Ah, June…. ’tis one of the most pleasant months of the year in the Rocky Mountains. The spring storms have usually dissipated and the monsoons of the summer months have yet to begin their annual deluge. In the high country, travel is still difficult as the snows cling late to the lofty peaks. Therefore I have opted to make a short backpacking excursion to the mid-elevation forests and parks, where the grass is green and the early flowers fill the air with fragrance that upon inhalation awakens the olfactory nerves similar to what would occur should you enter into a candy shop.
This particular Spanish Creek is located on the far side of the Great Divide from Gunnison, and is one of the headwaters for the Rio Grande coming off of Lujan Pass within the Cochetopa Hills. Already the rain shadow is in affect as the grass grows sparser than what would be found on the western slope an equal elevation. Despite my own assurances to myself that this would consequently be a dry hike it is raining upon my arrival to the trailhead. It appears to be localized and will most likely cease soon, as the rain-laden clouds don’t generally pause but rather move on swiftly to deliver their cargo elsewhere.
To be sure, the Spanish Creek area is hardly wilderness although it is quieter than many areas with that moniker. There are roads crossing the open parks, going up gullies and gulches and through the forest. Cattle graze here in the summertime and the concomitant barbed-wire fencing is omnipresent. There are signs of past logging activity as the remains of ghostly trees are lying grey on the ground. The question must be asked: Why hike in such an abused ecosystem when there are opportunities to scope relatively untrammeled lands nearby? I suppose the answer lies in that this is still a relatively unscathed view-shed and excepting hunting season not many people come out here. There is peace here, if one can accept the alterations upon the landscape.
The hills undulate off into the distance as the water flows out to and debouches in the upper part of the San Luis Valley. From past visits, I recollect that some of the geology appears to be volcanic in origin and consist of vast basaltic flows. The circumference of this large park is ringed by the Great Divide, and the the upper elevations are thick with forest. But I shall camp at a lower elevation, where the forest is more park-like and open meadows abound.
The hike is relatively short, only about three miles to my anticipated campsite. As I mentioned, the day was rainy. I park the car just off S.H. 114 and the “trailhead” in this case just happens to be here, where I start walking. Topographically, I am in the East Pass Creek Drainage, main stem of which flows down from North Pass along the same state highway that I followed to get here. I begin hiking along Forest Service Road 810 up a minor affluence. There are low cliffs on either side and the canyon I am in had a breadth of about 300 feet. This continues for a mile or so. Leah and Draco are with me, ignoring the rain and more interested in the small creatures that entice them with squeaky noises and swift, abrupt movement. I, on the other hand, am much more cat like when it comes to rain and wish for it to end. It is a soft rain, and I take no real precautions against moisture, a gamble to be sure, but I as I had suspected when I set out the rain soon moves on.
As it turns out I exit the small, shallow canyon at the same moment that the clouds lift and I behold a vast park, about a mile wide by two miles deep. I have been here before and know my destination, a low set of hills on the far side of this park that form the physical divide between East Pass and Spanish Creeks. These hills contrast geologically with the basalt flows found nearby and are decomposed granite. They form ramparts that look like an old castle, and from previous expeditions to the area I have found parapets that afford a fine view of the surrounding country. I set up camp down along Spanish Creek but will take my meals up there, where I can let my mind wander over and digest the topography.
Camp is set up quick and I make sure that all is sealed against further rain although I don’t believe it will precipitate again. I make ready for a exploration of the upper parts of the watershed and note with contentment that despite certain abuses there is still much nature to enjoy. About a mile downstream lies Sheep Creek of which Spanish Creek is the subsidiary. I venture the other direction, upstream along FS 810 which soon crosses a divide and lands in Bear Creek, a small tributary located between the aforementioned creeks. The forest cover grows denser and the aspen begin to grow in thicker groves as I slowly increase elevation. I cross over another divide and pass into Sheep Creek itself. Here, the road ends at long last.
The road ends at a locked gate but the road grade continues. The Forest Service has thankfully closed off this road to further motorized use beyond this point. I keep walking till I come to confluence of the west and east forks of Sheep Creek. Making my way to East Sheep Creek, I spy an aspen grove pleasing to the eye. The clouds have since thinned a bit and the day has turned hot. In the grove is a large log which invites quietude and peace. I make my way over and sit, the dogs are happy to rest in the shade and the slight breeze reminds me why the aspen are called “quakies”.
From the map I have chosen to explore this location because I am unsure about the actuality of the trails that emanate from this junction of the forks. Later in the month I plan to pass through this way, but from past experiences have learned that not all trails on the map are actually on the ground. So, this is part nature hike and part scouting mission to ascertain the veracity of the trails’ existence. They are there although rather vague not marked as such with signage, but I am satisfied that I will be able to make use of them.
Now that I have found what I was looking for, I can enjoy a rest in the grove. Alas, I am wearing new shoes and begin to feel the onset of blisters in both of my pinkie toes. This surprises me because my past experiences with these shoes (I buy about a pair a year) is that they don’t produce blisters. Well, I suppose then that I needed to break them in and I curse myself for not wearing my old, familiar pair, despite their shoddy state. This road grade continues contrary to what is on my map and my curiosity as to its disposition is such that I resolve to follow it another half a mile, regardless of my blisters. The grade turns back on itself at the forks and climbs the opposite slope of Sheep Creek from that which it followed upstream. So, now the road is headed back downstream yet climbing in elevation. I meander along and decide that I have gone far enough after about ten minutes. I return to the locked gate, past the peaceful grove and the forks of Sheep Creek.
I take another route back to camp, following FS 999. This particular road meanders along Bear Creek before finding it terminus at FS 810 and Spanish Creek. The woods open up again and I find myself walking along sparse grass although there are numerous flowers in bloom. The clouds are still above, but thin and not precipitating. However, it is bright and warm. Leah and Draco enjoy splashing about in the creeks, keeping cool and quenched. We arrive back in camp and my blisters are now fully formed. They are painful and I seek remediation before heading up to the rampart for dinner.
As usual, I make Tom’s Stew, that particular concoction of ramen noodles, Vienna sausages and canned corn. From my perch, I can espy the entire park that lies below as well as vast distances that culminate in the far-off outline of the crest of the Sangre de Cristo Range. I used to live on the far side of that range, and I can mentally picture how I would get there from here. My mind soars out of my body and over the terrain between here and there; I can picture the general route and in some cases with specific clarity what I would find along that route. I stand for some time, my gaze in rapture at the far expanse.
Soon enough, the sun begins to set bringing another day to a close. I make my way down to camp. I have wisely chosen to make camp some distance from my “kitchen” so that no bear will find its way to my food and then to me. Anytime people backpack in bear country it is wise to pitch the tents away from the area where food is prepared and consumed. There is no food in my tent nor anywhere nearby. I do have two German shepherds with me, which is fairly good bear-proofing, but I believe in keeping a clean camp regardless.
The night comes on cold. Even though it is June, and the days are warm, the nights are cold. The moon is in the sky, shining bright midway through its second quarter. I indulge the shepherds and allow them into the tent to keep them from getting too cold especially since it is still damp and humid from the day’s earlier rain. I don’t care for the dogs in the tent generally since their claws can easily tear through material and they track in all sorts of filth, but I know that Draco in particular is too short coated to spend the night out comfortably. Besides, dogs make great heaters!