Colorado Part II

Posted on / by Alex Berger


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In my last post I left you as we turned in for the evening after a soggy but delightful day spent in the San Juan Mountain Range.  We had set up camp at point [3] and after debating re-locating each night, elected to use it as a base camp for the duration of the trip.

Friday morning was cold.  Not just frosty, but legitimately cold enough that dragging ourselves out of our sleeping bags was difficult. The first order of business was a fire and breakfast. Unfortunately, the lion’s share of the coals we had buried from the night before had burned out, so with a few muffled grunts and curses we eventually managed to light the semi-damp twigs we’d gathered. Before long we had a decent-sized, albeit smoldering, fire.  As soon as the fire was burning steadily and there were a few coals we quickly set to cooking a delightful, but salty, spam breakfast. Unfortunately, our first attempt – taking the can of spam and just tossing it in the fire – didn’t work very well. We were forced to fish it out with sticks, open it up, and carve out thick slices which we then cooked with a flat piece of tinfoil on the grill attached to the fire pit.

[5] – Before long we filled up our water bottles and set out.  After staring at the map for a good 10 minutes we decided upon Priests Gulch for our first hike. Located a few miles down the road, I harbored fond memories of the trail and small stream running along it from a few years back. The drive to it was easy and painless, and before long we’d turned off on a small overgrown gravel road and found the trailhead…A small parking lot/meadow sitting beside a wooded stream. The dandelions were in full bloom and to our relief the area had escaped the previous day’s snow.

We strapped on our packs, took a minute to look at the trail map. We had a brief conversation with an elderly gentleman who was up from the Sun City area and the only other body to be seen. He offered up a few suggestions and tips for the best hike and following his advice we set off. Despite several small inclines the hike was generally fairly easy.  The biggest obstacle for me was probably the altitude. The greater Phoenix area sits at about 1,000 feet. The trail we were hiking was approximately 7,000 feet higher than my norm and the lack of pollutants in the air was definitely offset by it’s thinness.  That said the crispness and virgin freshness of the mountain air was incredible.  Living in the city, I think two of the things I miss the most are clean air and being able to see the stars in their pure vibrancy at night. You see the smog, smell the subtle undertones of pollution, but it’s not until you get away from it all and get a whiff of pure mountain air that you really realize just how bad it is.  In the valley if I take a deep breath and try to hold it I’ll cough. In the mountains, after a few deep breaths to purge my lungs, I could not only take a deep breath but hold it without the associated coughing fit.


I mentioned that the dandelions were in bloom, but not only were they in bloom they were prolific, dotting the mountain meadows in a sea of vibrant yellow supplemented by the occasional wildflower bloom. In the throes of spring all the grass was a healthy rich green and the aspens were all sporting fresh leaves. To add to the experience the day was perfect.  With hardly a cloud in the sky, it was a beautiful 70 something degrees and ideal for a hike.

After hiking for a mile or so along the path, I found a spot where the water was flowing slightly slower and decided to toss my fly in and try my hand at a little fly fishing. To my disappointment the small stream I remembered from past visits was still swollen with runoff and snow melt turning it into a murky, fast-moving stream. This made it both impossible to spot fish and extremely difficult to find good areas to fish. Eager to enjoy the moment as much as anything, I persevered and after managing to catch my fair share number of trees, we continued on our way up the trail. The boys were wonderful about pausing and patiently waiting for me as I tossed my line in at various points along the trail. Not to mention helping me fish my fly out of a low hanging tree or two.

The aspen were beautiful, with their fresh leaves and clean scent they sprang up in the midst of the smaller meadows, while the majority of the trail was shadowed by large pine trees all putting off a wonderful, if subtle, strawberry-vanilla scent.  Eventually, we reached a point in the trail where the swollen stream had swallowed the ford forcing us to make our way downstream until we found a fallen tree we could use as a bridge. After crossing we elected to trade the trail for a sightly more rugged, but more natural, deer path that traced its way along the riverside. It took us through beautiful meadow after beautiful meadow, through thickets of oak, and under beautiful pine trees before finally being forced to re-ford the river on a much more precarious tree bridge.  Fearing for our lives, we all made it across in one piece – no small feat I assure you.

[4] – Tired and starving we piled back into the car and decided to make the trip back into Dolores.  Just over a day in, we realized that we had drastically underestimated the cavernous extent of our highly metabolized hunger.  As we approached Dolores, we were shocked to find traffic at a near standstill. The cause?  A cattle drive – down main street. There were cows and bulls of all sizes leisurely meandering their way down the road.  Traffic slowly inched forward through the herd, moving at the whim of 1,000+ pounds of pure muscle.  In total there were about 6 cowboys/cowgirls managing the herd, though they were obviously in no hurry to move things along.  The whole experience was pretty comical and loads of fun – there’s nothing quite like sitting in a car waiting for a cow to stop trying to lick it’s own tail or staring out your rolled-down window as a huge bull ambles by at eye level less than a foot away. Thank god the car was silver and not red!

Once through the herd and into Dolores proper we stopped at an old restaurant (The Ponderosa). I’ve been going to it with family for as long as I can remember. The whole place is the epitome of a small town mid-western restaurant and loads of fun. The food wasn’t quite as good as I’d remembered, but still satisfied our burning hunger and left us more than content. After finishing our meal we made our way to the local market – a small affair the size of the bakery in most major supermarkets. There we stocked up on some bare essentials and I picked up a few fresh pork chops for the fire later that evening.

Once back at camp and settled in we relaxed, unwound, and I decided to take my pole and try my hand at the one or two small eddies/fallen trees located along the river near our campsite. Up to my knees in the freezing cold snow melt I finally had space to really cast comfortably and was able to knock off some of the rust and re-hone my flymanship. Before long I got a fantastic strike…but failed to land the fish. Unfortunately this turned out to be the only strike I had during the entire trip. I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing given Lander and my pact to try and make fresh sashimi out of whatever trout I managed to catch. Cold, wet, and a little frustrated with myself I made my way back to the camp and the campfire where the boys and I spent the rest of the evening drinking, telling stories, and singing odd songs.

[6] – Every bit as gorgeous as Friday, Saturday was bright, sunny, crisp and clear. After repeating Friday morning’s breakfast ritual we geared up and piled into the car. Our destination? Lizard Head Pass and trailhead located about 30 miles northeast of our campsite, past Rico but not quite to Silverton or Telluride. The pass itself is at about 11,000 feet with peaks surrounding it soaring closer to 14,000. The drive from our campsite up to the pass was stunning. The small two-lane highway winds along the Dolores River as it makes its way up the valley through aspens, oaks, spruce, and pines.  The dandelion-filled meadows were also common.  The air was amazing and the whole experience liberating. The drive in and of itself was surprisingly relaxing and almost meditative. As we slowly wound up the valley the leaves changed, the air grew slightly cooler and significantly thinner and eventually we found ourselves traveling through small patches of snow.  Luckily, given our timing, the majority of the snow we had encountered Thursday when trying to reach Sharkstooth had melted in the lower areas of the high peaks leaving periodic drifts and green grass in its wake.

Unlike the lower elevations, spring’s first touch was just starting to be felt in the pass.  Where the cabbage-like plants had been well on their way to unfurling during our adventure around Transfer and during our Priests Gulch hike, they were small buds just breaking the surface in Lizard Head Pass. The trail we took wound up and away from the road toward the backside of the mountain and offered a beautiful view of Trout Lake, located on the far side of the pass. The trail itself showed minimal signs of traffic and I think it’s safe to say that we were only the 2nd or 3rd group to hike it in several days. Despite the warm weather and general lack of snow, there were still deep snowdrifts across the trail in numerous spots.  These drifts rose out of the soil, often perpendicular to the trail, forcing us to scale the 2-6 foot gentle slopes. At times we sank all the way to our knees before descending the other side and returning to firm ground.

The most comical part of the trip came in the form of a hidden stream. The stream, presumably fed by snow melt, had carved a small tunnel about 2 feet underneath the surface of one of the snow drifts. As I paved our path I jumped from the top of the drift down into what looked like a safe lower area and proceeded to punch through the 2 feet of snow and down into the 3 inch deep stream. Thankfully my foot hit the water and I immediately pulled it out, leaving it damp but not drenched. Dan, following directly on my heels, misjudged the distance needed to avoid the stream and punched a second hole down into the water leaving his foot drenched.

The rest of the hike was wonderful. The views, sounds, and general energy of the wild mountain peak was liberating. After a few miles we paused to rest on a giant scree field before turning back and returning to the car. We drove the mile or so down the far slope of the pass to Trout Lake where we paused, relaxed, and took in the amazing jagged mountains that surrounded us, soaring into the crystal clear, blue heavens.

On the drive back down to the campsite we paused for an hour or so just north of Rico for PB & J sandwiches and a bit of fishing. The area we stopped at had the look of a perfect fishing spot…the river opened up and split into a number of small, shallow channels winding down over the rocks and through the trees. To my amazement, frustration, and general dismay despite the look of the area I still was unable to so much as spot a fish. Again the weather, snow melt, and proximity to memorial day weekend no doubt played a major role.

Once back at the campsite we fell back into your routine. Collecting damp driftwood to dry out and burn, cooking dinner, a little fishing, a little drinking, and lots of stories and singing. Added to the mix we spent a good hour playing with our cameras taking long exposure shots. The best of which were sparkleresque shots in which we set a 15 second exposure, then took burning sticks and spelled out words and names in the air.

When Sunday morning came we broke camp early, ate a quick breakfast, and somehow fit everything back into the car before making our way back to Durango where we dropped Lander off at the airport. From Durango we began our long trip back south. Despite the barren nature of the drive there is some amazing country. The area about an hour north of Flagstaff in particular always amazes me. The bizarre, eroded hills look more like martian terrain than something of this earth. That wraps up the trip. I hope to have more to share soon.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

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