Colorado Part II

Legend

Feeling lazy? Listen to this post instead:

Listen to this post

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.

PHOTOS HERE

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.

Colorado Part I

Feeling lazy? Listen to this post instead:

Listen to this post

I was going stir crazy.  I’d been back from Europe for five and a half months and was in desperate need of a change in scenery.  Lacking the time off and finances to schedule a trip abroad I focused on locations closer to home, within driving distance. The downside was it was a quick fix, the upside was the proximity meant I got to spend quality time with several of my best friends. In early May we started looking at our options.  Before long we selected the San Juan Mountain Range which surrounds Durango and is a few miles north east of Cortez in Colorado.  Google maps told us that each leg of the trip would cover some 450 miles.

By the end of the planning stage there were 4 of us able to make the trip. Nick, Dan and I would meet up in Prescott before driving up from Arizona, while Lander would fly in from Montana and planned to meet us at the Durango Airport. Eager to maximize our time I headed north immediately after getting off work. By 7 we were on the road to Flagstaff and by 10 in the evening we were somewhere in the middle of the desert in northern Arizona. The drive was fun, if a little cramped as the 3 of us, all over 6 foot, piled into Nick’s Ford Cavalier with our various sleeping bags, tents, and packs. By 1:30 in the morning we had crossed into Colorado, passed through Cortez and could practically taste Durango’s mountain air. Our minds were already filled with spring-laden mountain meadows full of blossoming wild flowers and fresh, recently ripened wild strawberries.

By 1:45 we were staring out the car windows with wide eyes and in shock. The weather had been rainy all day, but now we were seeing what looked like the white of snow along the sides of the road.  It was just far enough out that we couldn’t tell for sure if it was snow or just late night frost until I also noticed that the street signs were covered in a splattering of white crystalline sludge.  Surprised and a bit disgruntled we rolled forward for another 20 minutes, dropping in altitude until we found ourselves in a cold, damp, but blessedly snow-free Durango. Lander had found a bus in from the airport and luckily had a warm hotel room ready and waiting. We caught up quickly before setting our alarms and crawling into bed.

Here is a map of the area we covered with key locations numbed:

Locations Colorado - Google Maps

[1] – Thursday wasn’t exactly a camper’s dream. It was overcast almost to the point of being foggy, there was a light drizzle falling intermittently, and everything was wet and cold. Undaunted we tossed our bags back into the car before figuring out a way to squeeze in Lander and his added bag before heading down the street to the local Albertsons to pick up our provisions. A few cans of spam, beans, canned pears, chili and a few bottles of water and liquor. Later, we made our second stop at a local outdoors store. There I picked up a few flies for fishing, a 3 day fishing license, and the boys grabbed a frisbee. As I stared at the medicine cabinet full of flies trying to pick one, I made the mistake of asking the elderly gentleman working the counter if he had any recommendations. After staring at me aghast, he overcame his shock and offered up several obvious and worthless recommendations in between assurances that fly fishing was pointless under current conditions…A fact I was well aware of. I could tell he’d already decided I was an idiot of a tourist. I realized I wasn’t going to get anything useful out of him, but just in case I decided to ask if any of the trails we were debating hiking were open yet. By his response you’d have thought I’d grown antlers and a tail. He eventually offered up several local trail options before seeing us off.

[2] – We piled back into the car and decided to head towards Sharkstooth and the Transfer campground. Curious how far we would make it and wondering how much snow was on the ground, we made the 30 or so minute drive up into the foothills.  Before long we had passed out of the gently misted rolling green hills and were surrounded by snow-dusted scrub oak and juniper trees. As we pushed on we passed into areas covered with snow but still showing signs of spring. Flowers were blooming, grass was growing, and everything was fresh.  Eventually we reach Transfer campground and after pausing for a quick photo and view from the lookout – which overlooks a beautiful pine and aspen valley – we decided we would pass on braving the snow, push on towards Sharkstooth and find a campground later in the evening below snow level. Despite the snow everything was green and the flowers were vibrant yellows pushing up through the wet, damp snow as it quickly turned into slush.

The roadsigns warned that Sharkstooth was some 15 miles ahead. We pushed on down the well-maintained dirt road onto rough gravel and managed to make it 9 miles before coming to a forced stop.  We’d long ago left any other tire marks in the snow behind and were starting to face decent-sized, gravel-laden, snow-covered hills which demanded we abandon our forward trek.  Only marginally defeated we pulled over to the side at a small trailhead, grabbed our day packs, and set off across the white landscape.  We were surrounded by gorgeous aspens and small pools fed by snow melt all covered by 3 or 4 inches of snow. The sun’s glare off of the snow was nearly blinding. As we wound down along the path, and eventually looped around we decided to abandon the set path and cut cross country back toward the car. Up and over a large hill covered in small snow melt streams and dotted by the fresh buds of mountain cabbages pushing their way up through the icy dusting, we headed somewhat confidently in the suspected direction of our car.  Eventually, after a fair amount of debate, a bit of luck, and some perseverance we found our way back to the meadow where we had parked our car. Exhausted, cold, and wet we paused for a quick snack before hopping back in the car and making our way back towards Dolores.

[3] – After passing through town we continued to wind up along the Dolores River to where the west fork splits off.  There we drove another mile or so through a gentle drizzle before finding a campground that had a fantastic site located next to the river at a bend with plenty of room for our tents and privacy.  The west fork of the Dolores ran directly past our campsite offering soothing sounds and wonderful scents.  We quickly braved the light mist that was falling and set up our tents. We purchased a bundle of dry firewood from the campground host. In between drizzle spats we quickly set the fire and got it burning comfortably.  Before long we’d also gathered a number of driftwood logs pushed down by the swollen west fork and deposited conveniently just downstream from our camp spot.  Knowing we’d need more wood later in the evening we piled the collected driftwood on top of and around the fire and allowed it to dry. With the fire steaming and smoking we cooked a hearty meal of hot dogs and beans as we spent the evening catching up and relaxing.

Before long our friendly neighbor made his way over in typical traveler fashion and introduced himself.  He was an elderly man who had retired and now traveled full time with his wife.  Living affordably as they wandered from campground to campground they spent their free time painting, carving, and working trade shows. We exchanged stories and quickly learned more about each other.  As we chatted he shared a number of interesting stories, the most fascinating of which was a tale of how he’d been struck by lightening a few years back, survived, but lost some feeling in the tips of his fingers.

The rain stopped falling and began to clear as the sun set. By 8 or so things were dry enough to turn in and call it a night.  I’ll continue with day 2 (spent hiking Priests Gulch) and day 3 (spent hiking Lizard Head Pass) in a follow-up post.