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.
Fresh green leaves on a currant bush under a blue sky, East Elk Creek
East Elk Creek near the group campground
Looking upstream on East Elk Creek
The valley of East Elk Creek, cottonwood waiting to bud out
A mesa on the west side of East Elk Creek, a bit of snow remaining
Willow and cottonwood on East Elk Creek in late April
A typical scene on East Elk Creek
East Elk Creek on a fine Spring day
Some of the eroded debris that was washed down from the previous year’s thunderstorm
A new gully carved from the soil
The easily eroded breccia, with concomitant hoodoos, from which the rocks came
Hillside above East Elk Creek where the hoodoos are
East Elk Creek below an outcropping of breccia, Leah and Draco on the trail
Rocks suspended upon spires of breccia, on East Elk Creek
Rock suspended upon a pedestal of breccia – a window into time
Log in a vegetative mosaic
Approaching two of my favorite ponderosa
Leah on East Elk Creek
Spruce near Bull Gulch on East Elk Creek
Spruce and aspen on East Elk Creek, near Bull Gulch
Draco on Elk Creek in the meadow near Bull Gulch
Draco returning from a brief foray to East Elk Creek, here impounded by a fallen log
The wall of breccia that divides East Elk Creek, to the left, from Bear Wallow Gulch
Looking head-on at the wall of breccia
Looking up Bear Wallow Gulch at the confluence
Hoodoos above Bear Wallow Gulch
A hint of clouds as Draco and Leah cruise on Bear Wallow Gulch
Snow on Bear Wallow Gulch
Hoodoos and forest on East Elk Creek above Bear Wallow Gulch
The wall of Breccia at Bear Wallow Gulch
A wild crocus on East Elk Creek
Anemone patens, part of Ranunculaceae on East Elk Creek
A small mustard on East Elk Creek
Insect already busily at work on this small Brassicaceae on East Elk Creek
Diminutive but nonetheless beautiful and a sure sign that Spring is on its way
Pinnacles and columns of rock eroded from the West Elk breccia, seen above East Elk Creek
A column of breccia above East Elk Creek
A column of breccia, a common sight on East Elk Creek
East Elk Creek flowing through a grove of cottonwood and willow in late April
Hoodoos and such carved from the breccia on East Elk Creek
Yet another rock suspended on a pedestal of West Elk breccia, above East Elk Creek
Part of one debris field on East Elk Creek
Organic matter along with the inorganic in the debris field on East Elk Creek
The forces of Nature at work on East Elk Creek