The Sawatch Range is a large massif in central Colorado and parts the waters between the two great oceans that envelope the North American continent. The mountainous region is the western flank of a large anticline that has been further, and more recently, uplifted by a swelling up of magma from the Earth’s interior. Geologically, this uplifting is better termed as a batholith. The batholith does not occur along the entire range, but it does in the region of Browns Creek, where I would be hiking on this day, the first one of August.
I don’t know what has drawn me to this area, but for many years I had wanted to explore the high country west of the Arkansas River as it flows south from its highlands near Leadville. A handful of peaks rise above fourteen thousand feet in elevation and many more that top out over thirteen thousand feet. Yet, this is no wilderness, designated or not, as the forces that created the mountains also deposited numerous valuable minerals and the area is well known to this day as a location to exploit the geologic resources. Mining has also left many historic ruins in the various gulches and flanks of the hills, and these too draw visitors. Roads climb, precariously clinging to steep slopes, and this draws fans of off-road vehicles to the not-so-quiet mountains. Yet, despite all this, I still find a certain charm in the high country and if I don’t like what I see and hear then I can find places to remove myself from the commotion. The San Isabel National Forest manages this landscape, and to be sure, it is not a free-for-all: Rules and regulations apply, and motorized vehicles, as well as mountain bikes, are restricted to designated trails and roads.
Draco and Leah, my two intrepid German shepherd companions and hiking buddies, accompanied me on this trek and therefore when I fired up the car they hopped in. As we cruised east on U.S. 50, Draco eagerly stuck his head out the window, interested in all that transpired. Knowing that the dogs would be anxious for a break after weaving up the western flank of Monarch Pass, I pulled over at the summit and let them wander around in the early morning light. A fine Summer day awaited us, all blue sky, and the cool mountain air invigorated my being as I drew in each breath. We didn’t linger too long, just enough to walk down along Gunnison National Forest Road 906 about a quarter of a mile. The whole stop added about fifteen minutes to the journey.
Rolling down the eastern side of Monarch Pass on U.S. 50, I contemplated the geologic forces that created this realm, and simultaneously marveled and rejoiced at their being. At Poncha Springs, I turned north and piloted the car on U.S. 285 until reaching Chaffee County Road 270, where I turned north, or, in other words, back towards the west where the Sawatch Range now reared up. Dominating the horizon, perhaps better defined here as the skyline, the highest peaks rise some six thousand feet plus from the valley floor adjacent to the Arkansas River. The tall peaks reach up well above treeline, and their granitic mass stood out, gray and monolithic, above the verdant forest below.
The routes changed numbers and I now cruised up Road 272, the slope of alluvial deposits ever steepening. As the elevation increased, so did the density of the forest. Initially, I had driven through grassland, the only trees, deciduous in nature, denoting the route of creeks with abundant live water. Passing over the boundary to the San Isabel National Forest, individual trees began to grow, and as I rose I saw that they became more stout and tall. I was in a heaven of sorts, as these were ponderosa pine, perhaps my favorite tree. Chaffee County Road 272 became San Isabel National Forest Road 272, and I drove on until reaching the junction with road 274. Here, according to the map, is the Winter parking area. While I could drive on, I decided that this would be a fine place to start and would make completing a loop hike easy.
The drive hadn’t been extraordinarily long, but after disembarking the automobile, the dogs and I wandered around briefly in the sweet smelling forest, replete with morning dew and shafts of bright yellow penetrating light. We dithered about for ten minutes or so before I hoisted my pack upon my shoulders and started off walking down Road 274, also known as the Eddy Creek Road, since that is to where it leads. We crossed, about three or four hundred feet along the way, Raspberry Gulch, a shallow defile and fairly minor drainage that rises up to treeline but not beyond. Within a couple tenths of a mile, we came to Road 273, the Raspberry Gulch Road. I would lead us up this road to the Colorado Trail which, in these parts, skirts the base of the mountains. The dogs scampered about joyously, animated by various ground and tree dwelling rodents. I admired the web of life in its entirety, noting the grass mingling with the Mountain Mahogany all of which grew beneath the towering ponderosa. Of course, much else grows here and I smiled at the grandeur of this diversity, admiring those same rodents that the dogs find compelled by their inherited predatory lineage to chase and become obsessed with.
Reaching the Colorado Trail No. 1776 we turned left again, and began heading south. Initially, our hike gained modest elevation and the first half a mile I strolled along easily, admiring the forest and its various odors. However, as we neared Little Browns Creek we began to climb in earnest. The alluvial deposits faded and soon the dogs and I scampered up and around outcropping of native granite which comprises the Tertiary intrusive rock found here. Another mile of hiking brought us to the junction with the Little Browns Trail No. 1430. Here, I turned right and began to head west, up into the Sawatch Range. Early on, I could make out the tall peaks of the first salvo of summits that rear up to the blue canopy above. Once in the canyon, cut narrow and deep by Little Brown’s Creek, the sky remained visible, but much less of it, and the peaks disappeared behind the high rocky ridges. What the ridges did not obscure the forest did, and an increase in elevation brought a concomitant increase in density of spruce and fir.
Four miles of hiking awaited me until the trail crossed over the divide between this drainage and Brown’s Creek. Occasional openings in the forest allowed me to glimpse Mount White to the south, said peak rearing its head up to Thirteen Thousand Six Hundred and Sixty-Seven Feet. To my north lurked the massif topped by Mount Antero, one of Colorado’s numerous 14’ers. The canines had climbed, with me, some fifteen hundred feet already. Now, we would gain about three thousand, roughly seven hundred and fifty feet per mile, or about a sixteen percent grade. I felt great, and continued along unimpeded by fear of the exertion. I saw no other people along my path and felt very much in a backcountry setting despite the lack of designated protected wilderness.
Once having gained the sub-alpine life zone, the trees began to thin out. As the trail climbed the gully on its northern, and therefore sunny, side the forest began to thin and large swathes of meadows paralleling the creek became common. I was especially enthralled with the bristlecone pine at the higher elevation, perhaps my second favorite tree. Pink fireweed and blue Campanula grew in abundance and this could do nothing but enhance my joy. Climbing ever upward, the trees disappeared entirely and naught remained but the alpine tundra. Much of the north face of Mount White formed a jumbled mass of talus. I found this setting to contain a sublimity that percolated through my soul as I strode along.
Reaching the summit, we descended a small elevation onto a plateau of sorts that lingers above the main stem of Brown’s Creek. Instead of heading directly towards the road that would lead us down into the valley, where we would turn east and descend towards the original trailhead, we climbed up to another divide to the north. I made sure to admire the patches of yellow paintbrush and the white bistort that flourished in this harsh environment of short, moderate Summer and long, cold Winter. This divide allowed a view to the north and down into Baldwin Gulch. Much of the Sawatch Range to the north could be seen although most of it remained hidden from view despite my thirteen thousand foot plus elevation. Many rocky peaks surround the upper headwaters of Brown’s Creek besides those already named. Mounts Antero and White loomed to the east, while to my west a serrated divide rose up to numerous unnamed summits. Amazingly, this is not the ultimate ridge as the Continental Divide parted the waters still five miles further. To my south I could make out Cyclone Mountain, Carbonate Mountain and Tabeguache Peak the apices of which rise up towards or exceeding fourteen thousand feet in elevation.
Up on this ridge I took one of my numerous breaks but this one stands out in my mind due to the majestic mountain setting. Roads lie upon the flanks of the summits, a remnant of mining from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. A limited amount of mining continues in the area to this day and rockhounds have a fondness for this basin. For myself all I wanted to do was to study the topography and marvel at the past sixty-five some million years of geologic history that created this place. Thunderclouds began to build over the highest peaks, but they did not have any real energy behind them and it seemed unlikely that they would grow into a potential threat. So, I lingered and watched the world go by. I could hear a few machines but overall I felt serene and undisturbed by our society’s commotion.
At upper end of Little Brown’s Creek the trail by the same named had ended and I began to hike on two-track. The first was designated as Road 278.A and this led me to the next divide where I now lay in repose. Road 278, the parent road in the Forest Services’s numbering scheme, rose up from the Chalk Creek Road many thousands of feet below to the north at the outlet to Baldwin Creek. To the south this road descended into the basin of Brown’s Creek. When I had finished consuming my comestibles and emerged from my transcendental state, and the canines having done the same, I led us down this road past old mining sites and back into every increasingly lush vegetation. The road descended to one high tableland before leading down to another. Then we finally were led to the valley below. This basin was at each elevation a revelation. The alpine tundra gradually gave way to the sub-alpine forest, and here lush stands of willow suggested fecundity during this brief window of moderate temperatures.
Some three miles of additional hiking brought us down two thousand feet from the divide with Baldwin Gulch. Here, the road ended and the Brown’s Creek Trail No. 1429 began. Less than a half a mile later and I came to Brown’s Lake, one of many ponds in this basin formed by glacial action over the proceeding numerous millennia. Here I rested again, although for a shorter duration. The lake shore invited contemplation and who was I to refuse such a summons? I had already hiked thirteen or fourteen miles and seven more lay ahead. I would head mostly downhill but it would still be arduous. I put the thought out of my mind and focused instead on the beauty found nearby. The small lake shone as a mirror and reflected the blue sky above. Minimal wind and moderate temperatures made for fantastic hiking and I bid farewell to the high mountain valley as I began to descend Brown’s Creek.
The hike down tired me out, which surprised me not, due to the gravity enhanced impacts upon my knees and other parts of the leg. Near the bottom I took a small detour to investigate some falls on Brown’s Creek and sat briefly to enjoy the spectacle of tumbling water. The sight and sound both sooth me and this final rest recharged my physical being as well as my mental state. Just further on, the creek entered a fairly flat bottom land which opened up into a park of sorts. Rising all about me were the ridges that ran down from the heights of the eastern flank of the Sawatch Range. I made it back to the Colorado Trail, turned left to leave Brown’s Creek, cross Little Brown’s Creek and then turned right back onto the lower part of Brown’s Creek Trail. A few small ponds surrounded by aspen gave me yet another glimpse of mountain splendor.
I kept walking and finally reached the Brown’s Creek Trailhead on Road 272. I explored the area a bit, especially where Little Brown’s Creek tumbled through the ponderosa forest. A final mile and a half awaited me so I don’t linger long. The evening was on, as I had been hiking some eleven hours or so since departing in the morning. The shepherds showed amazing endurance, and while I walked along slowly, admiring the forest and putting aside the lurking pain, they scampered about, continuing to investigate all purported and reliable signs of rodent activity. Reaching the waiting car, we hoped in, all tired but not exhausted. The day had been a wonder of transition between elevations as well as envelopment in the natural world. As I rolled home, gratitude filled me with a rapture that comes from immersion into the wonders of our world.