Willow Creek Ski – January 25, 2009


Skiing along Willow Creek

After seven years, there isn’t much left in this imperfect mind of  mine that can accurately recall the details of this outing.  I did not take many digital images and I am not entirely sure how far I went up the drainage of Willow Creek.  This name, Willow Creek, is extremely common and I have counted some half a dozen of them in the Gunnison Country.  To be clear, this Willow Creek is the one that is a tributary of Quartz Creek near Ohio City.  I have said that before and have said the following before, as well:  It is one of my favorite places to ski and explore during the Winter months.

Although this ski took place over seven years ago it is likely that I cruised up to the confluence with East Willow Creek before returning on the same path.  Even then I had established the standard that that particular location was the standard minimum distance that I would travel on any given day that I visited here.  It is possible that I skied further up either East Willow or Willow Creeks, but if I did it has been lost to memory and none of the few images I made reflect anything but the lower portion of Willow Creek.

Willow Creek and environs are public lands managed by the Gunnison National Forest for all people.  This area is part of the Fossil Ridge Management Area and is directly adjacent to the wilderness area of the same name.  When starting out on this ski I can look up the drainage and espy the high ridges that define Fossil Ridge.  Where I was skiing this day, however, I did not get close to the wilderness boundary.  Although technically open to motorized recreation the use by those with machines is fairly low and I don’t believe, as is commonly the case, that I saw nor heard any of them.

I enjoy this ski mostly because of it’s mid-elevation setting.  There are aspen growing  along with sagebrush and some Douglas fir and ponderosa pine.  At eighty-five hundred feet, it may seem high but for this region, where summits tower over fourteen thousand feet, it is somewhat low.  I have been denied skiing here due to minimal snow cover.  This area is also resplendent in weathered granite and might sit on the pediment that was a result of the general uplift that the area experienced after the mountains had already risen above the plains.  Thus, the rock I am seeing is basement rock, having sloughed off the sedimentary rock that had previously laid atop.

This area is also home to much diverse wildlife.  There are herds of deer here, as well as the ubiquitous elk that now inhabit the mountains having been driven off the plains and prairie after settlement.  Bighorn sheep also make their home here although seeing them or their sign is much more rare than that previous ungulates I mentioned.  Part of the reason we all enjoy this area, wildlife and human alike, is that it sits on a southern exposure and thus receives a good dose of warm sun on any given day.  It also has the additional advantage of being somewhat sheltered from the winds that accompany some of the storms, so therefore it is a good place to go visit when the weather is a bit challenging.

There are many fine places to live and exist in this world, but I often feel truly blessed have landed here in the Gunnison Country where we have an abundance of open space.  There are so many hiking and exploring options within an hour of my home that it would take a lifetime to explore them all properly.  Our system of public lands is not perfect, and I daily witness some of the abuses and excesses that tax the land and wildlife, but it is better than not having those lands available.  I thrive where I can roam more or less uninhibitedly, and when I am out on such a Winter’s day, the aspen boles standing starkly against the snow clad hillside, I feel my spirit soaring along with my physical being.  While I don’t remember the details, I am certain that I edified both mind and soul with an awareness not to be found by vicarious experience.

Ski up to Middle Quartz Campground – January 22, 2009


The Palisades of the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad as seen from Middle Quartz Creek on a wintry January day

A Winter’s day, overcast and gray.  I could linger indoors and fret away my life or I could embrace the wintry world with direct contact.  Not liking the implications concomitant with the former option I adopted the latter path.  Thus, I drove myself up to the end of the plowed road that parallels Quartz Creek just beyond the small town of Pitkin, Colorado.  There, I strapped on my ski and toured up the road network.  For the first mile or so of this tour, I was on the snow bound Quartz Creek Road.  This was once upon  a time the roadbed for the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad, a little known narrow gauge railroad that crossed the Rocky Mountains of Colorado with transcontinental ambitions.  It soon failed but left a legacy that is still something of an engineering marvel to behold.

A side road leading up Middle Quartz Creek leaves the old railroad grade cum modern road and follows the grade of the creek.  The old grade climbs a cut on the hillside above.  My track led me along the creek’s edge and through open meadows that allowed a view of the mountains up ahead.  I could see small portions of the main crest of the Sawatch Range which in this area also denotes the Great Divide.  While the railroad brought passengers and freight from long distances away there was also a local trade in stagecoaches and the like.  Also, in the era immediately preceding the arrival of the railroad they would have been the most expedient for of public conveyance to be found.  Therefore, there are some remnants of that era still to be found.

As far as skiing goes, I prefer this route over the cut on the hill above.  I especially enjoy being in the open meadows where I can see the lofty summits rising above the snowy scene.  There is something classic with the snow strewn gray rock rising majestically above the forested valleys.  At the upper end of the larger meadow is a lone snag standing sentinel.  I have admired this keeper of the watch for some years, alone in the mountainous swamp.  The area I am skiing in is a few hundred feet in elevation above and below ten thousand feet.  There is no shortage of snow as all surfaces are covered in the white blanket.  The area is not wilderness, but is part of our precious public lands and is managed by the Gunnison National Forest.

The ski is about five to five and a half miles in each direction.  I was fairly tired by the time I arrived at the campground where there also stands a part of a stagecoach stop.  I found a table in the campground to sit upon and could see out to the Pinnacles, a portion of hand built retaining wall that allowed passage of the railroad grade to pass a nearly sheer cliff.  It is something of a marvel to see, in my humble opinion, an unknown engineering wonder of the world.  It may not seem so now, as it has been inoperative for nearly a hundred years and fallen into obscurity.

Overall,  however, I really appreciated the opportunity to be outside and among the natural wonders that make the Rocky Mountains special.  This area is quiet, much more quiet than the heyday when miners and engineers, speculators and rogues, inhabited the region in a higher and more dispersed density than is found today.  This area is open to motorized recreation, but there aren’t that many folks out regardless and the mountains retain that special feeling that comes with peace and quiet.

Above the campground the avalanche hazard increases so the rational to turn around gains some impetus.  The grade isn’t steep at all, but going downhill creates an ease in glide nonetheless.  The snow is nice and not too icy.  I don’t really remember much about this hike other than a few odd details like the snow condition.  I was impressed with the railroad grade, I would imagine, as I am impressed upon seeing it every time.  This ski is lengthy but an utter joy when the mountains are encountered.

Exact Location Unknown, Perhaps Deep Gulch on Antelope Creek – January 21, 2009


Carbon Peak seen from an unusual angle, perhaps at the headwaters of Deep Gulch

Thus the perils of waiting the seven years between photographic record and annotation.  Here you see before you the results of a slightly addled mind.  I say so only because what is addled is that I let this linger for so long.  Yet, I am constantly surprised by the amount of effort that is required to put into order my collection of digital images.  The writing of this blog can take up an hour or two, but adding the captions on a large collection can take up the same amount, if not more.

I sit in my computer room, for lack of better term, that is the sole space in the upstairs of my house, excepting a couple of small closets.  All of the dogs have made the perilous journey up the rickety flight of stairs to join me.  Even Lady Dog who has three legs lumbered and thumped her way up her.  Now, they are all splayed out in various states of repose.  Consciousness has been lost on the pups and naught is to be heard from them except the soft purr of breath.  Movement is absent beyond the small pulse of the chest that indicates inhalations and exhalations.  Occasionally, a stretch is performed to be followed immediately by a relapse into dormancy.  It’s a good time to write, all else being peaceful.

North of my home in Gunnison is the Ohio Creek drainage.  At the head of the drainage sit the mighty bulwark of Carbon Peak.  A peak could not possibly be more peak-like than this.  Appearing to be a pyramid rising from the earth, gouges cut vertically into its surface and coated with a dusting of snow… it is a scenic wonder that I never cease of celebrating.  Anyhow, I digress, as what I want to relate is that to get to Antelope Creek, it is first more desirable form an access standpoint to drive up Ohio Creek.  Then, there is a small county road that allows access to the ridge that divides Ohio from Antelope Creek.  The Winter trailhead begins at the base of this ridge and I would have skied up and over a small pass and then down into Antelope Creek.

Once in Antelope Creek there are numerous routes to choose from not to mention various cross-country options.  Most likely, I would have followed the small Bureau of Land Management road that ascends Deep Gulch.  I haven’t been over there to hike, ski or explore in quite a few years, I now realize as I sit typing this, but in general the road up Deep Gulch has been my path of choice.  Judging from the images I made, which partly consist of views of Carbon Peak from an unusual angle and Ouray Peak to the east, I was somewhere in the general vicinity.

Once again, I have little to no recollection of this particular ski.  I know I did it because I am looking at the results.  But I can’t tell much beyond that.  The sky looks clear, so I imagine that it was cold but that the chill would have been alleviated by the sun’s rays.  Regardless, I imagine that I had a good ski.  I am fond of the view of Carbon Peak especially that I am seeing when I study my photography from this day.  The peak rising out above a set of rolling hills covered in snow lightly dotted with conifers is a scene that causes palpitations in my heart such do I love the land.

I realize, again, how blessed I am to have such beauty so near at hand, that I can go out and sooth my frayed nerves with Natures’ tonic at a moment’s notice.  These public lands are a blessing to us all whether we choose to make use of them or not.  One of my greatest concerns is the attempt by a few to steal that which belongs to us all.  This must be stopped.  We need more public lands and more wilderness, especially.  The real question is as a society can we learn to share with not only each other but those who truly have no voice, that is, the wild things that live out here where we like to recreate ourselves.

Ski Up to the Meadow Just Below New Dollar Gulch on Gold Creek – January 18, 2009


Fairview Peak seen from the meadows near New Dollar Gulch

Ah, Gold Creek… how many way may I express my appreciation of the tumbling waters and open meadows, swathed in thick conifer forest and lined with aspen and willow?  This is perhaps my favorite place to ski in the Gunnison Country.  I have been skiing here for the better part of a decade and return frequently.  During the seasons when the ground isn’t covered in snow, I can be found here hiking and exploring, climbing peaks and breathing the thin, fresh and invigorating air.  At one time or another, I have scaled each and everyone of the named summits that surround the basin.  That is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much… I just don’t have a map in front of me to verify the claim!

I remember very little to nothing about this particular day.  I have solely one photo from this day and adventure that I find publishable.  It simply proves that I skied up to the meadows just below New Dollar Gulch.  I may have gone further, or perhaps that was as far as I progressed that day.  No matter, this area is so familiar to me that I know what I would have found and appreciated.  The buildings about the Sandy Hook Mine, the open meadows and fine forests would have been just the beginning.  Once at the campground a mile and a half up from the Winter trailhead, I would have gazed up Lamphier Creek, all the while enjoying the towering eminence of Fairview Peak.

There is an old fire lookout atop Fairview Peak, quickly abandoned after it was repeatedly struck by lightening during its inaugural season of usage.  On a clear day this structure can be seen, even when you are thousands of feet below the lofty thirteen thousand foot elevation of the summit.  Once in the meadow below New Dollar Gulch, the summit practically looms above you.  From what I see in this one photo, the day was fairly clear excepting some puffy clouds sailing along laconically.  I imagine it would have been a fine day for skiing.


Fairview Peak seen from the meadows near New Dollar Gulch

Ski on East Elk Creek – January 15, 2009


Looking downstream along East Elk Creek

Isn’t life strange… what more needs to be said than that?  Here I am at home, listening to the Grateful Dead while imbibing large quantities of hot black coffee, churning out word after word on this blog.  This is not how I thought my life would turn out, spending much of my time outdoors, returning home to nurture and tend to my pack of dogs.

Back in 2009, life wasn’t that much different for me.  I had dogs then and I was simultaneously attempting to spend as much of my life outside my house as I could afford.  On this day, now over seven years ago, I decided to visit East Elk Creek, which drains the southern face of the West Elk Mountains.  There are sundry such drainages that do the same, this being one of three or four that carries a large volume.

I really don’t remember much about this particular ski except that I found it crusty and difficult.  Generally, this is one of my favorite areas to hike and explore, being close to my home in Gunnison, Colorado, and offering a fine path into the mountains’ interior.  There are a few small hoodoos formed from the West Elk breccia, a conglomerate of native stone in large, jagged chunks suspended in a matrix of fine volcanic ash; the results of a large, catastrophic eruption some tens of millions of years ago.  Atop this formation lie band after band of igneous rock some of which I believe is basalt.

The flat mesas act as a cap to the underlying breccia as the basalt is significantly more resistant to erosion.  Thus, the canyons are deep and steep, and this one is no different.  All the drainages flowing down from the extinct volcanoes that form the West Elk Mountains merge into the Gunnison River, or rather what was the Gunnison River as it is now dammed and the lowlands inundated into Blue Mesa Reservoir.  I imagine that I would have dwelt on this a bit as I sat on a well-placed cottonwood log, where I could observe my surroundings and eaten a snack or lunch.  I did bring Lady Dog with me on this ski.  I don’t think that Sheeba, my deceased German shepherd accompanied us.  Lady Dog looks spry.  She is now sans her left rear leg and doesn’t get around well enough to go skiing, although she does still enjoy exploring the beaches along the shore of Blue Mesa Reservoir, that stagnant pool of water that I find execrable.  So, although I view the reservoir as an affront to the ecological viability of the region, I do get some benefit from it.

Overall, I didn’t find this a great place to go skiing.  That opinion was so strong that I realize I have never been back during Winter.  I do often visit in Spring, as the canyon melts out early.  I have always enjoyed the transition from cottonwood among the sagebrush to the mixed spruce and aspen forest found some four or five miles upstream.  Perhaps I should revisit that realm during a snowy winter.  I imagine that it is too late for this year, already, as the snows have been melting rapidly from the southern faces as Winter comes to an abrupt end to be replaced by the warmer temperatures of Spring.  I suppose that I should get out and hike here this May when the flowers are out and the grass has greened up a bit.

Oddly enough, I tend to feel a bit of melancholy with Winter’s cessation.  I enjoy the feeling of being ensconced, safe and warm, in a comfortable couch, curled up with a cozy heated pillow that is usually Draco or maybe Leah, my two faithful German shepherds.  It is quiet and I read and write quite a bit, not feeling the pull to be outdoors all the time.   But this melancholy is soon replaced by the realization that the promise made last Autumn is about to be fulfilled.  The plants will return and all will be green and the revelry to follow will celebrate life’s triumph over the protracted dormancy now ceased.  Isn’t life strange!?

Curly Peak Via the Stultz Trail – February 21, 2016


Looking east from the Stultz Trail

Knowing that the snow and cold would be minimal to the east of my home in Gunnison, Colorado, I decided that I would like to visit that relatively warm realm.  So, early in the morning I packed up the car and drove over Monarch Pass and down the Canyon of the Arkansas to the city of Canon City.  Here, I turned south to access the eastern side of the Wet Mountains.  This rugged and little known chain of mountains, much of which is public lands managed by the San Isabel National Forest, doesn’t contain much wilderness yet maintains a wild feel.

I drove far enough out of Canon City to get to the Stultz Trail trailhead.  The Stultz Trail is open to motorized recreation and that worried me a bit, as I am not a fan of having my hiking quietude disrupted by loud and swift machines.  Nonetheless, it was worth the effrontery so that I could walk and hike, and I could always go off-trail into the forest or among rocks where the machines could not follow.

This area, the east side of Curly Peak, is drained by a tributary of Oak Creek, which flows directly into the Arkansas River.  The trail is also known as San Isabel National Forest Trail 1334 and starts at about sixty-nine hundred feet in elevation.  It passes through much scrub oak and low-elevation conifer forest.  I suspect that the rocks in the area are granite that was raised as part of the pediment formed during an uplift after the main chain of the Rocky Mountains had already been lifted.

Most of this trail follows a ridge and the views are expansive.  To the east is the broad horizon of the Great Plains and to the north I could look out across the Arkansas River valley and gaze upon the summit of Pikes Peak.  Naturally, Draco and Leah, my two faithful German shepherds, were oblivious to the view as they were too busy investigating all the smells of the forest.  Although a somewhat hazy day, I was still enthralled by the long distance views.  The horizon above the plains stretched out so far north to south that I felt I could observe the curvature of the Earth!

As we climbed  and gained elevation the vegetation changed from that found in the drier lowlands to that of the high country.  This simply means that aspen began to replace the oak and Douglas fir displaced the ponderosa pine.  There was also more lush grass as we climbed into the higher meadows.  At first, there wasn’t much snow.  A bit of snow had turned into ice on some of the shady aspects of the trail but once I got to about nine thousand feet in elevation the snow had not melted off except where directly exposed to the sun.  Still, it was not deep and the trek was fairly easy.

After about five miles of hiking, I arrived at the end of the Stultz Trail where it joined the Tanner Trial just below Curly Peak.  The north side of the summit was snowbound and the climb up to the summit was something of a challenge.  Most of that challenge was due to the downfall in the forest, but once I found a view to the west the effort was well worth the expenditure of energy.  I could see down into the Wet Mountain Valley and across to the serrated chain of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The haze took a bit away from the view but it was impressive nonetheless.

We returned to the trail and hiked down a short distance to where I had spied a snow-free meadow.  In this warm location we stopped and ate a snack.  I fed the dogs their kibble while I gnawed on an apple, cheese stick and some assorted nuts.  Unfortunately, somebody drove along a nearby trail in a loud machine.  That in itself was bad enough, but they began to shoot off a weapon of some sort.  I am not exactly a gun control advocate, but I do worry about the choices some folks make when shooting.  I am effectively putting my life in the hands of somebody who may not be using the most effective backstop for their target practice.  And the noise and commotion is disturbing.

Looking at the guidebook I have for this area I notice that the trails are all pictured as narrow single tracks.  Now, they are wide enough to accommodate the four-wheeled so-called all-terrain vehicles.  These machines bother me more than the shooting.  They are fast and require little skill in riding them.  Thus, access to many quiet places has been made available to too many people who have no appreciation for what they are destroying.  Trails are widened and hikers, bikers and horseback riders are pushed aside with wanton disregard.  The trails themselves become difficult to hike upon and the erosion that occurs is gruesome.  Dirt bikes, off-road motorcycles, allow access as well but they do require some skill in riding and I don’t generally conflate the two when comparing forms of recreation.  The general lawlessness of users on all-terrain vehicles has reached the point that I believe they ought to be banned on our public lands excepting, perhaps, on roads that are already open to cars and trucks.

After our rest in the meadow the dogs and I returned to the trailhead via the route that we had taken uphill.  Overall, this was a fine hike.  I didn’t see anybody else excepting one mountain biker who was as surprised to see me as I was him.  These mountains are fairly rugged and I was happy to get out into a bit warmer climate for the day.  As someone who loves our wildlands and public spaces in general, I enjoin you, the citizenry at large, to protect them from abuse.  Especially, the effort by some of the selfish people who want to give away our lands to private interests must be stopped.  These lands belong to us all and they should be set aside for future generations as well as those animals and plants that have no voice in our system of government.  Speak up!

Doubleheader: Venture up Gold Creek to New Dollar Gulch and Hike up Quartz Creek – February 20, 2016


A high point on the ridge between North and Middle Quartz Creeks

A blue sky day was at hand.  The car was loaded with the appropriate gear and Draco and Leah, my two faithful German shepherds, hopped on board and the willing engine fired up with alacrity.  I put the machine in gear and with scant effort exerted from my right foot we were headed out east of Gunnison on U.S. 50 towards Parlin and Quartz Creek.  There, at that small way point I would leave the main road and take the narrower secondary highway up to Ohio City and Gold Creek were I would eventually park the car at the winter trailhead.

Once again, I found myself at my favorite place to tour on skis.  I skied up past all my favorite sites while the dogs ran amok, scurrying from tree to tree and flinging themselves on their backs, writhing in the snow like felicitous demons possessed.  Past the old Sandy Hook Mine and the Gold Creek Campground, by now all familiar sights, through the meadows and forest we went, me gliding along as the dogs gamboled about.  I continued up towards New Dollar Gulch which drains the western flank of Fairview Peak.  There had been other folks up here doing the same activity, skiing that is, and they had left a packed trail that made the going easy.

That trail ended at the gulch and from that point onward the dogs had a difficult time making headway through the deep snow that would not support their weight.  I was able to skim across the surface as my mass was distributed on the broad platform that the skis created.  I had hoped to keep going past the end of the road and up towards the unnamed pass with Lottis Creek, but due to the dogs’ floundering and difficulties I decided to turn back and retrace our route back to the trailhead.  On our way out we stopped at the campground to make use of the tables where we could easily enjoy a snack in the warm and salubrious sunshine.

I was unsatisfied, though.  I had really wanted to make a more physical effort, but felt duty bound to my canines’ well-being and thus had curtailed my ski.  I thought about the situation and decided that the best alternative was to drive up to the end of the road at Pitkin.  The road doesn’t actually end at Pitkin, but the Winter maintenance does.  Here I parked the car and, because the road that parallels Quartz Creek is used by snowmobiles, I decide to hike along the packed surface.  This area is also pleasing to my senses.  Dense forests of lodgepole pine swaddle the rugged hills and here and there stands of aspen add a bit of diversity.  Quartz Creek gurgles beneath the snow that mostly covers it and the creek’s path is traced by the dense stands of willow.  Here and there a meadow creates an opening that allows views up and down the valley.

We walked up past the forks where Quartz Creek divides into North and Middle Quartz Creeks.  I could have gone either way, but decided upon the North Fork and continued on until I reached the road the leads up to the old Alpine Tunnel.  This road used to be the bed for the railroad, the Denver, South Park and Pacific, in its initial incarnation.  The tunnel is a marvel to see, but well beyond were I wanted to go today.  As it was, I enjoyed seeing some of the high ridges above treeline, a mottled gray and white where the stone and snow seemingly mix.  The snows are deep here like elsewhere in the basin.  This drainage faces to the southwest and catches some heat, so our walk was pleasantly warm.

Overall, I enjoy this part of the Gunnison Country perhaps more than any other.  It is hard to explain why, but I always feel at home here even if it isn’t as spectacularly scenic as other parts.   There are better wildflowers found elsewhere and more impressive mountains as well, but I often find myself drawn to this corner of the upper Gunnison basin.  It must be something to do with the mosaic of rock and forest, of creek and meadow, that little indescribable something that evades elucidation.  We returned to the car and drove back to Gunnison after our peaceful double outing.  I was sad to leave but know that it is here, waiting, anytime I want to visit.