Visiting the Snow on Quartz Creek above Pitkin – April 28, 2016

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The snowpack on Quartz Creek

April was nearly ended and I wanted to stretch my legs.  Skiing was still possible but the type that I like to do on more or less level surfaces was difficult as the snowpack had softened to the point of decadence.  By this I simply mean that the snow would not bear my weight and any attempt at forward propulsion would be similar to slogging through mashed potatoes.  The overnight temperatures simply were not cold enough to firm up the crystals.  Thus, I continued my nascent hiking season by walking on roads and trails that a month or two ago I had been skiing upon.  I decided that I would like to see the conditions above Pitkin, Colorado and how much barren land there existed.  I had visited this portion of Quartz Creek only once or twice this previous Winter and curiosity prompted this action.

I loaded up the dogs in the back of the station wagon and drove out of Gunnison and on up to the small mountain community located in the foothills of the western slope of the Sawatch Range.  A scant half a mile past town and the County of Gunnison stops its winter plowing and road maintenance.  I pulled a u-turn and parked at this winter trailhead all the while noting how dry the road base appeared.  As I emerged from the car, I drew in a deep breath laden with the scent of the conifer forest.  The dogs paid no heed to that invigorating smell as they were much more concerned with the goings-on of the local rodent population.

I soon found that although the road itself was dry the surrounding countryside was not necessarily so.  Hiking a short distance beyond the orange warning sign, I turned to hike up into Limekiln Gulch, following a narrow two-track as it wound around.  In this shaded recess there was abundant but melting snow.  A small stream gurgled pleasantly as it flowed down through a small aspen grove.  I took note of the surrounding outcroppings of granitic rock and appreciated my standing on the flank of the Rocky Mountain’s core uplift.  I soon found a small meadow that appeared to have been at one point a home to, perhaps, a small lumber mill.  Mostly just trash and refuse at this point, I found a few items of Americana that grabbed my attention.  I rested here as Draco and Leah, my two German shepherd, writhed around in one large patch of snow.  They put on a rousing display of canine jubilation that brought a smile to my face and laughter from my throat.

Snow dissuaded me from further exploration of this small drainage and I soon returned to Quartz Creek and Gunnison National Forest Road 765.  The day had started out warm under blue skies punctuated with large, puffy white clouds that towered up above the mountains.  However, as I hiked up stream the cloud cover became ever heavier and thicker.  The Spring winds also picked up intensity, and stung my cheeks with their sharp blasts.  This was certainly not enough to turn me around and I continued my trek past Middle Quartz Creek along the main stem.  I noted that the true melt off had not begun as the water in Quartz Creek was still low.  Crossing the creek could have been safely accomplished by an easy shin deep wading.  When the snow finally succumbed to the warmth the deluge loosened would make me think twice before crossing many such creeks in the Gunnison Country.

The creek and parallel road turned to the north and as I followed I soon saw the ridge the forms the Great Divide.  This day was a blessing, and I said a prayer of thanks for being here in the bosom of the mountains.  Of course, I thought too about the missing predators that had previously inhabited the mountains before being purposefully extirpated.  I would love to see tracks and other sign of the Grizzly Bear, Ol’ Ephraim, here in Colorado but most folks fret and worry about their own safety to the point where the status quo is upheld.  I truly wish that we could have more landscape scale wildernesses that held all the creatures that they were initially populated with.

I remember two items from this hike that I would like to relate.  First, the bright colors, yellow or red, of the willow bark.  This water loving shrub, along with the nearby aspen, would be budding out soon but for now where still in the throes of Winter dormancy. Still, the bark does add color in an otherwise color-challenged setting and the smell of the willow reminds me that Spring has ascended.  The second recollection of this hike was the distinct line between the receding snowpack and the barren ground upon which I was walking.  Within a hundred feet I had replaced my easy stride with that of a clomping struggle as I plodded through knee and waist deep snow.  Reaching the Quartz Campground I decided that I need not further continue my trek.  I found a patch of open ground under a large conifer and sat down to take in the mountainous scene and consume my victuals.  The dogs ate their kibble that I had hefted up for them and we all sat in quietude mutually enjoying the companionship.

I had dressed warmly and brought along additional layers of clothing to adorn should the weather turn inclement.  What exactly constitutes inclement weather is a matter of judgement, but I stayed warm, dry and comfortable.  I could have sat there feeling the pulsing wind brush my face and listening to the sound of the forest’s swaying as the air mass pushed it to and fro.  Eventually, the dogs became somewhat restless and made it known that they were eager to move about.  There was only one thing to do and that was proceed back downstream from the campground back to the trailhead.  That is exactly what we did, and each step I made was filled with a metaphysical charge as I soaked in the spirit of the Rocky Mountains.  The seasons were changing and soon the white would be replaced with the green, and I am privileged, and grateful, to bear witness to the annually variable scene here in the high country.

Spring Hike to the Divide Between Mill Creek and Home Gulch – April 27, 2016

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Looking out from the aspen forest at the headwaters of Home Gulch towards Cochetopa Dome

As the snows receded up into the higher recesses of the Rocky Mountains my quest for bare soil upon which to hike steadily increased in range.  Still, I had to use a certain amount of caution, or, rather, check my expectations, as a ridge that might appear to be free of snow on south face could still harbor a deep snowpack on the north.  During the melt off, mud is also a factor but more of an annoyance than anything although it too can hinder.

Hiking in non-wilderness areas is always dubious during the Summer months when the woods are crowded with people recreating with machines powered by internal combustion engines.  However, during the Spring months many of the roads are closed so as to prevent disturbance to wildlife as well as to protect the roads from the destruction that would occur should they be used and the soft, muddy surface consequently rutted out.  Thus, this day found me hiking on one such temporarily closed road in the Cochetopa Hills just above the canyon of the same name.

My goal would be to hike up to a place called Mill Park.  A park, in the Rocky Mountains, denotes a location within a forest or wooded area that is free of trees and consists of open grasslands.  Basically, a large meadow surrounded by forest.  I find these places alluring and enjoy visiting them whenever the opportunity arises.  Mill Park, incidentally, lies at the head of Mill Creek.  A common name throughout Colorado, there are many such creeks with that sobriquet in the Gunnison Country where I make my home.  The more well known Mill Creek is located in the Ohio Creek drainage, this one is a tributary to Razor Creek which itself drains into Tomichi Creek, a major tributary to the Gunnison River.

Although I would not visit Razor Creek this day, that drainage plays a role in this hike as I would be hiking under the looming mass of what is known as Razor Creek Dome.  This dome is a laccolith  and thus consists of igneous rock.  A laccolith forms when a mass of magma pushes its way up into the surrounding rock of the Earth’s crust and slowly cools over tens of thousands of years.  Later, the surrounding rock, generally not as durable as the hardened magma, erodes away leaving the dome high above the surrounding country.  This particular dome I have true affection for, as it is readily identifiable from many sundry locations throughout the region and provides a handy navigational tool and aids my own internal spatial recognizance.  However, this day, I recognized straight off that there would be too much snow for an enjoyable hike to the summit.  Besides, having visited the summit before, I accept that the views are limited due to forest growth.

Driving out of the City of Gunnison, Colorado, where I make my home, I left town on U.S. 50 eastbound before making the right turn on Colorado 114.  This curvy road winds around along Cochetopa Creek through the eponymous canyon before emerging into a wide open valley some twenty miles up the road.  I began my hike along Bureau of Land Management Road 3121 in an unnamed tributary of West Pass Creek.  This area is somewhat dry and receives an abundant amount of solar radiation so therefore the landscape is one of grasses and sagebrush with an occasional ponderosa pine finding the proper conditions for growth.  However, at this elevations, about nine thousand feet above sea level, any small ridge will have Douglas fir growing on the north face where snows collect and the shade helps to retain moisture.

It was a gorgeous day for hiking.  A bit of wind and moderate temperatures all made me feel giddy with excitement as I walked up the temporarily closed road, alone except my two hiking companions, Draco and Leah.  The two well trained German shepherds aren’t as restrained as I am when we start our walk and immediately they set out running from one alluring scent to another, each goading the other to further extremes of physical exertion.  This attitude quickly wanes as the first burst of energy is exhausted.  Also, I rein in the canines so as to prevent much disturbance of the local rodent population.  After the first thousand feet we have all established a nice pace for hiking and exploring.

Colorado 114 is lightly traveled so not even highway noises can distract from the natural sounds.  Mostly, that aforementioned sound comes from the whistling wind with some bird calls thrown in.  The Spring birds have commenced their return from Winter habitat and I see more and more robins and mountain bluebirds.  The sun is at my back as I trek along and for that I am grateful as the bright light can overheat even at this temperature.  I look down an note the first green shoots emerging from the warming soil.

A half a mile to two miles on I cross over the political boundary that separates the Interior Department from the Department of Agriculture, in the form of the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service, respectively.  The landscape changes little but I am now on Gunnison National Forest Road 579.  The line is demarcated by a barbed-wire fence that does naught but keep the cattle in place and hinder wildlife during their migration and daily goings-on.  The grasses continue otherwise unimpeded.  I am happy to note that the gate, at least, has been left open for the benefit of the large ungulates that inhabit this area.

Home Gulch entered into a small, unnamed park surrounded by the rumpled contours of the surrounding hillsides.  An increase in elevation also produced a concomitant increase in the density and acreage of the forest which now also began to include groves of aspen.  This area has little interest to most people – no spectacular mountains, no unique geologic features – and I saw little sign of other human beings and what I did see dated to the previous hunting season.  I enjoy the solitude and peace of mind that I find here.

Towards the top of the pass I began to encounter wet areas and the snow patches from which the water had been discharged.  The aspen here on this sunny, wet exposure grow relatively thick and tall.  I reached the pass and with a bit of perturbation realized that the north side was a swath of deep snow that could be trodden through at only a great expenditure of energy.  Mill Park was yet another quarter of a mile on and the snow would only get deeper the farther I went.  I decided to put a hold on my proposed visit and found a dry, sunny perch to sit down upon.  Here I mulled over the quietude and surrounding natural landscape.  My repose was imitated by the canines as they closed their eyes and sat heads upon front paws.

As my rest continued I came to the realization that i was not yet satisfied with the hiking that I had done.  While perusing the map I noticed that with the scant effort of climbing an additional five hundred feet I could gain a perch upon nearby Point 10777.  The south face appeared to be barren of snowpack and I hastily decided that it would not do to not go and have a look around.  Upon making the summit I was rewarded with far reaching views to the north, where Fossil Ridge’s white capped horizon lay, and south towards the northeastern extension of the snowy San Juan Mountains.  This view is more fully realized than that found on nearby and higher Razor Creek Dome.  The additional seven to eight hundred feet of elevation found on that highpoint is enough to cater to a dense, view-obscuring forest.  Here, what growth that occurs does so in a drier climate and is not quite as dense.

I found another perch, almost an aerie, to sit upon and stared out at the world, interested in nothing more than the passing of the clouds.  The Spring breezes blew the vapory masses across the sky with a certain atmospheric alacrity, freshening and hinting at the verdure to come.  Eventually this gracious outlook on life was interrupted by the acknowledgement that civilization and its attendant duties required my attention.

While I was in no hurry to take up the burden of our fast-paced life, I did want to get started.  So, I gathered up my belongings and set the dogs off in front as I walked straight down the hillside and into the thick aspen forest.  I took note of the uniformity of growth in some places and the diversity in age in others.  Later, as I walked down the pass, I visited a few impounded springs where the shepherds gratefully slaked their thirst.  Further down, I hiked up to a small overlook that offered a view of the confluence of Lightening, Rocky and Home Gulches plus a few unnamed defiles.

I didn’t stay long, but did notice that with a bit of effort I could make a loop hike along part of my route.  So, instead of retreating down Home Gulch I hiked up Lightening Gulch on Road 580.1A toward Razor Creek Dome.  This road crested a small flanking ridge of that rocky mass where I gained further geographic comprehension of this country.  The road then looped around and passed into BLM land and transmogrified into BLM Road 3177.  I continued hiking back down another small gully and rejoined Gunnison National Forest Road 579.  From there I walked back to the car, buffeted by the wind and enjoying the pageant of weather.  There are not many outcroppings of rock in this area, but what I did see suggested sedimentary rock and I thought again of the long geologic history of the Rocky Mountains.  A fine day, full of low-key adventure and exploration, had been had and as I drove back home the dogs slept soundly in the back of the car.  My dreams would be filled with tales of hiking, recounting the day.

Short Loop Hike on Magpie and Steer Gulches – April 26, 2016

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Stringers of clouds streaming over Gunnison, Colorado

The turbulent Spring weather continued through late April.  I decided to take the morning off from hiking and left for a short hike in the late afternoon, the goal being to see the evening light.  Roving bands of moisture laden clouds precipitated rain, sleet and snow throughout the valley, but only in isolated patches none of which where in my immediate vicinity.  Of course, the wind blew unabated, sucking the moisture out of the soil and scouring all in its path.  Hiking in such weather builds character.

On the positive side, the wind brings the clean scent of the rain as well as the pungent olfactory sensation emitted by the sagebrush.  The clouds add dimension to the landscape and can create tricks of light that defy description.  The shafts of sunlight streak down from the heavens and rivet my attention.  The world is alive, and in motion, so it would seem.  The scenes change in five minutes, and the feeling is of watching a pageant.

Part of the great sagebrush sea or, more properly, steppe, this area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management out of the Gunnison Field Office.  From mid-March to the Ides of May the area is gated and motorized vehicles are prohibited to use the area.  This is done for the benefit of the Gunnison sage grouse, an imperiled species that has lost habitat and is threatened with extinction.  Nobody knows exactly why the bird has lost so much population since within living memory is was considered to be common.  The suspected culprits are the usual:  mineral extraction, livestock grazing, residential development, recreation, conversion of viable habitat into hay meadow and global climate change.

I drove out from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, to the closure gate where I parked and began hiking up BLM Road 3115.  This small gully is titled Magpie Gulch, magpies being a jay sized member of the corvid family.  Black and white, they are ubiquitous throughout the western United States and are also native to Eurasia.  I continued along, passed by a few vehicles who have keys to the gate because the drivers own or live on private property a few miles away.  A mile plus up the road and I turn onto BLM Road 3116, which continues up Magpie Gulch as the main road continues over a small pass and down into Antelope Creek.

This area is very dry, and I see few plants growing other than the sagebrush.  Partly, that is because I am hiking on an exposed southern face where the sun heats up the soil and evaporates the water.  On the northern faces, cooler and moister, grow Douglas fir and aspen.  I look to the south and see them groves.  Hiking upward, I come across another fork in the road.  I choose the right-hand fork, bearing the appellation BLM Road 3116a, and hike up to the headwaters of Magpie Gulch and Point 9025, a rounded grassy knob that allows fine views of Fossil Ridge and some of the peaks to the north.  I can see Carbon Peak, Flattop, Red Mountain and Whetstone Peak, the last shrouded in clouds.

The road has ended at BLM Road 3116c at a T-intersection and I turn right, again.  I leave Point 9025 and bushwhack down to a small saddle between that highpoint and Point 8680, the latter being my goal.  There are numerous game trails in the area, and someone has laid out some switchbacks up to Point 8680, so the going is fairly easy.  This high eminence is one of my favorite vantage points in this area.  It sits on a precipice of rock, covered with an orange lichen, that allows a stunning view of Ohio Creek and vicinity.  I sit on a cliff a hundred feet high, legs crossed, and gaze out at the wide world around me.  I think of all the people below going about their business as I sit detached from that reality, immersed in my own contemplation about the meaning of life and the majesty of the natural world.  The lichen is bright and adds a bit of surrealism to the scene.

The wind is ferocious.  I pin my hat down so that it isn’t carried off my head and blown over the scarp.  Roving bands of thundershowers continue to menace my equanimity but the spectacle is well worth the preoccupation.  The clouds stream out from behind me, from the west, and pour over the Gunnison County all headed generally east towards the Great Divide.  I watch the extravaganza, entranced as the bilious masses visibly flow across the landscape.  Some peaks are visible and then become obscured as others appear from behind a veil of condensed water floating high above the valley floor.

I sit enthralled until the wind’s chill soaks through my clothing and I become restless.  I hike down to a grove of aspen that I have espied from above.  I assume that there is a spring in this area due to the presence of the aspen, water lovers that they are.  The BLM has bulldozed a small dam to capture some of the water, most likely for the benefit of ranchers.  I wonder if a cost benefit analysis has been done for this project, or whether it was just charged to the public dime.  There is a small marker that identifies the project, done in Nineteen Fifty-Nine, and furthermore denotes this small drainage as Steer Gulch, a sobriquet that does not show up on my map.

Sitting atop a snag is a raven emitting a repetitive series of squawks such that I am enticed to go over and see what the fuss is.  I can determine no reason behind the bird’s outburst and only speculation remains.  Regardless of the motive, the raven’s calling adds life to the scene and I am gratified to see flying creatures going about their business.  I move off downhill back to the car, leaving the corvid to its pursuit, and note the brightly colored robins that have recently returned to the valley.  Yes, it remains chilly, but signs of Spring abound and I am grateful for this day and its wonders.

A Loop Hike on North Parlin Flats and Alder Creek – April 22, 2016

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Alder Creek slowly flowing through a meadow

The snows have been receding up valley as the temperatures rise, but the highest elevations are still clad in their white blanket and the avalanche danger is still potent.  I am more inclined to hike when possible rather than ski, anyhow, and thus this day finds me out in the lower reaches of the foothills where the ground is bare and the grasses, herbs and forbs are sending up new shoots of verdure.

There are a number of challenges to hiking in the lower elevations, especially when I am accompanied by my two German shepherds, Draco and Leah.  I worry about finding them enough water in the sere sagebrush steppe, although at this time of year there may be some snowy cornices that help to alleviate their thirst.  It seems that the dogs must have water about every mile or so before it becomes a crisis in their minds.  Often there is also no shade available so I must plan my hike for the early hours so that even now when it is cooler the canines don’t become overheated.

My major concern, however, has to be wildlife.  Especially during Spring, the ungulates and sage grouse are especially vulnerable to disturbance.  The powers that be ask the public to not hike or otherwise trod upon the landscape before nine in the morning due to the mating activities of the Gunnison sage grouse within their leks.  That bird has just been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service amid much controversy.  However, there is no doubt that their numbers have plummeted over the past few decades.

By nine of the clock, the sun was out and had warmed up the landscape.  The dogs were immediately thirsty but it turns out that there were plenty of puddles on the road I chose to hike along where they could slake their thirst.  I had parked the car at the closure gate near Quartz Creek and began to hike up BLM Road 3103.  The Bureau of Land Management, along with numerous other entities, helps to protect the habitat necessary for the grouse’s future survival.  It is a complicated situation, but everyone from the Federal government to the local county commisioners is involved.

A half of a mile of hiking led us up onto the top of a long mesa.  I was thankful for the puddles and was able to put the dogs’ thirst out of my mind.  I did not allow them to stray from the road on the chance that they would flush some of the grouse.  Besides, I thought that there would be a good chance of seeing some big game in this area and I was proven right some miles later when we happened across a herd of a few dozen elk.  We kept our distance and the dogs became excited at the smells but they never saw them, and as the elk moved south we walked north.

After hiking nearly five miles we crossed the boundary of the Gunnison National Forest.  One last rise brought us to a grove of aspen and some much appreciated shade.  Even though the leaves had yet to bud out, the branches obscured the sun enough that we all felt like enjoying a rest stop.  From this vantage I could see out dozens of miles to the south and southwest.  The mighty San Juan Mountains rise in the distance, towering up to fourteen thousand feet.  I could let my heart soar out over the void between that location and my current eminence.  All the while the dogs’ noses were twitching as they drew in the heady scents of the surrounding forest.  Naturally, the small rodents that abound in the forest were constantly antagonizing the dogs just as the dogs were busy disturbing them.

Although this area is open to mechanized vehicles, but not motorized ones, it receives little use and the area as a whole is blessedly quiet.  While technically not wilderness as defined by law, the land is a type of de facto wilderness during the two months of Spring that the roads are gated and closed.  Watching the land come alive at this time of year is a joy although the weather can be challenging.  This day, like most such, the winds blew constantly and impeded my progress.  Still, it is part of the experience and I should hope not to be dissuaded by this minor tempest.

After our rest, we continued hiking north, gaining elevation until I stopped worrying about the sagebrush and began to worry about the lingering snowpack.  We did descend one small hill the north face of which still bore a bit of snow.  However, my concerns were short lived as I soon found the road that would lead us all down to Alder Creek where it flows several hundred feet below my then current location.

The only real change that occurred was that the creek bottom provides habitat for cottonwoods, willow and a number of other deciduous species that require the constant flow of water to live and grow.  The sagebrush still grows on the hillsides that flank the creek, but is overtaken by the grasses where the water table is high enough.  This area is also home to a population of beaver and their dams and lodges can be seen throughout the drainage.  Their busy activities are also evident along the hillsides were aspen and such have been felled and the stumps and logs show the residual gouges of the large rodents’ gnawing.

This area is pleasant, and the view upstream towards Fossil Ridge and its towering peaks epitomizes the Rocky Mountains.  The peaks remain snow-capped and glisten in the strong sunlight.  Although I was walking downstream away from the sight I often found myself turning around to gaze at the spectacle.  Another hour plus of hiking found me at the road that would lead me back up to the mesa above from which I had earlier descended.  Along the way, I took note of every singe defile and gully, and the vegetative state of such.  Some were dry and grew nothing but the obligatory sagebrush while others had some water as denoted by the willow and aspen.   I couldn’t continue downstream and exit back to my car under pain of citation for trespassing as the land is private.  No matter, climbing back up to the heights was a sort of coda that helped to reacquaint me with the wide open vistas that I so cherish.  Along the way, the various rock outcroppings also educate the observant about the history of our planet.

My emergence onto the mesa also reacquainted me with winds that continued howling.  They had been subdued when I was in the protected canyon but they had never stopped sweeping across the flat and exposed landscape above.  These winds add to the sun’s exposure to keep the land dry and help to create the sagebrush’s habitat.  Numerous other species rely on this habitat to make their home, although we humans seem to find the sagebrush steppe boring if not outright offensive.  Boring because nothing much seems to happen there, especially for folks who need constant stimulation.  Offensive because some people value land only if it is economically productive.  While it can be challenging to walk across, I think of all the beauty that it creates.  Phlox and paintbrush in the Spring bring a color and beauty, and sitting down in a big expanse of the sage will eventually bring forth sightings of various species of wildlife, both big and small.  And is there anything more stimulating to the olfactory senses than the smell of sage after a rain?

Humanity has now managed to impact every square foot of the planet Earth’s surface and most of what lays beneath the ocean’s surface.  We have won, we have subdued the natural world to our whim, we have converted most native landscapes to our needs.  Shouldn’t we leave some of it for the other critters that share the planet with us?  Those are my thoughts as I walk across the land, when I smell the fresh Earth, and see sign of the wild ones.  Of course, we all want a good life, but I believe we need to balance the effects of our degrading so much habitat with limiting our activities elsewhere, by drawing a line in the sand and saying no more.  We need to preserve what little remains, and perhaps boldly add to it.  Sometimes I feel like a mote when I look out on the vastness of the Rocky Mountains, but I also realize that with the Earth teeming with over seven billion people that conversations need to be held on how to limit our burgeoning population and every increasing consumer needs.   Remaining silent is no longer an option.

East Elk Creek *Classic* Hike, or What a Difference a Day Makes – April 21, 2016

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Pinnacles and columns of rock eroded from the West Elk breccia, seen above East Elk Creek

Oh, my!  What a difference a day makes!  Nearly the entire previous week had been one of spring storms and dramatic snowfall.  See, for example, my trip up to Boulder, on the Front Range of Colorado, where snowfall totals were in the vicinity of two to three feet.  The previous day I had made a ski at my favorite area up in Gold Creek due to the locally abundant snowfall in the Gunnison Country.  But now, today, the day dawned clear and bright, blue sky uninterrupted by so much as a hint of cloudiness.  Most of the lower elevation snows had already melted due to the warmth of the earth and soil, and as I looked out the window I realized that there was nothing short of catastrophe that could hold me back from hiking out in the woods that I so revel in.

I had a relaxed morning, making coffee and breakfast and consuming the spartan meal while writing and editing my blog.  My only real concern with the day’s activity was deciding exactly where I should go.  I realized that I had not visited East Elk Creek in a year or so and thus decided that I would do so today.  I love the hike, and consider it to be one of my classic early season locales to explore.  The south facing drainage often melts out early and I was fairly certain that I would find salubrious conditions for hiking there.

I drove out to the group campsite managed by Curecanti National Recreation Area and the National Park Service where I typically park my car to begin this hike.  Immediately I noticed that something had changed.  The willows and cottonwood that had been previously found in this area were all missing and I was initially upset that some bureaucrat had decided that they were a nuisance and should be removed.  Realizing that it was too late to do much about the situation I let it go and began hiking.

The first thing I saw was new leaves on a currant bush and was amazed that such a transition from the snowy weather to this warm day could take place along with new budding out of greenery.  That brought a smile to my face as I climbed up to the ditch above.  I could follow the road for the first mile but it crosses East Elk Creek a couple of times and is something of a nuisance to walk along, so I have resorted to using the bank of an old irrigation ditch as a trail.  This route requires a climb up a steep, crumbly hillside but is worth the effort for not having to cross the creek twice in a short distance.

This irrigation ditch is maintained, I believe, by the National Park Service.  What made an impression on me was that there were numerous locations where eroded debris from the hillsides above had washed down into the ditch effectively clogging it.  I continued hiking up valley until the ditch rejoined the road, closed to vehicular traffic at this point, and kept walking.  I love this hike, warm and quiet, with mesas of basalt towering above… and now, Spring having tentatively arrived, green things beginning to get greener.

A short distance later I realized how different this area was from my previous visit.  Along a mile long stretch I found one blown out gully after another.  Huge amounts of rock had been swept down, out of the hills, and into the relatively flat creek bottom.  Suddenly, I realized that some bureaucrat had not decided to remove the willows and cottonwood – Mother Nature had, and I faintly recalled that there had been reports of an epic thunderstorm in this vicinity the previous Summer.  Indeed, the amount of debris was staggering.  I wonder if the Park Service will clear the ditch or if it will be retired.

The breccia erodes easily and the collected waters had brought down large amount of the rock.  Formed from explosive volcanic eruptions, breccia contains chunks of large, angular and unsorted (in size) rock suspended in a finer matrix that is usually some sort of volcanic ash.  This rock is angular because it was blown apart and never had water to round off the rough edges.  Here, though, these rocks were being exposed for the first time to the powers of aquatic erosion.  The rough edges are still there, as it will take many thousands of years to wear them down into rounded river rocks.  However, what I found interesting was that rocks were finally being sorted into different class sizes based upon the ability of the water flow to transport them.

I hiked up some four miles or so, the sagebrush and cottonwood giving way to spruce and aspen as the elevation increased.  Along the way I passed a couple of my favorite ponderosa pine and generally enjoyed the spectacle of the various hoodoos and spires of rock found here and carved out of the breccia by erosion.  My goal was to hike up to Bear Wallow Gulch and then hike up that drainage another mile or two.

The day was so fine.  Cool, but with the sunny warmth at my back… and no wind.  Truly, a blessed day.  Despite crossing the imaginary boundaries of four different political land management agencies, I put the thoughts of the modern world aside as I reveled in Nature’s bounty and wonder.  The water cascading down East Elk Creek, not quite swollen as it would be in the coming weeks with the snow melt, sang me a song as I hiked upstream.  The willow, yellow bark here, some red bark there denoting different species, not yet budded out like most of the deciduous species, but showing sings that the leaves were soon to be forthcoming.  Oh, glorious day!  Robins and juncos added their own happy sounds, and I found myself contented and relaxed.

At the confluence of the two aforementioned drainages is a wall of breccia, so narrow that it appears two dimensional.  From downstream, looking at it along a line that would divide the wall into two sheets, it at first appears to be another spire of rock.  It isn’t until I walk upstream a bit to realize that the spire is indeed just the end of this cliff of rock the runs back several hundred feet.  Here is located a nice mountain meadow, open and flat space that is a rarity in the increasingly narrow canyon.  I have camped here in the past and frequently have stopped here for a meal or snack while hiking.  Today, I stopped briefly, and then continued up the right hand drainage.

The aspect of my hike changed and I was no longer hiking on a southern face where the snows were easily melted.  The tall aspen found in Bear Wallow Gulch, although without leaves, managed to blot out the warming sun from striking the ground and that combined with the cooler temperatures found at this higher elevation to keep the snow in place.  The fresh snow in this drainage didn’t add up to much, a couple of inches at most, but did make the hiking suddenly muddy, slippery and somewhat precarious.  The latter was especially true since the trail I was following is not maintained but is simply a route used by some very few humans and many ungulates.  I didn’t hike more than a mile upstream before deciding that I wanted to turn around and seek the relative comfort of the lower country with its greening grasses.  I had had enough of snow recently and didn’t like the prospect of slipping in the mud and injuring myself.

I was thrilled to find early season flowers in East Elk Creek.  I took photographs of some type of mustard or Brassicaceae.  There were also Pasqueflowers growing, their large, mauve petals centered with a bright yellow accumulation of stamens.  The exterior parts of this flower are covered with protective fuzz that keeps the chill off at night.  Part of the Buttercup Family, or Ranunculaceae, these flowers have many common names and have been repeatedly renamed scientifically but the most current accepted term seems to be Anemone patens.  Regardless of the name, they are a beauty to behold and bring cheer to any Spring day.

I had seen what I came for, had enjoyed a marvelous Spring day the likes of which are rare in these parts, and had generally reveled in the cheery auspices of Nature’s wealth.  Draco and Leah, my two faithful German shepherds, had accompanied me on this hike and they, too, were in good spirits.  We walked back downstream, past Bull Gulch where another fine meadow exists at the confluence, and as I revisited the sights they investigated any purported sign of small, squeaky rodents that were becoming increasingly abundant with the rising temperatures.  I stopped near the trailhead to reexamine the blowouts and the concomitant eroded debris.

It is a blessing to live so close to so much natural wonder and beauty.  I am reminded that the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service and Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife all keep this area open for public use.  I am frightened by what some members of the Republican party want to do with our public lands, namely devolve the responsibility for them away from the Federal government.  The problem with this is that many states would succumb to the whims of industry and the eventual destruction of these ecosystems.  The lands would become privatized and the public would no longer be allowed to hike, ride bikes and horse, camp, fish, hunt or generally explore unfettered as we do now.  Imagine if every time you wanted to go for a walk you would have to ask permission to do so.  I am indeed blessed to pursue my own whimsy and cherish the ability to do so.  I hope you help me stop this coming political storm and save these lands for not only the wildlife that needs the unmolested habitat but also for the future generations of unborn humanity that will need the recuperative forces of Nature to bring about calm in an increasingly busy world.

Spring Ski on Gold Creek Beyond New Dollar Gulch – April 20, 2016

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Gold Creek on a snowy day near New Dollar Gulch

Mid-April changes into late April and the snows kept falling.  My hiking season, nascent in inception, had to be put on hold as I waxed the skis and strapped them onto my feet for yet another adventure on Gold Creek, my favorite place to enjoy the winter wonderland that is the Gunnison Country.

The storms that had precipitated so much snow on the Front Range and throughout the state continued to impact my home county as the day dawned cloudy with active snowfall.  I rose fairly early and decided that the only proper thing to do was to head up to the high country and explore the snowy results of this storm system.  The new overnight accumulation was not that heavy, merely a few inches of snow piled up, but it did lend the beauty to the old, deteriorated snow.

Of course, I parked at the winter trailhead below the old Sandy Hook Mine and let the dogs out of the car after driving out from my home in Gunnison, Colorado.  The county has abundant public lands and this area is managed by the Gunnison National Forest for multiple use.  While technically not a wilderness, as over the snow machines are allowed to use the same road that I ski on, it is generally very quiet and I knew that it would be unlikely that I would see or hear any other people on this day.  This late into the season many foks, all but the most die-hard like myself, are fairly tired of the snow and would rather stay indoors in such inclement weather.

My two canines, Draco and Leah, love the snow and, as is their wont, practically leaped out of the automobile as soon as I opened the door.  They ran amok in the parking area, skittering from one scent post to another all the while adding their own relevant mark as I gathered my gear and put on my skis.  Soon we were headed up the trail.  What became immediately apparent was that the dogs could not really leave the packed base of the trail and head out into the forest because they would wallow in the deep, uncompacted snow.  This was also the reason that I left fairly early in the day – I did not want to ski in snow later in the day when it might partially melt and lose its ability to bear weight.

It was difficult to believe that just the prior week I had walked along this same road due to the incipient melting of the snow pack.  Indeed, it appeared as if time had moved backwards into Winter. The day was gray with cloud cover and snowfall.  The branches of the conifers all bore the burden of accumulated snow.  The only real difference was the temperature.  Today was a bit warmer than it would have been had I skied in January.

Up the road we went, past the campground that I am so fond of as a place to rest and eat a snack.  We continued past the trailhead to Lamphier Lake and continued onward to the open meadow where New Dollar Gulch confluences with Gold Creek.  The road crosses the latter over a culvert and we continued onward past the road that leads up the former.  Here, at this point, the compacted snow ended.  Not too many folks ventured up this far during the Winter months and the dogs began to flounder as they sank up their bellies.  My skis kept me aloft and I broke trail but the canines were still struggling to get through.

I was feeling good and wanted to keep on skiing high up into the valley towards the headwaters of Gold Creek at Shaw Ridge.  However, it soon became apparent that Draco and Leah would just wear themselves out as they attempted to leap through the heavy snow.  We kept going for a while until we reached the end of the road where the Gold Creek Trail, also known as Gunnison National Forest Trail 427, began.  This may have been prudent in any case as the avalanche hazard increases significantly beyond this point.  To avoid trouble I would have had to swing out away from the trail and into the valley bottom where safety could be more assured.  Regardless of my route, the dogs would have had trouble so we turned around and headed back downstream.

Off to work!  I’ll write more later and post pictures, too.

We didn’t go very far until I reached my secondary lunch and break spot.  As aforementioned, I generally like to stop at the campground and use one of the tables to eat and relax at, but when I come this far up the drainage I have a special log that is well suited to sitting upon and here I took a break.  I pushed aside some snow so as to have a dry place to sit and then slid my skis under the log before perching my derriere upon the fallen bole.  The clouds had began to clear from the sky and occasional rays of sunshine peeked through to illuminate the forest.  I sat, contentedly, munching on a snack all the while marveling at the majesty of this mountain day.

The remainder of the ski was fairly standard for this route.  I returned down the Gold Creek Road past the campground and the old Sandy Hook Mine, skiing along with equanimity and composure.  My plan to leave early in the morning worked well, as the sun began to heat up the snow to the point where it stuck to my skis.  This phenomena is highly irritating as it impedes the glide that makes a downhill ski so charming.  Nonetheless, I was able to return to the trailhead before the temperatures heated up too much.  Soon, Summer would arrive with its warmth and grace.  For now, I contented myself with this late season snow and enjoyed the crystalline beauty.  What a blessing it is to live here, where a soul can get out and revel in Nature’s wonder.

A Walk Around Kenosha Pass – April 18, 2016

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Hoarfrost on aspen and grass near Kenosha Pass

After having spent the weekend at friends’ house in Boulder, Colorado, during an epic Spring snowstorm, the time arrived for me to return to my home in Gunnison.  I was worried that snow would be clogging the highways and simultaneously wanted to avoid the Monday morning commuter traffic so I departed at about six just as the dawn was being made ready by the sun’s imminent rising.  The snow, it turned out, I needn’t have worried about.  Despite the immense volume dropped the warm nature of the storm caused much of the snow to melt and what could have been a catastrophic metro nightmare was not much of a menace at all.

I was, however, happy to have left early nonetheless as the traffic during the morning rush hour has steadily deteriorated during the last two and a half decades that I have lived in and visited the Denver metropolitan area.  After making the critical journey to Golden along Colorado 93, the proverbial bottleneck, I drove down Colfax Avenue to have breakfast at my favorite joint for that meal, Davie’s Chuckwagaon, an old style chrome plated diner replete with functioning neon sign.  At this point I was not worried since I would be henceforth moving outbound while most others would be traveling inbound.

As I left the metro area on U.S. 285, I steadily climbed up into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  Denver, despite its proximity to the mountains, is really a plains city although some might be offended by that appellation.  As the elevation increased so did the snowfall totals, as would be expected.  However, after a certain point, the snow pack began to diminish.  Thus, the upslope storm.  Unlike much of the moisture, especially on the Western Slope, that is deposited on the state and enters from the west or southwest, the upslope storm arrives from the southeast, out of the Gulf of Mexico.  As this storm arrived into Colorado, it precipitated its moisture when it struck the rampart of the Rocky Mountain’s eastern face and subsequently lost strength as it crested the tall ridges that make up the Great Divide.

By the time I arrived at Kenosha Pass, a gap in the mountains that separates the North and South Forks of the South Platte River, the total accumulation was significantly less than that found at lower elevations to the east from whence I came.  More interesting to me was the hoarfrost that coated the aspen and grasses.  These needle like ice crystals that form from water vapor during still nights are a fascination to behold and I never tire of seeing the spectacle played out on whatever surface they adhere to.  I parked the car and walked out to the east, towards the campground managed by the Pike National Forest found there, and stretched my legs while admiring this crystalline display.

I continued my drive home shortly thereafter, fresh snow my constant companion.  It was hard to believe that we were nearly a month into Spring when the world was a never ending landscape of white and gray.  However, I also knew that this snow would not last and the first direct sunlight would immediately cause its dissipation.  The thing about these late season snow storms, regardless of their ferocity, is that they never last long.  Had this storm occurred during January it could have been expected that snow would be on the ground for months to come.  At the highest elevations above ten thousand feet this snow would linger for some time, but for the most part this storm would only last in the minds of the people who experienced it first hand.

I arrived home in the early afternoon, well within the time frame necessary for me to retrieve the canines from the kennel.  During the time I was in Boulder, my host and I went shopping for hiking and backpacking gear.  I came home with a bounty of new gadgets and upgrades and was ready to try them out.  But that would have to wait a bit.  There was fresh snow in the area and my hiking season would have to wait a bit longer while I still got out and skied a bit.  Yes, life can be a challenge but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing!