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.
The extent of my hike on the Rainbow Trail
The trailhead at Old Monarch Pass
This sign is over a meter tall
Draco on San Isabel National Forest Road 237, a great ski to Old Monarch Pass
Draco and Leah on Old Monarch Pass
Old Monarch Pass on the Continental Divide
Tomichi Dome as seen from Old Monarch Pass
This is one of those views that is quintessential Rocky Mountains
The long view from Old Monarch Pass, Sawtooth Mountain to the left and Uncompahgre Peak to the right
Old Monarch Pass on the western side
Trailhead on the Middle Fork South Arkansas River, San Isabel National Forest Road 237
Monarch Ridge to the left, looking across the Middle Fork and up the main stem of the South Arkansas River
Aspen on the Middle Fork South Arkansas River
Snow among the lodgepole pine
Where I turned around on Road 230
The old railroad grade near Garfield, Colorado
Mixed forest near Garfield, Colorado
Looking downgrade on the old Denver and Rio Grande Western grade just above Garfield, Colorado
Signage for the San Isabel National Forest at Fooses Creek
Fooses Creek just above the re
Good advice on San Isabel National Forest Road 225
Old beaver dam on Fooses Creek
Spring melt on and in Fooses Creek
Draco and Leah in Fooses Creek
Sparkling water tumbling in Fooses Creek
Water frothing among the boulders of Fooses Creek
Mixed forest in Fooses Creek
Trail network just outside of Salida, Colorado
Pinyons and the Sawatch Range
Snow capped peaks over the pinon just outside of Salida, Colorado
Part of the view along BLM Road 5672 in the pinon scrub lands outside of Salida, Colorado
Entrance to the Castle Gardens above the Arkansas River near the upper entrance to its canyon
Mount Shavano seen on a fine Spring day
Cottonwood seen at the roadside picnic area near Poncha Springs
Poncha Creek flowing through a grove of cottonwood
The western Rainbow Trail trailhead where it crosses U.S. 285
Looking across U.S. 285 at the Rainbow Trail as it climbs east towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
U.S. 285 climbing towards Poncha Pass seen from the old railroad grade
From the Rainbow Trail, looking down Poncha Creek
Ponderosa pine on the Rainbow Trail
Looking east from the Rainbow Trail at Point 10569
The Sawatch Range clad in a fresh blanket of snow
Poncha Creek drains down to the Arkansas River near Poncha Springs
Old ponderosa pine, still a fine setting in the mid-elevation Rocky Mountains of Colorado
Sagebrush and mountains seen from the Rainbow Trail west of U.S. 285
Looking out from the Rainbow Trail at the Sawatch Range
One of the many stunning views from the Rainbow Trail
Sagebrush is the understory in this ponderosa Park about a mile and a half west of U.S. 285 on the Rainbow Trail
A nice place for a rest, in a ponderosa park on the Rainbow Trail
Beyond this park of ponderosa lies the San Luis Valley
Leah resting under a ponderosa near the Rainbow Trail
The view through the canopy of ponderosa pine
From Old Monarch Pass, looking northeast towards Mount Aetna, Taylor Mountain and Mount Shavano, on the right