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Posts Tagged ‘Wet Mountains’

Soaring dramatically from the plains of Colorado, Greenhorn Mountain rises from 7,600 to 12,347 feet…  Its summit is the highest point in the Wilderness, and nowhere else in the state provides such a vivid and dramatic change from plains to mountains…Unusual for Colorado, Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness has no lakes and no towering alpine peaks–and, consequently, few human visitors.

Source:  Wilderness.net

A vivid and dramatic change from plains to mountains.  That is the unique characteristic of the 23,087 acres of Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness.  There are hundreds of higher peaks in Colorado, but few as prominent in their surroundings as Greenhorn, the apex of Southern Colorado’s Wet Mountains.  The summit is only about six linear miles from the edge of the Great Plains.

The East Bartlet Trailhead, just up the hill from the pretty down of Rye, borders private property to the east and national forest to the west.  A sign at the property reads “NO TRESPASSING.  SURVIVORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.” I decide not to take a picture of that sign as I pull into the dirt parking area to find only two other vehicles, one of them occupied by a woman reading a book.  It’s 3:00 pm on a Friday.

“You’re going to run into 40 girls pretty soon, just to let you know,” says the woman in the car. “They are hiking over from the other side of the range.”  When she says “girls” I’m not sure what that means–actual girls, like kids, or “girls” as in a bunch of grown women?  Either way I thank her for the “warning” and step onto the Bartlett Trail and into the San Isabel National Forest towards the Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness.

Sure enough, 100 yards up the trail, I hear and then see a long train of teenage girls.  As I step to the side the first few girls just look at me with some surprise and then one finally blurts out with hopeful anticipation: “Are we almost there?” I respond, “Yeah, you’re basically there, it’s just around that curve.” This immediately sets off a commotion of jubilation: “Yesssssss!  Woohooo!  Oh my God I have to pee sooooo bad!”  After the army of teenage girls pass I see no one else in this wilderness on the edge of the plains for the rest of the day.

As far as I can tell there are really only two distinct “destinations” for hikers in the Greenhorn Mountain wilderness.  The first is the summit of Greenhorn Mountain.  I’m not headed there.  I’m on my way to the other destination, Apache Falls, which is a little known waterfall at the end of a little used trail.

I ascend the lower east flank of Greenhorn Mountain on a rocky and sometimes steep trail, first through thickets of Gambel Oak, then into a beautiful mixed forest of Ponderosa Pine and Aspen, and eventually into Spruce and Fir.  I climb about 1,300 feet in a couple miles and every so often a view of the plains opens up to the east through the trees, each time a little higher than the last.

Vie of the Plains from the trail junction to Apache Falls

Vie of the Plains from the trail junction to Apache Falls

 

Big beautiful Aspen tree

Big beautiful Aspen tree

I cross several swollen branches of North Apache Creek and then come to a sign marking a trail to the left.  This trail takes me back down all of the vertical feet I just climbed and then some, steeply down into the South Apache Creek drainage, briefly exiting the wilderness area and taking me to within a couple miles of private lands on the edge of the plains.  I hear strange music down valley.  At the small stream, running clear and beautiful and graced by surprisingly lush greenery, the trail turns to follow the creek upstream, back into the hinterland of the wilderness.  The trail is faint and overgrown, but well marked with cairns where needed.  I suspect these cairns have been here for many decades, but guiding only a few lucky people each year.

The trail soon turns up a tributary stream and I know that I’m not far from the falls.  I come to a pair of great big Ponderosa Pines with a good tent site nearby and drop my pack.  Camp for the night.  Without my pack I continue up the trail in search of the waterfall.  I have no idea what to expect:  A ten foot tumbler?  A thirty foot plunge?  I see it before I hear it, a beautiful 100-foot classic plunge off of a cliff, framed by the bare trunks of big tall Pines.  The beauty of the sight is enhanced by its uniqueness – a hidden ribbon of falling water near the edge of the plains and yet fully in wilderness seclusion.

First view of Apache falls, framed by tall Ponderosa pine trees

First view of Apache falls, framed by tall Ponderosa pine trees

I continue to the falls, delighted to find that I can easily walk right up to its base on either side.  I stand on a flat rock at the edge of the large pool at the bottom and reach a hand out into the falls.  The light spray cools my face as I look straight up the falls to a deep blue sky.

Apache Falls

Apache Falls

With no threat of rain I sleep peacefully in my tent without the rain fly, stars speckling the sky between the tops of the still pines.  The soft rush of the creek helps bring on sleep.

Morning is brilliant.  Fresh.  Sun slanting through the trees.  Rocky crags in view to the south beneath brilliant blue.  I down some hot coffee and oatmeal and then head back up to the falls.  I spend a couple hours there feeling completely at home and at ease.  It’s an Eden.  A Sanctuary.  It could have been made a tourist attraction with a paved road cut into the valley and a paved “viewing platform” at the falls.  Thank goodness Apache Falls is simply a beautiful waterfall in the wilderness and not a “tourist attraction.”

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Looking through the gates of Temple Canyon

I’ve lost the trail again as I stand in the grass at the edge of Grape Creek at the end of a large pool.  The leaves are all off the cottonwoods now but there is no ice over the stream and snow does not yet cover the hard gray land around us.  The sky is blue, the air is cool, and a fitful breeze dances through the canyon from time to time.  Two trout hold side-by-side in the clear water at the tail of the pool.

Across the stream and 30 feet up the rocky slope I see a large green sign and a shelf trail leading to it.  The lost trail.  For the fifth time in the first quarter mile of my hike I cross Grape Creek, hopping across a dozen teetering rocks surrounded by shallow rippling water.  Dozer, splashes through the water behind me.

The sign by the trail marks the transition between land administered as a park by Canon City, Colorado, and something called “State Trust Land.” I know from my map that the state land continues for only about a mile farther upstream before it becomes BLM land and the Grape Creek Wilderness Study Area.

I continue along the shelf trail which stays about 30-50 feet above the canyon floor.  I stop often to admire the clear green pools of Grape Creek below us.  The water is so clear that, at times, I spot trout from my high vantage point.

Clear pools in Grape Creek

 

Dozer on the shelf trail above the pools of Grape Creek

 
 
At crossing number six, the trail takes a hard turn to the east, following a sharp bend in the creek.  At crossing number seven we come to a rock alcove next to an abandoned beaver dam.
 

Beaver dam pond

 
The trail climbs onto another shelf as Grape Creek doubles back again.  Temple Canyon becomes more wild as the bends in the creek put rocky mountains between us and the trailhead.  Isolation, ruggedness and beauty grows as the late fall day approaches its early end.
 
At stream crossing number nine I notice a a long flat grassy bench along the streamside as the trail climbs to yet another shelf.  A place to camp for the night.  The grassy flat along the stream is delightful and I walk slowly several hundred yards to the far end, below the trail, but along the creek.  The sun has almost dipped to the canyon rim and I find a good campsite.
 

Wilderness Chef

 

Dozer with the sweet spot in the tent

 
 
 I finish a nice dinner and stash my food bag behind a log well away from the campsite.  It’s early, but already almost completely dark out.  Stars are appearing above the canyon walls.  Thinking about the long hours of darkness this time of year, I try to stay up reading by headlamp outside in the valley, but the temperature drops rapidly and I quickly become cold.  I resign to read from the toasty confines of my sleeping bag.
 
Hours roll by slowly as I listen to the gurgles of the stream next to the tent.  I’m very comfortable, but can’t sleep.  It’s still too early.  I read again.  I pet the dog.  I think.  I read.  I listen.  A twig snaps.  I get a little nervous.  A breeze flutters the tent a little.
 
I awaken late in the night.  Still warm in my sleeping bag I reach an arm out to feel the air.  It’s very cold.  Feels like winter.  I check on Dozer.  He seems warm and is asleep on my fleece jacket, his green dog jacket providing extra cover.  I drift back to sleep.
 
I awaken again.  Now there is a faint blue glow on the tent and I know it’s early morning.  It’s colder still.  I reach for my hydration pack for a drink.  No water.  Wait.  No, it’s frozen solid.  I recoil deep into my sleeping bag enjoying its warmth and I wait for more light.  Sleep again.  Awake again.  Full light, but no sunshine on the tent.  It’s still cold.  I rise reluctanty.
 
A significant amount of ice has formed in places on the creek.  The patch of mud near the stream bank is frozen solid.  A hard freeze.
 

It's a cold campsite in the morning

 

Ice forms overnight on Grape Creek

 
 
 Another clear day.  The sun is tracking just below the ridgeline of the canyon.  I watch with envy the upper slopes of the opposite canyon wall as they are graced with the brilliance of bright sunshine.  My valley remains shaded and cold.
 
With gloves and hat on I do a few jumping jacks and jog in place to warm up.  My breath is visible.  I venture over to my food stash to begin breakfast.
 
It’s gone.  It can’t be.  No, I know that’s exactly where I put it.  It’s gone!  Vanished.  I look around extensively for evidence, but find nothing.  No torn green nylon, no Cliff Bar wrapping, nothing.  I’ve never had this happen before.  Sometimes I hang a bear bag.  In places like this, I often just stash my food bag behind a rock or log well away from the tent.  Never had an issue.  Until now.
 

The log where I left my food bag which dissappeared in the night

 
 
I stand there baffled.  Dozer waits for his non-existant breakfast.  Why is there no evidence?  how could it just dissappear without a trace?  I think for a few minutes.  Since this was just an overnight trip, I decide to continue with the plan and forego breakfast and lunch–maybe shorten my hike into the canyon so we can get back before we’re too hungry.
 
I pack up my day pack, leaving the tent up.  We disembark for our hike deeper into Temple Canyon and beyond.
 

A look back at our glorious valley campsite from the shelf trail leading deeper into Temple Canyon

 
 
Walking along the shelf trail above the valley, I have long since made my peace with the missing food bag.  I notice Dozer veer off trail a bit to sniff something interesting.  Dozer excitedly jabs his snout at a sack of bright green nylon just off the trail. 
 
I can’t believe it.  It’s completely in tact.  No holes.  No tears.  All the food is there.  I stand there and chuckle to myself.  I conclude that it must have been a mischievous fox who simply got tired of dragging the heavy bag up a 75 foot slope and along a quarter mile of trail.  I notice two recent deposits of small dog-like scat on the trail near the bag that confirms my foxy suspicion. 
 
I take a moment to enjoy imagining a little red fox carrying his prize along the trail in the dark only to lose interest and move on to his next adventure.  I almost wish he stayed around so I could share some of my crackers with him.  Dozer and I get to eat our breakfast afterall.
 

The food bag, where it was left, unharmed, by the nocturnal thief

 
 
We continue up the trail, green bag in hand now, as Temple Canyon closes in on Grape Creek.  The creek picks its way around and over massive granite boulders, falling in whitewater here and pooling up in deep green tranquility there.
 

A waterfall shoots through the cracks in the rocks in rugged Temple Canyon

 
 

Deep water pools up between vertical rocks near the head of Temple Canyon

 

 

We continue towards the head of the tightening canyon until our shelf trail finally runs out of room and drops steeply down to the stream.  We pick our way back and forth across the creek, hopping over boulders.  Stream crossing numbers ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen and fourteen.  We finally are confronted with the vertical walls of Temple Canyon’s upper end.
 

The vertical walls of Temple Canyon's head

 
 
I look around thinking this may be our turn-around point when I spot a faint trail leading steeply away from the creek.  The trail takes us through an opening on the back side of the left canyon wall.  Cresting the hill a drastically different landscape unfolds up-stream.  We go from narrow, dark canyonland to open, bright parkland.
 
There at the head of the canyon, I notice a small white piece of paper rolled up and pinned to the top of a fence post.  Curiosity getting the better of me, I reach for the paper and unfold it.  To my surprise, the note is a memorial for a Canyon City man recently passed.  He was a young 56 years old.  It is indeed a beautiful place.  It’s a place that represents a transition from one landscape to another.  Perhaps for this man, the place represents his transition from one life to another.  I feel certain that his ashes are resting nearby.  I carefully place the note back where I found it and take a minute more to admire the scenery.  It must have been one of his favorite places and I can see why.
 

The memorial note below the gates of Temple Canyon

 

A new landscape appears after emerging from the canyon

 
 
 I know what the fence means.  It means legal cattle grazing in the Wilderness Study Area, which is a bitter pill to swallow for us wilderness lovers.  Within minutes after emerging from the canyon, we stumble upon the decomposing carcass of a domestic cow.
 

Dead cow in the wilderness

 
 
I command Dozer to stay away from the dead beast.  Within a minute of seeing the cow, I notice some movement up ahead.  It’s a herd of eleven beautiful Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep including several large rams. 
 
I quickly grab Dozer’s collar and leash him before he notices the sheep.  They stand their ground staring in our direction.  I sidestep slowly to get behind a large Juniper tree.  Once hidden I walk slowly forward trying to get as close as I can.  Reaching the tree I step out into the open again.  The sheep shuffle a bit but still remain.  I snap a couple pictures.  Then I just admire their beauty–magnificent animals.
 
Suddenly, a large ram in the group makes a decision and he heads for the creek.  The others follow and I watch the group clatter through the water and then up the rocky hillside on the far bank.  They stop a ways up and turn around to stare again from nooks and crannies in the mountainside.
 

Bighorns

 
Our discoveries over these last few minutes offer a combination of things to ponder and I find myself thinking intently as we continue slowly up the beautiful valley.  The loved man and his final, spiritual, resting place.  The dead cow and her final, probably painful, demise in the wilderness–a wilderness she didn’t belong in.  Then the magnificent display of natural life and vitality in those big healthy bighorns.  A bittersweet emotion rolls over me as we continue.  Dozer bounds ahead, frolicking in the sun and the outdoors.  He is not burdened with the intelligent thought of man.  He, like those sheep, lives in the moment.  Not for the past.  Not for the future.  For the moment.  We often forget to do that and I make a quick promise to myself to live more in the moment.
 
We stop for lunch at the remains of an old stone dwelling.  The sun is bright now and the water in my hydration pack is quickly thawing.  Living in the moment I take it all in and feel grateful to live close to such natural beauty and solitude.
 

The old stone structures

 
 
The mystery and wildness of the valley grows as I look ahead to the forested peaks of the Wet Mountains that I now see through the trees.  Through those distant trees I see the ground covered in snow. 
 
Grape Creek here is a gentle stream speckled with many light colored rocks throughout its stream bed.  Ice from last night’s freeze still clings to rocks and banks although, at times, I can hear it breaking up under the warmth of the daytime sun.
 
There are many soaring birds in the sky and I count most of them as either hawks or buzzards.  But, then I see a pair that looks a little more special.  They glide a little bigger, a little more graceful.  I look closely and see distinct white tails and heads.  Bald eagles.  They are high in the sky, but their markings and the shape of their wings are distinct. 
 
What a treat!  Today I have seen the wild Bighorn, Colorado’s state animal, and the soaring Bald Eagle, our national symbol.  We stop for a moment and watch.  I imagine them swooping down over the stream for trout,which I’m sure they do from time to time.  I am reminded why wilderness preservation is so important to me.  Days later, I can think of those two eagles in the sky and feel a real connection to their wild existence.
 
Continuing on, I see more movement up ahead.  Colors this time–blues, reds, yellows.  It’s a group of people, mostly boys with a few adults.  I surmise it’s a boy scout troop.  Their packs are enormous and I wonder how they manage.  I stop to talk to one of the adults.
 
“How far to the Temple Canyon Trailhead,” he asks.
 
“Oh… three-and-a-half, maybe four miles,” I respond.
 
He looks a little disappointed. “Okay… I thought it was closer.”
 
We chat a bit more before moving on.  They came from an upstream access point which I now know was probably Bear Gulch Road.  I watch the troop and their giant packs trudge down valley, silently wishing them well.  I was surprised to see people here.  I think they may have been surprised to see me as well.
 
We finally walk onto snow as the valley closes in towards what looks like another canyon.  The beautiful Ponderosa Pine (my favorite tree) is now mixed in with the Juniper and Pinion.  Reaching a blockage on our side of the stream, I stop and quickly decide that this makes a good turn-around point.  I look longingly into the wilderness beyond, wanting to continue on.  That urge to see what’s around the next bend pulls hard, but I know it’s afternoon now and the daylight is short in late November.
 

Dozer on the snow at our turn-around point

 
 
Heading back now, somewhere between stream crossings 20 and 25, I see an odd shape in the shallow water near the bank.  To my surprise it is a foot-long trout holding under a thin layer of cloudy ice.  He sees us and thinks he’s hidden from our view.
 

Trout hiding under ice near the bank

 
I wonder what a fisheries biologist would think about this.  I know from experience that trout can see well above the water line and they can see surprisingly far.  But, I can see it, why does it think it is hidden from me?  Perhaps it can’t see through the ice from the bottom.
 
I creep a little downstream from the fish and slowly lie on my stomach.  The trout is only a foot from the bank, the water about a foot lower than the edge.  Slowly, I reach my left hand out over the top of the fish’s tail.  Ever so slowly, I inch my hand forward.  I have to get my hand solidly over the trout’s dorsal fin to have a chance to grab it.  The fish holds still–its only movement is a slight pulsing of the gills.  I can see it’s a rainbow and admire how heavily spotted he is.
 
My hand creeps forward a millimeter at a time.  Dozer sits and watches intently.  In position now, I start to count down silently from three.  My plan is to drive my hand straight through the thin ice, quickly grasping the trout and then elevating it from the water, like a wild bear might do with its snout. 
 
Three… Two… Just a split second before I make my move, the fish sees or senses something.  With a convulsive flutter he roils the water and darts into the middle of the creek and behind a rock, out of sight.  I get up with a smile.  I would have released it immediately anyway.  But, I almost had it in my grasp.
 
The walk back to the head of the canyon is pleasant.  I cross the stream several more times, never needing to get wet as I hop carefully over the scattered rocks in the stream bed.
 

Me and my leader, Dozer, making our way along Grape Creek on the return hike

Grape Creek flows through beautiful open country above Temple Canyon

 
We walk back by the memorial note again, entering Temple Canyon from above this time.  I appreciate, again, the beauty and boldness of the canyon as I watch the water below pick its course among giant mansion-sized rocks.
 
We reach the campsite for a welcome rest before I pack up the tent and hoist the big pack for the remaining two miles or so.
 
Stream crossing number 40.  This is the one near the big green sign where I lost the trail the day before.  I’m close to the car now and as I make my way the remaining quarter mile or so, thoughts of home crawl into my head.  I am content.
 
As I approach the trailhead I see a large group of middle school kids hanging out, some sleeping on the ground. 
 
“Hey, we saw you earlier,” says snot-on-lip kid. “Where did you stay last night?”
 
“Oh, I found a beautiful little spot in the grass by the stream up the trail a bit.”
 
I look at their uncertain faces, full of potential, and see myself at that age, on my first wilderness trip to the Weminuche.  Most of them will remember with fondness their trip to Grape Creek when they are my age, even if they may not truly appreciate it now and how special the place really is.
 
 
Trip and Area Background
 
  • Points Earned:  2
  • Trip Dates:  November  19-20, 2011
  • Wilderness Area:  Grape Creek Wilderness Study Area
  • Wilderness Location:  South Central Colorado near Canon City
  • Wilderness Size:  Approx 22,000 acres between Lower and Upper Grape Creek WSA’s *
  • Total hike length:  Approximately 11 miles
  • Duration:  One Night
* The 22,000 acres includes the official acreage within the two segments of the wilderness study areas.  The Colorado Canyonlands Wilderness Legislative Proposal suggests an area about double this size for official wilderness designation for Grape Creek.
 
Wilderness Area Info:
 
Grape Creek is a BLM Wilderness Study area near Canon City, Colorado.  It is exceptionally rare in Colorado to have such a large area of roadless land with the characteristics of this area:
 
  • Low elevation (pinion/juniper country in the lower sections, ponderosa country higher)
  • Contains more than 20 roadless stream miles of a substantial waterway
  • On the East side of the Continental Divide

For the reasons above, Grape Creek should be highly valued as a full Wilderness Area because it provides critical corridor habitat for wildlife and it would preserve a rare combination of natural features.

Grape Creek is an interesting and unique waterway.  It’s watershed is surprisingly vast.  It drains the entire Wet Mountain Valley, rising in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, flowing out of the dam at DeWeese Reservoir in the valley, and then flowing many miles through the BLM canyon country corridor between the valley and the Arkansas River.

I found the place to be delightfully rugged and scenic.  I was also surprised at how much wildlife I saw.  I only scratched the surface of the area and would love, one day, to hike the entire length of the WSA from Temple Canyon all the way up to the Wet Mountain Valley.  The opportunity for this kind of uninterrupted ecological transitional hike is unusual here in Colorado.

Grape Creek itself is full of sizeable trout which, in clear water, can often be spotted with the naked eye.

Cattle grazing is, unfortunately, allowed in the area, but this is sadly true in many official wilderness areas throughout the West.

Access to the area is primarily at two points:  Bear Gulch Road near the middle of the WSA and Temple Canyon at the lower end.  I don’t know about Bear Gulch Road, but the road to Temple Canyon does not require high clearance or 4-wheel drive.  The State Trust Land at Temple Canyon supposedly only allows access from August 15 through May 31st.  I wouldn’t want to hike here in the middle of summer anyway.  This is a great Fall or pre-runoff Spring destination.  I would even consider this in the winter depending on weather and snow cover conditions.

I brought some new gear on this trip in an effort to reduce my pack weight and at the same time increase my sleep comfort.  New items I brought and was highly satisfied with:

  • Marmot Sawtooth sleeping bag – down, +15, 2 lb 14 oz.
  • Big Agnes insulated inflatable pad, 2 lb 1 oz
  • Inflatable pillow

The new sleeping arrangement reduced my total weight by over a pound and substantially increased my comfort level.

My total pack weight with food at the start of the trip was 29.5 pounds.  It would have been around 25 pounds in warmer weather.  I’d like to get down to a total weight of 20-25 pounds consistently.  Perhaps the biggest noticeable improvement was, as a result of the more compact sleeping bag, I didn’t have to attach anything to the exterior of the pack which vastly improved weight distribution.  Even at almost 30 pounds I felt as if I was simply carrying a day-pack.

 
 
 
 
 

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