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.

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