This weekend Diane and I decided to go on a very early season backpacking trip into the high country near Silverton. During a normal year we wouldn’t even consider going on a backpacking trip into the mountains until later in June or early in July, but with the low snowpack this year we decided to give it a try much earlier to see how the conditions really were. Also, since it’s still early in the season, the monsoons haven’t started yet and we would be able to camp well above tree line without worrying about storms or lightning. Plus, with Highway 550 closed between Durango and Silverton because of the 416 Fire, we figured the mountains near Silverton wouldn’t be very busy right now and we hoped to find plenty of solitude.
For the past ten years or so, I have put the Highland Mary Lakes Trail on my to-do list for the summer and every year I seem to skip it for something else. Not this year! Instead of doing it as a day hike like most people, we decided to make it into an easy overnight backpacking trip so we could spend a night near the Verde Lakes in the Weminuche Wilderness. As we drove through Ouray and Silverton we could tell that the closure of Highway 550 was affecting the towns since they were relatively quiet. I’m sure this is not great for the businesses in town, but we sure enjoyed not having to deal with traffic or crowds as we passed through. We arrived at the trailhead in Cunningham Gulch later in the morning and it was practically empty! I was expecting to find a lot of day hikers taking advantage of the low snow year on this popular trail, but I guess all the smoke from the wildfire kept them away. We weren’t complaining!
Starting our hike from the Highland Mary Trailhead in Cunningham Gulch.
We knew going into this hike that there was a good chance of smoke coming over from the 416 Fire near Durango. I actually was hoping that the smoke in the air would make for a good sunset later in the evening. However, the smoke was much worse than either of us imagined it would be. There were strong winds today that were blowing the smoke right towards us. We could smell the fire for the entire trip (and all of our gear still smells like a campfire) and views were limited and hazy for much of the day. The most surprising part was all the ash that continued to rain down on us from the sky. Some of the larger pieces that fell to the ground were even still warm to the touch.
The trail up was easy to follow, although the sunlight filtering through the smoke in the air made everything around us look eerie and strange with a reddish tint.
Diane hiking up the trail behind me.
A very nice waterfall we passed that was right along the trail.
All the smoke in the air made for some interesting light all day.
Unfortunately, even with a Stage II Fire Ban in place, we passed a person along the trail who was starting a fire in their little wood burning stove near plenty of dry grass and deadfall. This made us uneasy because it could affect us if another wildfire were started, so I walked over to remind him of the current fire ban. He was either playing dumb or really thought that his little wood burning stove was OK during the ban, so I politely informed him that it was not and about how dry and dangerous it was out, especially with the wind blowing. He gave me a sob story about how he was starving and needed to eat and would put it out as soon as his lunch was ready. We carried on up the trail hoping that our return route would not get cut off by another fire.
Continuing on the trail through the trees.
Getting up above treeline and looking back down Cunningham Gulch.
This was the only snow we would have to get around before reaching the Highland Mary Lakes. I would say that the current snow conditions are similar to mid-July during a typical snow year, so things are melting out about a month early this year.
The first lake has a nice little island in it.
The water was choppy on this lake from the high winds and the sky was smoky.
Following the trail towards the upper basin.
Looking back over one of the larger lakes.
As we reached the upper basin the smoke got really thick again.
Diane on the final climb out of the basin.
Crossing the alpine tundra on our way to the Verde Lakes.
After hiking past the Highland Mary Lakes and climbing out of the basin, we crossed over the ridge to the Verde Lakes and setup camp on the southern end of the largest lake at around 12,200 feet. It was still quite windy out and the site was unprotected, but the wind was supposed to die down after sunset, so we hoped for the best!
There was a thick cloud of smoke over our campsite all evening. It was kind of eerie.
Tiny wildflowers growing out of the rock near our camp.
Wildflowers along the shore of Verde Lake.
The smoke was so thick at times that you could look right at the sun and see a very red or pink colored orb in the sky.
While we were making dinner at camp, another unusual thing happened. We looked up and saw a plane flying very low and under the smoke to the south. At first I thought it was probably part of the fire-fighting operations, but as it got closer we could see it was a very large commercial jet. I have never seen a commercial jet fly this low to the mountains before!
After dinner I climbed up to an overlook above camp and waited for the sun to set. It turned out to be an amazing and colorful sunset thanks to all the smoke in the air. Probably one of the best I have seen this year so far. Hiking all day in the smoke and ash was well worth the effort! I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story!
A sunburst over the Verde Lakes as I climbed up to the ridge for sunset.
I like the stripe of light reflected down the lakes in this shot.
The light show started once the sun dropped low enough in the sky to shine underneath the smoke, and I had a pretty nice view of Vestal Peak (13,864) and Arrow Peak (13,803) above camp.
As the sun dipped lower and filtered through the smoke, the colors intensified!
Nice light on Peak Two (13,475) on the other side of the Elk Creek drainage.
I like how the smoke seems to be reflecting the shape of Arrow Peak in this photo.
Seriously, this was probably the best sunset I have seen this year, so far. I just love how the colorful smoke framed the Grenadier Range!
Vestal & Arrow Peaks
One last panorama of the colorful smoke over The Grenadiers.
One last parting shot of White Dome (13,627) before I started hiking back down to camp.
During my hike back down to camp I got to watch the color of the sky change over the Verde Lakes. First it was an intense golden color…
Then it turned magenta as the light faded. The Verde Lakes were many different colors this evening, but not green!
The wind did die down after sunset, but not as completely as I would have liked. There were occasional strong wind gusts throughout the night that would hit our tent and make a lot of noise. Diane had no trouble sleeping through the noise, but it prevented me from sleeping very well.
Thankfully, our tent does very well in high winds as we found out last June in the Great Sand Dunes.
Since I didn’t sleep well during the night, I decided to skip getting up early enough to catch the sunrise on Sunday morning. When we did finally get up, the sky above was mostly blue and hazy since the thick smoke hadn’t moved back over this way yet. Some of the shallower water near camp had frozen over during the night, so it must have dropped down below freezing at least a little bit. We had stayed pretty warm in the tent, so it didn’t feel too cold when we got up, especially in the sunlight.
After packing up camp, it was time to leave Verde Lake behind and start hiking back to the trailhead.
Leaving The Grenadiers behind as we hiked with a chilling cold wind to our back.
We didn’t return the way we had come and instead made our way over to the Continental Divide Trail to create a loop that would return us back to the trailhead.
As we hiked toward Deep Creek we had a hazy view of Canby Mountain (13,478) in the distance, which I climbed from Stony Pass a couple of years ago.
A view looking down the final descent of our hike back into Cunningham Gulch with Little Giant Peak (13,416) and King Solomon Mountain (13,220) towering above through the smoke that was now filling up the valley again.
After returning to my Jeep, we drove down to Silverton and had lunch at the Kendall Mountain Cafe. Their burger and fries are always great. With Highway 550 now closed down indefinitely, the town was nice and quiet on this Sunday afternoon. While we were waiting for our food we would learn that the high winds the previous day had caused the 416 Fire to double in size! No wonder there was so much smoke and ash! After finishing our lunch we drove back home over Red Mountain Pass. It was a very nice weekend and it felt great to be back in the San Juan Mountains!
Update 6-12-18: Well, I’m glad we went on this overnight backpacking trip into the Weminuche Wilderness when we did since just two days after we returned the entire San Juan National Forest is now completely closed indefinitely because it’s so dry out! I sure hope we get some much needed moisture down there soon! You can read the full closure order below.
Grand Gulch Finale Friday – Tuesday, April 20 – 24, 2018
Last year I had to skip my annual spring backpacking trip with Dave and Jared since I didn’t have any free time left after my wedding and Honeymoon Adventure in March. This year we decided to resume the tradition and go on a four day backpacking trip into the middle section of Grand Gulch between Bullet Canyon and the Government Trail. This is pretty much the final section of Grand Gulch (starting from under the Bears Ears near Highways 95 all the way to the San Juan River) that I have not hiked yet, so I was really looking forward to checking it out. The funny thing is, this section was supposed to be my very first backpacking trip into Grand Gulch about five years ago, but I missed out on that trip because I came down with strep throat a few days before and Dave and Jared went without me. I’m glad they were willing to repeat this section of the canyon with me this year! If you are interested, you can check out my previous backpacking trips into Grand Gulch at the following links:
I left right after work on Friday and started my drive down to Cedar Mesa where I would be meeting up with Dave and Jared. Unfortunately, the drive would not go as smoothly as it usually does. There was a wildfire, nicknamed the Skipper Island Fire, burning along the Colorado River near Fruita which had closed I-70 for part of the day on Thursday, so I made sure to keep an eye on road conditions before I left. All day the interstate had been open to traffic and COtrip said it was open the last time I checked before heading out. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Fruita exit I found that the interstate was in fact closed and I would have to take a detour around the closure. This slowed me down a bit. I was slowed down even more when I reached Moab because there was a lot of traffic in town. I’m glad that I had no plans to stop in Moab this evening! Once I was finally south of Moab I would not run into any other issues. I arrived at our predetermined campsite and meeting spot where I met up with Dave and Jared after dark. We sat around the fire for a little while and then went to bed early.
Dave and Jared ready to start our hike down Bullet Canyon and into Grand Gulch on Saturday.
On Saturday morning we got up early and had a little breakfast before heading over to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station to pick up our permit. When we pulled up into the parking lot I was surprised to see so many people waiting for the Ranger Station to open. I had never seen so many people here before! I assumed that many of them would be wanting to get permits for the Moon House Ruins, but when the doors opened I found out that I was wrong and almost everyone was there for overnight permits. It was standing room only to watch the required video this morning! I guess this is a preview of what’s to come since this area was put on the radar last year when Bears Ears National Monument was created and then shrunk down in size earlier this year. I fear that it will only continue to get busier, especially with all the media attention on the fight over this area. It kind of makes me glad that this is my final section of Grand Gulch to explore, since I may not be returning again during the busy season. I was happy to leave the crowds behind and get started with the trip. After leaving Kane Gulch we drove over to the Government Trail Trailhead, left my Jeep there and then took Dave’s truck back to the Bullet Canyon Trailhead where we would start our hike into Grand Gulch.
Jared coming down a sandstone chute in Bullet Canyon.
Since we have all been up and down Bullet Canyon a few times before, we didn’t make any stops until we reached Perfect Kiva.
There was a nice glow at the back of the alcove.
A nicely painted potsherd we found.
Not-so-perfect pictographs at the back of the large alcove.
Of course, we took turns climbing down into the stabilized kiva.
Next we followed the sandstone bench around to the Jailhouse Ruins.
The reason these are known as the Jailhouse Ruins.
A couple nice petroglyphs that I had missed on previous visits.
Dave and I climbed up to an alcove that contained a large painted snake on the wall. The length of this red snake was at least twenty feet.
A pair of nice granaries we found in a beautiful alcove.
Jared and Dave hike ahead of me under a canopy of tree branches.
We setup camp at the confluence with Grand Gulch in the same spot I camped with Diane a few years ago. On that trip there was water nearby, but this time the spring was completely dry. Jared and I had carried enough water from the trailhead that we didn’t need to worry about finding water until the next day and Dave had filled up at Jailhouse Spring earlier in the day.
After setting up camp we walked over to the Castle Ruins and explored them for a little while since I hadn’t really climbed up to them on my last hike through the canyon because we were pretty tired at that point.
This was a cool little ruin hidden behind a large slab of sandstone.
A very nice ruin with a few pictographs located on the upper ledge.
If you look closely above the ruin in the previous photo, you can see these green or blue reverse handprints. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any in this color before?
There were plenty of wildflowers in the canyon during our trip, including Claret Cups.
Following Dave back to camp.
Back when I hiked the Kane Gulch to Bullet Canyon Loop with Diane a few years ago, we had camped in the same spot and I spent the evening exploring the area around the confluence. I had taken a photo at sunset from across the canyon and didn’t realize there were ruins in it until I was looking at the photos of my computer back at home.
I made sure to visit those ruins on this trip and photograph them at sunset, except from a little closer up this time!
Looking down on the confluence of Bullet Canyon and Grand Gulch. Our campsite is located in those trees.
One more photo of a Claret Cup Cactus found near camp.
On Sunday morning we woke up with the sun after having a really good night of sleep. The temperature overnight was pretty nice since it only dropped down to about 40 degrees, which would be the coolest temperature we would see during the entire trip. After packing up camp we continued our hike down Grand Gulch while keeping our eyes open for ruins and rock art along the way. We would see plenty today!
We spotted this anthropomorph on the canyon wall through the trees.
We climbed up a steep and sandy hill to a pretty nice panel of pictographs that included many handprints, a few anthropomorphs and even a few atlatls.
Pretty soon we had reached Green House Canyon and I was finally able to see the amazing Green House Ruin.
There were two smaller granaries nearby, too.
By this time we were all getting pretty low on water and needed to find some soon. We had hoped to find some in Green House Canyon since that’s where Dave and Jared had found some on the previous trip, so after hiking up the canyon a little further we did come across plenty of water.
We stopped to fill up on water here and had a little lunch in the shade while we were stopped. We weren’t sure how far it would be until we found water again, so we had to fill up completely. We certainly ended up carrying more water than I would have liked for much of this trip.
Another ruin near the junction of the canyon that we climbed up to. We found a faded red pictograph on the wall inside.
Here are some very unusual pictographs above the remains of a broken down ruin that I spotted across the canyon.
Hiking down the wash in Grand Gulch.
We made sure to climb up and visit Two Story Ruin.
When we reached the mouth of Step Canyon I was pretty excited to finally see The Quail Panel. This colorful panel of pictographs has been on my radar for many years, and was the main reason I originally wanted this to be the first section of Grand Gulch that I backpacked.
A closer look at some of the colorful pictographs found here.
This painted face is also found along the same wall.
A couple more pictographs found nearby.
After spending a lot of time examining The Quail Panel, we headed off in search of The Necklace petroglyph panel. During our search Jared spotted these ruins above us.
Then we finally found The Necklace Panel. It was much bigger than I was expecting and in great shape. An amazing panel of petroglyphs!
Seriously, this is one of the better petroglyph panels I have seen in Grand Gulch!
A closer look at The Necklace.
By this time it was starting to get late and we needed to figure out where we were going to spend the night. According to the volunteers at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, our next possible source of water was supposed to be in Dripping Canyon, so we decided to camp near the mouth of that canyon and we hoped that their information was accurate since we would definitely need water in the morning. On our way to Dripping Canyon we tried to climb up to one more set of ruins known as the Great Wall Ruins, but it was a little too sketchy for Jared and I to climb, so we waited to see if Dave could make it up. He did get up to them and said they were pretty interesting. I guess I’ll have to try to visit them another time when I’m not so..
Late last year as I was thinking about planning some of my 2018 trips that would require advance permits, I decided it was finally time to backpack into Chesler Park in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. I’ve day-hiked into Chesler Park a number of times over the years from the four-wheel drive trailhead of the Joint Trail, but this time I wanted to backpack in so I could spend more time exploring the area and hopefully photographing this beautiful area at sunrise and sunset. Of course, planning a trip this far out in advance is like playing the lottery with the weather, especially in early to mid March on the Colorado Plateau, so as the dates of the trip approached I kept a close eye on the weather and hoped for good conditions.
As our dates in early March approached, I was worried that it might be colder out than I would have preferred, but the weather turned around shortly before our trip and it looked like the temperature and weather was going to be perfect for our first backpacking trip of the year! We left after work on Friday afternoon and headed straight down to The Needles with only a quick stop in Moab for dinner and fuel. We quickly found a campsite along the Lockhart Basin Road just outside of the park, setup our tent and went straight to bed. The temperature overnight was very comfortable and it never got too cold out.
We woke up with the sunrise on Saturday morning, packed up camp and drove into The Needles where we made a quick stop at the Visitor Center to check on the weather one last time before heading out into the backcountry for three days. The weather forecast was calling for a possible 20% chance of rain or snow on Sunday with highs in the 60’s and lows in the mid-30’s. That sounded like pretty nice backpacking weather to me! We finished the drive to the Elephant Hill Trailhead, made sure everything we needed was in our packs and then we set out on our short hike across Elephant Canyon to our campsite in Chesler Park at CP1. Since we knew there would be no water in Chesler Park, we made sure to to carry all we would need for the first day and night of our trip, so our packs were a little bit heavy. When we arrived at CP1 we got our tent setup, had a little lunch and then finished hiking the complete Joint Trail Loop during the remainder of the afternoon. It sure felt like I was just here?
After leaving the Elephant Hill Trailhead we hiked up the stairs inside this narrow joint to start our adventure.
As usual, there is beautiful desert scenery all around in The Needles.
Hiking down another narrow joint as we started the descent into Elephant Canyon.
A beautiful view as we climbed up the pass into Chesler Park.
We got our tent setup in CP1 right away so we could continue on our day-hike of the Joint Trail Loop.
Following the trail around the perimeter of Chesler Park.
Chesler Park Needles
After hiking down into Chesler Canyon, Diane spotted this gate along the old road that used to go into Chesler Park. I hiked up the old road cut to check out the gate and continued a little past it.
It’s been a few years since I drove on this road. I think I will have to try and change that later this year…
Hiking through the Joint Trail again. My second time within the last month.
Diane hikes ahead of me through the narrow slot.
After climbing out of the joint, we found ourselves back in Chesler Park again.
On our way back to camp we made a short detour to visit an old cowboy camp.
Apparently Silver Dick was here in 1924.
As we were leaving the cowboy camp, the clouds were looking pretty nice. I was hoping they would stay like this for sunset, but that didn’t happen.
Diane hiking back to our campsite at the east end of Chesler Park.
The view from right behind our campsite was pretty spectacular!
Before going on this backpacking trip, I made sure to tell Diane about the story from a member of BackcountryPost who had his food raided at the CP1 campsite by a pair of ravens. We took extra precautions to make sure this would not happen to us. All of our food was kept in a Ursack which was either with us or tied to a nearby tree when we weren’t using it. After dinner we were both looking forward to trying out some freeze-dried Cheesecake Bites for dessert, so I Diane got them out and set them on a boulder underneath another bag for a minute while she went over to the tent to get something. When she came back, the package was already gone and we found a pair of ravens feasting on our dessert on top of a nearby boulder that was inaccessible to us.
If you look very closely at this photo, you can see one of the cheescake bites in the beak of the raven on the right. I hope they were delicious!
Later that evening there was a little breeze that blew down the empty package off the boulder, so at least we were able to pack out the trash…
After dinner I hiked back to the Chesler Park Overlook near The Joint Trail in hopes of a nice sunset, but it was just too cloudy and overcast this evening.
My view from the overlook at sunset just before calling it a day and heading back to camp.
It was very calm and quiet all night in Chesler Park. There was absolutely no wind out and the temperature stayed pretty warm overnight. I slept pretty well, but I did get a little warm in my sleeping bag, which might be contributed to my new sleeping pad. The Daylight Savings Time change happened overnight, but it hardly matters when you are sleeping through ten to eleven hours of darkness at night after a long day of hiking and your only care in the world is about when the sun will rise and set. It’s a great way to handle the time change without even noticing it.
We woke up on Sunday morning to overcast and cloudy skies. I didn’t think there was any chance of there being a sunrise, but there was a brief minute or two when a little light struck the top of a few of the surrounding spires. After taking a few photos of the light we packed up camp and stashed our big backpacks so we could go on a morning hike of the Devils Kitchen Loop Trail (Devils Pocket Loop), which is one of the few remaining official trails in The Needles that I hadn’t hiked yet. It was a pretty great trail with awesome views all around, but the overcast skies didn’t really allow for good photos, so I will definitely need to return again under better conditions.
There wasn’t much of a sunrise on Sunday morning, but a little light did strike the top of a few of the needles.
Diane stopped to check out the view over the Devils Kitchen Loop from Chesler Park Pass. We would be hiking around that group of pinnacles in the distance.
Here’s a closer look of those pinnacles from the trail.
Following the trail to the Devils Kitchen.
We stopped to visit a pair of faded Barrier Canyon Style pictographs that I had found a few years back.
Diane along the trail.
After returning to Chesler Park we grabbed our big packs and started the hike down to our next campsite in Elephant Canyon. We weren’t sure how much water we were going to find in the canyon, so when we came across a pool of water shortly after leaving Chesler Park, we stopped and filled up, just in case. It turned out that there was plenty of water in Elephant Canyon, including a nice pool right by our campsite. Better safe than sorry, I guess…
Diane stops to take in the view from the overlook. Our next campsite is located down below.
Along one part of the trail into Elephant Canyon, there were these long tunnels under narrow joints that the trail passed by.
The view from the bottom of Elephant Canyon.
We got our tent setup at EC3 and then relaxed around camp for a while.
I went on an evening hike to get a closer look at this ruin we had passed earlier in the day.
While exploring the area I also found a shelter containing a few pictographs.
This white and yellow man was painted near the very top of the shelter and I almost missed it.
I left camp later in the evening and went on another hike up a side canyon shortly before sunset. Unfortunately, as sunset approached the blue skies began filling up with clouds again. A common theme this weekend…
A tall ladder along a trail that takes you out of Elephant Canyon and over a pass into Squaw Canyon.
There was a pretty great view from the sandstone pass above the ladder. I could even see North Six Shooter Peak in the distance.
On my way back to camp there was a brief few minutes of light on the sandstone above me.
Nice light on the sandstone above camp.
A little color on the needles above our campsite at sunset.
Elephant Canyon Afterglow
On Monday morning we woke up about an hour and a half before sunrise after a colder but still comfortable night in Elephant Canyon, quickly got ready and started hiking to Druid Arch in the dark. The sky was finally clear after a weekend of cloudy skies and we could clearly see all the stars in the sky above. I had hoped to make it to the arch in time to see the pre-sunrise glow, but I missed the trail where it climbed out of..
The Panther Gallery, Shaman’s Gallery & Turret Site Veterans Day Weekend | Thursday – Monday, November 9-13, 2017
The Panther Gallery (Cat Site) is an impressive example of the Grand Canyon Polychrome Style.
This year for the extended Veterans Day weekend Diane and I headed down to the Arizona Strip where we met up with our friend Jerry to backpack and hike along the Esplanade in search of Grand Canyon Polychrome pictographs. By the end of the weekend we would visit The Panther Gallery, Shaman’s Gallery and Turret Site. We also made stops at Toroweap and Paiute Cave since we were in the area. The weather was pretty nice for the entire weekend with highs in the low 70’s and the lows at night in the 40’s. Unfortunately, the Esplanade was pretty dry this time around and we had to carry all the water we would need which added quite a bit of weight to our packs. I’ve wanted to see The Panther Gallery (Cat Site) for a long time and was happy to finally get a chance to see it up close and personal. Enjoy some photos from the weekend!
The Esplanade Wave
The Shaman’s Gallery (Spirit Shelter)
A pretty great campsite out on the Esplanade just before sunset.
The Turret Site
Since we were in the neighborhood, we made a quick stop at Toroweap.
Paiute Cave Pictographs
The Panther Gallery Site
Jerry taking a break.
Looking down the Colorado River from Toroweap over Lava Falls.
I like the red stripes painted on the back of this white sheep.
Part of the Shaman’s Gallery
Backpacking the Esplanade.
Turret Site Pictographs
A life-sized painting at the Spirit Shelter.
Great sights were all around even though there was no water around…
A colorful sunset above the cliffs.
Red & White Pictographs
A survey marker from 1914 that we stumbled across.
Paiute Cave Man
A large decorated shield with a white sheep.
Scenery while hiking along the Esplanade.
A close look at a small part of the Shaman’s Panel.
Our campsite on the Kanab Plateau just outside of Grand Canyon National Park. It was a little bit colder at night up on the plateau, but at least we were able to have a fire which helped with the long nights.
A big sheep and other unusual figures found at the Turret Site.
After spending Monday in the Abajo Mountains and the previous weekend in the northern section of The Bears Ears, it was time to head over to Cedar Mesa so we could spend then next couple of days exploring some new areas of this part of The Bears Ears searching for new ruins and rock art sites. Here are a few photos from the remainder of our trip…
Two ruins with intact roofs in a shallow alcove.
The Bear’s Den. I came across a few signs of bear in this part of the canyon.
A very small granary with an open door that is located next to a well-preserved kiva.
Pretty fresh mountain lion tracks as I hiked through a narrow part of a canyon.
A small granary nestled into the back of a large alcove.
The doorway of another small granary.
A few nice painted potsherds I found below some ruins I visited. There were a lot more in this area.
Ruin At The Point
The Complex Ruins
A view from the front of these two-story ruins.
A good look at the roof beams of The Complex Ruins.
A look at the remaining roof of this two level structure.
A closer look at the upper level doorway of The Complex Ruins.
Faint pictographs including a pretty large sheep.
The remains of a structure with a smoke-blackened ceiling above.
An evening hike along the rim of a canyon.
I’ve come across a lot of benchmarks and other USGS markers over the years, but I’ve never seen a State Road Right Of Way marker before.
I finally took the time and hiked to the summit of Salvation Knoll right next to the highway. I’ve driven by this spot many times over the years and always said to myself that I should do this short hike sometime, and I finally did!
A long front wall with a collapsed roof.
A few large potsherds I found just like this on Cedar Mesa. Of course, I left them where they were.
A recent rockfall that we passed on a short overnight backpacking trip. It was a pretty humbling sight and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to have been below when it occurred.
One of the few new petroglyph panels I visited on this trip.
Not only is the front of this ruin pretty cool, but so is the texture and light on the ceiling of the alcove above it.
The oldest benchmark we would come across during the trip from 1909.
A small granary bathed in nice reflected light.
The doorway into a square ruin on a ledge that we climbed up to.
A big white pictograph above a few ruins on a ledge.
Camping in a Cedar Mesa canyon on a short overnight backpacking trip.
Warm evening light on the sandstone above our camp right before sunset.
Jared hiking through a narrow part of the canyon.
Bridges Evening Primrose on Cedar Mesa.
A well-preserved kiva with the original ladder still there. A very rare sight and one of the highlights of our trip!
A close-up shot of the original ladder in the kiva.
Inside the kiva and the bottom of the original ladder.
Labor Day Weekend | Saturday & Sunday, September 3-4, 2016
A beautiful sunset between storms near our campsite in the Uncompahgre Wilderness.
For the third Labor Day Weekend in a row, Diane and I planned another backpacking trip into the Uncompahgre Wilderness of the San Juan Mountains. We had such a nice time last year along Big Blue Creek with plenty of solitude that we decided to try and visit a pair of other nearby valleys this year. Unfortunately, things would not go quite as smoothly for us this time.
We’ve been pretty lucky in that very rarely do our weekend adventures not go as planned. This weekend would be an exception and it seemed that nothing could go right for us. Our original plan was to hike up the Fall Creek Trail the first day and then hike over the ridge to the Little Cimarron on the second day and then we would hike out on the third day. However, after it rained for much of Saturday night, we woke up to fast moving dark clouds in the sky with pretty windy conditions on Sunday. We waited around camp for a while hoping that the sky would clear up a little and not look so threatening, but that never happened (at least the wind helped dry out our wet gear). We decided it would not be a good idea to hike over the ridge in these conditions because we would be very exposed for a few miles at over 12,500 feet during the hike. Instead, we decided to turn around and hike back down Fall Creek the way we had come, cutting our trip a day short. Diane’s water bladder had also sprung a leak which was another factor in our decision to turn around since her backpack got soaked.
A bridge over the Little Cimarron near the trailhead we had intended to finish the hike at.
After our drive from Grand Junction to Montrose we drove over the Cerro Summit and followed the Little Cimarron to the Fall Creek Trailhead. I dropped Diane off there with our packs and then drove back down to the Little Cimarron – Alpine Trailhead where I planned to leave my Jeep. I had hoped to hike back up to the trailhead on the Firebox Trail which paralleled the road for most of the way, but soon discovered that that was a bad idea. Shortly after starting up the little-used trail, it basically disappeared into the steep hillside. The grass on the slope was slippery and I fell a few times trying to continue on the trail that didn’t seem to exist anymore. After hiking a little less than a mile, I realized that this was taking me too long and it would probably be quicker if I returned to the road and just hiked up that instead. When I arrived back at the road I was near my Jeep again, so in order to save myself a little distance I moved my Jeep up the road to the Little Cimarron East trailhead at the end of the first big switchback. Then I started hiking the four miles up the road. However, after hiking almost a half mile I realized that I had forgotten my water bottle back in the Jeep, so I had to turn around and hike back down for it. Things were just not going my way this morning! What was supposed to be a quick 3.5 mile hike between the two trailheads ended up turning into over 6 miles of hiking for me (at least I didn’t have my heavy pack with me!). Eventually I made it back up to Diane at the trailhead, though later than I had hoped, and we started up the Fall Creek Trail.
The sign at the beginning of the Firebox Trail. Though the trail is on maps and signed, you can see it’s already pretty faint in this photo and completely disappears in about a quarter of a mile. It doesn’t seem that this trail has gotten much use in a while…
This is what the Firebox Trail turned into after a short distance. While I can see a faint segment of trail in this photo, I soon couldn’t even find that. Typically, I would love to try and follow the old trail to the end, but Diane was waiting for me at the upper trailhead so I didn’t have the time to spare today. Did I mention that the grass was wet and slippery? I slipped and fell a couple of times on this steep slope…
After giving up on the Firebox Trail, I moved my Jeep over to the Little Cimarron East Trailhead and had hoped to finish off our loop by hiking through this valley.
Hiking the road back up to the Fall Creek Trailhead. It was around 4 miles in length with about 1,200 feet in elevation gain. The grade was pretty mild so it didn’t take me too long.
After a few issues this morning we were finally entering the Uncompahgre Wilderness!
Diane hikes ahead of my near the top of the Firebox Creek valley before we descended to Fall Creek.
Following the trail through the very open Fall Creek valley. One interesting thing about this valley is that all the trees seem to grow only along the edges of the valley at the base of the mountains which leaves the bottom of the valley very open and exposed.
We found a nice campsite back in the trees near the top of the Fall Creek drainage and got our tent setup just before the first of many rain storms started. I took this photo after the rain stopped for a little bit.
The sun would come out again that evening and would stick around until sunset.
The view down Fall Creek from near our campsite.
A nice view up Fall Creek to Point 13051 near the head of the valley.
Last of the light on the top of the mountains across the valley.
There were a few nice clouds at sunset, and a little color, too.
We went to bed shortly after sunset and it would rain on and off again all night. Luckily the wind didn’t really start up until the morning so we slept pretty good. I had set my alarm to get up for sunrise, but it was raining during that time so I went back to sleep until it stopped.
There were plenty of clouds moving very quickly through the sky this morning and some of them looked pretty threatening. Diane enjoys the morning near camp.
After waiting around to see if the weather might clear, we finally made the decision to turn around and hike back out the way we had come.
A little spotlight over Fall Creek on our way back down the valley.
Looking up at the high ridge we would have had to traverse to get to the Little Cimarron. We will have to return another time for that.
The trail alongside Fall Creek.
We made a short detour on the way back to visit an overlook of the confluence of Fall Creek and Big Blue Creek.
It’s funny, as soon as we crossed back over to Firebox Creek the sky was nice and blue with a few clouds. However, looking back towards to Fall Creek, it was still covered with darker clouds.
Since my Jeep was parked down near the Little Cimarron, we had to follow the road back down an extra four miles.
Even though we didn’t get to complete the Little Cimarron Loop as I had hoped, we still had a nice overnight backpacking trip into the Uncompahgre Wilderness for Labor Day Weekend and will definitely be returning!
East Fork & Middle Fork of The Cimarron River Labor Day Weekend | Saturday – Monday, September 2-4, 2017
Sunset on Uncompahgre Peak from the East Fork of the Cimarron River.
Labor Day weekend was upon us again, which meant it was time for another backpacking trip into the Uncompahgre Wilderness! This would be our fourth year in a row backpacking into the northern valleys of the wilderness area, starting with our Wetterhorn Basin (West Fork) trip back in 2014, then continuing with trips into Big Blue Creek and Fall Creek. Earlier this summer we were also able to go on a quick overnighter along the Little Cimarron River to make up for our failed loop last year. With only two remaining major valleys left, we planned to combine the East Fork and the Middle Fork of the Cimarron River into a two night trip that I’ve called The Cimarron Loop.
We slept in a little later than usual on Saturday morning since we were up late for a concert on Friday evening. Once we were up we had some breakfast, finished loading the Jeep and then starting driving to the East Fork Trailhead. During the drive we noticed there was a lot of smoke in the air that was obstructing our views of the Grand Mesa. We hoped this wouldn’t be an issue all weekend and were relieved to find that the smoke wasn’t as bad when we reached the trailhead. I dropped Diane and our packs off at the trailhead and then drove over to the Middle Fork Trailhead where I would leave the Jeep so it would be waiting for us at the end of our hike. I had brought my mountain bike along to complete the shuttle back to the East Fork. Much of the ride back was downhill (about 1,000 feet descent in 5 miles) and easy, but the last mile and a half was mostly uphill, which slowed me down a bit. After returning to the trailhead I found a place to lock my bike up and then we shouldered our packs and started up the trail.
Beautiful views as we hiked along the East Fork of the Cimarron River.
Pretty much the entire trail up the East Fork follows an old mining road, so it was easy hiking for the most part. We would end up hiking almost nine miles with around 1,700 feet of elevation gain on the first day so we could try to camp near treeline. Unfortunately, when we reached the area I had hoped to set up camp we found a huge hunters camp already there. We hiked back down the trail a little ways to find another spot to pitch our tent.
As we hiked further up the valley we were treated to nice views of Uncompahgre Peak (14,309) to our left. It’s been nice seeing this massive peak from all different angles over the years.
The partly-cloudy skies we had started hiking under had turned to mostly overcast. As we neared treeline we could start to hear rumbles of thunder, but we never saw any lightning and only had a few sprinkles of rain.
Remains of the Silver Jack Mine.
Our home for the night.
After our tent was set up we had a few snacks for dinner and then I hiked down the trail a short distance to a clearing in hopes of a decent sunset. To be honest, I looked at the sky and figured it was too cloudy for sunset and almost got in the tent to go to bed early. I’m glad I didn’t because the sun did manage to sneak thorough a small gap on the horizon that I couldn’t see.
Vibrant red light stikes the western face of Uncompahgre Peak.
Looking down the East Fork toward some colorful clouds. The smoke below the clouds was also turning pink.
When the color was gone I hiked back to the tent and went right to bed. It had been a long day and I was pretty tired. Unfortunately, I found out pretty quickly that my sleeping pad had a leak and within the hour it was completely flat. It was dark out and I was tired, plus the ground wasn’t terribly uncomfortable, so I decided to make due and just sleep on the ground the rest of the night. It wasn’t my best night of sleep on a camping trip, but I got through it. The main issue I had was that I definitely slept much colder than usual without my insulated sleeping pad.
I poked my head out of the tent about thirty minutes before sunrise on Sunday morning and saw that there were no clouds in the sky, so I decided to skip getting up for sunrise and went back to sleep for a little while longer. After finally getting up we had a little breakfast, packed up our gear and continued hiking up the trail. We needed an early start today so we could try and get over the pass into the Middle Fork before any storms moved into the area since we didn’t want a repeat of last year.
Sunrise in the East Fork.
Diane starts hiking up the Middle Fork Trail towards Matterhorn Peak (13,590) in the distance.
Climbing out of the East Fork on our way to Middle Fork Pass.
As we climbed up to Middle Fork Pass, which is just over 12,500 feet in elevation, we had great views of the upper basin including Matterhorn Peak, Wetterhorn Peak, Heisshorn and El Punto, though it was slow going with our heavy packs on.
Wetterhorn Peak just barely coming into view to the right of Matterhorn.
Climbing up the right side of this creek towards the pass.
There were a few signs along the way so you knew you were on the right track.
The trail to Middle Fork Pass.
Finally! That low spot left of center is the pass into the Middle Fork.
Once we reached the pass we had a great view down the Middle Fork including Coxcomb Peak, Redcliff and Precipice Peak.
That’s Precipice Peak (13,144) right in the middle. I almost made it to the summit of that one a few years ago…
Coxcomb Peak (13,656)
Coxcomb and Redcliff (13,642) from the trail as we descended into the valley.
There were even some wildflowers still lingering around.
After hiking down from the pass for about a mile we found a great campsite just below Coxcomb Peak and Redcliff above the intersection with The Coxcomb Trail. After setting up camp Diane took a look at my sleeping pad and managed to find the hole and I was able to patch it so I wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground for a second night.
Our campsite in the Middle Fork.
While we were filtering water from the nearby stream I noticed this old sign embedded in a tree. It looks like it says “Boundary Stock Driveway, Signs Face Trail”
Shortly before sunset I went on a short hike up The Coxcomb Trail and then returned to an overlook near camp to watch the sunset. All the nice clouds we had around during the late morning and early afternoon had disappeared, so it was a clear sky for sunset.
Sunset light on Heisshorn above camp.
An evening view down the Middle Fork from an overlook near camp.
After sunset we headed back to camp and went to bed. I slept much better this night with my sleeping pad, although ti still must have another small leak because I did have to blow it up once in the middle of the night.
I guess it was a lazy weekend for me since I didn’t feel like getting up for sunrise again. We woke up shortly after, packed up camp and started hiking down the trail. Today would be the shortest and easiest hiking day since it was mostly downhill to the trailhead. However, we were surprised to find quite a bit of big deadfall over the trail between treeline and the Porphyry Basin Trail intersection that we had to climb over or find ways around. This part of the trail slowed us down. After the intersection the trail was maintained much better. Much of the trail was in the forest with limited views, but there were a few clearings where we got nice views of Precipice Peak and Dunsinane Mountain (12,742) above.
Leaving camp in the morning to hike down the Middle Fork.
Coxcomb Peak and PT13206 above the head of the basin. I caught a beautiful sunset from the summit of PT13206 during our trip into Wetterhorn Basin.
As we hiked further down the valley we were finally able to see the profile of Coxcomb Peak that gives it it’s name.
Hiking along the Middle Fork of the Cimarron River.
Seneca Lake, Island Lake & Titcomb Basin Thursday – Monday, August 17-21, 2017
The Great American Eclipse viewed from the Wind River Range in Wyoming.
The plans for this particular trip started to come together well over a year ago when I first learned about The Great American Eclipse happening on August 21, 2017. The last total eclipse visible from the United States was before I was born, so I really wanted to make an effort to experience this one. After looking at a map of the path of totality, I saw that this one was going to be visible right over the Wind River Range in Wyoming which is only about a six hour drive from home. While I had briefly visited the Wind Rivers outside of Lander about ten years ago, I’ve wanted to go on a backpacking trip into the Bridger Wilderness for a pretty long time now and figured that this would be the perfect opportunity. Early in the planning stages I set my sights on backpacking into the Island Lake and Titcomb Basin area below Fremont Peak from the Elkhart Park Trailhead near Pinedale. I figured that this popular and beautiful area would be a good introduction to backpacking in the Wind Rivers. As the date of the eclipse got closer and more and more people learned about it from social media, I figured that this area of Wyoming was probably going to be much busier than usual, but I decided against changing our plans and was willing to make that sacrifice for this possible once-in-a-lifetime event.
Our final plans were to drive up to Pinedale after work a few days before the eclipse and hike into the Island park area for a couple of days. Then we would hike out on Monday morning before the eclipse so we could watch from the trailhead so I wouldn’t have to carry my heavy long lens and tripod the entire trip. Then we would start driving home right after totality. I was concerned that we might get caught in heavy traffic on the way home, so I made sure to bring plenty of food, drinks and extra gas along so we would be completely self contained, just in case…
We left work on Thursday evening and drove straight to Pinedale with only one stop in Vernal for a quick dinner. Earlier in the year I had reserved a site at the Half Moon Lake Campground, which is on the way to the trailhead, since I knew we would be arriving late this evening. It was dark out when we arrived and getting late, so we quickly setup our tent and went right to bed. We woke up with the sunrise on Friday morning and packed up our tent again so we could finish driving to the trailhead. It’s a shame we didn’t have the time to stay at this campsite longer because it was a very nice one right on the lake with it’s own little private beach. We might have to stay here again next time we come up this way!
Finally seeing our campsite in the light for the first time on Friday morning.
Diane’s view from our private beach at the Half Moon Lake Campground.
It’s a good thing we arrived at the Elkhart Park Trailhead early since we were happy to get one of the very last parking spaces available in the parking lot. It completely filled up a few minutes after we arrived. We spent a little time organizing our gear and making sure we had everything we needed before taking off the the Pole Creek Trail with hopes of making it to Island Lake. I knew there was going to be some ups and downs along the trail to Island Lake, but there was a little more elevation gain than we anticipated and it really wore us out, so we ended up only hiking to Little Seneca Lake before finding a spot nearby to setup camp.
Hiking past Seneca Lake.
Diane rested in camp near the lake for the rest of the day while I spent the evening hiking to an overlook of Island Lake. While on my way to Island Lake I met a nice thru-hiker on the Continental Divide Trail from Germany. His trail name was the ‘German Mormon’ and we hiked to Island Lake together and chatted for a little while until he had to get back on the trail to get a few more miles in.
A nice overlook of Island Lake on Friday evening.
We were pretty exhausted from the drive on Thursday night and the hike in on Friday, so we slept in later on Saturday morning before going on a day hike into Titcomb Basin. We took our time and spent all day hiking into this beautiful area before returning to camp shortly before sunset. On our way back we had dinner overlooking Island Lake. We did notice that there were a lot more people hiking into the area and camping around Island Lake today. The place was getting pretty busy.
Fremont Peak (13,745) and Jackson Peak (13,517) over Island Lake. I had hoped to climb Fremont Peak on this trip, but my legs were not feeling up to it after hiking in on Friday.
Along the shore of Island Lake.
Diane following the Indian Basin Trail.
Hiking below Fremont Peak into Titcomb Basin.
The rugged peaks surrounding Titcomb Basin were just amazing! Such a beautiful area!
Mount Lester (12,342)
Leaving Titcomb Basin…
As we were leaving Titcomb Basin, we noticed there was a little smoke in the air from wildfires that had blown into the area. Thankfully, it wouldn’t stick around for the eclipse.
A view over Island Lake to Indian Pass.
Hiking back to our campsite.
Back to Little Seneca Lake.
On Sunday morning we woke up with the sun, packed up our campsite and started our hike back out. As we were packing up camp some clouds moved in and there were a couple sprinkles of rain. We had nothing but clear blue skies the previous days, so it was nice to finally have a few clouds in the sky this morning, even though they didn’t stick around for more than a couple of hours. Today we passed a lot of people coming up the trail who were on their way to join the already busy area between Seneca Lake and Island Lake. I was actually a little glad that we were leaving that area behind. Our plans were to hike most of the way out and then find a campsite so we would have a short hike to the trailhead on Monday morning. We had all day, so we took our time hiking and enjoying the scenery.
Morning at Little Seneca Lake.
Hiking back towards Seneca Lake with clouds in the sky.
The view from Photographers Point.
For some reason I thought it might be a good idea to see about camping near Miller Lake, so we took a side trip to the lake in search of a campsite. Unfortunately, the lake was already too crowded so we decided not to camp there. We filtered some water and then headed back to the main trail again. We ended up finding a nice campsite about two miles from the trailhead near an intersection with the old Surveyor Park Trail. I was expecting this area to be crowded with people wanting to camp near the trailhead like us, but we saw no other people nearby at all!
Getting late along the Pole Creek Trail.
Our campsite on the last night of the trip.
Since we had a short hike on Monday morning and the total eclipse wasn’t until 11:37am we were able to sleep in late yet again. This is very uncommon for us, but it was nice on this trip to take things easy. I was a little concerned that when we returned to the trailhead we were going to find hordes of people and cars parked everywhere blocking the roads. Thankfully, that wasn’t even close to the case! Yes, the parking lot was completely full, but the Forest Service had closed the road when the lot filled up so there were only about a dozen other people around waiting for the eclipse. I’m sure it was less crowded here at the trailhead than it was at Island Lake this morning! I got my camera and tripod setup and then we waited for the magic to happen. I wasn’t really planning on taking any photos of the partial eclipse since I took some in 2012 during the Annular Solar Eclipse near Shiprock, New Mexico, but I ended up taking a few anyway as we waited for totality. As the total eclipse got closer the light around us started to dim and got weird and the temperature began to drop.
Diane watching the partial eclipse from the Elkhart Park Trailhead.
The beginning of the eclipse…
I have to say, the total eclipse was a pretty amazing experience! It got dark out, similar to the light about 15 minutes after sunset, but it was a weird and eerie light. The temperature dropped even more, we could see some of the brighter stars and planets in the sky and the birds stopped chirping so it was pretty quiet out. Totality was only going to last about two minutes, but it sure felt like it was shorter than that. It was over so quick! It was definitely an experience that I will never forget and I’m glad we were able to experience it!
The Great American Eclipse – August 21, 2017
My very first Total Eclipse!
…and just as quickly as it started, it was over again…
After the total eclipse was over, I took a few more photos of the sliver of the sun that came back out and then we were the first ones to leave the parking lot about ten minutes after totality was over. As I mentioned before, I had brought along extra gas and food in case we got caught in the heavy traffic they were expecting after the eclipse, but we didn’t hit any traffic at all on our way back down to Pinedale. Since we had everything we needed we kept on going to Rock Springs, and then through Flaming Gorge to Vernal where we stopped for the first time and had a little dinner. We hit absolutely no traffic at all on the way back home and everything I had planned for this trip had worked out perfectly! It was a great time we will never forget!
View from our campsite along the Little Cimarron River in the Uncompahgre Wilderness.
Last Labor Day weekend, Diane and I had set off to complete a three day loop in the Uncompahgre Wilderness connecting the Fall Creek Trail and the Little Cimarron Trail. Unfortunately, stormy weather prevented us from crossing over the high ridge into the Little Cimarron River valley, so we had to cut our trip short and returned the way we had come. This weekend we decided to go on an overnight trip along the Little Cimarron River to make up for it since I’ve been itching to get back into the Uncompahgre Wilderness, which is one of my favorite, and often overlooked, wilderness areas close to home.
Starting our hike from the Little Cimarron – Alpine Trailhead.
We left home mid-morning on Saturday and drove southeast through Montrose, over the Cerro Summit and into the Cimarron River watershed. We turned off the highway onto the Little Cimarron Road and followed it to the Little Cimarron – Alpine Trailhead a few miles before the road dead ends. We double-checked that we had everything we needed, shouldered our backpacks and took off over the bridge across the Little Cimarron River on the trail. It appeared that the area had received significant rainfall the previous day and everything was very wet and muddy. It didn’t take long for our boots and pant legs to get soaked, especially since the trail seemed little-used and overgrown. There were also plenty of fallen trees across the trail that we had to climb over or find ways around. After a couple miles of hiking we spotted a nice waterfall on the other side of the valley and saw a bear walking around nearby. I’ve only seen a bear twice before, and both times I was in or near my Jeep, so this was my first spotting while on a hike. We found that much of this trail is in the trees with limited views except when it crosses a few short clearings created by avalanches coming down from Sheep Mountain (13,168) above.
Joining up with the Little Cimarron East Trail, which we would take on the hike back out.
Much of the trail looked like this, especially the first couple of miles.
Welcome to the Uncompahgre Wilderness
Following the trail through one of the first clearings.
Uncompahgre Wilderness Backpacking
We found a nice campsite in the trees just at the edge of the final clearing that offered us great views into the upper valley. There were some wildflowers in the area, but not nearly as many as we saw last weekend near Silverton. Originally, I was considering continuing up the trail as it climbed onto the high ridge separating the Little Cimarron River from Fall Creek and maybe bagging a 13,000 foot summit, but the afternoon storms were moving in and I didn’t think it would be a good idea to be on top of the ridge. While we didn’t get much rain this afternoon, there was a little bit of graupel that fell from the sky along with thunder echoing through the valley. We rested in the tent until the storm moved out of the area. The clouds started to clear out for a little bit which created some nice spotlighting on the surrounding peaks, but they returned again before sunset. After the sun went down we headed back to the tent and went right to bed. I slept pretty well this night, and while it got cool out overnight, it never got really cold and the temperature was pretty comfortable.
Our home for the night.
Nice spotlighting on the ridge above camp.
Diane enjoys the view from near our campsite.
Looking up the Little Cimarron River from the furthest point of our hike. This is where the trail crosses the river and then steeply climbs to the top of the 12,800 foot ridge before descending into the Fall Creek valley.
Another round of storm clouds moving over the valley.
A touch of light at the head of the valley.
The last light of the day shortly before sunset.
On Sunday morning I woke up shortly before sunrise and took a few photos from around the upper valley. There were a few clouds in the sky which picked up some nice color. Then we packed up camp and started our hike back out. When I had checked the weather forecast before starting the trip it had called for thunderstorms to move into the area early on Sunday morning beginning around 9:00am, but I guess that forecast must have changed because when we reached the Jeep in the late morning the sky was still clear and blue. We followed the same trail back to the Jeep only diverging onto the Little Cimarron East Trail about a mile and a half before reaching the trailhead. This trail followed the opposite side of the valley on an old road bed. While we could have taken this trail on the way in and it would have saved us a little distance, we decided not to since it requires crossing the river and I didn’t want us to get our feet wet early in the hike. It was certainly a deep river crossing and I think we made the right call since there was no way to avoid getting wet. Since we were not too far from the end of the hike when we crossed, we didn’t worry about it and just got our shoes wet.
A few photos from sunrise taken near our camp…
Sheep Mountain bathed in the warm morning light.
Leaving camp and hiking back down the faint trail.
A small waterfall we passed as we crossed this rushing side creek.
Mountain bluebells and a small waterfall.
Back into the lush and wet vegetation along the trail in the forest.
One of the many small creeks we had to cross.
We returned to the Little Cimarron East trailhead under clear blue skies. From here is was a short walk down the road back to my Jeep.
In the end the hike was around 13 miles round trip with about 1,500 feet of elevation gain, mostly on the first day. We never saw another person the entire time and didn’t even see any other footprints on the trail. This trail definitely offered us plenty of solitude in the wilderness!
Sunset over ripples in the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.
This year I have been trying to cross things off my to-do list that have been on there for way too long. One of the items on my list that I have been looking at for a number of years was backpacking into The Great Sand Dunes. Earlier this year I decided that this was finally the year I was going to go for it! After some research it looked like June would be a good time to go. Even though Great Sand Dunes National Park is usually pretty busy in June since Medano Creek is typically at peak flow, I figured it wouldn’t matter much for us since we would be hiking and camping deeper in the dune field than most visitors go. Looking at my calendar, my only free weekend in June was the very first weekend (It’s going to be a busy month!), which was a little earlier than I would like to have gone, but since it was our only option that’s when we decided to go.
I left work early on Friday so we could start our drive down to the San Luis Valley and find somewhere to camp before it got dark out. We grabbed something to eat in Gunnison and then continued on through The Cochetopa Hills and over the Continental Divide to Saguache. When originally planning this trip I was hoping we’d be able to find a campsite along Medano Pass Road inside the Park, but after checking on the status of the road I found that it was still closed while they repaired a washed-out section. As we left town I was hoping we’d be able to find a place to camp near Zapata Falls or along the road to Lake Como since I knew the campground in the Park would be full on a Friday evening at this time of the year. However, I was still a little concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find a place to camp near the Park, and if that happened we would most likely have to drive back across the San Luis Valley to find a spot in the National Forest. With that thought weighing on my mind, I made a last minute decision to just find a place to camp on the west side of the valley and drove up Carnero Pass Road in the La Garita Mountains to see if we could find a dispersed campsite. Then we would finish the rest of the drive in the morning since we would have plenty of time until the Backcountry Office opened. As we drove up the road to the pass we didn’t see any dispersed campsites, which is pretty uncommon, and were worried we weren’t going to find a place to spend the night here, but shortly before reaching the pass we came across the Storm King Campground. It was a nice place located at around 9,000 feet at the base of Storm King Mountain (10,849). There were six sites and only one site was currently occupied by a bikepacker, so we decided to spend the night here. We quickly setup camp and had a little extra time before sunset, so we drove the rest of the way up to Carnero Pass (10,171) and explored a few of the side roads in the area. We returned to camp at sunset and went right to bed so we could get up early on Saturday morning.
We found a nice spot to camp in the Storm King Campground.
Home for the night.
Out exploring the Carnero Pass Road before sunset.
Driving next to a large pinnacle along the road.
A little color in the sky as we returned to the campground for the night.
We woke up with the sun at 5:30am on Saturday morning, packed up camp and then drove across the San Luis Valley to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. We arrived about an hour and a half before the Backcountry Office was supposed to open and were already the sixth group waiting in line for a permit to camp in the dunes. The Park only allows 20 groups to camp in the dunes each day and since it was the busy season I knew we might need to arrive early in order to secure our permit. After the office opened and we received our permit we went for a drive along Medano Pass Road since they had finally opened it late on the previous day and it would give Diane a nice overview of the Park since this was her first visit. When we were done with the drive we returned to the main parking area so we could hike out to Medano Creek and the base of the giant sand dunes for a little while. There were a lot of people around and many more coming so we left the Park for a little while to get some lunch before returning to hike into the dunes to set up camp.
Mount Herard towers above Medano Creek and the sand dunes.
As we were hiking out into the sand dunes early in the afternoon there were a lot of nice clouds in the sky and I was really hoping they would stick around until sunset. When the sun was out it was pretty warm out, but when the sun was blocked behind the clouds the temperature was very nice and comfortable. After hiking for a few miles and exploring the dunes we found a nice spot to set up camp that we hoped would be a little protected from the wind if it kicked up. There was also a pretty nice view of Mount Herard (13,340) from our tent. Since we had a few hours until sunset we only set up the footprint with the rainfly so we could use it for shade from the sun and avoid getting too much sand inside our regular tent. We would spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the area and resting in the shade. It was a pretty relaxing afternoon.
Arriving at the edge of Medano Creek as we prepared to cross and hike into the dune field.
Diane crossing Medano Creek ahead of me.
Hiking across the sand dunes in search of a place to camp for the night.
I think this campsite will do…
Not a bad view from inside the tent.
We did get a bit of sand in the tent when the wind started to pick up…
Unfortunately, the nice clouds that had been around all afternoon started to disappear later in the day and the wind really started to pick up. About an hour before sunset we headed back out into the sand dunes with my camera so I could take some photos. As we were hiking around the wind really started to blow. I had checked the weather a number of times in the morning and afternoon and according to the forecast only light 5mph winds were expected this evening and tonight. But as we hiked to the top of a large dune we were greeted by a very strong winds that had to have been gusting at least 30-40mph. We couldn’t even get over one of the dunes we were on because it was blowing so hard and creating a very soft pointy ridge at the very top. In some places the sand was whipping across the dunes and erasing our footprints almost as soon as we left them. I wanted to try and take some long-exposure photos of the blowing sand, but it was too strong for my tripod to stay upright. I braved the wind and took photos until sunset and then returned to camp hoping that the wind would die down soon. It didn’t.
You can see the sand blowing over the ripples at the bottom of the photo with Mount Zwischen (12,006) in the distance.
Here’s a very short video of the sand blowing that I took with my iPhone. Sorry for the vertical video, but it was the only way I could show the sand blowing across the dune at the bottom with the mountain in the distance.
Sand In Motion - YouTube
More sand blowing over ripples.
Just a large sand dune. Check out that fresh pointy ridge on the top!
Not a bad view to battle the wind for.
A closeup of sand blowing off the crest of this dune.
Talk about a windy evening…
Great Sand Dunes Sunset
Low angle light striking just the very top of the ripples in the sand.
Our shelter as the sunset added a little color to the only clouds left in the sky.
Thankfully, the location I had setup our tent was definitely better sheltered than some other areas, but even so, it was still getting pummeled by the wind. We were hoping the wind would die down after the sun had set like it frequently does in the desert, but it actually seemed to get even stronger after the sun was down. We put up the tent under the rainfly and tried to keep sand from blowing in, but it was a futile effort. The wind on our tent was steady, but the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 handled it like a champ, never flattening or collapsing. Over an hour after sunset conditions hadn’t changed and we had to figure out what we were going to do. We couldn’t keep sand from constantly blowing into our tent, and even if we could there was no way we would be able to sleep in this wind. At this point we decided that it would be best just to pack up camp and hike back out. It was only a few miles back to the Jeep and the moon was still out to provide a little additional light. We got everything packed up into our backpacks as quickly as possible in the blowing sand and then started hiking back out over the dunes. Shortly after starting the hike out we ran into another couple of backpackers doing the same as they had come to the same conclusion as us, so at least we weren’t the only ones leaving. On the way out I would turn around a bunch of times and see groups of headlights behind us- other groups of backpackers leaving, too. It was that bad! I’m just glad we hadn’t hiked into the dunes any further than we did.
Even though making the decision to leave was a tough choice for me to make, I knew it was definitely the right one. The hike out would reassure me of that! The wind was brutal and it was coming straight at us the whole way out. It had to have been between 30-50mph, at least. Not only were we getting coated with sand (It looked like we were walking through a blizzard with our headlamps lighting up the sand in the air), but it was also sandblasting our faces and eyes for most of the hike. It was a pretty painful experience and we would have to cover our faces and walk with our eyes closed, carefully peeking out just enough to try and keep on track. It was not a very pleasant hike. The worst part was having to cross the higher part of the dunes where the wind was the strongest, constantly blowing sand over the ridge and it had created very soft and steep points that were tough to get over, especially with the sand blowing right at you. Eventually we made it over the main ridge of the dune field and down to Medano Creek, which we crossed and then finished the hike to the Jeep.
When we returned to the trailhead it was getting late and we were pretty exhausted. I thought it would be best just to drive to Alamosa, get a hotel room, take a shower and go right to bed. Who knew that all the hotels in Alamosa would be full on a Saturday night at 11:00pm? Since we couldn’t find a room in Alamosa or Del Norte and I was getting too tired to drive much further, we returned to Carnero Creek and setup our tent at a trailhead we had seen earlier in the morning. We went right to bed, but it was still a bit windy on this side of the valley, too. The wind would keep hitting the tent throughout the night and prevent me from sleeping well. We slept in on Saturday as long as we could. Once the sun was up and the tent was too hot to be comfortable it was time to get up. We were both still pretty tired, so we packed up camp and drove back home, calling it a weekend. I would take a nice nap as soon as we returned home.