Green-up on Agate Creek
This portion of the Sawatch Range is perhaps better known for Monarch Pass, that gap in the mountains that allows transcontinental U.S. 50 to pass latitudinally from coast to coast. For me, on this date anyhow, the highway was relegated to being the trailhead from which I trekked to the high mountain meadows to spend a couple of nights under the stars. My goal had been to hike to one such meadow high up in the Agate Creek drainage; the waters of which flow from the crest of the Great Divide in the area south of the aforementioned pass.
The eponymous named trail follows Agate Creek from near the base of the pass relative to U.S. 50, starting at an almost invisible trailhead. However, further up the pass two or three miles is another trailhead for a spur trail that descends some hundreds of feet in a half a mile to meet up with the main trail near the confluence of Agate Creek and its North Fork. This spur trail eliminates some half dozen or so creek crossings that can be hazardous during time of high water, such as mid-June is frequently.
The spur trail is on a southern aspect and, as a consequence of receiving the full blast of the hot sun in the thin mountain atmosphere, is, although forested, quite dry. Upon descent from the trailhead adjacent to the highway, water is encountered at first the minor North Fork and then the major stem of Agate Creek. The creek must be forded at this point but the fords are not nearly as hazardous as those downstream. Here, the trail passes through a narrow defile of rock and forest before the first open valley is encountered. This valley allows a fine upstream view of meadows filled with willow and other marsh vegetation. The trail remains on the margins where the earth is above the marsh and dry ground carries passersby away from the inundated wetlands.
Near Burnt Timber Creek is an old dilapidated cabin that is slowly caving in and decomposing back into its elemental components. There are numerous of these structures found throughout the National Forests; some where miner’s cabins while others were used by cowboys and others for administrative purposes. As modern times encroached upon the older methods of conducting business these cabins were abandoned for lack of use or funds for their upkeep. It is a shame that they couldn’t have been preserved to be used by the public on a rental basis but that would have been a bureaucratic nightmare to accomplish.
The drainage had melted out from the winter’s snows for the first three miles or so of my hike along the trail, but by the time I had gone about a half a mile above the junction with Lime Creek Trail there was plenty of snow on the ground and water was running off from the forest keeping the ground soggy and wet. I was in the exact place I wanted to be and after a search found some dry-ish ground to pitch camp. Draco and Leah, the two faithful wonder shepherds, were exalted at the location and immediately, upon removal of their pack burden, began hopping around and sprinting to and fro. The nearby marshes were still brown and the first flowers of the year were beginning to bloom in this cold and wet habitat.
Unfortunately, at this point, I had a severe attack of gouty arthritis in my left primary joint of the big toe; the most commonly affected joint for crystalline induced arthritis. This left me in deep pain that made sleep difficult and travel exceedingly challenging. My original intent had been to camp here and then climb to the summit of Mount Ouray in the morning. However, there was still enough snow remaining along the trail as it climbed through the forest to make hiking challenging even under the best of circumstances. So, instead of ambling about through the woods and meadows, exploring headwaters and seldom seen glens, I remained near camp vainly attempting to keep the pain at bay.
The time left me did allow for some close inspection of the forest and meadow near camp, but most of my time was spent watching the clouds speed by over the crest of the Continental Divide on their way east to the plains. So, not only was I in pain, but the clouds brought forth occasional spurts of snow. Yes, even in June the high mountains receive a final dousing of white crystalline frozen water. Not much, and to be sure what does come down will be melted quickly over the next day or two. But, in the end, this was one challenging backpacking trip – I wouldn’t meet the goals I had set out for myself, the pain, due to the gout, was nearly unbearable even with no weight bearing on the joint, and now it was cold, gusty and snowing.
Yet, now, reliving the trip some many months later, I also remember the quietude and peacefulness of the surrounding forest; as time passed slowly and the snows melted almost imperceptibly. The meadow I found myself in was also sheltered from most the wind, and I could sit and watch the tree tops move around while only feeling the slightest breeze. Although, at times, my secluded camp would receive the full blast of the passing winds. Finally, night came around and I attempted to relieve the pain with the use of anti-inflammatory drugs to no avail. The pain kept me awake most of the night and I tossed and turned attempting to find comfort.
Hanging my food and other bear attractants
Leah with her panniers on the Agate Creek Trail, near Burnt Timber Creek
The old cabin
Agate Creek on a blustery day in mid-June
The snow is melting and green-up in still in the future in the higher elevation of Agate Creek; notice Draco exploring on the right
The forest in the shadow of passing clouds
Leah remains active while Draco rests
The meadow is still brown as the final snows melt off from Agate Creek
The waters pour forth on the upper headwaters of Agate Creek
Its mid-June but spring has just arrived
Green-up on Agate Creek