I piloted my ride back down through Sargents and on wide, modern U.S. 50 back to home in Gunnison, ready for anything
Forest perch, looking south
On the old, old road, looking down into the upper portion of Tomichi Creek
Typical forest scene in this part of the Rocky Mountains
Rocky Mountain forest in spring time, on the western slope of the Great Divide, below Old Monarch Pass
Here’s why I like to take snapshots of my various journies. I spent two or three nights outside of Boulder and I don’t have any idea of what route I took to get from Gunnison to Boulder. Because I stopped and took photos of my return trip from Boulder to Gunnison I have a fairly clear memory of the drive back home and the route I took. I even have faint memories of stopping for breakfast in Nederland, but they are faint and I could be thinking of another trip through that town.
From the Boulder area I drove up State Highway 119 and through Nederland and Rollinsville to Gilpin County Road 15 where I took that road as a scenic detour. I stopped and took a series of photos on the divide between Boulder and Clear Creeks. The view to the east was especially impressive as over the ramparts of the eastern ridge the Great Plains were clearly visible stretching out to the horizon. There was some wind, but the sun was out with few clouds, very blue was the sky; my heart soared imagining the past filled with wild beasts filling the void. Old Ephraim used to roam here. This land is still young and the wild can be felt, but I know that it is slowly ebbing as the time increases since the last griz passed by here.
I rejoined the state route just before Blackhawk and then went to Central City to take Oh-My-God Road down into Idaho Springs. With a name like that, I don’t really need to add a description. I took the interstate west up to Loveland were I made another scenic detour up to Loveland Pass on U.S. 6. It had snowed within the past week or two but most of the snow had already melted or been blown clear so I stopped at the pass and climbed some 500 feet onto the ridge south of the road. It was a great view, what with the mountains shining all along the Great Divide. The wind was making its presence known, creating strong gusts. I had my Classic Pack of Sheba and Lady Dog with me, and I posed them as the wind howled, one of the few times she scowled at me.
We hiked down before driving down the west side of Loveland Pass, the road twisting and winding down to Summit County and U.S. 6 rejoining Interstate 70. Loveland Pass is kept open to accommodate those trucks carrying hazardous materiel that are prohibited in the twin tunnels that carry the freeway through the low ridge that make the divide. I can’t remember why exactly I went over Vail Pass but that is what I did because the next stop I made was at old Camp Hale, where the Tenth Mountain Division trained for winter warfare during World War Two. There isn’t much left but concrete foundations and a few other scattered remnants. Still, interesting to imagine all that activity in this now quiet mountain valley. After surveying the scene there, I drove on home over Tennessee Pass and through Leadville, Buena Vista and Poncha Springs before crossing over Monarch Pass and into my home drainage. Not a bad way to spend a fall day. There is always something special about those bluebird days that brings out the explorer in me.
U.S. 6 crossing Loveland Pass
Camp Hale located in Eagle Park
On the divide between Boulder and Clear Creeks
Gilpin County Road 15, through the bristlecone pines
This road is former State Highway 287
Conifer forest near 10,000 feet
The Great Plains beckon…
The mountains between Rollinsville and Blackhawk.
The Great Divide at the head of Clear Creek
High Country near Loveland Pass
Blue sky in the fall… classic
U.S. 6 on the west side of Loveland Pass
The Rocky Mountains in the vicinity of Loveland Pass
Arapahoe Basin Ski Area from Loveland Pass area.
The Rocky Mountains were at one time known also as the Shining Mountains
Snow-free ridge calls for exploring
Clear Creek descending towards the plains.
High Country ridges.
Clear evidence that it was windy that day
Lady Dog about to be blown over
One of the few times Sheba ever scowled at me
U.S. 6 between Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and Loveland Pass
Interstate 70 just east of the tunnels.
Snowy high peaks above the headwaters of Clear Creek
Loveland Pass sign detail
A portion of Camp Hale
Ruins of Camp Hale
The aspens slowly reclaim old Camp Hale
Briefly, a center of activity
U.S. 24 crossing the old Denver and Rio Grande Western tracks. This bridge pre-dates World War Two.
Old pavement at Camp Hale
Sheba at Camp Hale
Lady Dog in the late fall sun
The day is bright and clear as Sheba explores the ruins of Camp Hale
Head shot of Lady Dog
Lady Dog as the shadows lengthen at Camp Hale
Way back in June of 2006, I had inadvertently destroyed the camera that I had borrowed from a friend and later had to make restitution. I told that story in another post. It took over a year but I finally got another digital camera to upgrade my photography. I don’t remember whether or not I took film photos in the meantime. If so, then I will at another time upload those images onto the computer and describe them and their respective adventures.
Anyhow, I bought a Finepix S700 on November 07, 2007 and it has been my camera ever since. It combines a fine array of manual options with fully automatic modes. At the time it was one of the very few point and shoot cameras that featured a ten power optical zoom lens rather than the standard digital zoom. Today, the camera is somewhat obsolete because it only has 7.1 megapixles, but I still enjoy it and take it everywhere when hiking and backpacking. During my trip to Boulder I stayed with a friend up on Sugarloaf Mountain where I took a few pictures to test the features. I was excited to have my new toy, and will hate to replace this camera with a new one and hope that that will happen well into the future.
Sheba on the deck of my friend’s house on Sugarloaf Mountain
Lady Dog in repose
Yours Truly, and Sheba
Lady Dog attentive
Detail of Lady Dog’s muzzle