Looking at Mount Sneffels and vicinity, from Dave Wood Road
I needed to unwind. I craved seeing something fresh, exploring a place that I had yet to set my eyes upon. For two weeks straight I had worked long hours and had barely been able to fill my mandate of hiking three days a week. What hikes I had made were enjoyable and worth the effort but had been necessarily short. Today I decided to forgo a long hike but decided instead to make a long drive that would take me all the way down to Dolores, Colorado. I especially wanted to see the road between said town and Norwood to the north. To get from Montrose to Norwood I would incorporate another back road that leads up onto the Uncompahgre Plateau. A clear sky above and a full tank of gas invited me to the open road. I regret the pollution I caused as it abets the demise of the forests I love but I satisfied a craving to see for myself what lies beyond the next rise.
Having worked myself into a frazzle I didn’t have the moxie to get up early, say, at the crack of dawn as I might have wanted to. Rather I left at about quarter to eight in the morning, leaving Gunnison on U.S. 50 westbound towards Montrose. I didn’t go very far before stopping at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Curecanti National Recreation Area. I pulled over at the Old Stevens Picnic Area where a large beach provides ample opportunities for off-leash dog adventure. I let Draco and Leah, my two hiking companions and German shepherds both, out of the car and they proceeded to scamper about the sagebrush steppe on the prowl for any unaware rodents or rabbits that might happen to be afoot. I led them down to the water and threw a stick out into the depths so that both dogs had an opportunity to get wet and spend some energy.
I soon loaded the dogs back up into the aged Subaru and continued our travels westbound on U.S. 50, feeling the miles slide by under the wheels as the engine’s humming I more felt than heard. Windows down, the wind blowing cool under the warm Sun, music keeping the time, I soon settled into the mildly hypnotic routine of the open road. The nearly even-contour of the road skims the water as it parallels the reservoir until rising up just west of Blue Mesa Dam. Up and over a number of mesas the road meanders wildly in an attempt to avoid the narrow Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. We then follow down into the shadows of Big Blue Creek where shade loving spruce thrive. Soon, we climb up over Blue Mesa Summit and then down into the valley of the Cimarron River where the water from the north face of the Uncompahgre Mountains washes down to the Gunnison River. Past the small post office and some Park Service facilities the road rises up a somewhat steep grade to Cerro Summit before descending down to the Uncompahgre Valley where lies Montrose. Upon arriving in town I continue down the old alignment of U.S. 50 towards downtown.
I continued across Townsend Avenue, signed also as U.S. 550, and headed out of town on Colorado 90 westbound, a highway that leads up to the base of the Uncompahgre Plateau. After a few sharp turns and constant perusal of the maps I found Dave Woods Road, a county road maintained by first Montrose, then Ouray, then Montrose again and finally San Miguel Counties, moving from north to south. The road carries a variety of designations other than Dave Wood Road but they are somewhat redundant as that epithet carries with it a continuity missing from the multiple others. We drive up onto the Uncompahgre Plateau until we enter the Uncompahgre National Forest where a small system of local trails meanders in and out of a few small drainages. We had driven well over an hour to get to this point and both the dogs and I were ready to get out of the car a bit.
We hiked out about a mile on the Simms Mesa Trail Nos. 115.1A, 115 and 115.1B as they wound around through an aspen jungle of sorts. I especially enjoyed seeing the wildflowers that grew in profusion and exploring a couple of small canyons that I believe are tributaries of Happy Canyon. I found a good place to sit and enjoy a snack, and exalted in this bit of new-to-me country. Draco and Leah wanted to chase the squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits that either ran away, squeaked an alarm or both. After a bit of rest and hydration we moseyed on back to the car. I could hike here all day, I thought to myself, but I really did want to explore this road further just to see where it goes. I had had it on my mind for a number of years so we retraced our steps back to the waiting automobile and began again our travels south towards Colorado 62 in the vicinity of Howard Flats, just west of the Dallas Divide. Along the way I came across a stunning vista of the mountains that rise up to Mount Sneffels. Rolling parks of open meadow punctuated by ponderosa pine, and snow clad rocky summits towering up above, all under a blue sky… I became mesmerized and pulled over to take in the scene.
I returned to the mainstream highway system at Colorado 62 after my exploration of Dave Woods Road. The pavement follows Leopard Creek down to the San Miguel River and the junction with Colorado 145 where Colorado 62 ends. A turn to the left, upstream, would take me to storied Telluride but I venture downstream, continuing westbound. The canyon of the San Miguel River is one of my favorite places. The walls are often composed of a reddish sandstone, sometimes even deeply so, and the conifer forest grows thick especially on the north face. The color combination on such a day as this, with cerulean sky above, I find entrancing. The problem I find often enough is that I can’t stop at nearly all the places that I’d like to, and today I decide to drive by the pullouts along the river’s edge.
After a narrow, roller-coaster-like drive along the narrow road the highway crossed the river and rose out of the canyon and on up to the mesa above. A couple of miles before arriving in Norwood I turned left onto San Miguel County Road 44Z S. This road, and its continuation in Dolores and Montezuma Counties, used to be part of the state highway system. I would follow it all the way to its southern terminus at Dolores, the town. Both the latter counties us the same designation for the road, County Road 31. I had attempted to drive this road one other time in early May some years ago but got turned back by drifts of snow. More than anything else I just wanted to see what was out here on this obscure byway, between two small towns nearly fifty miles apart.
What I saw mostly was open, rolling country, the towering peaks of the San Miguel Mountains, Lone Cone and the broad upper end of Disappointment Valley. Mostly, everything was green with the new growth of early June. I continued along the winding course, down one side of the valley and across to the other side where I drove up onto a broad plateau that a large ponderosa forest previously called home prior to the advent of logging. I continued on to McPhee Park, where a logging company and the United States Forest Service preserved a stand of virgin ponderosa. Interestingly, I found that I couldn’t really determine the difference between the second growth and the ancient forest. I think that the preserved old forest was so minimal that is has sort of been drowned out. Also, the fire suppression techniques that have been used over the past century have probably not allowed the natural agency of burning to eradicate many of the small trees and shrubs that would have ordinarily, sans dowsing the flames, been cleared out thus highlighting the majesty of the old mature trees and the concomitant open park. Yet another example, I am afraid, of mankind’s hubris when attempting to profit from the exploitation of our natural resources.
Regardless of past or current practices, I felt compelled to get out and walk around in this area. During the logging boom a railroad had been erected up to this plateau, almost certainly narrow gauge as the main line of the Rio Grande Southern, and its three-foot width, had run through Dolores to the south. The tracks here in the San Juan National Forest had been ripped up decades ago but I could still discern the old bed. I walked around, with shepherds happily bounding from one tree to another in pursuit of items interesting to canines. I did not have any detailed maps with me, only the large-scale atlas that I use to navigate across landscapes. Thus, not knowing my way around in a rolling or flat terrain without any features, I hiked only a short distance to the north, out into a large meadow before following the old railroad back down Beaver Creek and eventually to Rocky Draw. I did find a place on the latter to sit and contemplate the world but generally I would say that this is not the place for quiet reflection. Still, I did find something alluring about this locale and would spend more time here had I the ability.
I continued driving south to Dolores, a relatively short distance that ends in a steep decent down to river level. The town is named for the river, and here we tie into the main highway system again. This junction with Colorado 145 is the farthest that we’ll get today, the distant point on the loop. I pause momentarily to take in all that I have seen and then turn left, heading northbound and upstream, towards Rico and Telluride. Although back on the pavement, this road is somewhat lightly traveled. The canyon is gorgeous, rimmed with a red sandstone upon which grow ponderosa, Douglas fir and some spruce where wet and shady. The miles zipped by as we passed through the town of Rico. Up towards Lizard Head Pass I stop to get out and hike for the last time today.
The snows here have barely receeded and still swaddle the higher peaks. We hike up in the San Juan National Forest toward the Lizard Head Wilderness on the Cross Mountain Trail No. 637, and water flows everywhere. After a half a mile or so I find a dry place to sit and absorb the stunning high country vista. To my east rears Sheep Mountain, its peak culminating a rise up to thirteen thousand feet above sea level. It is such a beautiful day. The early June Sun blazes away, and I can practically hear the snow melting. We still have nearly four hours of driving ahead of us so I don’t linger, although I’d like to. We hike back down through the verdant meadows and cross the rushing waters of Lizard Head Creek. The namesake formation from which all else derives its appellations rises above, sticking straight up into the sky looking uncannily alike which its name suggests.
The drive back to Gunnison is gorgeous. After crossing the pass we re-enter the San Miguel River drainage and drive through the amazing high country about Telluride. There is a reason property costs so much here, as many folks desire to own a piece of this mountainous land. We descend through the narrow canyon down to Placerville and Colorado 62 where we continue our northward and eastward progress up and over Dallas Divide. The grade down to Ridgeway flows by and at the eastern end of Colorado 62 I stop at the traffic light where the junction with U.S. 550 lies. I turn towards the north again and at Montrose I turn to the east on U.S. 50, crossing Cerro Summit headed for Gunnison. After a long day, over twelves hours of traveling, we arrive home weary but satiated. I would like to revisit the distant country to the south that I had seen, but perhaps spending a couple of days instead of one. There is so much to see and explore!
Looking north over Lizard Head Pass from Cross Mountain Trail No. 637, Yellow Mountain on the horizon
Blue Mesa Reservoir at Old Stevens Picnic Area
Draco with a stick as Leah sets to pounce, on Blue Mesa Reservoir in Curecanti National Recreation Area
Simms Mesa Trail No. 115.1A, on the Uncompahgre National Forest, adjacent to Dave Woods Road
Simms Mesa Trail signage
Ponderosa pine and Gambel oak, on the Simms Mesa Trail No. 115.1A, Uncompahgre National Forest
Aspen in a sub-canyon of Happy Canyon, on the Simms Mesa Trail No. 115
I believe this to be a pink Phlox, on the Simms Mesa Trail No. 115
A patch of Phlox and daisies, on the Simms Mesa Trail No. 115
Daises in grasses along Simms Mesa Trail No. 115
A daisy or fleabane but part of the Aster Family
Delphinium coloring the forest on the Simms Mesa Trail No. 115
A small canyon on the Simms Mesa Trail No. 115.1B
Aspen-rimmed meadow on Simms Mesa Trail No. 115.1B
Swampy verdure on Simms Mesa Trail No. 115.1B
Aspen forest on a sub-canyon of Happy Canyon, along Simms Mesa Trail No. 115.1B
A small biscuit-root on Simms Mesa Trail No. 115.1B
A False-Lupine on Simms Mesa Trail No. 115.1B
A biscuit-root, or some other plant, in the Parsley Family
False-Lupine close-up, part of the Pea Family
A chokecherry on Simms Mesa Trail No. 115.1B
Prunus virginiana, part of Rosaceae, on Simms Mesa Trail No. 115.1B
Sandstone outcropping on the Uncompahgre Plateau, on the Simms Mesa Trail No. 115
A shrubby cinquefoil on Simms Mesa Trail No. 115
Flower of the shrubby cinquefoil, part of the Rose Family, on Uncompahgre Plateau
Flax on the Simms Mesa Trail No. 115
Probably Linum lewisii, in Linaceae
Looking up Disappointment Creek towards the San Miguel Mountains, along Dolores Country Road 31
Ponderosa pine in McPhee Park
Signage for McPhee Park
Extreme verdure near McPhee Park
An open meadow in the ponderosa pine forest near McPhee Park
A meadow on Beaver Creek near McPhee Park in the San Juan National Forest
A stock pond on Beaver Creek, near McPhee Park
Leah strolling across a meadow near Beaver Creek
The old railroad grade along Beaver Creek near McPhee Park
Draco and Leah at the trailhead, Cross Mountain Trail No. 637 on the San Juan National Forest
Looking up Lizard Head Creek towards Black Face, on the Cross Mountain Trail No. 637
Looking across Snow Spur Creek and Colorado 145 towards Sheep Mountain and
Lizard Head Peak and Cross Mountain on the left, seen from the Cross Mountain Trail No. 637 in the San Juan National Forest
A bit of snow lingers but the meadows are rapidly greening up, along the Cross Mountain Trail No. 637 in the Lizard Head Wilderness
Draco on Cross Mountain Trail No. 637
Sitting near Cross Mountain Trail No. 637, looking at Sheep Mountain on a gorgeous June day
Looking at Mount Sneffels and vicinity, from Dave Wood Road