A beautiful meadow with Mount Gunnison in the distance
When the word jungle is used most people associate that term with the sub-tropics if not the tropics themselves. On the western slopes of the West Elk Mountains, however, the storms coursing across the continent from the Pacific Ocean slam into the risen masses of elevated rock. Here the moisture collects and precipitates down before combining with the warm Sun. This allows a lush vegetation to thrive. Thus a jungle of aspen and conifer rises above a dense understory that often towers above a human’s head. I have noted this phenomenon elsewhere in these mountains and am always amazed when walking through the dense growth.
There are a number of repetitive names given to many waterways in the Gunnison Country. Some examples that come readily to mind are “willow”, “bear” or “elk”. The appellation “coal” is similar. These mountains, the West Elks, were formed by volcanic eruption tens of millions of years ago, but on the perimeter lie vast deposits of sedimentary rock through which the volcanic action penetrated. Much coal is found here and even now is extracted from the Earth. I now live in the city of Gunnison, Colorado, downstream from the town of Crested Butte. The latter sits squarely on Coal Creek which drains into the Slate River, but this drainage has naught to do with the one that I am talking about now. This Coal Creek drains into Anthracite Creek before pouring its waters into the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
To get to the Throughline Trailhead on the north side of the West Elk Wilderness I had to drive nearly two hours. Amazingly, I never left Gunnison County during the entire drive. I don’t remember if I drove up Ohio Creek or through Crested Butte to reach Kebler Pass, but regardless I drove out on County Road 12 before turning up the narrow one-lane road to get to the trailhead. Technically, this Coal Creek Road is designated as Country Road 12A where it passes through private property thus garunteeing legal access, but also goes by the name of Gunnison National Forest Road 709. Either way, it ends at a remote ranch.
I parked the car about a mile and a half shy of the road’s end, where the trailhead sits. The last and only previous time I was here this place was a defacto campground, crowded with hunting camps. Now, in mid-July it sat nearly empty. My goal was to reverse the loop hike that I had done a couple of years earlier. I would attempt to hike counter-clockwise instead of the opposite. I have to say, this area is a mish-mash of various trails and the information shown on various maps often conflicts with each other and with what is on the ground. Because of the heavy growth navigation becomes a real challenge. I would not have been able to complete my earlier hike, nor this, without the aid of signage combined with expert map-reading abilities.
Rising above the verdure in the vicinity of the trailhead are three prominent landmarks. To the northeast rises Moseley Ridge, to the southeast Kaufman Ridge and to the west the mighty mass of Mount Gunnison. The latter’s rocky outcroppings added a gray hue to the otherwise verdant expanse. I drove down the narrow road, cliffs rising on one side and falling on the other. Reaching the trailhead, I drove down and across Robinson Creek before parking in a grove of large spruce. The shepherds eagerly leaped out of the car once I let them and began to scamper about from tree to tree as the numerous squirrels chirped at them in agitation. I gathered my gear, checked my maps, oriented myself with the aforementioned landmarks and then set off on the Throughline Trail No. 860 in the Gunnison National Forest. We soon entered the West Elk Wilderness, following Coal Creek upstream.
The trial parallels Coal Creek and the gurgling water coursed over the numerous cobbles on its way to the Pacific Ocean. Although green, this area isn’t the wildflower spectacular that is found not too far east. Still, what does grow here does so with a certain extravagance. We hiked up two miles to the first trail junction. I had been here before, and noted that no signage denoted the junction, so I kept an eye out for the trail but I could not find it due to the heavy grasses. I knew I was in the correct area so I decided to head out cross country. This proved to be challenging as even the grasses reached my waist and chest. After trudging about for a quarter of an hour I finally found the Navajo Flats Trail No. 857 and headed up towards the crossing of Kaufman Ridge.
The real challenge now began. Various cattle and game trails veered off from the so-called maintained trail and it was only by recollection and deduction that I found my way to the summit. Just below to the west of this crossing their exists some well-worn path that fails to show up on any map. It seems to go from nowhere to nowhere, and twice now I have not been able to fathom its purpose. It seems to have more traffic than the official trail but I can’t guess at who, or what, uses it. I found a nice outcropping of rock surrounded by low vegetation, and we rested a bit. Descending from the summit to the junction with the Kaufman Creek Trail No. 852 I once again lost my way. I could see Haystack Mountain directly before me, but I wasn’t sure exactly where I was supposed to go, so we began to bushwhack in a general direction that I thought reasonable. I became scared because the dogs, especially Leah, began to act wary. They really couldn’t see anything, and Leah finally panicked and began to retreat the way we had come. I had no choice but to retreat myself until I finally found her not too far away slurping up water at an ephemeral pond.
I missed the junction completely, although I remember their being signage there on my previous visit. The difficulty lies with the livestock trails that meander off from the main trail and complicate navigation. I can’t say I was truly lost or turned around, as I knew we were in the Kaufman Creek drainage. But without the trail to follow the going was extremely slow. About half a mile or so downstream from the junction I finally crossed the official trail and my mood, and the dogs’, lightened up considerably. We then had an amiable amble downstream until reaching the well-marked junction with the Peter Creek Trail No. 856. Here, Kaufman Creek drains into Robinson Creek and Peter Creek drains from the east. The shepherds and I followed this new trail upstream a short distance until it forked. The right fork goes to Elk Basin and left up towards the headwaters of Peter Creek. I took the left.
The heavy vegetation continued unabated. Again, numerous livestock and game trails split off from the official one, but on my previous hike I had noted this situation and with a bit of sleuthing I found the correct trail up to the summit. Dropping down from the summit through a thick meadow of Corn Lily into Little Robinson Creek we came upon yet another trail junction with the Little Robinson Trail No. 850. Depending on what maps I studied, there are either three, four or five trails that intersect at this point. The signage on the ground suggested only three but I could clearly see a fourth rising up towards Moseley Ridge. The fifth I could discern but not with clarity. Regardless, we paused again and enjoyed the second of our two snacks. Although resting comfortably I could not help rising and wandering around a bit until I found where the “fourth” trail crosses the creek before leading east up the ridge.
Six more miles of hiking would lead us back to the waiting car, and now on familiar ground in the form of a trail that I knew was well established we hiked along unimpeded by doubt. We passed by one trail, denominated as No. 851, that leads up to Moseley Ridge and over to Cliff Creek, and came upon the northern terminus of the Kaufman Creek Trail No. 852, the same that we crossed some miles ago at the confluence of Peter, Kaufman and Robinson Creeks. Another mile and a half or so and we reached the end of the hiking trails at the point where Gunnison National Forest Road 709 terminates. Further hiking on the road at about an equal distance led us to the car. This was one of the more challenging hikes in my recent memory, and I was truly thankful that I made it back along the loop that I had planned. At one point I thought I would have to turn back and retrace my steps.
We drove out along the narrow road, having to back up at one point about a quarter of a mile so that a trailer could pass by. Instead of returning home via Kebler Pass I dropped down into Paonia, where I stopped at Delicious Orchards for some locally grown delicacies, and then followed Colorado 92 around the south side of the West Elk Mountains, skimming the northern edge of the Black Canyon of the Colorado. This road isn’t long by mileage but winding around as it does it takes a while to get from Paonia to Gunnison. This had been a fine, adventurous day and the dogs and I saw, and sniffed, much country. We were very happy to get home. I unpacked the car and stowed the gear before collapsing on my bed, letting the day’s activities sink into my mind. What a blessed day! Stout mountains! I thrive doing what I like to do and again felt blessed to have had such a day, irrespective of the difficulties that I encountered.
At the end of Gunnison National Forest Road 709, looking west towards Mount Gunnison
The northern terminus of the Throughline Trail No. 860, near the confluence of Coal and Robinson Creek
The flank of Mount Gunnison runs down to Coal Creek
On the Throughline Trail No. 860 on the Gunnison National Forest, where it enters the West Elk Wilderness
Looking up towards Mount Gunnison from Coal Creek
Coal Creek just upstream of Robinson Creek, in the West Elk Mountains of Colorado
Dew on a sunflower, on Coal Creek
This sunflower in the Coal Creek drainage must be about five or six feet tall
A Geranium on Coal Creek
Geranium amidst thick foliage on Coal Creek
Cow Parsnip in the early morning Sun
Thick understory on Coal Creek
Closeup of Cow Parsnip, a member of the Parsley Family, on Coal Creek
The second yellow sunflower of the day, on Coal Creek
The second yellow sunflower on Coal Creek
Orange-ish sunflower on Coal Creek
The orange-ish sunflower on Coal Creek
Fleabane, Daisy or Aster: I don’t know, but they are all closely related. On Coal Creek in the West Elk Wilderness
Closeup of a mauve daisy, on Coal Creek
On the Navajo Flats Trail looking north, downstream on Coal Creek
Thick understory in the aspen forest along the Navajo Flats Trail No. 851
Looking across Coal Creek to the southeastern face of Mount Gunnison
Corn Lily predominate in the understory foliage of the West Elk Mountains
A fern at about eighty-two hundred feet in elevation, along the Navajo Flats Trail No. 851 in the Gunnison National Forest’s West Elk Wilderness
Perhaps Rayless Coneflower, in the Aster Family, on the Navajo Flats Trail No. 851
Perhaps Rudbeckia occidentalis in the Aster Family, on the Navajo Flats Trail No. 851
A variety of sunflowers growing in a relatively open area along the Navajo Flats Trail No. 851
Tall sunflowers, reaching six feet in height, in the West Elk Mountains of Colorado
Perhaps Death Camas on the Navajo Flats Trail No. 851
Looking out of the aspen jungle towards Mount Gunnison, below Kaufman Ridge
Perhaps Velvet Goldenrod in the Aster Family, on the Navajo Flats Trail No. 851 west of Kaufman Ridge
Perhaps Solidago velutina in Asteraceae, on the Navajo Flats Trail west of Kaufman Ridge
Goldenrod in the West Elk Mountains
Mount Gunnison under a beautiful July sky
Looking north towards Moseley Ridge from the Navajo Flats Trail No. 851
Looking at Haystack Mountain from Kaufman Rdige
Yarrow in the Aster Family, on Kaufman Ridge
Achillea millefolium in Asteraceae on Kaufman Ridge
Understory foliage above my head east of Kaufman Ridge
Draco east of Kaufman Ridge, on the trail, surrounded by Corn Lily
Dracp investigating a swamp on Kaufman Creek
Draco and Leah on the trail, in the Corn Lily
Giant Nettle-leaf Hyssop and a Polemonium spp. on Kaufman Creek
A Jacob’s Ladder of some sort, perhaps, in the Phlox Family, on Kaufman Creek
Looks like a Polemonium spp. in Polemoniaceae, on Kaufman Creek
Agastache urticifolia in Lamiaceae on Kaufman Creek
Leah in Kaufman Creek
The old log next to Leah has decomposed enough to host a variety of plants, on Kaufman Creek
Junction of the Kaufman Creek Trail No. 852 and the Peter Creek Trail No. 856, southbound on the former
Junction of the Kaufman Creek Trail No. 852 and the Peter Creek Trail No. 856, Leah looking southwards
The fork of the Peter Creek Trail No. 856 and an unnumbered trail that may or may not be official but shows up on many maps
Fungus on an Aspen, on Peter Creek
Near the headwaters of Peter Creek
Checker Mallow near the headwaters of Peter Creek
Sidalcea candida in Malvacae near the headwaters of Peter Creek
More Checker Mallow near the headwaters of Peter Creek
Pretty Checker Mallow near the headwaters of Peter Creek
Thick forest of aspen with an understory of ferns, near the headwaters of Peter Creek
The Peter Creek Trail No. 856 in a meadow of Corn Lily just west of the Little Robinson Trail No. 850
A meadow on Little Robinson Creek near the Peter Creek Trail No. 856
Thick foliage on Little Robinson Creek near the Peter Creek Trail No. 856
A Monument Plant in the aspen forest of Little Robinson Creek
Somewhere in here is the Peter Creek Trail No. 856
The junction of the Peter Creek Trail No. 856 and the Little Robinson Trail No. 850
Additional signage at the trail junction on Little Robinson Creek; there may be one or two other trails that junction here
Looking north on Little Robinson Creek towards Moseley Ridge
On Little Robinson Creek looking up towards Moseley Ridge
Signage for the Little Robinson Trail No. 850 near the confluence of Little Robinson and Robinson Creeks
A beautiful meadow with Gunnison Mountain in the distance