Tour de Garfield Peak – October 06, 2017

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Looking from Peeler Basin to Redwell Basin while hiking on the Daisy Pass Trail No. 404

This loop hike I have done before at least once in the opposite direction, and I have trod over the various trails in a number of combinations that over the years have added up to a series of wonderful (and I use that word not lightly) hikes.  I’m calling this particular trek the Tour de Garfield Peak simply because I walked around that large but inconspicuous mountain.  A very small portion of this trek is on Bureau of Land Management property regulated by the Gunnison Field Office but most of it was on land managed by the Gunnison National Forest.  A significant portion of it fell within the Raggeds Wilderness.  A very popular hike during the Summer I didn’t see a soul on this blustery day towards the end of the hiking season.  In fact, I was a bit doubtful on whether or not I could actually cross over Starr Pass due to accumulated snow.

I made a late start from my home in Gunnison, Colorado, having enjoyed the morning typing on the computer while imbibing hot black coffee.  I didn’t reach my makeshift trailhead above the town of Crested Butte until nearly a half past eleven ante meridiem.  The nitty-gritty:  I drove north on Colorado 135 along the Colorado, East and Slate Rivers until the state maintenance ends at Crested Butte.  Commencing through town on Sixth Street I exited at Gunnison County Road 347, which leads up to the ski resort.  I drove along another mile or so before turning off onto Gunnison County Road 734 (also known as the Slate River Road) which parallels the Slate River.  Driving up that road a number of miles I turned off into the parking lot near the Gunsight Pass Road.

The only real problem I have with this hike is the trespassing-and-fence-hopping versus busy-county-road-walking conundrum I faced.  Note relishing the one I despise the other.  Gritting my teeth I opted to walk along the road since the private land (which most people treat as public since no one lives on it) now has strands of barbed wire interposed between the parking lot and the Oh-be-joyful Campground, the latter being where I wanted to go.  Active effort to reclaim mine waste continues on this land, as well, and I didn’t want to upset any real effort to clean the land of past damage.  The walk up the road was uneventful and only constituted a mile or less of minimal annoyance.  Might as well get the crappy part done first, I thought to myself each time a car whizzed by kicking up a cloud of dust.  This walk would be miserable and untenable during the height of busy Summer but was fairly tolerable during this shoulder season.

I beat a hasty path down a user-created or cattle trail that short cuts the distance from the Slate Creek Road to the spur road leading down to the campground.  This is a fine place to camp but located so close to an iconic tourist town has become heavily used.  Until very recently it was fairly unregulated but now there are designated sites, fees and law enforcement.  Good luck finding a spot in July.  Crossing Slate River I marveled at the limited amount of water compared to the potential capacity to hold the Spring runoff.  I love the river bed in this area, I have to say, as odd as that sounds, but it is composed of homogeneous cobbles of the most scenic sort.  Hopping across the river I kept my feet dry and then walked through the campground’s far side until I reached the end of the road.

When the Bureau of Land Management built-up the campground they, along with the Forest Service, closed the last mile of road that lead up Oh-Be-Joyful Creek.  The old road is now part of the Oh-Be-Joyful Trail No. 836 (or No. 406, depending on which map is referenced).  The hike up the old two-track includes a nice view of the creek below and a couple of small cascades.  Just above the old road’s former end the boundary to the Raggeds Wilderness separates the bipedal from the wheeled.  Quadrupeds are welcome, whether companion canines or riders on equine-back.  Draco and Leah, my two German shepherds, accompanied me on this hike, as is their usual habit.  To the south, across the creek, I could see where the waters from Redwell basin tumble down.  If all went according to plan I would, in a few hours, find myself crossing those waters higher up.

A fine view of Oh-be-Joyful Creek’s watershed is had the entire hike up the trail.  From the debris scattered about it is obvious that avalanches run through here with regularity.  Only a skiff of snow coated the high country at this point in time but nonetheless I kept looking up the steep sides of the valley with a slight touch of paranoia.  The head of the valley ends along the Ruby Range.  Laccoliths having pushed between layers of formerly horizontal sedimentary rock, much of the surrounding mountains are tilted strata pitched at improbable angles.  What makes this even more amazing to me is that supposedly these layers are composed of the ancestral Rocky Mountains, risen and eroded eons before the current mountains where even born.  I love this hike, and as we climbed further up the valley I begin to feel a certain giddiness that verges on joyous rapture.  Thus, perhaps, the origin of this creek’s name.  At one point I stopped and looked at all the named topographic features that I could see:  Schuykill and Richmond Mountains; Hancock, Oh-Be-Joyful, Afley, Purple and Peeler Peaks; Dippold, Democrat and Little Silver Basins; Mount Owen; and behind me, down Oh-Be-Joyful Creek, Anthracite Mesa.  Huzzah!

At the junction with the Daisy Pass Trail No. 404 I continued to the south, as the shepherds followed or lead, depending on their whim of the moment.  About a half a mile to the south lies Blue Lake nestled in a cranny below the summit of Purple Peak.  Just east of the peak runs a massive headwall that commanded my attention as we hiked along.  At about this same time I also gained a view of Starr Pass just below Garfield Peak.  A steep hike up would be more challenging with a light layer of slick snow.  I ignored that data for the moment and decided on at least making the fairly easy climb up to the lake.  This we did, noting along the way the unsigned junction with the spur trail.  The spur trail is heavily used, while the main trail gets little use above the lake junction.  I found a nice place to sit and ate a snack while the shepherds munched kibble.  We explored the lake shore a bit but the winds had kicked up sufficiently to create a less-than-ideal repose.  Today at least, Gray Lake would be a better name.  I contemplated my desire for the day and decided to attempt the hike up the pass.

Hiking up the trail, I recognized the danger I faced.  The trail has been cleverly built to reside at the angle of repose.  During the Summer I have found this trail difficult enough what with rolling pebbles underfoot.  But it sure is one of the most beautiful wildflower locations ever.  Anyhow, judging from what I saw elsewhere I suspected that the other, northern side (and thus south-faced) would be relatively snow free.  Hiking up I was pleased to find that the snow somehow didn’t slide as easily as I at first feared.  The dogs, engaging four-paw overdrive, practically raced up the trail while I carefully planted each foot in a puddle of traction before taking another step lest I should slip and plunge ass-first back down the way I had come.  Besides the real implications of falling, and probably not being found till next Spring, I also didn’t want to be a candidate for someone’s funniest home video entry.

The last few switchbacks tested my nerves and I might have done a little jig upon reaching the relative safety of the pass.  I have three maps at hand as I write this but I can’t find the appellation Starr Pass on any of them.  Yet I am sure that that name is applicable.  Confusing the situation is that there is a Star Pass further to the east and is a well known route between Crested Butte and Aspen.  This pass where I now stood against the gusts might be called Star as well, but I add the extra “r” to differentiate between the two, at least for my own internal use.  Standing there looking down into Peeler Basin and across the Scarp’s Ridge gave another view of the uplifted strata, and again I could appreciate if not truly understand the magnitude of the forces at play.  These mountains don’t care about names or my very survival, I reminded myself as I began the trek down the somewhat less dangerous declivity now before me.

I hiked down another mile or so until I found a nice bare patch where I could sit once again but this time out of the wind.  The other bonus at this point was that the Sun emerged from behind the gray overcast sky and I was able to soak up some of the luxurious rays before they were blotted out.  Most maps show a spur trail leading over to Upper Peeler Lakes but I have yet found this trail despite repeated attempts to establish it veracity.  A fairly easy bushwhack can be made to reach them, but I declined on this day and continued on towards Redwell Basin.  I was now on top of the cascade I had seen earlier.  Redwell Basin was home to the Daisy Mine and much acid mine drainage emits from the old works.  Remediation by the state and federal governments is ongoing but I always marvel at the attitude of mining executives when complaining about the lack of public support for new mines.  Maybe if they cleaned up their old messes first?  You know, the ones that have been spewing toxic orange sludge for a century.

Keeping the dogs in close heel, so that they wouldn’t drink any contaminated water or slice open a paw on some rusty metal chunk, we began the descent along the Gunsight Pass Road.  This road is also Gunnison National Forest Road 585, and is a popular four-wheel drive road during the Summer.  I may have seen one or two vehicles today, but whatever use there was was light.  Due to my late start the day had become slightly dark by the time I arrived back at the car sometime half past six.  This last bit of road runs down along so many switchbacks that what looks like two miles is actually four.  Some fantastic views of the Slate River valley below and Anthracite Mesa beyond presented themselves to me.  Once reaching the Slate River itself we crossed over the old railroad bridge that is now part of the greater trail network that emanates north from Crested Butte.  I stopped taking snapshots about a two miles out from the hike’s end but I can’t remember why.  Was it too dark?  Did I run out of batteries?  Lazy indifference?  Too bad regardless as a photograph of the bridge would have been a nice coda to this hike.  But it doesn’t matter, the dogs and I had had a mini-epic day traipsing around Oh-be-Joyful Creek and Peeler Basin.  The Ruby Range, an off-shoot of the Elk Mountains, proved again to be a scenic wonderland and I drove home physically on the state highway while my emotional state sailed along on cloud nine.

Hiking on Bureau of Land Management Road 3018 – October 04, 2017

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Maybe Trout Creek, but possibly not; regardless, somewhere along Bureau of Land Management Road 3018

Having a scheduled shift at work later in the evening left me with plenty of time in the morning to make a short hike on some relatively obscure Bureau of Land Management property (Gunnison Field Office) that is part of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River drainage.  For a number of years I had been repeatedly driving by BLM Road 3018 just off Colorado 149.  Today I decided that I could take the time to get out and explore this region of rolling sagebrush mixed with ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and aspen.  Having made this hike a year ago some of the details have been lost to me, but I also remember that I went without a proper topographic map of the area and thus found it challenging at times to chart my progress and location.  Just prior to writing this blog installment I was juggling three maps attempting to reconcile the topographic aspects with the roads and other data.

Parking just off the paved highway, I let the dogs out of the car so that they could run amok while I gathered my gear.  I remember this day as a classic Autumn day, clear and crisp, sunny sky stretching out to the horizon and naught to do but draw in each scintillating breath one after another as I puffed up the first grade.  BLM Road 3018 follows a small unnamed gully that lies between Trout Creek to the north and Skunk Creek to the south.  I certainly enjoyed the wide open ponderosa parks, where large trees grow with minimal undergrowth.  Because of my own time limitations but also due to the patchwork nature of land ownership I decided to hike out only the two miles or so until the road ended at the base of a small hill.  I didn’t really want to accidentally stumble onto somebody’s private property so I made sure not to leave the road very far or cross any fences.

I don’t usually like to give out data in the form of land classification but it seems in this case to be the best way.  Near where the road ends I had a find view of Trout Creek.  I found a perch upon which to repose for a time, munching some snacks and contemplating the view.  To the west rose Willow Creek Mesa while my southern view was dominated by Calf Creek and Cannibal Plateau.  That latter name is derived from the unsavory incident nearby where miners devoured one another after becoming stranded.  Thus the only conviction in the United States on charges of cannibalism.  Regardless, I found my self in the southeast 1/4 of the southwest 1/4 of section 29 range 3 west township 46 north New Mexico prime meridian.  This odd system of land demarcation dates from the late Eighteenth Century so if it seems confusing it is.

After our repose on the hilltop we headed back to the car.  I noted many of the nearby topographic landmarks that I could see.  To wit:  the very distant West Elk Mountains to the north, and the nearby Willow Creek Mesa and Alpine Plateau, the latter two of which rise to the west of the Lake Fork Gunnison River.  I also noted The Gate, a layer of extrusive igneous rock, probably a basalt or rhyolite, that has had a notch carved from it by the Lake Fork Gunnison River.  This hike treated me well, but it was a long drive for a fairly short hike.  There are numerous other potential hikes in the area but care needs to be taken relative to property boundaries.  This area doesn’t offer wilderness, strictly speaking, but doesn’t receive much use outside of hunting season.  There is plenty of potential for a very quiet time.  The elevations in the area hover around nine thousand feet, so its also not the alpine wonderland so many people seek out.  Its just nice country, a quiet place where the wild things live.

 

Cottonwood Creek and Cuba Gulch – September 30, 2017

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Cliffs and eminences rising above Cottonwood Creek on a rainy day in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado

The clouds had been building up over the region for the last few days and on this day reached their precipitous crescendo.  Undeterred, and abetted by the relative warmth near my home in Gunnison, I pushed on with my plan to hike in the San Juan Mountains above Lake City, Colorado.  The latter municipality is the county seat for Hinsdale County which some group recently deemed the most remote county in the Lower Forty-Eight.  I’m not entirely sure of the validity of their matrix but it is fairly common knowledge that plenty of opportunities to explore the backcountry exist.  This area is also well known for precipitation, and while I hoped for clear skies the looming clouds obscuring the summits suggested that I was in for a damp hike.

Since the drive down Colorado 149 takes an hour or so I had plenty of time to fidget and worry over the weather.  While I have an affinity for my canine companions I am somewhat feline-like in my aversion to a soaking.  Still, rain or not, the beauty of the area drew me onward.  I paused at the Lake City Bakery and refilled my mug with hot coffee.  I may have also bought an obscene amount of pastries, some sweet, others savory, to help fortitude against my wavering inclination for beginning this hike.  Pastry in hand, sipping liquid invigoration, I drove south of Lake City and onto Hinsdale County Road 3.  On past Lake San Cristobal, following the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River until the confluence with Cottonwood Creek.

The road also forks, and I took Bureau of Land Management Road 3309 a short distance to the Cataract Gulch Trailhead.  There I parked the car in an empty lot.  I let Draco and Leah out and they immediately investigated odoriferous objects while I gathered my wits and donned rain gear.  We walked over to Cottonwood Creek and the pups lapped up some water.  Then we began to hike, but not up the scenic Cataract Gulch Trail.  Instead, we followed the BLM road which soon turned into a two-track.  Deep in the San Juan Mountains, Cottonwood Creek has steep cliffs on either side, occasionally punctuated by a deeply notched gully.  The clouds held the rain at bay and the cloud cover kept the temperatures moderate.  The aspen forests where all in the middle of their annual change and therefore the leaves were a striking combination of yellow and green.  Even under the clouds, walking through the groves was akin to passing through a glowing tunnel.

As I approached Cuba Gulch it quickly became obvious that rain was coming my way.  The tall peaks were shrouded in deep clouds, and the cloak of mist ran down into the higher gullies.  Wetness glistened off every rocky surface, and snow could be barely discerned when a cloud lifted off enough to expose a high slope.  Rounding a corner I came across a fine view upvalley, where a large triangular mass of rocks looms over the willow-filled valley below.  Snow dusted the higher reaches.  Wet it may be, I thought to myself, but strikingly gorgeous as well.  I enjoyed the mile or so of hiking where I could gaze up at this and the surrounding misty mountains.  At the base of this monolith, which is a shoulder of Point 12861, Cottonwood Creek forks.  The west fork is called Snare Creek and the southern Cuba Gulch.  The road also ends here, and all further travel must be by foot or hoof as this part of the mountains has been included in the Handies Peak Wilderness Study Area.

I crossed over Snare Creek via a log bridge.  We then began to hike up into Cuba Gulch itself.  After a short climb, we crossed another bridge.  This one closed the gap over a narrow but deep trench carved into the rock that carries the waters of Cuba Gulch.  The forest in this area grows dense and seemed especially dark and foreboding on such an overcast day.  We kept hiking up until we reached the first fork.  This unnamed eastern fork is represented on some maps as having a trail along its route and finding this trail was my goal.  Alas, I did not locate it at all and was reminded that some maps omit this trail.  But by the time I reached the purported junction the snow had begun to collect on the ground and obscured many features of the Cuba Gulch Trail.

Somewhere along the way, incidentally, just above the cataract on Cuba Gulch, the dogs and I entered the Gunnison National Forest.  From time to time the snow came down in flurries, and after hiking a short distance above the unnamed gulch I decided to turn around.  Occasionally, I had exited the forest but couldn’t really see upstream very well because of the pervading mist.  The moisture really brought out the forest scent and each inhalation proved pleasing.  After finding a relatively dry place to sit for a spell, I munched down one of the pastries I had hauled up.  The snowy day soaked up the sound, and at times the only thing audible was the soft pffft of landing snowflakes.  We hiked back down the trail to the parking lot adjacent to the Cuba Gulch Trailhead.  Studying the map, I realized that I had stumbled into an unexplored (for me) corner of the Gunnison Country.  I made a mental note to include this area in future hikes.

An old mining road leads up Snare Creek, but beyond signage indicating closure to motor vehicles it is difficult to tell if the resulting trail is maintained or not.  Most maps show it extant, crossing a high summit above.  I suspect the latter, but nonetheless also felt an allure to explore.  Anyhow, I led the dogs up a short distance, not in excess of half a mile, until I gained a fine view of Cottonwood Creek below.  I noted that Snare Creek itself seemed like a good place to explore, but would also have to let that wait for another day.  At this point the rain began to come in earnest, and I packed up my camera and pulled the hood over my head down tight.  I was surprised by the number of people I saw driving up and down BLM Road 3309 in their jeeps.  Some of them had even gotten out to hike up the Cuba Gulch Trail a bit.  In the last half a mile the clouds suddenly parted despite any hint that the rain would soon stop.  Sunlight bathed the glistening mountains and yellowed aspen forest.  Thus, my hike ended on a literal and figurative bright note, and the dogs and I rolled back home windows down and contented.

Sink Creek – September 29, 2017

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Looking down Sink Creek; South and North Saddle Mountains on left, Tater Heap on right

A blustery Autumn day awaited.  Two days prior I had explored the relatively nearby northeastern portion of the West Elk Wilderness.  On this day I decided to leave the confines of the Gunnison Country and drove out to the west side of this wilderness area.  I had accessed this trailhead one time prior only, due to its distance from my home in Gunnison, Colorado.  First I drove west on U.S. 50 twenty-five miles to the junction with Colorado 92.  Then another 35 miles to the town of Crawford, which took about an hour due to the low speed limit and twisting curves over much of Colorado 92’s route.  A slow but scenic drive with continuous views of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  At Crawford I turned to the east on Delta County E.50 Drive which is paved at first but then transitions into a well-maintained gravel road.  Six miles or so brought me back to Gunnison County, oddly enough.  The Forest Service designates this road as Gunnison National Forest Road 712, and the county uses the same control number on its portion.

Road 712 ends at a small inholding of private property just past the junction with Road 814.  At this junction is ample parking, and this I took advantage of due to the rutted nature of the latter road.  I would rather walk than drive over the tortured two-track.  This area is also the forks of the Smith Fork, where the northern and southern tines diverge. I had risen early and the shepherds and I started our hike at quarter to seven.  I let the dogs run amok for a bit as they worked off their pent up energy from the drive.  We began our hike and I kept the dogs close so as not to surprise any critter that might be out.  This area gets quite a bit of rain and snow and I noted the dense shrubbery as we hiked up the road to a small spur road that leads down to the trailhead.  Looking up I saw the clouds catching the morning light from the dawn, an orange hued morning spectacular.  Tater Heap, a small peak the silhouette of which I now gazed at and which does resemble its name, rose dark against the bright sky.

There are ample opportunities here at the trailhead for dispersed camping, and the usual signs admonishing adherence to the regulations relating to wilderness use announce the trailhead.  The actual wilderness boundary denoting the legislated West Elk Wilderness lies some mile and a half or so up the trail but no motorized use is allowed on the trails regardless.  The dogs and I crossed South Smith Fork with relative ease during this low-water time of year, but this crossing would be nigh impossible during Spring runoff.  I’ve never seen it but judging by the wide bed an immense volume of water must flow from time to time.  On the far side we immediately came upon a trail junction.  I decided to Follow the Sink Creek Trail No. 861 instead of the Throughline Trail No. 860.  I contemplated making a loop hike via the Lone Pine Trail No. 862 but decided against it due to time constraints.  My elder dog remained at home and with four hours minimum driving time, I decided on only four hours of hiking versus eight.

This trail is fairly easy to follow and well maintained, a minimum of blowdowns blocking the route.  Most of the hike up the aforementioned junction with the Lone Pine Trail No. 862 is concomitant with a surprisingly dense aspen forest that bespeaks of the relative warmth and large amount of precipitation that combines on the west side of the West Elk Mountains.  The day had started out sort of gloomy and grey, but whenever the Sun emerged from behind a cloud the colors shone with a joyful  satisfaction.  Looking up at Tater Heap provided a tapestry of Autumnal color that positively radiated.  Likewise walking through some of the aspen forest felt as if I had entered a world of glowing yellow.  The trail rises from South Smith Fork and then crosses into Sink Creek, which at this point ran dry but looks too as if it could hold an amazingly large capacity of water flow.

Just before the trail junction the path enters a large meadow that allows views up and down Sink Creek.  This meadow has stupendous views of Mount Guero and the upper reaches of Sink Creek.  A small amount of water flowed here.  The grasses grew nonetheless lushly, and narrow spruce dotted the hillsides ready to shed the Winter’s snow.  I wandered up to a small knoll that seemed like it would provide a good view of the surrounding area, and here I soaked up the Sun when I could and shivered a bit whenever the clouds obscured the warming rays.  The view to the west is nothing short of spectacular, the Uncompahgre Plateau delimiting the horizon beyond the vast valley where the Uncompahgre and Gunnison Rivers merge.  A sheet of clouds extended out beyond sight and I soaked in the special feeling I get during this time of year.

I began to worry about Lady Dog and decided to begin our trek back to the car where the inevitable drive awaited.  The trek down naturally took less time than hiking up but either way I felt as if I walked upon the clouds that sailed above, such was my exaltation at the glorious Fall colors.  I took a little time to explore portions of the South Smith Fork just upstream of the trail crossing.  Nobody else used this trailhead on the day I visited, and that just added to the special feeling I get from this area.  Once I had crossed South Smith Fork I explored a meadow near the trailhead, and couldn’t help but sit and enjoy the moment.  This was a fine place fore repose and I stared off into the woods for a bit of meditation and contemplation.  I had had a fine visit, and could have stayed longer but was glad to get back home and let the elder dog outside.  I eagerly await another visit to this area, perhaps to complete the loop hike around Tater Heap.

Beaver Ponds Bushwhack – September 27, 2017

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Fall colors on the Beaver Pond outlet

Having to work later on during the night shift, I woke early and drove up Ohio Creek to the Swampy Pass/Pass Creek Trailhead.  I had decided to make this first hike of Autumn bushwhacking my way to the Beaver Ponds and a few other unnamed lakes at the base of the Anthracite Range.  Starting at the trailhead we walked a short distance, about a half a mile, on the Pass Creek Trail No. 439 on the Gunnison National Forest of Colorado (there seems to be some confusion regarding the name; on some maps its the Pass Creek Trail but at the trailhead its called the Swampy Trail; either way, the number is 439).  Coming to the first creek, we left the trail and followed a faint route about a mile up to the first lake.  This route took us through dense aspen forests mixed with spruce.  The Fall colors lit up the forest floor even on an overcast day such as this.

As usual, the dogs Draco and Leah accompanied me on this walk.  They would alternately course ahead or fall behind depending on whatever odor or noise grabbed their attention.  While not shouting and screaming, I tend to make enough noise to give the large beasts time to discern our presence and move out of the way should they desire.  This is especially important in bear country but also helps avoid conflicts with the deer and elk.  The trail I followed gets minimal use from humans but much more so from cattle and wild game.  Care needs to be taken so as not to follow the wrong tributary.  Reaching the lake I found all to be serene.  The cloudy day nonetheless remained mostly without gusts or even breezes, thus a quietude engulfed the lake setting.

I found a place to sit and watch the morning go by.  A stunning view, the Anthracite range rises above the lake in a most majestic fashion.  I had unburdened myself for all of a quarter of an hour before I decided to move on to the Beaver Ponds.  On the northeast side of the unnamed lake their is a well-defined trail, albeit off-system, that winds over past one other unnamed lake, that more resembles a meadow, before reaching the named impoundments.  This user-created trail is known enough that there is even a gate, of sorts, where the path crosses a barbed-wire fence.  I’m not a fan of fences crossing the range without end but I do appreciate that during the season when cattle are not grazed on these allotments the cattlemen lower the wire so that the wild ones can pass with a bit more ease.  The Beaver Ponds are easily accessible from a picnic area of the same name, and an eponymous trail leads up a scant half a mile to the scenic venue.  Emerging from the woods on the far side of the ponds I expressed no surprise upon seeing a mass of people walking around the shore.  I walked to the northwest quadrant of the lake and climbed a small knoll so as to gain an elevated view of the surrounding headwaters of Ohio Creek.

Once I had left the Pass Creek Trail No. 439 I led the dogs into the West Elk Wilderness.  The Anthracite Range in general denotes the northwestern portion of this wilderness area.  Rising above the ponds the headwaters rise up to Ohio Peak.  This named eminence is the lead-off point for Ohio Creek but isn’t the highest point in the range.  The well-forested western flank of Carbon Peak is clearly visible from this vantage.  Sitting from my perch I watched the other folks go about their activities and felt blessed to be sitting here enjoying the woods in my own fashion.  I studied the beaver works below, again amazed at the industry of these critters.  The residents were certainly snuggled safely in their mounded den and would return after dusk.  Alas, I soon had to begin the final leg of this small trek.  Even though a touch bit damp and sans sunlight, I would have much rather sat amidst the tall grasses and forbs, now dried and cured, that make this area a marvel for wildflower blooms during early Summer.

I led the shepherds around the pond and then wandered over to the outlet of the pond, eschewing the trail.  Again I utilized a faint game and cattle trail to walk down about a half a mile along the increasingly narrow gully.  Following the gully, one could easily reach the Ohio Creek Road below, but I stopped at the old railroad grade.  This grade never had tracks or, obviously, saw service.  It had already been mostly built by the time the old Denver, South Park and Pacific had run out of credit to continue construction.  Following this ready-made path that winds along a contour within a dense aspen forest we hiked down another mile until we rejoined the Pass Creek Trail No. 439.  From there it was a quick hike back to the car.  I loaded up the dogs and we drove back home where I could relax a bit before my shift started.

Autumnal Equinox on Lake Branch, Off Piste – September 22, 2017

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A grove of aspen on Lake Branch

Personally, I often fell the need to declare the equinoxes and solstices some sort of national holiday.  Alas, also personally, because of the service industry job that I hold it is likely that should somehow inconceivably a holiday come to be declared I would be working anyhow as I do now on the majority of the major holidays.  Thus, I would suppose, this day would not have been altered much from the actual reality that I experienced, to wit:  A quick hike before work, exploring an unknown corner of a familiar region.  Perusing my ingrained knowledge of the local region I had made a recollection of a place I thought might be interesting to visit, and so the shepherds and I loaded up in the old Subaru and drove out of town via U.S. 50 eastbound almost to the small town of Sargents.

A mile shy of that aforementioned town I turned off the main road and onto Gunnison National Forest Road 780.  That bumpy road then leads on for two miles where the Long Branch Forest Facility sits in a large meadow.  I could drive another mile, but have always chosen this as my defacto trailhead.  I let the shepherds out of the car and while they investigated scent posts and rodent dens I gathered up the gear.  Soon, Draco, Leah and I walked through a gate and continued on Road 780 through a mixed conifer-aspen forest.  The road ends a mile up, and thus the lack of a through route keeps traffic to a minimum.  Paralleling Long Branch is a large meadow where willow traces the path of the water.  Although cloudy, no precipitation seems imminent and much blue sky may be seen.  The aspen and other deciduous vegetation has begun to turn yellow and adds to the vibrancy of the day.

Arriving at the official Long Branch/Baldy Lake Trailhead affords the dogs and I a choice of two trails.  I choose to take the western fork,  denoted as the Baldy Lake Trail No. 481.  We cross Long Branch and begin to trek up the trail.  This drainage is called the West Fork and there lies an open expanse of sagebrush and ponderosa pine on its northern side.  The northern side having a south face remains fairly warm and dry.  The southern side of West Fork confers a north face and thus has been shrouded in a thick forest due to the cooler nature of that aspect.  Hiking along for a mile or so we come to a southern branch of the West Fork.  This has been named the Lake Branch, as it drains Baldy Lake located about two miles upstream.  We cross the West Fork and follow an unofficial trail up into the drainage.

Some of the aspen here are ablaze with color, a palette of reds, oranges and yellows.  Much, however, remains green.  Our hike continues up the game trail about half to three-quarters of a mile.  The sky is mostly cloudy but enough sunshine streams through the gaps to keep us warm.  No noise beyond what nature concocts can be heard.  I find a place to sit, partially in the sunlight of the sagebrush steppe and somewhat shaded by the overhanging aspen.  The shepherds lie down nearby, now alert to the potential of feeding on kibble.  Wind rustles the leaves and a few birds exclaim pleasing melodies.  On this more protected aspect the ponderosa pine have given way to lodgepole, and a dense forest of this latter conifer stretches on for miles in some places.

The Lake Branch is but a trickle but yields enough water to easily quench the dogs’ thirst.  The undergrowth is dense near the creek but not impassable.  After our rest I lead the pups down to the water and then back down the light trail.  I’m guessing that this trail was created by cattle that graze here during the Summer, and is used by wildlife and humans as well.  Thinking about my impending shift later in the evening I lead the shepherds and myself back down the trail to the trailhead.  Along the way I admire the sagebrush steppe interfacing with forest. I am happy to be out walking on this day of transition from Summer to Autumn and wish I could extend my visit, but am content with what I have seen.  The heavy scent of pine and sagebrush mingle as I return to the old guard station and this pleasing odor I carry away with me back home.

Cataract Gulch on the Last Day of Summer – September 21, 2017

Sunshine Peak earning its moniker, seen from Cataract Gulch

Although the last day of Summer, the aspen and other green things had already begun to turn the amber color that denotes the oncoming of Autumn.  I felt fortunate to have the day off.  I loaded my two German shepherds and stalwart hiking companions, Draco and Leah, into the Subaru and we drove west out of Gunnison, Colorado, where I make my home.  Eight miles on U.S. 50 and we turned onto Colorado 149 and drove about an hour to reach the small county seat of Lake City.  Nestled in the northern portion of the San Juan Mountains among the many ancient calderas that form said heights, Lake City is the only municipality in Hinsdale County.  Supposedly the most remote county in the lower forty-eight, according to some matrix of variables such as road density and population, not many people live here and backcountry abounds.

A bit beyond, to the south of Lake City, a turn-off for Hinsdale Country Road 3 allows access to Lake San Cristobal and then parallels the Lake Fork.  A few miles on the poor pavement turns to gravel, and a few miles beyond that lies the Cataract Gulch Trailhead on Bureau of Land Management property.  Why this area was excluded from the Gunnison National Forest is beyond my comprehension, but I would guess that it might be due to the heavy exploitation of minerals in the form of hard-rock mining.  The Forest Service uses the number 475 for this trail and the BLM uses another, just to keep things interesting.  Now part of the Handies Peak Wilderness Study Area, it should have been included as part of the Forest Services’s roadless inventory decades before.  Bureaucratic maleficence kept this area open to skulduggery but it seems that little damage was done in the interval.

A bridge crossing the Lake Fork keeps feet dry and is the only level hiking in the first two miles.  Immediately after crossing the span the trail begins to climb and close to two thousand feet of elevation is gained before the trail levels off a bit.  Cataract gulch lives up to its name, as the sound of tumbling water fills the gulch.  On a north face, this trail is very shady and admits little sunshine.  The trail follows the cleft in the rock that the water flows through and is somewhat cloistered.  When the calderas filled the region with flows of basalt, different layers where created.  Stepping up, so to speak, a layer or two involves steep climbing but once on top of a layer the going becomes fairly flat.  Exiting the confining canyon, Cataract Gulch suddenly widens into a gorgeous alpine valley.  Another two miles of hiking and the dogs and I reach Cataract Lake situated just below the Continental Divide.

Having stopped on a knoll above the lake, I imbibed water while the pups quenched their thirst directly from the lake.  I then led the shepherds up to the pass by following the trail.  Bushwhacking seems possible should someone wish to crest the divide further to the east.  Here a bit of confusion sets in.  The Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail have been rerouted a bit so that their route differs from what appears on my revised-in-2004 map shows (the newest addition, at least, has this newer reroute).  Instead of curving around to the east to make the old junction with both those named trails, the new junction sits practically atop the pass, near a small unnamed pond.  I wandered out about a quarter of a mile to the west of the pass, following the trail so as to see if I could determine its route.  This put me at the headwaters of Pole Creek.  I’m not entirely sure, but I think the new route continues west and not down into Pole Creek as did the old route.  I didn’t have time or moxie to find out, so I found a warm slope to sit on and watched the world go round.

More later!… (Playing with the new editor, switching back to the old; might have to update my technology [sigh])

Studying the distant horizon of the rugged San Juan Mountains I made no real attempt to identify the peaks.  My map didn’t reach that far.  I did appreciate that sitting here in Pole Creek I was staring down into the upper drainage of the Rio Grande River and thus the watershed of the Atlantic Ocean.  After a spell of repose and contemplation I led the pups back over the small pass and into the Pacific watershed.  I stared up at Half Peak, the name of which makes more sense when seen from a distance.  It appears that half the mountain has been cleaved away.  In reality, I believe that what remains is the rim of a once huge volcanic caldera.  We paused again at the lake, me for admiration and canines for slaking thirst.  We descended Cataract Gulch via the same trail that we had climbed.  

The sunny alpine tundra was warm and inviting.  The once-verdant grass had completely changed into a golden-hued extravaganza.  The two colors mixed where the changeover wasn’t complete, and I walked along in bliss under the cerulean skies.  Coming to the end of the tundra, we began the steep fall back down to the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.  Time and again I was reminded why this cleft in the rock was named Cataract Gulch, as tumbling water could be seen and heard throughout our hike down.  The dense forest was relatively cool and damp compared to the tundra above, where sunlight had beat down sans shade.  Reaching the trailhead, I loaded the pups up, reflecting on what I had seen.  Quietude had been the norm, although much of this area is open to motorized recreation.  There are many trails in the area, and nearly unlimited possibilities for backpacking and exploring exist.   Aye, I eagerly await my return to do just that!

(Final edit!)