This hike has more or less completely faded from my memory with a very few specific exceptions. I do remember taking all these photographs along the trail and at the trailhead as well. I remember the insects in the flowers. I recall how consistently difficult it was to get a good image of the red columbine. Being somewhat unusual in Gunnison County I also remember the clematis vine. I had thought how wonderful it would be to record all the various flowers in bloom – I doubt that I succeeded. I also remember the calypso orchid. I didn’t see anybody else and the day was cloudy but warm. But beyond those few scattered fragments I cannot say much about this specific hike. Now that I think about it, I don’t know if I made it to the trail’s conclusion at West Elk Creek.
The Lion Gulch Trail is a fine hike that ultimately ends at the banks of West Elk Creek deep in the creek’s canyon. That canyon is steeply sided and can be accessed from only a few specific points. Lion Gulch doesn’t drain into West Elk Creek. Rather, it sends its small deluge down to Red Creek. That latter creek is where the hike starts at a small, almost unnoticeable trailhead. The trail immediately passes through Elk Park but only after emerging from a steep-sided gulch. Within that gulch are found numerous of the flowers I saw that day and they were especially prevalent on the north face.
Like much of the West Elk Mountains, especially at higher elevations such as the nine thousand foot mark found here, this small drainage was awash in verdure. The lighter green aspen and meadows combine with the dark forest green of the conifers to create a verdant wonderland. But, oh, those flowers add speckles of color throughout and in all habitats. A riot of color spanning the arc of a rainbow. On this hike, that was what I was seeking.
I found the color in droves. From what I saw when reviewing this set of snapshots the quick list would include the Pea, Geranium, Violet, Buttercup, Parsley, Rose and Sunflower Families. After two miles of hiking, I would have reached the summit of the divide between Red and West Elk Creeks. This would also be the headwaters of Lion Gulch. From this point, the trail would descend the western face of this north to south running ridge through a series of switchbacks. There is no named drainage on the west side, rather the trail winds down a large slope.
On this face in a different habitat, warmer and drier, the flowers changed even thought he colors remained the same. There were a few generalist species that could grow in both locales, but many were specific to a particular habitat. The clematis vine was located here but certainly not on the eastern face of the divide, for example.
What is also interesting about this divide are the two faces that are represented regarding erosion and geology. The eastern face is very smooth and looks much like any type of small gully found throughout the Rocky Mountains. The western face is a gnarly assemblage of hoodoos and spires and fins carved from the igneous West Elk Breccia. The breccia has conglomerated football-sized pieces of rock suspended in a surrounding mass of fine-grained rock that may be volcanic ash. Sometimes a piece of rock will shield the underlying matrix from erosion while the nearby material is washed away. This action can create some stunningly suspended rock set upon a precariously thin pedestal.
There is one fin that is visible from the trail somewhat close up and, in my mind, it looks like an impossibility. The striations indicating perhaps a flow of some sort at its incipient creation also belie a tendency for the rock to crumble at inopportune moments. Much of this formation is off limits to technical climbing due to its unpredictable nature. Upon inspection of this fin the chunks of rock within the breccia are visible. The entire structure looks as though it should crumble to dust at any moment.
It looks as though I didn’t take many snapshots of the surrounding landscape. I know from experience that there are some stunning views to the north on West Elk Creek where the drainage can be followed up to its headwaters below West Elk Mountain, the highest point in the West Elk Mountains. At trail’s end is a nice park-like setting near the creek that is well worthy of a moments repose. An isolated location, deep in a formidable canyon, naps have proven to be a worthwhile venture on other occasions.
As I write this, my thoughts are still geared towards the wintry end of Spring. I hiked in a snowstorm yesterday. Tomorrow will bring about the first day of May and June will be a month away. I am seeing the incipient green forming throughout the basin, but the thought of these flowers must be put on hold for the moment. May is such a fantastic time of change. I am eagerly looking forward to next month’s adventures and blooms. I was blessed to have this day getting out in the flowers and am indeed fortunate to live in such a place of outstanding beauty where solitude and its concomitant equanimity are the norm.