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.