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.