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.