Hiking on East Pass Creek, Buffalo Pass Campground to North Pass – May 23, 2017

2017_05230620

Aspen grove with newly budded leaves, on East Pass Creek east of North Pass

A quick storm had swept through the region the previous day, leaving a trace of snow in the higher country.  The clouds had moved on during the night leaving this day mostly clear with only a few puffs of white sailing across the cerulean ceiling above.  A chill, empowered by humidity, imbued the day but the rising Sun suggested otherwise.  The previous night I had decided to visit this part of the Rio Grande National Forest.  For years, driving by on Colorado 114, I had looked down onto the canyon formed by East Pass Creek, just below North Pass.  I had envisioned walking up through that canyon, among the groves of aspen, just to see what was there.  Rising early, I loaded up the shepherds and drove out from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, to explore this drainage and fulfill that desire.

East Pass Creek is not a fork of a supposed main stem of a supposed Pass Creek.  However, a West Pass Creek does exist.  That latter creek flows west from North Pass while the former flows east.  The first is a part of the Saguache Creek watershed and flows into the San Luis Valley, and has no direct mixing of waters with the other which flows out towards the Colorado River and the Gulf of California.  For whatever reason, I had decided to start my hike at the entrance road to the Buffalo Pass Campground.  From there I would bushwhack up East Pass Creek about a half a mile or so before I intersected Rio Grande National Forest Road 781.  That road descends from Colorado 114, but I decided to eschew it in favor of my route.  I was pleased to find that this road had been closed to motorized vehicles upstream of this point.

I had had a feeling that I would enjoy this hike, and I found that to be true.  The large aspen groves and ponderosa pine all pleased my aesthetic sensibilities.  Outcropping of granite added its customary flair to the Rocky Mountain setting. Although we started off a bit chill, Draco, Leah and I all warmed up soon after out hike began.  I had felt motivated to make this trek, so we had arrived early, at seven in the morning.  Up and up we went, following the trace of the old two-track until it finally faded out high up in the drainage.  About an inch of snow covered up much of the ground where it had not already melted out.  I didn’t find many flowers on the uphill hike, and I thought that logical considering how cold the previous night had been.

Looking up through the pines I suddenly saw a highway sign, and knew that the dogs and I had arrived at our destination.  During the walk along the creek I hadn’t worried about them running amok hassling whatever ground or tree-dwelling rodent they came across.  Now, we emerged, somewhat mysteriously it might have appeared to anyone parked here had there been anyone, from the woods and I walked the pack over to the summit of North Pass on Colorado 114.  I have always enjoyed this view and often stop to admire the mountainous surroundings adjacent to the Great Divide.  I kept the dogs close, just in case someone drove by at speed on this lightly traveled highway.  I wandered around a bit, examining the forest and the topography of the drainages on either side of the pass.

We didn’t stay long before I began our descent back down into East Pass Creek.  At this higher elevation, the verdure had taken longer to arrive than in other parts of the mountains.  A few flowers bloomed into the morning Sun on my way back, and the meadows sure seemed green and nice.  I enjoyed this hike greatly, finding wandering around in this small nook of the Cochetopa Hills to have been a spiritually rewarding encounter with the natural world.  Clouds continued to sail across the sky but their precipitation potential seemed minimal, and by the time we arrived back at the car the temperature had become downright balmy.  We loaded up and bade the forest a hale of thanksgiving.  I hope to return soon!

Hiking on the Eastern Flank of Flat Top – May 21, 2017

2017_05230557

Yellow Balsam Root and Orange Paintbrush in the sagebrush steppe above the Gunnison River

Spring had erupted in a verdant display of fecundity, turning much of dull gray-green of the sagebrush steppe into the vibrant green of new growth.  No matter where I turned my head the vast expanse of the steppe was dotted and spangled by reds, oranges, yellows, whites, blues and purples.  In the lower elevations, at least, the wildflower season had come into its own.  The higher elevations remained clad in snow, and the wildflower season there remained a month or more in the future.  For the time being, I would hike about the steppe, admiring the fresh blooms and spectacular colors, reveling in the clean air of the mountain setting I feel fortunate to call home.  The most difficult part of this day, I concluded after much pondering, involved choosing where to go.  After some further thought I focused on Gunnison National Forest Road 860, located just of Colorado 135 along the Gunnison River just below Almont, where the East and Taylor Rivers join to form the aforementioned Gunnison.

Because I commute past this point every working day I can easily take note of the state of the wildlands.  Thus, I had noticed that the wildflowers had arrived at the height of their bloom.  The Arrow-leaf balsamroot, especially, had added a faint tint of yellow on the sagebrush steppe.  Even driving by at highway speed I saw orange paintbrush growing among the sagebrush.  The trailhead, such as it is, lies a mere ten minutes from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, adding another advantage to this hike.  I didn’t arrive there until five, after a day of oppressive work.  I felt as happy as Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, who leaped out of the car and immediately began to sniff about at all the olfactory-based attractions.  The difference between me and the dogs subsists in that I don’t go smelling things with such attention to detail, and instead I took my camera and made snapshots of every blooming species of flower that I could find.

Gunnison National Forest Road 860 climbs a steep gully up to a divide that lies just above the hamlet of Almont before continuing on.  In the past I had climbed up that road all the way to just below Flat Top.  A steep climb, yes, but I leavened it with many stops to admire the flowers I saw blooming about me.  Reaching the top, the road passes over into the first, unnamed, drainage west of the East River above the Gunnison River confluence. Here also a junction with Gunnison National Forest Road 860.1C provided me with a dividing point.  Continuing on the main route wouldn’t be really worth the effort, since I didn’t have time enough to get to the top.  Although I do know of a nice grove of aspen within which sitting pleases my senses.  It does not lie too far away, but I still decided to take the lesser used latter two-track and access the same gully but further down its drainage.  Where the road crosses the small seasonal creek I left the road and bushwhacked down to some aspen groves that I could see about a quarter of a mile below me.

A grassy meadow lies within the expanse of steppe and adjacent to the aspen grove that had attracted me.  I found a dry patch, not so easy to do this near the end of melt-off as the soil oozed water nearly everywhere, and sat in a little slice of Rocky Mountain heaven.  I could see the winding ravine of Taylor Canyon, snaking off in the distance and cutting through the granite before rising up to the Sawatch Range and the Great Divide.  Along with that view I could see some of Fossil Ridge, the rocky outcroppings high up still snowbound.  To the north I espy the Elk Mountains and a bevy of named peaks.  Round Mountain, just over ten thousand feet in elevation, is the lower sentinel of the East River.  Eventually, those waters reach up to fourteen thousand feet.  I have been on many of the peaks I see, and I study them now from afar, reliving my previous wanderings.

As I sit admiring the view, the Sun continues its inexorable daily setting and I soon realize that the moment of my departure cannot be far off.  The dogs and I have nibbled on a snack already, and I had settled back, perched on one elbow, as the dogs had run around a bit investigating all that curious canines find interesting.  I hesitated to leave, as I felt content under the blustery, cloudy sky.  Warm enough now in late May to ward of the chilly wind, I felt exalted as I communed with the natural world.  Finally, though, I rose amidst the newly grown verdure and began to hike to its edge and immerse myself in the steppe.  I took a shortcut up to the road so as to make a short loop.  Along the way I found a few more flowers to admire as the Sun’s exit turned evening into dusk.  By the time I climbed back up to the high ridge enough darkness had enveloped the firmament so that I could barely make out the distant peaks to the south.  The hike down the gully through the gloaming along the rocky road presented its own challenge, but I encountered now major incidents on the descent.  Reaching the car, I loaded up the shepherds and we all drove home, the dogs relaxed and content having spent their pent up energy and me happier than when I had arrived.

A Visit to Point 8845 – May 17, 2017

2017_05230520

A Cat’s-Eye in the Forget-Me-Not Family, blooming in the sagebrush steppe near Cabin Creek

The great sagebrush steppe dominates the ecology of the interior western United States.  It thrives due to the scarcity of water, almost a sin of sorts when our dominant outlook revels in well-watered climates.  Still, the ubiquitous shrub produces a fecundity of its own in the water-scarce clime produced from the rain shadows of the Sierra Nevada Range and the Rocky Mountains.  Certain species have adapted to the shrub.  The conversion and destruction of the steppe has led to a precipitous decline in the population of sage grouse over much of its range.  From mid-March to mid-May in the Gunnison Country roads are closed to motorized use and the public is asked to pursue other activities later than nine in the morning.  The federal public land agencies and state wildlife agency have teamed up to institute this policy so as to save the bird.

The mid-May date had passed and the gates to the road system had been unlocked.  Thus, I felt it an opportune time to visit the steppe in the early hours of the morning, feeling it unlikely that I would disturb the grouse on their leks.  The leks are essentially grouse breeding grounds and constitute a large part of the reason for the Spring closure.  I had to work that evening so I concluded that a quick, early hike up to a local high point just above Cabin Creek would allow me to visit this area.  Point 8845 is a modest mesa of relic lava.  The hike up to the top is a bushwhack but not very steep.  However, it is sunny, so an early start on a cloudy day would allow me to avoid the excessive heat, something especially important when hiking with my German shepherds.  I had been avoiding this area due to the sensitivity of not only the grouse but the ungulates who had had a challenging time during the Winter months due to the heavy snowfall.

Leaving my home in Gunnison, Colorado, I drove out east of town on U.S. 50 about five or six miles until I reached the turnoff for Cabin Creek.  Just past the gate I parked the car.  The Bureau of Land Management oversees the land here and I found myself hiking down BLM Road 3177, also obviously referred to as the Cabin Creek Road.  I sometimes see people out here, due to its proximity to town, but it is also a generally quite place to come and enjoy the expanse of the land.  A string of cottonwoods mark the exact location of the stream.  This far down a paucity of water defines even the creek and only seldom does live liquid flow.  Today was no exception, I would find.  Half a mile of hiking along the road brought me to power transmission lines.  Here I left the main road and followed the bladed two-track, built to allow access to the line’s towers, and crossed the sere creek bed before alighting upon a small ridge on the far side.

At this point I veered off to the left and began to head up the most obvious path towards the summit.  Along the way I took note of the various living things growing from the soil.  Both the juniper and sagebrush may be described as evergreen, but now the fresh verdure had begun to spring from the soil.  Added colors of blue, red, orange, yellow and white spangled the sagebrush wherever I cast my gaze.  Once I began to note all the various species it dawned on me just how much diversity occurs in this seemingly barren landscape.  The shepherds paid no mind to this display of flora as they busily scampered about sniffing at any sign of small fauna, specifically the rodents and hares that habituate here.  Towards the top there is a stiff climb needed to clamber up the last rampart of basalt.  The flat top is typical of these outcroppings.  Here I parked myself, braced against the stiff wind that blew on this blustery day.  On the north side of this small mesa grows a small grove of Douglas fir, somewhat ravaged by the latest beetle infestation.  To my south lies an expansive view of the confluence of Cochetopa and Tomichi Creeks, along with a goodly portion of the Cochetopa Hills.  I can make out Tomichi, Razor Creek and Cochetopa Domes as well as Long Branch Baldy.  Too many named peaks rise up to enumerate them all, but even with the low clouds I could name dozens.

The wind blew chillier than I had anticipated but I nonetheless sat for about half an hour, munching on my breakfast while the dogs feasted on their kibble.  I don’t  see, as I sat, much wildlife beyond the chipmunks and cottontails that the dogs rustle up.  A few song birds and jays make their presence known through song, and the ubiquitous ravens and magpies are occasionally seen and heard.  The elk and deer seem to be elsewhere, most likely higher up now that much of the south facing snow has melted off.  While seated, I study the rolling hills to the east, leading up to the Sawatch Range.  I look to the west and see a build up of the lava-capped mesas, cut by the Gunnison River’s various tributaries if not the main branch.  Beyond lies the West Elk Mountains, the high peaks of which remain fast in snow.  It has been a fine little hike, and I decide to return home via the same route that I had just ascended.

On the way down I stop to take more snapshots of the numerous wildflowers growing and blooming.  The clouds are sending down shafts of precipitation here and there, but they are fairly wide spread and I know that I will not get wet.  The soil crunches under my feet as I walk down.  The land is mostly quite, and I can barely hear the drone of traffic on U.S. 50.  The drone slowly increases to a roar as I near the highway.  I wish to stay out further, but also relish the chance to rest on the couch and linger before having to heave off from home for another night of work.  I’ve seen what I came to see and walk back easily while the dogs continue to skitter from point to point, highly charged and eager to stick their noses into brush or hole.  We reach the waiting car, and I bid adieu to the natural world for the time being, feeling grateful for this early morning excursion.

Verdant Hike on Drift Creek Trail No. 815 – May 16, 2017

2017_05230412

Ragged Mountain seen from Drift Creek Trail on a fabulously verdant day

The Gunnison National Forest extends across such a large swath of land that visiting some of the far-flung corners involves a large investment in time and energy to get to a particular trailhead.  Over on the other side of the West Elk Mountains, relative to my home in Gunnison, Colorado, lies the North Fork of the Gunnison River.  It takes nearly an hour and a half to two hours of driving to reach some of the trails in the Paonia Ranger District.  I thought that a trip over to that side of the mountains would present a fine Spring outing.  I was feeling fairly ambitious so I got up early and left home by six-thirty in the morning.  I drove out west on U.S. 50 to Colorado 92.  That latter highway skirts the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  The highway winds around and exudes scenic virtue.  However, the low speed limit precludes a quick journey.  Still, I enjoyed the drive to Crawford, from where I took a back route into Paonia and on to Colorado 133.  I drove north up past Paonia Reservoir and on into Muddy and Lee Creeks below McClure Pass.  There is a little pullout on the west side of the road where the trailhead lies relatively unmarked.  A sign announcing that the Drift Creek Trail No. 815 begins here has been installed, if you know where to look.  Drift Creek itself lies some four miles away, according to the same signage.

Naturally, the shepherds disgorged themselves from the car with a burst of pent up energy.  They ran around the small trailhead, sniffing at whatever struck their fancy.  I noted the incredible greenery as the grass, forbs, aspen and shrubs all grew with abandon.  I started to hike and quickly rose above the trailhead and highway.  Looking across Lee Creek towards the Ragged Mountains I had my breath taken away by the huge swath of verdure that stretched out to the horizon.  Interrupted only by the high peaks clad in snow, this verdant expanse positively glowed under the warm Spring Sun.  Flowers bloomed everywhere I cast my eyes.  I had expected some sign of Spring but not this.  I felt blessed to behold this grandeur and quickly began to laugh in joyous repose.

The shepherds and I hiked through a tunnel of shrubbery, sweet with the smell of chokecherry blooms.  The numerous blooms radiated the various colors of the rainbow, and my walking I constantly interrupted to stop and make snapshots.  The trail kept working its way upwards towards a divide between Lee and Drift Creeks.  We passed through numerous small drainages before finally entering Drift Creek itself.  The vegetation had thinned out somewhat until the tunnel gave way to a great canopy of overhanging aspen.  The cerulean sky mixed well with the verdure and each mile slid by in an intoxicating brew of sparkling hues.  Concomitant with the elevation gain I noticed that the green growth of the new vegetation dwindled.  I stopped to gaze at the yellow perkiness of the newly bloomed Glacier Lilies and knew that I would encounter snow in the not so distant future should I continue.  The lilies, Erythronium grandiflorum, are exquisitely beautiful but also bloom soon after snow melt has exposed the soil to the warming Sun.

I had had the idea that I would hike up to a series of lakes, unnamed but below Huntsman Ridge, that showed on the map.  The shepherds and I reached the lakes, more resembling marshes, just as the snow began to collect even on this exposed southern face.  I could see the aforementioned ridge up ahead, a snowy blanket yet covering its flanks.  We had come enough distance, I judged, to have earned a respite from the trekking so I parked myself on a dry patch of ground.  I fed the dogs their kibble while I munched on my own snacks, admiring the view to the south along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.  Numerous snow-clad peaks of the West Elk Mountains rose up adding a dramatic touch to the horizon.  I know that extensive forests of aspen grow over this landscape, having seen them numerous times in the past, yet I found myself once again amazed at their spread over the landscape.  As I sat I listened to the natural world.  Birds sang their songs while the snow and ice melted audibly.  I felt the Earth heave off the wintry cloak that had covered the land since the previous Autumn.  Some clouds gathered in the sky as I dozed but the temperature and mood oozed balminess such that only these days of melting snow produces.

The hike back to the automobile became increasingly verdant as I led the pack down the mountain.  I found an aspen grove where the trees had been incised with a form of artwork or vandalism, depending on your view.  Still, the creations must have taken some significant effort and rise above the norm.  I got the feeling that these people felt an affection for this particular grove.  As Draco and Leah investigated squirrels and chipmunks, I kept finding flowers to admire.  This hike simply amazed me.  Although Spring had been building for nearly two months I felt like I had suddenly stepped from one world to another.  I had seen hints that the green world was on the cusp of fecundity but until this day it hadn’t been realized.  The world was alive.  The insect pollinators buzzed about as did their feathery cohorts.  Newness prevailed upon the Rocky Mountains.

I didn’t really want the day to end, so spectacular did I feel.  Once I had turned the engine over I thought about driving home but decided instead to make one further quick hike.  I drove up to McClure Pass, some few miles up the road, and found Gunnison National Forest Road 898.  Most of the snow here had melted off but enough remained to make any long distance hike impractical.  The dogs were thrilled to have yet another change to explore, even if we did go only a quarter of a mile, up towards a small divide.  I could gaze down into the valley of the Crystal River where the small hamlet of Marble resides.  The view of the Elk Mountains brought a smile to my face.  These are mountains not for the faint of heart, steep and vast as they are.  I felt satiated with my mountainous peregrinations and hiked back to Colorado 133 where I had left the car.  The rest of the day slid by somewhat effortlessly as we drove back home.  I stopped once or twice to let the dogs out but didn’t do any more exploring.  Spring had granted us a fine gift with this day, and the dogs and I rested easy that night.

An Evening Hike to Dillon Pinnacles – May 14, 2017

2017_05230366

Sagebrush spangled with orange Paintbrush, on the trail to Dillon Pinnacles

Another day of work had concluded.  I felt fortunate that enough hours remained until dusk that I could make a short trek somewhere close by my home in Gunnison, Colorado.  The word had been whispered around that the wildflower bloom in the sagebrush steppe about Dillon Pinnacles needed to be seen.  I loaded up my two German shepherds, Draco and Leah, and hastily packed before driving out towards Blue Mesa Reservoir.  Managed by the National Park Service, Curecanti National Recreation Area oversees the recreational aspect of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Aspinall Storage Units.  The Park Service maintains a short trail that leads out to the pinnacles carved out of the West Elk breccia.

This country is relatively sparse regarding precipitation, yet garners enough so that the sagebrush (I believe in this case it to be Artemisia tridentata) thrives and dominates to such an extent that the sagebrush steppe is often referred to as the sagebrush sea.  The analogy is especially effective where one ridge after another undulates off onto the horizon, such as ocean swells might do on an open sea.  Thus, entire swaths of countryside are painted the ubiquitous grey-green of this ecosystem-defining evergreen.  Now, in mid-May, dapples of orange Paintbrush and spangles of blue Penstemon have broken the solidity of color.  Sudden effusions of bright green forbs interrupt patches of open soil.  Spring has sprung in this relatively low country and will progress steadily upwards to the highest elevations as the season moves inexorably forward.

The well graded and maintained trail winds along on a contour about forty feet above the reservoir’s full-pool elevation.  As the shepherds investigated scents and rodents I strolled along, stopping when my fancy struck.  Something new that I hadn’t yet seen this season would grab my attention and I would attempt to make a snapshot.  Most of these don’t work out but some do, and I can at least have a record of what flowers I saw during this hike.  A couple of the snapshots capture the extent of the new flowery growth but often I can’t quite explain via digital imagery the glory of such a day as this.  The land is alive, shaking off the cold Winter once and for all as the warm Sun shines down and hastens forth the bounty to come.  I am all smiles as I walk along, the evening Sun yet emitting warming rays.  I breath deep, drinking in the fresh air.

That same air I imbibe in greater droughts as the trail rises along Dillon Gulch.  I pass some of my favorite Ponderosa pine, stately trees with a straight trunk and glowing coppery bark.  I always pause to greet these friends, touching their bark with reverence and catching a whiff of the butterscotch-scented sap.  The trail winds up a bit further and splits.  The official trail leads off to the left while the right follows the gulch into a narrow canyon that leads to the top of the mesas.  A fine hike it is but the governing agencies ask not to use it at this time of year due to the proximity of grazing elk recovering from Winter’s lean-times.  We follow to the left, under the great mass of the pinnacles.  I’m not seeing many new-to-the-season flowers so I turn  my gaze up to the rock and see a cataclysm, for the rock is breccia.  An igneous rock that results from an exceptionally violent volcanic eruption, life would have been smothered out almost instantaneously over dozens if not hundreds of square miles.

That event is some thirty million years in the past, and time and the inexorable power of water have washed away much of the rock.  The remnants have been carved into unlikely shapes due to the unique qualities of the breccia.  When the ancient volcano erupted it didn’t do so peacefully, as a tremendous explosion combined huge masses of disgorged volcanic ash with chunks of the destroyed crater.  The interspersed chunks of solid rock prove more resistant to the forces of erosion and shield the relatively loose ash from washing away.  That rock will thus remain suspended upon a pedestal of breccia.  Called variously pinnacles, hoodoos or mushroom caps, this geologic spectacle can be found throughout the West Elk Mountains.  Here, however, at the Dillon Pinnacles, is an example worthy of note, as some of the rocky towers rise up nearly a hundred feet, and the hoodoos corrugate a cliff a mile long.

Reaching the end of the trail I park myself on a bench so as to stare at both the pinnacles and the reservoir below.  The traffic on U.S. 50 buzzes away, but is so distant that I don’t really mind.  Besides, it is not constant, and I feel above it all, anyhow. The Sun glides over the western horizon.  As soon as it touches land I hoist my gear and make for the trailhead.  The last rays streak across the sagebrush sea nearly horizontal, and cast a golden glow upon the rock and vegetation.  The surrounding mesas of basalt and rhyolite cast a reddish glow upon the scene, and glorious is this end of the day.  We walk back, and I take a snapshot of a Balsamroot.  I had seen it first on the walk out and had assumed that there would be others, but I saw naught but this one.  Enough shadow had been cast upon the landscape that I used my flash to capture the image of this mountainous Sunflower.

The western glow of sunset illuminated the trail adequately and as day came to an end I found myself at the car.  I had periodically stopped to turn around and admire the waning glow.  To my east the dark night sky darkened in hue and the first stars, mere pinpricks of light, sparkled in the firmament.  Draco and Leah hopped into the car, and I cast my pack onto the front seat.  A mediocre day has concluded in a fine way, elevating it above the norm.  The headlights illuminate the pavement as I pull out onto U.S. 50 and pilot the automobile eastward towards the gathering darkness.  Spring has brought to this land an incalculable joy, and I smile as I drive off.  I have recharged my essence from the soul of the Earth, and I now feel blessed for it.

Cement Creek Loop Hike – May 11, 2017

2017_05230293

Draco and Leah on the Walrod Gulch Cutoff Trail No. 418, above Cement Creek

A fine day had been spoiled, at least initially, by having to work at The Job, that by which many of us are beholden to the numerous invisible tendrils by which we pay our dues.  Warmth pervaded under a blue sky dotted with wan clouds lazily wafting across the crest of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  To escape the cloistered habitat I would periodically find some barely justifiable chore to do outside where I could briefly bask in Spring’s glory.  My thoughts turned towards longing for a bit more freedom.  Fortunately for me, when I was finally able to cast aside my burdens I yet found enough time left in the inexorably increasing evening hours to gather my gear, load up the shepherds and drive up towards Cement Creek for an evening hike.  Despite my earlier resentment at my imposed confinement I now reveled in the clean air, cool breezes and vibrant colors of this May day.

Cement Creek is a major fork of the East River, located about eight miles south of Crested Butte, Colorado.  Draining the Elk Mountains, red coloration dominates much of the surrounding rock.  I parked a couple of miles up at the Farris Creek Trailhead, so named for the trail that leads north over a dividing ridge to that creek.  Locally called the Cave Trail, the Gunnison National Forest refers to it as Farris Creek Trail No. 409.  Naturally, Draco and Leah brimmed with un-expended energy gathered during the day when sleeping at home, undoubtedly upon my bed all the while propping their heads upon my pillows.  We crossed the road and I let them have a bit of freedom, and they made generous use of it.  Still, I kept them close due to the heavy use of this area by the public.

Situated in a narrow gully chock full of aspen it rises steeply up a set of switchbacks until the shepherds and I had risen above the narrow confines of the main creek.  I could look out to the west and see Red Mountain’s flat top and eastern flank.  Snow still flanked much of the higher aspects.  Part of the reasoning behind this hike came from the idea that I could travel to higher elevations provided that I took care to remain on the southern flank where sunlight would have melted the snow.  Only a few patches of snow where visible, mostly in shaded nooks behind clumps of conifer.  This is a fun trail, and I always enjoy the hike up, or down, the switchbacks.

We reached an outcropping from where I could look back down into Cement Creek and across to Cement Mountain.  Here I spent a few minutes admiring the view and taking in the totality of the natural world.  We hiked onward up the grassy slope until reaching the junction with the Walrod Gulch Cutoff Trail No. 418.  This latter trail contours along the slope about a thousand feet above Cement Creek.  We followed it eastward until reaching the gulch for which it is named.  Along the way we passed through, above and below great forests of aspen.  The Spring day felt so good, even in the shade of evening.  At Walrod Gulch a narrow two-track carries the designation Gunnison National Forest Road 740.2C.  We turned left and followed this road up towards its end where a couple of other trails begin and end.

I thought this a good place to rest a bit.  Time, alas, began to become relevant, so I didn’t dally too long before following the Warm Spring Trail No. 406 back down to Cement Creek and the main road.  The view up valley was stupendous.  Towering peaks clad in snow stood at the head of the valley many miles upstream.  The red cliffs covered in dark green conifer forest added some color, along with the blue sky, to the mountainous palette.  Alas, because of the contrast between light and dark I could not make a photograph that truly represented this beautiful scene.  After our pause I rose up and led the pack anew.  The trail descends into a long, narrow valley that contains an inholding within the public land.  I would love to live here, and watch the Sun sail across the arc cut in the firmament.  Draco ran out ahead, eagerly searching for new rodent sign, as I walked behind with Leah trailing.  A glorious descent through the aspen ensued.  I laughed, literally, as I walked down, for despite my earlier angst caused by laboring against my inclination I now found myself in a state of mirth as I marveled at the rebirth and beauty of the world around me.

Reaching the valley floor we emerged from the trail onto Gunnison National Forest Road 740.  I often think of this valley as lying along an east to west axis but north to south more adequately describes the alignment.  I turned to the south and kept the shepherds in heel because of the relatively heavy traffic on this well-maintained road.  This would be my least favorite part of the trek due to the dust kicked up from passing vehicles.  Half a mile south brought us to a bend, where the creek is forced to pass through a narrow passageway.  The downstream flow changes from south to west, and the formerly wide, meandering stream sluices through a notch in the rock.  Shortly after this I find the Lower Cement Creek Trail No. 636 which parallels the road on the north side.  Flowers, mostly Pasque Flowers and pussytoes, are blooming and in some cases have already begun to go to seed.  I have seen some great displays of the former in this very canyon, creating a mauve carpet speckled with yellow stamen.

We hike on down along Cement Creek.  I am happy to have the trail to hike on, keeping segregated from the fast traffic and associated dust.  I have timed this hike just right, as the Sun sets with me and the shepherds only about a half a mile from the car.  The last bit is precarious, as the trail ends and we are forced to share the road in the narrow canyon.  I keep the dogs nearby but I am grateful that cars only occasionally pass by.  In total, a fine evening hike has been had by us.  I see the car ahead, only a couple of hundred meters ahead.  The time has arrived for our return to Gunnison and subsequent evening chores.  I pause and wish that I could spend the night here, as some people are doing in the nearby campground.  Regardless, I am happy to have enjoyed this mid-Spring day at least partially outside doing something that I enjoy.

First, A Hike to Dorsey Creek Trailhead, and Then, Second, A Hike Along the Old Denver and Rio Grand Railroad Grade on Poncha Pass – May 09, 2017

2017_05230225

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!