Sunny Day on Steers Gulch – October 11, 2017

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On the first high point, Steers Gulch Road (BLM 3089/USFS 726); looking east over the Gunnison River towards the very distant Sawatch Range

I live in town, in the City of Gunnison in the State of Colorado, what some folks may consider to be the middle of nowhere but what is actually the heart of the Gunnison Country.  Nowhere is relative.  Sure, amenities may lack compared to a major urban center, but I can get into the wild after a short walk from my back door.  What surprises me after nearly a decade and a half living here is how many opportunities to get out, hike and explore exist within a short five, ten or fifteen minute drive.  What truly stimulates that wandering Jones is finding a new place to explore that lies within those parameters.  Thus, on this day in Twenty-Seventeen I drove out a short distance to the Gunnison State Wildlife Area on Beaver Creek.

Because this area has shared jurisdiction between two Federal agencies as well as the State and County (of Gunnison), determining who is responsible for the road network can be a shade confusing.  One road has a Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and County designation.  I parked along the main access road (which I believe is BLM Road 3228 and might be Gunnison County Road 726) to the state wildlife area near the junction with the Steers Gulch Road.  I’ve used this makeshift trailhead before for a slightly different hike.  Regardless, this road has been denominated 3089 by the Bureau of Land Management while the United States Forest Service has kept the County’s tag 726.  Especially confusing is that the County Road seems to diverge from the main, easily-traversed-by-passenger-vehicle road to the two-track suitable for high-clearance four-wheel-drive machines.

Regardless of the number, the shepherds and I followed this road four miles until it reached Steers Gulch.  A fine sunny day in mid-October, the air was still and the views crystal-clear.  Once we walked up a short distance I could see some forty miles to the Continental Divide, and I felt like I could reach out and touch it.  Well into Autumn, the day was chilly but soon warmed up.  Some frost had precipitated out onto the vegetation overnight and I stopped occasionally to stare at the crystalline formations.  This hike has no shade and is exposed on a south slope, so on this cold day it was a fine place to walk around.  Summertime temperatures would make this same hike a chore.  Except during hunting season, this area receives little human use and I saw nobody during our walk.

We hiked on towards BLM Road 3089c and down into Steers Gulch.  Stopping at the junction with BLM Road 3113, we had by this time gained enough elevation so that we had entered the lower portion of the aspen forest.  Only a few groves in choice locations grow at this relatively low elevation but they and the other deciduous vegetation still retained some of their Autumn color.  Yellow dominates but red hues and a few shades of orange could be discerned.  A bit of snow from an earlier storm lingered in shady areas but with the Sun shining down would soon become deliquescent.  This region is relatively dry and much of the ice sublimates, as well, leaving no moisture in the soil.  As is my usual custom, I found a nice place to sit.  Here I soaked up some of the Sun’s rays and nibbled on a snack, while the dogs gobbled up a mound of kibble.

Sitting here on the southern flank of the West Elk Mountains I could look out and see the City of Gunnison and the great mountain valley, or hole, where Tomichi and Ohio Creeks confluence with the Gunnison River.  The volcanic tablelands rising above me mingle with the uplifted rock and create some interesting geology. This southwest corner of the West Elks are also home to a huge band of elk and while I don’t see any today (I would guess that they were still higher up) I can feel their presence.  In fact, this area is fairly heavily restricted during the Winter and Spring months so that they can graze unimpeded by human presence.  After an hour’s rest the shepherds and I hiked back to the car.  Along the way I didn’t do much more than note some minor topographic details that might be of use in a future hike.  I also gazed out over the world, attempting to recall by rote the names of all the peaks in view.  I would be walking along and think to myself that if I crossed over that ridge I could get to that other drainage, and so forth.

Returning to Beaver Creek, I was taken aback by the gorgeous color of the cottonwood.  There is something about this time of year that I find so stimulating – the cold desiccated air embracing my cheeks, as the natural world prepares itself for the annual sleep that comes with Winter to be followed by the yearly rebirth of Spring… and the cycle goes on.  The sun-drenched slopes both soaking up the warmth and radiating it outward make a cold body feel good.  A salubrious locale on a chilly day, I remember thoroughly enjoying the sense of simply being, each step a footfall of grace in this peaceful place removed from the frantic pace of daily life.

Evening Walk on the Lower Loop Trail System – October 10, 2017

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Mount Crested Butte and Slate River

I gladly left my day of work behind me.  Having brought Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, up to doggy daycare I retrieved them and set out on a short evening walk just north of the town of Crested Butte.  This late in the season I knew that I wouldn’t have much time before darkness overtook us.  Thus one aspect of this hike that I took advantage of was the easy access to the trailhead, barely a quarter mile from town on Gunnison County Road 4.  I parked at the first, southern of two parking lots.  Signage advises using this lot due to the limited parking at the end of the road.  Although I found out that I could have parked there this day I wouldn’t have even bothered to try during the busy Summer season.

I’m not exactly sure who maintains these trails.  Some of the property is land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees much of the land in the western United States.  Some is owned by the Crested Butte Land Trust, and some of the trail seems to be easement through private property.  I made a minimal attempt at searching the internet to find out that information and can only conclude that some sort of collaborative effort between the two aforementioned organizations as well as the Town of Crested Butte has been arranged.  While perusing the ethereal database the typical descriptions that I read about this part of the trail network, for many trails extend well beyond the Lower Loop, were “mellow”, “easy”, “level”, “all skill levels”.  One description said “moderately trafficked” but that seems a bit too sanguine unless using Fifth Avenue as a reference for “heavy”.  This trail is, in my book, heavily used, but can that be any wonder?  Sublime scenery so close to town that nearly anyone can walk or ride out, and most do.  During Summer, nearly everyday someone on my crew name-checks this trail network as what they did before work or will do after.

Departing the trailhead the dogs immediately entwined themselves within the canine spectrum of perception.  I admired the visual aspect of the scenery, and the natural order of things as much as my limited senses of hearing and scent allow.  The scenery is grand, as laccoliths have pushed up seemingly out of the ground, although their formation is a bit more complex than that.  My sense of sight does allow me to appreciate the tapestry of life that graces the topography: the willow growing in masses, grasslands replete with forbs, dense forest of lodgepole pine, spruce in the danker aspects, aspen colonies en mass.  I can hear the birds, and smell the conifer, and the overall sense of being in the mountains pervades.  I, the modern man, despite my proclivity towards the outdoors, have lost, nay, never truly activated much of my ability to sense the world around me.  Still, I have learned much over the years and love to see what grows and lives, thrives and dies, on the Earth.

The hike I took was fairly straightforward.  Walking along the road I had a great view of Slate River, Peanut Lake (including signs warning of toxicity, a relic of the coal mining in the area), Mount Crested Butte, Anthracite Mesa and Gothic Mountain.  At the end of the road I continued on the wide version of the Lower Loop.  There is also a single-track version that parallels the other.  Most of the trail is planted on top of the old Denver and Rio Grande Western narrow-gauge railroad.  Earlier I had walked past “The Gronk”, remnants of an old coal tipple.  This odd-looking concrete structure has earned a place in local lore.  The trail follows the Slate River closely for much of the hike until towards the junction with the Gunsight Road.  A large meadow spreads out there, at the junction, and it is approximately where I ended the hike.  I lingered a bit but as the shadows increased in magnitude I soon restarted my hike in the opposite direction.  The shepherds dutifully followed, or raced ahead, depending on what caught their attention.  We returned to the car just as dusk settled over the region, filling the sky with the softer palette of colors found at crepuscular light.  The dogs had been stimulated all day, running around with the pack, and had now worked off their energy in a positive way.  The same might be said about me!

Snowy Day at Cooper Ranch – October 09, 2017

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The Gunnison River at Cooper Ranch

Cooper Ranch is a part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area.  When the Gunnison River was inundated, this parcel of land was initially spared the eminent domain condemnation of private property below this point.  My understanding is that although the stilled waters never reach this land the ice flowing downstream would back up.  Thus the owners compelled the Federal Government to purchase the land.  The NRA was formed to promote recreation.  At Cooper Ranch there are two small trails leading from the lower parking area.  The upper parking area connects with the eastern most of the two trails.  It is a very short hike leading to a small bluff that overlooks the Gunnison River.  On a clear day, which is most of the time but not on this day, there are some nice views of the Elk Mountains, Fossil Ridge and the Sawatch Range, the latter forming the Great Divide.

The western trail leads off about a quarter of a mile and ends at some benches.  A fisherman-trail continues a short way.  The National Park Service oversees this area and has set up about eight picnic table with fire pits.  I have used this area often, finding it a great place for a cookout.  Many of the tables are riverside and all are under towering cottonwood.  I sometimes bring the pups out here to walk them but generally I don’t take snapshots.  Nonetheless, it is one of my favorite respites from the perils of civilization.  A great place for being outside in early spring when the going is tough all over.  Aspen may get the raves, but one year the cottonwood here along the Gunnison River set up a wall of yellow that I have never seen equaled.  If I’m seen with an awkward smile on my face and a far away look replete with a welling of tears its likely that that glowing image is being replayed in my mind.

Cooper Ranch is only four or five miles west of my home in Gunnison, Colorado.  It is very popular with fly-fishermen during the Summer season but can be busy on all but the worst weather days, or during the depth of Winter.  Especially after work many locals zip on out to cast a line for the trout.  On this snowy day I found myself alone but tracks in the snow indicated that some other intrepid soul had found there way outside on this blustery Autumn day.  In Summer the pups enjoy the cool waters of the Gunnison River but today showed not inclination to enter.  In retrospect, I’m not sure why I brought the camera along on this day, except maybe a conscious recognition that I don’t take too many photos of the nearby walks I frequently, and without any real preparation, take.

To say the least, Draco and Leah thoroughly enjoy themselves here.  A cookout might mean some tethered-up tedium while I enjoy my steak and beer but they are always compensated with a bone upon which they gnaw ceaselessly.  Those cookouts are always anteceded or followed by a walk.  Squirrels chattering overhead or chipmunks scurrying on the trail provide canine stimulus.  The fresh snow did not exclude such rodent activity and the canines were excited.  The snow soaks up sound and thus the traffic on nearby U.S. 50 I could barely hear.  A fine little outing in a place I have come to appreciate over the years.

Chalk Creek Pass, Out and Back – October 07, 2017

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Near the headwaters of the Middle Fork South Arkansas River, looking downstream; Mount Aetna to the left and Mount Ouray in the distance

I had some unfinished business to attend to.  For years, nay, three decades, I had been driving by on U.S. 50 through the town of Garfield wondering where this particular little access road led off to.  Of course, I always had an excuse not to stop, usually filed under “making time”, or mileage anyhow.  Other times I was more curious about some other nearby obscure or obvious trailhead.  Finally, in the last couple of years, I began to explore this somewhat hidden access.  As I write this I recall that part of my inhibition exploring this route was due to private property issues.  One day I gathered courage and pulled off the highway to finally figure it out, steeling myself for the inevitable opprobrium and scrutiny that comes with overt trespassing.  To my delight I found that no direct conflict would occur as there was a very legal and unimpeachable right to access here.

That day I hiked up about a quarter or half a mile or so before the snows overwhelmed any desire to continue afoot.  But I had solved the dilemma of access and parking.  Now knowing my way around, I tried to hike up the road again in late Spring but had found deep snow towards the end of the road.  Plenty of wildflowers where abloom but I had hoped to hike up towards Chalk Creek Pass two miles beyond.  Thus this day in early October I determined to quench my curiosity by imbibing a large quaff of heady exploration.  Some snow had fallen in the region within the last week or two but I concluded that it wouldn’t hinder a simple hike along a well-trod path.  In keeping with recent tradition I had risen with indifference to time, fired up a quart of hot black coffee, enjoyed a hot breakfast of my own creation, typed away at a blog post and basically enjoyed an indolent morning of dilettantism before finally hoisting my rear-end up and out the door.

As is their accustomed wont the two German shepherds, Draco and Leah, excitedly loaded up in the old Subaru and gaily stuck their heads out the windows as we cruised east out of Gunnison, Colorado, via U.S. 50.  To get to Garfield from Gunnison involves crossing Monarch Pass, through the southern part of the Sawatch Range.  Doing so took me from the Pacific to the Atlantic drainage.  At Garfield I pulled off the road, gratefully, and parked on what I believe is an old alignment of the highway.  Crossing the Great Divide means locally that I also left the Gunnison National Forest for the San Isabel National Forest.  Gunnison County was exchanged for Chaffee.  Once we were ready, I led the pups up San Isabel National Forest Road 230.  This road neatly follows the Middle Fork South Arkansas River until the road ends some three miles up.

Hiking on roads isn’t my favorite thing but as this road dead-ends and is furthermore usable only by the truly intrepid I had not too many complaints.  Besides, this late in the season the crowds had been long gone.  Besides a limited amount of private property the main attraction on this road are the two trailheads that allow access to the Continental Divide Trail.  The first trailhead allows access to the south.  The trail formerly was routed over the road, but has been since realigned further up the slope.  The reroute doesn’t show up on my map and adds elevation and distance to a hike.  I followed the road since the vehicular traffic was light.  The first distance, nearly two miles, of the road passes through a green tunnel with minimal views but with a few tantalizing hints at what might be found further up.  After my initial snapshot at the road’s beginning I didn’t take another until above this trailhead where Mount Aetna rises up with stunningly surreal abruptness.

Below this point the dense sub-alpine forest dominates the scene.  Above this vista the glaciers had created areas where meadows could flourish and thus openness becomes more common.  I remember these meadows flush with Marsh Marigolds and Globeflowers, but now all had become dormant for the oncoming Winter.  On such a gorgeous Autumn day the blue sky, green forest and earth tones combined with the golden cured vegetation to create a fine ambiance.  While a few vehicles had been parked at the lower trailhead nobody had driven up to park at the second trailhead where San Isabel National Forest Trail 1422 begins.  This trail leads up and over Chalk Creek Pass and to Hancock Lake.  Thus the other name is the Hancock Lake Trail.

Part of the Continental Divide Trail, this route is therefore closed to all use but foot and equestrian.  It also receives a bigger helping of the maintenance budget than other trails and thus the blow down had been sawed through and a easy pace could be made without being interrupted by tedious detours around fallen logs. Leaving the trailhead and road behind the shepherds and I continued up the trail.  The forest thinned and fantastic views of the Great Divide presented themselves.  A number of small, unnamed lakes added to the salubrious nature of the hike.  By now the Middle Fork South Arkansas River swung from a westerly course, looking upstream, to one trending more northward, paralleling the divide.  To the west rose Clover and Vulcan Mountains, and my personal favorite Monumental Peak.  The trail is fairly level throughout the first mile or so and I kept on cruising up to the pass.

Towards the upper end of the small valley a small rise leads up to another set of unnamed lakes.  Once upon the lip I could see the pass a short distance ahead and also had grand views of the valley looking downstream.  The trail passes up against the eastern wall of the valley where a field of talus has fallen to the valley floor.  As we began the last steep to the pass the trees fell away in earnest and as the summit approached treeline denoted the oncoming alpine tundra.  I felt blessed to have such a warm and sunny day to visit this pass.  There is no shade here but this late in the year I was plenty happy to soak up the rays.  I found a nice rock to sit on and enjoyed the expansive views to the north, a whole lotta Sawatch Range, where a long line of mountains arched over the valley below.

Chalk Creek Pass doesn’t allow access between the two sides of the Continental Divide but rather lies just east of that topographic feature.  The pass I sat on divides two forks of the Arkansas River, Chalk Creek being a major prong in all but name.  Although I found myself in the hall of satisfaction the shepherds began to grow restless and somewhat warm.  After we had consumed our victuals and rested a bit I led the pups back down to the upper lakes where they could quench their thirst.  The hike back was a fine walk through meadow, willow and ultimately much forest.  Some of the forest has been affected by the beetle epidemic that has afflicted other areas with much more devastating effect.  However, this forest, blessedly and for the time being, has remained mostly verdant and for that I am grateful.

On the hike back down-valley I decided to walk along the rerouted Continental Divide Trail.  This reroute exists in two sections.  The upper section more or less parallels the road and I found this a fine walk, one that would be especially pleasing should vehicular traffic be heavy.  Along the way I saw some bristlecone pines, whose elder status in the forest cannot be denied.  These trees I always find inspiring.  The lower section I found much less to my liking.  I am not opposed to switchbacks, and generally enjoy the pace set when employed.  However, I didn’t care at all for the minimal grade set on this reroute.  It couldn’t have been much more than one or two percent along much of the trail.  The upper switchbacks were particularly interminable as I walked along for hundreds of feet looking up at the next ledge wondering why the trail just didn’t get to the point.  To separate the trail from the road a cliff band had to be avoided, and that is fine but I believe that this reroute adds too much unnecessary mileage to compensate for avoidance of the road.  I might change my tune during the busy Summer season but next time I’ll stick to the road.

Reaching the road I crossed it to hike a further short distance of the Continental Divide Trail.  Reaching the lower of the two trailhead on this forest road I veered off to take a gander at the bridge the trail uses to cross the river.  I thought briefly of heading on up to Boss Lake Reservoir but decided to finish the hike and return home to Gunnison.  My elder canine, Lady Dog, had patiently been waiting for our return the entire time, although I’m sure much of that had been spent gnawing on the bone I had left her.  Nonetheless, I would have felt it improper to leave her much long than I already had.  Thus the shepherds and I walked quickly down the road to the waiting car.  An especially fine day we had enjoyed just below the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

Tour de Garfield Peak – October 06, 2017

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Looking from Peeler Basin to Redwell Basin while hiking on the Daisy Pass Trail No. 404

This loop hike I have done before at least once in the opposite direction, and I have trod over the various trails in a number of combinations that over the years have added up to a series of wonderful (and I use that word not lightly) hikes.  I’m calling this particular trek the Tour de Garfield Peak simply because I walked around that large but inconspicuous mountain.  A very small portion of this trek is on Bureau of Land Management property regulated by the Gunnison Field Office but most of it was on land managed by the Gunnison National Forest.  A significant portion of it fell within the Raggeds Wilderness.  A very popular hike during the Summer I didn’t see a soul on this blustery day towards the end of the hiking season.  In fact, I was a bit doubtful on whether or not I could actually cross over Starr Pass due to accumulated snow.

I made a late start from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, having enjoyed the morning typing on the computer while imbibing hot black coffee.  I didn’t reach my makeshift trailhead above the town of Crested Butte until nearly a half past eleven ante meridiem.  The nitty-gritty:  I drove north on Colorado 135 along the Colorado, East and Slate Rivers until the state maintenance ends at Crested Butte.  Commencing through town on Sixth Street I exited at Gunnison County Road 347, which leads up to the ski resort.  I drove along another mile or so before turning off onto Gunnison County Road 734 (also known as the Slate River Road) which parallels the Slate River.  Driving up that road a number of miles I turned off into the parking lot near the Gunsight Pass Road.

The only real problem I have with this hike is the trespassing-and-fence-hopping versus busy-county-road-walking conundrum I faced.  Note relishing the one I despise the other.  Gritting my teeth I opted to walk along the road since the private land (which most people treat as public since no one lives on it) now has strands of barbed wire interposed between the parking lot and the Oh-be-joyful Campground, the latter being where I wanted to go.  Active effort to reclaim mine waste continues on this land, as well, and I didn’t want to upset any real effort to clean the land of past damage.  The walk up the road was uneventful and only constituted a mile or less of minimal annoyance.  Might as well get the crappy part done first, I thought to myself each time a car whizzed by kicking up a cloud of dust.  This walk would be miserable and untenable during the height of busy Summer but was fairly tolerable during this shoulder season.

I beat a hasty path down a user-created or cattle trail that short cuts the distance from the Slate Creek Road to the spur road leading down to the campground.  This is a fine place to camp but located so close to an iconic tourist town has become heavily used.  Until very recently it was fairly unregulated but now there are designated sites, fees and law enforcement.  Good luck finding a spot in July.  Crossing Slate River I marveled at the limited amount of water compared to the potential capacity to hold the Spring runoff.  I love the river bed in this area, I have to say, as odd as that sounds, but it is composed of homogeneous cobbles of the most scenic sort.  Hopping across the river I kept my feet dry and then walked through the campground’s far side until I reached the end of the road.

When the Bureau of Land Management built-up the campground they, along with the Forest Service, closed the last mile of road that lead up Oh-Be-Joyful Creek.  The old road is now part of the Oh-Be-Joyful Trail No. 836 (or No. 406, depending on which map is referenced).  The hike up the old two-track includes a nice view of the creek below and a couple of small cascades.  Just above the old road’s former end the boundary to the Raggeds Wilderness separates the bipedal from the wheeled.  Quadrupeds are welcome, whether companion canines or riders on equine-back.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, accompanied me on this hike, as is their usual habit.  To the south, across the creek, I could see where the waters from Redwell basin tumble down.  If all went according to plan I would, in a few hours, find myself crossing those waters higher up.

A fine view of Oh-be-Joyful Creek’s watershed is had the entire hike up the trail.  From the debris scattered about it is obvious that avalanches run through here with regularity.  Only a skiff of snow coated the high country at this point in time but nonetheless I kept looking up the steep sides of the valley with a slight touch of paranoia.  The head of the valley ends along the Ruby Range.  Laccoliths having pushed between layers of formerly horizontal sedimentary rock, much of the surrounding mountains are tilted strata pitched at improbable angles.  What makes this even more amazing to me is that supposedly these layers are composed of the ancestral Rocky Mountains, risen and eroded eons before the current mountains where even born.  I love this hike, and as we climbed further up the valley I begin to feel a certain giddiness that verges on joyous rapture.  Thus, perhaps, the origin of this creek’s name.  At one point I stopped and looked at all the named topographic features that I could see:  Schuykill and Richmond Mountains; Hancock, Oh-Be-Joyful, Afley, Purple and Peeler Peaks; Dippold, Democrat and Little Silver Basins; Mount Owen; and behind me, down Oh-Be-Joyful Creek, Anthracite Mesa.  Huzzah!

At the junction with the Daisy Pass Trail No. 404 I continued to the south, as the shepherds followed or lead, depending on their whim of the moment.  About a half a mile to the south lies Blue Lake nestled in a cranny below the summit of Purple Peak.  Just east of the peak runs a massive headwall that commanded my attention as we hiked along.  At about this same time I also gained a view of Starr Pass just below Garfield Peak.  A steep hike up would be more challenging with a light layer of slick snow.  I ignored that data for the moment and decided on at least making the fairly easy climb up to the lake.  This we did, noting along the way the unsigned junction with the spur trail.  The spur trail is heavily used, while the main trail gets little use above the lake junction.  I found a nice place to sit and ate a snack while the shepherds munched kibble.  We explored the lake shore a bit but the winds had kicked up sufficiently to create a less-than-ideal repose.  Today at least, Gray Lake would be a better name.  I contemplated my desire for the day and decided to attempt the hike up the pass.

Hiking up the trail, I recognized the danger I faced.  The trail has been cleverly built to reside at the angle of repose.  During the Summer I have found this trail difficult enough what with rolling pebbles underfoot.  But it sure is one of the most beautiful wildflower locations ever.  Anyhow, judging from what I saw elsewhere I suspected that the other, northern side (and thus south-faced) would be relatively snow free.  Hiking up I was pleased to find that the snow somehow didn’t slide as easily as I at first feared.  The dogs, engaging four-paw overdrive, practically raced up the trail while I carefully planted each foot in a puddle of traction before taking another step lest I should slip and plunge ass-first back down the way I had come.  Besides the real implications of falling, and probably not being found till next Spring, I also didn’t want to be a candidate for someone’s funniest home video entry.

The last few switchbacks tested my nerves and I might have done a little jig upon reaching the relative safety of the pass.  I have three maps at hand as I write this but I can’t find the appellation Starr Pass on any of them.  Yet I am sure that that name is applicable.  Confusing the situation is that there is a Star Pass further to the east and is a well known route between Crested Butte and Aspen.  This pass where I now stood against the gusts might be called Star as well, but I add the extra “r” to differentiate between the two, at least for my own internal use.  Standing there looking down into Peeler Basin and across the Scarp’s Ridge gave another view of the uplifted strata, and again I could appreciate if not truly understand the magnitude of the forces at play.  These mountains don’t care about names or my very survival, I reminded myself as I began the trek down the somewhat less dangerous declivity now before me.

I hiked down another mile or so until I found a nice bare patch where I could sit once again but this time out of the wind.  The other bonus at this point was that the Sun emerged from behind the gray overcast sky and I was able to soak up some of the luxurious rays before they were blotted out.  Most maps show a spur trail leading over to Upper Peeler Lakes but I have yet found this trail despite repeated attempts to establish it veracity.  A fairly easy bushwhack can be made to reach them, but I declined on this day and continued on towards Redwell Basin.  I was now on top of the cascade I had seen earlier.  Redwell Basin was home to the Daisy Mine and much acid mine drainage emits from the old works.  Remediation by the state and federal governments is ongoing but I always marvel at the attitude of mining executives when complaining about the lack of public support for new mines.  Maybe if they cleaned up their old messes first?  You know, the ones that have been spewing toxic orange sludge for a century.

Keeping the dogs in close heel, so that they wouldn’t drink any contaminated water or slice open a paw on some rusty metal chunk, we began the descent along the Gunsight Pass Road.  This road is also Gunnison National Forest Road 585, and is a popular four-wheel drive road during the Summer.  I may have seen one or two vehicles today, but whatever use there was was light.  Due to my late start the day had become slightly dark by the time I arrived back at the car sometime half past six.  This last bit of road runs down along so many switchbacks that what looks like two miles is actually four.  Some fantastic views of the Slate River valley below and Anthracite Mesa beyond presented themselves to me.  Once reaching the Slate River itself we crossed over the old railroad bridge that is now part of the greater trail network that emanates north from Crested Butte.  I stopped taking snapshots about a two miles out from the hike’s end but I can’t remember why.  Was it too dark?  Did I run out of batteries?  Lazy indifference?  Too bad regardless as a photograph of the bridge would have been a nice coda to this hike.  But it doesn’t matter, the dogs and I had had a mini-epic day traipsing around Oh-be-Joyful Creek and Peeler Basin.  The Ruby Range, an off-shoot of the Elk Mountains, proved again to be a scenic wonderland and I drove home physically on the state highway while my emotional state sailed along on cloud nine.

Hiking on Bureau of Land Management Road 3018 – October 04, 2017

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Maybe Trout Creek, but possibly not; regardless, somewhere along Bureau of Land Management Road 3018

Having a scheduled shift at work later in the evening left me with plenty of time in the morning to make a short hike on some relatively obscure Bureau of Land Management property (Gunnison Field Office) that is part of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River drainage.  For a number of years I had been repeatedly driving by BLM Road 3018 just off Colorado 149.  Today I decided that I could take the time to get out and explore this region of rolling sagebrush mixed with ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and aspen.  Having made this hike a year ago some of the details have been lost to me, but I also remember that I went without a proper topographic map of the area and thus found it challenging at times to chart my progress and location.  Just prior to writing this blog installment I was juggling three maps attempting to reconcile the topographic aspects with the roads and other data.

Parking just off the paved highway, I let the dogs out of the car so that they could run amok while I gathered my gear.  I remember this day as a classic Autumn day, clear and crisp, sunny sky stretching out to the horizon and naught to do but draw in each scintillating breath one after another as I puffed up the first grade.  BLM Road 3018 follows a small unnamed gully that lies between Trout Creek to the north and Skunk Creek to the south.  I certainly enjoyed the wide open ponderosa parks, where large trees grow with minimal undergrowth.  Because of my own time limitations but also due to the patchwork nature of land ownership I decided to hike out only the two miles or so until the road ended at the base of a small hill.  I didn’t really want to accidentally stumble onto somebody’s private property so I made sure not to leave the road very far or cross any fences.

I don’t usually like to give out data in the form of land classification but it seems in this case to be the best way.  Near where the road ends I had a find view of Trout Creek.  I found a perch upon which to repose for a time, munching some snacks and contemplating the view.  To the west rose Willow Creek Mesa while my southern view was dominated by Calf Creek and Cannibal Plateau.  That latter name is derived from the unsavory incident nearby where miners devoured one another after becoming stranded.  Thus the only conviction in the United States on charges of cannibalism.  Regardless, I found my self in the southeast 1/4 of the southwest 1/4 of section 29 range 3 west township 46 north New Mexico prime meridian.  This odd system of land demarcation dates from the late Eighteenth Century so if it seems confusing it is.

After our repose on the hilltop we headed back to the car.  I noted many of the nearby topographic landmarks that I could see.  To wit:  the very distant West Elk Mountains to the north, and the nearby Willow Creek Mesa and Alpine Plateau, the latter two of which rise to the west of the Lake Fork Gunnison River.  I also noted The Gate, a layer of extrusive igneous rock, probably a basalt or rhyolite, that has had a notch carved from it by the Lake Fork Gunnison River.  This hike treated me well, but it was a long drive for a fairly short hike.  There are numerous other potential hikes in the area but care needs to be taken relative to property boundaries.  This area doesn’t offer wilderness, strictly speaking, but doesn’t receive much use outside of hunting season.  There is plenty of potential for a very quiet time.  The elevations in the area hover around nine thousand feet, so its also not the alpine wonderland so many people seek out.  Its just nice country, a quiet place where the wild things live.

 

Cottonwood Creek and Cuba Gulch – September 30, 2017

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Cliffs and eminences rising above Cottonwood Creek on a rainy day in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado

The clouds had been building up over the region for the last few days and on this day reached their precipitous crescendo.  Undeterred, and abetted by the relative warmth near my home in Gunnison, I pushed on with my plan to hike in the San Juan Mountains above Lake City, Colorado.  The latter municipality is the county seat for Hinsdale County which some group recently deemed the most remote county in the Lower Forty-Eight.  I’m not entirely sure of the validity of their matrix but it is fairly common knowledge that plenty of opportunities to explore the backcountry exist.  This area is also well known for precipitation, and while I hoped for clear skies the looming clouds obscuring the summits suggested that I was in for a damp hike.

Since the drive down Colorado 149 takes an hour or so I had plenty of time to fidget and worry over the weather.  While I have an affinity for my canine companions I am somewhat feline-like in my aversion to a soaking.  Still, rain or not, the beauty of the area drew me onward.  I paused at the Lake City Bakery and refilled my mug with hot coffee.  I may have also bought an obscene amount of pastries, some sweet, others savory, to help fortitude against my wavering inclination for beginning this hike.  Pastry in hand, sipping liquid invigoration, I drove south of Lake City and onto Hinsdale County Road 3.  On past Lake San Cristobal, following the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River until the confluence with Cottonwood Creek.

The road also forks, and I took Bureau of Land Management Road 3309 a short distance to the Cataract Gulch Trailhead.  There I parked the car in an empty lot.  I let Draco and Leah out and they immediately investigated odoriferous objects while I gathered my wits and donned rain gear.  We walked over to Cottonwood Creek and the pups lapped up some water.  Then we began to hike, but not up the scenic Cataract Gulch Trail.  Instead, we followed the BLM road which soon turned into a two-track.  Deep in the San Juan Mountains, Cottonwood Creek has steep cliffs on either side, occasionally punctuated by a deeply notched gully.  The clouds held the rain at bay and the cloud cover kept the temperatures moderate.  The aspen forests where all in the middle of their annual change and therefore the leaves were a striking combination of yellow and green.  Even under the clouds, walking through the groves was akin to passing through a glowing tunnel.

As I approached Cuba Gulch it quickly became obvious that rain was coming my way.  The tall peaks were shrouded in deep clouds, and the cloak of mist ran down into the higher gullies.  Wetness glistened off every rocky surface, and snow could be barely discerned when a cloud lifted off enough to expose a high slope.  Rounding a corner I came across a fine view upvalley, where a large triangular mass of rocks looms over the willow-filled valley below.  Snow dusted the higher reaches.  Wet it may be, I thought to myself, but strikingly gorgeous as well.  I enjoyed the mile or so of hiking where I could gaze up at this and the surrounding misty mountains.  At the base of this monolith, which is a shoulder of Point 12861, Cottonwood Creek forks.  The west fork is called Snare Creek and the southern Cuba Gulch.  The road also ends here, and all further travel must be by foot or hoof as this part of the mountains has been included in the Handies Peak Wilderness Study Area.

I crossed over Snare Creek via a log bridge.  We then began to hike up into Cuba Gulch itself.  After a short climb, we crossed another bridge.  This one closed the gap over a narrow but deep trench carved into the rock that carries the waters of Cuba Gulch.  The forest in this area grows dense and seemed especially dark and foreboding on such an overcast day.  We kept hiking up until we reached the first fork.  This unnamed eastern fork is represented on some maps as having a trail along its route and finding this trail was my goal.  Alas, I did not locate it at all and was reminded that some maps omit this trail.  But by the time I reached the purported junction the snow had begun to collect on the ground and obscured many features of the Cuba Gulch Trail.

Somewhere along the way, incidentally, just above the cataract on Cuba Gulch, the dogs and I entered the Gunnison National Forest.  From time to time the snow came down in flurries, and after hiking a short distance above the unnamed gulch I decided to turn around.  Occasionally, I had exited the forest but couldn’t really see upstream very well because of the pervading mist.  The moisture really brought out the forest scent and each inhalation proved pleasing.  After finding a relatively dry place to sit for a spell, I munched down one of the pastries I had hauled up.  The snowy day soaked up the sound, and at times the only thing audible was the soft pffft of landing snowflakes.  We hiked back down the trail to the parking lot adjacent to the Cuba Gulch Trailhead.  Studying the map, I realized that I had stumbled into an unexplored (for me) corner of the Gunnison Country.  I made a mental note to include this area in future hikes.

An old mining road leads up Snare Creek, but beyond signage indicating closure to motor vehicles it is difficult to tell if the resulting trail is maintained or not.  Most maps show it extant, crossing a high summit above.  I suspect the latter, but nonetheless also felt an allure to explore.  Anyhow, I led the dogs up a short distance, not in excess of half a mile, until I gained a fine view of Cottonwood Creek below.  I noted that Snare Creek itself seemed like a good place to explore, but would also have to let that wait for another day.  At this point the rain began to come in earnest, and I packed up my camera and pulled the hood over my head down tight.  I was surprised by the number of people I saw driving up and down BLM Road 3309 in their jeeps.  Some of them had even gotten out to hike up the Cuba Gulch Trail a bit.  In the last half a mile the clouds suddenly parted despite any hint that the rain would soon stop.  Sunlight bathed the glistening mountains and yellowed aspen forest.  Thus, my hike ended on a literal and figurative bright note, and the dogs and I rolled back home windows down and contented.