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Archive for October, 2011

  • Points Earned:  2
  • Wilderness Area:  Dominguez Canyon
  • Wilderness Size:  66,280 acres
  • Wilderness Location:  Colorado Western Slope
  • Total Miles:  Approximately 14
  • Destination:  Big Dominguez Canyon
  • Highlights:  Waterfalls, Red Slick-Rock Canyon, Petroglyphs

    Waterfall on Big Dominguez Creek

One of the country’s newest wilderness areas, Dominguez Canyon received federall wilderness protection in 2009.  It covers 66,000 acres of Colorado Western Slope canyon country, and it offers some very unique characteristics, such as Mr. Rambo.

A man by the name of Mr. Rambo owns an old homestead in Little Dominguez Canyon, whithin the wilderness boundary, and was granted a lifetime right of residential access to the canyon.  He, apparently, lives there in some kind of reclusive survivalist mode.  Trailhead and wilderness boundary signs request that visiters to Little Dominguez Canyon respect his privacy and keep clear of his property.  Much respect to Mr. Rambo.

Merging with Mr. Rambo’s Little Dominguez Canyon about a mile above the Gunnison River is Big Dominguez Canyon, our destination.  Year-round water flows through both of these upper Sonoran desert canyons in the form of Big and Little Dominguez Creeks.  Big Dominguez (and perhaps Little D. as well) supports a population of easily spooked trout–unusual in this environment and elevation.

The trailhead is at the end of Bridgeport Road, a good gravel road accessed from US Hwy 50 between Grand Junction and Montrose.  Driving in, it doesn’t look like much.   A few lone juniper trees here and there provide the only greenery in what is otherwise a strikingly bright white desert.  What follows is my trip report:

We come to the end of the Bridgeport Road in a cloud of dust and arrive at the trailhead.  It’s warm for late October–almost hot.  There are only three other vehicles here.  We look around and see the dual railroad tracks of the Burlington Northern and catch a glimpse through the brush of the greenish Gunnison River.  I look up and see no clouds.  Everything is so incredibly bright and vivid.  The scene at the trailhead confirms my expectation that this is not a typical Colorado Wilderness.  We feel more like we are somewhere in Southern Utah.

A mile in now, we’ve been walking along the tracks and the river.  The river here is flowing swiftly, like rivers should flow in the West, but there are no roaring rapids.  The “Gunnison Green” water is sparkling brightly under a sharp afternoon sun.  Beyond the opposite bank rises a two-hundred foot red-rock canyon wall gracing the contours of the river that created it.  It is a taste of the canyon scenery to come.  We leave the tracks and cross to the other side of the river on a giant footbridge.

BIG long footbridge over the Gunnison RiverLooking up the Gunnison River from the footbridgeLooking up the Gunnison River from the footbridge

Gunnison River from the footbridge

We continue up the right bank of the Gunnison and begin to pass under the bright gold leaves of fall cottonwood trees.  Camping is allowed in this area and there are a number of nice vacant places along the river and underneath these shady trees.  But, we decide to push on.

Brilliant golden cottonwood in the canyon

Soon we come to the confluence of Dominguez Creek and the Gunnison river, and it is here that our route takes us away from the big river and up into Big Dominguez Canyon.

The personality of Big Dominguez Canyon reveals itself boldly.  Both rugged and forgiving, the red canyon walls rise hundreds of feet vertically on each side.  But, at the bottom of the canyon is a wide and gentle grassy plain.  Juniper trees stand guard here and there over dry grasses and prickly pear cactuses.  Big Dominguez Creek can be seen at times–a small creek with clear water delicately negotiating its dark granite streambed.

Soon we look to our left to see the creek dissappear over a ledge.  Then we realize that we are looking at the top of a waterfall.  We walk over solid granite to the precipice and marvel at a 40 foot falls from the top as it drops down to a large green pool below.  We look at each other, knowing it is late afternoon, and decide that the base of this waterfall would be a great place to camp.

Looking down from the top of the waterfall

At the bottom of the fallsLooking down on our campsite near the bottom of the waterfall

After finding a safe route to the bottom of the falls, we set up a beautiful campsite about 100 feet downstream of the waterfall.  We’ll have the soothing white noise of rushing water to fall asleap to later.

 

Campsite near the waterfall

For the rest of the afternoon and evening we explore the canyon country near the campsite, following the sunshine up the slopes as the inner canyon becomes shaded and cooled by the shadows of the canyon rim.

As darkness falls we see Jupiter rise over the northern horizon.  The Milky Way graces the canyon from rim to rim.  In the starlight we talk of places we’ve been, things we’ve done and life yet to live.  I think of my three-month old daughter and how I might take her to this beautiful place one day.

Next day, we wake to blue skies.  Another beautiful Fall day in the western desert.  After breakfast we provision our day packs, replenish our water and set out to explore up-canyon.  As we walk at a slow pace I look up at the cliffs of the canyon and the giant broken bolders strewn about the canyon floor.  I wonder what natural events cleaved these rocks from the mountain.  That big rock over there that is broken almost in half–when did that happen?  How did that happen?

The trail passes beneath a tilting flat rock resting against a larger rock. On close examination it appears that the tilting flat rock used to be part of the larger boulder and at some point was broken off and displaced.

Soon we are taken hundreds of years back into time as we marvel at the ancient rock art of a past culture.

Petroglyphs potentially hundreds of years oldMore petroglyphs

More petroglyphs

As we continue the canyon becomes more impressive and we find ourselves gazing up at huge banded cliffs, rock promontories and giant amphitheaters.

The colorful cliffs of Big Dominguez CanyonA major promontory. We watched a vulture soar right through the middle of the opening between the rocks on this pictureMassive amphitheater in the canyon wall. Echoes of our yells were extraordinarily clear.

Huge amphitheater in the canyon wall

Massive Promontory. We watched a vulture fly through the hole in the rocks in this picture

We continue on for about three miles and stop for lunch along the creek before turning back towards our Garden of Eden campsite.  On the return, we break from the trail and follow the creek.  We walk along its hard granite banks as it dips and curves around polished stone.

Refreshing Big Dominguez Creek flowing over a bed of polished granite

As we follow our creek downstream we soon come to another waterfall, unseen before from the trail.  An 8-foot fall pours into a cavern of granite.  The water below the falls forms into a confined placid pool.

Waterfall from above as it pours into a rock chasmThe tranquil pools below the fallsThe tranquil pools below the falls

Tranquil pools below the falls

Back at the campsite for our second and final night in the wilderness, Jupiter visits us again.  A light breeze rattles the golden leaves of our cottonwood tree.  A trout spashes in the creek.  We talk less tonight.  I gaze at the starlit rocks around our canyon and listen to the steady rush of our waterfall upstream.  Dozer is curled up at my feet already exploring the trails in his dreams.  I feel the stress and anxiety lift from my shoulders and drift away, up and over the rim of the canyon.

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Since the first Wilderness Act of 1964 there have been a number of subsequent wilderness additions.  The largest was in 1980 when most of Alaska’s current 57 million acres were added.

We continue to identify, propose and protect new lands for wilderness designation.  The link below provides a list of all wilderness legislative bills currently under review:

Current Wilderness Legislation by State

Here is a summary of some of the more significant proposals:

1.)  The California Desert Protection Act of 2011

This substantial bill includes 1.6 million acres of desert landscape for various federal designations including 346,000 acres of new wilderness.  In addition to new wilderness lands, the bill would create the Desert Trails and Sand to Snow National Monuments and expand existing national parks.

2.) Colorado Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Act

Protection for 166,000 acres including almost 82,000 acres as designated wilderness.  Specific new wilderness areas in consideration are the Bull Gulch, Spraddle Creek, and Hoosier Ridge.  These areas would increase protection for wildlife connectivity in the region.

3.)  Colorado San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act of 2011

This legislation proposes new protection for 55,000 acres including 33,000 as designated wilderness.  A new wilderness area, the San Juan Mountains Wilderness, would be added along with extensions to the Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels Wilderness Areas.

4.) Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act

This bill proposes the protection of an additional 330,000 acres of designated wilderness in central Idaho.  Three new wilderness areas would be created in the Boulder-White Clouds Mountain Range which is currently the largest unprotected roadless area in the Lower 48.

5.)  Montana Forest Jobs and Recreation Act

This bill proposes wilderness protection for 700,000 acres of wild land in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Lolo and Kootenai National Forests.  This legislation proposes a number of new wilderness areas as well as additions to existing wilderness areas.

6.)  New Mexico Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act

Involves the designation of 235,000 acres northwest of Taos as a Conservation Area, but only 21,000 acres of it as designated wilderness.  This bill will provide protection for the Rio Grande Gorge.

7.)  New Mexico Organ Mountains-Dona Ana County Conservation and Protection Act

This bill proposes wilderness designation for 241,000 acres in the Organ and Robledo Mountains in Southern New Mexico near Las Cruces.

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There are 757 designated and federally protected wilderness areas in the United States.  They range in size from the tiny 6 acre Pelican Island Wilderness in Florida (how 6 acres can be a “wilderness” is beyond me) to the mind-numbingly huge 9 Million acre Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska.  I know I will never visit all of them.  So, here is my “Top 10” list of wilderness areas which I haven’t yet seen, but hope to visit some day (I’ll leave the Alaskan behemoths for another post):

1.  Frank Church River of No Return

Why?  Because it is the Grandaddy of all Lower-48 Wilderness Areas.  “The Frank,” as they call it, is large even by Alaska standards, protecting a giant 2.3 million acre chunk of Idaho’s Bitterroot Range.  Pristine rivers and streams are, to me, the essence and life blood of alpine wilderness, and this one has three Wild and Scenic Rivers:  The Main Salmon (River of No Return), The Middle Salmon, and the Selway.  the Middle Salmon and its endless 104 wilderness miles is a true national treasure.  The flyfishing for cutthroat is legendary, and extensive wilderness rafting trips have been said to change lives.  This vast wilderness area is a land of deep wild canyons, crystal clear rivers and bright mountains.  It offers a wilderness experience unmatched anywhere in the U.S. outside of Alaska.

The Middle Salmon River through the River of No Return Wilderness

 2.  The Gila

Why?  For one thing, the Gila, in SW New Mexico, is America’s first federally protected wildland.  Forty years before the first major Wilderness Act in 1964, the Gila was set aside as a federally protected wilderness preserve thanks in large part to the efforts of naturalist Aldo Leopold.  He was first sent to the area to remove wolves and emerged years later as one of our preeminent founding fathers of wilderness preservation:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.” – Aldo Leopold

But, being the first wilderness is not the only reason to put the Gila on the list.  Its 580,000 acres, largest in New Mexico, harbors some of the finest of true West wildland.  The most extensive ponderosa pine forests are picturesquely contoured by some of the wildest and most rugged river canyons in the country.  Huge grass-covered plateaus stand over these vast forestlands.  One visitor said:  “When I walked into the Gila it just smelled like The West.”  That says it all.

Rock Spires in the Gila Wilderness

 3.  Jarbidge

Jarbidge?  Where the hell is that?

Exactly.  Jarbidge is on my list because it combines adequate size (111,000 acres), outstanding alpine beauty, and extreme remoteness.  It is located in Northeast Nevada, in one of that state’s many minor mountain ranges that rise out of the Great Basin Desert.  On a map it is near… nothing.  No major highways come close.  No major towns are anywhere near it.  But, pictures of it are breathtaking.  High peaks are draped in aspen and pine over fields of wildflowers.  It could be mistaken for somewhere in Colorado.  But, nowhere in Colorado would one find scenery like that with so few people.  I would be astonished if more than a few dozen people visit this place in any given summer.  And, that makes it true wilderness to me.

It looks like it could be the Elk Mountains in Colorado. But, it's actually the Jarbidge Wilderness in NE Nevada.

 4.  Steens Mountain

Why?  Steens Mountain is a combination of extreme remoteness and uniqueness.  It’s remoteness in the desert of Southeast Oregon probably rivals that of Jarbidge.  But, it’s uniqueness is what draws me to it.  Rising out of the Great Basin desert is a big mountain–Steens Mountain.  And, surrounding Steens Mountain is a 170,000 acre wilderness area.  Pictures of it show an area devoid of all but a few stands of hardy pine trees.  But, the high elevation seems to generate a lush carpet of greenery and wildflowers on the ridges and flanks of Steens Mountain, which rises from the desert like a sacred castle.

From high on the big Steens Mountain rising from the northern desert

5.  Golden Trout

Why?  Because it’s called “Golden Trout.” Really, this is the native home to the most mysterious of trout species, the Golden.  Being a trout fisherman who loves remote alpine trout fishing, that brings a special allure for me.  But, more than that, Golden Trout Wilderness and its substantial 303,000 acres is actually part of a gigantic contiguous wilderness region comprised of eleven different wilderness areas with nothing but an invisible boundary separating one name from the other.  This is the high Southern Sierra in California, and some of these areas are world-famous and represent some of the finest and most vast wildlands in America.  Combined, this contiguous stretch of wilderness totals about 2.3 million acres making it comparable in size to the Frank Church River of No Return.  And, if it all had one name instead of eleven, it would be listed as either 2 or 3 on the largest wilderness list in the lower 48.  The eleven contiguous wilderness areas are, roughly from south to north:  South Sierra, Golden Trout, Seqoiuia Kings Canyon, John Krebs, John Muir,  Jennie Lakes, Monarch, Dinkey Lakes, Ansel Adams, Owens River Headwaters and about the southern third of Yosemite (Yosemite is bisected by a road).  Of this entire conglomeration of uninterrupted wilderness, I personally find the Golden Trout to be the most interesting.

A high lake in the Golden Trout Wilderness

 6.  Cabeza Prieta

Why?  Because everything about this place is bad-ass.  First the “boring” stuff.  The Cabeza Prieta is huge.  At over 800,000 acres it is Arizona’s largest designated wilderness.  It is a desert wildland consisting of upland and lowland componants of Sonoran Desert.  Rugged mountains, sand dunes, lava flows and wide valleys characterize this area.  Desert night skies are unmatched anywhere else in the country.  And, this vast wilderness is singularly unique in its combination of size and Sonoran environment.

Now for the cool stuff:  First and foremost the Cabeza was the secret stomping grounds of grumpy old Edward Abbey before it was officially designated as wilderness in 1990.  If it was a favorite of Abbey’s then it must have some special secrets. 

Second, it borders Mexico: “Due to illegal border crossings by both people looking for work and drug smugglers, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol actively patrol the refuge and wilderness area.” – Wilderness.net.

Third, due to a “memorandum of understanding” the US military conducts occaisional overflights. “To ensure you are aware of the dangers of unexploded military ordnance, a permit and your signature on a Holdharmless Agreement is required to enter the wilderness.” – Wilderness.net

Fourth, this area is home to six species of rattlesnake and hidden mineshafts.  No water is available either, so you have to pack in about 1.5 gallons per day per person.

And, finally, the fifth reason the Cabeza is bad-ass:  It harbors a tiny population of about 80 endangered desert pronghorns.  So, backpacking here offers the possibility of glimpsing one of the world’s rarest animals.

Saguaro Cactus and the stark mountains of the Cabeza Prieta

 7.  The Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Why?  Because nowhere else in the country, and few places anywhere in the world, offer such an extensive network of natural interconnected waterways.  It would take multiple lifetimes for a conoeist to explore all the shoreline available here.  And, that’s just on the U.S. side.

This is an international wilderness area.  The U.S. side follows 199 miles of the Minnesota-Canadian border and encompasses over 800,000 acres.  On the Canadian side is Quetico Provincial Park which adds about another 1.2 million acres making the combined international wilderness area about 2 million acres large.

It’s no big deal–the area holds, oh, about two or three THOUSAND individual lakes and over a thousand miles of streams interconnecting those lakes.  Fishing is world class for monster sized Pike and Lake Trout among many other species.  And late at night you might hear the lonesome howl of the northern Gray Wolf.

A picture of absolute scerenity in the Boundary Waters - Courtesy of Wilderness.net

 
8.  Pasayten
 
Why?  One reason is because it is one of the largest wilderness areas in the United States, at over 530,000 acres, and is yet virtually unknown to all but locals and wilderness buffs like me.  Another reason is because it is part of the North Cascades, in my view the most underrated mountain range in America–they can be simply jaw-dropping.  A third reason is because of its exceptionally diverse wildlife.  The Pasayten covers a huge swath of the North Cascades in Washington State, running along the Canadian border for many miles.
 
About that wildlife, it’s almost like a piece of Canada decided to dip down into the States.  In the Pasayten roam both black and grizzly bears, the northern gray wolf, a substantial population of lynx, and the extraordinarily elusive wolverine.  These predators find ample prey in herds of deer and elk, solitary moose, and high climbing mountain goats.  Few other places in the Lower 48, if any, can boast as extensive a list of large wild animal species.  And, for those who believe, this is the epicenter of Sasquatch legend in the U.S.
 
About the scenery, there are 600 miles of trails that can take you deep into some of the most exceptional alpine backcountry in the nation.  Enough said.
 

Classic Eastern North Cascades shot in the Pasayten Wilderness

 
9.  Olympic
 
Why?  Because it’s the freaking Olympic Peninsula.  It’s phenominal.
 
I’ve actually been to the edge of Olympic National Park and Wilderness twice.  Once at the Hoh Nature Trail, and once after hiking 6 miles through a bordering wilderness to spectacular Marmot Pass on the border of Olympic.  It was at Marmot Pass that I gazed into this vast and seemingly endless sea of Northwest Peaks that was the Olympic Mountains.  It is big at 800,000 plus acres.
 
When people think of the Olympics they often see visions of a Pacific Northwest Rainforest and big trees.  Yes, it is that, but it is soooo much more than that.  It is glaciers and fantastic wilderness river valleys.  It is not just big trees, it is pre-historic-like mammoth trees that defy the imagination even when you are standing right in front of them.  It is a wild stretch of wilderness Pacific Ocean beach.  It is the mystery of Sasquach.  It is 250 inches of rain a year on the wet side and 12 inches a year on the dry.  It is the tippy top northwest corner of the Lower 48.  And, it is extraordinary.
 

Olympic Mountains over the fog

 
10.  Cloud Peak
 
Why?  Because I’ve already been to the Bridger and Fitzpatrick and can’t include them.  But, also because of its location on the crest of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming.
 
Cloud Peak Wilderness, at 189,000 acres is big enough, but not that big by the standards of Wyoming.  What makes it interesting is the Bighorn Mountains.  When one looks at a relief map of the Western United States it is hard not to be drawn to this oddity jutting out to the east of the main Rocky Mountain spine.  They are like a high island out of place, which is what makes them alluring.
 
The location of Cloud Peak also likely ensures solitude for it is a significant distance from any major city or large town.  And, for those too nervous about “The Major” to venture into some of the other Wyoming and Montana wilderness areas, the Bighorns are not home to grizzlies.  But, they are home to hundreds of lakes and beautiful U-shaped glacially carved valleys.  When others are looking towards the spectacular Tetons, the wildlife of Yellowstone, and the Sierra-like Wind River Mountains, I keep drawing my eyes to the east on that map to that weird spine called the Bighorns and the Cloud Peak Wilderness along that range’s crest.
 

Beautiful bright granite mountains above an alpine lake in Cloud Peak Wilderness

 
 
 

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  • Points Earned:  1
  • Trip Date:  January, 2011
  • Wilderness Area:  Indian Peaks
  • Wilderness Size:  77,711 acres
  • Distance:  8 miles
  • Duration:  Day Hike
  • Destination:  Mitchell Lake

    A foot bridge covered by lots of snow

Okay, so it’s been way too long since I’ve posted anything.  I have a good excuse:  The birth of my daughter in July!  Although she has brought indescribable joy into our lives it pretty much removed any opportunity for hiking and backpacking this summer.  It’s not cool to leave your wife and 2-week-old newborn home alone to go scampering around in the woods.  But, I did do a nice snowhoeing trip in the Indian Peaks back in January that, until now, I hadn’t gotten around to posting a report on.  So, here it is.

I had hiked up to Blue Lake the prior August, and after receiving some hand-me-down snowshoes, the first place I could think to try them out was Blue Lake.  I remember wondering what that beautiful lake would be like in the Winter.

Blue Lake in the winter would be a substantial challenge, not just because snowshoeing is more strenuous than hiking, but because the access to the Brainard Lake Rec Area in winter is at the “winter gate.” That’s about 2 miles or so from Brainard Lake (in summer you just drive right up to and past Brainard Lake).  That would make it about 10-11 miles to get to Blue Lake and back, double the summer distance.

I started out at the winter gate on a designated snowshoe route.  Finding that the heavily used trail was hard-packed I decided not to strap on the snowshoes just yet.  I hiked in my regular boots up to Brainard Lake and all the way up to the Mitchell Lake Trailhead.

Snow-drifted Brainard Lake Road with Brainard Lake in the background

 

Brainard Lake Road and Lake in Summer. It's a very different place in winter.

 

Some lonely ski tracks lead into the Indian Peaks Wilderness

 
At the Mitchell Lake Trailhead I looked around.  All the other snowshoers were behind me and I was the only person here.  In Summer this trailhead and trail, one of the most heavily used in Colorado, is packed with hundreds of people.  Now, it was deserted and perfectly quiet.  I strapped on the snowshoes and stepped into the soft snow.
 
I really enjoyed the mile or so up to Mitchell Lake.  I followed those ski tracks through the trees, up and over little hills, and over footbridges buried under feet of snow.
 
When I reached Mitchell Lake I wanted to do the one thing you can’t do in summer:  Walk out on the lake itself.  As I stepped from the forest out onto the lake ice, the subzero windchill stung my face.  Waves of crystalline snow blew across the ice in swirling patterns, and a light blowing snow fell from the sky.  I stopped in the middle of the lake and looked around–a white wilderness wonderland.
 

From the middle of Mitchell Lake, you can almost feel the cold just by looking at this picture

 
I made my way to the far end of the lake on the ice and scouted for some tracks that would lead me to Blue Lake.  There was nothing but pure un-touched powder.  I made the easy decision to call Mitchell Lake the final destination and turned to head home.
 
I did see a couple other people on the way back.  They, too, had wanted to go to Blue Lake, but decided not to go past Mitchell.  I stepped my way back over the soft snow down to the trailhead and then another three miles past Brainard Lake to the Winter Gate, all the while thinking about how different this place was in January compared to that August Saturday a few months ago.  I couldn’t decide whether it was more beautiful in the summer or winter.  I probably could not determine that if I spent a lifetime trying.

 

 

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