Hike from Ninemile Hill to Cebolla Creek – May 11, 2016

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Copse of aspen silhouetted against sunlit clouds above Wolf Creek

As Colorado 149 heads southbound from U.S. 50, the junction being about eight miles west of my home in Gunnison, it first skirts the eastern end of Blue Mesa Reservoir before making a steady climb up to Ninemile Hill.  This summit sits atop a ridge that divides the eastern drainages of Cebolla Creek from the minor southern tributaries of the Gunnison River.  Cebolla Creek is a relatively major tributary of the aforementioned river and runs southeast to and then behind the Powderhorn Country.  The southern portion of the creek I have explored at times but I had never before investigated the canyon of the northern portion where it runs through many of the basalt mesas formed during an intense period of volcanic activity nearly thirty million years ago.

After my drive from home, along with my two trusty German shepherd companions Draco and Leah, I parked the old Subaru on a wide spot where snow plows and other maintenance vehicles turn around.  This land is managed by the Gunnison Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management and I would hike on BLM Road 3038.  This road was still gated and closed to motorized use to protect a number of resources during the fragile Spring months.  In a sense, I would trek across de facto wilderness, but the road and most others in the areas were slated to be opened to motorized use on the fifteenth of May, so, alas, this would be one of the last chances to enjoy the quietude of this particular landscape.

Hiking along the two-track, we followed the ridge northwest for about a mile and a half before the road dipped into one of the drainages of Wolf Creek.  The dogs were delighted with the slight trickle of water found in the otherwise sere landscape and instantly slaked their thirst.  Sagebrush growing throughout the range indicates the general dry nature of this realm, although it does consequently create good Winter and Spring habitat for many species of wildlife.  That is one reason why the road is closed during this time of year, specifically to help the Gunnison sage grouse, a relatively recently imperiled bird that was within recent memory considered abundant.

Once again, as typifies Spring, the wind blew continuously and numerous clouds sailed overhead.  It would be unlikely that thunderstorms would develop in such conditions, but I nonetheless kept a wary eye out.  As Wolf Creek fell away, the road kept a constant contour on the south side of the dividing ridge and I soon espied the canyon of Cebolla Creek.  Two more miles of hiking and I would find myself on an overlook into said canyon.  I didn’t plan on descending into the canyon itself because the bottom lands are all private property.  Regardless, prior to wandering out towards the great defile, I hiked up to a gap in the ridge where I could look north and take a gander at the West Elk Mountains, the snow clad peaks of which forms the northern horizon.  This is tough country, sparse in vegetation and desiccated by the wind and sun.  Still, the rocky mesas create a scenery that is grand and serene.

Prior to hiking to the gap I saw a group of cabins sitting in the middle of a great expanse of sagebrush.  After my visit to the gap I descended the slope towards Cebolla Creek and stopped to investigate the dilapidated ruins.  One structure consisted of an old cabin that had become a habitat for pack rats and was filled with detritus of all sorts.  Another seemed to be a shed, but neither was really worth the effort.  To complete the scene there was an old car turned upside down, resting on its hood.  I was happy to leave the remains in place and quickly left to pursue and enjoy the natural wonders found throughout the realm.

I finally reached the pinnacle that I had been seeing for much of the last two miles of hiking.  From here I could see the bottom lands of Cebolla Creek, the grass retaining the dull yellow color of the previous year’s growth although a bit of green could be seen.  Even at a distance the lushness was readily apparent, and willow and cottonwood completed the impression of a fine riparian habitat.  I found the area well worth the effort of the hike and sat contemplating the marvels, both extraordinary and commonplace, of the Rocky Mountains.  I didn’t take too many photographs of the creek bottom because numerous cabins dotted the landscape and I wished to respect the owners’ privacy.  I would love to live in that setting and felt a bit of envy towards whomever lived in such a salubrious setting.  The view from the creek bottom would be limited to the slopes rising directly above the creek plus whatever views may be had up and down stream.  My only advantage at the moment was that I could see out over the rolling hills and mesas and off towards the distant horizons of the snow clad mountains.  All in all, it was a scene of Rocky Mountain splendor.

I began to hike back the way I came, towards Ninemile Hill and my waiting car.  The final two miles of hiking to the pinnacle above Cebolla Creek had occurred on BLM Road 3038b.  Near its junction with BLM Road 3038 the prior mentioned road crossed Wolf Creek.  Here, I left the road and began to follow game and cattle trails along Wolf Creek.  I saw a cow elk in poor condition, nearly starved after the long Winter and Spring, and felt that regardless of how quickly the grass would green up that she was beyond the point of recovery.  I hiked along Wolf Creek for nearly a mile and into a large meadow where some grass was showing signs of new green.  Here, BLM Road 3038a led down from BLM Road 3038 and terminated.  I took in the low key but lovely setting and felt joy and a certain rapture at being able to hike out in the natural world.

The hike back was more of a stroll through the sagebrush punctuated by occasional groves of aspen.  Pleasant and comfortable despite the wind, especially since it was now at my back, I let my mind wander as I simultaneously soaked in the visual stimuli.  These lands are stark at times, yet exude a beauty that I cannot capture with a simple digital image.  That pixelated dimension does not truly reflect the grandeur that I feel when exposed to the elements.  Yet when I look at the snapshots taken it does bring back numerous memories and puts a smile on my face.  And with that smile comes the realization that I am blessed to live here in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and that life is wonderful.

Short Hike to Tolvar Peak – May 09, 2016

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Ponderosa pine near Tolvar Peak

As Spring inexorably continued, passing from April to May, so did my hiking opportunities increase as the snow dissipated from the landscape.  However, there was still an upper limit to my ability to explore.  I decided to remain fairly low, relative to this area, and went out to investigate the view from Tolvar Peak, elevation 9481 feet above sea level.  This peak may not be high, but it does sit above Cebolla Creek and allows for a study of the surrounding Powderhorn Country.

I drove out of Gunnison, Colorado, and took Colorado 149 southbound towards Lake City.  However, I stopped about midway between the two cities and began my hike on Bureau of Land Management Road 3144.  The countryside, like so much found between seven and ten thousand feet in elevation, is an austere grassland and sagebrush mix.  Occasionally, ponderosa pine find habitat and exude their butterscotch and vanilla like fragrance across the expanse.  The land may seem dry and uninviting, yet many creatures, great and small, find a home here and for that reason I could rejoice.

Two problems confronted me on this hike.  One, this area is a mix of BLM lands and private property.  Before I began my hike, I studies a number of maps to determine the boundary between the public and private lands.  The second problem was that with the diminishing snowpack came fewer opportunities for the dogs to refresh themselves by slaking their thirst.  This would be an issue today, although we were hiking out only three mile and back.  Still, with the penetrating sun and stiff, desiccating wind, the dogs would soon become dehydrated, as would I, should proper precautions not be taken.  Realizing ahead of time, from the study of the maps relative to property boundaries, that water would be scarce I brought extra so that Draco and Leah would not needlessly suffer.

Naturally, the wind blew relentlessly as the air currents were stirred up by the atmospheric warming during this Spring season.  Large, puffy clouds sailed by in a seemingly endless stream but none threatened rain nor lightening.  Generally, the season was a bit early for thunderstorms, but it wasn’t impossible for one to develop and it would be good for me to become aware of the potential for such events.

I had never seen this area prior to this short hike, although I had driven by numerous times on the nearby state highway.  Large expanses of sagebrush give way to occasional patches of greening grass and copse of aspen, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine.  This land is dry yet for me it is also alluring.  The views continue for many miles until reaching the snow clad ridges that define the basin of the upper Gunnison River.  The snowy San Juans, white West Elk Mountains and distant Sawatch Range could all be discerned on the horizons.  To the west, however, lay a great void where the mountains give way to the Colorado Plateau.  There are plenty of highlands in that direction, but none that I could see from my hike.

Once on Tolvar Peak, I could see upstream on Cebolla Creek quiet well, especially in the vicinity of Powderhorn.  However, I had hoped to be able to espy the canyon just downstream from that aforementioned locale and this was simply not the case.  For some reason that I cannot now fathom, I did not hike a quarter of a mile northeast  to Point 9403, the northeastern slope of which descend directly into the canyon.  The view from that point would have been more likely to reward me with the vantage that I was seeking.  I recollect that there was a bit of snow on the north face where the dogs could eat their hydration, but it wasn’t enough to preclude me from hiking there.  I might have simply been tired.

I do enjoy seeking out the lonely country that most other people scorn for one reason or another.  I find the solitude refreshing and my heart soars when I think of the wildness inherent in such landscapes.  Unfortunately, even in such a place as this, much of our native megafauna has been extirpated.  Yet, I believe that Colorado, as a whole, retains enough wildlands to make a good template for what could be should society decide that wildlands restoration should be prioritized.  I sat for a time on the summit, wind in my face, contemplating the world that we live in and all its confusing contradictions and complexities.  I stared at the Douglas fir that grow on the northern, and therefore wetter, aspect of the peak, marveling at the miracle of life.  Sometimes the troubles that plague our society seem irreconcilable but I find the trees’ steadfast ability to withstand the Spring’s swirling winds a good model for my own resolve to stand firm whilst the chaotic perturbations of our own modern life flow by in so many vortexes.  My philosophizing coming to an end, the shepherds and I walked back to the car, taking a short-cut down a slope rather walk back along an out-of-the-way ridge, wind in our faces, as I sang songs of mirth and joy content that no other ears but mine should hear my awkward serenade.

Evening Ski to Old Monarch Pass – May 06, 2016

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Draco and Leah romp atop Old Monarch Pass in the waning light of an early May day

I wanted to do a short ski towards sunset so this evening, the sixth day of May of Twenty-Sixteen, I drove up out of Gunnison, Colorado, where I keep my home, and skied up the road that leads from U.S. 50 to the summit of Old Monarch Pass.  I had been here two days prior and had walked on the compacted snow so I knew there would be yet remaining enough snow for me to ski upon.  In two days the snowpack had shrunk nearly six inches so I had a feeling that this would be my last skiing adventure of the year.

Naturally, I brought along Draco and Leah, my two faithful German shepherds and exploration companions.  These two absolutely love to romp around in the snow.  Brimming with energy, I took care that they would not run out from the parking area adjacent to U.S. 50 and into the flow of traffic.  I put them both into a sit and stay before I opened the car door after I had already donned all my gear for the short expedition.  Opening the door, they were both ready to run amok, but I kept them close putting them into another sit and stay before directing them to the trail.

Strictly speaking, my ski wasn’t on a trail but the road that leads up to Old Monarch Pass.  Once pointed in the correct direction, I released the dogs and they eagerly ran from one pile of yellow snow to another, investigating the canine calling cards and then leaving their own.  I slide by them both and then they run past me before stopping again.  This scenario plays out numerous times in the first quarter mile of skiing on San Isabel National Forest Road 237.  Then, after the initial burst of energy is expended, the two shepherds settle into their own stride and keep ahead and apace of me as we climb towards the summit.

The snow is not great for skiing.  It is a solid sheet of ice and the skis want to kick out from under me with every thrust.  I’m none too surprised, but walking on the snow may have been worse.  Most likely, I would have sunk up to my knees or hips with each step and that is just a miserable experience.  The road skirts the lift -assisted ski area and earlier in the year I would have expected to see people swishing by on their way down towards the base area.  Now, late in the season, the area seems almost eerily quiet.  It was after hours, anyhow, and the lifts would have stopped turning but usually there would be groomers out and the drone from their engines could be heard reverberating throughout the nearby mountains.

We reach the top just prior to the sun’s setting.  I had hoped for a magnificent display of color but cloud cover stifled those hopes.  Instead, the sunlight becomes obscured and the light merely fades away.  No matter, the view is stupendous and Draco and Leah are so full of mirth and canine rapture that I can’t help but laugh at their antics as they play and romp, mouths agape and bodies contorted.  I take in the scent borne on the air currents that pass through the gap in the mountains.  Pine wafts into my nostrils accompanied by the smell of warming earth and melting snow.  An olfactory sensation found only at this time of year, and I breath deeply invigorated by the knowledge that Summer is nigh.

We turn to return to the car as the gloaming comes on.  The ski down is challenging only in keeping the skis straight.  They have minds of their own and the crusty snow wants to take them on tangents inimical to my intended direction.  Still, the journey was quick and the pups and I were soon loaded into the old station wagon and headed back towards home in Gunnison, Colorado having enjoyed a fine outing.  The weather had been warm but the snowpack had kept the temperatures cool.  Spring was in the air and before too long the streams would change from mere trickles to deluges of melt off.  I feel blessed to bear witness to Nature’s ongoing pageant of seasonal change here in the Gunnison Country.

Quintuple Header – May 04, 2016

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From Old Monarch Pass, looking northeast towards Mount Aetna, Taylor Mountain and Mount Shavano, on the right

On this day, back in early May of Twenty-Sixteen, I decided to make numerous small hikes, about a mile or two each, at a variety of locations in the drainage of the Arkansas River in the vicinity of Salida, Colorado.  Part of the reason for this was simply to familiarize myself with the location of trailheads and another part was to assess the snowpack throughout the region.  I was also feeling a bit of wanderlust and wanted to visit another area besides the Gunnison Country where I currently make my home.

I loaded up the Subaru with my gear and two German shepherds, Draco and Leah, and drove east out of Gunnison, Colorado, on U.S. 50 towards Monarch Pass.  The snow had been rapidly melting out of the lower foothills that surround my city but I knew that they remained clad to the soil at the higher elevations.  Though, there too, they were melting fast and soon Winter’s white would be replaced by Summer’s green.  The sun was already up as I crested Monarch Pass on the main highway and let the old station wagon roll down the eastern side of the pass.  A short distance, about a mile, later and I pulled over to the side of the pavement and let the engine cool for a minute before shutting it down.

Here I was, at Old Monarch Pass, a popular Nordic ski and snowshoe trail.  Many folks also use this trial to access some fine backcountry alpine skiing and a weekend of fresh powder can produce somewhat crowded conditions.  This day, however, nary a soul was in sight.  The snow had become crusty and most folks were stashing the skis and swapping out either hiking or mountain biking gear.  I could have skied up the trail, but the snowpack along said trail had been so compacted that it created a surface easy to walk on.  I normally disdain those walking on precious ski tracks and trails because the resulting imprints in the snow can damage a nicely made track.  This day, however, the snow was set up and icy enough so that I could walk atop it without tracking it all up.

I gathered my gear as the two dogs, recognizing that they would be imminently released from the confines of the automobile, began to eagerly wag their tails and otherwise express their excitement.  My immediate concern was to not let that canine enthusiasm spill out into the fast flow of traffic on the adjacent transcontinental highway.  I have trained the dogs fairly well so prior to opening the door I told them to “sit” and “stay”.  When I did open the door, they leaped out and were ready to run amok before I commanded them into another “sit and stay”.  Then, I locked the doors and directed the shepherds, brimming with energy, towards the trailhead and relative safety before I released them from their social obligations.  There are plenty of canine calling cards at this trailhead and once freed from their bonds Draco and Leah ran excitedly from one such scent post to another.

In the meantime, I began to walk up the familiar trail, one of my favorite places to ski, amazed at the amount of snow yet remaining.  This is not a wilderness trek by any means, as I hiked over a summer-only road that is open to over-the-snow vehicles during winter.  There is also a large power transmission line that runs through the area and furthermore the road skirts the lift-assisted ski area that was now closed for the season.  As I walked up the road, dogs running to and fro as they saw fit, I gained views of some of the surrounding peaks.  Most notably I was astounded by the amount of fresh snow on the high peaks of a nearby batholith.  Mount Aetna, Taylor Mountain and Mount Shavano were completely coated by snow.  At this time of year I would have expected some of the south faces to be exposed to soil by the daunting solar radiation that quickly removes snow accumulation even during the height of Winter.  It was a beautiful sight to behold.

About twenty minutes later I reached the summit of the old pass.  This narrow dirt road was the initial route of U.S. 50 and was a notoriously challenging drive in the early days of motorized transport.  Today, it is quiet, and I am the only soul in sight.  The winds were minimal this morning but present as they nearly always are in this gap in the Great Divide.  I love this spot I reflected to myself as I stood on a precipice looking out to the west over the Gunnison Country and beyond to the distant San Juan Mountains.  I let my soul soar out over the realm, a land now under the dominion of our civilization, and say a prayer for all the animals and wildlife that have been vanquished.  It would take some work and effort, to say the least, but I truly believe that we could have wildlands and wildlife surviving simultaneously with a thriving modern economy.  Perhaps I am naive but I feel that we, as a society, could have our steak to eat and wolves, grizzly bears and bison to admire on a landscape scale.

Eventually, after some moments for meditation and admiration, I retraced my steps back down the old highway.  The snow crunched underfoot as I walked and I was glad to be getting back to the car before the sun warmed it up enough so that it would not bear weight.  As I approached the highway I again became concerned about my dogs’ well being so about two hundred yards away I put them into heel and we calmly walked out to the car as traffic whizzed by.  Draco and Leah sat as I unlocked the car and then opened the door.  They hopped up into the back while I stowed my gear in the front, and soon we were underway, coasting downgrade towards our next adventure.

We passed Monarch Ski Area and paralleled the upper reaches of the South Arkansas River as it flowed down under Monarch Ridge.  At the end of the ridge lies the town of Garfield.  This name is burdened with contention.  The powers that be have attempted to change the historical name to Monarch so as to better associate the few local businesses located there with the ski area.  There used to be a mining town named Monarch, now nearly wiped off the face of the Earth, located up valley.  Thus, there is some confusion about reference.  Most maps continue to call Garfield by that name but the Colorado Department of Transportation has placed a sign along U.S. 50 demarcating the locale as Monarch.  I use the older term, but I also digress – what is important to me is that there is an access point off the highway here that I have never used due to concerns about private property.  The access is perfectly legal but parking is the issue.  Today I decided that I would like to further explore the situation.

I figured that it would be a good day to determine the exact situation since the property in question is owned by a snowmobile rental agency that also operates tours during the Summer.  Now, in the shoulder season, it was unlikely that many people would be in the vicinity.  I was about half right:  no one was at the agency, but where it is legal to park without violating the business’ property rights were many vehicles.  To be clear, I was accessing San Isabel National Forest Road 230 which follows the Middle Fork of the South Arkansas River.  In this sheltered valley the snows were still fairly deep and most of the folks here were out skiing.  I decided to see how far I could hike and soon the dogs and I were out striding up the narrow, steep two-track.  We crossed the old railroad grade that had served the old quarry up until the early Nineteen-Eighties.  The snowpack increased rapidly and I soon realized that hiking would be impracticable.

I had only trekked about a half a mile before turning around but the effort was well worth it.  This canyon is one of obvious beauty and I had solved the access conundrum that had plagued me for the past decade.  I walked back down the road until I reached the old railroad grade.  I decided to investigate the grade a bit and walked upgrade towards the old quarry.  I didn’t go far, but enjoyed making the trace along the path of history.  I’m not sure, but it is possible that I also found an old alignment of U.S. 50.  There was too much snow for me to explore to my heart’s content but I have made a mental note of it and will some time in the future go back to ascertain or disprove my hunch.

My third stop for the day would be a few miles east off of U.S. 50 at Fooses Creek, a fork of the South Arkansas River that drains the opposite side of Monarch Ridge.  This is another area that I have had questions about access for a number of years and today seemed to be a good day for investigating the situation.  As it turns out, there was a nice parking area at the end of a short county road where the road crosses into Forest Service property.  I parked the car, let the dogs out and we all began to hike up San Isabel National Forest Road 225 past Fooses Reservoir.  Here, again, I found an abundant snowpack but at a lower elevation that was due to the northern-faced aspect.  Like my previous hike, this drainage was among a forest of conifer.  I was able to hike about a mile up the road, perhaps a bit further, until I reached a point were I was punching deep holes in the snowpack and the going became untenable.  This hike wasn’t very exciting, but, again, I had solved an access question and the effort had been well worth the energy expended.

After having had three separate hikes in snowy country I thought to myself that it would be nice to walk around the bare ground.  For years I had been driving past an small sign posted just east of Salida on U.S. 50 that displays the international symbol for hiking.  You know the type, glorified stick figures with round heads, innocuously devoid of all personality yet perfectly able to be interpreted by anyone from anywhere.  I had always wondered about that sign, so I turned off the highway onto Burmac Road and drove up to a Bureau of Land Management trailhead near a forest of pinyon pine.  Indeed it was dry.  In fact, it was hot out.  It turns out that the trails in the area are more or less maintained for mountain bikers so I instead walked up BLM Road 5672 for about a mile and a half until I reached a power transmission line.  Here I stopped and sat in the shade for a spell.  The dogs were hot, panting in the shade, and I deigned to let them slurp water from my bottle. However, this minimal amount of aqueous refreshment would only slake their thirst for a few minutes and I decided to retrace our steps back down the road.  I did walk on some single track were it skirts Castle Gardens, an area of odd erosion activity forming spires and such in colorful soil.  This area is good to know about, as during the depths of Winter it might likely be snow free.  However, a word of warning is in order.  The soil is of the type that would become almost impassibly muddy should snow accumulate and the melt off not have a chance to dry out.  It was refreshing for me to hike in the heat, but Draco and Leah would probably prefer something a bit less parched.

Returning to Salida, we passed through town and went another five miles west to Poncha Springs, the self-billed Crossroads of the Rockies.  From this hamlet, indeed, one can go north, south, east or west, something that is not always possible in the tortuous geography of the mountains.  I decide to head south on U.S. 285 were I know of a small roadside picnic area that has shady cottonwood and a bubbling stream.  Draco and Leah were ecstatic to hop into Poncha Creek’s cooling waters and simultaneously lap up the liquid all the while laying prone in the surging water.  I relaxed a bit, reviewing the day, all the while reflecting on the superb Spring weather.  Laying back, looking up through the new green leaves on the Populus spp., a few puffy clouds slowly sailed casually across the cerulean sky.  It was a day meant to be lived.

I thought that I still had one more hike in me if I could only decide where to go next.  I didn’t really want to fuss with much more snow nor drive too far off the main roads.  I began to think things through and I realized that just a few miles up the road lay the dual trailhead for the Rainbow Trail.  The trail begins near the triple divide between the Arkansas, Rio Grande and Gunnison Rivers, the latter of the three being a major tributary of the Colorado River, and then runs down the northern and eastern flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  I drove up towards Poncha Pass and parked at the location where a hiker can go either east or west.  I had already explored the former trail and decided that this would be a great time to do the same for the latter.  We all got out, me using extremely cautions and attentive off-leash canine handling skills to shepherd the shepherds to the trailhead, and began hiking up a few switchbacks and past another old railroad grade until I found myself in a forest of ponderosa pine.

I could not believe my good fortune.  For years I had wanted to see were this trail went off to.  Ponderosa pine are perhaps my favorite tree and the ground was bare of snow although a bit muddy in places.  I strolled along at ease, olfactory senses awash in a cloud of the rich, butterscotchy scent of the golden-barked conifers.  The sunlight played through the needles in streaks and my long-view was the towering mass of the Sawatch Range clad in the shimmering white of the recent snowfall.  I hiked out about a mile and a half until I found a perfect tree to sit under.  Here, I let time stop, and admired the Rocky Mountain setting.  Off to my south lay the barely perceptible expanse of the great San Luis Valley, forty miles across in places and running south for nearly a hundred. After sitting for a spell I noticed that clouds had gathered over some of the tall peaks and obscured some of the sun.  That was my cue for departure.  I did not truly want to leave the ponderosa park I had found myself in, sitting with my back up against one of the larger boles on a cushion of needles, but I also knew that this day would have to inevitably end and I still had to hike thirty minutes and drive an hour and a half before I reached home.  So, up I lifted my body and hoisted my pack upon my shoulders and let the easy strides pass me through the quiet forest.

I had had a full and rewarding day.  Seeing new vistas in familiar landscapes was especially edifying and now I have a mental stash of new data regarding the political reality of hiking in an area where public and private lands are interspersed.  Should I ever want to hike on Fooses Creek, say, I will not have a preamble of worry regarding where I should park and what my rights are.  I know where to go and the legality of the situation, thus I can get right to hiking without delay.  Of course, this day wasn’t all about heeding the law, as I also enjoyed my immersions into the natural world.  My only regret is that there isn’t more of it and that what we have sometimes lacks in wildness due to the loss of components of the native mega-fauna.  Still, I am entirely grateful and well blessed to have had this day and I eagerly look forward to my return to anyone of these five trailheads.

Hiking the Sagebrush on the South End of Flat Top – May 03, 2016

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In a grove of aspen near the southern end of Flat Top, the distant San Juan Mountains on the horizon; so blue!

As I sit this early Sunday morning, the eastern horizon barely showing hints of the oncoming sun, I reflect that there are a scant two and a half weeks of Summer remaining in this year, Twenty-Sixteen.  I am finally getting around to writing and posting my thoughts and photographs about my hiking in early May, when Summer seemed as yet some distant promise to be kept.  On this third day of the fifth month I decided to explore some of the lowlands on the southern end of Flat Top.  This area is part of the great sagebrush steppe that is found under nine thousand feet in elevation, roughly, where the moisture doesn’t collect as readily as in the High Country.  I often think of this steppe as being the sagebrush sea since the great expanses of grey-green sage create a feeling reminiscent of sailing across a vast ocean.  Normally, I would not visit this south facing aspect on such a sunny day, but this early in May and the weather was still cool enough to compensate for the direct sunlight and solar radiation that would sear unprotected skin.  The benefit, however, of this hike would be that I would not have to worry about lightening on such a cloudless day.

The added benefit of hiking in early May is that I saw some of the first Spring flowers: Phlox, pasqueflower, paintbrush and cactus were all in bloom, respectively adding bright white, mauve, orange and pink bursts of color to the dominant earth tones of the landscape.  What is unfortunate is that the Gunnison sage grouse has become so imperiled that I had to wait until after nine o’clock in the morning so that the bird could have a chance to complete their mating rituals undisturbed.  It isn’t unfortunate that I had to wait, just that such a once-common bird, within living memory, has become so reduced in range and population that such drastic measures have been undertaken.  The entire conservation program has become embroiled in political struggle the details of which are too extensive, and depressing, for me to relate here.

One of my favorite early season hikes, I visit this area at least once or twice each Spring.  I park at the gate almost directly across from the Almont Campground and typically hike up Gunnison National Forest Road 860.  This hike took place entirely on the Gunnison National Forest, and in some ways that is odd as much of the sere sagebrush landscape is managed by the Gunnison Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management; the Forest Service usually manages land with more timber and water.  The nice thing about this hike is that I need to drive only about ten minutes or so from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, to arrive at the trailhead.  Of course, in this case, the trailhead is merely a locked gate that prevents motorized vehicles from disturbing the critical habitat of numerous species of wildlife.  Still, for the time being, excepting the occasional mountain biker, this area provides a near wilderness like experience and plenty of opportunities for solitude exist throughout this realm.

I began my hike by following the road up a steep unnamed gully from Colorado 135, which runs nearly parallel to and at grade with the Gunnison River.  Climbing five hundred feet or so I encountered the first level break.  Here, instead of following Road 860 up another slope I turned to the left and followed an old two track that has been permanently closed to motorized and mechanized use.  This route swung me around back towards the south and followed, generally, the top of an escarpment that is easily viewed from the highway below.  I enjoyed the brilliant sunshine and the warmth that it bestowed.  After all the late season snow and spring rain it was a pleasure to be bathed in sunlight.  The flat bench I was following gently sloped to the south and as I continued I gradually lost most of the five hundred feet that I had gained.  It was in this area that I found some fine specimens of bright orange paintbrush and numerous clumps of phlox.  The warm, bright light and the general fun I have while exploring combined to my air of giddiness as I walked along with a big smile on my face.

The road eventually crosses into private land, something that I could not do without violating state statues regarding trespassing.  About a quarter of a mile shy of the fence line, I turned to the west and roughly paralleled the private property boundary.  Bushwhacking through the sagebrush is sometimes easy but also sometimes challenging.  The branches of the shrubs can grab at clothing and shoelace, impeding progress.  However, this type of habitat can abound with game trails and I followed one that happened to lead in the general direction I wanted to travel.  I wanted to visit Point 8285, a small knoll that forms the southernmost toe of hills falling from Flat Top to the flats between Ohio Creek and the Gunnison River.  The map makes it look like a quick, easy hike but in person I found the tromp up the slope a bit more difficult that I would have thought.  Still, once atop the highpoint I had a fine, floating view of the two convergent valleys.  I sat down with the sun to my back and ate a snack and studied the local terrain.  I wanted to take a breath before climbing fifteen hundred feet in elevation up slope towards Flat Top’s southern most point and rim.

My map shows a road leading up adjacent from the point I was on, another unnamed gulch, leading to Road 862.  However, from what I could tell, this road had been closed by the forest service, possibly due to redundancy, wildlife concerns or budget constraints.  It was easy to hike up, but steep and hot, as exposed to the sun as I was.  The dogs, my two faithful German shepherds, Draco and Leah, were panting quite a bit in the warmth.  Fortunately, I was able to find and point out a couple of ephemeral water holes that were full of spring melt.  As we climbed, deciduous tress became increasingly abundant.  At the nine thousand foot level we saw some lone aspen here and there and soon afterwards small groves in favorable aspects.  Changing elevation while hiking is physical work but the reward is passing through multiple life zones, where differences in flora and fauna can be discerned by those willing to take time to notice the transition.

I took Road 863.2E to Road 863 and followed the latter nearly towards its end.  Near the top the aspen began to grow in thick forests with grassy meadows interspersed.  I wanted to get to the rim of Flat Top but the talus was too challenging, especially with dogs, and I was worried that one of us would break a leg or ankle stumbling around such as we were.  I made some mental notes and decided to come back again some other day and figure out a route to the top.  But for now, I had seen what I wanted to see, so I retreated a bit towards the edge of the forest where I found a small grassy patch to sit down upon.  Here I ate most of my lunch and stared out over the Gunnison Country to the distant southern horizon that doubles as the crest of the San Juan Mountains and the Great Divide.  A fine view, and under a cobalt sky with but a smattering of small white clouds indolently sailing about the firmament.

I returned the way I had come, hiking back down Road 863 and then across Road 863.2E, both through habitats of mixed grassland and sagebrush.  There is a transition between the two.  The sagebrush will not grow above a certain elevation and although grasses will grow in the lower elevations they become dispersed, especially in the drier portions of the range. Finding, once again, Road 862, I turned to the north so that I could make a loop hike.  I walked up some switchbacks until I reached the highpoint of a small ridge.  On the map this is called Point 9506, and this knoll allowed a fine view of the Gunnison River and Fossil Ridge, including snow-clad Henry Mountain.  Here I sat for a short spell, taking it all in:  the fresh air, the fine view, solitude despite the proximity to civilization, and abundant wildlife.  It made me feel fortunate to live in such a fine valley.

I continued walking to the north on Road 862 after waking myself from my self-imposed reverie.  The road descended down towards a bench of grass and aspen.  This aspen grove, nestled in a crook of land due west of Almont, has become one of my favorites, and I was pleased at seeing mountain bluebirds flitting about, going about their business.  I didn’t need to stop but couldn’t resist taking a bit of time for myself in the salubrious setting of this aspen.  The aspen, roses and grasses combine to create a fine setting and the olfactory sensation is one that even now in Summer’s grace I can recall with perfect memory and satisfaction – decay morphing into rebirth.  The only trouble with this location was that being on a northeast face the snow had yet to entirely melt off and the area was one large sheet of water, not much, merely a fraction of an inch, but enough to create damp conditions.  After some searching I found a small rise of earth, about a foot above the surrounding soil, that was pleasantly dry and here I sat to bask in the equanimity of the friendly quakies.

I suddenly felt that I had had my fair share of this wonderful land and decided to pack up my belongings and hike the remaining mile and a half back to the trailhead and thus leave the land to the wildlife.  I walked back over to Road 862 and followed that until I took Road 860.1C that led back to Road 860, the road that I had began my hike on hours before.  I didn’t stop at Point 8925, where a fine view of the East River can be seen, and now wish that I had.  Access to that point is fairly easy and can be made any time, so perhaps I was just being a bit lazy on this final home stretch of a much longer hike, but I always regret, later, when I decide to forego such an easy side trek.  Nonetheless, the entire day was gratifying and rewarding to my senses.  I passed by the route where I had turned off of Road 860 and descended the steep gully, avoiding the rounded rocks as best I could.  I bid the sagebrush farewell and said a silent prayer for the health of the land and the flora and fauna that live there.  Life is precious and I appreciate those whose stewardship philosophy includes the well-being of our natural landscapes and the wild things that live there.

Loop Hike Around Lower Red Creek – May 02, 2016

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Aspen silhouetted against a blustery sky

Spring continued apace in the Gunnison Country as the winds blew large masses of cloud cover and their concomitant precipitation into the High Country.  However, due to the relative warmth of the season, the aforementioned moisture, should it fall as snow, did not linger on the soil’s surface for long before melting and seeping into the ground or flowing into one of the myriad creeks, or both.  Additionally, the diverse vegetation, at least that which we classify as non-evergreen, began to show increasing sign of rebirth.  To wit: new blades of grass and shoots of various wild herbs; leaves or engorged buds on the aspen, cottonwood and willow; in a few cases, even flowers in bloom, especially the pasqueflower and various buttercups, both part of Ranunculaceae, as well as some diminutive Brassicaceae.

Embracing this tempestuous season, I found myself driving west from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, along with my two faithful German shepherd companions, Draco and Leah, along U.S. 50 towards the gated road on Red Creek.  My hike would take me across four different land management agencies, three of which are federal and the remainder being state.  Initially, I would cross over the Curecanti National Recreation Area, managed by the National Park Service, before passing into lands under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.  I would then cross into state land before finally hiking around portions of the Gunnison National Forest.  Red Creek Road has different control numbers for the different agencies, as well.  I believe that the BLM designates the road as Road 3017 and the Forest Service uses 723.

Parking just below the closure gate I almost immediately left the road to start hiking cross-country.  I would much rather make a loop hike than an out-and-back hike and to do this I had to follow a number of game trails from the road’s elevation up a steep slope to the top of Tenderfoot Hill.  This area just north of Blue Mesa Reservoir encompasses the southern foothills of the West Elk Mountains and are thus composed of igneous rocks formed during volcanic eruptions.  The rock may be a basalt or breccia, depending upon the specific layer.  The former breaks off into sheer walls and forms flat tops due to its weather resistant nature while the latter often forms slopes of crumbly rock and odd geologic shapes.  The breccia can also forms sheer cliffs and they are well known for not being amiable towards climbing because of the likelihood of failure and consequent tragedy.  My goal was to find a path through the cliffs and the most prudent way to do that seemed to be to follow the deer and elk.

My hike began under a wall of breccia and I found myself stopping to stare at this monument off and on during the first half a mile of walking and scrambling.  The hike over rough country was a challenge but also felt much more intimate than hiking over a road or trail.  I got a close up look at the vegetation as it readied itself for Spring’s burst of color and awakening from dormancy.  The geology and geography of this land also revealed itself to me as I crossed numerous small rills and then climbed up slopes that led to the topmost layer of basalt.  The game trail led under one such cliff of the aforementioned rock, where the rocks had tumbled in to a barren slope of talus, before finally scrambling up to the flat expanse on the upper surface of the basalt.  Here, the terrain resembled a large meadow of rolling grass, except instead of being bounded by forest it was demarcated by cliff edges.  I could see for miles around me and felt like I was sailing above the world.  Views to the south stretched out dozens of miles to the San Juan Mountains, another volcanic chain and I could imagine being a hawk floating off into the void.

I slowly drifted north, choosing my route whimsically, until the broad mesa narrowed into a ridge that separates Red Creek from West Dry Gulch.  As I continued on my path, the elevation steadily increased until I began to encounter groves of aspen and Douglas fir.  Species of vegetation that are tolerant of drier conditions began to be phased out by moisture loving species and the grasses became taller.  I continued my general direction, hiking up one knoll and then down its other side before repeating the pattern.  Each subsequent knoll was a bit higher than the previous and soon enough I found the north face of one knoll to have a bit of snow slowly melting in the shady aspect.  The dogs were happy to lap at the frozen water and writhed around upside down in canine rapture.  I wondered what the snow meant for my hike.  From the lowlands the south faces had seemed snow free, but I inherently knew that he north faces could be filled with deep drifts of nearly melted snow that would not bear my weight as I attempted to cross.  Would I have to turn around and retrace my steps?  Or, would I be able to post-hole my way through the drifts a short distance to the point where I wanted to turn around?  These thoughts filled my head as I neared what would be my highpoint for the day.  I was also a bit preoccupied by the thought of lightening, being as I was exposed to the elements without easy access to refuge.

As I approached said highpoint, above ninety-eight hundred feet in elevation, I noted the triple divide that I would stand on.  I was at the headwaters of West Dry Gulch and West Bull Gulch.  They were divided by a small ridge that runs perpendicularly to the east of the larger northerly ridge that forms Red Creek’s eastern boundary.  At this point the aspen groves had morphed into aspen forests and just as I had earlier prophesized there was a sizable amount of snow on the north face.  I decided to forge forth, stomping deep holes into the snow, generally following the game trail through the woods.  The forest began to change from aspen to Douglas fir the farther north I traveled.  It would be another week or two before the aspen would leaf out but even under the cloudy sky and with wind blowing the day felt warm, or, at least, relatively so.

I continued slogging through the snow until I finally reached the low point of this particular knoll.  Now, the aspect would change from north facing to one facing south and the snow, I hoped, would be melted.  I was mostly right, but another hundred feet or so in elevation gain and I would have found snow on the south face as well.  A short distance later I cut across a trail that would lead me down to Red Creek and Gunnison National Forest Road 723.  I was relieved that my travails through the snow were at an end, as that sort of activity I find extremely tedious.  However, I knew that most my time hiking through the drifts would be downhill and thus a bit easier on the body and mind.  Another aspect in this endeavor was that I have hiked extensively throughout this area and even camped nearby the last highpoint a few times.  I know most of the official, unofficial and cross-country routes that can be taken within a few mile radius.  Having the prior knowledge of my route eased the mental burden enough so that I felt no real apprehension of overextending myself.

As part of the proof that I was on the very edge of the receding snowpack, the trail that I followed down to Red Creek was sopping wet and muddy.  Each step was a challenge in remaining static as opposed to dynamically slipping onto my ass.  Still, the hike down wasn’t that hard and I soon found myself on the stability of the road bed.  Here, Red Creek flows through a narrow V-shaped canyon, slopes covered in evergreen, tumbling and gurgling as it transports the melted snow down on its nascent journey to the Pacific Ocean.  I soon chose a place to enjoy a lunch and repose among the trees of the forest.  I had been periodically taking breaks throughout my journey but now that the challenging part of my trek was behind me I took time to relax and enjoy the sensations of nature.

The remainder of the hike I made at a casual gait, essentially strolling down the road knowing that no motor vehicles would molest me and upset my state of equanimity.  The wildlife knows this, too, and the area is home to great herds of elk, as well as deer and bighorn sheep.  Technically, this closed road is open to mechanized use but only one or two mountain bikers ever find their way here so the area, for two months while the gates are locked, is essentially a de facto wilderness.  It has a wild feel to it and I kept the shepherds close to heel so as to minimally disturb the wild ones.

As I walked south downstream the vegetation gradually reversed the progression of my upward journey.  The Douglas fir gave way to sagebrush and cottonwood and the landscape changed from wet to sere.  As the elevation dropped we cut through the basalt and reentered the breccia layer and soon I was tripping over unseen rocks and potholes because my gaze was caught by the hoodoos and other forms carved from the easily sculpted rock.  As I approached the waiting automobile I reflected on the hike and the change of elevations that produced so much difference in geology, flora and hydrology.  The fauna were still using the lower elevations but would soon migrate higher as the grasses greened up after the snow had melted.  I saw a few small herds of elk and some bighorn sheep on this hike and I am always in awe of the wild critters.  I think it a blessing of sorts to see them and always revel in the moment.  A fascinating and edifying day it had been and as I turned the engine over a big smile graced my face from ear to ear.

Snowy Hike to Alkali Creek on the Penultimate Day of April – April 29, 2016

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Snow flying at the headwaters of Alkali Creek

Winter can reign in the Colorado Rockies long after the Spring equinox has been observed.  Thus, on this penultimate day of April, I found myself hiking through a snowstorm on Alkali Creek near Cochetopa Canyon.  Wisely, I had not put away most of my winter gear and was thus prepared for the adverse weather.  After a season’s worth of frigid temperatures I found that this storm possessed a fairly warm feeling, especially as I hiked uphill and generated my own heat.   Still, I used caution hiking out into country where it was unlikely that I would encounter any other human beings nor assistance should I have difficulties.  Any mistake in the sub-freezing conditions could prove to be lethal.

Leaving from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, I drove east out of town on U.S. 50 and then turned right to travel southbound on Colorado 114.  That latter highway parallels Cochetopa Creek upstream through a narrow canyon that winds around on its tortuous path.  Towards the upper end of the canyon I parked the car and began hiking on Bureau of Land Management Road 3169, a narrow and steep two-track suitable for high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles but not my old Subaru.  Although these federal lands are managed out of the Gunnison Field Office, I had crossed over into Saguache County and thus some aspects of management were a bit different.  Most notably, the road was not locked and gated to protect sage grouse habitat as it would have been in Gunnison County.  I am not sure why the BLM has chosen to keep this road open during the bird’s vulnerable breeding season, but regardless there is little to no traffic on it.

Climbing out of Cochetopa Canyon brought me to a flat plateau of grass and sagebrush where I had a choice of directions to take.  Roughly a quarter mile apart are two roads that I could walk upon and both would lead me to the Gunnison National Forest boundary.  First, though, I walked over to an old mine on Road 3169a1.  According to the topographic map for this area this is named the Mercury Mine, but I am not sure that that sobriquet is really a proper noun or rather that it should be called the mercury mine.  Still, the old collections of shacks and open shafts formed a stark setting on the landscape.  There was, in the Nineteen Fifties, a large amount of uranium mining in the area and because I am worried about exposure to some of the toxic effects of that legacy I did not stay long and continued on my way.  I hiked cross-country, over rocky outcropping and down a sagebrush enshrouded slope, back to the main road.

In the end I decided to hike westbound on the northern of the two roads and would then return eastbound on the southern one.  The northern of the two roads seemed to be open to motorized use but I cannot find a control number for it anywhere.  Because it is also on the northern face of a small ridge it traversed a fairly thick woods.  The snow continued to fly, blowing from west to east, but when I was in this grove all was calm and peaceful.  Draco and Leah, my two faithful German shepherds, ran from tree to tree, mostly Douglas fir, investigating sign of tree going rodents.  Those two were the most dynamic objects in the woods.

Just before arriving at the National Forest boundary I veered off on BLM Road 3169d, which led me to a small opening where sagebrush grows in profusion.  The snow continued and all around was grayness and scant light.  Yet, I felt comfortable and content to be hiking around, warm and dry in appropriate clothing, exploring the land here on the northeast flank of Sawtooth Mountain.  Following the BLM road I eventually bumped into the boundary with the Gunnison National Forest.  The road at one time continued but the Gunnison National Forest has closed it to motorized and mechanical use and does no maintenance on it at all.  I hiked back south along the barbed-wire fence  through a thick mixed aspen and conifer forest to rejoin Gunnison National Forest Road 854.  This had been BLM Road 3169 prior to the change in jurisdictions.

As I climbed higher in elevation the snowstorm increased in magnitude.  This was a gradual change, barely perceptible, but I suddenly realized that the snowfall had increased in depth, that the wind had grown in intensity and that the snow itself had changed from fine misty flakes to large wet ones.  I continued on into the wind and crossed into Alkali Creek’s drainage.  I had climbed nearly a thousand feet in about two miles.  The vegetation changed from the predominantly sere sagebrush steppe to a forest of Douglas fir, aspen and spruce.  I had had grand plans earlier in the day about hiking south from Alkali Creek to Homestead and Townsite Gulches but decided to put those plans on hold.  Instead, I hiked on Gunnison National Forest Road 854.2A.  This short road continued west through aspen groves and open grassy meadows until it reached the divide with Rock Creek.  I used my imagination to picture this area two months into the future when all would be a sea of verdure.  Now, Winter’s whiteness held sway under the cloudy, gray sky and green and blue, a bright Summer’s day, were but figments of imagery in my mind.

Once at the end of the road I decided to sit in one of the aspen groves where I found a bit of shelter from the wind.  I scraped the snow off of a downed aspen trunk, now lying horizontal, the white bark matching the snow covered landscape, and sat down to watch the snow swirl around.  I enjoyed and became mesmerized by the amorphous swirling patterns.  Draco and Leah sat down and lay still, curled up to conserve warmth, and all was silent excepting the soft sound of snow landing.  Although only three miles from a state highway I felt that I could be the only human being in Colorado, such was my sense of solitude.

After sitting for nearly an hour, letting my mind wander and dwelling on the issues of the day, I decided that it was time to return to civilization and its comforts.  Although snowing intensely I was still warm and had enough clothing to probably survive the night should I need to.  That, however, would be an uncomfortable night to say the least so I packed up my gear and retraced my steps back to the National Forest boundary.  Draco and Leah sensed my imminent movement and quickly became animated.  Both stretched in the classic downward dog motion and yawned before, tails held high and wagging, they ran out in front of me.  Through the open meadows of grass we walked, never being able to see more than a quarter of a mile or so in any direction.  The snowstorm kept the world shrouded in a cloak of mysterious obscurity and that, for me, was part of the charm of this day.  I do love hiking in good weather but I often find that these stormy days can add depth and character to the mountain experience.

Once back at the boundary with the Bureau of Land Management, I hiked a few hundred feet before finding the southern alternate route back to Cochetopa Canyon.  This road lead across the ridge top and through a forest comprised of drier habitat.  Thus, the Douglas firs were joined by ponderosa pine and much of the snow that had fallen had already melted off leaving patches of bare ground scattered here and there.  The rust colored needles fallen from the conifers added a new dimension in color to this hike.  Walking back down to the car I was happy for this day.  Regardless of how much snow would fall it would soon melt and Spring’s inexorable warming up would continue only occasionally abated by these climatic intrusions.  Thus, mentally, I find a storm such as this a thing not to be dreaded, aye, rather a thing of beauty and joy, something that would let me appreciate life’s majesty and rebirth as the miracle that it is.