Tag Archives: San Juan Mountains

Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness: Day 3

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The Weminuche Wildreness appeared to be particularly devastated by the recent Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic.  While a portion of the second day was spent above the tree line and in storms for much of the journey, we wound our way in and out of the forest, alternating between hiking through the forest itself, and hiking across an open meadow where we could gaze upon the forest to both our left and our right.

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Throughout the State of Colorado, and throughout the West, I observe areas where the Pine Beetles have decimated the forest, changing the ecosystem forever.  Nowhere, though, have I seen a higher concentration of dead trees.  I would estimate that, over the course of the trip, some 70-75% of all the pine trees I saw, were, in fact, dead.

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But I did notice some signs of life, particularly at the campground Sunday (Day 3) morning.  Tucked away amongst the densely pack forests of decimated trees, little signs of life seemed to appear.  It reminded me of many American cities, circa 1982, decay being the overarching theme but, signs of life and pockets of hope beginning to appear here and there for those willing to observe.  Maybe indeed, the worst has now passed for this particular forest.  As was the case for many of our cities, it is possible that in a decade or so, we will revisit areas like this, and see once again a thriving forest, albeit, as was the case with our cities, with a different character?

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As is typically the case on a three day excursion like this one, the last day was primarily a descent.  As we descended, we quickly reached elevations where Aspens, rather than Pine trees made up a significant proportion of the forest.

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Maybe it is different at this latitude, farther South than the Denver area, where I live and spend most of my time.  But, it feels as if in this wilderness, Aspen trees are able to grow at some pretty high elevations.

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We figured out the tree line here to be somewhere close to 12,000 feet in elevation.  When looking upon sections of forest from afar like this, it is easy to picture some of these Aspen trees living at elevations close to 11,00 feet.  Over the course of my four years in the Denver area, I had grown accustomed to them disappearing between 9,000 and 10,000 feet.

Sunday’s hike was a 7.3 mile trek along the Ute Creek trail (the East Ute Creek trail we had followed the previous day merged with the main Ute Creek trail).  The trail alternated a bit, climbing up and out of the valley formed by the creek for some sections, and descending back toward the creek for others.  Due to the previous night’s onslaught of rain, which likely impacted the entire valley, the trails on this, the final day, were at times even muddier than the were the prior two days.  At the end of three days, our total distance came out around 25 miles.  I speculated as to whether the extra distance we traveled stepping around puddles, and veering left and right to avoid some of the muddiest sections of trail, over the course of three days made this a mile or so longer than it would have been had the trails been completely dry.

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I personally added some distance on top of that.  I love side excursions, whether hiking/backpacking, cycling, or on a road trip.  And, in addition to the side excursion to the feature known as “the window” the previous day, I took one completely on my own the final day.  Roughly halfway through the hike, I saw a place where I could cut down to the creek, and see a mini-waterfall.

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The final part of the day consisted of a small climb out of the Ute Creek valley, followed by a descent back towards the Rio Grande Reserviour.

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It is inevitable that, on the last day of any trip, we all begin to ponder our return home, and a return to our “normal lives”, whatever they may be.  This return, though, is somewhat unique, as a trip into the woods is not just a journey away from our jobs, or certain responsibilities, it feels more like a complete separation from the modern world, or as some people refer to it, the “real world”.  All of us were separated, not just from work, but from TV, from the news, from Twitter, and even the manner in which society is structured in the 21st Century.

Since my return to Denver was a return to, after being completely separated from, the “real world”, I started to contemplate the “real world” as one big entity, which, even for a big-picture abstract curious minded thinker like me, turned out to be strange.  I feel like we often compartmentalize the “real world” into buckets; the working world, the relationship world, the school world, etc.  We will write blogs, have conversations, confide in others about our hardships, or celebrate our successes, with respect to one specific bucket of the “real world” at a time.  Some people will even chose to accept or rebel against the modern world on a bucket-by-bucket basis.  “I’m a freelancer, happily married with two kids and a picket fences house.”  “I work 9-to-5 for a large corporation, but I only eat organically certified food.”

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of the partially-rebellious lifestyles I am describing here.  We often try to oversimplify the actions and lifestyles of others as being either “conformist” or “rebellious”.  When I thought about life in the woods, and the few people that actually do it, live off the grid, and off the land, I think of those people as “rebellious”.  But, then I thought of human beings as part of the animal kingdom, and thought about what all non-domesticated animals do.  They live in the woods.  They hunt their food, many wandering around nomadically.  When thought of in that manner, it is us human beings, and our domesticated cats and dogs, that are rebelling against the way the rest of the animal kingdom works by farming our food and setting up permanent shelters.

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At the conclusion of our journey, we had to actually wade across the Rio Grand River to get to the car, as the trail ended abruptly at the river.  This likely explained why we did not see any other people the entire time we were on the East Ute Creek and Ute Creek trails yesterday and today.

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Shortly after leaving the trailhead, I saw what looked like baby mule deer living along the steepest part of the hill.

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Like the journey to the Wilderness, the journey home took us by some of Colorado’s highest peaks and most stunning mountainous features.  I thought of the “real world” I was gradually re-entering, the life I live and the journey I just took.  It is not important whether we are “conforming” or “rebelling”, because, like life in the woods, it can be thought of as conformist or rebellious depending on perspective.

Those of us that are honest with ourselves, and with those around us, will undoubtedly find ourselves in both situations.  We’ll find ourselves in a place where our choices are the same as those around us, and be suseptable to being labelled “conformists”.  We’ll also, at some point, find ourselves in a place where our choices are not those of the majority, and be met with skepticism, hostility, and possibly even pressure to change.  What matters most, is not fitting into an image we may have of ourselves, whether it be the upstanding citizen, rebel, outcast, or whatever, it is that we have the courage to be all things, depending on our setting, in order to be true to ourselves.

Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness: Day 2

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Before moving to Colorado, I experienced seasons in a completely different way.  While there would be some anomalies, for the most part, winter was winter and summer was summer.  Snow was something I experienced starting in November, through the winter, probably one last time in early April, and then not again for 6-9 months.  Likewise, heat would be primarily confined to the summer months.  In other words, I experienced being cold and being warm in two separate parts of the year.  The experience would generally only mix during the in between seasons; mid-spring and mid-fall.

In Colorado it’s all different.  In Denver I’ve seen temperatures reach the lower 70s (23 C) in the middle of February.  At higher elevations snow can fall nearly year round, and there are places where snowpack persists well into the summer.

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Saturday morning, the start of my second day in the Weminuche Wilderness, was a cold one.  The chill had awoken me at 3:00 in the morning, when I reached for my warm hat and for the zipper to zip my sleeping bag all the way shut.  At roughly 6:30 I woke up for good, and crawled out of the tent to find ice on the fly!  Frost was found on many of the items we left outside, including this bear cannister.

It warmed up fairly quickly at the campsite making me wonder why I did not simply stay inside the tent for another hour.  All the weather forecasts we had looked at prior to this backpacking trip had indicated that a wet period was coming to a slow end, and that each day would get progressively drier (lower probability of rain).  Yet, in the morning I saw something that would indicate differently; alto-cumulus clouds.  These are puffy clouds with a base somewhat higher up in the sky than the clouds we typically see.  On some storm chases, the presence of alto-cumulus clouds indicated the presence of moisture at higher levels of the atmosphere.  This was seen as a good sign on a storm chase, but, on a backpacking trip, is a bad sign.

The first few miles of the day took us by a lake we are glad we did not chose to camp at the prior evening, and then back into the woods, where once again the trail was muddy kind of on-and-off.

Headed farther up in elevation, towards the summit of the day, we approached the tree line, encountering several waterfalls.  This one, by far, was the most pictureqsue.

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I did not even know the name of any of these waterfalls.  In fact, I did not even verify that they even have a name.  It didn’t even seem important at the time.  We just liked what we saw.  At that time, most of the conversation within our group revolved around whether we would see marmots in the nearby rocks, and speculation as to what elevation the tree line was at at this latitude.

We followed the Rincon La Vaca (Cow Canyon) trail, which is also considered a section of the Continental Divide Scenic trail, above the tree line, and approached a rock formation we had been looking at since early the prior afternoon, “The Window”.

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This is where we decided to stop for lunch, at a lake where we could safely refill our water bottles.

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It was noon when we finished eating lunch and, four of us (out of a group of six) decided, despite the potentially ominous weather, to make a side excursion.  We dropped our packs and hiked the 500-ish feet (and half a mile) up to “The Window”

We got back to the lake, where our backpacks were, around 1:00.  As soon as we prepared to move, and catch up with the rest of the group, it started to rain.  A few minutes later, ice pellets began to fall from the sky.

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We briefly took shelter from the inclement weather, but eventually soldiered on through the not quite rain not quite ice, which would eventually change over to snow!

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I experienced a lot of this living in Chicago.  I called it “precipitation jambalaya”.  But, I never thought I would hike through it, and, well, am used to experiencing this in December, not late August!  Once again, that thing about the seasons!

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The precipitation stopped right before we turned off the Continental Divide/ Rincon la Vaca trail, and started looking for the trail we would take back towards the reservoir, the East Ute Creek Trail.

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The scene looked familiar.  The shape of the Ute Creek Valley where we were headed, with an open meadow surrounded by mostly dead forests on either side looked quite similar to the Weminuche Creek Valley we had hiked through the prior day.  The trail, though, was hard to find.

For the first mile we kept losing the trail, or we just saw it show up only as a barely visible line in the grass.  We actually speculated as to whether or not this trail was so infrequently used and/or maintained that mother nature was basically starting to take it back!

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We hiked until roughly 5:00 P.M., and by the time the day was over we hike a total of 10.2 miles (11.2 for those of us that took the side excursion to “the window”).  The last hour featured two crazy river crossings where we actually removed our socks and shoes.

We found a campground near a small lake called Black Lake, where, once again, the weather took a turn for the worse.

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The rain started shortly after 6 P.M., and did not let up until after sundown.  I rushed back into my tent!  With all of the experiences of the day, the mixed precipitation at over 12,000 feet elevation, wading through water, and now, once again, more icy rain, I was cold!  I was way colder than I wanted to be, and way colder than I ever imagined being in the month of August.  For the first 20-30 minutes, I had to lie sitting still inside my sleeping bag, otherwise I would start to shiver.

All I could think of were things that were HOT and DRY.  I wasn’t even thinking of warm, pleasant experiences, like drinking rum on a beach in Puerto Rico at sunset.  I was thinking about things that would immediately heat me up and dry me off; sheets that were pulled directly out of the drier, a sauna, Death Valley!

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With the hard hiking parts over with, I had originally hoped to have kind of a party with the group on Saturday night.  We had even brought flasks, filled with whiskey for such an occasion.  But, the weather changed my plans, as the rain continued and I continued to periodically hear thunder through the 7:00 and 8:00 hours.

I also did something I never do on group trips; read.  I joke I often bring a magazine or even a book, places, but never touch it.  This time I actually read.  It was the July edition of Adventure Cyclist.  Fitting for the mood, thinking about warm places while trying to stay warm, I read full stories about cycling journeys through Morocco and Hawaii, both warm places!

I guess regardless of whether you are in an urban setting or in the wilderness, life has a way of changing plans.  In the city, it is some merger, or a random change in commodities prices.  In nature, it is the weather.  But, when it comes to rain, and anytime rain changes my plans, I always do my best not to complain.  Even while I was bummed that I was not partying with my friends and hating how cold I was in my tent, I was mindful to remember that rain is necessary for the food we eat, the water we drink, as well as everything that made this trip possible in the first place.  I do not want to be one of those people that fails to realize this, and cannot put up with a little bit of rain.

 

Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness: Day 1

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During the month of August I had fallen back into some bad habits.  In particular, I’d fallen into the very habit I often criticize my own generation for: scrolling.  I know the costs outweigh the benefits.  By gazing at the predictable content of our news feeds and customized social media echo chambers on our phones, we miss out on countless opportunities out there in the real world, all to avoid the discomfort of boredom, or a potentially awkward interaction with another human being.

It’s not just about scrolling.  Scrolling is what we all see.  It’s the same routine day in and day out.  It’s going to the same bars and restaurants over and over.  It’s watching movies and TV shows we have already seen multiple times instead of calling people up and organizing a social gathering.  It is all the things that we do because the alternative requires a greater amount of effort.  It’s low risk, low effort, and low reward.  Unfortunately, for me, it lacks stimulation, it lacks enthusiasm, and over time can even lead to depression.

I haven’t thought of a better word for it than “defaulting”.  I often feel as if there is some sort of invisible force always dragging us toward this kind of life, this “defaulting”.  There seems to be a constant struggle, to mix things up, to avoid the mundane, to avoid losing contact with people.  And, while I think my personal record is pretty good (i.e. all the things I write about in this blog), there are times when I get tired of the struggle, and times when I do feel as if this invisible force is indeed advancing on me.  At these times, it is good to have some sort of activity, or some sort of trip that helps us hit the “reset” button.

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For this purpose, there truly is nothing like going into the woods, away from it all, out of cell service, completely out of my comfort zone, and in a place where “defaulting” is not only no longer easier, but not an option at all!

Our three day backpacking trip began at ThirtyMile Campground, just a mile or so east of the Rio Grande Reservoir.

After passing by a weather station, that is near and dear to me, as it is one of the stations that helped me calibrate the mean impact cold air funneling, in valleys throughout Colorado, has on nighttime lows, we encountered the Rio Grande Reservoir within the first mile of our trip.

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Going into this trip, which had been planned for several weeks ahead of time, we knew there would be muddy trails, and a heightened chance of rain.  Not only is Southwestern Colorado the most active part of the state during the late summer monsoon season, but this past weekend featured an active pattern in the region.

Friday was supposed to be the most active day, with regards to chances for precipitation.  Yet, we lucked out.  Leaving at 10 AM, after enjoying a nice relaxing morning at the campground, we hiked 7.5 miles, up the Weminuche Trail, dealing with very little rain, only with muddy trails.  Mindful of the storm threat, we stopped shortly after 3:00 P.M., having found a good spot to set up camp, near a stream and some trees.  Despite the periodically ominous looking skies, the storms held off until after sundown, giving us plenty of time to set up camp, cook a nice meal, and take in the wilderness, now being officially away from civilization.

I felt exhausted at the end of the day, as I had not gotten a good night sleep the prior evening at the campground.  So, I ended up going to sleep shortly after sundown.  With two backpacking trips behind me, I am starting to think that sleeping even more than the normal 7.5 hours per night is pretty normal on trips like this.

I spent the last waking hour of the evening inside the tent, listening to the sound of gentile rain tapping on the fly.  Under normal circumstances, many of us drown out these sounds, with TV, music, or some other sound.   Hearing this sound, for nearly an hour before falling asleep made me imagine a completely different life.

I imagined myself, as I often do, as a completely different person, with a completely different personality, upbringing, circumstance, and desires.  I imagined myself living in the woods, in a cabin of sorts, not too unlike the kind many people in Michigan, Minnesota, or Wisconsin have today.  It would be a modest sized cabin, with one main room, a bunch of bedrooms, a kitchen, and a closet, to keep things like cross-country skis, wet suits, and all of the other necessary equipment.  But, I would not have too many high tech or expensive toys.  It would be a life in a small community of sorts, where people know one another, spend a lot of time over at each other’s houses for dinner and games.  It would be a life way closer to, and way more connected with nature.  It would be a life that would never satisfy the real me, as restless as I get for one adventure after the next, one major social interaction after another, and testing limits.  But, for this alternate person I imagine myself being, as I drift off to sleep on a rainy August evening high in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado, it is perfect, cozy, and quaint.

 

 

The Way We Used to Travel

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One hundred years ago, most of us traveled on steam engine trains.  The proliferation of railroads across the continent during the 19th Century revolutionized how we got around, and connected us in ways we had never been before.  At the start of the 19th century, it took Lewis and Clark multiple years to get from one end of the continent to the other.  By the end of the 19th Century, that trip could be made in only one week by train.

During the 20th Century, more and more people were able to afford automobiles and flights.  Many of the train lines across the country went away as people switched transportation methods.  Those that remain have long since converted to more modern technologies; diesel or electric, and are primarily used for commutes between cities and/or suburbs at times of high traffic volume.

There are a few places where one can still ride a steam train, exactly how we used to ride in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  One of those places is in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado, where a Narrow Gauge Railway offers daily trips between Durango and Silverton, primarily for tourism purposes.

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The train schedule is set for tourists to ride the train from Durango north to Silverton in the morning, and then return in the afternoon.  There are three departure time options, the earliest of which (and the one we took) departs at 8 A.M.

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Part of the novelty of taking a train ride like this is how authentic the ride is, including the inside of the train.  Today, we are accustomed to traveling with a higher level of comfort than this.  But, the inside of this train definitely had the same exact feeling as one would have experienced one hundred years ago, making the experience as authentic as one can get.

This particular train route, from Durango to Silverton, follows alongside the Animas River the entire length of it’s 45.2 mile route.  The breathtaking scenery in which this train traverses makes the train ride appeal to many different kinds of tourists, as opposed to just train enthusiasts.

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The train leaves Durango, at 6512′ above sea level, and begins it’s climb quite slowly, through a wide open river valley.

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For the first section of the trip, the train follows the same path as the highway.

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Some 15 or 20 miles into the trip, the train deviates paths from the highway, at a large lake called Electra Lake.  This is where the scenery really becomes quite unique and breathtaking.

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The river valley becomes much more narrow as it meanders through the Needle Mountains.  The narrowness of the valley is the reason the train is “Narrow Gague”, and also the reason that roads could not be built to follow the river valley.

“Million Dollar Highway”, the highway that connects Durango to Silverton (and eventually Ouray), was necessarily built along a different route; traversing two mountain passes well above Silverton’s elevation of 9300(-ish) feet.

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The route along “Million Dollar Highway” is also considered very scenic, but in a different way.  In fact, this highway is also a popular bicycle route, and even the venue of an annual bicycle race.  I would definitely recommend experiencing the journey from Durango to Silverton in both the old fashioned (steam train), and the modern (by car or with a nice road bike) way if time permits, as each set of views are great in a distinct way.

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The train completes it’s journey into town in the heart of the Needle Mountains, where the gradual change in the color of the rocks surrounding the river reminds riders of the town’s history as a destination for miners.

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Along Million Dollar Highway, motorists and cyclists view the Needle Mountains from both a higher elevation and a little bit of a distance, seeing them in their entirety.  This is followed by a descent that first winds around Molas Lake, and then provides an aerial view of the town.

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Silverton is quite the unique place as well.  As soon as I stepped off the train, I felt as if I had entered the Old West.  In fact, I have never felt more genuinely in the Old West in an operational town (as opposed to a restoration like South Park City) as I did in Silverton.

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With the exception of Main Street, Silverton’s roads remain unpaved.  Many of the storefronts are still reminiscent of Old West businesses, in design and font, and there are even a few cars that resemble those produced in the early days of the automobile’s availability.

We at a restaurant called Grumpy’s Saloon, right in the heart of town.  This restaurant also felt like an Old West recreation.  Between the wall decorations, the waitresses dressed clothing that seemed like it came right out a film like Maverick, and an old man playing tunes on the piano, it actually felt as if they were trying too hard.

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The only real drawback to taking the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gague Railway is the length of time the trip takes.  A trip of only 45.2 miles actually takes close to three and a half hours each way. By contrast, the trip by car took roughly and hour.  And, while it may take around the same amount of time for a cyclist like me to get from Durango to Silverton, the mainly downhill return trip could likely be done in around two hours.

I guess, like all other aspects of this trip, the travel time is also true to the exact way it was one hundred years ago.  While it was great to get the real experience, the return trip did start to drag on a bit, particularly when the train entered the less exciting scenery in the later part of the return trip to Durango.  My advice would be to either pay the extra money to ride the bus on the return trip, or to bring a book or magazine for the last 60-90 minutes of this trip.

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