Three Trailheads at Curecanti National Recreation Area – November 16, 2017

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Curecanti Creek near its end in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

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!

West Elk Creek Via Lion Gulch Trail No. 536 – November 14, 2017

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Looking down into West Elk Creek, a remote valley in the West Elk Wilderness

Mid-November found the German shepherds and I out and about on Lion Gulch on the south side of the West Elk Mountains.  Having a day off, I had no reason to worry about having to rush myself.  We drove out west from home in Gunnison, Colorado, on U.S. 50 and into Curecanti National Recreation Area.  At the Red Creek Road we left the pavement and drove a few miles up a bewildering patchwork of federal and state land agencies’ property.  It is difficult to know whether I was on land managed by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management or Colorado Parks and Wildlife.  The confusion, albeit of the academic sort, was lessened somewhat once we crossed over the boundary of the National Forest, where all the land is managed by the Forest Service.  The Forest Service has designated the road with the number 723, and generally it is well maintained and easily traversed by the Family Truckster.

Just past the boundary lies the Lion Gulch Trail No. 536.  Although signed at the trailhead and printed on commercial maps, oddly enough the Gunnison National Forest use map doesn’t show this route.  Most of the use occurs during hunting seasons, and because we where hiking during that time I had myself and the dogs gussied up in our best bright orange finery.  One rifle season had ended and another had yet to begin so the trailhead was empty on this blustery day in mid-Autumn.  Despite the lateness of the season only a skiff of snow covered the shadowy aspects; where the Sun blazed down the snow had been long melted off.  We started off on the trail within a forest of aspen, Draco and Leah busily rushing off ahead to investigate rodent activity.

This trail has two phases:  On the eastern side, where the trailhead is, Lion Gulch is a pleasant walk up a slight grade that brings the path to the divide between Red Creek and West Elk Creek.  Near the summit is a large open meadow that has earned the sobriquet Elk Park.  I have seen elk here before but on this day the park is empty and quiet.  I let the dogs do their thing, keeping an eye out for big game and their predators.  Excepting the depths of Winter I have hiked this trail in all seasons and thus wasn’t surprised when after crossing the divide the trail descended steeply via a series of switchbacks down into West Elk Creek.  The mellow rolling hills found on the Red Creek side of the divide swiftly gave way to a deep gorge, the tortured geology of which captivates all but the most indifferent people.  Here, like so many other places within the West Elk Mountains, the breccia has been eroded into hoodoos, fins, spires, cliffs, and other oddities.

The divide between the two drainages also serves as the boundary to the West Elk Wilderness, and I am happy to know that this area has been protected from the excesses of our mechanized society.  Near the top of the switchbacks a couple of views upstream present themselves.  Towards the bottom a fine view to the south, across Blue Mesa Reservoir, of the San Juan Mountains is afforded.  Near the end of the trail the path has been laid out near some of the hoodoos and closeup inspections of the breccia can be had.  A small meadow lies at the bottom, next to the creek and here the official trail ends.  I remember that the first time I came down here was in Spring time and then the creek was a rushing torrent and I had no interest in going any further.  That mindset never altered over the years, but since then I have found out that an unofficial user-created/game trail runs south to the reservoir.  Today, with low water making crossing much less perilous, I decided to continue on to the south and see what I could.  My goal was to reach a large meadow easily espied from above, and located about a mile south.

While not up to the standards of a mainline trail, the path was surprisingly easy to follow and the only real mystery to me was why I had never noticed before.  The shepherds and I walked through a heavy forest along the creek until crossing the shallow water.  No real challenge at this time of year, but it would be during the high flow of a heavy runoff.  A nice campsite used, I would presume, by mostly hunting parties is located on a flat and within a stand of spruce.  On a hillside nearby the user trail continues up into the large park that I had oft espied from above.  I led the pups up and into a open area of grasses, sagebrush, spruce and aspen.  We went on another quarter to half a mile before finding a patch of grass to sit on.  Here we had lunch and rested.  I enjoyed the sunshine and breathed in the clean air, exalted in my relative freedom.  Naught else to do but watch the clouds sail by overhead, that is what I did.

I studied the map for a time and realized that this large outpouring of debris that forms the park sits under Carpenter Gulch.  Due to the specific topography I could not easily locate it when I looked around.  I noted that the trail seems to continue south indefinitely and would guess that it connects with Blue Mesa Reservoir a few miles downstream where a boat-in campsite is administered by the National Park Service.  I’ve been there by foot, having bushwhacked my way in once or twice.  There are a couple of old bladed roads rising up from the campground that I believe lead to or form the trail in that vicinity.  As a long term goal, I am interested in closing that gap of a few miles but it will require either an overnight trip or a shuttle-assisted day trip.  Some day…

As much as I wanted to stay the Sun’s low angle upon the cerulean dome above demanded my action.  Languidly I rose from my grassy nest, and as I did the dogs, generally keyed to my movements, produced some gaping yawns while rising with wagging tails.  We hiked back upstream and I admired a field of hoodoos on the canyon walls, gray mounds rising above the dark green spruce.  The cataclysms that produced the pyroclastic flows can be implied from the remaining evidence, that is, the immense amounts of material that had been belched forth from the volcano.  The coarse chunks within the breccia are remains of exploded rock, suggesting a explosive force beyond anything our civilization has seen.  And this went on for how many millions of years?  It all seems so peaceful now, with only the power of erosion helping to remind me of the strange foreboding nature of this landscape.

The shepherds and I recrossed West Elk Creek and then found the trail that leads back up to the divide.  This end of the trail is not marked in the least and if a person didn’t know where to look they could be in for consternation.  There doesn’t seem to be any trail that leads north, but I’m not entirely sure about that statement.  Regardless, having carefully noted the location earlier, I led the dogs back up the switchbacks, myself admiring the hoodoos, the huge cliff now dominating the view, the park we had recently visited and the upstream canyon on West Elk Creek.  Reaching the divide the scene changed rapidly.  The heavy forest of spruce and Douglas fir, flanking the deep canyon of West Elk Creek, gave way to the gentle slopes and aspen forest of Lion Gulch and Elk Park.  Where the aspect is warm and sunny, the sagebrush grows but must compete at this wetter elevation with the grasses that dominate the moist areas.  After the stiff climb out of the canyon I was all to happy to ramble down the gentle grade along Lion Gulch.  Having now been ensconced in the depths of West Elk Creek on a few occasions I heartily look forward to my return for a time longer than a few hours.

Hermit’s Rest and Crystal Creek Trails, Curecanti National Recreation Area – November 08, 2017

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Overlooking Morrow Point Reservoir, the Hermit’s Rest Trail seen winding down, the San Juan Mountains on the distant horizon – Curecanti National Recreation Area

While I generally support fair-chase hunting practices there are some folks who don’t believe that rules or ethics apply to them.  Thus, I’m a bit edgy during the four big-game rifle seasons here in Colorado.  Having two tawny German shepherds adds to my paranoia.  Too many tales of frustrated hunters shooting at the first coyote they see bounce around in my head, and thus during this season I am amply dressed in bright orange and the pups wear panniers.  But I also look for the hikes where the twin criteria of hunting is prohibited and dogs are allowed.  Most National Parks prohibit dogs, at least in the backcountry, and that is well and good.  Most National Forests are open to hunting, and I don’t want to upset good-people’s hunts nor encounter the thoughtless’s wanton behavior.  Of course, I also believe in standing up for my rights and will hike on the public lands under the auspices of “multiple use” when I see fit to do so.  But today I decided to visit the Curecanti National Recreation Area, an area with limited hiking trails but which is closed to big-game rifle hunting and allows dogs on trails.

A light snow had fallen the day before but on this day the clouds had mostly parted and the Sun shone down with warmth and light, warming the otherwise cool gusts.  Having loaded up the dogs in the car we then drove out west on U.S. 50 from Gunnison, past the length of Blue Mesa Reservoir.  At the junction with lightly-trafficked Colorado 92 we turned off on that narrow two-lane highway and crossed the dam.  The highway follows the Black Canyon of the Gunnison from its upper reaches for a number of miles, usually eight to twelve hundred feet above the rushing waters.  The winding nature of this road has earned it a thirty-five mile an hour speed limit, and the way is slow going.

The NRA is managed by the National Park Service, and the NPS has established three recreational trails along the length of the highway.  We drove past the first and an hour and change after starting we reached Hermit’s Rest.  This trail drops eighteen hundred feet in three miles.  It is on a south facing slope and is a fine hike during Spring and Fall.  The heat can be a bit much during Summer.  Regardless, the trail is wide and always well maintained.  There are plenty of benches for those wishing for a seat.  On this Autumnal day nobody else was in the parking lot, and while I gazed out at the San Juan Mountains to the south only a couple of cars drove by on the highway during the ten minutes I languished in the lot.  Quietness reigned, and the silence only increased as we descended below the canyon’s rim.

A number of switchbacks lead the intrepid hiker down past pinyon and ponderosa pine, Gambel oak and sagebrush.  In the deeper pockets a few spruce and Douglas fir grow.  Descending at a rapid rate, sometimes almost jogging so as not to retard my pace with my knees, the dogs and I reached the bottom well under an hour.  There we found the campground used during more clement weather by both hikers and boaters.  Hermit’s Rest sits on the Morrow Point Reservoir, the middle of three blockages on the Gunnison River.  The shepherds swam in the waters a bit while I wandered around gathering stones that interested my sense of curiosity.  I found some pieces of translucent mica, and these engaged me for half an hour as I picked apart the layers and studied the play of light through them.

A nice place to relax, under the pinyon pine, I sat at one of the tables in the campground while fiddling with the silicate and ate some snacks of my own while the pups feasted on their kibble that I had hauled down.  After an hour or so we began our hike back up to the highway and parking lot.  This hike always seems to go fast, as the switchbacks break up the hike into distinct segments.  We made good time on the way back up and found only one other car-load of tourists taking in the view.  Because we had driven out so far, I decided to continue on a short distance and visit the Crystal Creek Trail.

The Crystal Creek Trail goes out some two and a half miles from Colorado 92, but unlike the previous trail gains or loses a minimal of elevation.  To quote the Park Service, “(s)weeping views of Cimarron Valley, the West Elk and San Juan Mountains can be viewed along the way.”  Two different overlooks near the end of the trail provide dramatic views of the Black Canyon and Crystal Reservoir, some eighteen hundred feet below.  Although this portion of the canyon is upstream of the famed National Park it still provides much of the same amazing scenery that the park does, albeit a bit more industrialized what with all the dams, roads and electrical transmission lines.  I can only attest to the drama of the sweeping views proclaimed by the Park Service.  I am especially a fan of the view to the north, where Crystal Creek drops down from its highlands and the West Elk Mountain rear up, snow-capped and majestic.

Again this trail is well maintained, although the parking area isn’t as well appointed.  Sometimes I tend to think of the hiking in the NRA as somewhat perfunctory but I have also enjoyed quietude and appreciation of nature.  I had seen some bobcat tracks on the hike up out of Hermit’s Rest, and sign of elk and deer on Crystal Creek.  Usually raptors sail overhead at some point, and ravens seem especially at home here.  Their calls and acrobatics overhead enliven the granite walls.  As Winter got ready to set into the valley, I was especially happy to get out and walk on the ground while I could.  The Sun had kept our hiking warm and salubrious, and as we drove home I kept the speed down simply to enjoy our passing.  The Gunnison River has taken eons to cut out this gorge in the uplifted granite and its concomitant dykes of intruded quartz.  The Earth and the life that has evolved to survive on it never ceases to fascinate me, and I drove my pack home satiated after another fine day out of doors.

Beaver Creek Above Gunnison State Wildlife Area – October 14, 2017

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Autumn colors and blue sky day on Beaver Creek

Beaver Creek:  One of those ubiquitous names that appears throughout the Rocky Mountains and interior western United States.  I’m sure that a hundred such creeks could be renamed and still their would not be a dearth of such denominated creeks.  This particular Beaver Creek is a few miles west of the City of Gunnison and drains from the north directly into the Gunnison River.  The first few miles of its length flow through the Gunnison State Wildlife Area though the headwaters begin miles up in the West Elk Mountains and Wilderness under the Baldies.  A few days previous I had hiked nearby and realized that had I had more time I could have hiked on Beaver Creek itself, something that I hadn’t done in a decade.  So, on this day, having a full day off, I decided to have an open-ended out-and-back hike, meaning that I would hike up as many miles as I felt like before turning around.  Simultaneously, though, I thought to myself that it would be nice to reach the forks of Beaver Creek, about six and a half miles upstream.

A fine high-pressure bluebird day awaited us.  The dogs and I loaded up in the Outback and drove west out of town on U.S. 50 until reaching the turnoff for the state wildlife area via Bureau of Land Management Road 3228/Gunnison County Road 726.  The trailhead is at road’s end after a bumpy last couple of miles.  Here on the southeastern flank of the West Elk Mountains this relatively low elevation trail begins on the east side of Beaver Creek in a flurry of cottonwood and conifer.  However, the slopes above that lead to long ridges cut through the breccia remind me of great swells on the sagebrush sea.  This lower country is semi-arid and fairly open to the Sun’s exposure.  As the valleys tighten the moisture collects in greater aggregation and within a couple of miles the sagebrush has been replaced by forest.

The Subaru gamely forded the low water in Beaver Creek and the relative solitude of the trailhead was broken by our motorized approach.  The quietude was further rendered when the pups burst out of the car to spend some pent up energy, though the drive was barely twenty minutes.  They raced around and hassled the local rodent population while I gathered my gear, and wits, before locking up the mechanical beast.  I then called the shepherds over and donned them with their panniers.  This I did not so much for their hauling ability but rather to make them more visible during these nascent days of big game rifle season.  I feel a bit better about our safety when we are adorned in bright orange.  Then, leaving the shady cottonwood grove, we began hiking upstream, passing by a few hoodoos and other geologic oddities carved from the breccia.  The Sun felt warm on this cool day, and I strode along with a grin.

Technically, this hike began on state land and then passed onto the BLM property before passing into the Gunnison National Forest.  The BLM calls this trail 3228t, denoting the continuation of the road.  The Forest Service calls this the West Beaver Creek Trail No. 447, and that is how I shall refer to it.  The trail is fairly level and the first mile and a half of hiking brought us quickly to the Forest Service boundary.  An old, dilapidated sign greeted us, along with abandoned fencing.  I can’t help but feel that this area used to receive more use than currently, as I believe this trail traverses an old road that has been closed at the current trailhead.  As we progressed upstream the forest became increasingly dense and the patches of sagebrush became less predominant.  We slowly but inexorably transitioned from the sagebrush sea to the montane forest.  Cottonwood continued to grow on the creek bottom, but I could see the aspen forest not too far away.

The trail continued to follow the creek until the crossing about a mile and a half upstream from the boundary we had passed.  Here  I found the remnants of an old bridge, a sad artifact from when the Forest Service was willing to invest more resources to recreation.  Like the boundary sign below, a certain feeling of abandonment pervades.  At low water, this crossing presented no real problems, but I wouldn’t want to do it when the creek rushes forth as a freshet.  Once across, we began to climb up and over a rise that affords some fine views of the surrounding country from an elevated vantage.  Presumably, this has been done to avoid a constriction in the creek bottom.  What a fine day, I thought to myself, as we hiked along this bench above the noisy creek below.  Aspen became fairly common but had already mostly lost their leaves.  Still, the dark green conifer forest, yellow grasses and blue sky created a palette of color that radiated salubrious joy.  Now on the west side of the creek, some of the northern aspects began to show a skiff of snow that Draco and Leah happily lapped up.  We continued onward towards April Gulch.

At April Gulch a relatively wide bottom contains a meadow and road access via Gunnison National Forest Road 726.2A.  It is also the lower limit of the West Elk Wilderness.  I had hoped to continue hiking up towards the forks of Beaver Creek but the trail was so overgrown and criss-crossed with huge fallen boles that I decided not to continue upstream the last half a mile or so.  Considering the dilapidated bridge I had found earlier I wasn’t too surprised to find that no trail maintenance had seemingly occurred in the last decade.  Instead of picking my way through the dense sub-alpine forest I led the dogs across the creek and we explored some of the meadows about the gulch.  We found a nice place to sit for a while, where I could soak up some of the gorgeous Autumn Sun.

The dogs and I had gotten a late start on our hike this morning and consequently we arrived late at the trailhead on our return.  The Sun had set below the ridge above us, inundating the valley in shadow.  We walked back downstream along Beaver Creek via the West Beaver Creek Trail No. 447.  Along the way I found an old trail sign that simply said “445”.  I don’t know what the number refers to.  A misprint?  An old control number for this trail?  A nearby ghost trail?  There are a number of the latter in this area but a perusal of some old maps, by no means exhaustive, elucidated not this mystery.  As the dusk approached we arrived at the trailhead where the low light, Autumnal colors and cooler temperatures enhanced the sense of oncoming Winter.  With the pleasing odor of sagebrush in my nostrils I loaded up the dogs into the station wagon and then drove back down the bumpy road to that made from gravel.  At the transcontinental highway I turned left, eastward, and drove home, beguiled by the beauty all around.  When I got home I found my aspen so joyously colorful that I snapped off a quick photo to memorialize my appreciation of this season.