Hunting season, that is, big game rifle season, was in full swing in mid-November, and not wanting to incur wrath from those whose hunt I might spoil I decided that this would be a great day to take the shepherds, Draco and Leah, to walk on a few trails within Curecanti National Recreation Area. Although some hunting and certainly fishing are allowed big game hunting is not, and in my mind that makes it a slightly safer place to take my two coyote-colored dogs out and about. The area is managed by the National Park Service, although, oddly, it isn’t a National Park unit. The Gunnison River had been dam(n)ed and subsequently inundated by a series of three different reservoirs, the crown jewel, so to speak, of which is Blue Mesa Reservoir. All of them lie west of my home in Gunnison, Colorado and can be accessed by U.S. 50 and Colorado 92.
The first hike I led the shepherds along starts near the middle bridge, which crosses the main stem of what used to be the Gunnison River, on U.S. 50, and the trailhead sits about twenty miles west of town. At first skirting Blue Mesa Reservoir the trail leads up to the Dillon Pinnacles, nee Sapinero Needles, that have been carved from the West Elk breccia that has created a number of similar geologic oddities throughout the West Elk Mountains. Well maintained, this trail has been engineered and maintained with the general public in mind. There are numerous informational signs along the route that explain the forming of these particular mountains and their associated geology. At the end of the trail a short loop leads to a bench where a fine view of the pinnacles and reservoir exists.
Near the loop a game/user trail leads up to an obvious saddle that leads over to West Elk Creek. I followed this trail about half the distance to the saddle and instead walked up to the base of the pinnacles where I could have a closeup view of the formations. Here I stared for a time at the jagged rock suspended in a matrix of fine ash, marveling at the forces that created this landscape. The dogs and I returned to the loop and I directed the pack over to the bench where I chose to sit and eat a snack while taking in the view. We walked back towards the car after our short break, the dogs contentedly investigating rodent activity while I admired my favorite species of tree, the ponderosa pine. Near where the trail closes in with the shoreline I took the dogs down to a beach and I spent ten to fifteen minutes throwing some poor hapless stick into the cold waters for the shepherds to recover and chew on.
Returning to the waiting automobile I continued west on U.S. 50 until I reached the junction with Colorado 92. Turning onto that state highway led us across the dam and onto Pioneer Point where the trailhead for the Curecanti Trail sits patiently for users. The Park Service has established a nice picnic area here and some of the overlooks are truly breathtaking. Of course, I admired the numerous large ponderosa pine spaced around the picnic tables. This trail would constitute our major hike of the day, so off we went following a number of switchbacks that lead down to a bridge that crosses over Curecanti Creek. This bridge crosses a narrow chasm about thirty feet deep and wide. Not too far down a small campsite sits in a nice meadow on the bank of the creek. We explored here briefly before continuing on. The trail then descends steeply, mostly as a nice path but sometimes requiring clambering over large boulders, before reaching another bridge just above the Morrow Point Reservoir. At the small beach underneath the towering granitic ramparts I through a stick into the water for the pups to fetch while I studied the surroundings.
There is stunning silence here, and echoes rebound off the walls in a most amusing fashion, but I always imagine the rushing river that used to carry the waters prior to the construction of the Morrow Point Dam. Up until the mid-Nineteen Fifties the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad used to run a narrow-gauge train along the banks of the river. Some color footage of those operations exists, and I can only heave a sigh out my lungs when I think of what has been lost. We began our hike back up the creek, and looking up at Pioneer Point I could see the railings of the overlook atop the sheer cliff. I hoped that anybody up there respected the signs admonishing the public not to chuck rocks and such over the cliff. After our rest we hiked back up to the top of the canyon and hopped into the car once again. We retreated east on Colorado 92, back over the dam and to the junction with U.S. 50. There I turned to the right heading westbound for about a mile and change until I turned off onto the road that leads down to service the base of Blue Mesa Dam. Of course, the public is prohibited from driving to the dam itself and access terminates at the parking lot where the trailhead for the Pine Creek Trail begins.
Pine Creek drains the eastern side of Blue Mesa and the western side of Pine Creek Mesa. Like the previous trail, Pine Creek Trail enters the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. This trail is much steeper, however, and a number of stairs have been built to allow access. Pine Creek enters the Gunnison River about a half a mile below the dam, and here the waters run free so that rapids exist and a sense of what the entire Black Canyon must have felt like can be had here. Once we descended the stairs we followed the trail along the old rail bed. About a half-mile downstream the river is stilled again by the Morrow Point Reservoir. Here, during Summer, the Park Service offers boat tours of the Morrow Point Reservoir, but I led the dogs downstream until the bed entered the water. I rested here, and took in the intense geology of the area. Great dykes of intruded quartz demonstrated the immense, and truly unfathomable, pressures that are created over the millennia thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface. Finishing the day, the dogs and I hiked back along the old bed, the dogs’ noses to the ground and their minds in the here-and-now, while I scanned the bed with my eyes imagining the days-gone-by. After a time we came back to the stairs and these we ascended. Draco has some issues with exposed stairs and took some coaxing to get up, but we had no real problems to contend with. A fine Autumn day was had by all. A bit dark and cloudy but nonetheless another fine day exploring the outdoors!