A variety of geological oddities are found along Mill Creek
Oh, Mill Creek, how I love to enter your vast citadel of tortured geology. A visit there never fails to produce a feeling of awe and wonder. Excepting its all too common usage that has dulled the true meaning of the word, I would call it awesome. Why this drainage isn’t more widely recognized for its inherent natural beauty I don’t know, but perhaps it is a blessing to keep such a place an open secret among friends and neighbors. Now, the thinking person, tantalized by the hints and allegations I have just intimated at, would be wondering where this Mill Creek is at. Rather, which Mill Creek? This name is used repeatedly throughout the continent, and here in the Gunnison Country it occurs oft enough. I’ll tell you, but don’t let on that you heard it here (wink)!
Sounding at the Gulf of California the once -mighty Colorado River poured fourth its contents of Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water (really, of course, mostly snow melt, but a certain well-known beverage company would rather ignore that salient fact) until, in the Twentieth Century, it was dam(n)med and diverted beyond all possible reasonable allocation. Now, in a wet year, a mere trickle might reach the coast while in dry years nothing but a mud flat can be found. Aldo Leopold, the well known conservationist, wrote an essay about the before and after, and described an amazing wetlands full of ecological diversity prior to the dams’ installation. Efforts have been made to restore a semblance of the estuary’s fecundity, but many desert cities and those folks growing cotton, for example, in the arid landscape are opposed.
But I digress! Above numerous canyons in the states of Arizona and Utah the river forked into what might be called a northern and eastern branches. The north fork was called the Popo Agie by the early fur trappers but now goes by the appellation of Green. That earlier name has since been reused elsewhere, by the way. The eastern fork was called the Grand. This fork contributes more water but the other drains a larger land area. Which is the dominant fork? Colorado Congressman Ed Taylor thought that certainly the eastern fork should be recognized as such, and pushed a resolution through congress to rename the Grand River as the Colorado. The states of Utah and Wyoming, where the Green River originates, as well as the United States Geological Survey, all objected to this name change but Congress nonetheless approved. I relate this tidbit of information just in case people have been deluded into believing that congressional meddling is something new. Thus, in Colorado we have remnants of the old name, to wit: the city of Grand Junction, Grand County and, near the headwaters, Grand Lake.
Sigh, here I go again on a tangent whereas the train of thought should have rounded the bend…. Regardless of your take on this controversy, the Colorado nee Grand River forked again at the appropriately named city of Grand Junction. Of the two forks, the southern one has been christened the Gunnison River and flows through its well-known Black Canyon. Above the canyon one enters the Gunnison Country, most of which coincides with Gunnison County. Near the city of Gunnison (do you see a trend here?) three forks divide the river yet again. The western most such current is now called Ohio Creek and drains the eastern flank of the West Elk Mountains besides other uplands. One creek that develops in the aforementioned mountains is called Mill and serves as the central feature of this geographic odyssey for my story.
In modern contemporaneity I drive north from the city of Gunnison via Colorado State Highway 135 a short distance and turn off on the Ohio Creek Road. Said road also carries the designation of Gunnison County Road 730. Some nine miles driving along the narrow two-lanes of pavement leads to the Mill Creek Road 727, and here the pavement has yet to be applied beyond a quarter of a mile. Three miles of graveled road lead up to a Winter trailhead. Here I routinely park, abstaining from driving the further mile and a half up the road. My Subaru could be driven further but I generally choose instead to walk. Thus, this day in late Summer, I park the petroleum locomotive (thank you, Walter H. Page, for this nomenclature) next to the fragrant pit toilets and let my two German shepherds exit the vehicle. Draco and Leah run amok investigating traces of previous canine passing while I don my gear and begin to walk along the two-track that heads up into the mixed aspen-conifer forest.
Having hiked, skied or snowshoed along this portion of forested road dozens of times previous I found myself somewhat remiss to snap off any images of this first portion of my trek. Not until I reached the end of the road did I begin to make snapshots of the scenery. Perhaps because I had set as my main goal an exploration of one particular section of the drainage did I not record my passing through the other parts. A somewhat lackadaisical attitude that I am sometimes guilty of. Regardless, I hiked up to the end of the road and began to hike along the Mill Creek Trail No. 450. The West Elk Wilderness boundary is some mile and a half further along the trail. About a mile up, the trail leaves the dense forest canopy behind and enters a large meadow that affords fantastic views of the drainage in both directions. Here, the odd hoodoos, spires and fins are appreciated for the first time close up. In fact, this meadow can serve ably as an easy out and back trek in its own right.
At this meadow the trail crosses Mill creek and ascends a small ridge to rejoin the original trail that has been rerouted to avoid some private property. Looking northwest from this crossing rises a huge cliff some thousand feet tall. Formed from West Elk breccia, as is this entire drainage, huge chunks of volcanic rock, perhaps a basalt, can be seen suspended in a fine matrix of volcanic ash. This same breccia allows all the other odd shapes to form due to the unusual pattern of erosion that results when a large rock shadows, if you will, the underlying finer particles. Meanwhile, the other surrounding soil is washed away leaving a tower of crumbly grains topped by a capstone of resistance. Thirty millions years in the making since the volcanoes petered out, these sculptures never cease to fascinate me.
The shepherds and I crossed the creek and walked a short distance up the trail before veering off up into the woods. These woods are a delight unto themselves, composed of huge swaths of aspen admixed with spruce. Following no real trail I led the dogs towards the eastern base of the cliff. The dank forest odor invigorated my senses. A kaleidoscope of sensations followed. The pleasing smell of the aspen as I walked up a slope under their broad canopy, perhaps wiping my hand on a bole and applying the powdery residue to my face as a makeshift sun block. Sticky, pungent sap from the spruce I would ball up between finger and thumb. Bringing it to my nostril I inhaled deeply the perfume of conifer. I wandered up and down various small drainages, but generally gained elevation as I climbed upwards towards the first visible outcropping of the venerable breccia.
There is no adequate manner in which I can accurately describe my route but let’s just say that reaching the cliff base proved to be more daunting than anticipated. I wasn’t too surprised since most bushwhacking adventures present more challenges than a quick perusal of the topography can anticipate. Once the slope of my chosen route exceeded a one to one basis I decided to discontinue my exploration in favor of sitting in a saddle carved out of a fin of rock. I sat here and watched the world go by, on my perch seldom visited by humanity. I had hiked up a slope on one side of the fin only to find a cliff on the other. The shepherds I kept an eye on so that they wouldn’t blunder their way into a problem.
We didn’t stay long, as the place I had chosen to sit upon was marginally comfortable. We retreated more or less the way we had come, but with a few additional twists and turns as my curiosity lured me to one forest object after another. No worry on my part occupied my mind regarding my exact location. I wouldn’t get lost or even confused. Despite the thick forest I cold keep all the relevant landmarks in sight. An easy gambol down the hillside ensued and we soon stumbled across the trail. Making our way back to the creek we again crossed the relatively low waters before entering the large meadow. On one edge of this meadow grows a large stand of aspen, a glen of salubrious layout, and I led the pups over to a huge log where I could sit back and relax.
As much as I love hiking and exploring, this phase of the journey was but a peaceful repose where victuals where consumed at a indolent pace, although the shepherds heartily scarfed up their kibble. The sky had begun clear, imbued with the deep cerulean common to these parts. As the day progressed one after another of puffy white clouds sailed lazily overhead, although none brought along a though of thunderstorms. A nap followed as the breeze brought forth sounds of laughter and conversation. A popular trail, during the hour pause I saw numerous groups hiking by on their way up valley. Oh, late Summer! Such fine temperatures that my body could only feel utter contentment. A final fond farewell to the late season verdure I made as I began the trek back to the trailhead. Already the aspen, grasses, forbs and shrubs had began to change color in harmony with the changing season. This hike didn’t encompass many miles but did expose me to some of the hidden treasures that await whenever I venture off the beaten path. Goodbye, Mill Creek! Till we meet again!
From the aspen glen near the crossing of Mill Creek, looking up towards my approximate location near the base of the large cliff
Near the end of Gunnison National Forest Road 727
Signage for the Mill-Castle Trail No. 450
The cliff northwest of the creek crossing; I hiked up towards the right, or eastern, side
Hoodoos and such north of the trail crossing of Mill Creek
Looking up Mill Creek from the large meadow
Leah on the Mill-Castle Trail No. 450 just below the creek crossing
Mill Creek flowing downstream
Cloud hovering above hoodoos on the south side of Mill Creek
Crossing Mill Creek, looking southwest
Hiking above Mill Creek, looking southwest
The south side of Mill Creek, seen from above
Exploring off the beaten path, north of Mill Creek
Forest in the shadow of one of the few clouds in the sky
Leah at the base of an outcropping of West Elk breccia
Dauntingly standing under a fin of West Elk breccia above Mill Creek. The rock is unstable to say the least
On the slope north of Mill Creek, looking towards its southern side
Looking across Mill Creek
Looking at the north side of Mill Creek
A spire towering above me, precarious!
Aspen in shadow, pressed against some breccia
Looking to the southeast; Tomichi Dome on the right
Looking down into Mill Creek
Aspen forest in Mill Creek
Draco, eating grass, and Leah on the Mill-Castle Trail No. 450
Looking back to the north side of Mill Creek, my exploration was generally towards the left
From the aspen glen, looking upstream on Mill Creek
A lone pine in the large meadow near the Mill Creek crossing
Mill Creek in shadow, large clouds above
A variety of geological oddities are found along Mill Creek