Hiking in the Upper End of Ohio Creek – July 07, 2017

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Looking up at Ohio Peak on a gorgeous day

Work beckoned, calling from the evening hours, but that meant that the morning and early afternoon were mine to enjoy.  I decided to visit a body of water that locals refer to as the Lily Pond.  However, I can find no reference to this name on any map.  On my Trails Illustrated map the pond is denoted by an elevation of 10,381.  What may be confusing is that there exists a Lily Lake about two and a half miles away to the west-northwest on private property.  However, the so-called Lily Pond is part of the Gunnison National Forest and sits squarely in the public domain.  Draining into Splains Gulch, most folks access the pond from that direction, or from a parking area near Kebler Pass.  Today, I would use neither of those accesses, but instead would hike up Ohio Creek and then bushwhack up and over a small divide.  The best part of the day would be the wildflower extravaganza, as the blooms at the higher elevations had just entered their most fecund and showy phase.

I began by loading up my gear for the trek.  I drove north from my home out of Gunnison, Colorado, on Colorado 135 and turned onto Ohio Creek Road.  Also called Gunnison Country Road 730, this number is used by the Gunnison National Forest as well.  Regardless of nomenclature, I followed it up to the unmarked trailhead for the Carbon Trail No. 436.  This part of the road and trail share some interesting history, being part of the abandoned bed for the proposed extention of the  Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad.  The rails never reached this far, for when the corporation ran out of money they stopped all work and it was never taken up again.  I like to imagine what might have been, but am also somewhat happy that it never came to fruition because of the environmental damage it would have caused.

The Carbon Trail No. 436 follows one of the tendrils of Ohio Creek to the east and then continues over a small divide between Carbon Peak and Mount Axtell before entering the Carbon Creek drainage, itself a branch of Ohio Creek.  Just before the divide, this tendril turns to the north to drain the southwestern slope of Mount Axtell.  I had long noted the possibility of hiking up this drainage so as to visit the so-called Lily Pond but had never done so.  Today, I thought to myself, I would make it happen.  First, though, I had to actually hike.  So engrossed was I by the incredible blooms that I could barely walk as all I wanted to do was sit and stare.  Slowly, inexorably, I made my way to the small drainage.

Draco and Leah, my two German shepherd dogs, accompanied me on this trek as is their normal wont and while I busily investigated the flowers they ran amok from tree trunk to hole in the ground, hastily inspecting any sign of rodent activity.  Leaving the trail, we climbed up the slope, me map in hand, crossing a large meadow before entering the dense woods of sub-alpine conifer.  A small fork led back to the west and this I followed up and up until I reached a flat plateau covered in trees.  So thick were the trees that I couldn’t see any high points on which to get a bearing so I made a guess and continued haphazardly in the direction I thought appropriate.  This caused me some consternation at first, especially as I kept crossing old logging roads that might have led to my goal or perhaps not.

My perseverance was eventually rewarded when I emerged from the forest into a large meadow and I could see clearly that I had found the correct place.  All I needed to do now was head off to the west about a half a mile and I would find the pond.  There is a trail here in this area, but I decided not to follow it around the south side of the pond, instead walking to the north.  Making my way around to the west side proved to be a bit more challenging than I had anticipated mostly due to the swampy ground, but eventually I reached my goal and found a nice place to sit in some shade.  Here I sat for some time, enjoying the blooming vegetation as well as the landscape.  Ohio Peak to the west reared up, looming over us, clad in snow.  Everything else was covered in greenery, and I could not imagine a nicer day.

My original plan had been to hike back the way I had come.  However, I realized that with little extra effort I could make a loop hike.  Furthermore, to close the loop would require less hiking than returning via my outbound route.  So, once I was satiated with my sojourn at the pond, I headed northwest on the unmarked trail for about a quarter of a mile.  Then, when the topography allowed, I bushwhacked down to Ohio Pass and crossed the Ohio Creek Road.  I could have followed this road back to my car directly, but instead I took an alternate route following what I understand to be an old wagon road just to the west.  This hike down proved to be elucidating and the flower-filled meadows along the way added to the majestic scenery.  When I looked up and to the west I could see the falls of Ohio Creek, a streak of white cascading down the rock face.

Where the wagon road crosses Ohio Creek Road at the lower elevation, I continued a short distance downstream and found yet another meadow filled with tall sunflowers.  A verdant expanse spangled with yellows and oranges, the aspen rose tall all around us.  I sat here for a bit and then hiked the quarter of a mile back to the waiting car.  At this point I could have gone home, but when I drove down the road and came across the Pass Creek Trailhead I decided to stop and take a brief hike up the Swampy Trail No. 439.  The wildflowers were so spectacular, meadows filled with tall sunflowers, that I almost forgot about having to work that evening.  Alas, I had to leave but I enjoyed this short stop under the slopes of the Anthracite Range while the views of The Castles and the high peaks of the West Elk Mountains clad in snow, contrasting with the blue sky and the vast green forest, cheered me up and provided the perfect coda to the near perfect day.

Middle Creek in the Cochetopa Hills – July 06, 2017

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A Mariposa Lily on East Middle Creek

Many years ago I took a hike on this same route, making a loop from the Middle Creek Trailhead on the Rio Grande National Forest.  However, that time I progressed in a circle going counter-clockwise.   Today, I would circumnavigate the same terrain but in a clockwise manner.  Located on the eastern side of the Great Divide, within the Cochetopa Hills, I would not traverse any designated wilderness areas.  Still, this area feels wild and I heard and saw a small band of elk later in the day.  Far from any convenient population centers, and perceived by many to be not as majestic nor, thus, worthwhile, I did not see any other people the entire day.  Considering how busy the Rocky Mountains of Colorado become during July, I found myself surprised at the relatively vacant landscape.

I left home in Gunnison fairly late in the day.  I had been working long days during the Fourth of July holiday, keeping the masses fed in the resort town where I work.  I woke late and spent the morning idling about the house, reading a bit, typing on this blog and otherwise enjoying a slow breakfast.  Finally, about half past ten in the morning, I packed up my gear and attuned myself to the trip that I proposed to do today.  I left town on U.S. 50, eastbound in heavy Summer traffic, and drove about eight miles to the junction with Colorado 114 where I turned onto the less traveled route.  I drove over the Continental Divide at North Cochetopa Pass and eventually found my way to the remote trailhead.  The hills are dry in the lower elevations, and I noted the juniper and yucca growing about the area on the sere slopes.  Looking back downstream, the valley bottom radiated a glowing verdure where the water allows thick vegetation to grow.  A number of clouds sailed about the sky, and I kept an eye on them lest they should shoot lightening out in my proximity.

I began hiking on the Middle Creek Trail No. 768 and followed it upstream along the stream of the same name.  Draco and Leah, my two faithful German shepherd dogs, readily explored the trail and immediate vicinity, pausing whenever they came across any sign of rodent activity.  We immediately passed the first trail junction and continued onward another mile until we reached the East Middle Trail No. 767.  Most of the dry landscape had receded, replaced by thick forest and dense stands of willow along the waterways.  We hiked up the latter trail, the dogs fascinated by the chipmunks and me by the wildflowers.  The south face that the trail presses up against collects the heat, and the species of plants tolerant of those conditions made me think that I had re-entered the lowlands.  Meanwhile, on the north face, kept in shadow and therefore moister, a thick luxuriant forest grew, sheltering flowers that thrive sans direct sunlight.  Two miles of hiking along the creek bottom let me see all the different habitat, and I mirthfully plodded along in my own world.

Leaving the creek bottom we rose up onto a spit of rock that allowed me to see the drainage in its entirety.  The trail soon descended back into the small valley but within another half of a mile it rose up onto a small ridge towards the unnamed pass with Indian Creek.  This pass is on the western flank of Antora Peak.  Numerous wet meadows and bogs exist here, and within them I found more species of wildflowers.  Although climbing uphill prodigiously, I felt that I merely floated along, so enraptured was I by the stunning display of color against the verdant background.  Reaching the high point of my trek, I did begin to dwell on the potential of lightening but as I could not hear any thunder nor see any bolts I decided to press on.  The clouds felt somewhat oppressive, sailing just a few hundred feet above my head.

On the south side of the pass I mostly heard the elk that I mentioned earlier.  I caught some glimpses through the dense aspen stands but the ungulates soon moved off elsewhere as did I.  The dogs and I kept on hiking, enjoying the day.  Now we hiked down the Indian Creek Trail No. 766.  As we descended some of the grasses, I noted, had already turned from green to tan.  Four miles of walking would lead me back to the trailhead.  I didn’t see any new species of flowers on the descent, but that was to be expected.  Still, I enjoyed the wide-open topography and stopped often to peruse my map.  At other times I stared off at the distant horizon, far removed from what the map encompasses, and marveled at the magnitude of these mountains.  I take it for granted, sometimes, that I can see for fifty to seventy-five miles away.  It happens so frequently that I don’t always notice, but when I do the magnitude of the distances involved strikes me and I stop to stare in awe.

A reversal of our hike up, the trail down slowly transitioned out of the sub-alpine forest and into the montane.  We left behind the spruce and fir and found ponderosa.  The clouds never did build up into the type of thunderheads that threaten mountain revelers like myself.  There seemed to be rain in distant places, but often enough it seemed more like virga never touching ground.  Reaching the car, I unloaded my burden and sat down to admire the area around the trailhead.  Now the Sun shone warmly and I missed the cooling power of the clouds. A friendly ponderosa threw me some shade. I felt blessed to have been able to spend the day here in this corner of the mountains.  I opened the car up so that it would cool off, and some ten minutes later I let the shepherds hop up and we drove off, returning the way we came.  A fond farewell I said, a plume of dust rising behind us.  Returning to work the next day I would relish the memories of this hike and be thankful for having had the experiences.

Exploring the South Side of Double Top – July 01, 2017

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Mule’s Ear Sunflower on the Walrod Gulch Trail No. 412

Somehow, miraculously, this first day of July I had to myself to enjoy as I saw fit.  I found this unusual because at the beginning of the busy Summer season in the resort town where I work the kitchen scene verges on barely contained chaos.  I could barely believe my good luck.  I could see no better way to celebrate my temporary emancipation than by exploring a bit of the Elk Mountains of Colorado, specifically in the realm of Cement Creek where I knew that wildflowers in profusion would bloom amid the verdant grandeur.  Waking early, I loaded up myself and the shepherds before driving out of Gunnison where I live and heading north on Colorado 135.  Nearly twenty miles later I turned off onto Gunnison County Road 740 and crossed the East River.  Leaving the broad valley behind we drove up into the mountains paralleling Cement Creek, a major tributary of that river we just crossed.

We shortly, about a mile and a half after leaving the highway, crossed over the boundary of the Gunnison National Forest and entered the public domain.  Another few miles brought the dogs and I to the Deadman Gulch Trailhead where I parked the car.  Draco and Leah hopped out, squeaking with anticipation at the highly desirable thought of chasing rodents and investigating the leavings of other canines.  In the quietude of the forest I heard the sound of water tumbling over stone and listened to the songs of various small birds resounding from tree to tree.  I could hear the scurrying sound of paws on dirt as the pups scampered from one point to another following their senses wherever they may lead.  Otherwise the dawn air was still.  Once I gathered my gear and studied the map I called the dogs to me and focused their attention a bit.  I wanted to do a loop hike but would have to walk along the busy road to do so.  At this early hour in the morning traffic would be minimal but I desired to keep the shepherds close to avoid any problems.

This area is extremely popular during the Summer months and I saw people camping in the meadow along Cement Creek.  But most folks are on vacation and don’t rise early so only one or two cars drove by us as we walked the two miles to the Warm Spring Trail No. 406 where we began to climb up and away from the creek bottom.  Here, at this latter trailhead at approximately quarter to seven, I took my first snapshot of the day.  Walking within the valley had kept us in the early morning shadows but once we gained a bit of elevation the sunlight came upon us rapidly.  Glad I was to hike up during the cool hours, especially because we would be exposed on the southeastern face of Double Top where the rays of the Sun would be scorching.  Half a mile and a few hundred feet in elevation gain later we made the junction with the Walrod Gulch Trail No. 412.

The dogs and I slowed our pace a bit as we began to climb in earnest.  The trail became steeper and I felt fortunate to complete this part of the hike while the Sun remained relatively cool.  Fortunately, we soon crossed the small patch of open sagebrush and re-entered the dense, shady aspen forest.  Here a small stream trickled down from the heights above, and the shepherds drank heartily.  Leah even wallowed in the channel, creating a temporary dam.  Once cooled and refreshed we hiked on to the upper end of the trail where we turned right onto the Walrod Spur Trail No. 405.2A.

A short, steep climb out of the creek bottom led us to an eminence where the previous trail ends and the wordy Double Top – Waterfall Spur Trail 405.3A begins.  This latter trail then climbs up another half a mile to junction with the Double Top Trail No. 405.  As a cartographic side note, I remained confused about this abrupt change of names regarding the trails until I came across another map that shows the Walrod Spur Trail No. 405.2A continuing onward at the same contour, while the map I used this day has that continuation deleted.  That is something to ponder and perhaps revisit in a future day of exploration.  Regardless, this day we hiked up to the Double Top Trail No. 405 and I found a great place to sit down for a bit, where I could look out onto the world from my perch.  Nearby the shepherds frolicked in snow and otherwise scampered about.

Having had a snack and rested a bit after the climb we continued to the northeast along the Double Top Trail No. 405.  The dogs and I now became exposed to a great amount of sunlight because for the next three miles or so we would be walking on the southern and eastern flanks of Double Top as we followed the trail on a steady contour.  Bright and supremely beautiful, a lush and verdant expanse spangled with colorful wildflowers spread out in every direction.  The blue sky dotted with white clouds added to the greenery. The strikingly maroon rock of the uplifted sandstone that composes the mountains added even more texture to the scenery.  The Sun felt great and patches of snow not only contrasted the verdure but allowed the dogs to stay cool.  The slopes below Double Top are corrugated with numerous gullies and we wended in and out of them until reaching the junction with the Waterfall Trail No. 555.  Here I decided to sit and admire the surroundings.  While the dogs investigated several entrances to rodent burrows I sat and stared at the huge field of glacier lilies, Erythronium grandiflorum, sweeping down from above.  I had difficulty selecting a patch of ground large enough to accompany my bulk without squashing the elegant blooms!

After dozing off under the Summer sky I came to the sad conclusion that the time had arrived to depart down the trail that would lead back to Cement Creek.  Thus, I gathered the dogs and took one last look around before striding down the Waterfall Trail No. 555.  Although this trail is open to bicycles and motorcycles I didn’t see anybody riding those machines.  I found out the reason when I descended into a patch of dense sub-alpine forest still blanketed in snow.  This patch lasted not more than a quarter of a mile but interspersed as it was with downed timber it created a blockade that did not allow easy passage.  Below that the trail was clear.  We descended into a deep gully and worked our way down to the junction with the Cement Creek Trail No. 612.  I led the dogs down to the creek itself and enjoyed the percolating water and its pleasing cacophony.  This area is popular with recreationalists of all sorts and I saw many people in the vicinity.

Following the trail downstream about a mile we reached its terminus at the Cement Creek Road.  Now, unlike the morning, a fair amount of vehicular traffic coursed up and down the road.  I kept to the shoulder and made sure the dogs stayed close, keeping them at heel.  Most folks drove along slowly, and everyone I saw seemed cheerful and happy to be out in the mountains.  I returned to the car at the Deadman Gulch Trailhead to find many more vehicles packed into the limited area.  Yes, a fine day to be out and about, exploring the intricacies of this corner of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  I hoisted the pack off my shoulders and stowed it on the front seat, simultaneously opening the back door of the Outback station wagon so that Draco and Leah could hop in and lie down.  I sat upon a wooden railing and drank some water, enjoying the shaded copse of aspen.  What a fine hike I had just made!  A perfect Summer day in the Elk Mountains had blessed me with its fecund glory.

Fourth Summit of San Luis Peak – June 30, 2017

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Shepherds ahead on the Stewart Creek Trail No. 470

As of midnight my forty-seventh birthday commenced.  Highly motivated to celebrate the day in style I rose up out of bed at about quarter to three in the morning, quickly packed my hiking gear, gave elderly Lady Dog a bone to gnaw on, gathered the shepherds and exited the house.  Firing up the Subaru I drove over to the Love’s convenience store, the only twenty-four hour business in Gunnison, and purchased a quick breakfast, hot coffee and some additional snacks for later in the day.  I drove out of town on U.S. 50 eastbound with no hint of the coming dawn on the far horizon.  After eight miles I turned off on Colorado 114 and headed south through Cochetopa Canyon.  Some twenty miles later I left the pavement and began to wind my way into the backcountry until, many bouncy miles later, I reached the Eddiesville Trailhead where I could begin my hiking adventure to the summit of San Luis Peak.

By the time I reached the end of the road the Sun waited just below the mountains to the east and a healthy glow allowed enough light to easily hike out onto the Stewart Creek Trail No. 470 on the Gunnison National Forest.  Within a mile or so of the trek our great life-giving orb crested the boundary between land and atmosphere, and poured out rays of sunshine upon the verdant expanse of willow gracing numerous beaver ponds.  The mountain setting exuded scenic grandeur in the form of high ridges clad in snow.  Unfortunately, this drainage along with much of the San Juan Mountains has been severely impacted by beetle infestation.  In this forest nary a mature spruce remains although, at least providing a thin veneer of a silver lining, the younger trees seem to be thriving and remain unaffected.  For now and the many upcoming decades, I would suppose, this area will be haunted by a ghost forest of sorts.

As might be suspected from the name of the trail, I walked up along Stewart Creek which is a minor fork of Cochetopa Creek.  After an hour plus of walking uphill we emerged from the skeletal remains of the forest at what would have been treeline and entered the alpine zone.  Despite the Summer Solstice having passed over a week ago cold temperatures reigned and a bit of newly formed ice coated the twigs of the willow growing along the creek where the water splashes up.  Crossing the creek, we began to climb up a steep series of switchbacks until we reached a ridge shared with the main fork of Cochetopa Creek.  Standing at thirteen thousand feet, I could clearly see the summit and the trail leading hence.  A mile of hiking and gaining some thousand feet of elevation and I would stand upon the eminence of San Luis Peak for the fourth time.

The trail skirts a rocky ridge and passes through fields of talus.  Hard on my ankles and the dogs’ paws alike, but, fortunately, enough snow remained for the pups to scamper unimpeded atop that frozen but soft substance.  I saw a couple of people on the way down from the summit, one of whom informed me that he had left the trailhead at about three in the morning.  One other person I saw on the way up, but otherwise this fourteen thousand and fourteen foot high summit was fairly quiet.  Reaching the peak I had a fine view all around me, especially since no other summit within a few dozen miles reaches this elevation.  The few clouds obscured not the landscape nor anything else and I could see much of the mighty San Juan Mountains as well as the West Elk and Elk Mountains to my north.  The northeastern horizon was rent with the jagged though distant high ridge of the Sawatch Range.  To my south, none too distant, lay a great swath of the Continental Divide and its ramparts of stone mottled with either the remnants of last Winter’s snow or patches of verdant meadow.  Glorious.

The first time I climbed this peak I didn’t have a camera with me and thus that hike is but a faint memory.  The second time I visited the peak sat in a layer of clouds so dense that I couldn’t see more than a hundred feet in any direction.  That is great hiking weather, cool and damp, but doesn’t leave much for the view.  The third time I could see for miles and miles, but with lightening much too close for comfort I spent about thirty seconds on the peak before running, literally, down the slope to shelter.  Now, today, I could lounge without threat of electrical storms nor the dampening effect of  clouds swirling about in misty profusion.  Thus I did the following in no particular order:  I ate a snack, drank water, scratched the dogs’ ears, watched the few clouds morph from one shape to another, lamented the extent of the ghost forest, admired the hardy wildflowers, speculated on the mineral composition of the rock, edified myself on the local geology, inspected the United States Geological Survey’s benchmark, dwelt on the lack of harmony found in much of our society, pondered the spirituality that wildlands inspire, prayed for the future of the wild beings who live here and, perhaps my favorite, studied the topography of the physical world around me.

Eventually the time came to depart the prominent eminence.  I slowly packed up my gear, almost subconsciously, and moseyed off.  Having made the hike up somewhat hastily I now paused on the way down to snap photographs of most of the wildflowers I saw.  This I did from the alpine through the sub-alpine and into the moraine where the lowest elevations of the hike would occur.  However, I had decided to conduct a loop hike around Organ Mountain so I therefore departed from San Luis to the south, hiking down to a saddle between Cochetopa and Spring Creeks where Gunnison National Forest Trail No. 465 passes.  This saddle is fairly major, as one side drops down into Spring Creek and then Cebolla Creek, the latter being a major fork of the Gunnison River downstream of the City of Gunnison.  The other side flows directly into Cochetopa Creek which disgorges itself into Tomichi Creek which confluences with the Gunnison River near the city.  The point is that by inadvertently wandering over the divide unaware a hapless soul could end up miles away from their intended destination.  I proceeded, adroitly, into Cochetopa Creek so that I headed back to the point from which I started.  This stretch of trail is part of both the Colorado Trail, stretching from Denver to Durango, and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail which runs from Mexico to Canada along the spine of the continent.

Once down from the slope south of the summit and having proceeded about a mile into the drainage the trail leveled off.  I trekked along employing an easy stride as I admired the natural world around me.  I gazed up into Canon Diablo, a place I have wanted to visit but for the want of time, and decided that I would have to wait again for another time.  The further downstream I traveled the more open the drainage became.  I occasionally meandered over to the sinuous stream to watch the water tumble over the cobbles as the dogs lapped up the liquid refreshment.  I peered up to the flat-topped mesas above me, marveling at the vastness of the ancient lava flows that created them.  The last half-mile of hiking brought me alongside a secluded ranch that I greatly admire for its quietude and remoteness.  Passing Arroyo Hondo I knew that my hike would soon be concluded.  I reached the trailhead and wandered back to the waiting automobile.  What a fantastic day I had just had.  I kept my presence of mind since I knew that I would spend the next hour and a half piloting the bumpy roads back to pavement, but I could not help driving along with a huge smile on my face!