Mount Ouray, and the Devil’s Armchair, seen from Dorsey Creek area
A somewhat stormy day, when I might perhaps rather remain at home, nonetheless produced in me a wanderlust that I concluded could only be satiated by a short road trip over the Great Divide and on to the San Luis Valley. Towering over that long, broad valley are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains which form the eastern wall. I thought that the northern extent of mountains and valley, where the Sun is caught on the broad southern face, would provide ample opportunities for snow free hiking. I’ve driven by the area on U.S. 285 repeatedly over the last twenty years taking note of the rolling hills of sagebrush rising up to aspen groves, conifer forest and, finally, towering snow-clad summits of alpine glory. Today would be a fine day to explore that realm which had eluded me all this time. I decided to make my way to the Dorsey Creek Trailhead via Rio Grande National Forest Road 990, or at least as far as I could go before I ran into unyielding snowpack.
As is always the case, the shepherds with alacrity loaded up into the vehicle and we then drove out from Gunnison eastbound on U.S. 50 for about eight miles. Turning right on narrow, twisting Colorado 114 we headed south and west to the crest of North Pass and crossed over the Great Divide. Soon, we descended out of the Cochetopa Hills and entered San Luis Valley where Saguache Creek spills out from the Rocky Mountains. The town of the same name is here, the county seat of the eponymous county. Colorado 114 also ends here and I piloted the car northbound on U.S. 285. We drove on past Villa Grove upwards towards Poncha Pass. I had driven by on the road repeatedly enough so that I knew where I wanted to pull off the highway and needn’t peruse the map lying on the adjacent seat. Once parked, I shut off the motor and exited the vehicle. Draco and Leah stood in the back, wagging their tails while pushing at the door, and when I unlatched the aperture it sprung open disgorging two masses of bounding canines.
The San Luis Valley is made up of a mix of private and public lands. The public domain is also further divided between federal, state and local management authority. The federal government oversees its lands via a number of bureaucracies. Thus I found myself, with the shepherds, staring up the Rio Grande National Forest. Better water and forest are found at the higher elevations in the Rocky Mountains, and this National Forest rings the valley below. The Bureau of Land Management provides stewardship for the lower lands. We now stood on the BLM property, managed by the San Luis Valley Field Office. The two agencies had coordinated their travel management so that I would follow one route number up to whatever I found.
I hoisted my pack upon my shoulders and whistled for the canines, who had already buried their heads into a mound of sagebrush where some small critter had caught their attention. We headed off from our parking spot next to San Luis Creek and began to hike up a small ridge on BLM Road 990. About five minutes later we gained the ridge and I could see back to the west where the Sawatch Range reaches its southern extent. Mount Ouray, clad in snow, rises up over the sagebrush steppe, a white, rocky exclamation shouted out against a cerulean and olive green backdrop. I looked into the bowl picturesquely named the Devil’s Armchair and marveled at the power of glaciers. I soon found a number of wildflowers blooming on the sunny exposed southern face of this ridge as it rose up towards the sharp crest of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. To my south a number of storm clouds pushed across the valley obscuring a view that otherwise stretches out some hundred miles. As it was I could only see about fifty to seventy five.
As we gained elevation we began to enter sporadic groves of aspen. I noted the bright lime-green of the newly unfurled leaves and noted to myself another marker in the inexorable progress of Spring’s growth onward towards Summer. The groves were soon replaced with forests. The lower species of conifer, such as Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, that survive in the dry climate were replaced by those that like the wetter climate. Spruce began to intermingle with the aspen until some aspen forest had been replaced by one of evergreen. We passed through the boundary between BLM and United States Forest Service. No wildflowers grew in the upper forest and the musky odor emanated up from the dankness exposed by the snow’s melting. Patches of snow I soon saw, and as we climbed they became more abundant until I decided that I would have to soon turn around.
I had had thoughts of glory upon starting this hike, thinking that I could reach the trailhead and then climb a slope up to Methodist Mountain. But upon seeing the deep snowpack mixed with the forest debris I thought otherwise. The dogs and I did reach the Dorsey Creek Trailhead, on the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness . From here, towards the south, the Simmons Peak Trail No. 757 winds along the western face of the mountains. I took a moment to think about this area. As I had climbed up I had noted the basin of San Luis Creek to my north. This basin marks the northern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and somehow I find that fact relevant. All the waters from these slopes flow to the south, towards the Rio Grande, however because San Luis Creek is technically a closed basin they never make it.
The shepherds and I hiked back down the road up which we had trekked. The process on our way up was reversed so that as we descended the forest became increasingly sparse until naught remained but groves and individual trees amid the expanse of the sagebrush steppe. The weather remained tumultuous but fairly comfortable. Looking southwards along the western front of the Sangre de Cristo Range I could see clouds disgorging masses of precipitation. They seemed far away and of not immediate concern, but the miles wide shafts of rain or snow showers slowly crossing the valley mesmerized me and I stood to watch the spectacle. The downhill hike went by quickly and we soon returned to the waiting car near U.S. 285.
Instead of driving home immediately I decided instead to satisfy another craving. About a mile north of where I had parked I know of a place where the old Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad grade had once crossed the highway. So, after starting the car and driving that intervening distance, I parked once again. The shepherds were somewhat startled to be let out of the car again but soon gained their composure. Once I had led them away from the highway a bit I let them pilot their own course across the sagebrush sea. I had parked at Bureau of Land Management Road 5325 which allowed a convenient place to pull of the main road. From there we walked about half a mile north to the old grade. One our first trek we had gone east from U.S. 285, now on this, our second, we went west. The old grade crosses the divide between the Rio Grande and Arkansas Rivers at a point roughly half a mile west of the current Poncha Pass over which U.S. 285 changes drainages. I noted the old cinders along the route in this area and on the north side of the divide, along an unnamed branch of Poncha Creek, found the ruins a small trestle.
The forest here consists of scraggly aspen and some Douglas fir but sagebrush is still found. We entered the San Isabel National Forest on Road 205. That entity manages much of the Arkansas River drainage plus the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Range. We followed the old rail grade to a point about a half a mile above U.S. 285. I could hear and see the traffic below, but it was light and seemed distant. At this place we sat staring at the world around us, me admiring the totality of nature while the dogs scanned for rodents. Below us lay a meadow where willow grew along the creek. I admired the scene, the way the aspen grew among the conifers. The somewhat warm day had begun to turn cold as the chill winds continued to build up in strength. They were in turn being push by the more frequent storm cells. I concluded to return to the car.
On our hike back, I stopped to further absorb the remains of the trestle, marveling at all the human endeavor and ambition displayed in such a low-key place like this. Having crossed the divide again, I found a beautiful Pasque Flower just before a storm cell crossed my path. The remaining mile of hiking concluded under a cloud, as it were, in the midst of an intense deluge. The rain that came reminded me that Spring hadn’t entirely morphed into Summer. Still, the drenching added to the verdure now sprouting, and in the dry sagebrush steppe water is always appreciated in one form or another. Instead of hiking back along the old grade, I followed the road network until we reached the car, the dogs not seeming to notice the moisture. Soon, we drove away, having finished another day of exploring and hiking. Another day to be thankful for!
Returning from my hike, Bureau of Land Management Road 5325, a heavy rain precipitated from yon cloud
Beginning my hike on Bureau of Land Management Road 990, near U.S. 285 and San Luis Creek
Early season Mustard Family species on Dorsey Creek
Member of Brassicaceae, in the northern San Luis Valley
Looking south from Road 990 along the western flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
U.S. 285 crossing Poncha Pass in the foreground and the Sawatch Range on the horizon
An Aster Family member on BLM Road 990
A member of Asteraceae in the northern San Luis Valley
Hiking towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Dorsey Creek
Snow-clad Sangre de Cristo Mountains above newly green aspen
Leah on the Dorsey Creek Road, also known as BLM Road 990
At the Forest Service boundary, Rio Grande National Forest Road 990
In an aspen grove on the Dorsey Creek Road
Higher elevation aspen yet to leaf out, along the Dorsey Creek Road
The snow is gone from this aspen forest but not much green
Snowy patches in the forest about Rio Grande National Forest Road 990
Draco at the Dorsey Creek Trailhead
The end of Rio Grande National Forest Road 990
Draco at the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Boundary, Dorsey Creek Trailhead
Snow yet to melt entirely in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Errant log on Dorsey Creek Road
A pretty grove of aspen on Dorsey Creek
Storm close to Dorsey Creek, the orange leaves are last year’s Gambel Oak’s
Probably a Townsendia spp., on Dorsey Creek Road
Delicate Asteraceae, a Townsendia spp. in the northern San Luis Valley
Perhaps a Potentilla spp. on the Dorsey Creek Road
Pretty little early season Cinquefoil
The old Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad grade headed towards old Poncha Pass
Perhaps a false lupine of genus Thermopsis
False lupine, or Golden Banner, part of the Pea Family
Looking at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, from the old railroad grade near Poncha Pass
A member of Fabaceae in the northern San Luis Valley
Perhaps an Astragalus spp.
Looking southbound on the old railroad grade, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains under storm clouds
Draco on San Isabel National Forest Road 205
Leah at the San Isabel National Forest boundary near old Poncha Pass
The old grade north of old Poncha Pass
Spindly aspen grove north of old Poncha Pass
An old trestle on what used to be part of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad’s narrow guague
Looking down an unnamed branch of Poncha Creek, hiking on the old grade
Leah and Draco on the old grade, about half a mile up from U.S. 285
Hiking up the old grade from the north side after my lunch
Draco and Leah explore the old trestle, but not out of a sense of history but rather because there were an abundance of rodents living here
Aspen growing out of the old trestle
Draco looking up the old grade towards old Poncha Pass
On old Poncha Pass, looking north towards the stormy Sawatch Range
Mount Ouray in cloud
A typical Spring day on old Poncha Pass
A singular point of beauty near old Poncha Pass
Part of Ranunculaceae, this Pasque Flower stands out in Spring when not much else is colorful
Twin beauties, Anemone patens, in northern San Luis Valley near old Poncha Pass
Mount Ouray, and the Devil’s Armchair, seen from Dorsey Creek area