Camping at Middle Quartz Campground, Day 1 – June 16, 2016

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Dinner awaits as the fire burns down to usable coals on a fine evening in mid-June

The Ides of June just past and the tourist season here in the upper Gunnison valley had yet to develop the throngs that would arrive within the next two weeks or so.  I was blessed to have a few days to myself and decided head up to the Middle Quartz Campground on the Gunnison National Forest.  The sky promised to be clear for the next few days with nary a hint of cloudiness much less inclement weather.  So, I packed the car and took the dogs and myself up the Quartz Creek valley, past the small hamlet of Pitkin, and bounced up to the end of the road where the campground lies.

An old-fashioned site, only six units in size and threatened perennially for closure by the Forest Service, the campground lies near the head of Middle Quartz Creek in a valley that suggests past glaciation.  The creek bottom is mostly open meadow with increasing conifer growth at its higher reaches.  Willow grow along the banks and where beaver have dammed the stream the vegetation is nearly impassable.  Conifer and aspen forest, mostly the former, grow densely on the slopes above, rising up to the ridge tops which for the most part don’t climb above treeline.

I arrived late in afternoon.  In the past I have skied up to this area starting from the winter closure gate just outside of Pitkin.  I knew where I wanted to camp and was gratified to find the specific site open.  I pulled in and unloaded my gear.  The weather being so fine I decided not to erect a tent, since I would like to sleep out with the sky as my ceiling.  Instead, I put up a tarp as a privacy screen from the other widely dispersed sites.  By the time all of this was done I was ready for some supper.

I had brought all of the dogs, including my old girl Lady Dog, who is restricted to hobbling around short distances so I did not go for an evening stroll.  I dispersed the bones I had brought so that the canines would have something to occupy their jaws and consequently prevent boredom.  While they gnawed away on the bovine remains I built a fire and promptly started it.  Flames shot up just as the sun dipped down behind the ridge to the west, down valley.  I arranged the table and prepared the meal, opening a beer and imbibing the good times.

I sat in my chair, enjoying the cool air all the while warmed by the flames, waiting until the wood turned to coals so that I could begin to cook.  Some twenty or so minutes later I did that, listening to the oddly soothing sound of the dogs masticating their bones.  By now, the charm of each bone had worn off and each dog left them and sought out another bone in the hopes of novelty.  This process was repeated until each dog had had a go at each bone.  I paid them little mind once I began to cook.  I had a steak with me and sliced peppers and onions to grill along side the meat.  A fine feast was ingested and I felt mellow and fine, as did the canines in repose.

Soon enough darkness encroached on my little outpost in the woods.  I crawled into the sleeping bag and rested my arms behind my head, staring up into the starry sky.  My home in Gunnison was only a scant three-quarters of an hour away but it felt like an eternity between here and there.  I drifted off to sleep and felt blessed to be embraced by the mountains’ grace.

Long Branch Loop – June 13, 2016

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A bit of snow lingering near the smaller Baldy Lake

My previous visit to the Cochetopa Hills, two days hence, had been so enthralling that I decided to return for another visit a bit to the east of my hike in Barret, Razor and Needle Creeks.  I was motivated to make a long hike, somewhere around twenty miles, and, because I would be crossing some high, exposed ridges, wanted to leave early so as to avoid the afternoon arrival of the near-daily monsoons.  Another motivation for me regarding this hike was the fact that I could remember making it years ago, prior to my ownership of a digital camera, and I wanted to document this area.  I noticed that there was substantially more beetle kill here, like in most nearby areas these days, that I recalled from a decade ago.  Nonetheless, I was eager for a day spent hiking along trails in this relatively low elevation portion of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

I had decided to leave Draco and Leah at home due to the distance involved.  Dogs do have their limits and as much as they would have wanted to accompany me on this journey it could have caused them injury.  So, I rose predawn and took the two pooches for a jog and then set up all dogs with breakfast and a bone each to keep their jaws occupied during their enforced repose.  I fired up the old Subaru and soon found myself cruising eastward from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, on U.S. 50, all the while slurping hot coffee and munching down a hastily purchased breakfast sandwich.  I did gobble up an apple to make sure that I was properly fortified, and I sailed along at a moderate speed as the headlights beamed the wide strip of pavement.

I reached the turnoff from the main highway just short of Sargents and bumped the car down the narrow, rocky road a couple of miles where I parked it and shut off the engine.  Stepping out into the crepuscular light I could hear some of the various critters that were going about their business but mostly the faintly lit setting was quiet and serene.  The United States Forest Service built some maintenance buildings here decades ago and now they are in a state of what can be described as arrested deterioration.  I can’t determine if they are used or just left to fall to pieces.  They add a bit of melancholy to my mood as I think that our public lands agencies used to have more pride.  That pride has been slowly eroded after budget cuts have left the agency unable to provide for itself.  I can’t help but feel that it is part of a larger conservative plot to wrest control of the lands away from the federal government and sell them to private interests thus depriving the public of their own domain.

I put those thoughts aside as I take a gander around me, especially up Clair Creek where I had skied last Winter.  The differences between the seasons is startling and profound.  I know and love them both, but sometimes it is challenging to reconcile that one exists on the same planet as the other!  I find it difficult to believe in Summer when all is icy and white while during Summer itself I can’t quite believe in Winter’s grip when all is verdant.

I know where I am going, so I don’t have to worry about finding a trailhead or route or some such thing.  I begin to walk down Gunnison National Forest Road 780 in the wan light.  Tints of pinks are illuminating the clouds and I am reminded that the day will be hazardous later on when thunderheads build up.  For now, I don’t keep myself occupied with those worries and instead turn my attention to the beauty of the mountain landscape that I am trekking through.  Within a thrown rock lies Long Branch, a tributary of Tomichi Creek.  This creek runs its headwaters up to the Great Divide within the Cochetopa Hills.  Relatively low in elevation, the grasses and vegetation are lush with every shade of green.  Drawing in breath through my nose I concurrently become aware of the various forest scents:  Pine, always pleasing; the musty odor rising from the floor hinting at the decay of the organic material, literally billions of small beings at work; I swear I can detect the odor of the earth itself in places as well as the wet grass and water that is misted from cascading spray.

I reach the first major branch about a mile down the road, and here said thoroughfare ends.  I can go to the right or left, on West Branch or Long Branch, respectively.  I recall that on my hike nearly a decade past that I took the left branch and I decide to relive that trek by making the same choice.  Regardless of fork taken, I shall return to the this point once the loop is done.  I take a look around and note my surroundings.  Roughly seventeen to eighteen miles of hiking loom before me but I have strong confidence in my abilities and time allocated.  Scenery, wildlife and general exploring adventure await, so I don’t linger long and begin hiking up Long Branch and the eponymous Trail 489.  This trail is open to motorized trail bikes so I can’t say that I am in a designated wilderness but the lands feel wild nonetheless.  As I hike up valley I note the various drainages and make mental notes as to my desire to return someday and explore off trail.

The vegetation here in the creek bottom is lush with dense willow as are most such drainages in this region.  The scenery isn’t of that typical grandeur that many people associate with the Rocky Mountains.  There are no tall peaks rising above treeline, clad with perpetual snow, although they exist some ten to twenty miles away.  Rather, the land undulates up to the Continental Divide, clad in a dense forest of conifer.  This forest has been damaged by the beetle epidemic but not completely, as yet, devastated.

There is one notable peak nearby, Long Branch Baldy.  I passed the aptly named drainage Baldy Branch as I hiked by on the trail.  All around me was the forest, at least on the slopes.  The creek bottoms were a mixed zone of aspen, willow and open grass.  It seemed luxurious in mid-June, grown up high and lush.  After three miles I came to a triple fork, none of which branches are named.  They spread out in a large fan shape, mostly climbing up to the heights above where lays the Great Divide.  Here I leave the bottom lands as the trail climbs through the forest and rocky soil.  The climb was long but not terribly laborious, although I gained over two thousand feet in elevation to reach the divide at about eleven and a half thousand feet above sea level.

This ridge is fairly level and extensive in breadth.  Or, so it seems compared to the relatively scant flat expanses elsewhere in the area.  I stopped here, about a third of the way through my trek, to take in the sites and note my surroundings.  Forest precluded any great views but the trees themselves spoke life and the marvel of the evolutionary process.  I felt at ease, out here in the woods, wishing for a bit more wildness in the world.  I prayed for the great predators of our land, mostly extirpated, and hope for their continual existence.  However, at that moment I began to think about the next four to five miles of hiking along this ridge.  The clouds were gathering and I was in an area that would be exposed to lightening.  I gathered my wits and began to hike to the northwest on Trail 486, changing my course from nearly due south.

Both the Continental Divide and Colorado Trails are routed on this path that I then trod upon.  At first I didn’t think too much of it but I met three or four different people who were traversing one route or the other.  The Colorado Trail runs from Denver to Durango while the much longer CDT runs along the divide from Mexico to Canada.  I met one soul who spoke only a few words of English but his amiable facial expressions said much.  I was amazed at the diversity in ethnicity and culture that I saw along this four to five miles of single-track.  Along the way, the forest more or less obscured any longer view excepting when a gap would allow distant observations of the La Garita Mountains to the south and the Sawatch Range to the north.  What a blessed day I was having, meeting so many interesting people all the while exposing myself to the majestic Rockies.

I reached the junction of Trail 491 on the eastern slope of Long Branch Baldy.  I descended down a half a mile of trail to reach Baldy Lake, one of the very few lakes or ponds in the Cochetopa Hills.  I can only speculate that this area was never heavily glaciated and thus no terminal moraines, common builders of high alpine lakes throughout the Rocky Mountains, were created to subsequently block stream flow.  This northeast face of Long Branch Baldy, however, appears to be an exception although I am far from certain as to the reason behind the lake’s creation.  Regardless, I walked up to the lake’s edge and admired the view.  Down here, below the high ridges, I felt safe from electrical storms and determined that this would be a great place to enjoy a small respite from hiking.  The previous year, in 2015, I had camped at this exact spot and as I munched down my snacks I thought about the general excellence of that backpacking trip.  Now, a year later, and I felt blessed to be here, in this spot once again admiring the body of water set in its small basin.

I rested by the lake for awhile, although I’m not sure how long, perhaps an hour.  I had approximately seven to eight miles of hiking remaining before I would return to the trailhead.  With a tinge of regret at having to leave this salubrious location I loaded up my gear and bid the cheerful lake goodbye.  I remember being worried about the dead trees falling on me during my sojourn last year and noted that during the previous twelves months that not a one had fallen.  I began walking down the trail, passing two smaller lakes.  My feet and knees were sore, but not enough that I worried about my condition.  Rather, the minimal pain I would call typical for the day’s exertion.  Also, I was now losing elevation steadily, and I have found that going down is harder on my body than ascending.

The trail runs parallel to a dividing ridge that runs north from Long Branch Baldy although it clearly stays in the Long Branch drainage for the first mile and half to two miles before following the ridge line almost directly.  Here I became worried again about exposure, but I had no real concern about thunder other than the clouds.  I didn’t see any lightening strikes nor hear any claps of thunder booming across the sky.  Still, I kept a wary eye and eye out for any such eventuality.  One this ridge, exposed to wind, the soil was much more sere than elsewhere and I noted that limber pine grows here.  I don’t often see that species and was pleased to recognize it considering its somewhat rare status in the area.  To my left I could look down into Hicks Gulch and beyond to the west, ridge after forest clad ridge rolling off in the distance.  To my right lay the drainage of West Branch.  I made the junction with the Hicks Gulch Trail and knew that the difficult part of my hike was now behind me.

A short descent led down to the creek bottom along West Branch, and after having walked along through somewhat dry forest trails much of the last eight to nine miles, I exalted at being among the lush grass and willow once again.  Here and there were also some interesting outcroppings of rock.  I don’t really know how these particular hills were formed but admired some of the rock that suggested an igneous creation story.  The creek and trail both lost elevation at a moderate rate and, although I was plenty tired by this point, I found the going easy and could stroll along at a steady pace.

I saw a few trails, made by game or cattle, along the route here that I would like to return to explore further some day.  Ponderosa pine also grow here, and that heightens my interest as they are one of my favorite species of conifer.  I passed by Lake Branch and I could now see the small park where West Branch joins Long Branch.  Within an hour I would be finished with today’s extravaganza.  I walked out into the park, admiring all that surrounded me, and returned to the junction with Trail 489.  It seemed difficult to believe that I had been here earlier in the day.  It was many hours ago, to be sure.  Yet it seemed like the beginning of this hike belonged to another day.

The final mile I walked at my normal pace but the time seemed to fly along.  Before I realized it I had returned to the trailhead and the old Forest Service buildings.  Nobody else was at the parking area and despite being open to motorized vehicles I had seen none.  A fine day of quiet, slow-paced recreating was coming to a close.  I unlocked the car door and opened it and the others.  I raised my leg up vertically to begin my stretches, and while my muscles were reliving the activity so did my mind.  I though about all that I had seen and experienced.  I felt twice blessed for having been allowed this day.  I didn’t stay too long as I wanted to get home and make sure that the canines would be cared for, but as I drove out I did so with a big smile on my face!

A Loop Hike Through Lower, Razor Creek and Barret Parks – June 11, 2016

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One of the more easily identified wildflowers, Iris missouriensis is part of Iridaceae and this specimen was found on the Right Hand of Barret Creek

A bright blue day awaited me in the late Spring of mid-June.  At home in Gunnison, Colorado, I packed my gear and then loaded the Subaru with said accouterments and my two faithful German shepherds, Draco and Leah.  We drove out east of town on U.S. 50 before wandering over a series of gravel roads until we reached the boundary of the Gunnison National Forest.  Today, I would explore a part of the Cochetopa Hills, hiking over the network of two and single tracks trails found in the region.  Solstice arriving within two weeks, I thought it not surprising that the sun shone high in the sky at seven in the morning.  A fine day of exploring this stretch of the Rocky Mountains lay ahead.

The Cochetopa Hills form a portion of the Great Divide and have obtained noteworthiness as the lowest portion within Colorado.  Nonetheless, most of the elevations are near ten thousand feet.  Clad in great swaths of conifer forest, only a few peaks rise above the verdure but numerous meadows and parks can be found throughout.  This area is not a wilderness and the various paths open to motorized recreation are moderately well used.  Hikers should beware that they will have to share space with faster-paced enthusiasts, as well as grazing domestic herbivores.  The latter can cause intense and localized pollution of water sources, so use caution when obtaining water as treatment should be considered mandatory for your health.

I parked the car at the National Forest boundary for no other reason than that the road became too challenging for my little car, and besides I would rather walk than drive at a certain point.  Much of the ensuing hike would occur through the higher reaches of the sagebrush steppe, where it transitions with the conifer and aspen forests.  I let the dogs out of the car and they met the open door with the typical enthusiasms.  Draco made a beeline for some shrubbery where other canines had left scent and Leah followed.  This was serious business so I let them be and donned my pack began to hike up Gunnison National Forest Road 782.

We initially climbed up a few small hills through grass and sagebrush until reaching some ponderosa pine.  Draco and Leah followed me as it became apparent to them that I was bound in one direction.  Once I reached level ground I stopped for a moment to study my surroundings and admire Fossil Ridge, rising distantly to the north yet clad in snow but busily melting under the increasing warmth of oncoming Summer.  To the northwest lay the open vastness of the valley of Tomichi Creek.  Big Hill lay to my southeast, forest cloaking any hint of that landmass.  As I continued to the southwest I could see Barret Creek and its various drainages, rising up to a dividing ridge with Razor Creek.  It was there that I intended to go, crossing over that divide twice, but in different locations, and all the while making a loop.

Much igneous rock lay about this area, and some oddly shaped outcroppings, small but interesting, where strewn about in Barret Creek.  I noted with admiring senses the new verdant color of the meadows and aspen, so green under the strengthening sun.  At this relatively low nine thousand foot elevation the wildflowers were blooming with vigor.  New to the season species were evident and all the colors of the rainbow dotted the sagebrush or meadows throughout the hike.  The road dropped down towards the stream and here I left the road and began to hike on a single track trail, Forest Trail 494.  The road intersects Barret Creek near a set of forks that divides the creek into three branches.  The trail set out on the Right Hand before shortly climbing a small rise to cross over into Middle Barret Creek.

I noted a few of the wildflowers growing in this area.  Particularly, Iris missouriensis and a species of Thermopsis I noted with contentment as harbingers of the forthcoming warm months.  The wild Iris is a common and beautiful flower that blooms early in the season, thus it is a favorite of mine.  However, it has gained some notoriety due to its toxicity.  The yellow False Lupine grow in patches and liven up many a meadow found on the lower slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Onward the dogs and I trod.  The trail closely paralleled Middle Barret Creek and as we climbed upward I attempted to note the various small drainages that I saw and correspond them with those on the maps.  The hills confuse especially with no views through the forest and convoluted is the topography.  A couple of miles of pleasant hiking accompanied by the gurgling water finished with a steep climb to the divide where Trail 502 made a junction with that which I was hiking on.  I wandered off the trail a short distance to eat a quick bite but was besieged by hordes of what I presumed to be newly hatched mosquitoes.  I had neglected to pack my plant-based insect repellent having had no need for it during the cooler months.  I decided that the dogs and I were not satisfied with the state of things so we moved on down the new trail into North Gulch, a tributary of Razor Creek that leads into Lower Park.

A short descent led us to a meadow wet with seepage.  The grass grew tall and green here, surrounded by green aspen.  Amazingly, the mosquito situation improved despite the damp, conducive conditions prevalent here.  I found it odd that the divide, dry and relatively sere, had such a heavy presence of the worrisome wee beasts.  I hiked down to the first major fork of this drainage, not quite a mile, and noted the beauty of the well proportioned meadow that I could see.  So, the dogs and I left the trail and bushwhacked our way up about a quarter of a mile where we attempted another rest with better results regarding the blood-sucking insects.

The major branch of North Gulch broke up into numerous small branches and I was tempted to spend the day in this vicinity exploring each and every one, such was the salubrious nature of this pleasing meadow.  However, I also wanted to hike this loop and reacquaint myself with this area on a larger scale.  Alas, I am often conflicted as such, whether to make a longer hike over more territory or to explore a small patch of land more intensively.  I do like backpacking because I can often do both.  Day hikes, like today, however, I feel that I must choose one or the other.

After our respite from flying biters and hiking alike, the dogs and I continued to descend through the forest of North Gulch.  A small rivulet added a pleasing sound to our stroll as it gurgled along and down a narrow gap in the soil.  Our downward hike brought us to an upper reach of the sagebrush steppe that is known as Lower Park.  Here, a number of tributaries from the north and south drain into Razor Creek.  To the south I could a see another forest clad divide, the high ridge of which separated our location from West Pass Creek, a tributary of Cochetopa Creek.  By this time the temperatures had begun to increase.  The clear, blue sky began to show hints of gathering thunderheads as puffy clouds built upward and over the region.  I noted the abundant Lupinus spp. that grew in this area.  Their purple flowers shone bright and fresh.  The smell percolated up and extravagantly scented the air as it mingle with that of the sagebrush.  So warm and green, a fine Rocky Mountain day!

Walking down into the core of the park, I noted where the previous Spring I had backpacked into this area and camped.  I noted the nearby environs where I had explored and remember that then too the lupine had been in bloom and that it had been quite the sight.  Before actually reaching Razor Creek, I turned to the east and began to walk upstream along Trail 501.  I have visited this area on a number of occasions at about the same time of year and once again I noted both the purple lupine mingling with the orange paintbrush, one of numerous Castilleja species found in the area.

The trail rose above the creek substantially so as to avoid a choked canyon full of downed timber and rocky obstacles.  Somewhere between a half and a full mile the trail descended down to the creek bottom and its concomitant meadows.  Razor Creek itself made wan sinuous loops and bulged with the melting water of the higher reaches of the divide, a place I have visited but would not today.  The slope containing the trail faced south and was well heated, thus the canines thoroughly enjoyed the creek’s ability to slake their thirst.  Further upstream, I could see the expanded meadow where Razor Creek Park lay.  I have often enjoyed this park and its wide-open views of the surrounding forest.  I stopped for a moment to soak it all in as the dogs soaked in the cooling waters, and then we continued among the green grass following a trail that had become nearly overwhelmed with new growth.

Reaching the park I made a junction with Road 781 and I could either see or hear motorized vehicles in vicinity.  I turned to the north and began the return leg of the hike.  I walked through this arm of the park with great admiration.  Open grass and sagebrush surrounded by the great forest were in view throughout.  As I approached another divide, this with Needle Creek, I turned left onto Trail 493 and began to hike up to Barret Park.  On the way, I passed the headwaters of Fence and Horse Gulches, tributaries to Needle Creek, and thought to myself what a wonderful and wild place this could still be with a change in stewardship practices.

At Barret Park I made another junction with Trail 494, that same which I had nearly begun my hike so many hours ago.  I could have taken the short route back via this trail but decided to continue on with Trail 493 up and over the divide with the Needle Creek drainage.  Trail 493 leads into the Right Hand of said creek.  The divide itself is fairly dry and here grows a dense forest of lodgepole pine.  The trail descends rapidly and before too long the gurgling of flowing water can be discerned.  Another mile or so of hiking led to the southern base of Big Hill, that eminence which I had started out on the northern side of in the early morning hours.

The hike down had passed by a number of deciduous and water loving trees.  The slopes above were studded with large ponderosa and blanketed with sagebrush, ever ubiquitous.  The blue sky, so promising in the morning, had by now morphed into a mass of grayness that suggested imminent precipitation.  I had yet three miles of hiking before I made it back to my parked car.  I was only minimally exposed so I feared not lightening but was a bit concerned about the access road turning into a muddy, unpassable mess.  So, with barely a pause, I began hiking on Trail 643 up to the last divide that I would cross today and which would lead me into the Left Hand of Barret Creek.  (Strictly speaking, I would cross another divide into an unnamed gulch where I had parked the car.)

Most of this stretch of hiking passed through aspen and conifer forest.  The conifers consisted of Douglas fir, lodgepole and ponderosa, with possibly some spruce growing in advantageous locations were the soil accumulated moisture.  As I strode along, the dogs kept dipping into the small creek to refresh themselves much as they had done all day.  I thought how fortunate I was to have such easy and universal access to the wildlands of the Rocky Mountains.  I kept my eye on the sky, but otherwise enjoyed the gifts of Nature where presented.  About forty-five minutes passed and I reached Road 782 not a quarter of a mile from the junction with Trail 494.  I had passed this point earlier in the day and had noted it as the future point of egress from my loop.  The circuit complete I had naught to do but make the scant one mile hike back to the car.  At almost this exact moment, as the thought crossed my mind, I heard a clap of thunder and began to make haste.  I paid my respects to the ponderosa as I walked quickly by, being my favorite tree I could no less, and began to debate with myself how much I wanted to run across the open grassy knolls that left me exposed to lightening strikes.  I didn’t exactly run, but did make fairly speedy progress and just as I reached the car the rain began to fall.  I could see it moving as a curtain from my west, although the wall of precipitation was by no means universal as where I looked in other areas of the valley of Tomichi Creek I could see blue sky and clear atmosphere.

I loaded up the dogs and myself as the rain fell.  As I had predicted, the road had become muddy and I vainly steered the car in the direction I wanted to go.  The road base had turned to slime and the tires would only go in the general, rather than precise, direction that I desired.  My front end would go one way and the back end wanted to go the other.  The going was slow and I thought for sure that I would end up stranded but fortune was on my side and after a couple of miles of wobbly tracks I made it safe and sound to the gravel road.  It, too, was muddy, but not really slippery and soon enough I was headed back down U.S. 50, westbound now, towards home in Gunnison after a fine day of hiking and exploring.  A big cheer for the mountains!

Hike to Round Mountain – June 05, 2016

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Cerulean sky, aspen in verdure and white, puffy clouds make for a splendid day of exploring the Rocky Mountains of Colorado

I now realize how tardy I am in getting these photographs published on my blog.  Today, November 18, 2016, the morning low temperature is about eight degrees Fahrenheit and a light coating of snow lays upon the ground.  The sky is clear, much like this day that I am now reminiscing about, June 05 of the same year.  It was still technically Spring but most folks were already talking about Summer, which now seems to have been so long ago.  The deep blue of the sky suggested a day of exquisite beauty.  The aspen had leafed out in fullness and shone with the deep verdant of early June.  The whiteness of the clouds and the remnant patches of snow in the high country added to Nature’s palette and the mix of colors bid me a fine day of exploring.

Life abounded wherever I looked.  New blooms of orange, yellow, white, blue, purple and red spangled the gray-green carpet of sagebrush.  In the early morning sun the flowers glowed such as to suggest neon, especially the purple Delphinium.  I had pulled up to the summit of the Jack’s Cabin Cutoff where there is access to the Gunnison National Forest and specifically to that agency’s Road 813.2A.  My goal was to hike up this road to its end where I would then hike on a trail further to the north.  At some point I would leave the trail and bushwhack to the summit of Round Mountain.  This relatively short summit tops out at nearly eleven thousand feet above sea level yet is a prominent landmark on the drive up Colorado 135 from Gunnison to Crested Butte.  I had always wanted to explore this realm and today would be the day to do so.

Once I had parked the car my two faithful German shepherds, Draco and Leah, awoke from their drive-time nap and stretched themselves out in the luxurious manner of canines everywhere.  When it became obvious that this was our destination they began to wag their tails in eager anticipation of the forthcoming adventure.  I opened the door and they both leaped out, Leah with her characteristic squeal of delight.  Frantic energy expended itself in the dogs initial investigation of their immediate surroundings.  While they did that I hoisted my pack upon my shoulders and began to hike up the two-track towards the narrow canyon about a mile away.  I quickly found my stride and once the shepherds keyed in on my intent they then followed excepting for the inevitable distractions caused by the various rodents found in the vicinity.

The air was warm though just after seven in the morning and I thought myself wise for getting an early start to beat the heat as well as any possible thunderstorms.  The first part of the hike allowed for fine views towards Red Mountain as the low-angled sun crested the ridge and struck the peaks across the valley, but I was happy to pass the gates of rock that allowed entrance to the hilly region beyond.  This was but the first of numerous parallel tributaries of Roaring Judy Creek that I would cross.  At this point we more or less left the sagebrush steppe behind and found ourselves in a large aspen forest.  The road rose up a bit and then leveled out.  The next couple of miles of hiking would be a fairly easy stroll through the shafts of light that penetrated between the boles.  The aspen forest with its new green felt charmed and all was once again fresh in the world.

The road ends at Roaring Judy Creek and here begins a single-track trail that is closed to motorized but not mechanized vehicles for this is not part of a designated wilderness.  Nonetheless, there were not many folks out and about on this day and I did not see many humans beyond those passing by on the state highway far below.  I removed my shoes to cross the freshet, the waters moving swiftly from the snow melt above.  I sat on the far bank and laced the shoes firmly to my feet and began the steep climb up to the trail junction.  Rising up from the narrow defile I could see above me the rocks that form the gates of Roaring Judy Creek.  Rather than head in that direction I continued on my path to the north.

I soon left Roaring Judy behind and found myself on Slumgullion Creek, a tributary.  This creek ran north as well and the dogs and I paralleled it all the while repeatedly crossing over the numerous small tributaries that feathered off of the main branch.  The trail rose to cross one ridge before descending to a small creek and this pattern continued until we reached the divide with Granite Creek.  The dogs I kept close by as this area is the Spring time home to numerous bands of elk and deer.  Game trails are abundant here and knowing that the elk could be vulnerable after Winter’s energy expenditure I didn’t want to startle them beyond my mere passing.

Once at the divide I had to choose a route up the mountain.  It seemed reasonably straight forward.  The forest was now mostly Douglas fir and not too many logs had fallen to block the way.  There was some talus strewn about but I deftly avoided it where possible.  The slope wasn’t too steep neither and I swiftly progressed up to the peak.  Surrounded by taller peaks Round Mountain at ten thousand eight hundred and seventy-eight feet is easily ignored by those whose sole interest is elevation.  Yet this summit allows for fine view up and down the valley of the East River.  As I gained the rocky summit I noted with gratification that there were still small patches of snow here and there were the dogs could slake their never-ending thirst.  I drank a bit of water myself but mostly assuaged my soul on the dramatic perspective.

Little to no evidence of prior visitation stood out on this summit, somewhat to my surprise.  Usually, there exists a cairn of some sort in the form of a heap of rocks.  There was none.  I wandered over to a large, old Douglas fir that had a sense of timelessness about it.  Here I sought shade as well as a softer place to repose my hind end.  The views here were a bit obscured but I sat content to look at what I could from this vantage.  I especially reveled in the view of Granite Basin below me and filling the void between Round and Cement Mountains.  I could see the Elk Mountains in the distance, to the north, still swaddled in snow, a reminder that the warm weather found at lower elevation in nowise meant that the high passes were open.  I basked in this glory for some time.  Draco and Leah came to me and ate their kibble that I had hauled up for them before returning to one prominent and seemingly favorite snow patch where they tortured an old stick.  I snoozed a bit and generally felt that sort of contentedness that soothes any being willing to feel the spirit of the mountains.

The day warmed appreciably and I wondered at the snow’s tenacity in resisting melting into water.  Eventually I came to the realization that I would have to descend from my ethereal perch.  I attempted to retrace my steps back down the way I had originally came up, however I walked a slightly different path through the Douglas firs.  Once back at the divide I decided that I would descend the trail to the north, into Granite Creek, just to see the lay of the land.  The main stem of lower Granite Creek also carries the epithet Eccher Gulch.  The upper portion is called Granite Basin.  I walked down about a half of a mile where I crossed the main creek and found a grassy meadow to sit a bit and enjoy my place in the world.  Above me sat Granite Basin rising up to Cement Mountain and below me Eccher Gulch ran down to the East River.

I stared out towards Red Mountain and its lingering snow and truly appreciated the fine June day that I was enjoying.  Warm and comfortable, no thunderstorms nor lightening seeming to develop and mar this salubrious perfection, there was naught wrong with my situation.  The shepherds lounged in the warm sun, happy and content with the day’s exploration.  I came to the sudden realization that the time had come to depart for the trailhead and subsequently home.  The hike up to the divide was tiring but overall I enjoyed the hike back through aspen, Douglas fir and the sagebrush steppe.

I did have one moment of excitement when about a third of the way along my route I saw a porcupine climbing a tree.  The thing about this porcupine, however, was that it was no porcupine.  I had thought it was strange to see such a beast climbing a tree in such a manner that resembled a bear cub.  At that moment I realized that it was indeed a bear cub shimming up an aspen a mere sixty to seventy feet away.  Realizing immediately that mama bear would not be so happy with my proximity to her wee one I was happy to see that she was another fifty feet or so beyond the cub, and that she was also busily engaged in feeding herself and had her head down unaware of my presence.  At least I was not between her and her baby, and for that I felt relief.  Also, since I now knew her location I knew which way I could retreat and made haste to do that.  I did not run but I did walk awfully fast, all the while calling the dogs to my side.  After a hundred feet or so, I turned to determine the exact situation and saw her run off with a second cub to be followed five seconds later by the first that had scooted up the aspen bole.  Once my heart returned to a normal beat I continued on my merry way, perhaps a bit more wary of what was behind any upcoming tree!

Evening Hike to Point 8882 Above Almont – June 02, 2016

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A view of the Gunnison River below Point 8882, near Almont, Colorado; Uncompahgre Peak, to the right, and the San Juan Mountains on the horizon

Work was over, and I had driven down from the job to my home in Gunnison, Colorado, where I was met by the pack of canines that are my happy-go-lucky companions.  One is an old invalid, or mostly so, and gets out for short walks only.  However, the other two are eager and competent for whatever hiking or exploring I am up for.  There are exceptions, such as sustained hiking across talus, to the general rule but this evening was typical for the level of enthusiasm that Draco and Leah displayed.  Tails wagging, barely restraining themselves from pawing or batting at the door, they burst forth from the house, all mirth and excitement at the prospect of an outing.

There are a handful of places that I typically take the dogs out for their evening stroll.  I decided to expand our collective horizons a bit by driving up to Almont, ten miles or so north, where the Taylor and East Rivers converge to create the Gunnison.  Tucked away from prying eyes is a road that leads up to a ridge the rises east of the confluence.  This area, that which is not private, is public lands managed by the Gunnison National Forest and I sought out Gunnison National Forest Road 743.  This two-track leads up out of Almont through a series of switchbacks until it reaches the ridge top.

This area is part of the vast sagebrush steppe, although the elevation is such that there are mixed grasses in abundance in the area as well as groves of conifers and aspen.  There was one small pond along the way that the German shepherds were able to dunk themselves in, refreshing indeed!  Once we reached the ridge the views expanded to the south.  On  the hike up I could see north along the East River towards the Elk Mountains and all the intervening country, such as the Almont Triangle.  The canyon of the Taylor River was easily denoted by its sharp trace through the ancient granite.  Now, hiking up to Point 8882, I could see expanses to the south and east.  Flat Top dominates the western horizon regardless because it lies at another one or two thousand feet in elevation beyond the highpoint that I achieved this evening.

The southern view comprised the City of Gunnison and the valleys of the Gunnison River and Ohio Creek.  Beyond that the view stretched out over dozens of miles culminating in the high peaks of the northern San Juan Mountains.  Between my observation post and those distant mountains lies undulating and rugged terrain.  There is much out that way, I reflected to myself, that I had yet to see with my own eyes up close and personal.  Looking east I could follow the ridge as it gained elevation up to another intersecting ridge that rises to Fossil Ridge.  A thousand feet or so higher and the sagebrush has been phased out in favor of large stands of aspen forest.  The aspens’ leaves had begun to green out and all was beauty and grace during this late Spring.

As the sun set I sat and admired the newly bloomed flowers.  Mostly orange paintbrush (Castilleja spp.) and white Phlox grew in the stony soil between clumps of gray-green sagebrush (Artemisia spp.).  I sat bewitched as Spring’s pageant dazzled my senses.  One of the great many species of Asteraceae grew in profusion, as well.  With mauve ray flowers coupled to yellow disk flowers this species could be of numerous genera and I don’t really know which it belongs to.

My day was nearly done.  The work day had fatigued me and I wanted to rest.  I had done so on the small knoll that is Point 8882 amid nature’s abundance.  I watched the day’s last rays streak across the sky above Flat Top and Red Mountain as I admired the view.  I was happy to walk among the wild things, although this outing was much too quick.  The so-called reality of our modern life beckoned to me, chores demanding their due.  I rose and began the descent more or less along the same route that I had ascended.  June!  So green and blue and white… could there be any more promising time in the Rocky Mountains?

Short Evening Hike on the North Bank of the Taylor River – May 31, 2016

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An evening stroll on the Taylor River

I had just finished a day of work and still had ample time before sunset to take the shepherds, Draco and Leah, out for a short evening hike.  There are quite a few places where this activity is worthwhile near my home in Gunnison, Colorado.  One such place to do that is on the north bank of the Taylor River just upstream from the North Bank Campground.  Although the river is often crowded there is plenty of room for everyone and despite the proximity of a busy road the area seems quiet and out of the way.

Leaving from a trailhead near the campground we walked up a user created trail that generally caters to fishermen who dip their lines into the fish-filled waters of the surging river.  Surging is indeed the correct adjective as the snow melt river was swollen with fast moving and frothing water.  I worried that one or other of the dogs would jump in and be carried off and drowned, but they generally have too much common sense to endanger themselves in that manner.  However, we all misjudge certain attributes within our lives and the shepherds could conceivably do the same, so I kept my eye on them whenever we were close to the river’s bank.  There is one portion of this unofficial trail where we have to walk right at the water’s edge and it is even possible for an experienced hiker like myself to fall in an meet my untimely demise.

Most of the fishermen (and women) hike only a short distance before plying the water.  After the first quarter of a mile or so I wouldn’t see anyone on my hike.  Across the river I could see cars zipping by on their way hither and tither but due to the water crashing against the boulders I could hear them little if at all.  Up and upstream we would hike, past Trail Gulch first and then finally Big Gulch where the trail begins to fade into obscurity.  Not only does the trail dwindle but the cliffs reach down to the river’s edge and the way becomes difficult for passage.  Fortunately, their exists a large meadow that feels like a wilderness haven in the middle of the busy human world.

Now at the meadow I found a good place to sit and watch the world go by.  The large pines growing along the banks of the river blocked the view of the road excepting for very brief glimpses of cars cruising by.  I turned my focus to the sounds, sights and smells of nature.  From the large trees, mostly pine and aspen, to the most obscure microorganisms that help remove the organic detritus, I meditated on the amazing construct that is our world, the Earth.  I couldn’t let my mind wander too long as Draco and Leah will rustle up some sort of mischief whenever I’m not looking.  They had, in fact, both wandered off in pursuit of noisy tree-going rodents, whose shrill whistles had alerted me to the dogs activity.

I love this canyon, especially in this area where the walls of ancient reddish-orange granite rise up from the narrow canyon.  The setting is classic Colorado Rocky Mountains and I feel at peace whenever I visit.  I continued to sit, a bit more alert, and thought about my good fortune living in a place where nature in general and specifically wildlands are so accessible.  The aspen, I noted, had completely greened up and although technically Spring the day felt very much like Summer.  The Sun’s setting was imminent thus I began to hike back, saddened temporarily by having to conclude such a great day.  The dogs followed, frolicking with each other and investigating whatever attracted their canine sensibilities.  Driving home I was so moved by the Sun’s actual setting that I quickly snapped a couple of photographs of the evening light over the West Elk Mountains.  This quick excursion recharged my well being and it makes me ponder that having wildlands nearby ought to be the birthright of any free people.

Gorgeous Spring Day Outing to Townsite Gulch – May 30

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Cochetopa Dome beyond Alkali Creek

Clouds dotted the sky as I parked the old intrepid Subaru station wagon in Cochetopa Canyon along Colorado 114.  I let the dogs out, Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, so that they could shake out some of their energy as I made ready my gear for the upcoming hike.  We had to cross the state highway so I put the leashes on the shepherds so as to avoid any unfortunate mishaps.  Having crossed the highway without any problems we began to hike up a steep, unnamed gully on Bureau of Land Management lands.  There is a two-track suitable for high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles but not my Subaru and it has been designated BLM Road 3169.  These public lands are managed out of the Gunnison Field Office, although today I was hiking in Saguache County, southeast of my home in Gunnison, Colorado.

Two or three weeks prior I had hiked from this same trailhead and then there had been snowpack lingering from the Winter, yet to be thawed by Spring’s inexorable warming.  There was also a coating of fresh snow that day, a reminder that Winter can last here in the high country much later than the official equinox. Today, however, the sky was mostly blue, and only a few occasional large puffy clouds sailed wanly across.  Not only that, but now there were new green leaves on the aspen and the grass had turned as well.  Flowers were in bloom, and all in all it was a fine day to hike out in the woods.

To be sure, this is not a wilderness area.  Generally, I was hiking northeast of Sawtooth Mountain, in a landscape that is crossed by numerous roads.  Thus, were there are roads there are motorized vehicles, and I saw one that day.  This early in the year, my equanimity was not seriously upset, but I do prefer to keep my distance from the noisy and smelly machines when I can.  Nonetheless, I could smell the ponderosa pine and other conifers and the scent invigorated my being.  Rising up from Cochetopa Canyon I crossed over into Alkali Creek while simultaneously entering the forest.  I reached the boundary of the Gunnison National Forest and left the Bureau of Land Management property.  This land might not be wilderness, but it does retain some of its inherent wildness and I was happy to be walking around, investigating my surroundings.

East of Sawtooth Mountain are numerous parallel drainages that carry away the water from the snow still lingering on the flanks of the massif.  Now hiking on Gunnison National Forest Road 854, I walked down to and across Alkali Creek before rising up again onto a ridge that was part of the great sagebrush steppe.  Past an outcropping and back down to a southern tributary of the aforementioned creek I did go.  Another ridge lay ahead of the dogs and me, this one swathed in forest.  A steep descent lay on the south face of said ridge, but the total distance down to Homestead Gulch was not great.  What a view!  Aspen sprouting newly green leaves, blue sky and white snow on the mountain to the west – a scene of utmost beauty and ideal for contemplation.

The dogs eagerly lapped up any water that they came across, and fortunately there was no lack of the liquid due to the incessant melting of the Winter’s snowpack.  I decided that I wanted to cross one more ridge and so up we went out of Homestead Gulch and over the grassy summit into Townsite Gulch.  Here lay another scene of the ubiquitous grandeur that can be found most anywhere in the Rocky Mountains during late Spring.  I found a perch above the creek where I could sit and observe the world around me.  I later wondered up a side gully where I found a meadow conducive to further ruminations about the world.  Lunch was served and as I nibbled away on my various victuals the shepherds eagerly consumed there own.  I had brought an apple, two snack bars, a cheese stick, a small bag of mixed nuts and some dried fruit.  That is a fairly typical lunch for me while I am out hiking in the woods of the Gunnison Country.  The canines gobbled up their kibble, and we all felt content as we stretched out to gather up the warm sunshine streaming down from the distant star.

Now near the end of May, my focus began to change.  Instead of worrying about snowy weather and the threat of hypothermia I began to obsess about the potential for thunderstorms and their concomitant discharges of electrical pulses.  I thought about hiking further south to Willow Creek but noticed that the clouds had begun to build up in a menacing manner.  I decided to save that adventure for another day, since I would have to cross much open ground to get back to the trailhead as it was.  So, I packed up my gear and began to hike back towards the canyon where the car awaited.

The hike back was fairly straightforward.  I did stop on the ridge between Alkali Creek and its southern tributary to climb around on the outcropping of exposed rock that I had noticed on the way in.  I’m not sure why I was so fascinated by this particular rock as it seemed fairly ordinary but nonetheless I walked around on it for fifteen to twenty minutes or so to study its aspects.  Its eminence did allow me to scan the surrounding countryside and allow me a slightly better understanding of the intertwining drainages.  Still, as I did this, the clouds continued to build unabated.  Their heavenly assemblage would not desist so, to cross the great span of lightening prone landscape, I made haste.

I still had a mile to go and the thunder did begin to boom.  I was in trees and felt no great concern for the moment but was worried about the final half a mile across a barren grassland.  I could hear the clouds approaching as I made my way across the open space.  The dogs seemed nervous, as well, and I believe that we all felt relief when we entered the steep-sided gully that led down to Cochetopa Canyon.  Thunder was cracking all around us now as I put the leashes on the dogs so as to cross the highway safely.  We reached the car and loaded up.  Within a half a minute the sky opened up and a deluge of rain and hail fell forth from the dark clouds.  I sped on down the highway, happy to be headed home after a fine walk and not too unhappy to miss the worst of the day’s weather.