Autumnal Hike to Mill Lake in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness – November 15, 2016

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A dusting of snow clings to Sheep Mountain’s north face above minimally iced Mill Lake

The Ides of November greeted the Gunnison Country with a fine cloudless day, the sky overhead the cerulean shade that I associate with the dry air of Autumn.  I thought that this may be the last time for the year that I am able to climb up above treeline before the snows make that objective much more difficult.  Thus, I gathered up my two faithful German shepherd hiking companions and we drove up to one of my favorite places in this area, namely Gold Creek, from where many hiking options avail themselves to the public.  As far as I could tell, we were the only souls about.  Summer having long since passed, nobody resided at the nearby campground, nor did any hunters remain after the closing of the season.

I have visited this area numerous times over the years and am always enthralled with the geology of the area.  Some of the limestone bluffs that reach twelve thousand feet in elevation above sea level contain fossils relevant to the ocean and thus demonstrate the mighty powers of the Earth in its ability to heave up, or subsume, the crust.  What was once on the bottom of the sea now rises well above it, a story tens of millions of years in the making.  The orogeny that produced the Rocky Mountains has created this landscape, indelible for the next tens of millions of years until erosion finally wears it back down to the same ocean that it rose from.

The trail to the lake is somewhat steep, climbing about fifteen hundred feet in just over two miles.  A number of switchbacks elevate users as they travel upwards.  The dense forest doesn’t allow for much of a view, except for occasional opening in the canopy.  At the base, near the trailhead, however, exists a large meadow from where a fine view of Fairview Peak may be had.  This same meadow houses an abundance of ground squirrels whose antics typically attract the attention of the canines.  The small rodents weren’t very active this morning but nonetheless the shepherds scampered about sticking their noses into the burrow entrances.  I walked up the trail, leaving the grassy meadow, now yellowed and prepared for Winter, and entered the evergreen forest.  The deciduous trees had lost their leaves but the conifers retain their needles and the forest scent, damp and decay, fills my nostrils with its pleasing odors.

Reaching the lake after an hour’s hike, the chill has dissipated with the Sun’s increasing height as it arcs across the sky, yet a skim of ice floats on the surface of the lake, a harbinger of Winter.  The exertion to reach this place is fairly minimal for a seasoned hiker, and I add to the program by climbing up the steep slope to the ridge above that divides this drainage from Lamphier Creek.  Snow covers much of the northern face with just enough to make things slippery, so I decline the thought to climb up to Fossil Mountain itself.  But the ridge offers ample views and the shepherds and I sit and stare out onto the world.  I keep a sharp eye on them so when they get close to various cliffs I recall them to my side.  Curious as they are, I do worry that they might follow a chipmunk over the edge and plummet to their doom.  Fall being a dry time of year with minimal humidity, the views that I enjoy are expansive and clear.  The ridgeline that lies some thirty miles away is so sharply defined that I feel like I could reach out and grab it.

We rest for an hour or so before descending towards the lake via the route used to ascend.  It is steep, and I watch my footing so that my awkward two-footed self doesn’t tumble head over heels to the base of the slope below.  Meanwhile, the sure-footed four-paw canines scamper about with impunity, and a certain envy at their mobility rises in my craw.  Well, I suppose I wouldn’t suspend my humanity and its self-awareness for that extra mobility and besides I find that I can get around better than the dogs in some circumstances, especially on talus.  Also, I can open doors and gates!  Returning to the lake below my first thought is to finish the hike and head home.  But then I look at the blue sky and warm Sun, and the invitation to lie in repose must be heeded.  I wander over to the south shore and find a meadow, now dry but usually boggy during Spring and Summer, where I can recline on my pack and kick my heels up a bit.  A nap is in order, and the canines soon mimic my lack of action excepting for an occasional foray into the woods where rodent activity has been confirmed.

Two hours of solitude and quietude follow.  The Sun follows its preordained arc slowly and the shadows creep along inexorably no longer pointing west but now east.  The idleness has restored my vitality and I slowly rise simultaneously regaining my wits.  The shepherds follow and both pose in the self-explanatory “downward dog” position.  Soon, we return to the trail at the outlet of the lake and begin to hike down.  Reaching the trailhead, I remain captured by the fineness of the day.  The high pressure has created this blue clear day that stirs not a whiff with even the slightest breeze.  I look up towards Fairview Peak and the old fire lookout, abandoned after a year’s use in the early Twentieth Century due to excessive  lightening, and my mind zooms to the view found from it’s lofty summit.  Our hike ends on this high note, and I am reluctant to leave, but domestic obligations call and I tear myself away from the woods for the road, feeling blessed for having this day.

Hermit’s Rest Trail in Curecanti National Recreation Area – November 08, 2016

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Looking upstream on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison while hiking on the Hermit’s Rest Trail

Fall, about midway through, brought on days short in sun and in me an inclination to hibernate.  The vegetation has faded, and the leaves fallen, although the extensive evergreen forests paint some slopes in that ubiquitous dark green seen on conifer needles.  My energy level remained fairly low after a Summer of hard work and challenging hikes, and after returning to Gunnison from my trip to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem I made few excursions in the woods that I love so.  This hike for me was a way to reset my system, and judge with what efficiency my physical plant, so to speak, was functioning.  Three miles of hiking down a gentle grade from Colorado 92 to Morrow Point Reservoir, and then back, is a fairly nice stroll by my standards.  The dogs, Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, would play in the water at the bottom of the trail, and I would enjoy nature’s display while listening to my body speak of its joints and muscles.

I happily noted that all seemed well enough with my knees and ankles, and I cruised down the trail with alacrity.  I noted the dry leaves on the Gambel oak.  The sun poured through the tall conifers, probably Douglas firs, that grow taller than the pinon pine the otherwise coat the hillside.  Down the trail we went, the shepherds skittering out in front, or trailing behind, temporarily mesmerized by some squeaky rodent.  Me, my attention was rapt by the natural world.  Besides observing the flora and fauna I kept my head tilted skyward looking up at the jutting rock.  The Black Canyon of the Gunnison flows through ancient, as in some billion years old, metamorphic rock that has been pushed up by the latest orogeny.  In some of that rock one can perceive striations from different layers of minerals.  Some of the bands are many feet thick, easily seen from miles away.  Looking above I can see the cap rock of igneous rock most likely deposited from the West Elk volcanic suite.  The trail winds around, turning back on itself at the numerous switchbacks that keep the grade easy.  A popular trail, the National Park Service keeps the surface fairly well groomed and my stride comes easy.  The low angle of the sun causes the cloudless sky to take on a brilliant cerulean cast, as well as creating the sensation that it is early morning all day long.  Pinon pine is fairly rare in Gunnison County, so I stop to run my hands along the fronds of short needles, and otherwise appraise the cones and growth of these trees.

Reaching the campground at the bottom of the trail I soon realized that I am alone here for the time being.  The area is mostly used by boaters, but no craft of any sort plies the placid waters of the reservoir that has inundated the Gunnison River.  My heart cries for the wild and free-running river, yet looking up at the canyon walls my soul remains inspired by the beauty of the area.  The canyon is fairly deep here, above the national park that celebrates the canyon’s unique features, but not as narrow as downstream where thousands gather to admire the geologic wonder.  The reservoir is somewhat drawn down so I lead the dogs to water’s edge and set down my pack on the soft mass of granular rock.  I dig out the ball that I thoughtfully brought along knowing that the shepherds would thoroughly enjoy retrieving it from the water.  I lean back on my pack, the sand nicely conforming to my body, and rest and refuel.

Later on, I wander the beach area and gather a few rocks into each of a few piles that make a neat display of the three major classifications of geologic type.  Sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic lie side by side, the various chunks an epitome of their respective part in the Earth’s history.  The stilled water invigorates the dogs and they run about, occasionally flinging sticks with a flick of their necks, or running abreast with jaws agape.  Their mood is infectious and I rise to join in the fun, the game an ever shifting tableau of who has the ball.  They eventually settle down and all enjoy a nap until we groggily begin the ascent up to the mesa looming above us.

The climb up is about what I would expect, a fairly easy walk up a nicely graded trail.  The further we climb the more expansive the views, although the dogs pay no attention to that.  Reaching the mesa top, I take time to stare at the long view to the south where the San Juan Mountains rear up to create the horizon.  The mesas stretch out for miles, but rent by the inexorable scouring power of water.  A fine day in November to get out and stretch the legs.  Although a fairly low key day, I felt blessed to have had it.  The play of light through the trees, creating a back-lit illumination of the fronds, delighted my senses, a blessed event in its own way.

Day Hike on the Ridge Between Deer and West Brush Creeks, in the Elk Mountains of Colorado – October 31, 2016

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Draco and Leah hiking in the Elk Mountains, Teocalli Mountain in background

What is it about living in the mountains, the inexplicable attraction to the steep defiles and forested slopes, that keeps a person here despite challenges that would, and do, thwart many a hearty soul?  The song may be sappy but I can’t help but feel a certain kinship with the sentiments expressed in John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”, a ballad that celebrates some of the same mountains I now traipse about.  As well, I can well recall my first journey to the Upper Huerfano, and how I found a home I didn’t know existed.  I find both hear and there, and wherever I am, moments of beauty that I can barely express via the written word, nor capture with a lens but with a fraction of the entirety.  Yet I suffer through some privation to live in such a place, common so I understand, in many a Western town.

By this Halloween hike the snows had fallen and where sticking on the shadier northern faces.  However, the southern faces had remained melted out so I could ascend fairly high up.  I had always wanted to walk up a certain ridge that I could see most anytime, barring low clouds or storms, said ridge having no name proper.  Most significantly for the local topography it separates West Brush and Deer Creeks, both tributaries to the East River in the Elk Mountains of Colorado.  This land is lush during the Summer months but now the aspen had shed their leaves leaving naught but the stark white boles.  Forests and groves of these aspen rose up from the grassy slopes and sometimes intermixed with the dark evergreen forests.  Clouds scudded across the valley but only a couple of cells, neither headed my way, dropped precipitation and virga.  Those streaks of moisture sliding across the horizon could be either rain, sleet or snow depending on the elevation.

Starting at the flat place on Brush Creek Road just above with the junction with the West Brush Jeep Trail, I walked up a short slope to join the latter, also known as Gunnison National Forest Road 738. 2A.  I hiked up along that road before forking left on Gunnison National Forest Road 582.  Just before the road crested a short hill prior to its terminus I began bushwhacking up towards the ridge that I planned on walking.  We hiked up through a few forests that proved easy to pass through and many open meadows of dried grasses and forbs.  The views naturally became more expansive as our elevation increased.  Draco and Leah, the ever faithful hiking companions, ranged out ahead curious as most German shepherds are.  Mostly surrounded by taller peaks and other high ridges, my views didn’t amount to many miles but what I could see in terms of rugged peaks reaching up to the clouds kept my attention enthralled as I would periodically stop to study the map.  A sport of mine is to correspond the topography I see with that found on the map I inevitably have.  We did this up to Point 12052, passing over Points 10607 and 11629 along the way.

The wind didn’t drive me away from the highpoint too soon, but eventually I knew that I would have to descend the steep slope to the Deer Creek Trail No. 568.  So after feasting on victuals befit for a mountain rambler, I recalled the canines to my side and began to jaunt down the grassy declivity.  When we reached the trail, I knew that the arduous part of my trek had ended and I could amble down the trail, more or less paralleling Deer Creek, at a relaxing pace all the while studying the flora, attempting to identify dried out plants by their seed pods.  Many miles separated us from the waiting automobile but they passed quickly.  I reflected on this low-key hike and left the mountains satisfied and enriched.  This day was a kind blessing to a soul then preparing for the long Winter ahead.  I know what not else to say except that this mountain ramble had felt good and satiated a hunger of sorts.

Wyoming Peregrinations, Day 11, Saratoga, Wyoming to Gunnison, Colorado – October 24, 2016

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Lake Marie below Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range

My final day of travelling began in Saratoga, Wyoming, at a large, boxy motel the decor of which was drab mostly excepting for some nice artwork in the lobby.  I left prior to dawn and traveled east on Wyoming 130, leading up to the aptly named Snowy Range and its highpoint, Medicine Bow Peak, elevation just above twelve thousand feet.  I saw a nice dawn, the Sun’s early rays illuminating the clouds with bright rosy colors as I stopped to admire Silver Lake from a roadside view point.  I continued driving up this lonely highway until I reached the Lake Marie Trailhead adjacent to the lake of the same name.  Here I parked and walked up the Medicine Bow Trail, aiming for the summit.  These lands are all managed by the Medicine Bow National Forest, and like a true American, I am thankful for their preservation and conservation as part of the public domain.

I continued to feel wan and fairly weak, so I made it only about half the way to the summit.  Partly, this was due to the snow accumulation that made trekking a bit difficult.  I was also feeling anxious about making it home and wanted more to make highway miles than hiking.  However, the views, what I saw of them, were magnificent, especially of the massive granite cliffs that form the Snowy Range.  I sat for a spell before wandering down back to the car where I continued my drive.  My feelings leaned towards making it home that night, but I wanted to see a few other sights along the way.  Thus, I drove on, but only to Snowy Range Pass where I pulled over once again, albeit briefly, to gaze out to the east over the distant Great Plains.  One other car was parked there, some player out of Los Angeles who was busy on his cellular phone and interested in knowing the previous day’s college basketball scores instead of the fine scenery.

I kept moving, driving down out of the Snowy Range, all of which is part of the Medicine Bow Mountains.  I passed through the remote town of Centennial set in the beautiful valley of the same name.  The drainage here is the Little Laramie River, and in this valley it forks numerous times.  East of the town I turned south on Wyoming 11 and ventured back up into the willow-strewn and grassy valley, on the eastern flank of mountains I had just exited.  After a dozen miles or so I turned onto Albany County Road 47 and crossed a small pass between the aforementioned river and the larger Laramie River.  Seven or eight miles later, driving down the graveled road, I turned back west, and re-entered the Medicine Bow Mountains, on Wyoming 230.  Near the crest of the mountain range I passed into Colorado and the road’s designation changed to Colorado 127.  This highway was one of the few Colorado state highways east of Interstate 25 that I have not traversed and I was somewhat content to log it in my informal collection of roads traveled.  A couple of miles into Colorado and I passed over a low unnamed summit that took me from the Laramie River into the North Platte and the valley often referred to as North Park.  I stopped for a late breakfast in Walden, Colorado, the county seat of Jackson County.  I do love this area although I have yet to make any excursions away from the road.  Someday…

From Walden, I continued west on Colorado 14 until I reached U.S. 40 at Muddy Pass where I continued west on that highway, crossing Rabbit Ears Pass and dropping down to Steamboat Springs.  I continued out of the mountains and into the great sagebrush steppe all the way past Craig until I reached the Gates of the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument.  I just wanted to see what was out this way, and didn’t stay long, but would love to return for an extended stay.  I returned to U.S. 40, continued west until reaching the Town of Dinosaur and turned south on Colorado 64.  That highway I followed until Rangely, where I turned south onto Colorado 139.  That highway I followed its entire distance to Interstate 70, where I returned to an easterly direction.  At Grand Junction, I left the freeway and took U.S. 50 all the way back home to Gunnison, passing through Delta and Montrose on the way.  Regrettably, I didn’t take any photographs of this day excepting near Medicine Bow Peak.  I suppose I was tired and just wanted to drive and see things without burdening myself.  Of course, I now regret this attitude, but I can’t really change that now, except to promise to myself to do better next time.  By the time I got home, it was well past dark, but I was happy to have made it and could therefore sleep in my own bed.

All in all, I had had a fine peregrination around Wyoming, seeing some old and some new.  But the feeling of fatigue that greeted me at the conclusion of day one never really let up and I didn’t do as much as I would have liked.  However, I did feel mostly refreshed at the conclusion of this trip and I certainly liked getting out of the Gunnison Country to see the Rocky Mountains beyond my own small corner of it.  I do like where I live, there being so much open country where I can hike and explore, but I generally crave seeing more than my own backyard, no matter how spectacular that area might be.  A trip like this helps me expand my own personal horizon and I am always grateful for having made such a journey.