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 As the valleys tighten the moisture collects in greater aggregation and within a couple of miles the sagebrush has been replaced by forest.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.