We’ve been making the pilgrimage to the top of Shark’s Tooth Trail in south western Colorado on a semi-annual basis for as long as I can remember. The hike is a stunning one and starts about halfway up the mountain. The drive to get there is almost as much of an adventure as the hike itself. Winding up and out of Dolores, eventually we split off and leave pavement behind for well maintained gravel. After another few miles we leave the well maintained gravel behind for a 4×4 only rugged, rocky, and pothole (small crater?) filled mountain road that winds up past beaver dams, beautiful high altitude lakes, past giant scree slides and across several small streams.
The hike itself is magical. It wraps its way up the mountain side past old growth trees so large you can’t get you arms around them, past wild strawberry and raspberry plants, then over a series of small snow-melt streams with crystal clear water. The view periodically opens up offering incredible sights of the nearby mountains and creating perfect spots to pause for a breather or light snack. The path also forks past an old abandoned mine and what is left of the old miner’s log cabin. The flowers in Spring and early Summer are always in full bloom and an explosive mixture of colors. Eventually though, both the trees and the flowers give way to odd plants and hardy grasses as you pass above the tree line. From there it’s just another final push before you reach the end of the trail head and the saddle offering a view over the back side of the mountains.
That’s where this photo was shot, as we rested and hid from the wind. One of our Canine hiking companions decided to pause his explorations long enough to join us as we laid back and enjoyed the view at 11,936 feet from the top of Sharkstooth Pass.
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.Â 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:
 – 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.
 – 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.Â 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.
 – 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.