Looking upstream on the Crystal River, below the hamlet of Marble, Colorado
How I managed to pull this trip off, I still don’t entirely know. I look at it as some sort of minor miracle. The Great American Eclipse had been touted for the past two to three years, and many folks had already booked rooms or campsites for the duration. Nothing like it in recent memory had happened, where so many people from all over the world would converge onto one narrow stretch of earth. The event was the total eclipse of the Sun by the Moon, and the path of totality would travel from the east to west coasts of the Untied States. It had been an awfully long time, by human standards, since the last such occasion.
Initially, in fact for the previous two years, I had made no plans to see the eclipse, knowing that the crowds would be immense, the cost prohibitive and the facilities taxed. But as the date neared I had a change of heart, for this was truly a once in a lifetime event. I studied the path and realized that the path of totality, totality defined as where the Sun would be completely obscured, would cross the Rocky Mountains only about nine hours by car north of my home in Gunnison, Colorado. Much of my family would be viewing the eclipse in Oregon but the drive time to that state was too much for my limited wherewithal. I thought that getting to Wyoming would be impossible initially, but then realized that I would only need six days or so to make a memorable trip.
I had worked hard during the Summer months at my thankless job working as a cook in a resort town, but I had also helped other people out covering their shifts and now I could call in those favors. About three weeks ahead of the date of the eclipse, August 21, I began to make definite plans. The first thing I had to do is get my shifts covered, so I put them up on the cover sheet and began texting and making calls. To wit: “You remember that shift I covered for you so you could go to that music festival back in June? Yeah? Well, good, ’cause now you can help me out.” I didn’t get the last shift covered until a couple days before my scheduled departure, but I didn’t let that get in the way of my planning.
My first consideration was where to go. I did some rough arithmetic and concluded that Jackson Hole would be out, as the crowds and expenses would be beyond calculation. I thought about the area east and west of Casper, where public land maintained by the Bureau of Land Management abounds. Then I espied the area where it would cross the Wind River Range. For twenty to twenty-five years I had driven by those lofty mountains, never obliging a stop. Then one year I decided, after seeing a photograph, that come hell or high water (rather, these days, blown-out tire or leaking radiator hose) I would visit the lower Green River Lake. I was instantly smitten, and had made visits three subsequent years. I thought to myself, where within those cathedral-like mountains would I like to be?
My first inclination was to visit Ross Lake near Dubois, a place I had a hankering to see during Summer after visiting a prior Autumn. I even called the Untied States Forest Service ranger station in that town for information. But after further perusal of the maps I realized that one of my bucket-list items would be on the path of totality. Three Waters Mountain, by its very name, denotes a triple divide. I have always felt powerful influences when standing atop any divide, not only the topographic significance of the waters parting but the freedom of choice that my cosmic whim can exercise. Thus, for example, the Continental Divide I always find exalting to stand upon, simultaneously imagining the flow of waters to two Oceans. Triple divides allow my mind to wander even that much more, so when I visited nearby Headwaters Hill, that point which divides the Arkansas, Colorado and Rio Grande River systems, I could scarcely drag myself away, so enraptured was I with the potential energy.
Three Waters Mountain captivates me because it divides the Missouri and Mississippi River system from the Colorado River (via the Green River) and the Columbia River, via the Snake River. From that one point I could imagine myself flowing down to the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California or the Columbia outlet. From studying the map and observing first-hand the area from below I thought that a summit could be fairly easily done, but I wasn’t sure. Nonetheless, I wanted to try. Thus, to the northern end of the Wind River Range I would commute. I decided on a five-night trip altogether. One night I would spend in each direction and three nights I would camp in the backcountry in the Roaring Fork Basin north of the Green River Lakes.
Choosing a route would be my next concern. I decided to take the scenic route through the mountains. This would allow me to spend my first night car-camping in the southwest corner of the Flat Tops, north of Rifle, Colorado. The next day, I thought to myself, I could take Colorado 325 on my way north, thus traversing one of the few state highways in western Colorado I had yet to explore. From there I could take a few back-roads up to Rock Springs, Wyoming, and then north on mainline highways until I reached Pinedale. After that it would be a relatively simple matter to drive up to the trailhead.
Scheduling and packing occupied the remainder of my planning for this trip. I would have to kennel Lady Dog the elderly canine since such backpacking adventures were beyond her ability, plus she had really become a homebody and didn’t seem to enjoy spending time away from the house. The shepherds I would take with me, but I had never taken them outside of Colorado on any long road trip and had concerns. I concluded that I would stop every one hundred miles to let them out so that they could stretch and frolic a bit, hopefully near someplace that had some water. Working up to the last minute I didn’t really have time to pack, so on this morning I rose as early as I could and began to make things ready.
The first piece of business that I had to conclude was taking Lady Dog to the kennel. After that I came home and packed. I checked the car for oil and tire pressure and concluded that all was as well as could be. Fortunately, because this would be a backpacking trip I only had to pack a minimal amount of gear. Regardless of where I would spend the night coming and going I would do it camping with the same gear. Finally, after a quick stop at the grocery store to buy some victuals I was able to depart around twelve-thirty in the afternoon. Later than I wished, but still plenty early enough to reach my intended destination for the night. I still felt a bit of incredulity as I pulled away from my house and rolled westbound on U.S. 50 out past the Blue Mesa Reservoir.
Towards the western end of the impounded water I turned to the right, westbound again with a hint of northward progress, on Colorado 92, a twisting road that skirts the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I stopped once to rearrange some items in the car, letting the dogs romp a bit, and took a couple of snapshots. Twenty minutes later I stopped again at Gunnison National Forest Road 762 just so I could look it over. Since I was on this side of the West Elk Mountains I thought that I might as well, as the drive out is fairly long. The state highway makes a big bend here on Buckhorn Gulch, and the shepherds were able to find a bit of water to quench their thirst.
Just north of Crawford I turned north on Crawford Road and drove on towards Paonia. After passing through that pleasant town, home to a thriving orchard industry, I turned north on Colorado 133 and passed over McClure Pass and into the Crystal River drainage. After two plus hours of driving, I had left Gunnison County only to reenter it before finally leaving it behind for good until my return later in the week. A short distance downstream I let the dogs out once again so that they could wade out into the water and cool themselves down. The Summer heat I was concerned about relative to my dogs’ welfare, but so far all seemed well. I was struck with the beauty of the Elk Mountains rising up above the Crystal River, and made a mental note to visit this area more often.
The ephemeral quality of this trip began to solidify as the miles rolled away down along the Crystal River valley. I passed through Carbondale and turned west once again at the northern terminus of Colorado 133 and onto Colorado 82, a highway that parallels the Roaring Fork. All went well until I entered the outskirts of Glenwood Springs, and my trip almost came to a premature end. Traffic just stopped. At first I thought that this must have something to do with the eclipse but then I realized that we were yet too far away to suffer any trouble due to that event. As it turns out, the state was rebuilding the main bridge over the Colorado River and this traffic nightmare was a daily occurrence. Typical urban-rural Colorado, people riding by on bikes were mocking us car-bound idlers.
Here we sat, in the sweltering car, creeping along at less than walking speed. Fifteen minutes ticked by. Then thirty, and at the hour mark I started to give serious consideration to abandoning the entire trip. How could the locals endure this outrage? I began to get hungry and somewhat upset. Fortunately, I had bought a huge chicken pot-pie before leaving and now impatiently devoured it as the dogs panted in the oppressive, for the mountains, heat. I cast opprobrium on myself for choosing this route. Had I just used my normal route via U.S. 50 through Grand Junction I would have already been to my campsite, so I thought. I saw a Walmart and decided to pick up a pair of hiking pants, as in my haste I had left my others at home. During Summer I hike in slacks because they keep me cool and are lightweight and comfortable. I walked in, grabbed the first pair that were labeled my size, and went right back out. At least this worked out well, since I was wondering where and when I would be able to do that chore. More importantly, the slight pause in the turgid progress bought me some patience.
Finally, the detour ended and I sped off away on Interstate 70 westbound to New Castle. My planned relaxed evening wouldn’t come to fruition but I wouldn’t be pulling into camp after dark. I left the interstate and drove west on Buford Road, also known as Garfield County Road 245, and Grass Valley Road which is also called Garfield County Road 226. Although anxious to arrive at the campground, I enjoyed the bucolic scenery. Green hay meadows in the valleys and pinon growing on the dry slopes above. Following this road to the end I turned north on Colorado 325 and drove that to and past Rifle Falls. Where the state highway ended the road continues on as Garfield Country Road 217 and passes through Rifle Mountain Park, operated by the city of Rifle.
This latter park and the former I had wanted to explore a bit with some of my planned extra time but I decided to forego that hiking. The mountain park is strung out along a tight narrow canyon on East Rifle Creek and is well known to folks who enjoy rock climbing. A couple of campgrounds have been set up here but they were surprisingly full so I passed out of the park and into the White River National Forest where the road number changed for the third time in three miles. Now, the same road was called White River National Forest Road 825 and this I drove up to the Three Forks Campground. Upon arrival, to my chagrin, I found that there. Wasn’t. Any. Campground. There had been but for whatever reason it had been decommissioned. I was fit to be tied. This campground shows up on every map ever published but was now a parking lot with ominous signs prominently displayed warning what dire consequences would befall the fool who so dared to camp here.
I pondered my options. Again, I began to think that this trip was not meant to be and contemplated returning home. Forty-five minutes, I reckoned, until darkness would encroach on the daylight. I thought it through. I could try to camp in the crowded areas downstream but didn’t relish that idea. Then it came to me. I decided to observe the law to the letter. A trail leaves the parking area on the north side, following Three Forks Creek. Quickly, I loaded up my pack, fed the dogs and headed out on the Three Forks Trail No. 2150. Perusing the map, I realized that I could hike up a mile and a half to Garden Gulch where I could spend the night backpacking. I didn’t even take along any food, since I was still stuffed full from gorging myself earlier on the huge pot-pie.
What a pleasant surprise, I thought to myself, as I hiked along the densely brushed creek. It took a bit of searching but I was able to find a good place to camp near Garden Gulch. I swiftly made camp, not bothering to set up a tent and just laying out a tarp. The chance of rain hovered near zero and I was willing to take the chance that it wouldn’t precipitate. I was pleased to be here, even if the ordeal had caused me some consternation. Camp made, I still had a bit of time for a brief exploration so I walked the dogs up to GV Creek and explored some meadows that I found. Returning to camp, I fastened the canines to their tie-outs and slipped into my sleeping bag, all the while the reds, oranges and pinks had lit up the clouds overhead. The stars came out as I fell asleep, still startled by the day’s events but feeling fortunate, to say the least, that I had put this first day behind me.
Leah on the Three Forks Trail No. 2150 i the White River National Forest, headed back from GV Creek to Garden Gulch
On Colorado 92, just east of Hermit’s Rest, looking east into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River
Looking into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, near where the Cimarron River confluences
Gunnison National Forest Road 762, along Buckhorn Gulch
Looking upstream on the Crystal River, towards the Elk and Ragged Mountains
Looking downstream on the Crystal River from the pullover adjacent to Colorado 133
Draco and Leah at the beginning of the Three Forks Trail No. 2150
Typical vegetation on Three Forks Creek
Looking up Three Forks Creek towards GV Creek
Signage for Garden Gulch
Late evening clouds over Three Forks Creek
Last traces of the sunlight seen on the ridge above Three Forks Creek
Signage for GV Creek along the Three Forks Trail No. 2150; Irish Gulch is actually about three-quarters of a mile upstream on GV Creek
Pretty colors on the evening clouds, on Three Forks Creek
Looking upstream on the Crystal River, below the hamlet of Marble, Colorado