North Clear Creek Falls – August 20, 2015


North Clear Creek Falls

My parents were in town, and we decided that today would be a great day to be tourists and visit some of the local sights.  We drove out of Gunnison, where I live, and took Colorado 149 to Lake City where we stopped at a small cafe for breakfast, where we sat out on the deck under a large spruce.  It was just a bit chilly in the shade, but it felt good to be outside in the mountain environment.

From Lake City we continued our foray on Colorado 149, passing over Spring Creek Pass and thus the Continental Divide.  This area between Lake City and Creede is composed of many large calderas that are the remnants of the volcanic field that created the San Juan Mountains.  There are many layers of volcanic rock and this has created some of the  waterfalls in the vicinity.

There is a pull-off maintained by the Rio Grande National Forest to view the fall on North Clear Creek.  Clear Creek is a tributary of the Rio Grande, and here is a large falls that perpetually tumbles off of a cliff and splashes down onto the rocks below.  It is a spectacular sight, and Mom and I later walked up to a high point that allows a view off to the south, where Bristol Head towers prominently over the valley below.

The flowers and vegetation are really beginning to show the effects of the oncoming Autumn, although there is nearly a month of Summer left.  There were many interesting wildflowers on the short trail that I couldn’t identify off hand.  I snap a few digital images and we walk back to the car, enjoying the warm and comfortable day.

On our drive back to Lake City we stop at a couple of the pull-outs that allow a view of the Slumgullion Landslide.  This massive earth movement is still active, and the ground is creeping downhill just as it has been for the last several hundred years.  The slide also dammed the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, creating Lake San Cristobal, reputed to be Colorado’s second largest natural lake.  It is fascinating to see live trees growing at odd angles, tossed about like so many match sticks.

We end the day driving back to Gunnison, through the varied terrain between there and Lake City.  The drive is one of the most scenic in all the state, full of rolling hills and aspen groves and conifer forest.  The section where the road parallels the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River is especially pretty and intriguing.  The rocks and geologic history are also fascinating, and it is hard to believe that this area was once home to some powerful eruptions.  One volcanic event produced a thousand cubic miles of ash that in some places lies a thousand feet deep.  Mount Saint Helens, when it erupted in 1980, produced about 0.06 cubic miles of ash, by way of comparison.

Lake City has much to offer in the way of natural points of interest, but you have to be willing to get out and find them.  This area is one of the most remote in the lower Forty-Eight, using road density as the matrix.  All in all, we had a fine day, and were happy to end it a bit early since the next day would find us out and about for more adventure.

Redcloud Peak – August 16, 2015


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.

Backpacking in the South San Juan Wilderness, Day 4 – August 09, 2015


Second Meadows of Elk Creek

The clouds have mostly departed from the region, leaving the dawn clear and bright.  My third and final morning in the Second Meadows of Elk Creek, in the southern San Juan Mountains, was about to commence.  The previous night, like this morning, was blessedly quiet sans the hooting and bawling of the cattle that had been grazing here the previous two mornings.  It is before six and the eastern sky is a palette of the soft colors commonly found immediately prior to the sun’s rising.

I rise, the dogs, my two faithful German shepherds, Draco and Leah, go through their perambulations, stretching and sniffing about the nearby trees for any traces of the incessantly chattering squirrels and chipmunks.  We walk down from camp and cross the trail.  Out into the vast expanse of Second Meadows we go, pushing our way through the tall grass.  We get to Elk Creek and I find a place to cross by hopping onto well-placed rocks.  The grass is wet with dew and sparkles wherever the sunlight strikes the blades.  Each dew drop is a rainbow of refracted light.

I would like to reach the far side of the meadow and find where Rito Colorado cascades down from Red Lake, which is situated on the mesa above Elk Creek.  I have heard this cascade the entire time I have been camping here, and would love to see it up close.  However, the meadow becomes marshy and I decide to turn back and keep my feet relatively dry.  It is amazing to me that I have been here nearly four days and I still find new things to explore.

Back on the trail, we hike up valley a mile or so and find a place just up on an adjacent hillside to sit and take in the morning’s warming sun.  Summer is short in the high country of Colorado, and I am in no hurry to leave, wanting to enjoy the warm, green day at my leisure.  Eventually, we return to camp and I make breakfast.  I eat languidly and slowly sip my coffee, enjoying the bright, blue sky overhead.  Draco and Leah gobble up their kibble and then worry each other about the possession of The Ball.

I sit back and gather warmth.  The morning passes along slowly until I shake myself out of my reverie.  I decide that it is finally time for me to pack up camp and begin the hike back to the trailhead.  The first thing I do is to go and gather up the gear from the food stash that I have hung from a tree off in the forest.  I do this, creating a food stash, mostly to keep the curious bruins from becoming food habituated.  The sleeping bag is stuffed and then the tent is struck down, and within about half an hour or so I am ready to hoist the pack upon my shoulders.  I burden the shepherds with their packs and then reach for my hiking staff.  We leave behind a spotless camp and make our way down to the trail where we start to hike out in earnest.

Our backpacking trip to the Second Meadows has been a joy, overall, although I could have done without the cattle.  Now, hiking out, I wish that I could stay a bit longer.  We reach the bridge crossing Elk Creek at the outlet of the Second Meadows and I take one, last good long look at the amazing greenery.  This is a fine location and I am fortunate to have been able to camp here for the past three nights.  I bid adieu to the high mountain park and walk down the trail.

I am in no real hurry, so I dawdle whenever given the chance to explore some bit of previously overlooked natural phenomena.  Past the low bridge and then we are at the Notch Trail.  Elk Creek roars below us. We hike on, mile after mile and the vegetation slowly changes from sub-alpine to montane.  I start to notice the occasional ponderosa pine and know that our hike will so be over.  The trail remains high on the hillside above First Meadows but I decide to detour down into the meadows and have a firsthand look around.  Much like the other similar locales, Elk Creek slows its rapid flow and becomes sinuous.  We see a flock of Canadian geese swimming along while sitting on the bank.  It is a fine place, but now I am ready to get back to the trailhead, so up we climb and once we reach the trail off we go downstream.

There is only about a mile to go before the trailhead is reached but I can’t resist making a final break in the hiking.  The dogs and I find ourselves in a ponderosa park and I get off the trail and find a particularly large and handsome tree to sit under.  The weather is pleasingly warm and the shaded needle bed is comfortable.  Draco and Leah are almost as animated now as at any other time during our hike.  I don’t know if they are excited to be nearly done, or if they even have any concept of where we are.  Or perhaps it is just their natural enthusiasm.

It takes a bit of effort to rise up and strap on the pack.  The trail is hot and dry in early afternoon and I don’t want to leave the ponderosa forest.  We reach the bridge and now the hike has come to a close.  Draco and Leah dash off into the water and lap up the cool liquid to their heart’s content.  I stride across and they follow once I reach the far side.  Now it is just a short bit of uphill hiking, and we are done.  I unlock the car and take off the packs.  I sign out of the register and open the windows on the car to let out some of the heat.  We still have about two and a half to three hours of driving ahead of us, so after a short rest I fire up the mechanical beast and we head off down the road.  What a great trip!

Backpacking in the South San Juan Wilderness, Day 3 – August 08, 2015


Sunset over Elk Creek in the southern San Juan Mountains

I wake, my second morning in the Second Meadows of Elk Creek in the southern San Juan Mountains.  This area has been designated by congressional action as the South San Juan Wilderness.  Leah, one of my two faithful German shepherds, is sitting on her haunches, staring out to the meadow, and is thus silhouetted against the morning sky.  Something has grabbed her attention.

The legislation that expanded the South San Juan Wilderness also allowed cattle grazing, a deleterious addition, in my opinion.  The bovines are making more noise than normal.  I hear yelling, but it is coming from humans and not cattle.  I realize that the cattle are being moved out of the mountains in anticipation of Autumn.  It could be that the grazing permit requires the cattle’s removal by a certain date, as well.  Regardless, I am happy to see them go.

The cattle have devastated the character of the wilderness, although the cowboys now rounding up the cattle are using horses without any mechanical aid.  Most of the meadow is filthy with bovine excrement.  They have also effectively excluded all the larger wildlife from the area.  Worse, from my perspective, is that most of the improvements made to the trail have been rendered useless where the cattle have congregated around the marshy and muddy areas of the trail that certain structures were built to remedy.

Oh, well… there isn’t much I can do about the cattle at the moment.  I get out of the tent and fix my breakfast.  I sit on a grassy slope where I can see the cowboys move their beasts.  The procession passes slowly.  Not all the cattle are gone, but the vast majority are moved down and out of this otherwise quiet valley.   The shepherds and I go for a short walk and I enjoy the new found serenity.  The cowboys leave the gates open and the few remaining cattle will wander down on their own accord or with a little help as the temperatures chill.

It is now mid-morning and I decide to hike up to the Valle Victoria Trail, to a pond that I had visited six years ago when I first visited this area.  To do this, I hike out of Second Meadows, following the trail a couple of miles down Elk Creek to the Notch Trail.  This latter trail is appropriately named, as it passes through a notch in the plateau above.  We climb up out of Elk Creek on the northern side and when we reach the pass we also find the Valle Victoria Trail.

From here, we continue to climb.  I remember some of this, but not all of it, from my previous hike.  I am surprised to find a small pond in the middle of a large aspen grove.  I have no recollection of it at all.  We continue to climb the forested slopes and begin to have views of far off mountains and ridges that had been obscured from view previously.  Up and up we go, and now I can see the Conejos River, of which Elk Creek is a tributary.

The trail leads up and over one last ridge, nearly fifteen hundred feet above Elk Creek, and we find ourselves on a broad flat where the forest has given way to open grasslands.  I can see all around me, three hundred and sixty degrees.  The ridges stretch out for miles and miles, melding into an indecipherable topographic puzzle.  The top of this plateau has a few large ponds scattered about the rolling land.  Draco and Leah are running amok, investigating whatever their noses detect as interesting to them.  I see a distant pinnacle of land, scraping the sky above.  That may be Montezuma Peak, I decide after consulting the map.  Just over thirteen thousand feet tall.  The land of perpetual snow.

There are a few clouds in the sky, but the rain and thunderstorms from yesterday have mostly dissipated and what few clouds remain are puffy and benign.  Nevertheless, I remain on high alert for any menacing thunderheads that might toss a few bolts of lightening my way.  I wander around now, hiking off trail and enjoy the scenery.  Draco, Leah and I eventually find the pond that I remember from my last visit and I am happy to see that the water lilies are still abundant.  This species is part of Nymphaceae and are thus not true lilies.  Regardless, they crowd the water near the shore, placidly sitting atop the shallows, yellow flowers a bit past prime.

This backpacking trip has gone well, and by remaining in one location all three nights I have no real agenda beyond exploring the immediate area.  The pond is a fine location and there is naught to do but catch up on some vital napping.  So, while the dogs mill about, I climb a small knoll above the pond and seek the shade of one, large conifer.  My view is still superb and I lay back, head on my backpack, and enjoy the warmth of the day.  The shepherds follow my lead and settled down nearby.  Soon, there is no sound other than bird calls and the repetitious hum of Draco snoring.

Time slips away and the next time I look up the sun has arced across sky from its previous morning location to its now present afternoon position.  We all do a bit of stretching and then rise to continue our day hike.  There is much tail wagging from the dogs and the mood is infectious.  I can’t quite bring myself to leave this area, so instead of immediately returning to camp we hike another quarter of a mile or so up the trail.  I am enthralled with the small meadows that come into view as well as another small pond.  I take some time to wander about aimlessly, letting my mood carry me where it will.

This area is certainly worthy of further exploration, but that will have to wait until another future day.  I stop, take a long look around, and then turn around and retrace my steps back towards the lip of the plateau where we will descend back down to Elk Creek.  Down we go but not before I look out as far as I can.  Is that the Sangre de Cristo Range I see out over the San Luis Valley?  I’m not sure, but I think that it is.

Descending the Notch Trail, I have a fine view of Elk Creek.  We reach the trail junction and I march over to the creek itself, away from the trail.  Again, being in no hurry, I find a salubrious and comfortably soft patch of conifer needles under a contributing tree and sit for a spell, doing nothing more than listen to the water’s ongoing and successful attempt at reducing the mountains into fine grains of sand that are then carried out to the ocean.  On the banks are growing small, yellow flowers with a set of red dots that look almost like a set of landing lights on a airport runway.

Seeing the flower, and a thought has come to mind.  Today is the first day that the silent knocking in my sub-conscious has become loud enough for me to answer the door.  I open it and come to the realization that the great summer green-up has concluded.  Many of the summer flowers have gone to seed and the green vegetation is now tinted at the edges with the yellows that announce the oncoming changing of the seasons.  This thought allows me to further indulge myself in this current state of repose and I make scant effort to change the situation.

It is now Saturday, I realize, and the great masses of the Weekender have arrived.  I see quite a few folks around and we are all smiles at visiting the mountains and enjoying the charms and travails of Nature’s whim.  Draco and Leah retain their training and are easily recalled when I direct them return to my side.  I don’t like unruly dogs and don’t want mine to set a bad example so I have taken effort to establish a trusting rapport with my canine companions.  That they readily listen is testament to the bond we share.

We hike back up Elk Creek and cross the two bridges over that drainage.  The water is still low despite yesterday’s rain but it is a ponderable notion to look at the large boulders in the bed and realize they are submerged during the spring runoff.  Above the high bridge, the shepherds and I climb the rocky rubble above the bridge and explore the remnants of this rock pile the best we can.  I look out over Second Meadows in one direction, all green and static, and then turn around and look at the chasm below and beyond that allows swift, kinetic passage of Elk Creek.  We scramble back down to the trail and hike back slowly, taking time to explore some of the small pools of water here and there as well as some of the adjacent groves of aspen and adjoining hillsides.

Back at camp, The Ball is tossed about here and there and Leah and Draco amuse themselves with the eternally fascinating game of keep-away.  We collect water and then lay about for a while.  Towards sunset, we hike up Elk Creek nearly two miles and climb several hundred feet above the creek bed on a steep hillside where we find an old earth slippage that has created a flat spot with a copse of aspen.  Here we sit and watch the sun go down.  There are only a few cattle in the valley below and all is gratefully silent excepting the normal sounds of nature.  The sunset is pretty to look at.  The entire day has been grand.

We hike back down to the trail and I again notice the yellowing tint on the vegetation.  The hike back down the trail is swift and we are soon at camp.  The dogs and I make one final foray to the creek where we watch the night’s oncoming.  Just before dark we hike back up to camp and I start a nice campfire to ward off the damp chill.  Although the sun was warm all day, the rain from the previous day has left the valley humid.  The fire is nice and warm and a friendly companion on this chill night.  I eat dinner by fire light and when not watching the flickering flames I am staring up at the heavens where the star lights are so many points of twinkling light.

The fire is eventually allowed to die down to coals and ashes. I had fed its flames as I watched the stars cross the night’s sky, the constellations animated only in position.  That it is late doesn’t bother me at all.  I will be getting up whenever I feel like it, for tomorrow morning the only task I shall have is to pack up camp and hike back to the trailhead.  And I am in none too much of a hurry to do that as I am enjoying the languid pace of wilderness camping.  The coals burn down to ash and I wander off to my tent where find that the shepherds have already commandeered the choice locations atop my sleeping bag.  Well, I suppose that I should be cheerful that my bed has been pre-warmed!  I scoot them out of the way just enough so that I can wiggle in, and soon the tent is harmonious with the sounds of snoring.

Backpacking in the South San Juan Wilderness, Day 2 – August 07, 2015


Dipping Lakes, the headwaters of East Rio Chama, in South San Juan Wilderness

This part of the San Juan Mountains is mostly made of high, flat plateaus rather than the serrated peaks that come to mind in most people’s minds when discussing the Rocky Mountains.  I am not sure about their origin beyond that they are volcanic.  The valley I am camping in is rimmed by cliffs all similar in height and composition, some thousand feet above my head.

The day begins with a gorgeous sunrise to the east.  The sky is a red and orange reminiscent of molten metal, glowing, announcing the sun’s imminent arrival.  The air is, meanwhile, cool and I quietly quaff my single cup of hot coffee while scarfing down my hot oatmeal, ignoring as best as I can the bellowing annoyance that are the cattle pastured here.

One of my goals on this trip is to hike up to the headwaters of Elk Creek.  The map calls an opening in the valley Fourth Meadows and I would like to see it first-hand, something I had wanted to do but didn’t six years ago.  While eating my breakfast, I study the map.  Draco and Leah, my two faithful German shepherds, gobble up their kibble and then lie nearby, masticating The Ball.  Draco tends to do the most jaw work while Leah lies prone in such a way that she can keep a sharp eye on Draco lest The Ball should squirt away and an opportunity for pouncing upon it presents itself.

It is still early, but the sun has risen and we are walking up valley.  I have decided to hike to Dipping Lakes, which are comprised of two or three small ponds and one large lake.  They lie on the plateau above but drain to the south, away from Elk Creek, and form the headwaters of East Rio Chama.  This is a major divide, but both drainages eventually flow into the Rio Grande, although their respective confluences are separated by a hundred miles.

We hike along the trail, through the meadows.  The trail is forked in numerous locations and there are many false paths that fade out in the  middle of marshy and wet grasses.  This is courtesy of the bovines, who have rerouted and obliterated much of the work done on these trails.  But persevering pays off as, after a few miles of walking, I reach the head of the valley.

It is sobering to see how much of this forest has been killed by the beetle infestation.  It is also impressive to see that there is a bit of lingering snow, the remains of what must have been large cornices, at the top of the cliffs I am about to scale.  The forest has been seen from the meadows but now we enter it and the sky is quickly blotted from view.  About half a mile in the forest and Draco gets excited.  I look through the woods and see a black bear scurrying out of our way.  I call Draco to my side since I don’t want him to get anywhere near the bruin.  Draco is all business.  He furrows his brow, staring at the forest denizen.  Leah is more or less oblivious and has remained by my side.  The bear is much more alarmed by our presence than the other way around and quickly leaves the area.  The training that the dogs and I have worked on has just proven to be of great use.

We keep climbing and soon reach the trail junction where the Elk Creek Trail ends at a portion of the Continental Divide Trail.  The latter trail is well used relative to the trail that I had just hiked up.  I continue onward, another half a mile or so, until I reach the first of the Dipping Lakes which is more of a small, marshy pond sitting serenely in its grassy setting.  Not long afterwards we reach the main lake.  I am nearly out of water and presciently brought my filter so that before I settle down to relax I take time to refill my water jugs.

The shepherds and I find a nice place near the lake shore, under some large conifers, to sit back and take a short nap.  I keep one eye open for squirrels and such, not because I am interested in them myself so much but because I don’t want Draco and Leah to run after them and cause unnecessary commotion in this peaceful location.  The lake is a fine place, and the setting with a low rim of short cliffs is pleasing to the eye.

After a bit of rest, we start hiking around the area, exploring hither and yon.  We cross the outlet of the lake and I stare down the flowing waters, the nascent East Rio Chama, and wonder where they lead.   Along the banks of the small creek is a marshy area that is resplendent with the pink flowers of the Elephant’s Head plant, Pedicularis groenlandica.  This iconic plant is so unique that it is one of the very few that I can identify without any confusion or doubt.  The marsh is green but tinted pink with the hundreds upon hundreds of small blooms.

The trip so far has been sunny with a few clouds in the sky.  That changes as the day progresses.  Soon, the sun is obscured by heavy clouds, dark and threatening.  I decide to retreat from the high plateau and retreat to the valley.  The clouds are laden with moisture and energy.  There is a faint rumbling of thunder and I wonder what all the folks who are backpacking upon the plateau think about this weather.

The rain holds off as we descend back to the low valley and concomitant meadows.  The remainder of the day is damp, with rain off and on.  I am also fairly tired after two days of hiking.  Draco and Leah play with The Ball as I relax.  I cook dinner and am revived by the hot food.  The dogs and I do a bit of light exploring in the general vicinity.  Dusk approaches slowly, as the sun is not visible and the sky is gray.  I go to bed early having had a good day of hiking and exploring an area I had wanted to see for many years.

Backpacking in the South San Juan Wilderness, Day 1 – August 06, 2015


Second Meadows in evening

Back in 2009, I had spent a couple of nights backpacking in the South San Juan Wilderness.  A buddy and myself had camped out in the Second Meadows along Elk Creek.  It was a fine area and I promised myself that I would return to visit sometime in the future and explore the area more extensively.  Six years later and I am finally able fulfill that pledge that I had made to myself so many years ago.  The itinerary for this backpacking trip was to set up a campsite on the upper end of the Second Meadow for three nights, using the intermediary days to go day hiking.

I began hiking at the Elk Creek Trailhead.  I expected to see quite a few people based on the volume of cars parked at the parking lot but also intuited that past the first two miles or so I wouldn’t see so many folks.  I loaded up my backpack and burdened the two shepherds, Draco and Leah, with their saddle packs and then made a final check of the car before locking it up for the duration.  Off we went!  Down the trail we went and immediately crossed a bridge over Elk Creek, our jaunty step matching the heightened spirits that we all felt after being confined to our wheeled metal-box for the past three hours.

There were folks there, playing and splashing in the water, enjoying the mountain setting.  The dogs declined to cross the bridge with me and instead splashed their way across the creek, periodically lapping up the water along the way.  The aptly named Elk Creek Trail would follow this creek to its headwaters nearly eleven miles away.  Starting off at eighty-eight hundred feet in elevation we passed through the typically drier montane life-zone of the Rocky Mountains.  I love this setting and wish more of it were protected as designated wilderness or some such other similar level of official preservation.  The ponderosa pine are stately and the day comfortably warm under the partly cloudy blue sky.

Two miles along the trail and we had risen enough to leave the ponderosa forest behind; only lone trees were mixed into the increasingly dense spruce and fir forest.  At this point we also reached First Meadows, a nearly half-mile long and round opening through which the creek slows from it’s otherwise hectic descent.  The sinuous, winding trace through the tall grasses is soothing to the soul and I suppose that is the reason there are so many folks here casting a line into the stream.

The dogs and I hike another mile and officially pass into the designated wilderness.  It is also the junction with the Notch Trail.  When I last visited this area my friend and I had hike up this way on a day hike to the top of a plateau.  I might revisit this are or not, I wasn’t sure quite yet.  After a short rest, we continued on the Elk Creek Trail where we began to climb a bit more in earnest.  Generally, this trail is a rather gentle grade and the hiking as been easy.  Now, this rocky and steep section would be a bit of a challenge but after a mile or so I would find myself at the lower end of Second Meadow.  Another mile or two and I would find a campsite.

I’m not sure if the pile of rock that had dammed this drainage was a terminal moraine or a landslide.  Regardless, it is a large mass of rock and I imagine that the Second Meadows is the silt-filled remains of an ancient lake.  There is one bridge to cross at the bottom of the grade and then another at the top.  Elk Creek could be waded at this point in the year but when its a freshet it would be nearly impossible and extremely dangerous.  The second bridge has been placed at the exact point where the water constricts to begin it’s swifter whitewater flow.  On one side is a sublime view of the Second Meadows stretching out in it’s verdant glory and on the other is the mountain creek frothing over and slowly disintegrating large boulders.

Two things now become apparent.  One is that the beetle epidemic has severely stricken the spruce in the forest.  The second is that there are an excessive amount of bovines in this area.  Ah, I think to myself cynically, the independent ranchers enjoying the government’s largess.  While I understand that some of the enabling language establishing additions to wilderness areas allows for cattle grazing I soon decide that the amount of cattle in this area is extremely detrimental not only to the ecological health of this particular wild land but also to those who visit this area expecting to find a bit of peace and quiet.

The cattle have created a stench that fills the valley; they have destroyed many of the culverts on the trail; their bellowing and screeching destroys the quietude of the area.  It is a repugnant situation and I will be forced to share this space with the filthy beasts.  Well, it just gives me more impetus to have cattle removed or severely restricted on public lands.  Besides fouling the water, the barbed wire needed to confine the bumbling critters also hinders the native wildlife in their movements and is often a cause of mortality for deer, elk and pronghorn.

Despite the deleterious presence of the bovine wrecking crew, this area is abundant in natural beauty.  Elk Creek is sinuous and slow paced passing through the long meadow.  There are green hillsides dotted with small groves of aspen and conifer forest  rises above to the base of the rocky cliff.  I take note the there are live trees in the mass of naked trunks and am heartened that this next generation of trees will reestablish the forest in the long run.  My trip from 2009 will provide proof of the forest’s abundance then, as this trip will provide the sad truth of the forest’s current decline.  Is this another sign of climate change?  Or, are beetle epidemics a part of the natural cycle, like wildfire, that help to stimulate new growth?  They are nothing new and have been noted before, but the extent of the destruction is mind-boggling and concerns many people.

Camp is set on a small knoll that looks east out over the Second Meadow.  It is set just opposite of Rito Colorado, a small creek that drains a lake on the plateau above and out of sight.  The creek plunges down the escarpment that forms the southern edge of this valley and the noise it makes is a constant companion.  It also helps to guide me by establishing a point of reference upon which I can home in on.

Camp is set and we rest a bit, enjoying the mountain comfort.  As the afternoon changes into evening the dogs and I go for a hike up valley, to Third Meadows about a mile and a half away.  If I find a better camping spot away from the cattle I might shift camp the next day, but those hopes are soon dashed with the braying and hooting that announces the presence of a large herd of cattle. Oh, well.  We climb a small knob of rock and grass away from the noisome creatures and perch ourselves in such a way as to have a good view up and down the valley.  Time to rest and contemplate.

We return towards camp and head down to the stream to collect water.  Since it is beyond obvious that the water is polluted, I take extra precautions to properly filter the water I gather as well as to prevent any cross contamination.  With the almost assured presence of Giardia spp. contaminating the water supply, I can only keep my fingers crossed and hope that this technology works as well as advertised against the microscopic menace.

Darkness slips onto the land like a blanket slowly lowered.  Dinner of Tom’s Stew is consumed and the stars come out in droves.  I present to the dogs the Ball so that they have something to occupy themselves with.  There is one Ball to unite them all.  Eventually I slip into my sleeping bag.  The dogs will remain outside tethered within easy reach.  They would rather share my space with me but with the dry conditions I will take the opportunity to enjoy some personal space, sleeping under the stars with one eye kept open in the hopes of seeing the streaking light of a meteorite burning up in the atmosphere.



Crystal Lake – August 03, 2015


Above Slaughterhouse Gulch on the Crystal Lake Trail

Driving up from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, I took scenic Colorado 149 towards Lake City.  Just before reaching town I turned onto a road that leads to the New Cemetery and just beyond that , the Crystal/Larsen Trailhead.  Here I parked my car and began to hike up Crystal Lake Trail Number 235 on the Uncompahgre National Forest.  Like so many hikes beginning at this nine-thousand foot elevation, it was immediately engulfed in a dense aspen forest; a look in any direction produced a wall of white trunks rising out of a carpet of verdant undergrowth.

The day was sunny with some lingering clouds on the higher ridges and within some of the valleys.  Initially, the views my views of the heavens above were obscured by the thick aspen forests.  Draco and Leah, my two faithful German shepherds, were bouncing around investigating all reputed signs of squirrels and chipmunks.  Above the aspen groves, coming out onto the south side of Slaughterhouse Gulch, were the hillside is more exposed are some fine views of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River as well as Cannibal Plateau beyond.  On the sun exposed and thus drier hillside grow large, stately ponderosa pine.  The green grass is studded with orange paintbrush and purple lupine.  Another fine day in the mountains.

We keep climbing and are soon above some of lower clouds.  They are flowing in from the west, over high ridges and peaks.  The sun is sometimes blotted from the sky and at other times is hot and brilliant.  I stop at Hay Lake, rimmed with tall grasses and set in a crown of rock.  The ponderosa have given way to spruce and fir, indicating a rapid ascent into the higher elevations.

I have never been hiking in this area before, just west of Lake City.  It is classic San Juan Mountain scenery with numerous tall and rocky peaks punctuating the skyline in almost all directions.  The grasses remain lush as we climb and after crossing the divide between Slaughterhouse Gulch and Crystal Creek it isn’t long before the jagged eminence of Crystal Peak rears its head above the trail.

Crystal Lake’s outlet is Crystal Lake.  This is what you would expect.  If a lake and creek share a name then you would expect that they are directly linked.  For the most part this is true, but not always and it is always good to study the map to make sure that you are where you think you are.  Making one last climb, I come to a small Forest Service sign that directs me down a spur trail that leads to the lake.  The other branch of the trail heads out across a small plateau that I suspect is the top of a landslide that has created the escarpment above, the high point of that ridge being Crystal Peak.

A short walk leads to a well-used area under spruce near the shore of the lake.  There are the remains of an old cabin nearby that was reputedly built by folks who had stocked the lake with fish and then supplied said fish to the market.  The sun is warm and I am tired from the strenuous hike.  To the north I see a large grassy area adjacent to the lake shore.  I stagger over, happily dazed by the warmth and salubrious conditions set to the prime comfort zone.  I plop my almost ethereal mass down onto the organic padding below and am soon busy imitating a solar collector.

I stare up to the ridge above and check out the rock.  I notice one of the routes leading up to Crystal Peak, another thousand feet above, and decide that for today I will be content to stop here.  I am also not entirely sure about the disposition of the the clouds above.  Yesterday, I had courted disaster by challenging the odds of becoming another victim of above-treeline lightening.  Today might be a good day to lie low.  Besides, I’m tired and it would be a great day to just relax on the edge of this lake enjoying the sun’s heat.

I snooze off and about twenty minutes later am heated to the point that I wake out of my reverie.  Even with sun-screen applied liberally to my face I would get cooked in the direct radiation.  The shepherds have settled in nearby, stretching out and making dimples in the grass.  I cover my face with a spare sweatshirt and set my backpack in such a position that it serves as a fine headrest.  Almost two hours go by like this until finally something grabs the attention of the dogs and they begin to get restless.

I am refreshed, also, so I stand and stretch, and we set off on a short exploration across the meadow.  I love these type of lakes set near the upper elevation of the sub-alpine life-zone.  I have been further blessed by the fine day, so appealing to the both the physical and spiritual senses.  Like all such places, there is always something interesting when you set out to explore the nooks of rock and shoulders of the forest.  I have seen the same patterns and genres throughout the Rocky Mountains at this elevation but in each drainage Nature has used it’s palette to produce a unique landscape.

We return to our resting spot by the lake and sit back down.  This is to take a last look around and take a final swig of water before retreating back down the trail.  Within fifteen minutes we are striding past the old cabin and then walking down the steep and deep gully that is Crystal Creek.  The trail passes over the divide on a exposed hillside that is void of forest and made of large grassy swaths interspersed with copse of conifer and with that we have passed over into Slaughterhouse Gulch.

Draco and Leah know where we are headed just as much as I do, and their desire to race ahead out of sight must be occasionally checked.   Had we been at this approximate mileage on a loop hike, especially one that we haven’t done before, they would become almost perceptibly antsy that we hadn’t yet turned around; they would be following behind seeing what I was going to do next instead of running out ahead.  This could be just my imagination making up stories to fit the circumstances but I would like to think its an accurate anecdotal representation of the canine mind.

One the way down I take special notice of the ponderosa pine, perhaps my favorite tree.  The hike is quick, going downhill, but I slow while passing through the ponderosa park.  There aren’t any further specific details that I can recollect about this hike with regards to the natural world beyond that at the time I appreciated all the detail found in the mountain life-zones.  What I do remember in aggregate is that there is fine beauty here and it would do me some good to revisit this portion of the realm and further investigate the woods around Lake City.