The summer rains, commonly called monsoons by the locals, had arrived. These rains are often accompanied by bolts of lightening and peals of thunder. For that reason, climbing to the high peaks where there is no shelter is often a dangerous pursuit. To be done with even a modicum of safety, one must leave early in the morning and that was my reason for getting up out of bed at such an early hour.
I arrived at the Alpine Gulch Trailhead around a quarter past five in the morning. Even this close to the summer solstice the sky was still dark with nary a hint of the morning’s light to come. But no matter! I was ready to hike and so were my two trusty canine companions, Draco and Leah, German shepherds extraordinaire. The day and night before the clouds had let loose a torrent of rain and that combined with the snow-melt created a constant deluge from the surrounding mountain sides. We crossed the bridge over Henson Creek and although not at the time visible the audible roar of the water passing beneath was enough to cause me concern.
Oddly enough, this area was never part of a national forest although there is enough timber and water to meet the criteria for such designation. This land I visited today is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and has been designated as part of the Red Cloud Wilderness Study Area. Hopefully, it will remain as such, and further mining and logging will be permanently prohibited.
We hiked some half a mile in the steep and narrow gulch named Alpine. By that time, the day’s first light had become noticeable. This was fortunate as we came to the first of many crossing of the creek that flows down Alpine Gulch. It was fast and deep and not a little bit hazardous to cross. But I was confident that it was passable, although a misstep might lead to disaster. Nonetheless, the dogs plunged in and crossed without incident. I followed and made it safely across. That was the first of many such crossing on this outing.
As we climbed the trail, the light became brighter as the sun approached and finally crossed the horizon. Not that I could see the horizon, deep in the gulch as I was, but I could begin to make out color and shapes with greater discernment. The trail repeatedly crossed the creek, but each subsequent crossing was easier and less treacherous. The sky grew brighter and decided to be mostly blue with only a few puffy clouds hinting at the previous twenty-four hours of rain. The surroundings were all green, as is appropriate for an early day in July in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
Eventually, the dogs and I reached the forks of Alpine Gulch. We went left, up the East Fork and climbed through meadows of multi-hued flowers and thick, sub-alpine conifer forest. The understory of the conifer forest was made of vast patches of brilliantly yellow arnica, a type of sunflower that cheerfully brightens any hike regardless of the weather. Up and up we went, until we finally reached the low saddle between Grassy and Red Mountains. Here we rested before we climbed up to an unnamed summit, Point 12,601.
We climbed up through the last remnants of the forest before the high, thin air became to dissipated for trees to grow. Up over treeline we went, climbing through the talus. We reached a ridge and I could glance over at Red Mountain. More orange, perhaps, than red it was nonetheless a mountain comprised of streaks of colorful rock that sharply contrasts with the normal browns and grays.
The summit of Point 12,601 is obtained and the views to the north especially are worth the effort. I would like to continue down to another saddle and then over to Red Mountain itself, but the clouds are building up rapidly and this is no place to challenge the weather when it might include a multitude of lightening strikes. But the views! My, oh, my… I can see Uncompahgre Peak, plus the Matterhorn, Wetterhorn and Cock’s Comb. To my south extend the San Juan Mountains, ridge after ridge fading off to the distance. My western view are lofty, high peaks that seem to be floating. To my east is a jumble of earth. I am in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, the mighty San Juans, born from the Earth’s core as a volcanic reaction to the uplifting of the main chain of the Rocky Mountains.
The dogs are mostly oblivious to all this. Much more interesting for them are the various mountain rodents, the pikas and marmots, that emit high-pitched squeaks and chirps. The inducement to chase such beings is nearly overwhelming for the dogs, but I restrain them from creating too much havoc. The squeaks are emanating from all points as the little beasts are busy going about their short season of living above ground. Draco and Leah are resting, now, but alert with heads up and ears focused.
I really want to go over to Red Mountain, but the clouds are building and the entire trek would be over sharp rock in the talus and scree fields between here and there. I am sure the dogs would make it, but why risk an injury. Already, Draco has scraped his paw up pretty bad when he sprinted across the sharp rock to get to the last known location of a furry squeak monster. The real factor, however, is the unsettled weather. I would be exposed to any storm that might come racing in, and it is with surprising swiftness that clouds can gather in these mountains.
We retreat back down to the saddle below were we rest up a bit. This forest is charming, as they all are at this elevation, and Leah is soon asleep against a log, posing in the most comfortable way. The storm never really gathers, but I don’t regret my retreat. We scamper back down the trial past all the wonderful sights we had seen on the way up. But now the light is a bit better and I take time to notice the patches of snow high up, tucked away in dark crevices were the sun’s warm light rarely if ever touches. The air temperature is warm enough now to melt these patches, albeit slowly, and the result is a constant stream of water tumbling down from nearly every high ridge and coulee.
Just above the forks, I discover an old, unused trail that leads up to a couple of old mine sites. Since the clouds have held off and I have extra time on my hands, I climb up these trails and explore some of the old mines. I don’t enter them, as they can be extremely dangerous what with rock falls, vertical shafts and poisonous gases, but I enjoy the explorations I make of the surface remnants. A reminder of the days of mining in Colorado, an era that I am happy has passed. Undoubtedly, these mines contribute some form of toxic runoff to the local watersheds. Thus, our historical legacy…
We return down the trail to the first of the larger creek crossings and I am happy to find that the flow has abated somewhat. The previous day’s rain must have swollen the creeks and it is not until this early afternoon that they have returned to their normal flow. In the warm sun, the cold water is now cheerfully cooling and the dogs and I wade across, gleeful with mirth. Eventually, the hike concludes. I notice that Henson Creek is still running high, collecting the runoff from a larger portion of the mountains that the relatively small Alpine Gulch. It would be a challenge to cross without a bridge, most likely resulting in being swept away. I keep the dogs close so they aren’t tempted to so much as get a drink out of this swift stream and we all return to the trailhead, safe.
The views I have seen today can barely be expressed by my lack of creative writing. Sometimes the views that I am seeing and the digital images I have created seem fake, as if I have a backdrop draped across some plywood behind were I am standing. Especially now, since the greens are so vibrant and contrast with the grays, browns, yellows and reds of the rock that make up the tall, serrated peaks. Early Summer is a challenge in these mountains, as the storms can be intense and the snows have yet to melt off completely, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Another fine day! I have been once again blessed by the mountains and look forward to my next adventure.