A Pair of Short Hikes on Gold Creek – May 04, 2017

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Draco and Leah above Gold Creek, happy German shepherds

Spring had sprung, the weather more or less consistently balmy although the snowpack yet clung to higher elevations.  The heavy snows and cold temperatures of mid-Winter had caused concern about the valley’s ungulates, as they couldn’t get to the cured grass and forbs below the snow and the chill caused them to burn energy at a prodigious rate.  Spring can, surprisingly enough, cause even more concern, as, though the temperatures have warmed, the new grasses are yet meager and the old have been depleted.  Thus, this year, I have foregone trekking about most of my common haunts in the sagebrush steppe, where the snow has been vanquished but the wildlife habituate seasonally.  This early May day, however, I couldn’t stand still as the blue sky and moderate warmth beckoned with the Siren Song of Nature.  I decided to go above the wildlife and visit a drainage that I thought could be snow free enough to hike through.

By seven thirty in the morning Draco, Leah and I began hiking from Gold Creek north of Ohio City about two miles.  I wanted to find Gunnison National Forest Trail No. 610, a somewhat hidden route, that leads west towards the upper reaches of Willow Creek.  I often hike and ski in Willow Creek, but this year it provided critical habitat for deer and bighorn sheep so I forwent with Spring trekking there.  However, I deduced, if this trail went where I thought it would, then I would emerge well above, by a few miles, of any likely use by them or elk.  However, within the first quarter of a mile it proved unlikely that I could or, really, would want to buck the deep snowdrifts that still accumulated on the trail.  I could wait on this hike until the snow further melted out.

Instead, I found a way up the nose of a rocky outcropping so that we could climb instead the ridge to the north of Bear Gulch, which the trail ascends.  I had no goal in mind, except to attain some sort of high point or to where snowpack made further progress impractical.  I followed at times a lightly used game trail or else bushwhacked up the steep ridge.  The forest consists mostly of Douglas fir and aspen groves.  A few green leaves and verdant grasses were sprouting but mostly the new growth had yet to emerge.  We gained nearly twelve hundred feet in about a half a mile, and by the time we reached Point 10208 I felt the effort.  The snow had been absent at the lower elevations on the exposed faces but had steadily increased from small patches to large as we climbed.  Once the point was reached I had a fine view of Gold Creek and decided to stop here.  I could see Quartz Dome on the east side of Gold Creek, covered in a dense forest of lodgepole pine.  To continue on the ridgeline would have meant descending on a shady aspect well buried in snow and I didn’t feel the further effort worth the potential peril.

We reached the point just before nine and the Sun shone with mountain intensity.  Clouds rolled by, puffy and mostly as white as the snow.  No real threat of storm and infrequently was the Sun blotted.  Despite the early hour a warmth pervaded, and a fine respite was had by all.  The shepherds had used their enhanced canine capabilities to scamper up the ridge with alacrity.  The rested but shortly before a stick was found and employed as a toy.  The resulting banter soon grew to a crescendo upon which a series of growls, yips and barks echoed into the surrounding canyons.  Finally, when the toy became forgotten and further reaches of straying commenced I chose to rise myself and begin the trek back the way we came.

I took my map out and held it as we descended.  Going up to a highpoint is an easy bushwhack.  All one has to do is to keep going higher, but on the way down it is easy to become disoriented and erroneously choose the wrong ridge to follow down.  This may lead to impassible terrain or drop you into a watershed that leads away from your destination.  I had no problem finding my way back down, but often I would assiduously study the map to determine where the topographic pitfalls lay.  I found two new-to-the-season wildflowers, a sure sign of Spring’s inexorability.  Upon an outcropping nearly sheer above Bear Gulch I did stand and gaze about, happily content to wander thus aimlessly in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  In days gone by, Grizzly bears and wolves would have been part of the megafauna and as I watched the world go by I felt diminished by their absence.  Living with such creatures is challenging from a agricultural point of view, and I often hope that some rational compromise can be reached but am often doubtful given the obstinacy of human nature.

We climbed back down through the sagebrush, forest and meadow, over the last steep outcropping of sharp rock, until reaching the road below.  I felt great and the dogs scampered about with abandon.  I still had time enough to drive further up the road to the Winter trailhead.  From here I could hike further up the road, basically remaking one of my favorite skis into a pleasant early-season hike.  Quite a bit of snow remained on the road, but it had been thawed and frozen so many times that I didn’t really have to worry about sinking up to my knees in its depths.  An often enough the snow had melted out completely leaving great patches of exposed soil.  We hiked up to the campground, Draco and Leah oft enthralled with the chattering of the tree-dwelling rodents.  The wee beast might be thirty or forty feet above in a branch but that doesn’t prevent Draco from rearing up and placing his fore-paws upon the trunk so as to get that much closer to his quarry.

Reaching the campground we, as is our customary wont, appropriated one of the more sunny tables and sat there to munch snacks.  We explored the nearby creek, as we had done on our way up often straying from the road to walk through a meadow that would otherwise remain hidden.  Gold Creek, like others in the region, had swollen up into the nascent phase of a freshet.  Still, the waters flowed by fairly gently.  The mountain climate on a such a day as this induced a feeling of euphoria that I don’t often find elsewhere.  Leaving the meadow I wandered about more or less aimlessly in indolent peregrination.  Fine, I thought, looking at the snow-clad mountains rearing above the little sunny meadow, sky cerulean glory and even the dark green of the evergreen forest shining under the strong Sun.

This state of mind I kept for an hour or so until reality intruded into my conscious.  I yet had to work my shift this night and needed to return home so as to change over from sojourner to line cook.  Still, I lingered before departing, basking in the Sun.  The walk back to the car I made slowly, taking time to watch the dogs in their antics or to astray from the road to see exactly what it was they were so eager in sniffing.  Often it would prove to be a squirrel midden, a large mound of debris derived from their disposing of the outsides of the conifer cones they pluck the seeds from.  These heaps can reach large proportions, and the dogs are continuously attracted to them.  We passed the old Sandy Hook Mine and its collection of small dwellings still in infrequent use.  As many time have I walked by this place I still can’t help but admire the old log cabins and leaning boarding house.  A short walk later brought us back to the car.  I loaded up the pups and myself, gave thanks for the great day, and drove back home to Gunnison, enjoying the scenery on the way back, windows down and fresh air filling my lungs and soul with well-being.

A Spring Hike on Big Dry Gulch – April 27, 2017

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Draco on Big Dry Gulch

Spring is a tumultuous season, as storms come racing across the mountains where the currents of warm air create turbulence in the atmosphere when they collide with the frozen mass of snow that blankets the high peaks of the Rockies.  One moment I might bask in hot sunshine and the next I am immersed in a burst of snow accompanied by gale force winds.  Once minute I think me to be graced by salubrious Spring then the next I dread that I should perish lest I get to shelter.  The first sentence is fact, the second opinion, but both speak to the wonder I feel when out hiking in the woods on such a day.  Today would be that type of day, where my biggest concern, in all reality, would be my choice of clothing layers that I would don upon trekking.  I thought about what to wear on my legs especially, since I detest having to change pants mid-hike.  Have you ever seen a wet cat?  That expression of complete dismay is akin to what I feel like when I am changing pants in rough weather.  Yes, there are some things that I am true wimp about.

I couldn’t decide between my light hiking pants, heavy wool pants or some combination such as polypro beneath my light hiking pants.  I don’t honestly remember my decision, now that I am writing about this some months later.  Regardless, I loaded up my two German shepherd hiking companions and drove out of town, that is, the City of Gunnison, on U.S. 50 driving eastbound eight miles to Colorado 114.  Draco and Leah had displayed their usual enthusiasm for our outings.  They both knew what was in store for us when I loaded the pack, and they both stood at the back door, wagging their tails, before eagerly pushing it open as I turned the knob.  Now, driving up and over North Pass on the Great Divide, heads would periodically be stuck out the window as we rolled down the highway.  We reached Big Dry Gulch and pulled off the road.  The trail, merely a narrow two-track, led off from the state highway up towards a nearby mesa that, like others in the region, is capped by a layer of basalt or rhyolite.  The maps shows that this is Bureau of Land Management property, but I only saw signage for the Rio Grande National Forest.  I suppose they must have some working agreement, as the Forest Service’s property starts about half a mile beyond my makeshift trailhead.

I have to admit that I was fairly unprepared to hike this Rio Grande National Forest Road 720, as the only map I possessed was the National Forest system map which shows only where the roads are and some other details regarding land ownership.  What I had not was a decent topographic map that showed contours of the land.  By keeping aware of my surroundings I wouldn’t have much to worry about, as I knew the general landmarks.  Besides, I only contemplated hiking up a few miles before turning around and retracing my steps.  It wouldn’t be likely that I would get misdirected on the well-defined road.  The dogs didn’t mind one way or the other, as they bounded about with bursts of speed whenever some rodent made itself known.

What I noticed was that the clouds came flying by at elevation and the winds gusted steadily.  Surrounding me was the open grasslands and open ponderosa parks.  I could see some of the La Garita Mountains to the southwest and parts of the Cochetopa Hills to the northwest.  My eastern views were canyon walls and slopes rising up to other low buttes.  I enjoy this type of open country where I could see for miles around me at some points and then be confined to a deep canyon, as is a part of Big Dry Gulch, before rising up to regain the view and then some.  As I rose upwards I could at times see down into Saguache Creek and quite a bit of personal terra incognita.  Occasionally, I would stop and stare off into this unknown world, wondering about what natural wonders lie there.  Eventually, I reached the top just as a storm cell swept in from the west.  It cannot be said that I was surprised as I had been watching that cell for some time and had even reckoned that it would overtake us at about the moment I reached the top of the mesa.  I walked a bit further until I could look down into the top of Big Dry Gulch. I decided to go no further since I didn’t want to get caught in a foreign-to-me landscape during a storm that had the potential to blind.

It would have been nice to hike further out, but rather than regret my turning back I instead looked forward to the days when I could further explore this cranny of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  I hiked back down the road the way we had come up, through the Douglas fir that  supplanted the ponderosa on the higher north facing slopes.  We reentered the canyon and headed back until I stopped the pack at the lower exit.  There was a small herd of elk grazing, and I had to plan on my reroute so as not to unduly disturb them.   However, before too long I realized that they were slowly moving to the west, away from my northerly direction.  So I sat and placed the shepherds into down.  We thus stayed in repose until the elk moved off some quarter of a mile, when they crossed a low ridge on the opposite side of the bed of Big Dry Gulch and moved out of sight.  Soon afterwards the hike ended.  I gazed back to the south and noted that the cell had apparently moved on.  Perhaps had I stayed put on the mesa for an additional quarter of an hour snow would have replaced by sunshine.  Oh, well, as always, it was worth the effort and I felt blessed to share the day with the shepherds.

A Loop Hike on Pole and Sugar Creeks – April 24, 2017

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Calf Creek Plateau, part of the highlands often referred to as the Powderhorn Country, above the rolling sagebrush steppe

I waited until mid-afternoon to reach the trailhead, doing so just before two post meridiem.  The precipitation-laden clouds had been sailing overhead most of the day, inducing in yours truly an indolent bout of procrastination.  Still, Spring had begun springing, and the clouds had brought with their moisture a warmish, sultry atmosphere.  I decided to go explore some of the Bureau of Land Management backcountry relatively near Gunnison, Colorado, where I make my home.  I loaded up my two hiking companions, German shepherds Draco and Leah, and drove west out of town to Willow Creek and Gunnison County Road 31.  Driving out a couple of miles further, the road forks and crosses the aforementioned creek.  Here I parked the automobile and began my trek.  Originally, I had thought to continue on the right fork, continuing up Willow Creek.  However, the stream had turned to a freshet for the season, and crossing seemed undesirable, so I decided to turn to the east thereby following tributary Pole Creek and BLM Road 3054.

Although the clouds spat a few balls of crystalline water at me the temperatures were, as I mentioned before, fairly warm especially when the Sun shone through.  Snow mostly had melted and patches were generally absent.  I found one of my first flowers in the Gunnison Country, a small species of Brassicaceae, poking out of a rocky outcropping on a fairly shady aspect.  Heading upstream I walked on the south side of Pole Creek along a cattle and game trail, eschewing the road on the north side.  I generally prefer a narrow trail to a wide road, even if, as in this case, the road is locked off to motorized traffic.  Hiking along a narrow path allows me to feel more immersed in Nature.  Despite the flower that I had seen in the first half a mile the vegetation had generally not leafed out yet.  The aspen and cottonwood buds were engorged and ready to burst but would still need a week or two, or longer, before the leaves emerged.  Some of the grasses, though, had begun to show some serious verdure, the green adding a nice bright note to the overcast day.  Some of the shrubs, perhaps a Cercocarpus spp. had some green leaves as well and this cheered me up to see the new green.  

Pole Creek and its watershed, and most everything else around eight thousand feet in elevation, are generally dominated by the sagebrush, probably Artemisa tridentata, over huge swaths of rolling hills, mesas and valleys.  The moisture brings out the odor of this plant quite well, and I tend to find it invigorating.  Each breath I drew in through my nostrils, imbibing the soul of the Earth via this odoriferous shrub, and I felt blessed to be perambulating across this nook in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  The sagebrush is an evergreen, although the green does trend towards gray, and this steppe has its own extensive ecosystem.  Here live flora and fauna found in no other type of life zone.  Other species are generalists and incorporate the steppe into their lives.  Most folks think of the vast expanses of sagebrush as being somewhat bleak or dull, but I see them as a fine introduction to the higher life zones when climbing from the true desert, and vice versa.

Two miles of hiking brought me to an old road that leads off to the south.  Although it shows up on some older maps the BLM has closed the road to all motorized and mechanized traffic.  Guiding myself and the dogs in that direction we rose up over a small roll in the Earth and left Pole Creek to enter Sugar Creek.  Descending through a steep, narrow gully I found a small pond fed by a spring.  Sugar Creek itself was especially green, rather the banks of the creek were green with new growths of grass.  The dogs went over to the running water, bursting at its banks but still a fairly small stream, and slurped it up as I began to trek upstream.  The map showed another vacated road about half a mile away leading back up to the highlands above where I could reconnect with BLM Road 3054.  The creek bottom here isn’t wide but does seem persistently free of obstacles that might impeded trekking.  A fairly well established trail runs down and upstream from my points of ingress and egress.  I did take time before departing the canyon to rest and enjoy a fair amount of quiet time listening to the creek murmur and the songbirds sing.  The Sun would warm briefly, only to be shut out by the clouds at which point a chilly gust would kick up and then subside.  Truly it seems that the most tumultuous weather is during this season.

Leaving Sugar Creek behind I climbed up out of the canyons as the shepherds scampered about chasing after any scent that might prove derived from rodents or rabbits.  Climbing up to another divide the outcroppings took on characteristics of the bedrock granite, well weathered, found not too far east of here in the Hartman Rocks area.  A small forest of dispersed Douglas fir and ponderosa pine (Pseudotsuga menziesii and Pinus ponderosa) grow throughout these rocks and a few small groves of aspen (Populus tremuloides) exploit the moister bits.  About a mile after leaving Sugar Creek I contacted BLM Road 3054 about mile above were I left it.  This junction is in a fairly wide basin, covered not surprisingly with the sage.  I think back to a small hike I had done in this vicinity some years previous, and recall walking about on some of the ridges and subsequently finding a nice place to sit among a small grove of aspen.

There is nothing else to do at this point but to walk back home before darkness settled over the region.  I keep my map handy and note all the various roads and trails that I see.  We reach the section of the old road where I had originally departed BLM Road 3054, thereby closing the loop hike that I had initiated earlier in the afternoon.  We continued down the main road, just to gain a different perspective on this last two-mile leg of the hike.  The bladed soil seemed like a gaping wound when compared to the natural world’s seamless continuity and transition.  I could have hiked down the trail I had used earlier but chose not to.  The canyon steadily narrowed and deepened after leaving the open basin. Big Mesa towered up to our north, rising in a steady slope until reaching the sheer wall of the cap rock, a layer of thirty million year old basalt.  By the time we reached the car the earlier warmth had dissipated changing into the chill of the oncoming night.  Ah, a Spring storm, a not unlikely occurrence in these mountains as well as purveyor of surprisingly pleasant hiking conditions.

South of Tomichi Dome – April 18, 2017

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Tomichi Dome viewed from the south, lower treeline evident

Ever since the big snow of the previous January the days had been getting longer and bringing with it the sunlit warmth that promises Spring.  Not much snow had fallen in the intervening time, although the temperatures often dipped below zero Fahrenheit.  Now, in mid-April, the overnight cold sank only to twenty or thirty above and often felt positively balmy.  The snow rapidly receded from its Winter haunts, the last pockets in the lower reaches having mostly vanished.  The local ski area had also recently closed, leaving me with a reduced schedule at the place I work at as many folks also vanish not to return until late May or June.  Nobody much shows up for Mud Season, either, so with the prospect of less work I suddenly had an urge to scratch the itch that is Spring Fever.  This would be my third day in a row of hiking under a warm Sun, feeling the world around me awaken from its season-long slumber.

The folks who manage such things ask the public to refrain from visiting the lower sagebrush steppe areas to protect the leks of the Gunnison sagegrouse.  There is much contention about the management of the bird, whether or not it should be listed as Threatened or Endangered under Federal law, but regardless most everyone agrees that it is a species of concern.  The request is lifted after nine o’clock in the morning so I didn’t get to the trailhead until half an hour later.  I would be walking across Bureau of Land Management land, part of the vast public estate that spans much of the Rocky Mountains.  Draco and Leah hiked with me but due to the sensitivity of the grouse they were prohibited from venturing from the road we hiked on.

My goal for the day I had set as reaching the base of Tomichi Dome, a large laccolith the rounded hump of which rears up close to three thousand feet above the valley of Tomichi Creek below.  I parked the car adjacent to U.S. 50 where the seasonally-locked gate bestrides BLM Road 3094, which is also signed as the access to the dome.  Thereafter did we all get out under strict security protocol, the shepherds immediately directed to the two-track away from the busy highway.  We hiked up a short distance to where a large transmission line runs parallel to the highway.  We turned west to follow the road about a half a mile before turning right to continue our northern trend up a steep ridge.  The vast expanse of the sagebrush steppe becomes apparent in this place, as each rolling ridge is basically dominated by the shrub.

Looking up at Tomichi Dome provided me with a clear view of the lower tree line, the boundary where the sagebrush steppe often suddenly and clearly changes to a forest of mixed aspen and conifer.  A few tendrils of one ecosystem or the other with encroach on its opposite’s terrain as conditions favor, but I find it fascinating how dramatically the changeover  occurs.  Leaving the powerline behind we gained elevation rapidly.  I have almost always avoided this hike the past many years ever since I had once attempted to scale the summit only to be quickly turned away by large boulders four to six feet in diameter.  However, my main consideration for this hike is the lack of available water sources along the route.  What do exist do so only in the months following the snow melt.  The Sun also beats down on this southern face sans mercy.  This would be a good time to visit here, as abundant snowpack would allow the dogs to eat the crystals should live water not be found and the Sun’s rays would shine less intensely.

To get to the base of the dome would require some four to five miles of hiking.  The snow had indeed melted and much of the higher reaches of our hike became boggy with pools of mud, water or slush.  At about the three mile mark I espied a herd of some forty elk.  They sat astride the exact topography that I needed to cross to reach my destination.  My heart really wasn’t into continuing on, disturbing the elk in the process at the one time of year when their fat reserves have become so depleted after the long Winter.  I still felt tired and aching due to the bout of gout that I had had in late February, and didn’t see the need to add another two or three miles of bushwhacking that might bother the elk, or other creatures, anyhow.  So, I decided to end the hike and go find a place to sit where I could enjoy some victuals while studying the topography and ecology.

I found a dry patch of ground to sit down on, and here I plopped down to eat my packed lunch while the shepherds feasted on their kibble.  My view to the north kept the dome in plain sight.  The clouds in the sky kept some of the Sun at bay, but as occulted as the orb often was the day nonteheless became warm.  Sometimes a hike doesn’t go the way I had planned or wished it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a failure.  I still got to get out on the land and inhale the sagebrush-infused air, feel the land come alive with the oncoming rush of warmer days and stare off at distant parts of the Rocky Mountains that surround my immediate vicinity.

After sitting for a short while the dogs became restless and I decided to move us all a bit further away from the elk herd.  I had thought to stop and rest again but once we got going the momentum that quickly built up proved inexorable and we kept on hiking until reaching the car.  The hike down provided me with a fine view of the Cochetopa Hills, a low mass of rounded mountains often covered in dense conifer forest, between Long Branch Baldy and Razor Creek Dome.  The latter is a laccolith similar to Tomichi Dome and has proven to me a fine landmark from one end of the Gunnison Country to the other.  The northern face of those hills all resolutely glowed with a firm white snowpack, I noted, meaning that I still had some time to wait until I could extensively wander around with impunity.  I felt grateful for visiting this landscape and regaining a perspective of the Gunnison Country that I hadn’t seen for nearly a decade.  The fine weather promised good things to come and I returned home contented.

Hiking in the Cochetopa Hills – April 17, 2017

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Six point elk antler in the Cochetopa Hills of Colorado

Still seeking the snow free barren ground that eluded the Gunnison Country, I drove out to the far side of the Cochetopa Hills, over the Great Divide and into the basin of Saguache Creek.  Having had hiked in this general vicinity over the last week I knew approximately what I would find.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, had missed out on my last adventure but today they accompanied me, as is their normal wont.  We left from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, about mid-morning and arrived about half past eleven ante meridiem at my favorite trailhead in this area.  The dogs leaped out of the car and began to scamper about, investigating all the rodent activity.  On a tributary of the aforementioned creek, we began hiking on land managed by the San Luis Valley Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management.  That tributary, East Pass Creek, runs east from North Pass, which we had just crossed on Colorado 114.  We hiked on a BLM road, the number of which I can’t determine, that parallels a small tributary that flows through a shallow but narrow canyon adorned with well eroded boulders atop the adjacent mesas.  Within a mile we crossed over into the Rio Grande National Forest, Saguache Ranger District, and now hiked on Road 810.  This road is normally open to motorized travel but for about two to three months each Spring the gates are locked and naught but pedestrian, equestrian and bicyclist modes of ambulation are allowed.  Not exactly wilderness but plenty of wide open back country waits for the adventurous explorer.

Despite the lack of snow the verdure had yet to arrive.  Most of the vegetation, excepting the conifer, remained tawny and in a state of dormancy.  The land awakened slowly.  Exiting the canyon we entered into a large park.  I left the main road and turned left onto Road 791, hiking west towards the Great Divide not more than a few miles away.  My goal was not to reach the high divide but rather to just wander around and explore some of the areas that I had missed on previous visits.  A week or so ago I had walked through this area and noted to myself the potential for a good trek.  Now, the canines and I walked up into open meadows punctuated with ponderosa pine.  A fine Spring day was at hand.

The road split and I continued left, now heading south towards the highway.  The dogs followed as I climbed up to a small divide and then stopped.  I hadn’t a need to return to pavement quite yet, so after a short rest we hiked back the way we came until reaching the forks and then proceeded on up the right fork, towards the north.  Here, the Forest Service’s road numbering scheme broke down and I had a tough time determining if the route I followed was legal, decommissioned or user-made.  I knew where I was broadly, but gave up trying to determine my exact location, for it would be unlikely for me to lose sight of the prominent landmarks that guided my internal sense of spacial proximity.  We did hike up, following the two-track, into thicker forest, the ponderosa replaced by Douglas fir, spruce and aspen.

Entering a large meadow, I exalted at the discovery of a large elk antler that measured six points, possibly seven.  No wonder as this area is mountainous elk heaven.  Enough moisture accumulates to create a climate of lush meadows dotted with shrubbery.  The shrubs proved to be a Potentilla spp. and not willow, thus hinting at the limiting extent of precipitation in this area.  Those meadows intersperse lush forest of aspen and mixed conifer.  As I continued to rise I encountered the remnants from Winter.  Patches of snow became increasingly large and frequent.  The forest changed slowly but inexorably to lodgepole pine until I suddenly stepped out into a large meadow near the top of the divide with Spanish Creek. Good, I thought to myself, I believe I know where I am.

I had set as one of my goals to visit a small pond called the Duck Pond.  Using my intuition based on processing certain aspects of topography and geography I was able to find the pond without too much consternation.  In fact, I walked right up to it, having relocated myself on the map after which I could navigate with clarity again.  The pond was fenced off, although the fence was an aesthetically pleasing log pole variety, due to livestock grazing that occurs during the Summer.  Had the pond not been fenced in it would certainly have been trampled into oblivion.  While I appreciate the Forest Service protecting sensitive habitats I am skeptical of grazing practices overall and generally find them detrimental to the local ecosystem.  Some folks are attempting to modify the practice, and maybe they’ll succeed but I would like to see more wildlife orientated programs on our public lands.

Hiking a short distance on Road 784.1A I found a spur road to be closed and was pleased that it had been owing to its redundancy.  Fewer roads make better habitat, and the closing of those especially that duplicate the attributes of other similar nearby two-tracks can save the public money as well.  I sat down in the small meadow below the pond and noted the increasing cloud cover and cold air that accompanied it.  I fed the shepherds some kibble and then ate a hearty lunch.  This place almost resonated with its quietness.  A bit of snow lingered in the shady aspects but otherwise Spring seemed imminent.  Yes, the plants appeared mostly dormant but in reality changes were underway.  Sap filled the small twigs, colors brightened and buds became engorged.  The grass hinted at green, but I knew at this elevation actual leaves, on the aspen, say, would not sprout for three to four weeks.  Some flowers will soon emerge and I was somewhat surprised to not see a single bloom on this hike.  After a while I began to take on a slight chill.  I donned a jacket and enjoyed reposing in Nature  for the time being.

While I contemplated life in a state of inactivity the shepherds became increasingly antsy.  The forest, and outdoors in general, always awakens a certain kinetic energy in the dogs.  At first, they would rest along with me but after a time their heads would raise in unison at some disturbance.  They might rest some more but sooner or later they would mosey off to investigate.  From there they would continue to stray further, and perhaps race off in a frenzied burst, hounding some tree-dwelling rodent whose inevitable chattering further taunted the dogs into a berserk rage that I would have to then quell.  At that point I might as well lead the pack away from there as I would not really be able to rest.  So off we hiked down the road into a thick lodgepole pine forest until we reached Road 784.  We headed down stream, parallel to Spanish Creek.  Upstream would lead to Lujan Pass on the Great Divide but this direction would lead back to the trailhead.

Four miles of hiking awaited us.  Hiking the first rough mile brought us to Road 810.  Here I led the pack down to Spanish Creek where the dogs could slake their thirst imbibing the sweet Rocky Mountain spring water and snow melt.  A pleasant locale, tall aspen rose up around us and willow fenced us in a small meadow.  In this lower meadow the grass had already, indeed, greened up although not grown more than a few inches.  The hike back was fairly straightforward, across the low divide that took us back to East Pass Creek.  Instead of following the road exactly I wandered around on a series of cattle and game trails.  I enjoy the hiking a bit more this way, felling that much closer to the land.  Small ponds cropped up here and there, keeping the dogs cool and refreshed.  Finally, I bid adieu to the mountains and mesa that we had hiked among.  We loaded up and drove back home to Gunnison, happy to have had another day out in the woods exploring the realms around us.

A Short Hike on San Isabel National Forest Road 446 – April 16, 2017

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At the head of Ute Log Gulch, looking south towards the Blanca massif at the head of the Huerfano River

The day dawned clear and bright ,and I felt the want to depart from the Gunnison Country and experience the scene in another part of Colorado.  Still apprehensive about the deep local snowpack and the perceived negative impact on the wildlife, I thought about an area that I might find for hiking.  Skiing would be possible but due to the lack of fresh snow and icy surfaces further hindered by slushy pockets of rottenness that activity I did not want to pursue.  I decided to visit my old home in the basin of the Huerfano River, on the far side of the Sangre de Cristo Range.  I also concluded that this would be a good day to leave my hiking companions, German shepherds Draco and Leah, at home due to the long drive and my visiting places where dogs are a hindrance.

I did take some time out to make sure that the pups had an opportunity to get out for a jog, and lingered a bit at home cooking a good breakfast.  I lounged around a bit, working on this blog or otherwise frittering away my time on the internet.  Finally, I left a bone with all three dogs, including the elderly Lady Dog who generally doesn’t travel anymore.  I left my home in Gunnison and drove east on U.S. 50 about eight miles until I reached the junction with Colorado 114 at the confluence of Cochetopa Creek with that of the Tomichi.  Following the former up through its tortuously winding contortions, twenty miles on brought me to the open upper reaches of that aforementioned creek.  I flew by at sixty-five and on up to North Pass where I crossed over the Great Divide into the drainage of the Rio Grande River.  I continued on down tributaries of Saguache Creek until I reached the San Luis Valley.  At the junction with U.S. 285 I came to the small City of Saguache where I stopped for coffee and a snack.  A few miles south on the federal highway and I turned left to follow a paved county highway further east to the small town of Moffat on Colorado 17.  Up before me the entire drive across the valley loomed the ragged snow-capped crest of the Sangre de Cristo Range.  The morning’s early suggestion of a warm day proved fact and I rolled along windows down imbibing the fresh mountain air.

At the state highway I turned right, southbound towards the Sun with the mountains rearing up on my left.  Two low notches indicated Medano Pass and to the south Mosca.  South of that rises the Blanca massif that anchors the southern extent of the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  San Luis Valley being flat and extensive, I could see peaks on the horizon that lie in New Mexico just south of the state line.  To my right lie the San Juan Mountains, the horizon of which appears so flat that it belies the rugged character of the mountain fast beyond.  This general scene I reveled in as I drove through Hooper.  Just before I reached Mosca, the town not pass, I turned left onto another paved county highway, Alamosa County Road 6N, that heads directly for the base of the Sangres and the entrance to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

At Colorado 150 I turned to the right, again southwards, away from the park.  The early morning Sun shone through the high peaks, the rays being visibly cast down onto the valley floor.  It was quite the sight, and had I brought the proper maps I would have stopped right there and began hiking.  Since all dogs where at home for the day I had to consider the aggregate amount of time that I could spend snooping about, and should I hike here I wouldn’t be able to visit what I had planned on doing.  Still the next fifteen miles of driving held my rapt attention as I became reacquainted with why I love this part of the world.  Arriving at the southern terminus of the state highway I turned left on U.S. 160, eastward across the sagebrush steppe until I reached Fort Garland at the base of the first set of hills that rise up to La Veta Pass.  The road follows aptly named Sangre de Cristo Creek.  Shortly before reaching that fabled pass I turned left on  Costilla County Road 29 and drove up to and over Pass Creek Pass.  Here I passed from the Rio Grande River watershed and into that of the Arkansas.  However, I specifically arrived into Pass Creek, it being tributary to the Huerfano River which flows into the Arkansas River east of Pueblo.  I love this drive, and have always found it very scenic.  Crossing over the pass also brought me into Huerfano County.  The road designation also changed to Huerfano County Road 572.

The upper reaches of Pass Creek consists of lush montane vegetation, and the road winds around quite a bit through the narrow canyon formed by the stream.  Prior to reaching the junction with Huerfano County Road 570 Pass Creek enters the valley of the Huerfano River and the conifers are replaced with rabbitbrush.  I can see all the way across the valley north to Promontory Divide.  As the valley broadens I can also espy to the northeast the Wet Mountains and its highpoint Greenhorn Mountain.  To my right, eastward, the river empties from the mountains, passing Badito Cone, and on into the Great Plains.  I lived here for a decade plus and this landscape still retains a familiarity that lets me feel connected to the land and people.  I could stop at any one of a dozen places but only have time for two, much to my regret.

Soon I come down out of Pass Creek and cross the river before passing an old stage stop.  When I lived here the adobe had yet to crumble but now nothing much remains.  A mile up the road I pass an old school house that has been partially restored.  At Huerfano Road 550, the Redwing Road, I turn right at the old townsite of Malachite and drive to Colorado 69 where I turn to the left.  I drive northbound a few miles and then turn right onto Huerfano County Road 634 and begin to rise out of the valley, the open grasslands studded with pinyon pine and juniper allowing a fine view of both the Wet and Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  As I slowly gain elevation on this large south-facing shield ponderosa pine become more common.  Creek beds are delimited by the cottonwood growth.  Some miles up the road I cross into the San Isabel National Forest and drive a few more miles until I reach San Isabel National Forest Road 446.

I pull the car over and park.  Then I get out and stretch while looking around and feeling the warmth of the Sun under the vast blue sky.  So many times in years past have I stopped in this same place for the same reasons.  Then, however, I resided a few more miles up the main road and resided at a refuge for wolves, being one of a group who served as caretakers.  During the decade plus that I lived there a strong affinity for this land I took on.  In many ways my appreciation for Nature manifested itself while I would sit on the sunny porch and observe the land and its inhabitants.  A deep love I have felt for the Huerfano Country, and revisiting this realm always excites my heart.  My old friends remained in their accustomed place upon the horizon.  The Huerfano Peaks to the south, Mount Maestas, Slide Mountain, the Blanca Peaks and the two passes in the Sangre de Cristo Range to the north present a sublime spectacle that is in my opinion the acme of landscape and salubrious climate.

The horizon to my west is formed by Promontory Divide, a long ridge that runs from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the Wet Mountains and forms the parting of the Huerfano River from Grape Creek.  The latter is another tributary of the Arkansas River, but drains north into that river near the Royal Gorge unlike the Huerfano River which mingles its waters with the Arkansas out on the Great Plains.  The divide is grassy and wide open, some snow lingers under groves of aspen.  I begin to walk, dazzled by the warm Sun, the day the finest that Spring can produce.  The road runs out a mile or so before terminating at private property.  The beginning of the hike is on Ute Log Gulch but I cross a small divide and end on Wylie Gulch, the former being a tributary of the latter.  I wander around a bit, visiting some high points and stopping once for a great while to admire the Pasque Flowers.  These mauve blooms always add a touch of color to a landscape often lacking in verdure during the early Spring.  I take my time, knowing that my time here is limited, and savor every second.

When I return to the car I continue up the road a few miles to visit the wolf refuge that I once lived at.  It has been a long time since I’ve viewed the world from this point, but I feel at home immediately, so indelibly etched has this landscape been inscribed upon my mind.  I thought about the good purpose this place has, educating the masses about the character and reality of wolves.  Many good times, some challenging and even bad, occurred here over the years and I will always feel a fondness for this special place.  Conscious of my pack at home I can only stay for a short visit before I must depart for my long drive home.  The drive from Gunnison through the San Luis Valley and into the Huerfano Valley from the south took longer than I had expected and I know that three plus hours of driving await me via the most direct route.

I bid adieu to my once home and take a series of back road maintained by the local homeowners’ association reaching Custer County Road 305 along Sheep Creek.  The Sangre de Cristo Mountains rear up like a serrated blade, the gray rock streaked with the Winter’s snow.  Long and narrow, they run like a knife edge from Salida, Colorado all the way south Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I reach Colorado 69 and turn right on the narrow two-lane highway, passing through Westcliffe and paralleling both the Wet Mountains to my right and the Sangre de Cristo range to my left.  I love this drive, and relish every chance I have to gawk when I am here as I find the scenery stunning.

The hours fly by as my wheels turn.  I take Fremont County Road 1 down to the small town of Cotopaxi.  I remember when this paved road was mostly gravel, but as Colorado has grown so has the traffic count and I would suppose further improvements are to be expected.  Reaching the end of the road I turn left on U. S. 50 which parallels the Arkansas River as it travels upstream through Bighorn Canyon.  This is another scenic drive and I am always enthralled with the rock and ponderosa pine that line the river.  I pass through the City of Salida, so named as it is located at the exit of the canyon, and I continue westbound on U.S. 50 and up into the Sawatch Range.  I leave the drier country behind and climb up into the snowy sub-alpine forests of the high ridges where I pass over the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass.  I descend as day fades into dusk, and my drive along Tomichi Creek is mostly hidden from view beyond what my headlights illuminate.  I soon arrive home and am happy to have safely arrived. Parking the car, I grab my gear and enter the house where I release the shepherds.  There is much rejoicing all around, and Lady Dog the elder comes hobbling out to contribute to the mob.  It has been a fine day and now I am surrounded by my dependents.  All is well.

A Hike to Indian Park – April 10, 2017

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The distant Sangre de Cristo Mountains seen from Indian Park

April progressed and as the warmth ensued the snow inexorably retreated.  During the first half of January the snowpack had increased rapidly due to a series of storms that created waves of snowfall.  However, the storms waned and as the temperatures increased, and freeze-thaw cycles became common, the snow for skiing worsened as icy conditions prevailed.  The deer had also been impacted negatively and the local wildlife agency asked for the public to bump the ungulates as little as possible.  Thus, a conundrum for me conjured into being.  I didn’t want to ski and any hiking would potentially entail harassing vulnerable wildlife.  After some thought I concluded that a trip over the Great Divide towards the San Luis Valley would satisfy all of my criteria.  A week and day earlier I had hiked in the same vicinity so I knew that ideal conditions for early season hiking prevailed.

I perused my ample collection of maps and decided to visit someplace that I hadn’t seen before, namely a place called Indian Park.  Located on the south side of the Cochetopa Hills where they trend east and west between Long Branch Baldy and Middle Creek, the park drains into Cabin Gulch which tributes to the aforementioned creek.  I had worked every day since my last bout of hiking so I took the morning at a slow pace and didn’t leave home until sometime after eleven.  Draco and Leah came along as is their customary wont  whenever I trek.  German shepherds both, they are fine companions.  We left home and began the hour long drive over Colorado 114 until we crossed North Pass and descended Saguache Creek.  At Saguache County Road 38EE I turned north and drove two miles until I found the Bureau of Land Management Roads I sought.  Here, at BLM Road 860, also called the Indian Park Road, I parked the car and let the dogs out.  Naturally, they ran amok for a few minutes, zipping from one place to the next, tails extended and a comically serious intent upon their countenances.

This area is very dry, these foothills of the Cochetopa Hills, and the vegetation reflects that.  Juniper and pinyon pine grow here as well as the spiny yuccas.  The grasses are minimal but will green up with the oncoming warmth as will the various other flowing herbs.  Clouds dotted the sky but generally I felt warm and comfortable.  I worried a bit about the shepherds finding enough water but knew that as we climbed the likelihood of finding snow if not flowing water would greatly increase.  I found myself on an unnamed tributary of Jacks Creek, that is, if water actually flowed.  I planned on making a loop so I would not immediately ascend this gulch but rather intended on following the county road up to a low divide where I would enter Cabin Draw and find another BLM road to follow.  I did just that and about a quarter of mile on found this road, BLM Road 5265.  Also called, appropriately, the Cabin Creek Road, it, like the other, was closed for the Spring season.  Too much damage can occur to the road base during mud season and wildlife faces a vulnerable time so generally these minor roads are closed for a couple of months each year until the elk disperse and the snow melts.

I hiked a short distance and found a nice tree to sit under, so as to gather my wits and study the country.  Without really trying I found the first flower of the season, a Townsendia I believe.  Perhaps an Easter Daisy, this flower is part of the Aster Family.  Well, the first flower of the year at elevation is a sure sign of the oncoming Spring.  Having drunk some water and rested a bit we began to hike in earnest, gaining elevation until I started to see ponderosa pine and other conifer.  The vegetation gained in lushness although generally remained sparse.  I found a small side road that leads up to a open meadow that allowed me to take in a fine view of  Antora Peak to the east.  We stayed a moment then returned to the main road.  The draw had narrowed and steepened a bit on our way up but then opened up suddenly into a grassy park surrounded by aspen.  Another unmarked road led into a large meadow and I explored it a bit.  The day had become balmy and I felt alive with Spring fever.  I could see for miles and distant horizons of snow-capped mountain ranges made me wish for an exploration further afield from my normal peregrinations.

Just before entering the last mentioned meadow we had crossed from BLM land to that of the Rio Grande National Forest.  I now hiked up the latter’s Road 856 to the junction with Road 860.  I turned right and walked up another mile or so and found myself in Indian Park.  Long and slender, I could see that no snow filled the meadow so I kept walking up towards the upper end of the park until I found a nice aspen grove to sit under.  I desired some shade for myself and the dogs, and the leafless branches provided just enough.  Should I continue too much further, I noted, I would run into an ever deepening snowpack.  Enough snow had melted here to provide a nice dry place to rest, but enough patches remained nearby so that the dogs could cool themselves off or eat the stuff to slake their thirst.

When I sat down and looked to the southeast I could see the Sangre de Cristo Range in the vast distance, their white-capped peaks almost hovering in shimmering air.  The heat coming off the land created this effect, and minimal winds did nothing to change it.  I ate my packed lunch and fed the shepherds some kibble.  As I sat back, Sun beaming down, I reflected that I am one lucky soul to be able to visit the woods as often as I do.  I rested for a while but soon the dogs grew bored and began to race around with a stick.  I knew that the next phase would be to wander off in an ever increasing arc, so rest I might but with one eye open for mischief.  Finally, the dogs goaded me into ending my nap and I hoisted my pack onto my shoulders and walked back down to the aforementioned road junction.

Choosing to make a loop, I continued on Road 860 and climbed up to a small saddle.  By descending the other side I entered the small unnamed tributary of Jacks Creek that I had begun on.  The vegetation changed rapidly from the wet-loving aspen to more dry-tolerant species of conifer.  I believe that most of this area is topped by a flow of igneous rock, perhaps basalt or rhyolite, that forms flat-topped mesas.  Anyhow, I remember walking down this drainage mesmerized by the walls of rock.  The outcroppings are colored a nice shade of reddish orange and add to the rich hues found elsewhere on this fine day.  I passed the last ponderosa and knew that my hike would end soon.  As I walked along I would occasionally stop to take in a certain feature or maybe the totality of the natural world.  The cerulean sky and white clouds, dark green of the conifers and tawny grasses, reds, pinks and oranges of the rock – this Rocky Mountain palette provided a visual feast for my eyes.

We arrived back at the car and I opened the doors to let out the accumulated heat.  It was downright hot, so it seemed, and after I loaded up the dogs and gear I let down the windows.  We drove back down slowly on the gravel road until I reached the pavement of the state highway where I could gain some speed and we then cooled off rapidly.  Indian Park had provided a fine experience for an early season hike.  Places like this, even though not wilderness, still retain enough of that something special, that something indescribable about the Rocky Mountains of Colorado that makes me feel alive.  Once at home, later on in the evening, Draco lay on the couch fast asleep.  I relaxed, reading a book, as he dreamed, legs kicking and ears twitching.  At times his whole body quivered and I wondered what exactly his subconsciousness relived.  Regardless, it was a sure sign that we had had a good day out in the woods and that we all felt a bit more contentment in our lives.