Accessing Hartman Rocks from Bambi’s Trail – October 23, 2015


Weathered granite along Bambi’s Trail

Located a few miles south of Gunnison, Colorado, is a recreation area managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) known as Hartman Rocks.  These rocks are made from weathered granite and form the bedrock of this region.  There isn’t much of this type of rock exposed anywhere nearby since it was mostly covered up by the repeated eruptions from the volcanic fields in the West Elk and San Juan Mountains.  From a distance, the granitic knobs appear to be similar to the weathered sandstone found in the Colorado Plateau, but once the rock itself is examined up close it is apparent that this rock has a different history.

There are many access points to the eight thousands acres that encompass the recreation area.  I chose to use Bambi’s Trail off of Gold Basin Road, south of the main parking area.  Upon parking my automobile, I let the dogs out and gathered up my pack and gear to begin hiking.  Draco and Leah, my two faithful German shepherds, were immediately enticed by the scent of rabbits and other small ground dwelling creatures who use the abundant sagebrush as shelter.

We hiked up the single-track through a small ravine were juniper, aspen and cottonwood grow among the granite boulders.  All of the deciduous greenery is gone, replaced by the dull earth tones of the Fall.  The rock is reddish, pink and orange in general, speckled with white.  The granite has been eroded into rounded shapes, and sometimes the cracks are deep enough to give the impression that one boulder sits atop another.  The decomposed granite that lines the trail and makes up the soil would be called sand were it to be found on a beach.

A mile and a half of walking brings us up to the mesa upon which the land becomes rolling with a few outcroppings breaking through the surface.  This area is used by numerous groups of recreationalists.  There are a few folks like me who come out here to hike and scramble on the rocks.  There are also folks who come out here to ride mountain bikes, dirt bikes, four-wheelers and full-sized four-wheel drives.  Some will ride horses here and others are serious climbers who set up technical routes over the more challenging terrain.  There are also endangered species living here, and the government’s challenging task is to manage this six-mile diameter ring dike for the benefit of one and all.  The City and County of Gunnison, with additional funding from the State of Colorado, have united with the federal agency to help direct the management of the area and has been a good example of practical collaboration and cooperation.

Upon cresting the top of the ravine, Bambi’s Trail ends at one of the major roads that cross the area.  I could go in any direction I chose, but looking left I spot a large mound of granite upon which I have climbed and sat before and since I know that the small summit allows for a good view of the surrounding countryside I decide to stroll over that way.  The dogs and I make our way up the granite, mostly on easy-to-traverse slopes were Douglas fir and juniper grow.  To reach the top we must scramble on the rock itself a bit.  Easy to go up, a bit more difficult to descend, especially when wet or icy.  Care must be used so as not to become prey to a debilitating fall.

From my new aerie I am able to see a vast amount of the Gunnison Country that is my home.  The West Elk and Elk Mountains dominate the horizon to the north, while a gaze to the east produces a splendid view of Fossil Ridge and the Sawatch Range beyond.  That eastern view terminates on the Great Divide where the waters are split between the two great oceans that hem in the North American continent.  The southern view is a bit obscured by local highlands, but parts of the Cochetopa Hills and San Juan Mountains are visible.  The Continental Divide runs through this area, as well.  To my west I see ridge after ridge, each subsequently more faded than the one closer to me.  The flat-topped ridges are the ash and pyroclastic flows that emanated from the great volcanic fields that vied with one another over which could produce more material for millions of years.  The amount of lava and ash produced here is staggering, making Mount Saint Helens look like a surreptitious belch.

Prior to my hike, there had been a bit of weather in the area and some pools of water were still to be found atop the rock.  The shepherds were eager to lap up this water in the otherwise arid realm.  We sat for some time, as I enjoyed and savored the view while the dogs put their sense of smell to heavy use.  They skittered about, investigating every nook that they could put their nose down to.

A cool, cloudy day upon us, I was more interested in movement than sitting idly.  So, after eating some snacks, we scrambled down the rocks and began walking to the south along the road.  I didn’t see anybody else in the vicinity, and could imagine that only a few die-hard individuals would be out and about on a day like this.  We had walked about two miles to reach the rocks that we had scrambled up and now walked about another two plus miles along this road.

We reached the boundary of the Hartman Rocks area and passed over into less strictly managed BLM lands.  There was a large sign at this boundary, set so as to be read by incoming traffic, that stated this area to be the only known home of the skiff milkvetch.  Thus, besides being a well known recreation mecca, this area has been designated also as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.  In my opinion, it is a moral imperative to protect that which has no voice in our democratic system, and this includes the plants and animals that we share the planet with.  Will the skiff milkvetch be able to survive with the simultaneous recreational use of its habitat?  That question is just one of many regarding the conservation of our wild heritage that doesn’t have a clear answer.

The dogs and I continued walking past the southern boundary of Hartman Rocks and made our way up to a small highpoint.  This eminence wasn’t named much less marked on maps with an elevation, but from here I could see the rolling lands to the south that climb up to Sawtooth Mountain.  The stands of aspen had mostly lost their leaves and a few only showed any color.  Thus, the aspen where mostly that grayish white color that occurs when they are seen from a distance.  Winter was still a couple of months away, but the snow capped mountains, clouds overhead and general grayness announced the imminent oncoming of starving times.  Hopefully, everyone has their stores set already.

There was a brisk breeze here that kept my perch cool.  The sun would make an occasional foray from behind the clouds and thus drenched us with warming rays but the cold soon seeped into my clothing and prompted me to hoist myself up from the ground and make tracks back the way we came.  I had climbed a small but significant enough amount of elevation to get up into some snow, albeit not too deep, merely a couple of inches.  We retreated more or less back the way we came and soon found ourselves in the small ravine that carries Bambi’s Trail.  I explored some of the rock outcroppings along the way, staring at the multitude of small crystals that make up the rock.  Of course, the vegetation was never out of sight.  The rose hips were still a bright red and the juniper were loaded with blue berries.  The air was fragrant with the musty scent of wet soil.  Combined with the sagebrush and rabbitbrush, it created a invigorating smell that tingled my senses.  I strolled back to the trailhead, happy that I had made this small expedition into this special place.

Baxter Basin Day Hike – October 17, 2015


Cascade Mountain looming over Poverty Gulch

Just getting back from my two-week tour of the western states, I wanted to get out and hike a bit in the local area.  Thus I drove up to Crested Butte from my home in the Gunnison, Colorado, and continued past that town up the Slate River drainage to the small former mining town of Pittsburgh located at the confluence with Poverty Gulch.  I had made a hike from this same starting point just prior to leaving on my excursion across the vast interior west and now wanted to revisit the area with a bit more extensive hike.

Nearly three and a half weeks had passed since my prior visit, when the aspen were colored a bright yellow as they progressed through the annual changing of the seasons.  Most of those leaves had since fallen and the aspen boles were bare and exposed to this day’s bright sun.  Autumn was almost a month into existence and the air was crisp and cool in the morning but would warm up as the sun progressed upon its track across the sky.

As I have done before, I hiked up the road that traverses Poverty Gulch rather than drive.  This road isn’t too steep and the walk is nice, therefore I saw no reason to punish the car on the rough ride.  There are a couple of switchbacks that lead up to a higher tier and here the gulch opens up a bit so that a fine view of Cascade Mountain and Mineral Point are seen along with Baxter Basin’s entrance and the crest of the Ruby Range.  This view alone is worth the effort of hiking into this area.  Surrounded by mountains on all sides, clear water gurgling as its pours over its cobbled bed, I glean a bit of the Colorado magic that occurs whenever I am out and about in the woods.

Two miles of hiking leads me to the base of Cascade Mountain, so named, perhaps, due to the presence of a large cascade that splashes down through a rocky defile on one side of this large mass of rock.  Here, I can choose one of two easy and well-marked routes to follow.  The right hand leads me further up Poverty Gulch and then has its own variations as to were I could go.  However, I choose the left fork and begin to hike up into Baxter Basin.  This fork also has a few different routes that can be chosen.  In the past, I have hiked up and over Daisy Pass but today I will hike up along the old road to the head of the basin where I will have a fine view of the surrounding eminences.

This hike doesn’t seem terribly steep but I nonetheless gain nearly two thousand feet in elevation over a horizontal distance of two miles.  The old road is also full of cobbles and thus footing is adverse to gaining an easy stride.  However, the old road does provide a convenient route through the basin and I don’t deviate from its course.  I pass the trail leading to Daisy Pass and looking around espy Schuykill Mountain.  The grassy slope to my north leads up to Cascade Mountain and to my west is the dividing crest of the Ruby Range.  The earth is pockmarked with numerous mining remains and exploratory scrapes.  For this reason, I would suppose, the basin has been left out of the nearby Raggeds Wilderness.

Continuing onward with my hike I circle around the southern side of Cascade Mountains until I reach the saddle that separates that promontory from the main ridge of the Ruby Range.  Here I find a nice place to sit on the grassy slopes where I can stare over at the sharply angular summit of Mineral Point.  I see Angel Pass and Augusta Mountain, as well.  Draco and Leah have accompanied me on this hike and the two German shepherds lay themselves out nearby, comfortable in the warm sun.  As usual, they have been busy exploring up and down the length of our hike and most likely have traveled twice the distance that I have.  Their typical method is to run out ahead and investigate purported rodent activity and then run back to my location tails wagging.  When our greeting is over they then run back up the trail thus covering the same length of ground three times.

Here I sit on my perch staring out at the world.  I feed the dogs a snack and then consume my own stash of goodies.  We sit here nearly an hour before I decide that it is time to retire back down the way we came up.  Going down, I stare off to the east and inspect the jagged horizon of the Elk Mountains.  Some of those peaks were uplifted during the Laramide orogeny while others are more recent laccoliths.  The geologic history of this area is tumultuous and I am reminded that our Earth has a long, dynamic back story.  When I get home I shall study the section in my Roadside Geology of Colorado handbook that espouses the current thoughts on the geologic timeline of this province.

Hiking back down the old road, I let my thoughts run off and my strides are done mechanically without much mental effort.  The physical effort isn’t great but neither is it slight.  Gravity drags me along and each step is met with calculated breaking on my part.  I don’t want to run or even carry on at a fast clip, as a slip will be exacerbated by the Earth’s pull.  Most folks consider the downhill portion to be easier than the uphill.  All I will say is that it is generally quicker but not necessarily easier.  I heard a statistic that suggested nearly eighty percent of all injuries during mountaineering expeditions occur on the descent.  I keep this in mind as the dogs and I hike down Baxter Basin and rejoin Poverty Gulch.

Instead of immediately returning to the parked car, I head upstream a bit and get up close to some of the waterfalls that occur on this waterway.  The pounding of water against the solid stone is noisy but also enlivening.  There are remnants of sheet metal, large bolts and milled wood lying in the gulch near the base of the falls.  Cable from an old overhead tram is strewn about with careless abandon.  Not surprising to me, considering the history of mining in the area.  I let some of the cool mist from the waterfall cover me and heartily breath in the mountain air.  The sun warms me, gently with only a slight breeze to mitigate the warmth.

We hike back down the road, and all seems right in the world.  I stare out at the thick conifer forest, primeval so it seems.  Poverty Gulch’s valley floor is interspersed with open meadows and the whole creates a mosaic of mountain vegetation.  The grasses and wildflowers have all dried up and there is only a minimal amount of green to be found among those plants that are not evergreen.  Just a few short weeks ago many of these flowering plants were as tall as I am.  Now, they are all bent over, heavy with their burden of seeds and soon they will be squished flat from the abundant snow that will surely fall and blanket the entire region.  In the meantime, I will enjoy the charms of Autumn in the mountains and continue to hike and explore.

Short Day Hike in Mill Creek – September 28, 2015


Mill Creek hoodoos above a forest of yellow aspen

Yet another Fall day with but a handful of clouds in sight.  Blue skies from horizon to horizon.  I was about to journey out across the western states, but first wanted to take this opportunity to stroll about the large aspen forest found on Mill Creek.  This Mill Creek is a tributary of Ohio Creek and is a place that I frequently visit.  If not this year, then certainly in the past.  All of this is part of the drainage of the upper Gunnison River, known in the parlance of the locals here as the Gunnison Country.

The aspen seem to be at the height of their color change and it is a spectacle of nature that ought to be seen by one and all.  Folks who do so are sometimes derisively called “leaf-peepers” but, so what?  The days are fantastic, warm but not hot, and the weather combined with the inexorable oncoming of winter’s cold suggests that at least a few of these final hours should be spent indulgently indolent out in a meadow of dry grass watching the quaking aspen go about their annual change.  This is precisely what Draco, Leah and I did.

Mill Creek has some fantastic geologic creations carved out of the West Elk breccia.  Breccia is a catch-all phrase for any rock that consists of a fine matrix that has within it suspended chunks of larger, angular rock.  In this case, as is so often, the breccia has resulted from a volcanic explosion that obliterated a mountain and left its fragments congealed in the volcanic ash.  This is part of the general history of the West Elk Mountains, a region alive with volcanic activity some tens of millions of years ago.  The area is now rendered inert, the volcanoes long since extinct, only the eroded rock and an occasional hot spring remaining to tell the story of our dynamic Earth.

I parked at the winter trailhead, where the county stops plowing when the snows come, even though I could have driven another mile and a half up the road should I have chosen to do so.  But, as I wanted to get out and walk around, I didn’t need to drive.  So, after parking the automobile, I got out and walked up the road with Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds.  The forest was so vibrant on this day.  The light from the sun reflecting off of the yellow leaves is almost other worldly.  The dark green of the conifers provides a contrast and combined with the blue of the sky makes for a dream-like state of being.  Each step was magic.  A pond near the road was partially covered in yellow aspen leaves.

We walked up to the end of the road and then continued on the Mill Creek Trail until it reached the creek crossing.  Although none of this is part of the designated West Elk Wilderness, it is all still very scenic and full of quietude and nature.  Nature provides me with nurture, and I found a small, round meadow where I could sit for a while and do nothing more than contemplate the meaning of life and other mystical subjects.  Well, why not?  Let my mind ramble as my body rests.

There aren’t many days like these, were the weather is perfectly coordinated with the turning of the leaves and I was blessed to get out into the forest to witness first-hand the awe inspiring sight.  Even during the course of a lifetime the congruence of all the factors necessary to create this sight, this feeling of well being, come along only so often.  They are to be cherished and held in esteem.  The world would be a better place if more people were willing to take a day off from work and step out into the natural world at anytime in general but on days like these in particular.

There really isn’t much more for me to say regarding this hike.  The digital images I snapped off say more than I ever can, and say it with better grace.  Sometimes it is appropriate to stop my yammering and let the mountains speak for themselves.  I will say, however, that it is a blessing that our forefathers had the good common sense to set aside a certain amount of the public domain so that we all can enjoy the wildlands when we want to.  Here, on the Gunnison National Forest, sits one of the most majestic scenes possible.  I slumber in the shade and upon waking say a prayer of thanksgiving for the land, wildlife and heritage that is this place.  I am a bit preoccupied with my forthcoming road trip, but set aside those worries while I slowly hike back to the car that will whisk me down valley to my home.  The magic from this day will linger on in my mind for years to come.

Short Day Hike in Poverty Gulch – September 26, 2015


Waterfalls in Poverty Gulch; Cascade Mountain to the left and Mineral Point to the right

In the first week of Autumn a high pressure system had remained more or less stationary over our mountains in the Gunnison Country.  The result was pure blue skies with nary a cloud to be seen.  The air temperature crept up into the sixties in the high country and made it a joy to be outside.  The aspen were changing color throughout the realm and I took an opportunity to get out and visit the mountains above Crested Butte.

There is a certain scent in the air during this season.  A combination of dry air, dry soil and dry grass mixes with the aspen and conifer forest to make each deeply drawn breath a heady experience.  It is nearly impossible to describe except to say that it is slightly musty and unique to the season.  Mixed into this forest perfume is the smell of the dried flowers, as well.  While not as sweet and fragrant as the blooms themselves, the plants still emit a scent that enlivens the senses although it is more difficult to detect.  Aye, the flowers are long gone and won’t be back until the snows have come and gone.  Eventually, the storms will come after a low pressure system from the coast pushes this mass of calm air out of its way.  So, this is the time to get out and enjoy the last bit of warmth while still possible.

I drove up out of Gunnison, Colorado, my home, and then up past Crested Butte and into the Slate River drainage.  Near the old mining town of Pittsburgh, the history of which is now relegated to those who keep summer cabins here, I parked the car.  I crossed the Slate River and followed the road up into Poverty Gulch where I was greeted by the sound of cascading water and the sight of yellowing aspen against a cerulean sky.  There are scant few days in the year with such a perfect combination of effects that light up my senses and I meant to get out and enjoy a few days of it.

Draco and Leah, my two faithful German shepherds, were my companions on this day.  They were elated to be out exploring and not surprisingly there were plenty of rodents of various forms to keep them engaged.  I generally kept them, the dogs, close by so as not to interrupt the small, furry beasts with their preparations for winter but it is difficult to quell the canines innate sense of curiosity and ability to detect.

Up ahead of me lie two towering masses of rock, Mineral Point and Cascade Mountain, part of the great chain of peaks in the Ruby Range.  This area consists of many laccoliths.  These geologic promontories are made up of masses of magma that pushed up through overlaying rock and then solidified into the mountains that we see now.  Prior to the laccoliths being observable, the overlying rock was first eroded away.  Prior to all this, the same sedimentary layers that were the remnants of the ancient Rocky Mountains were pushed up during the great Laramide orogeny, or mountain-building event, that created the present Rocky Mountains.  Some of the local peaks are the craggy remains of those sedimentary rocks that have yet to be eroded.  The Earth is alive!  Well, at least it is animated.

We hiked up to the first major fork of Poverty Gulch and subsequently followed the old road up into the lower portion of Baxter Basin.  I wasn’t in the mood to make a full day of hiking and climbing, so we stopped and found a nice place to do naught but sit and watch the world go by and listen to the sounds of nature.  That latter might be the chirping of a few songbirds, the babbling of water cascading over rock or the wind rustling leaves.  So bright and sunny, so gloriously warm but not hot… these are the lasting memories of Fall.

Our entire hike lasted only a few hours.  Those few hours, however, were precious and I relished the day.  I can’t say that I truly challenged myself physically today, but I don’t think that I need to do that on every hike.  Sometimes it is nice to simply enjoy the gorgeous mountain atmosphere and be blessed in being nothing more than present.

Waterdog Lakes near Monarch Pass – September 24, 2015


The northern most Waterdog Lake, looking out towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

There are a couple of Waterdog Lakes near my home in Gunnison, Colorado.  One is located near Lake City and the others are near Monarch Pass, on the east side in the drainage of the Arkansas River.  I say others because unlike the sole lake by Lake City this is a set of three and are commonly called Waterdog Lakes.  For some reason, I had put the notion into my head that waterdog was a synonym for water skitters but in reality they are the larval stage of salamanders and newts.  I can only assume that these lakes were home to the creatures whose name they bear.

During the last week or so we had been sitting under a persistent high pressure system that kept the clouds away and provided the region with the clear, blue skies that make hiking this time of year such a joy.  Yesterday was the Fall equinox and today was my first day hiking in the new season.  The cerulean heavens combined with the dark greens of the evergreen forest and the yellows from the willow, aspen and grasses to make a sublime display of glowing color that invigorated the senses.  Most of the moisture has been dissipated and the result is low humidity.  This in turn leads to a clarity that makes judging distances difficult.  Objects, such as mountain peaks, that are twenty or thirty miles away seem so close that you can reach out and touch them.

With a trailhead smack on the shoulder of U.S. 50, albeit somewhat hidden and not announced with a roadside sign, there are often numerous groups found to be hiking up to the lakes to enjoy the scenery, fishing or general salubrious nature of the mountains.  There weren’t many folks out today, perhaps because it was mid-week and late season.  So, after parking the car and leashing the dogs for the crossing of the busy transcontinental highway, we started hiking up the trail through the heavy forest of conifer interspersed with a few stands of aspen.

There is a power line that parallels much of the trail and those same cables can be seen cresting the Great Divide that lies just above the lakes.  These lines seem old and at first I thought they were out of service but now I am not so sure, as there seems to have been some recent maintenance performed.  Perhaps they provide electricity to the small enclave of Whitepine found just over the mountains on the Pacific side.  Therefore, this area is not what one would call pristine wilderness but it is some fairly nice backcountry.

For me, this is an easy hike.  There are stones and cobbles in the trail in places, but overall, it isn’t very steep, climbing a thousand feet in about three miles.  In fact, the hike itself was rather perfunctory.  I certainly enjoyed the spectacle of nature on the way up, but the true gem lies at the end of the trail when it crosses over a small ridge that is probably a terminal moraine and the lake is suddenly there tight up against the foot of a rocky slope.

There are three lakes, but most folks never go to the northern and upper most of them all.  The lake that most folks refer to as the upper lake is the western most and the middle lake is called the lower lake.  I’m not sure what to call this northern lake and wonder if there is a term for it in the parlance of local hikers.  Upon reaching the lower lake, I skirted its shore in a clockwise manner and crossed over the outlet to the western lake.  Most of the water has receded, as the outlet was but a mere trickle and some of the surrounding ponds had become dry.  There are few mosquitoes out at this time of year, another benefit of late season hiking.  There are, however, quite a few insects but as they leave me alone going about their business they are more a source of fascination than trepidation.

This lake is more scenic that the lower lake, and lies directly beneath the crest of the Continental Divide.  This side that I am on, incidentally, drains into the Atlantic ocean.  In the past, I had hiked up a steep slope to gain the divide itself but today I decided to find the northern, upper most lake.  There is no trail directly there and to find this lake would require a bit of dead reckoning and bushwhacking.  I’m guessing from the shape of things in this area that there was glaciation in the last ice age and that that accounts for the lakes’ formation.  There are large chunks of rock strewn out the area, as is common in the Sawatch Range, and I soon found myself scrambling over some of these rock fields.

To get to the northern most lake, I skirted the shore of the western lake counterclockwise so that I began bushwhacking between this lake and the middle one.  I passed by the middle lake some two or three hundred feet above its surface.  I could occasionally see both Bald and Banana Mountains and used them as references to help me navigate my way to the northern lake.  Only having to travel some half a mile to get to this third lake, I was there about twenty minutes after I left the western lake.  This may seem slow, but I was picking my way through forest and having to make frequent slight detours that in aggregate added a bit of mileage and time.

I found this northern lake without too much effort and climbed the hill above it where I could gain a fine view to the east where I could espy the foothills of the Sawatch Range as well as the northern terminus of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  It was a great place to sit and stare out at the world.  After a time relaxing and consuming my snacks, I decided to climb down off my perch and descend towards the lake itself.  Since most of the lake’s shore was marshy there was one place only that offered forest where I felt I could sit and keep my butt dry.  I was surprised but not shocked to find that a fisherman was already there.  Having already spent enough time enjoying this body of water, I left him in peace and proceeded back towards the middle lake, disappearing into the forest.

The hike back was a tad more ambiguous as I had no easy references to guide my way.  I ended up a bit off course, but not enough for any concern since I knew enough about my surroundings that it would be virtually impossible to become lost.  I could become a bit confused but not lost.  Keeping tabs on where the rivulets cut through the rock, I soon found the middle lake and thus the trail that leads back to the trailhead.  I was satisfied with this small foray into the woods and grateful that the San Isabel National Forest manages this land so that it has kept most of its primitive characteristics even though not an official wilderness area.  Another blessed day I have had spent in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and for that I am thankful.

Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Backpacking, Day 4 – September 20, 2015


The South Texas Creek Trail headed towards Cottonwood Pass

I woke up early despite the late night I had spent sitting by the campfire I had made.  It was cold, but the sun’s early warmth quickly warmed up the air after the rays struck the valley.  There was no hurry for me to pack up and hike up to Cottonwood Pass where I had parked the car three days ago.  However, I was fully awake and didn’t relish the prospect of sitting idle, impatiently awaiting my imminent departure from this valley.  So, I rose out of the tent, dressed and began hiking down the trail towards North Texas Creek.

I walked relatively slowly, more interested in touching fronds on the conifers and making detours to the running, clear water of Texas Creek.  The forest is thick, although it does retreat hear and there when it approaches the creek where meadows predominate.  I stroll along for the two-thirds of a mile to the northern branch where I saw a group of bow hunters camping.  There are a few tents but only one person is yet up, sitting by a small warming fire.  We see each other and wave, both also smiling, knowing that we were blessed to be out carousing in the mountains.  Perhaps his comrades are already up and out, seeking their quarry, and this fellow has filled his tag or decided to skip the morning hunt.  He may have even gone out already and come back.  I can presume but I don’t really know.

Regardless, I hike past their camp and then cross North Texas Creek.  I climb up about a tenth or two of a mile up a steep slope and find a clearing that allows for some views of the surrounding geologic defiles.  What I am sitting on is the rubble of the eroded mountains, brought down by North Texas Creek and deposited when that creek left its narrow, steep gulch and entered the much more open and flat valley.  Not a moraine, but evidence of a past larger volume of water than now cascades down from the high peaks.  There are one on each side of the creek, and, as I would expect, the downhill side where I am situate has a larger volume of debris than the uphill.

I stare out at the world from my slightly elevated perch for about half an hour.  Now I am getting a bit hungry, and that sensation urges me to rise and scamper down the slope to rejoin the trail below.  I am not hungry enough for haste, and slowly pick my way back across the wide creek bed of North Texas Creek.  Walking back up the trail, I explore portions of the forest and the banks of Texas Creek, similar to what I did on the hike down.  Within a half an hour I am back at camp and the sunny sky has let in both light and warmth.  I now consciously realize that this is the fourth straight day of nearly perfect weather that I have been blessed with on this backpacking trip.  I can do naught but cease my immediate actions and say a quick prayer of thanksgiving.

This last night was especially rewarding.  Yesterday’s hike was long and tiring and, although I was somewhat disappointed by the crowded shenanigans at Kroenke Lake, this made for a more pleasing and peaceful camp.  Here, while perhaps not as scenic as the classic image of a camp on a lake shore, the sound of the running creek lulled me into an easy sleep after the campfire had ceased its crackling.  Reliving these recent memories, I boiled some water and ate my two packets of oatmeal and drank my solitary cup of black coffee.  A log was my table and my chair was the ground.  A finer breakfast could not have been had.

After satiating my hunger, I retrieved the gear that I had cached from the nearby snag from which I had hung it all.  At this point, there were patches of sunlight striking the forest floor.  Before packing it all up, I took advantage of one such parcel and lay myself out so as to gather in the kindly warmth.  The air was still chill, probably remaining below freezing for the moment.  I stayed in this prone position until the sun had arced enough across the sky and thus consequently had cast me into the shadow.  I rise, the dogs remained curled up not letting their noses leave the sanctity of their warm bosoms and keep a wary eye on me.  Seeing that I am not leaving down the trail for an adventure but rather am proceeding with the ritual of striking camp, they shut their eyes and resume their slumber.

Packing is accomplished in a quick and efficient manner, polished with repetition after a Summer’s season of backpacking.  I gather my staff, adorn the shepherds with their panniers and make one final inspection of the site.  I decide that I have everything and clear camp.  I almost immediately cross Texas Creek, stepping gingerly across a set of nearly immersed stones spanning the width of the stream.  My feet remain blessedly dry, while the dogs splash across with abandon heedless of wet paws.  Up we go!  Four miles along the trail and two thousand feet of elevation gain will bring our group to Cottonwood Pass.  I remember this trail from the way down, and mentally section it off.

The first part is the steep switchbacks that make the initial climb off of the valley floor.  At the top of this, where much of the elevation gain occurs, is the knoll from which a view of Texas Creek is obtainable.  The second part is a less steep climb through the ever sparser forest until it reaches the third part, the long haul through the open alpine tundra where the willow reigns.  The last section is the final climb up to the Cottonwood Pass, at the head of South Texas Creek.  I don’t worry too much about progress regarding this hike, and  I plant one foot in front of the other and let the mechanical process go on with as little conscious input as possible so that my mind can enjoy the spectacle of nature.  The shepherds are a ceaseless fountain of energy and run up and down the trail, following scent, sound and sight.

Especially near and above treeline, the willow and grasses have turned mostly yellow.  The end of Summer and coming on of Autumn are in evidence and I know that there won’t be too many more of these fine days left for me to get out and enjoy hiking in the Rocky Mountains.  Soon, I shall be strapping skis to my boots and looking at a white, crystalline world, swathed in suspended animation.  What else can I do but smile at the deep blue sky, where the sun shines down upon my blessed soul?  That same effulgent light makes the upper basin brilliant with radiant yellowness.  The miles pass almost too quickly; I climb up to the pass and stand atop shaking my head, asking how did I get here so suddenly?  I am surrounded by mighty conical peaks mostly grey but blanketed with a veneer of yellowed tundra.  It is an awe inspiring sight.  One final look, and then the short stroll down to the crowded parking lot.  Most of the folks here are enjoying the easily accessed scenery and I must look like some sort of freak of nature emerging from the wilds.  I garner stares and a couple of different people ask questions about my just completed adventure.  I see flashes of insight in their eyes as I sow the seeds of inspiration.  They, too, may some day find the sought after contentedness that we all seek.  For now, I will be content with the memories generated these last four days and shall relish my hiking in the Sawatch Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Backpacking, Day 3 – September 19, 2015


The connecting ridge between Mounts Harvard and Columbia; hiking up towards the former

I slept soundly, in my new sleeping bag which effectively warded off the night’s chill and cold.  My goal had been to rise before dawn and begin hiking up to the summit of Mount Harvard.  However, I had a bout of indolence overcome me during the waning hours of the dawn and couldn’t bring myself to leave the snug warmth of my shelter.  Nonetheless, I did finally rise out of the comfortable slumber prior to the day’s first rays of sunlight.  Having spent the night in the lower portion of Horn Fork Basin, I was already farther ahead than those folks who would start the ascent to Mount Harvard from a nearby trailhead.  I am a fan also of long day hikes, but there is something nice waking up high in the basin well ahead on the summit intended to be surmounted.

Draco, Leah and I began hiking up the trail through clusters of willow and the last remaining conifers.  Both deciduous and evergreen species were in a diminutive state at this elevation.  Climbing another five hundred feet or so above camp and we had left behind all but the alpine tundra.  The shepherds were in good spirits, as was I, and they skittered about the trail investigating any trace of the rodent life.  Those rodents were all busy making the proverbial last minute preparations for the long winter that would shortly blanket the mountains.

Up and up we climbed, over two thousand feet from camp.  Over boulder strewn ridges, across massive slopes of talus and through meadows were the walking was a bit easier.  Towards the top, the slope became steeper and steeper until I reached a point about fifty feet below the summit.  To get up this I would have had to scramble a bit over some rock and decided to avoid this last challenge.  The shepherds seemed a bit out of their element, as was I, and combined with the strong winds the going seemed a bit hazardous for the dogs especially.  I was disappointed to not make the summit itself, but concluded that this was merely a long scouting trip and I know that I can return to this place anytime I choose, sans canines.

While not as glorious as the summit itself, I was content to view the greater portion of the Sawatch Range from my perch on the shoulder.  I could look south and see Mount Yale and beyond, all the way down to the Sangre de Cristo Range.  Looking north, I could see the Missouri Basin and Mount Belford, where I had stood a week or so ago.  The wind on this high ridge was gusting but the sky was cerulean and clear, a gorgeous day to behold the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  This would be my third day in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area.  Two National Forests administer this wilderness, the San Isabel National Forest on the east and the Gunnison National Forest on the west.  I appreciate my public lands and that they, the wilderness areas especially, have been protected from the bulk of exploitation.  Yet, these lands are under constant threat of development or other spurious actions designed to disengage the public from their rightful use of them.  A vigilant and motivated public is all that stands between the two poles of preservation and destruction, what happens to these lands is clearly decided by the public will.

The dogs and I scramble down the steep slope, following the path of numerous other pilgrims who enjoy the high country.  Because Mount Harvard is one of the many esteemed peaks rising above fourteen thousand feet, it has a certain cachet in the public’s imagination.  I expect to see, and do, numerous groups on the way up and down.  A fine way to spend a day, in my opinion, out among the glories of the mountains.  Down and down we go, retracing our steps back to camp.  Having skipped breakfast initially, although I had brought some snacks along, I was hungry upon return to camp and was grateful for the hot oatmeal and cup of black coffee to assuage my cravings.

I lay down for a quick nap under the warmth of the morning’s sun.  Such a fine setting for that particular undertaking.  The sky overhead, a deep blue interrupted by only a very few patches of clouds, the limits of which were the rocky, serrated ridges of the surrounding Sawatch Range, commanded my visual senses while the scent of Autumn was on the wind.  The rustling sound of the wind animating the nearby conifers also has a certain connotation when combined with the other senses.  Only a few more days left of Summer, Autumn closing in.   I am blessed to be out here in the mountains and forest and laugh at my good found fortune.

Alas, it is time to go.  I pack up camp and bid adieu to this special location.  It’s kind of crowded for a backcountry site and I spent my night within the proximity of two other groups, but I am happy to be here and share the space with others of a like mind.  Down the Horn Fork Trail we go, shepherds with their panniers of dog food and leashes, and me with my backpack and wielding my esteemed hiking staff.  We drop down to the North Fork of Cottonwood Creek where I rejoin the Kroenke Lake Trail.  I decide to not bushwhack downhill due to the fallen timber, facing instead a short increase in mileage and elevation change.  Reaching this junction, it is now an uphill hike to the lake and the unnamed pass beyond.

This trail is especially crowded with  hikers making their way up to Kroenke Lake and I know that that location will be jammed with people having their respite from civilization.  I had initially planned to hike only these few miles and then have a long hike tomorrow, but upon seeing the overflowing crowd on this Saturday night I decide to hike up and over to Browns Pass and then back down Texas Creek to a nice campsite I had noticed a couple of days ago.  I had also contemplated hiking down to Hartenstein Lake and then over a high ridge back to Cottonwood Pass but was unsure about the feasibility of said route.  So, up from Kroenke Lake we went, high up above treeline and thus situated ourselves once again upon the Great Divide.  The gusty wind present the previous day had remained unabated.  The hike over to Browns Pass proved to be challenging but there was nothing to do but endure as I kept my head down and leaned into the squall.

The wind added enough chill that I adorned another layer of protection against heat loss despite the sun’s radiating brilliance.  That high ridge was exposed with no shelter to be found.  Each flurry was a prescient reminder that real storms where to come shortly.  If not today, perhaps tomorrow… but sooner or later, they would come.  Though fierce, these winds weren’t too penetrating below the summits and high ridges of the Sawatch Range.  By the time I had reached the relatively sheltered location of Browns Pass, the winds had abated and were mere breezes.  I studied the view from Browns Pass and took in the majesty of the surrounding peaks, rocky crags reaching up to the sky.  The view to the north created a sensation of floating above Texas Creek to gaze at those mountains.  I still had miles to hike, so I did not linger too long before I started to cruise down the Browns Pass Trail.

Shortly thereafter, I passed by an old mine.  A beautiful setting to have lived, I am nonetheless glad that this relic has been condemned to the past and the area now federally protected.  Down the trail we go, the dogs enjoying the wanderings and perpetual rodent activity.  We drop off the pass and into the forest.  Our view is obscured beyond what trunks are visible and deep in the shadow, our formerly bright world has been shaded.  By the time we reach Texas Creek, the shadows have grown in stature and it is with haste that I must hike if I am to reach the campsite of my desire, tonight.  Also, I must plan for the contingency of prior occupancy and would like a bit of daylight remaining just in case I must find an alternative encampment.  I am gambling that the west side of the divide will be quieter, due to the longer drive necessary to get there from the population centers.

It is still nearly cloudless, and this is why I love this time of year.  There are sometimes large storms that will dominate the weather pattern for days on end, but the alternative is frequently the same days on end of high pressure and its concomitant blue skies.  The hike down Texas Creek is made through the low-angled shafts of the late afternoon’s sunlight.  Long gone are the days of near perpetual sunshine in the weeks surrounding the Summer solstice.  The dusk comes relatively early now, this close to the Equinox.  The vegetation reflects this concurrent decrease in light and warmth and the plants’ chlorophyll production has ceased resulting in the yellow tint found in the willow and aspen, as well as the grasses and forbs.

The hike down the trail is gorgeous, but I am tired after so much walking the past few days.  We reach the campsite, near the junction with the South Texas Creek Trail, and I am overjoyed to find that it is unoccupied.  I lay down my pack and take Draco and Leah and we walk around briefly, checking out the creek and another nearby campsite just in case it should prove to be superior to the one I had already chosen.  It doesn’t and we return to camp and set things up correctly, hanging the food and other scented items from a branch so as to keep the bears from discovering this food source.  It isn’t cool to habituate the bruins to human sources of food as this conditions the bears and may create conflicts that could lead to the bears’ death.

Daylight leaves the mountains just as camp is finished being set up.  There is a fire ring nearby and I decide to make use of it.  This is the third and final night of backpacking here in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and I wish to enjoy the comfort and cheerfulness of a fire.  There is ample wood nearby and I am well out of the zone where a fire could create a nasty scar on the landscape.  I am in no hurry to get to sleep, either.  I have only four miles to hike tomorrow and will enjoy the morning in a leisurely manner when daylight arrives.  So, tonight, I will stay up late and watch the stars while keeping the smoke out of my eyes.  I am blessed this evening to be here, and to live in this place.  When I crossed over from Browns Pass, I returned to the Gunnison National Forest, as well as Gunnison County, and am thus spending the night in familiar settings.  Under a dark sky, pricked with sparkling points of light, shone a sliver of moon.  The orange from the flames creeps out a short distance and then is diminished.  The wood crackles and I prepare my hot supper, Tom’s Camp Stew – ramen, Vienna sausages and canned corn.  I sit on a log, content and satisfied with myself.  My gamble paid off, coming up all sevens, and this setting is serene.  Those flames were long gone by the time I said my final prayers of thanks and crept off to bed.