An Adventure: The Great American Eclipse of 2017, Part 3 – August 20, 2017

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I felt as refreshed as this view would suggest, on the Roaring Fork under Osborn Mountain, Bridger Wilderness

The third day of my six day adventure to view the Great American Eclipse in the northern portion of the Wind River Range commenced with me sleeping in.  I had sworn the night before that come what may I would stay in my tent until the Sun crested the horizon on the ridge above  Roaring Fork.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, heralded the impending day with a bout of playful wrestling that compelled me to break that vow but only by about thirty minutes or so.  By seven o’clock I was ready to get up and prepare my camper’s breakfast of oatmeal, raisins, sliced almonds and a cup of hot coffee.

Two days ago I had woken, packed hastily, and made a long drive interrupted by a long, frustrating delay due to road construction. To top it off I found that the campground I had planned to use that night had been decommissioned, despite the fact that said camping area shows up on every map in the known universe, thus causing me to commit to an unplanned and hastily assembled backpacking overnight.  The second day began with a quick hike out followed by a long, anxious drive that ended at a trailhead thronged with humanity.  I had then commenced a five mile backpack to the Roaring Fork Basin and made camp, and this location is where I found myself this beautiful morning in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming.

The eclipse event would occur the next day and would involve a fourteen mile hike.  Today, I would mostly rest, I thought to myself, but wanted to also enjoy about eight miles of hiking, following the Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) Trail No. 146 up along Roaring Fork.  In no hurry, I watched the morning Sun crest the ridge above and fill the Roaring Fork Basin with a bath of warm sunlight.  Steam curled from my cup of coffee as I sat at the food cache, watching the world from this Rocky Mountain vantage.  Draco and Leah tussled over the ball having already consumed their canine victuals.  I felt blessed to have found this ideal location for my camp, and was inclined to lay here in repose for a couple of hours.

Once I felt well rested, and had re-tuned my mind from the hectic pace of our mechanized world to that of the slower natural world, I began to contemplate the day’s activity.  After all, I don’t get to visit the Wind River Range all that often, and wanted to explore the nearby granite crags.  So, our little pack set off to the bridge crossing along BTNF Trail No. 94 and turned to the right at the nearby junction with the aforementioned BTNF Trail No. 146.  This new route took us upstream and east deeper into the mountains.  My immediate goal was to reach Alexander Park.  Along the way we walked through dense stands of lodgepole pine, coming across open meadows that allowed views of the northern flank of Osborn Mountain.  Roaring Fork flowed by mostly peacefully belying its name.  A placid flow of clear water drifted down between banks lined with tall grasses.

Reaching Alexander Park I found that the trail continues beyond what is represented on the map.  I encountered numerous groups of people here and along the trail.  Most where heading up to an area above treeline to camp and then view the eclipse.  I stopped to talk to one couple and they showed me a map that they had found that shows the trail continuing up towards Native Lake.  Other maps I subsequently found suggest a route to Crescent and Faler Lakes.  Regardless, I stopped at the third ford, near a point where Roaring Fork splits, deciding that I had had enough exploring for the day.  The shepherds and I turned around and retreated to Alexander Park where we found a nice shady place to sit and enjoy the views.

The valley floor was filled with boulders eroded from the cliffs above, while forest grew up along the slopes.  Peaks and crags of granite rose up out of the hazy morning.  Waterfalls tumbled down from clefts in the granitic mass.  This one relatively small drainage seemed immense as I gazed upstream at the long line of ridges and eminences.  Snow still lay in the crooks of shaded aspects, slowly adding its melt to the current of the numerous feeder streams.  I let an hour or two slip away in blissful idleness.  During my reclining state I thought about the people that I had met.  Without exception every person was beyond thrilled to be here and the commonality of our purpose brought forth hearty cheers and smiling faces.  The radiation of positive human energy I found nearly unparalleled.

The slow walk back to camp we accomplished at a languid pace broken by the canines’ repeated immersions into the water and our short explorations of Roaring Fork’s banks.  Reaching the tent in late afternoon I thought it the perfect time for yet another nap.  I had not much more ambition at this point beyond resting up for the big day tomorrow.  However, I can sleep or remain still for only so long before my curiosity demands action.  So, before and after dinner, we wandered about here and there exploring the meadows, stands of forest and willow jungle in the nearby vicinity.  As evening approached the area became a hive of human activity.  Nobody camped within eyesight of me, but I saw many people disregarding the rules about camping within two hundred feet of a trail or named creek.

I went to bed early, knowing that the next day would begin early.  I still harbored doubts about whether or not I could actually find a route up to Three Waters Mountain.  I also had to mentally prepare myself for contingencies based on the weather.  I looked over the maps and thought about what I would do and where I would go should lightening become an issue.  I didn’t dwell on it too much, since the cloud cover for the last two days had been minimal, but nonetheless I wanted to be mentally prepared.  The sunset mimicked that of the previous evening, and I admired the shafts of golden light that swept across the Roaring Fork Basin.  Darkness then ensued, I soon found myself slipping into the comfortable embrace of a deep sleep.

An Adventure: The Great American Eclipse of 2017, Part 2 – August 19, 2017

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Hiking to Roaring Fork Basin on Bridger-Teton National Forest Trail No. 94, looking back at the Green River Lakes

Eschewing to pack a tent due to the salubrious weather, I had the night before simply laid down a tarp and plopped my sleeping bag upon it.  I slept fairly well considering the excitement that I had made for myself the day prior.  I woke up during the night and sans barrier to the sky I gazed at the constellations that I could see as small individual clouds scudded by.  The Moon wouldn’t rise until near dawn and thus starlight only guided my visibility.  My plan had been originally to get up early from car-camping and drive off with the dawn’s light but an unexpected delay had led to a change of plans.  I had hiked up to Garden Gulch on the Three Forks Trail No. 2150 in the White River National Forest and made a bed for myself amidst the dense shrubbery, spruce and groves of aspen.  So, this morning I would rise with the first light that I detected emanating from the east and rise, pack and hike back the mile and a half to the trailhead and parking lot.

I had actually woken up at least three or four times during the night’s transit.  That is not unusual considering the circumstances, at least for me, and mostly I go back to sleep within minutes.  Having propitious weather allows me to watch the constellations rotate along their arc, and I keep relative time.  Sometime during the early morning I had seen a shooting star, and marveled at its origin.  During the intervals I slept soundly.  The last time I woke up first light brightened the eastern horizon with a faint glow.  I put my glasses on and quickly dressed in the chill atmosphere.  Camp I broke down with rapidity and as I hiked out the trail lay faint in my vision.  The dawn’s light increased and thirty minutes later when we reached the trailhead I could ably see my surroundings.  Thus had began my second day of this somewhat epic adventure to see the Great American Eclipse.

I loaded up my gear and then did the same for Draco and Leah.  We drove back down along East Rifle Creek and followed Colorado 325 to Rifle Gap Reservoir.  I paused here to look at the Grand Hogback, a geologic formation composed of tilted sandstone strata that had been pushed up nearly vertical by the uplifting affect of one of the mountain-building orogenic events.  After a quick pause at the state park associated with the reservoir I continued driving along Colorado 325 to its southern terminus at the junction with Colorado 13.  I had thought of taking some back-roads north from the reservoir but decided against it due to my concern about time.  Instead I turned north towards Meeker utilizing the two lanes of pavement that parallel the western face of the uplift aforementioned.

Never reaching Meeker, technically, I turned left, westbound, onto Colorado 64 but not before pausing for a quick grab-and-go breakfast as I refueled.  My travels on Colorado 64 barely constituted a mile as I soon turned right to the north on a well-maintained county highway known as the Strawberry Creek Road but more officially as Rio Blanco County Road 7.  My goal in using the next series of roads was to first get up to U.S. 40 in the vicinity of Maybell and then drive into Rock Springs, Wyoming, from the south.  This is perhaps the most direct route from Gunnison, Colorado, to Pinedale, Wyoming although I usually do this trip via Utah and U.S. 191 north of Vernal.  I would take that route on the way south but for now I enjoyed the light traffic.

Crossing the line with Moffat County the road’s designation changed as well to Moffat County Road 57.  I thoroughly enjoyed this open country, mostly grass-lands with dense shrubbery in places.  I should have taken a few pictures for reference but as the morning remained cool, but promising to get hotter, I sped along towards my destination.  At this point the magnitude of my undertaking began to dawn on me and I fretted about the potential crowds and my ability to find a place to camp, or rather a trailhead from which to depart.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed the drive and the shepherds comported themselves admirably, mostly sleeping contentedly if not observing the landscape with eyes and nose.

Coming to the end of the county highway at the junction with U.S. 40 just a couple of miles east of Maybell, I turned to the left.  I stayed on U.S. 40 for about three miles until I turned off that route and onto Colorado 318, headed westbound but also slightly northward.  For a few miles we drove along the Yampa River before rising up to a low dividing ridge that brought us to the Little Snake River.  This area is very lightly populated and I would suppose there are more elk than people here.  We continued on the narrow two-lane state highway until we reached Moffat County Road 10N, just east of Brown’s Park, where we turned right to the north.  This highway passes through Irish Canyon on the southeastern end of Cold Spring Mountain.  There is a petroglyph site in the vicinity that I have yet to see, plus other interesting hikes but again I felt the need to continue.  Plus, this area is dry and in the warm environment I decided it wasn’t in the best interest of my canines to stop.  However, in the end, I found an ephemeral lake at the top of the canyon, and here we stopped so that the pups could wade in the shallow water and gulp down some liquid refreshment.

From this last stop I drove north to the Wyoming state line through open but dry country.  The road changed from a gravel county highway to paved Wyoming 430.  This area is one large oil and gas field.  The landscape is mostly sere but the sagebrush gives sway to grasses on the creek bottoms, and some ridges are adorned with aspen.  An hour of driving brought us to Rock Springs, where I stopped to grab a quick lunch in the form of a sub sandwich.  I do now wish that I had stopped a bit more often to document the country I was driving through but I also remember feeling a bit anxious to reach my destination.  I left Rock Springs via U.S. 191 northbound towards Pinedale.  Traffic was fairly heavy but only marginally more than what I would have expected for a Summer afternoon, as this road heads directly to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park.

I stopped once again at a roadside rest area near Eden.  Here, for the first time, I really felt the ambiance of my new situation.  Along Big Sandy River the Oregon Trail used to follow, and both cross the highway nearby.  Many of the big names involved with the fur trade in the Eighteen-Thirties passed through this area, and these mountain men are still celebrated to this day.  Miles and miles of sagebrush steppe stretch out in every direction, but now fossil fuel extraction has caused a certain degradation of the environment.  Still, above the haze, I could easily make out the snow-clad summits of the southern end of the Wind River Range.  The miles rolled by steadily under my wheels, and I passed from the Big Sandy River drainage to that of the New Fork River.

About half an hour south of Pinedale electronic variable message signs began to encourage travelers to tune their radios to a pre-selected channel on the A.M. dial.  At first I disdained this advice since I normally don’t consider myself in need of such messages.  However, I realized that I was indeed part of the masses on this trip and had better find out what was going on.  Two days ahead and one road had already been closed due to the overwhelming volume of humanity traversing it.  This was the paved road that headed directly north from Pinedale towards Fremont Lake, and I couldn’t say that I was surprised.  Nothing was said about my destination, and for this my anxiety was mingled with relief.  Passing through Pinedale, I turned north onto Wyoming 352, still following the New Fork River.  This constituted the final leg of the drive and my excitement at its end became almost palpable.

Towards the northern end of Wyoming 352 we crossed over from the New Fork River to that of the main stem, the Green River.  The state highway ends at the boundary of the national forest and Bridger-Teton National Forest Road 650 begins.  There, at a large gravel turnout, a couple of volunteers were dispensing information related to the eclipse and public lands etiquette.  Familiar with the area, I decided to skip the extra stop and continue on to the end of the road.  As I drove along I realized that I was fortunate not to have planned on car-camping as every available dispersed camping spot had already been taken.  There were people everywhere.  Having come this far, I began to worry less and decided to stop one more time along the Green River east of the Big Bend so that Draco and Leah could get out and romp in some water.

The Green River rises from the Colorado River on a northerly direction until nearly its end where, at the Big Bend, it shifts course to the east and then gradually towards the south.  Thus, this river begins life flowing mostly northwards before taking on its predominantly southward flowing characteristic.  Reaching the end of the road I was happy to park but must admit to encountering a scene of backcountry pandemonium.  The Green River Lake Trailhead parking lot, designed to accommodate large horse-trailers, had been stuffed to capacity and I along with many others parked along the shoulder of the access road.  Two United States Forest Service employees or volunteers, I didn’t notice which, seemingly a bit overwhelmed, had the unenviable task of herding the masses, attempting to get people to park off the road far enough to let emergency vehicles and other traffic pass while not parking so far off as to cause damage to the vegetation.  I estimate that I was between a quarter to a third of a mile from the parking lot.

Up to this moment I thought that I might be turned away and was I relieved to find that I would indeed have access to the trailhead that had been my destination.  As quickly as I could I gathered up my gear and that of the dogs.  A quick check, primarily making sure that I had my keys properly stowed, and I locked the doors before making the final adjustments to my pack and the dogs’ panniers.  And then… off we went!  Of course, the first quarter of mile was along the packed road but already I began to admire to lodgepole pine and breath in the fresh, mountain air.  Never in my life had I encountered such a busy backcountry access.  People were everywhere, in various states of readiness or repose at the nearby fully occupied campground.  I was gratified to receive many compliments on the dogs composure and they stayed at heel as we passed through the throng of humanity.

Like many larger trailheads, sometimes it isn’t obvious which way to go to find a particular trailhand I felt fortunate that I knew may way around.  Thus, I was able to head directly for my point of egress from the front-country.  The trailhead and parking lot have been situated on a small eminence, so the first thing we did was walk down to the bridge that crosses the Green River just below the outlet of the lower lake.  I felt exalted.  The scene of Sqauretop Mountain hovering over the large lake is perhaps my favorite in all of the Rocky Mountains.  Most of the hikers and backpackers would trek south towards its lofty mass.  I have done so myself in the past, but today I would head north on Bridger-Teton Trail No. 94 and continue until I reached the Roaring Fork Basin.  This trail is part of the Continental Divide Trail and thus receives a relatively high amount of use from folks making a through trek.

The hike to the basin is about five miles, and mostly uphill although at a gradual rate.  The expansive meadows the grow out and up from the Green River slowly give way to groves of aspen and eventually a dense conifer forest.  Most of the hike is through open country and expansive views of the Green River and concomitant lakes are visible.  To the west the Gros Ventre Mountains become visible after a couple of miles hiking.  The further I hiked the less anxious I became, and I was all too happy to shed the worry that had preoccupied me for the last two days.  The shepherds, despite their excellent behavior on the long, unprecedented drive, were all to happy to get out and explore the flanks of the trail.  The worst part of the trek out was the fact that we hiked along on a southwest facing slope that ably collected heat.  Fortunately, a few water holes along the way assuaged the dogs’ thirst.

The hike was otherwise blessedly uneventful, beyond my enjoyment of this corner of the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming.    After a short but steep descent I entered the Roaring Fork Basin and my immediate concern became finding a legitimate place to camp for the next three nights.  Numerous locations presented themselves, and I chose a small meadow about a quarter of a mile from the trail.  Only one other group was anywhere nearby as most folks seemed desirous of camping at higher elevations.  Five hundred feet away a small boulder strewn ridge lined with forest offered a great place to hang my odoriferous items so as to keep bears and other wildlife from engorging themselves on my comestibles.  I had left the trailhead at half past three and now had camp set up by six.  After my chores were done I lay down and watched the clouds go by.

I enjoyed the sunset while eating dinner, and the large meadow shone with resplendent golds.  My food cache had the added advantage of this fine view to the west.  Rested and sated I decided to make a short evening stroll over to the Roaring Fork itself via the trail.  Crossing the bridge I came across the junction with Bridger-Teton National Forest Trail No. 146 and followed this upstream a short distance to the wilderness boundary.  As the Sun had set on my way over I couldn’t go far, but had just enough time to linger and listen to the gurgling waters.  I turned back and retreated to camp, where I lay down as the final color of the dusk gave way to the dark embrace of night and vast fields of stars.  The shepherds made themselves comfortable and we all slept well that night.

An Adventure: The Great American Eclipse of 2017, Part 1 – August 18, 2017

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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.

A Quick Ridge Hike Between Mill and Squirrel Creeks – August 16, 2017

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From atop the dividing ridge between Squirrel and Mill Creeks, looking into the latter

Mill Creek, a tributary of Ohio Creek, is one of the more striking drainages within the Gunnison Country.  Its headwaters are on the eastern flank of the West elk Mountains, a large volcanic massive last active some thirty-plus million years ago.  Over millions of years lava flows alternated with pyroclastic flows.  The former created many of the relatively level-topped mesas in the vicinity while the latter formed the breccia from which the odd fins, hoodoos, spires and other such geologic structures have been eroded from.  Living in Gunnison, Colorado, some twenty miles downstream I find it a great place to get out and stretch my legs prior to one of my evening shifts working as a cook.

Thus, on this day I decided to drive out to the Winter trailhead and Summer parking area on the Mill Creek Road.  That road is also denominated as Gunnison county Road 727, and allows access to this portion of the Gunnison National Forest and further upstream the West Elk Wilderness.  The road continues another mile and a half and although I could drive it I no longer do so preferring to hike.  So, upon reaching the parking area I shut off the polluting automobile and let the dogs out.  Naturally, my two German shepherds, Draco and Leah, accompanied me on this hike.  While I gathered my gear they ran around exploring and examining the leavings of other canines.  The early morning Sun had risen but remained hidden behind the back-lit clouds to the east.  Streaks of light shone down onto Flattop creating a scene of awe.

Half a mile up the road I found the Lowline Trail No. 438.  We dropped down into and then crossed Mill Creek.  The trail then winds up steeply until reaching the dividing ridge between that drainage and the one to the north, Squirrel Creek.  First, we pass through typical mixed aspen and spruce forest until emerging into a large meadow.  As we climbed more views became apparent, and I could see a great swath of Ohio Creek.  Reaching the top, the current trail descends down to Squirrel Creek and is broad and easy to follow.  However, this area was at one time extensively logged and the old trail followed a different alignment that nonetheless shows up on many maps.  Numerous old road alignments, now mostly grown over, further complicate the situation.  Common sense and awareness, along with map reading and compass skills are needed to navigate beyond the mainline trail through this densely forested area.

At the summit traces of the old trail can be discerned heading off uphill to the west.  Old switchbacks are readily found.  I followed this until I reached the same aforementioned ridge as before.  I then clambered along what looked like the obvious route up and away from the old trail, bushwhacking along the ridge for some third of a mile.  I reached a small highpoint, and peering ahead realized than any further worthwhile endeavor would require an expenditure of time that I simply did not have.  I decided to stop and enjoy the fine view of Mill Creek.  I could see the meadows flanking the creek and the forest rising up to the steeply eroded ridges, as well as the headwaters under North Baldy Mountain.  Here I sat, imbibing water and munching on some victuals.  I could have sat here for some indefinite amount of time but for me time defined and I kept tabs on the hour.

Upon returning to the trail I realized that I still had time enough to make a small loop hike utilizing the old and new trails.  Therefore, I followed the old trail north into Squirrel Creek.  Whatever logging had been done had occurred some half a century ago, as a rough guess, and much of the area had been repopulated with small spruce and aspen.  Open meadows spangle this second growth forest, and in the warm sunshine felt great to slowly wander across.  All was green, or that shade of yellow that indicates the approach of the end of Summer.  I eventually lost the old trail and followed an old logging road to its junction with the new trail.  I didn’t peruse my map nor consult a compass since I knew that to my north runs the main stem of Squirrel Creek and to my east, past the new trial, lies a fenced boundary with private property.

I didn’t know my exact location beyond a quarter of a mile, but I cared not since I could just stroll along and enjoy the natural beauty of the world around me.  Of course, I soon stumbled across the new trail and turned right to climb out through a dense spruce forest and back over the summit into Mill Creek.  The Sun had warmed considerably since the early morning and insects buzzed about as we descended through the large open meadow.  Reaching the creek itself the dogs waded in for a quick soak before we finished the last half a mile of hiking.  Later on, as I was reacting to the constant commotion of a fast paced commercial kitchen, I would think back to that view of Mill Creek and smile.

Evening Hike on the Milk Creek Trail No. 474 – August 12, 2017

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Leah and Draco on the Milk Creek Trail No. 474 within the Gunnison National Forest

I’m nothing if not awed by the wide diversity of the Gunnison Country within which I often consider myself fortunate to reside.  Sometimes I am challenged by the ability to meet my pecuniary goals through the service sector but the trade-off can be worthwhile.  For example I present this hike that I took after one long day working in a hot kitchen.   A relatively short drive brings me to any number of trailheads.  The real difficulty, if I might term it that way, is finding fresh terrain to explore.  I often feel that I have seen everything but that is patently false.  Besides, most of this country is well worth seeing repeatedly, a feeling I find universal no matter where I am.  Nonetheless, I do like to see something new, just to become familiar with what exists.  Thus, my decision to trek upon the Mill Creek Trail No. 474 in the Gunnison National Forest.  I would cross Big Bend Creek after starting on Long Branch of Tomichi Creek.  A number of small creeks in this area rise up into the Cochetopa Hills.

The real determining factors in my then current situation include a number of inputs, such as drive time, overall length of hike and time until darkness descends.  I added it up as one half hour to drive out to the functionally abandoned Long Branch Guard Station, two and half hours to hike out the three miles and then back,  and another half an hour to rest and snack.  Leaving my home in Gunnison around four-thirty in the evening, that would put me back at the car around eight of the clock post meridiem.  Due to some creative drawing of the county lines in this area I found myself in Saguache County although still in the Gunnison Country.

I parked the Subaru at the old guard station and let the shepherds out.  Draco and Leah instantly begun to investigate the area as is their canine wont.  The first thing to do was to begin hiking on the Big Bend Creek Trail No. 488.  This trek would take us from Long Branch to Big Bend Creek where the junction with the Milk Creek Trail No. 474 lies.  First rising up into the sagebrush steppe we soon crossed the divide and found ourselves in a mid-elevation forest of Douglas fir and spruce, both of which gave way for some dispersed aspen groves.  This distance is about a mile and a quarter.

The Milk Creek Trail No. 474 then continues from Big Bend Creek to the Milk Creek drainage.  Technically, the trial ends at Gunnison National Forest Road 578 on a small unnamed tributary to the main stem.  All this short hike was done with the Sun at my back, lighting up the tall cumulus clouds that like to stack up over the mountains.  There was one interesting old section of fence constructed of aspen logs.  Now mostly dilapidated, I wonder why wire wasn’t used.  Money? Aesthetics?  Regardless, upon reaching the terminus of the trail I turned around an retreated a short distance, first taking some snapshots of Yellow Owl Clover prior to walking up to small eminence where I could cast my gaze towards the Swatch Range.

Here I sat and fed the dogs some kibble wile I ingested some comestibles and imbibed a quart of water.  As the cool breeze blew over me I observed the changing light playing out on Mount Ouray, and the vast forest and rolling hills that fill the gap between here and there.  Not a bad place for a quick dinner, I thought to myself.  After my small feast I packed up and enjoyed the easy trek back in the declining Sun.  The hike I almost marred by carelessly leaving my camera on the ground.  I had walked almost a quarter of a mile prior to realizing my gaff.  That type of thing doesn’t happen often, but does remind me that I am not infallible.  Nonetheless, the stroll back went well and the evening light cast a nice, soft glow.

I felt refreshed and happy to have been able to get out in the woods, albeit for a brief moment.  I didn’t see any other people during this trek, although I wasn’t surprised considering the almost odd-ball character of this little hike.  It should be noted that both of these trails are open to motorcycles so a wilderness experience cannot be expected.  However, I’m under the impression that this area receives minimal use and that therefore quietude is the norm.

Above the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River on Camp Trail No. 476 within the Gunnison National Forest – August 11, 2017

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Standing on the Great Divide in the San Juan Mountains, looking at the headwaters of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River

To get to the trailhead for the Camp Trail No. 476 the intrepid explorer must first find him or herself in the vicinity of Lake City, Colorado, one of the more remote communities in the Lower Forty-Eight.  From my home in Gunnison an automobile driver makes a relatively short drive of an hour and a quarter to reach that isolated community nestled in the bosom of the San Juan Mountains.  This is done via U.S. 50 and, mostly, Colorado 149.  The latter road twists and rises, winds and falls from one drainage to another until reaching the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.  The river rises up into the thirty million years old volcanic calderas where cliffs of basalt tower over remote valleys.  Even during the height of Summer traffic is scant, and more so in the early morning when few other vehicles shared this stretch of pavement with me.

South of Lake City by a few miles a turn off, Hinsdale County Road 3, allows access to Lake San Cristobal.   Past the lake the road continues eventually over Cinnamon Pass via a steep four-by-four route.  Along the way there are many opportunities to get out and hike.  Today I chose to visit the second trailhead along the way and the first in the Gunnison National Forest, the prior managed by the Bureau of Land Management.  The trailhead is fairly well marked but lacks most amenities, which is fine as the purpose of my being here was to hike.  I unloaded the dogs and let them romp around a bit as I gathered my gear and soon enough we all began to hike up the trial.

I have to say that this trail is fairly unremarkable.  It is in good shape and passes through a number of aspen groves and conifers forests.  But in six miles of hiking not many views present themselves and the only opening is across a small talus slope.  Switchbacks abound but that is all that breaks up the tread.  This is a good hike to trek along, allowing the mind to wander although remaining aware of any wildlife.  Once upon the high plateau, however, the views stretch out in all directions and the vast mountainous expanse of the San Juans become apparent.  Summer had begun to show its wear, some species of vegetation having already acquired a yellow tint, but mostly the meadows remained verdant.

The dogs and I wandered around a bit, finding some precious water in a low point near the intersection with the Continental Divide Trail, in this area also marked as Rio Grande National Forest Trail No 787.  This same route is also called the La Garita Stock Driveway.  Crossing the divide also meant entering a different national forest, as aforementioned.  The area to the south and east is managed by the Rio Grande National Forest and is headwaters for Big Buck Creek.  Nearby a yurt exists for rental and would seem like a nice place to spend a night or two.  Why I didn’t take any photographs of the yurt is beyond me.  I did make some snapshots of the gentians that were blooming, but most other wildflowers at this high elevation of twelve-thousand feet had come and gone.  I also noted that the mushroom season had begun as many species were popping up out of the ground.  The yurt does have other accesses, including some that require little elevation gain or loss.  My route today included about two thousand feet of gain.

Behind the yurt a small hill rises up and places the hiker up atop the divide itself.  Here we sat for some time before descending back down the trail to the waiting car.  Although I love this alpine environment I was dispirited to see the extent of the beetle-killed conifer forest.  This plague has decimated the spruce and with climate change occurring I have to wonder what, if anything, will grow back.  Fortunately, the sapling spruce seem to be healthy and that gives me some hope.  Once back at the car we drove into Lake City where I indulged myself at the Lake City Bakery.  During the Winter these folks move their operation to Crested Butte, at the base of the ski area, and operate as the Brown Lab Pub.  Either way, their pastries and quiche are scrumptious and today I ate my fill.

Although the dogs and I had just hiked some thirteen miles I still felt somewhat unsatisfied and made a stop along the drive home to get the pups out of the car.  At the junction of Colorado 149 and Gunnison County Road 26 there is a sign placed that denotes the various legal motorized routes that stretch out over the nearby area.  We all wandered around for a short time, mostly over Bureau of Land Management Road 3126b.  There are so many roads, really two-tracks, here that I didn’t bother to keep track of my exact route but thoroughly enjoyed the combination of sagebrush steppe and stately ponderosa pine.  From here we drove straight home.  The dogs had a good day enjoying the setting from a canine perspective while I exalted in exploring a trail new to me.  Even though not the most scenic trail over much of the distance, I am always happy to be out hiking around the woods.

Morning Hike to the Summit of Carbon Peak – August 09, 2017

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Draco and Leah just below the summit of Carbon Peak, looking east towards Whetstone Mountain (on the left)

The clouds from the monsoonal season had settled in over the valley, but I decided that it would be nonetheless a good morning to rise early and climb up to the top of Carbon Peak.  That eminence rises up near the head of Ohio Creek, the latter constituting a major tributary of the Gunnison River.  The peak itself is eminently visible from the north side of Gunnison, Colorado, where I make my home.  It sits magnificently, looking like a pyramid with flutes radiating from the summit to the base.  What looks to be a challenging peak to climb at first glance is belied by the gentle slope to be found on  the unseen north side.  I know this because I have been up to that rocky point three or four times previously.

Most maps show that a road or trail, either way denoted 564, leads up to Carbon Peak but this route has been closed to motorized and mechanized vehicles for some years now.  Part of the reason, aside from the ecological damage caused by such use, is that the road crosses private property on the lower end of the western slope.  Even though the property isn’t posted, the road is overgrown and requires skilled navigation and determination to cross the meadow and find the remnants on the forested hillside.  The better route is to continue driving up the Ohio Creek Road to Gunnison National Forest Road 730.1B, a short dead-end road that follows the old grade of the never-completed Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad.  Don’t drive out over the talus to the end of the road as there is no place to turn around.  However, the first quarter of a mile has ample camping opportunities and turns-around.  Why the Forest Service keeps the last half a mile open I can’t really say, although an all-terrain vehicle could turn around easily enough, I would suppose.

Personally, I park on the main road, Gunnison National Forest/Gunnison County Road 730 at a wide place on the corner just below the spur road.  From there I walk over the old grade, through the aforementioned large bed of talus until reaching the unfinished balloon-loop that would have allowed the railroad to gain elevation towards Ohio Pass.  Sometimes it is difficult to imagine what might have been, had the railroad actually been completed.  This area encompasses a high quality of quietude, so I would have to say that I am happy it has remained so.  I enjoyed the peacefulness of the abandoned works, the mist adding a shroud of dankness to the entire setting.

Naturally enough I had brought along my two shepherds, Draco and Leah, and they skittered about with animated bursts of energy.  Parking near the aspen jungle, I am always enthralled with the unforeseen density of the undergrowth.  This soon gives way to a conifer forest and open meadow.  A fine place for wildflowers, although I was a bit late for the season on this hike.  Because of the potential for traffic on the main road and furthermore not wanting to upset the equanimity of the campers whom had gathered I kept the pups close by, although their wont would be to chase any hapless rodents that scurried across their path.

About three-quarters of a mile out the road abruptly ends, as aforementioned.  At that point begins Gunnison National Forest Trail No. 436, also known as the Carbon Trail.  A further quarter of a mile brings the intrepid hiker to the balloon-loop, where the old grade folds back on itself.  At this point the trail continues to the east between Mount Axtell and Carbon Peak, on towards Whetstone Mountain and Gibson Ridge before descending to Green Lake.  There is also a small crescent-shaped drainage upon which a user-made trail runs up the west-side ridge.  Finding it requires some intuition but if you are looking for it you will most likely find it.  I led the dogs over to this unmarked trail, diverging from the main path and then having to cross the creek where the grade had remained unfinished.

The user-made trail runs up through a nice forest, occasionally allowing some views to the east but most often not.  If you know where to look, about half way up, the old trail and abandoned road from Ohio Creek merge with the path.  As the climb continues, the path gradually swings from southbound to eastward, and the small drainage that had been parallel to the ridge fades out.  Here the trail begins to climb the west face and the forest becomes less dense as elevation is gained.  On this morning the mists also bean to dissolve under the steady beating of the Sun’s rays.   Eventually the trail braids and three or four options present themselves, all marked with cairns.  Small meadows become apparent, and soon enough the high ridge is met.  Now a fine view to the east, north and west are had.  Also, the glacial gouge that scooped out a large chunk of the mountain’s northeastern flank is seen for the first time.

From this point the route to the highpoint is obvious.  The dogs and I cruised up to the talus-encrusted peak where an orange alternating with  white pole has been erected.  I looked around and gazed out across the wide expanses.  The view to the south exposed the entire valley of Ohio Creek, while to my north the Ruby Range and West Elk Mountains could be seen beyond Mount Axtell.  To my west rose the volcanic highlands of the West Elk Mountains, while in the opposite direction numerous laccoliths dotted the landscape.  Beyond the valley of Ohio Creek I could see the San Juan Mountains, so far away.  I studied the map, identifying those peaks that I didn’t already know by rote.

The talus didn’t make for pleasant sitting so after about ten minutes I walked us back down below the rocks and found a nice grassy patch to sit upon.  The shepherds sat down in some providential shade while I gathered in some of the warming rays from the morning Sun.  The misty clouds continued to ebb and flow, sometimes allowing uninterrupted views of the surrounding eminences while at other times that same view would be suddenly blotted out.  As the next hour or so proceeded the cloud cover continually waned until naught but cerulean sky constituted the heavens above.

I almost always dislike having to get up from my mountain repose to make the return to civilization despite the allure of ease and comfort.  My dislike is especially heightened when I know that despite me being temporarily ensconced in wildness I am expected to return to a job that I find no real pleasure in beyond the pecuniary.  Thus, with a hearty sigh, I labored to gather my gear and bearings and begin the trek back down the mountain.  The only tricky part now is finding the route back, because there isn’t really a trail at the upper level and the cairns keep the unaware from veering off into impenetrable forest or into some impassable cliffs.  I had checked my bearings on the way up and made note of a few identifiable objects that I could use to reconnoiter my position.  All went well on the trek down, and I soon found the trail along which I simply reversed my course.

I did some minor exploring hear and there, finding the remnants of what might have been a timber camp.  Old oil cans and antifreeze cans littered one site but otherwise whatever had gone on up here has been subsequently grown over and forgotten.  Towards the bottom of the trail, near the old balloon loop, I stopped to admire the view of Whetstone Mountain.  The vegetation continued to radiate with verdure, and as the clouds wore off the day became even more sublime, further causing regret at my premature return.  Walking back on the Carbon Trail No. 436 I did enjoy a stunning view of The Castles nestled under West Elk Peak.  Ohio Peak presented another fine view and brought into fine focus the reason why I love this end of the valley.  All in all, a fine preliminary to my shift, for no matter how bad said shift might prove I could at least shut my eyes and think of this morning.