Autumnal Equinox on Lake Branch, Off Piste – September 22, 2017

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A grove of aspen on Lake Branch

Personally, I often fell the need to declare the equinoxes and solstices some sort of national holiday.  Alas, also personally, because of the service industry job that I hold it is likely that should somehow inconceivably a holiday come to be declared I would be working anyhow as I do now on the majority of the major holidays.  Thus, I would suppose, this day would not have been altered much from the actual reality that I experienced, to wit:  A quick hike before work, exploring an unknown corner of a familiar region.  Perusing my ingrained knowledge of the local region I had made a recollection of a place I thought might be interesting to visit, and so the shepherds and I loaded up in the old Subaru and drove out of town via U.S. 50 eastbound almost to the small town of Sargents.

A mile shy of that aforementioned town I turned off the main road and onto Gunnison National Forest Road 780.  That bumpy road then leads on for two miles where the Long Branch Forest Facility sits in a large meadow.  I could drive another mile, but have always chosen this as my defacto trailhead.  I let the shepherds out of the car and while they investigated scent posts and rodent dens I gathered up the gear.  Soon, Draco, Leah and I walked through a gate and continued on Road 780 through a mixed conifer-aspen forest.  The road ends a mile up, and thus the lack of a through route keeps traffic to a minimum.  Paralleling Long Branch is a large meadow where willow traces the path of the water.  Although cloudy, no precipitation seems imminent and much blue sky may be seen.  The aspen and other deciduous vegetation has begun to turn yellow and adds to the vibrancy of the day.

Arriving at the official Long Branch/Baldy Lake Trailhead affords the dogs and I a choice of two trails.  I choose to take the western fork,  denoted as the Baldy Lake Trail No. 481.  We cross Long Branch and begin to trek up the trail.  This drainage is called the West Fork and there lies an open expanse of sagebrush and ponderosa pine on its northern side.  The northern side having a south face remains fairly warm and dry.  The southern side of West Fork confers a north face and thus has been shrouded in a thick forest due to the cooler nature of that aspect.  Hiking along for a mile or so we come to a southern branch of the West Fork.  This has been named the Lake Branch, as it drains Baldy Lake located about two miles upstream.  We cross the West Fork and follow an unofficial trail up into the drainage.

Some of the aspen here are ablaze with color, a palette of reds, oranges and yellows.  Much, however, remains green.  Our hike continues up the game trail about half to three-quarters of a mile.  The sky is mostly cloudy but enough sunshine streams through the gaps to keep us warm.  No noise beyond what nature concocts can be heard.  I find a place to sit, partially in the sunlight of the sagebrush steppe and somewhat shaded by the overhanging aspen.  The shepherds lie down nearby, now alert to the potential of feeding on kibble.  Wind rustles the leaves and a few birds exclaim pleasing melodies.  On this more protected aspect the ponderosa pine have given way to lodgepole, and a dense forest of this latter conifer stretches on for miles in some places.

The Lake Branch is but a trickle but yields enough water to easily quench the dogs’ thirst.  The undergrowth is dense near the creek but not impassable.  After our rest I lead the pups down to the water and then back down the light trail.  I’m guessing that this trail was created by cattle that graze here during the Summer, and is used by wildlife and humans as well.  Thinking about my impending shift later in the evening I lead the shepherds and myself back down the trail to the trailhead.  Along the way I admire the sagebrush steppe interfacing with forest. I am happy to be out walking on this day of transition from Summer to Autumn and wish I could extend my visit, but am content with what I have seen.  The heavy scent of pine and sagebrush mingle as I return to the old guard station and this pleasing odor I carry away with me back home.

Cataract Gulch on the Last Day of Summer – September 21, 2017

Sunshine Peak earning its moniker, seen from Cataract Gulch

Although the last day of Summer, the aspen and other green things had already begun to turn the amber color that denotes the oncoming of Autumn.  I felt fortunate to have the day off.  I loaded my two German shepherds and stalwart hiking companions, Draco and Leah, into the Subaru and we drove west out of Gunnison, Colorado, where I make my home.  Eight miles on U.S. 50 and we turned onto Colorado 149 and drove about an hour to reach the small county seat of Lake City.  Nestled in the northern portion of the San Juan Mountains among the many ancient calderas that form said heights, Lake City is the only municipality in Hinsdale County.  Supposedly the most remote county in the lower forty-eight, according to some matrix of variables such as road density and population, not many people live here and backcountry abounds.

A bit beyond, to the south of Lake City, a turn-off for Hinsdale Country Road 3 allows access to Lake San Cristobal and then parallels the Lake Fork.  A few miles on the poor pavement turns to gravel, and a few miles beyond that lies the Cataract Gulch Trailhead on Bureau of Land Management property.  Why this area was excluded from the Gunnison National Forest is beyond my comprehension, but I would guess that it might be due to the heavy exploitation of minerals in the form of hard-rock mining.  The Forest Service uses the number 475 for this trail and the BLM uses another, just to keep things interesting.  Now part of the Handies Peak Wilderness Study Area, it should have been included as part of the Forest Services’s roadless inventory decades before.  Bureaucratic maleficence kept this area open to skulduggery but it seems that little damage was done in the interval.

A bridge crossing the Lake Fork keeps feet dry and is the only level hiking in the first two miles.  Immediately after crossing the span the trail begins to climb and close to two thousand feet of elevation is gained before the trail levels off a bit.  Cataract gulch lives up to its name, as the sound of tumbling water fills the gulch.  On a north face, this trail is very shady and admits little sunshine.  The trail follows the cleft in the rock that the water flows through and is somewhat cloistered.  When the calderas filled the region with flows of basalt, different layers where created.  Stepping up, so to speak, a layer or two involves steep climbing but once on top of a layer the going becomes fairly flat.  Exiting the confining canyon, Cataract Gulch suddenly widens into a gorgeous alpine valley.  Another two miles of hiking and the dogs and I reach Cataract Lake situated just below the Continental Divide.

Having stopped on a knoll above the lake, I imbibed water while the pups quenched their thirst directly from the lake.  I then led the shepherds up to the pass by following the trail.  Bushwhacking seems possible should someone wish to crest the divide further to the east.  Here a bit of confusion sets in.  The Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail have been rerouted a bit so that their route differs from what appears on my revised-in-2004 map shows (the newest addition, at least, has this newer reroute).  Instead of curving around to the east to make the old junction with both those named trails, the new junction sits practically atop the pass, near a small unnamed pond.  I wandered out about a quarter of a mile to the west of the pass, following the trail so as to see if I could determine its route.  This put me at the headwaters of Pole Creek.  I’m not entirely sure, but I think the new route continues west and not down into Pole Creek as did the old route.  I didn’t have time or moxie to find out, so I found a warm slope to sit on and watched the world go round.

More later!… (Playing with the new editor, switching back to the old; might have to update my technology [sigh])

Studying the distant horizon of the rugged San Juan Mountains I made no real attempt to identify the peaks.  My map didn’t reach that far.  I did appreciate that sitting here in Pole Creek I was staring down into the upper drainage of the Rio Grande River and thus the watershed of the Atlantic Ocean.  After a spell of repose and contemplation I led the pups back over the small pass and into the Pacific watershed.  I stared up at Half Peak, the name of which makes more sense when seen from a distance.  It appears that half the mountain has been cleaved away.  In reality, I believe that what remains is the rim of a once huge volcanic caldera.  We paused again at the lake, me for admiration and canines for slaking thirst.  We descended Cataract Gulch via the same trail that we had climbed.  

The sunny alpine tundra was warm and inviting.  The once-verdant grass had completely changed into a golden-hued extravaganza.  The two colors mixed where the changeover wasn’t complete, and I walked along in bliss under the cerulean skies.  Coming to the end of the tundra, we began the steep fall back down to the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.  Time and again I was reminded why this cleft in the rock was named Cataract Gulch, as tumbling water could be seen and heard throughout our hike down.  The dense forest was relatively cool and damp compared to the tundra above, where sunlight had beat down sans shade.  Reaching the trailhead, I loaded the pups up, reflecting on what I had seen.  Quietude had been the norm, although much of this area is open to motorized recreation.  There are many trails in the area, and nearly unlimited possibilities for backpacking and exploring exist.   Aye, I eagerly await my return to do just that!

(Final edit!)

Mill Creek Redux – September 20, 2017

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Penultimate day of Summer on Mill Creek in the West Elk Mountains

I had to go back, having been vaguely unsatisfied after my last exploration of Mill Creek in Colorado’s West Elk Mountains.  The previous week I had arrived at the Winter trailhead later in the day but today I had risen early so as to arrive early.  The Sun had just breached the horizon and warm shafts of golden light streaked over Flat Top and Fossil Ridge before crossing the valley of Ohio Creek.  Draco and Leah, my two hiking companions and German-style shepherds both, leaped out of the car and busied themselves slavering over canine deposits adjacent to the pit toilet.  The cool air felt great and I drew in deep breaths as I looked about the parking lot.  The sky above was one sheet of unbroken cerulean, a lone cloud dotting the western horizon.  We set off on Gunnison National Forest Road 727, walking the mile and a half to the point where road transitioned into trail.

The Winter trailhead on Mill Creek is situated more or less at the transition from sagebrush steppe to forest.  Exalted, I hiked along as wafts of odoriferous spruce fragrance permeated my nostrils.  Entering the thick forest the golden light shot overhead illuminating the aspen leaves.  This penultimate day of Summer they had well begun their change over to Fall colors, and although the dogs and I hiked in deep shadow the radiating light from the crowns above glowed with enough brilliance to illuminate our trek.  Birds chirped along the hike creating a happy feeling of a dynamic, living forest.  A fox darted off in a meadow and left the vicinity when it discerned our presence.

Leaving the road behind the shepherds and I walked another mile and a half until we reached the large meadow where the trail crosses Mill Creek.  Following the trail another quarter of a mile or so we again left the trial to bushwhack up to the large cliff.  Remembering our route from before we made it up to the extent of the previous hike fairly quickly.  This time I continued onward, around a large outcropping and then up along an exposed face.  Fairly high up above Mill Creek, I was rewarded with fine close up views of some of the breccia that forms the odd shapes found throughout the West Elk Mountains.  The route became steep and the dogs lost interest in scrambling around the dead-fall and rocky terrain.  Leah especially has a fierce independent streak and if she doesn’t like what we are doing will turn around and go elsewhere.

We descended some steep slopes and made our way down to an unnamed creek, now dry, so as to ascertain the feasibility of following its bottom up behind the cliffs.  We wandered around the dense aspen forest until I found the place where the creek breaks through the cliffs but decided that it would be too challenging for the dogs to hike up much further.  Besides, they were beginning to exhibit their displeasure at having to abstain from slaking their thirst for the last hour.  Most of the tributaries of Mill Creek in this area, by the way, flow perpendicularly to the parent and the cliff faces.  This one creek trends northwest from its confluence.  It would be great to explore the area back up towards the dividing ridge with Castle Creek but I’ll have to wait to do it either without dogs or sometime when enough snow remains that they can remain hydrated.

For a time I led the dogs and myself along a path of no particular destination and we simply ambled about the forest, me appreciating the diversity of the forest and the pups investigating myriad squirrels’ activity.  As we did the previous week, I led the pups back over Mill Creek to our favorite glen of large aspen, a place where I could remain a bit out of sight but still have a view of the goings-on of Mill Creek.  We whiled away an hour plus eating snacks or kibble, respectively, and napping.  Having adored the local scenery, marveling at the wonder of it all, I led the dogs back along the Mill-Castle Trail No. 450 and Mill Creek Road No. 727 until we reached the waiting car.  I had immensely enjoyed this redux of the previous week’s hike and returned home feeling satiated and content.

 

Lazy Morning Walk on Cabin Creek – September 14, 2017

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Looking down into a draw that feeds Cabin Creek; Point 8845 on the left and in the distance, center right, Razor Creek Dome

Cabin Creek drains into Tomichi Creek a few short miles east of my home in Gunnison, Colorado.  I hike here often enough in Winter and Spring, and ski when there is enough of a snow pack sustained on its blazing southern face, but during Summer and Fall I tend to hike elsewhere due to the lack of water.  Generally speaking, my two hiking companions, Draco and Leah, consider it something of a crisis if they have to go more than a mile without ready access to the precious liquid.  This particular morning I really wanted to get out and walk around a bit but didn’t relish a drive to the high country where finding water isn’t an issue.  So, I decided to haul a bit of extra water for the dogs should we not find any flowing or impounded.  I did, however, have one trick up my sleeve, so to speak, and decided to investigate the reality of my premonition.  A find day awaited us, perfect for hiking.  Cool but sunny, a few clouds but none bearing imminent precipitation and a cerulean sky overhead bade us welcome.

Perhaps because of my relative frequency visiting this drainage, especially the lower part, when I now peruse my snapshots I find that I was extremely delinquent in photography.  I don’t recall nor am I able to discern my exact route.  Perhaps I should keep a notebook into which I could jot down a few pertinent notes.  I tend to let my imagery suffice for such purpose but sometimes it doesn’t meet the exigency.  Regardless, I drove the shepherds and myself out of town via U.S. 50 and parked the car just off the highway, adjacent to the Bureau of Land Management access.  This area is open to all forms of transportation, and, thus, although generally quiet, one may encounter a variety of motorized users.

While not a designated wilderness Cabin Creek and environs may be considered backcountry.  Nothing lives in the vicinity excepting for the wild ones.  Although not desert, this area may be considered semi-arid and thus the great sagebrush steppe dominates the elevations below nine thousand feet in elevation.  Many folks find the sagebrush sea somewhat tedious.  I certainly avoid the hot Summer months but otherwise I am open to the hidden biological diversity that this vast swath of habitat contains.  Thinking about these things, I gathered my gear and walked northwards away from the highway, and its concomitant whine of passing traffic, via Bureau of Land Management Road 3107.  The BLM manages much of this little-noticed landscape through the auspices of the Gunnison Field Office.

The road parallels a barbed-wire fence off and on for the first mile or so.  Some of the land on the opposite side had previously been private property owned by the Van Tuyl Family, prominent  and civic-minded local ranchers.  Sometime relatively recently this and other lands where donated to the public.  The City of Gunnison especially benefited by the transfer of some three hundred plus acres of open space.  Along Cabin Creek Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages this parcel.  We hiked on by, the shepherds keen on the fecundity of the local rodent and Leporidae populations.  We pass by an outcropping of sandstone.  This rock always sets me to wondering about geology.  I look up at Point 8845 and other high mesas noting the basaltic cap rock.  Some thirty millions years ago great flows of lava had swept across the then extant landscape, inundating the exposed and eroded sedimentary rock under hundreds of feet of sequential flows.

Two and half miles, roughly, I made the junction with BLM Road 3107c.  As I had expected, Cabin Creek was dry as could be, and, furthermore as I had expected, the shepherds had effected a countenance of suffering.  They weren’t in any danger of dehydrating or overheating, but, regardless, I abstained from quaffing any of the refreshing liquid I carried in an act of solidarity until the pups would be quenched.  Our next half a mile of hiking led us westward up a steep-ish gully.  What I speculated on now was that there would be a flowing spring set in a lush grove of cottonwood.  Rather, the grove had been set about the spring in all likelihood.  The spring water, fairly minimal on the surface, had been piped to feed a stock tank.  Should this source of water prove futile I would share what I carried with the dogs.

By now I was sweating under the suddenly warm Sun.  Tongues lolling, the shepherds kept up languidly.  I walked ahead to look at the stock tank, happy to have reached the oasis.  Oh, dog joy!  I found a full tank and called the dogs over.  A huge tub of water slaked their dog thirst and dog crisis was averted.  I say that last part with a wink, for the only such calamity was in their minds.  I would note that any such difficulty, real or perceived, was immediately put into abeyance whenever a chipmunk scurried off somewhere nearby.  Whatever the true nature of the situation was, this salubrious grove of cottonwood proved an ideal place to rest, refuel and rehydrate.  The stock tank and much of the area nearby were entangled in a thick growth of wild roses.  In the spring the perfume from the blooms I would imagine to be exquisite.  For now I sat in the shade facing southeast, watching the clouds sail over the distant and out of sight Continental Divide.

Working later on during the night shift, I decided to remain in repose instead of hiking further up the hill.  Just above me on the ridge loomed Points 8950 and 9150, both of which afford fantastic views of the surrounding countryside.  I was tempted to make the somewhat short hike up to the latter, but concluded that animation at the present time was a bit over rated.  Certain canines seemed fairly content to acquiesce in this notion and the shadows shifted subtly as the Earth inexorably revolved upon its axis.  Although the pace of revolution changed not, attitudes did morph and after an hour Draco and Leah began to grow restless.  That combined with my impending shift prompted me into action whereupon we commenced hiking back down the road to the dry creek below.

Reaching BLM Road 3107 we turned downstream towards the main highway.  All around us the vast steppe was in bloom.  Most of the showy flowers had come and gone but in this late Summer season the sagebrush itself bloomed tall, thin stalks beyond count.  The second most prominent shrub, a species of rabbitbrush, also blooms at this time.  A bit more showy than the sagebrush, most people still don’t notice it.  For folks who are allergic to these members of Asteraceae this time of year can be a bit challenging.  I suffer not from their pollen and walk contentedly mile after mile.  I would not, however, make such a boast about a large field of Timothy.  On the way back I eschew parts of the main road for abandoned and closed two-track that more closely parallels the creek bottom.  The cottonwood groves and rose shrubs grow thickly here, and in some places the willow precludes bushwhacking.  Adding to the texture, a few juniper grow out of rocky outcroppings.  This growth thins out downstream, and soon we pass only a few lonely boles rising up out of the soil.  Homeward bound now, I hold onto the day’s images when I later find myself enclosed in the hall of insanity otherwise referred to as a commercial kitchen.  My co-workers note a peculiar smile upon my face.

Exploring Mill Creek – September 13, 2017

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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!

Summit of Mount Baldy – September 12, 2017

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Draco leading the way over the user-created trail to the summit of Mount Baldy

A buddy of mine from work, Luke 2.0 (he was the second Luke in the kitchen), and I decided that this would be a good day to hike to the fairly easy summit of Mount Baldy in the Elk Mountains of Colorado.  This “baldy” is located due north of the old Elkton townsite located a few miles up Washington Gulch north of the resort town of Crested Butte.  Because I work in that latter town and am wary of the obsequious crowds that haunt the trailheads during the busy Summer season I tend not to hike in this end of the valley until folks have departed back to the big city.  Yet my somewhat negative attitude belies the fact that the reason people choose to cluster here is because the scenery exceeds all superlatives.  Thus, I braved the masses and drove up to Gunnison National Forest/Gunnison County Road 734 having picked up my friend at his condominium before commencing.

The best access for this hike is just above the private property that surrounds Elkton.  However, that being said, the road has deteriorated to the point where I would not take my poor old Subaru up there again.  There is a lower trailhead that takes some finding.  Located below the old townsite it would add some elevation gain to any hike but would save some wear and tear on the car, as well as frayed nerves.  Oddly enough, this trail, which we didn’t use, isn’t part of the National Forest’s trail network but generally shows up on maps nonetheless.  Our hike began at the western end of Gunnison National Forest Trail No. 403, a popular trail for mountain bikes and hikers.  Often referred to as simply the “Four-Oh-Three”, out-of-towners and locals alike can be seen with smiles on their faces enjoying the outdoor activity of their choice along its braided path.  This trail, although heavily used, is closed to motorized use and thus, despite the crush of humanity, all is peaceful along its length.

We followed the official trail for only about a quarter mile or so before beginning our combined bushwhack and trek over a well-established user-created trail.  Generally, we kept to the small ridge that divides Rock Creek from a small unnamed basin that drains into the Slate River.  Having started our hike from a fairly high elevation we climbed only a short distance before we came across expansive views of the Elk Mountains.  The vast majority of the wildflowers had already gone to seed, but for the most part the grasses and aspen retained their verdure.  The green contrasted nicely with the blue sky.  Puffy white clouds dappled the firmament but didn’t threaten inclement weather.  The red and grey peaks surrounding us had been coated with a shroud of hail, or in local parlance grapple, by a fast moving storm a couple of days prior, adding to the magnificence.

The ridge had some challenges to cross but nothing more than an easy scramble.  Jagged rocks are always a hindrance but easily mitigated with due caution.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, accompanied us and had some trouble with the outcroppings, though.  However, that section was fairly brief and we soon began to walk over a nicely carpeted meadow of grass.  Our hike soon led us up beyond treeline and the buoyant perfume of the conifer forest was replaced by an odor of minerals.  The user-created trail retains good definition up the southern slope of Mount Baldy, including a set of switchbacks that make the incline that much more feasible.  Reaching the ridge, a half-mile hike awaited us to the summit.  Along the way we crossed a triple divide that separates the Slate and East Rivers from the Crystal.  The former two drain into the Gunnison River while the latter contributes to the Roaring Fork of the Colorado.

On the map the walk from the triple divide to the high point of Mount Baldy doesn’t seem like its all that far.  In person, however, the ridgeline seems to extend beyond all reason on out to infinity.  I tend to let my mind fool itself and let a scant half a mile turn into a trudge of numerous miles and incalculable difficulty.  I have to remind myself that moving at a moderate pace over a well worn trail will only take another fifteen minutes or so to traverse.  Mentally, I tend to cope by telling myself to put one foot in front of the other and continue onward.  Sure enough, within a quarter of an hour Luke and I had reached the summit with no real difficulty.  Looking around I could see numerous named peaks, many of which Luke or I or both had ascended.  Now, we rested a bit and hydrated.  The Elk Mountains lay out before us in all directions, ridge after ridge peeling off towards the horizon.

The rocky summit could not be called comfortable although the view is excellent.  The shepherds slurped us some slushy iced precipitation but I knew that they would rather drink from a body of water.  I shared some of my own water with them after feeding out a bit of kibble.  Luke and I had seen what we came for and we soon decided to return to the car.  I signed the informal register before we hiked back the way we had come.  However, we decided to bail off the ridge just south of the triple divide.  This steep scree slope dropped us quickly into the basin of Rock Creek and to a small pond where the pups could recharge in earnest.  Using this route we also avoided traversing the small but rocky ridge that now lay to our west.  This bushwhack we both found easy as no willows blocked our path and only grassy meadow lay between us and the trail.  The hike concluded with our return to the trailhead.  A fine day had been had by all, and the next day at work we could both relish our climb and rehash our adventure together.

A Hike on Major Creek – September 10, 2017

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Shaft of sunlight striking the floor of the San Luis valley

As much as I love the Gunnison Country, and there is much to love with its widely dispersed swaths of public land, I tend to get antsy after a while and that old Travelling Jones just doesn’t want to quit.  There always seems to be something over the ridge, on the far side of a valley or down the canyon that draws me onward with curiosity piqued.  There is no landscape so grand, no climate so salubrious nor any place so unique that I don’t eventually want to see a new drainage, to see the same tapestry of life draped over and adapted to a slightly different landscape.  Thus on this day I drove out of my home in Gunnison, Colorado, and, via Colorado 114, crossed the Backbone of the Continent and entered the northern end of the vast San Luis Valley.

On the east side of the aforementioned valley rises the long serrated ridge of the relatively narrow Sangre de Cristo Range.  This ridge rises in some places some seven thousand feet above the valley floor, and does so in about seven miles.  An uplifted mass on a grand scale, there are no flat hikes here.  To the west rise volcanic plateaus and numerous tall peaks of the San Juan Mountains.  The valley itself has been formed by a massive thrust fault, the extent of which is that supposedly some thirteen thousand feet of sediment lie beneath the current top level.  Thus the combined power of water, time and gravity is ably displayed along with the obvious animation of our natal planet.  Thinking of and visualizing our Earth’s geology in four dimensions is a challenging and somewhat mind-warping task.

Finding myself in Saguache Country I took Road GG eastwards from the junction with U.S. 285 and Colorado 17 past Valley View Hot Springs, where clothing-adverse people gambol in the hot waters, and parked the car at the Major Creek Trailhead.  Typical of most hikes in the beloved Sangres, a glimpse to the west produces a fine view of the huge valley and the distant San Juan Mountains.  This I did, admiring the landscape, while the dogs, my two German shepherds Draco and Leah, investigated the local rodent population.  After gathering all the gear and securing the automobile we began to hike along the Major Creek Trail No. 963.  The first half a mile crosses Bureau of Land Management property before entering the San Isabel National Forest.

One of the fascinating things about a Sangres hike is the changing life-zones.  We began in the near desert foothills where pinyon and juniper reign supreme but soon gathered enough elevation to enter the montane forest.  Along the way we passed a few outcroppings of tilted sandstone, a reminder of the incomprehensible forces that had pushed the core range upwards while shunting aside the overlaying sedimentary layers.  A few late season flowers bloomed cheerfully along the path but as I entered the aspen groves I noted that some had already begun to turn their leaves from green to yellow.  An old mine site complete with rail spoke of the desire of some folks to wrest mineral wealth from the mountains.

Two miles of hiking had brought us to the boundary of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.  Progressing onward I encountered a couple of early season, better described as archery and muzzleloading season, hunters, one of whom admonished me to wear some orange.  He even loaned me a an orange slicker although I’m not usually too worried about being mistaken for a deer or elk at the short range needed for those two weapons.  However, if I were hiking extensively off trail I would change my tune.  And you can bet that during rifle season I am blazing away like a jack-o-lantern.  Nonetheless, not wanting to court adversity, I chose to wear the slicker.

The day had begun with a clear sky but the potential for thunderstorms had not yet waned despite the lateness of the Summer season.  Thus, as I ascended the steep drainage to the sub-alpine forests of spruce and fir, the clouds behind me had grown to a disconcerting mass and peals of thunder could be soon heard resonating from slope to slope.  My intent had been to follow the trail up to the crest of the range, where I could peer down onto tributaries of the Arkansas River.  However, climbing up to an exposed ridge during an electrical storm is something that I generally avoid.  The lightening strikes and rumblings of thunder where infrequent enough that I did feel fairly safe resting near the top of treeline.  Over about five miles of hiking the pups and I had climbed some three thousand feet.

After our rest and snack break we hiked back down the trail.  Naturally, as soon as I had descended a short distance the clouds more or less gave way and I thought that perhaps I could have indeed made it up to the unnamed pass.  Oh, well, I thought, maybe next time.  The two hunters had left their camp so I dropped off the slicker where it would be found.  The shepherds and I continued on our trek downwards, the San Luis Valley constantly in sight.  More clouds gathered but for the most part they seemed rather innocuous.  The clouds did occlude the sunlight, a benefit of which was to keep us all cool on the hot lower section.  Looking up at the tilted sandstone I had noted earlier I saw a keyhole in the rock and wondered at the peculiar forces that had formed that oddity of rock.  Further out on the San Luis Valley a light show was being played out.  Holes in the clouds allowed sunlight to streak down in biblical fashion while elsewhere shadows of the clouds could be visibly seen from cloud to floor.

After all the downward trekking the last bit required an ascent out of Major Creek to avoid private property and reach the designated trailhead.  Here I found the two hunters again, just finished loading up their stock.  I explained the disposition of their slicker and we chatted up our mutual love of these mountains.  Locals out of the valley, these two reminded me much of the folks who I lived among on the west side of the Sangres in the upper Huerfano Valley.  One had been a veteran of the Vietnam War but both where what I would call redneck hippies.  I can relate, having lived that lifestyle for a number of years.  I not much of a people person but occasionally I meet folks who leave me with a smile of my face.  As they drove off, I loaded up my gear in my own car and let the dogs jump up.  A fine day we had had, and I drove back contentedly to Gunnison.