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!
Long Branch near the old building on Road 780
Crepuscular light over Long Branch in the dawn
Gunnison National Forest Road 780 in the early morning
The first rays of the morning’s sun striking a ridge above Long Branch
The early sun lighting up the clouds over Long Branch
I would follow the left hand trail
The beginning of the Long Branch Trail 489
Typical setting in Long Branch
Sunlight streaming through the clouds above Long Branch
Long Branch in the Cochetopa Hills
Sunlight striking the forest above Long Branch
Morning scene on Long Branch
The early sun streaking across a ridge above Long Branch
Near the triple forks of Long Branch
Sign to make sure travelers head in the correct direction
A fork where the trail doesn’t go, on Long Branch
Aspen, still freshly verdant, in the late Spring of mid-June
The Long Branch Trail heading up to the Great Divide
A squirrel midden on Long Branch
Sunlight obscured by the dense forest on Long Branch
Climbing up from Long Branch through the forest to the Continental Divide in the Cochetopa Hills
Looking out over the upper reaches of Long Branch, part of the Gunnison National Forest
An outcropping near the head of Long Branch
The Colorado and Continental Divide Trail near the Long Branch Trail
Colorado Trail marker in the Cochetopa Hills
Looking south from Trail 486 west of Long Branch Trail
Some beetle killed trees in the Cochetopa Hills
In the shadows along Trail 486
On Trail 486 between Long Branch and Baldy Lake
This handsome devil was found on Trail 486 in the Cochetopa Hills
Looking north from the Cochetopa Hills
Looking over to the Sawatch Range from the Cochetopa Hills on Trail 486
A break in the forest allows this view of the Sawatch Range
Snow clad peaks in the distance seen from the Cochetopa Hills
Signage for Trail 491
Approaching Baldy Lake, some snow still on the ground
A cornice of snow above Baldy Lake
Talus slope with a bit of snow extant
Baldy Lake under Long Branch Baldy
My campsite from the previous year at Baldy Lake
One of the smaller Baldy Lakes
Through the forest, distance thunderstorms seen
Trail 491 meanders down from Baldy Lake in the Gunnison National Forest
A limber pine on the divide between West Branch and Hicks Gulch
Definitive cones of the limber pine
On an expose ridge looking east, on Trail 491
Not quite four miles to go
Looking west over Hicks Gulch, Tomichi Dome to the right
Typical forest setting in West Branch
In West Branch
Looking up Lake Branch, some beautiful purple lupine growing among the sagebrush
An outcropping of what might be breccia on West Branch
A bit of snow lingering near the smaller Baldy Lake