Aquilegia spp. on Silver Creek in the San Juan Mountains
To the mountains! It is just after the Ides of August, a time of great beauty. The day is almost clear with but a handful of puffy white clouds sailing from the west, amicable and indolent. I am up early, about five in the morning. I have decided to leave the shepherds at home so I take them out for a quick jog; feed, medicate, shelter and water the dogs; and then stop at the Love’s here in town, open twenty-four seven, for coffee and a breakfast sandwich.
I drive out of town and take Colorado 149 to Lake City. The last part of the state highway’s journey follows the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and I continue to follow the main stem up above the lone city in Hinsdale County. The road changes from pavement to gravel as the scenery increases in jaggedness. The rolling hills and flat plateaus give way to towering, serrated ridges and lofty peaks. Like the last three months or so of mountain revelry, all around me is stunning verdure. The cottonwood crowd the river bottom, while aspen and conifer color the slopes. Even above treeline the bare earth is covered with a slight green tint from the alpine grasses.
The last three miles of road are narrow with steep drop-offs. Rock piles and snags menace from above. Arriving at the Silver Creek Trailhead, I can barely find a place to park the car. It seems that most of the Front Range is here today. Well, who can resist the pull of the mountains on such a fine day? It is quarter after seven, relatively late for this type of hike. Despite the clear skies, there is always a chance that thunderheads will build up into electrical storms by the afternoon. Thus, most of these folks are practicing good mountain protocol by hiking early to reach the highest peaks. I will have to make amends and time by the expenditure of sheer physical exertion. Had I been truly diligent I would have began hiking at five-thirty.
There is some poor soul who has locked himself out of his automobile. I can’t do much for him other than offer encouragement and begin hiking. He understands that I won’t lend more time to his plight, especially since the situation is more folly than serious. Besides, if he is still there by the time I get back I will gladly give him a lift into town to hire a locksmith. Meanwhile, the mountains beckon.
The trailhead is more or less at ten thousand four hundred feet in elevation. Only thirty six hundred feet to go! It is so colorful and beautiful. The soil here is often red and mingles with other earth tones of yellow, orange, brown and gray. The vegetation retains its mostly green color and, with the soil coloration, blends with the cerulean sky to create a palette most pleasing to the visual senses. Of course, the olfactory senses are not left out as the spruces, firs and pines all emit a woodsy scent that mingles with the slightly decomposing yet pleasant smell emanating from the forest floor. The rush of water in Silver Creek is punctuated by bird song to enliven the auditory sense. My legs and state of mind feel fantastic and I set a torrid pace, almost jogging uphill the first half a mile.
The trail is well traveled and I pass by folks who started before me but are not, perhaps, as well acclimated to foot travel in the mountains. The trail climbs high enough to look back over the Lake Fork of the Gunnison and I get a clear view of Handies Peak and Whitecross Mountain. The San Juan Mountains are so radiant in the morning light. I don’t go far before I pass through the upper limit of aspen growth. The sub-alpine life zone does not last long and within a couple of miles I cross over tree line and into the alpine tundra. I am dazzled by the quantity and quality of the flowers. I would have supposed that they would have begun to wilt at this elevation but apparently not.
I come to a snow plug over Silver Creek. I am in land of perpetual snow. I love that the water tumbles out from under, a subway of sorts for the creek. Up and up I continue. A fine day for hiking, and my legs continue to feel great. The physical effort is not noticed consciously, and I am able to let my mind wander where it will. I notice an old trail leading off up a small side gully. It doesn’t show up on the map and I suppose that it is a remnant from the bygone mining era when the mountains where alive with the sound of men and machines. Of course, the reality is that mining has left a toxic legacy that is yet to be cleaned up. I am glad the mountains are now relatively quiet, even if busy with visitors.
This hike is a steep incline with little deviation from that track. My mind is used to this type of physical challenge. I set goals and then intermediate goals whenever I look up at the trail. If I can just make it to that grassy knoll! Soon I am there and a small rejoicing takes place. I don’t dwell on the grand scale of what I am doing. I have been hiking and climbing all summer, and now it goes by quickly.
I reach a small pond that is still and has formed a reflective surface of the surrounding mountains. I soon catch a glimpse of Redcloud Peak, some couple of thousand a feet above me. I continue to hike up the trail, continuously amazed by the wildflower garden carpeting the basin. I am blessed to be here, on this sublime day. What I had noticed from much farther below and away, the green tint of the alpine vegetation, is now a reality and I laugh and sing as I walk along. People must think me strange but what is the point of it all if I can’t be mirthful?
The trail leads to a high saddle between Redcloud Peak and Point 13832. The soil is many different colors and textures, depending on where I look. Here, red and crumbly; there, gray and cut into gullies. No wonder the mining in this vicinity – the soil and rock looks mineral laden. On the saddle, I get a better view of my surroundings. I look into the basin below on the opposite side from which I just hiked up. More verdure stretches out before me. This is the upper reaches of Bent Creek. I wonder what the history is behind that name. The trail turns right and begins to climb the ridge. Now it gets steep. I see the multiple switchbacks. I feel rested from my short break and soon put one foot forward, and then another, and before long have already climbed a bit further into the rarefied air.
Some of the trail is steep enough that it is nearly impossible to not slide on the unstable scree that acts like so many ball-bearings. One or two portions of trail cause a bit of alarm due to the potential for catastrophe. They are easily navigated with the requisite caution applied. I just can’t get over the amount of snow still sticking to the slopes. One cornice still seems imposing in it’s size. The air thins, but with each breath I am invigorated. There are ravens flying about, distantly, in some of the larger gulches. Each step invites a visual inspection of the surrounding San Juan Mountains, as something new and interesting is revealed in the advancing angle.
Ah, here I am, at the summit. Redcloud Peak. Wow, is this pretty. So many mountains, in all directions. Ragged and serrated, they stretch out for miles. I can see Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, Cox Comb, Handies and so many more than I can count. To the south especially the ridges continue one after another and I can only guess in stunned silence at which drainages actually have their headwaters there. There are many people here. No surprise, judging by the volume of horseless carriages found below. It seems a bit crowded but the mood is genial and everyone here has earned the privilege. Many are making the relatively short trek over to Sunshine Peak, another “fourteener”, but I have decided long ago against that on this hike, preferring instead to visit that summit sometime in the future on it’s own trek.
I can’t resist pulling out my map to engage in one my favorite mountain top pastimes, identifying all the named topographic features within sight. This is challenging. Some of the views are fifty miles or so, maybe only thirty-five to forty, but regardless I have no real idea of what I am looking at. More of the San Juan Mountains? Probably, as they are extensive. But where and what exactly I am looking at will have to remain a mystery for the time being. I think I can see Mount Sneffels and Mount Wilson way off in the distance, to the west. This is crazy. My soul is soaring even as my body remains earth bound. Oh, look, there are the West Elk Mountains, way off on the horizon to the north.
Digesting, mentally, all that I am seeing is impossible. So much. I keep the map out and identify other peaks and drainages. Wow. No wonder these mountains have the reputation that they do. Sublime. I snack on some victuals and stare off into the distance. Somehow I rise and begin the descent. I have been here nearly an hour. Down I go, more rapidly than when going up but with also more trepidation. Gravity is dragging you along and a bad slip could be compounded in severity by the ceaseless pull of the Earth. Often, I am almost skiing down the trail. All goes as well as it could and before too long I have reached the saddle.
Now I decide to add to the fun. Instead of following the trail back down Silver Creek, I continue up the other side and climb the ridge to a high pass that leads to West Alpine Gulch. These peaks are generally ignored by the public since they don’t have the magical moniker of “fourteener” attached to them. As if a peak that is thirteen thousand eight hundred feet in elevation is unworthy of climbing.
In my heart of hearts, I wanted to find a way over to Cooper Creek and make a nifty loop hike, but the intervening ridge proved to be too technically challenging for me. Anyhow, I don’t really know what is on the other side of the main dividing ridge much less if it was even possible to get down to the creek. I got into some crumbly rock cliff and with the gathering clouds began to feel exposed. So, I found a sheltered place on the lee side of the pass with West Alpine Gulch and stared off in that direction for a while, noticing the flat top of Cannibal Plateau.
After this exploration, there wasn’t much more for me to do but hike back down the trail to the waiting car. This I did, after reveling in the wildflower garden and watching the marmots go about their business. This has been nothing short of fantastic. The hike down is just as easy as that coming up. I take note of South Silver Creek, and jot down a mental note to revisit this area again. I am relieved to find that the lock-out victim is no longer in the parking lot, so I would suppose that he was able to a make happen a successful resolution to his problem. I drive back down the rickety road and arrive at Lake City, where I stop at a small local bakery that is a favorite habit of mine and finish off this fine day with strong, black coffee and delicious pastries. I would have to suppose that I am living the good life.
Silver Creek and trail just above the snow plug
Silver Creek Trail above the creek of the same name, still in shadow below treeline
Entering sunshine, looking at Handies Peak on the left and Whitecross Mountain on the right
Silver Creek just below a snow plug
Alpine tundra on Silver Creek
Hiking up through the alpine tundra on my way to Redcloud Mountain
On Silver Creek, looking back towards Grizzly Gulch and Handies Peak and Whitecross Mountain
From Silver Creek, my first glimpse of Redcloud Peak
A small reflecting pond near the headwaters of Silver Creek
A small pool of water on Silver Creek
Headwaters of Bent Creek
From the saddle, looking up to Redcloud Peak
Watershed of Silver Creek in the San Juan Mountains
Across the saddle, and Point 13832
Redcloud Peak seen from the climb up it’s northern shoulder
Mid-August, and a large cornice still persists on Redcloud Peak
Looking north while ascending Redcloud Peak; From left to right: Coxcomb, Wetterhorn, Matterhorn and Uncompahgre Peaks
Looking west while ascending Redcloud Peak, the mighty San Juan Mountains
Ascending Redcloud Peak, looking into Burrows Park with the road in it; Edith Mountain dividing the head of the park
Ascending Redcloud Peak, looking back at the trail
Looking at the final switchbacks just below the summit of Redcloud Peak
No wonder it’s called Colorful Colorado
Looking at Sunshine Peak and points south in the San Juan Mountains, from Redcloud Peak
Looking north from Redcloud Peak, Uncompahgre Peak at the left, distant West Elk Mountains seen to the right, barely visible on horizon
Me, on Redcloud Peak, look how red the soil is
Me, high in the San Juan Mountains
Alpine sunflowers, Hymenoxys grandiflora on the ridge at the head of Silver Creek
East Alpine Gulch from the pass with Silver Creek; Cannibal Plateau seen on the horizon
Redcloud Peak, seen from the north
A fine day on Silver Creek
The Silver Creek Trail in the alpine vegetation
A marmot on the Silver Creek Trail
A marmot in Silver Creek
Alpine wildflowers in abundance in Silver Creek
Silver Creek, wildflowers in the alpine life zone
In Silver Creek, some of the reason why the mountains seemed tinted green from afar
Multi-hued wildflowers in Silver Creek
Alpine Wildflowers along the Silver Creek Trail
San Juan Mountain wildflowers
Columbines in Silver Creek
Silver Creek Trail in the land of perpetual snow
Looking down Silver Creek, Whitecross Mountain bisecting the gulch
Aquilegia spp. on Silver Creek in the San Juan Mountains