Spring time in the Rocky Mountains. The winds blow remorselessly, only ceasing, sometimes, when the sun sinks low enough to desist in producing the convection currents that keep the atmosphere stirring. The snows still cling to the high country, melting under the increasing heat as the rivers and creeks simultaneously swell with the liquid result. Finding a place to hike presents a challenge as in most places snows are too deep and soft to traverse and in others a swollen and swift stream may create an impassable obstacle. For those reasons I often hike in the sere sagebrush steppe where water is scarce and the snows vacant.
Generally, I tend to begin my hikes during the morning but I decided that today I would prefer to leave in mid-afternoon and finish my hike in the evening. It is hard to predict but sometimes the result rewards the intrepid hiker with spectacular color. I would also say, on the spiritual side, that the sunset, being one of two times of crepuscular light, is a sacred and holy moment in the day’s passage. Twilight, regardless of whether being dusk or dawn, affects me this way.
The land that I was hiking on is managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management out of the regional Gunnison Field Office. This area is open to motorized vehicles and cannot be considered wilderness although the land does host much wildlife. The sagebrush steppe provides fantastic winter habitat for deer and elk as well as year round habitat for the species that are dependent on the sagebrush for survival. One such creature is the Gunnison sagegrouse, a species that is in peril. For this reason the lands that I visited today are closed to motorized use from the Ides of March through the same for May so as to prevent disturbance to the leks that the grouse use for their courtship and breeding activities.
Starting off of Colorado 114, I began by walking up BLM Road 3076 along an unnamed gulch that terminates near what is shown on the topographic map as Valdez Spring. Once I left the gulch I was greeted by a large grassy meadow above which reared Point 8587. The dogs, Draco and Leah – my two faithful hiking companions – and I climbed up to the summit where we could see for miles in every direction. The Sawatch Range is not too distant nor are the Cochetopa Hills, both of which constitute part of the Great Divide. The former consists of the lofty, jagged peaks that most folks associate with the Colorado Rocky Mountains while the latter are composed of rolling, but rugged, hills covered in a dense forest.
Typical of Spring time in the Rocky Mountains, the winds were blowing fiercely. The gusts must have been close to forty miles an hour. The winds desiccate what is already a dry landscape and I drank plenty of water to keep me hydrated. Fortunately, although most of the snow had melted from the landscape, there remained remnants of cornices and fields of snow on the north side of the gullies and slopes from which the dogs could slake their thirst. This little to no surface water available anywhere nearby.
At this point I had done what I had wanted to do. Namely, that I had climbed up to a high point from which I could let my gaze wander about as I took in the landscape. To the north, about a mile away, lay Point 8718. It hadn’t taken so much as an hour to reach this first summit and I decided that we had plenty of time to hike down from this eminence and then up to the next. On the north side of Point 8587 resides a grove of Douglas fir along with the seasonally concomitant patch of snow. We, the canines and I, sauntered down through the thin forest were they could slurp up slushy snow and I could revel among the trees. Due to the vulnerability of the wildlife at this time of year I kept the dogs close by so that we would minimally disturb any nearby wildlife.
Jaunting off across the flat lands between the two heights we strode along, exposed to the wind’s fury. I delighted in the texture of the land as it demarcates the differences in vegetation communities. Mostly I was looking at the huge swaths of sagebrush, but here and there for whatever reason, they are interrupted with meadows of grass. Were the snow collects during winter grow groves of Douglas fir and aspen, the densities of both increasing with elevation up to a certain point.
Point 8718 lies atop a broad mesa as opposed to Point 8587, from which I had just descended, which is more of a single point at the top of a conical mound of earth. This broad mesa is one of many in the area and are all remnants of ancient lava flows dating back some tens of millions of years. This particular mesa has three lobes to it, and this high point lies on the northern extrusion. Climbing up to it involved a bit of scrambling over the basaltic cap rock, through brush that likes to snag clothing. Once atop the mesa I decided to hike over to the eastern lobe from which I hoped to be a bit more sheltered from the raging winds, blowing from the west, and also to gain a good view of the surrounding lands.
This land has been shaped by volcanic and subterranean forces. If not by flowing lava and spewing ash, then by swells of magma that have pushed their way up, deforming the landscape around them without actually breaching the rock. Often, after the pool of magma has slowly cooled, the layers that were previously overburden erode away leaving the now cooled magma exposed as a solid core of igneous rock. Thus are born batholiths, and this area is home to many such. To my north lay Tomichi Dome and to my south rises Razor Creek Dome, two prominent examples.
My idea of finding a lee slope from which I could temporarily escape the blasting wind was a fine thought but proved to be more difficult to execute into reality. The problem was that most of the lee slopes still had cornices of snow and finding a decent place to sit was challenging. I did find a wall of stone built by someone wanting to sit and observe the valley below and made good use of it. Here I could sit in relative comfort and watch the various clouds sail across the sky, pushed by the relentless winds. Writing now, in July when all is warm, I easily forget how cold those winds were.
I then walked down from the mesa accessing BLM Road 3076d1 to the north. Before continuing on my way and returning to the south, I made a quick and short ascent of an isolated mesa separated from that upon which sits Point 8718. This viewpoint, denoted as Point 8696 on the quadrangle published by the United States Geologic Survey, allows some fine views of Parlin Flats, Fossil Ridge, Cochetopa Dome and the Sawatch Range. The Bureau of Land Management has cataloged most of the roads in the area and has furthermore close some of the more damaging and redundant. This is gratifying to see as each mile of road allows for a certain amount degradation of the wildlife habitat. I used one such closed road to loop back around the eastern flank of the mesa so that I was hiking back towards the south. Reaching BLM Road 3076 I trekked along that until I reached BLM Road 3080. This latter road runs south past the eastern flank of Point 8587 and I thought that it would be fun and edifying to make a loop around the high point that I had first ascended earlier in the day.
As I strode along the seasonally little used road through the sagebrush sea I realized that I could challenge myself further by climbing up to Point 8591 just as the sun was beginning its final descent towards the horizon. I just could not resist climbing up to another high point to stare out over this amazing landscape. Glumly I thought that I would not have enough light left in the day to accomplish this last bit of exploration and that maybe I was pushing things too far. Then I said to myself “Nonsense, there is plenty of time left in the day to seize the moment”. Thus, I cut across from the road to catch a ridge that leads up to this final highpoint.
Here lay my great reward. As the sun approached the horizon it filled the air with a surreal golden light. Not only that, but as the sun set and took its warmth along with it the winds abated and I was left suddenly in a stillness punctuated by the brilliant yellow shafts of nearly horizontal light found only at the crepuscular times. I win again! I was in awe and felt elated at my good fortune to be so rewarded. I knew now that I still had about a mile and half to hike before I returned to my waiting automobile, and as the sun descended below the horizon I made haste to pack up my belongings and head back to the car.
I walked back through the sagebrush and along BLM Road 3080b, south of Point 8587. The unnamed gully which I had originally ascended I now descended in the twilight’s last gleaming. It is a magical thing to witness, the gloaming over a wild landscape. As I passed beneath the cottonwood that grow along the low points in the gulch I notice the first quarter moon already high in the sky shining down on me and the dogs. Having the heavenly night light guiding the way added a special coda to this hike, one which reaffirmed my belief that we need these open landscapes and quiet places just as much as the bustling urban centers that fill so much of our lives.