Tour de Garfield Peak – October 06, 2017


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.

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