A blustery Autumn day awaited. Two days prior I had explored the relatively nearby northeastern portion of the West Elk Wilderness. On this day I decided to leave the confines of the Gunnison Country and drove out to the west side of this wilderness area. I had accessed this trailhead one time prior only, due to its distance from my home in Gunnison, Colorado. First I drove west on U.S. 50 twenty-five miles to the junction with Colorado 92. Then another 35 miles to the town of Crawford, which took about an hour due to the low speed limit and twisting curves over much of Colorado 92’s route. A slow but scenic drive with continuous views of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. At Crawford I turned to the east on Delta County E.50 Drive which is paved at first but then transitions into a well-maintained gravel road. Six miles or so brought me back to Gunnison County, oddly enough. The Forest Service designates this road as Gunnison National Forest Road 712, and the county uses the same control number on its portion.
Road 712 ends at a small inholding of private property just past the junction with Road 814. At this junction is ample parking, and this I took advantage of due to the rutted nature of the latter road. I would rather walk than drive over the tortured two-track. This area is also the forks of the Smith Fork, where the northern and southern tines diverge. I had risen early and the shepherds and I started our hike at quarter to seven. I let the dogs run amok for a bit as they worked off their pent up energy from the drive. We began our hike and I kept the dogs close so as not to surprise any critter that might be out. This area gets quite a bit of rain and snow and I noted the dense shrubbery as we hiked up the road to a small spur road that leads down to the trailhead. Looking up I saw the clouds catching the morning light from the dawn, an orange hued morning spectacular. Tater Heap, a small peak the silhouette of which I now gazed at and which does resemble its name, rose dark against the bright sky.
There are ample opportunities here at the trailhead for dispersed camping, and the usual signs admonishing adherence to the regulations relating to wilderness use announce the trailhead. The actual wilderness boundary denoting the legislated West Elk Wilderness lies some mile and a half or so up the trail but no motorized use is allowed on the trails regardless. The dogs and I crossed South Smith Fork with relative ease during this low-water time of year, but this crossing would be nigh impossible during Spring runoff. I’ve never seen it but judging by the wide bed an immense volume of water must flow from time to time. On the far side we immediately came upon a trail junction. I decided to Follow the Sink Creek Trail No. 861 instead of the Throughline Trail No. 860. I contemplated making a loop hike via the Lone Pine Trail No. 862 but decided against it due to time constraints. My elder dog remained at home and with four hours minimum driving time, I decided on only four hours of hiking versus eight.
This trail is fairly easy to follow and well maintained, a minimum of blowdowns blocking the route. Most of the hike up the aforementioned junction with the Lone Pine Trail No. 862 is concomitant with a surprisingly dense aspen forest that bespeaks of the relative warmth and large amount of precipitation that combines on the west side of the West Elk Mountains. The day had started out sort of gloomy and grey, but whenever the Sun emerged from behind a cloud the colors shone with a joyful satisfaction. Looking up at Tater Heap provided a tapestry of Autumnal color that positively radiated. Likewise walking through some of the aspen forest felt as if I had entered a world of glowing yellow. The trail rises from South Smith Fork and then crosses into Sink Creek, which at this point ran dry but looks too as if it could hold an amazingly large capacity of water flow.
Just before the trail junction the path enters a large meadow that allows views up and down Sink Creek. This meadow has stupendous views of Mount Guero and the upper reaches of Sink Creek. A small amount of water flowed here. The grasses grew nonetheless lushly, and narrow spruce dotted the hillsides ready to shed the Winter’s snow. I wandered up to a small knoll that seemed like it would provide a good view of the surrounding area, and here I soaked up the Sun when I could and shivered a bit whenever the clouds obscured the warming rays. The view to the west is nothing short of spectacular, the Uncompahgre Plateau delimiting the horizon beyond the vast valley where the Uncompahgre and Gunnison Rivers merge. A sheet of clouds extended out beyond sight and I soaked in the special feeling I get during this time of year.
I began to worry about Lady Dog and decided to begin our trek back to the car where the inevitable drive awaited. The trek down naturally took less time than hiking up but either way I felt as if I walked upon the clouds that sailed above, such was my exaltation at the glorious Fall colors. I took a little time to explore portions of the South Smith Fork just upstream of the trail crossing. Nobody else used this trailhead on the day I visited, and that just added to the special feeling I get from this area. Once I had crossed South Smith Fork I explored a meadow near the trailhead, and couldn’t help but sit and enjoy the moment. This was a fine place fore repose and I stared off into the woods for a bit of meditation and contemplation. I had had a fine visit, and could have stayed longer but was glad to get back home and let the elder dog outside. I eagerly await another visit to this area, perhaps to complete the loop hike around Tater Heap.