A Hike to Boulder Lake in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness – July 26, 2017

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Parnassia fimbriata, part of Parnassiaceae, found near Boulder Lake – a small but incredibly intricate flower.

What a difference a year makes, so I think to myself as I sit here in the loft and write these words, the German shepherds sprawled out snoring nearby.  Last year the snows clung to the hillsides and mountains, the flowers bloomed with abandon and rain was never too far distant, even on days with cerulean skies.  This year the snowfall fell in minimal amounts, the cobalt skies seem threatening with dryness and the snowpack has mostly melted off, with certain notable exceptions here and there.  As I look back I realize how blessed we were to have such a year, something that I recognized at the time, too.  Some of our hillsides never grew significant grass and thus didn’t lose the dun color familiar throughout Winter.  Last year the grasses greened up and colored the Earth with a bright verdure.  Maybe the monsoonal rains will arrive, as they normally do this time of year – or maybe the drought will continue unabated, adding to the woe and anxiety felt throughout the community.

For now I’ll dwell in the past and relate my adventure to the Boulder Lake in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness.  This wilderness area exists within the Gunnison National Forest, part of the vast public estate found in the western United States.  I left my home fairly early in the morning, arriving at the trailhead by quarter to seven.  The trailhead is named after the adjacent waterway, in this case that being Gold Creek.  I frequently start hikes here, and can go any number of different directions.  Today, I started out hiking up the Fossil Ridge Trail No. 478, rising up a short distance and passing the Mill Lake Trail No. 532.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, alternately led or trailed behind, skittering up and down the path hunting rodents.

The mist hung low over the surrounding mountains, sometimes producing a bit of rain.  We traversed a number of switchbacks until reaching Snowslide Gulch, where it seems that some sort of occurrence had taken place during the last winter.  A great mass of snow, I would believe, had slid down from the precipice at the top of the gulch and obliterated a narrow swath of forest.  It was stunning to behold, and hard to believe that such a thing could happen.  The foggy mist only added to the oddness of the scene.  We continued up more switchbacks until reaching the ridgeline and passed over into Boulder Gulch.  The Sun occasionally broke through the clouds, and there was light!

But that streaking sunlight didn’t last long before the clouds closed in and obliterated our life-giving orb.  We continued hiking until we reached a small meadow where I paused and observed the flowers growing there.  It was a nice place to meander before we continued on our way to the lake.  There is a sign post at the trail junction.  The trail to the lake is marked as Trail No. 479, but I believe that that designation is also used for the nearby Willow Creek Trail.  Topographic maps suggest the designation 478.3A, but I’m not sure it matters as the trail to Boulder Lake is fairly short regardless of its number.

I had thought that the wildflower season was over or nearly so, but the riot of color and diversity that I found near the lake convinced me otherwise.  I found quite a few species of wildflowers, including all of my local favorites.  Perhaps the monsoonal rains had revived the fading blooms, but whatever the cause I felt blessed to see so much beauty in one small basin.  I barely noticed the lake set in its basin, surrounded by the tilted layers of uplifted sedimentary strata.  I wandered over to the east side of the lake and found a bounty of mountainous glory.  I laid my pack aside and, while the shepherds busied themselves with rodents, I attempted to capture an example of every plant that I could find.  It was a daunting but highly enjoyable task.

Returning to the trailhead I espied a white mass that seemed incongruous.  Sure, I would expect snow in the highest and shadiest nooks of these Rocky Mountains, but at the lower elevation it should have all been melted out.  I knew that my mind was playing tricks on me, or perhaps there was a more rational explanation.  Upon examining the mass I discovered it to be an outcropping of pure quartz.  The rocky lumps stood out in stark contrast to the the rust-colored needles on the forest floor.  This sort of intrusive dyke or sill often enough contains minerals eagerly sought by prospectors in days gone by.  I’m sure that they would have noticed had any economic value been attached.  For my part, I was happy to see this heap of stone in its natural state.  Continuing on, we returned to the car and drove back down to my home in Gunnison.  I had to work in the evening, but I felt blessed to have had this opportunity to get out and enjoy the natural wonders found in this corner of the Colorado Rockies.

Independence Gulch Redux – July 24, 2017

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Aspen in a meadow on Independence Gulch

Two day previous I had made a hike on this same trail but was so unsatisfied that I decided to return at the first opportunity.  Partly I was unhappy that I couldn’t find the continuation of the Independence Gulch Trail No. 234 where it crossed the eponymous gulch.  Compounding my lingering discontent was that on my previous hike I had run out of data storage on my camera and couldn’t take as many snapshots as I would have liked.  Thus, I got up early before work and drove out to the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River at a point on Colorado 149 not too far north of Lake City to begin again a hike on the trail just recently visited.

Starting on a small piece of Bureau of Land Management property, the trail immediately climbs a series of switchbacks to rise up to the boundary with the Uncompahgre National Forest and the Uncompahgre Wilderness.  This lower elevation consists of a fine ponderosa pine forest mixed with the ubiquitous sagebrush found throughout the interior western United States.  As the dogs and I rose higher the extent of the surrounding country became apparent.  Deep gulches etched a thousand feet deep into the earth, all draining down into the Lake Fork.  Across the river I could see Cannibal Plateau towering above us,and was instantly reminded of this region’s tumultuous volcanic history.

To be sure, the volcanic activity in this area went dormant some thirty million years ago.  Over the intervening eons much has been swept away by the ceaseless action of the flowing water but here and there a section of rim from an ancient caldera remains.  Today, this area is fairly tranquil.  Whispering pines, quaking aspen, sagebrush expanses and open meadows studded with wildflowers constitute the appeal that so many people find here.  I am likewise drawn to this area.  As I hike along I draw in a deep breaths, each filled with the co-mingled, pleasing odors of the various flora.  I stop often to make snapshots of the numerous blooms, amazed at the colors and ecological diversity.

As before, when we reach the junction with the Little Elk Trail No. 244 I continue down into the valley and find the meadow where I previously lost the trail.  At the moment, I had much time before having to return.  Thus, I study the map after dropping all my gear.  Again, I am stymied, and can’t seem to find where the trail exits the meadow.  I am sure that it exists because I have seen the well-marked upper terminus on another trail further up.  I wander around the woods imagining where I think the trail should go.  Pleasant meanderings, but no more edifying than before excepting that I eliminate an area from consideration.  I try once more with no further positive results.  Fifteen to twenty minutes later, I finally find the dim trail just above the small gulch that drains the meadow.  Faint yes but obviously cut.  I am happy to now have this knowledge and will put it to use sometime in the future.

In retrospect, I don’t know why this proved to be such a challenging task.  The trail goes almost exactly where the map suggests it should.  Partly, the trail entering the meadow from the aforementioned junction leads off in another direction before fading out.  It seems that most folks come here and stop, perhaps, to use the campsite found here.  No trace of any trail leads to the exit, and that also confounded me.  Well, regardless, I had no time to continue up the trail to its conclusion, so I focused on finding all the wildflowers that I could and making images of them.  Although only a month into Summer, the high country flower season had began to diminish in intensity.  Some late season flowers would continue to bloom for another month or even two but the peak had passed.  Still two to three months of pleasant hiking weather were in my immediate future, and I planned to use it to my utmost.

Sitting down in the meadow, I absorbed the peacefulness and quietude found in this verdant meadow filled with tall grasses and rimmed with shimmering aspen.  Insects flew about, pollinating the wildflowers and preparing the next generation.  The dogs lay prone on their sides letting their flanks absorb the sunlight’s warmth.  I rested my head on my pack, cap drawn down over my eyes.  I could hear a few bird songs and the buzz of the pollinators, the rustle of the leaves and needles of nearby trees whenever a breeze blew through but otherwise the area was silent and blessedly absent of modern day noise.  I can’t say that there was anything especially intriguing about this little meadow beyond that all such are special in their own way.  I had found a little piece of heaven in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and I felt blessed to be there.

Having enjoyed my brief respite from consciousness I gathered up my gear and hoisted to my shoulders.  The shepherds first noted the jangling of my stowing the sundry articles that I had had strewn about and commenced to yawn.  Then they rose and stretched themselves out to full length before shaking themselves out.  In the streaming sunlight I could see flung fur floating about before gently settling down to Earth.  The insects seemed not perturbed and continued on with their activities as we departed for the junction.  In no hurry, I plodded along at a slow pace, studying whatever caught my attention whether that be geologic outcropping, the growth of an individual aspen or a forest of such, the flow of the clouds or any other of the myriad facets of the natural world.

Another fine day of hiking had been concluded once we reached the waiting car.  I thought about the long vistas seen during the early morning light, how it glanced off the greenery.  The ethereal glow pulsing off all the living flora, engulfing us in a bath of verdure.  The cerulean sky so clear and cool in the morning light, dotted with a few lone clouds that slowly, inexorably would add to their puffy, lobbed mass as the day wore on.  The outcropping of worn igneous rock that would awe me at the thought of the power needed to create the landscape around me and the scope of time needed to erode said solid object into the sculptures found today.  Not a bad way to spend my morning, a typical day in the wildlands of the Gunnison Country.