Of Passes and Mountain Headwaters

There could be interesting names for this trek, perhaps “The Other Four Pass Loop”, or “The Williams Mountains Circuit”. But truly, this trip evolved from my desire to touch those remote parts of the Hunter Frying Pan Wilderness nestled in distant basins between the two drainages.
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I traversed four passes, though only half of those are named. Trails existed at the beginning and the end of the route, but in the middle, boulder hopping, elk tracks and trickles of streams shaped the way. There were people only within the first and last half-hours of travel, the other 47 and a half hours were solo, except for all the extraordinary life. IMG_0156
I started high, and climbed higher. Mountains extended in all directions with only nature visible in the foreground and beyond. The Williams Range formed the backbone of my journey, and while I would encircle the long ridge with its craggy peaks, I would also descend and ascend a diversity of deep valleys.
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Where water sprang from the ground or seeped from melting snow, slopes were alive with seductive fresh flowers, as though summer was just starting.
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Exposed higher meadows still held their fading glory, tinged with early fall golds and reds.
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After cresting the second pass, I dropped into a fork of upper Hunter Creek. Water flowed, fell and frolicked among pink flecked granite boulders, graced with verdant flowers and foliage. Almost dancing my way downvalley, I paused at a broad meadow edged by spruce trees, through which a calm creek meandered.
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The sky was growing darker and as moisture started to fall, I sheltered in the embrace of the nearby forest while snowflakes fluttered. It was as though I had stepped into a magical kingdom. As I resumed my wandering, I sensed vibrations, and on turning, watched a magnificent herd of deep brown elk with young, bound almost silently through the woodland. A path upslope beckoned and I followed keenly. It released me on a perfect knoll, at the head of the second river fork and upper basin.
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Here I would become immersed in the changing colors of evening playing on the mountain spine, highlighting its pinnacles and spires.
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Then later turning to a moonlit night sky.
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Crisp morning light articulated the third pass and its family of peaks that drew me on.
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From over 13,000 feet I soaked in views of mountain ranges from new perspectives.
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And met new friends who seemed a little shy.
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Too soon, I was as far away as I could be in this wilderness landscape. That signaled time to turn, to drop two thousand feet, then turn again and climb, through a stately Colorado mountain valley.
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Grateful for the expansiveness of this terrain that held me till the sun was low above the ridgelines, I stretched out on my sleeping pad and again observed the changing light.
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I marveled how this sweet blush of color turned each day, yet how seldom we pause to recognize such luminescence. At that moment, I was thankful to be so alive outside where rare shooting stars burst brightly across an inky sky.
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Seven Sisters Lakes

Over the past several years, a stepped cluster of lakes, the Seven Sisters, have captured my imagination and longing to explore.IMG_9928

Previous explorations had taken me up and over the gorges of tumbling creeks feeding the Frying Pan River. I rested at their lakes and scaled summits, looking across to the mysterious ridge that bounded the lake family comprising my missing puzzle piece.IMG_9858

The lakes are nestled in a remote mountain cirque within the Holy Cross Wilderness, just beyond the watershed of the Frying Pan River, and are perched at 11,000 to over 12,000 feet in elevation.IMG_9872

Others arrived at the trailhead access eager to summit 14,005 foot high Mount of the Holy Cross, or hike to a large lake at the head of the deep Fall Creek valley. IMG_9792

My goal was to go further and to spend a few days wandering the lakes and ridges of this other rugged basin hidden over passes and between larger valleys.IMG_9800

A well worn track led through Rocky Mountain Spruce forest with a lush groundcover floor. Soon I emerged to the beginning of a subalpine ecosystem.IMG_9789

The scenery was immediately exquisite, including rocky ledges, cascading falls and brilliant blooms.IMG_9841

Gaining the top of the Pass, I had views of the Gore Range to the east, and a glimpse of my destination to the west. IMG_9831

Keen to see more, I gained a slope south of the Pass and summitted Mt Whitney. Expansive mountain panoramas extended endlessly. Too soon, it was time to descend and seek a home for the night.IMG_9867

… With water; a delightful garden;IMG_9861

and friendly neighbors. IMG_9903

Morning light powerfully illuminated my surroundings. I couldn’t wait to adventure further.IMG_9850

My hope was to reach the uppermost of the Seven Sisters Lakes, then climb to the ridge above, although a snow cornice seemed to guard the final step.IMG_9930

The route was along firm granite rock interspersed with bright alpine flowers. It led towards the summit until I reached the snowy rim. Being highly respectful of white slippery slopes, I sat on a warm rock and ate lunch. Refreshed, I resumed my quest and discovered a way to the top. At last the puzzle was complete as looked back upon the lakes and ridges where my desire was born.IMG_9880

Happily, my rambling continued. I felt wonder and joy as I encountered grand vistas to delicate details of this wild landscape.IMG_9960 IMG_9946

I experienced another sunset with fiery clouds, a sickle moon rose as comets sped across the dark night sky, and the cycle completed in the pink dawn of another day.IMG_9927

June in the Elks

In the Rocky Mountains, June is an exceptional month that holds the longest day and heralds summer’s start.

IMG_9059Mystical light of a solstice sunset on Mt Sopris.

IMG_9048 As the full strawberry moon rises.

IMG_9064 Romance above and between husband and wife, Paul and Barbara.

IMG_1856Late evening lavender reflections at the Maroon Bells.

IMG_1865Multi-dimensional imaginings of light.

IMG_9109The fleeting magic of change as once bare branches bulge and burst in viridescent greens that daily deepen into full summer foliage.

IMG_9084Brilliant blue lupines and scarlet Paintbrush are illuminated at sunrise and frame distant Mt Sopris.

IMG_9086Still snowy bowls near Capitol Peak as seen from Haystack Mountain.

IMG_9162And looking back from the opposite side on East Creek Pass.

IMG_1919Delicate Columbines bloom early in the understory beneath white-trunked Aspen trees, on American Lake Trail

IMG_9082A Seedhead twirls and shimmers like the full moon.

IMG_8982 Golden Mules Ear Daisies grace Mt Sopris from the west side en route to Lake Ridge Lakes.

IMG_8996A well camouflaged yellow spider feeds on a flower.

Two Weeks on the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado

IMG_3649Sunset near Headwaters Hill

The backcountry often lures me to spend a night or more living by the contents of my backpack, while nature supplies the rest. This time, I was curious about spending multiple nights on the trail and experiencing “through-hiking”. Would this provide another longed-for opportunity to immerse myself in wilderness or would it be different? I had a two-week window that coincided with a segment of a friend’s itinerary on her through-hike of Colorado. People backpack long distance trails through the United States from Mexico to Canada, for two weeks, five months, two years, or more!

While hiking together, Susy and I were known as S-squared. We are of similar size and build and hike at close to the same pace. Although I have years of hiking and camping experience, Susy has hers refined to a science, including things like sewing her own bags, dehydrating vegetables for home-packaged dinners and measuring all her food portions! We don’t care to use electronics and apps on the trail, preferring to decipher text and pore over maps.

Our start together was near Twin Lakes, at Willis Gulch trailhead on Highway 82, and our destination was Spring Creek Pass, between Creede and Lake City. Over thirteen days, approximately 175 miles and 27,000 feet elevation gain: the routine was simple, while the experience was rich.
IMG_3710We moved through many alpine and sub-alpine ecosystems. In the La Garita Wilderness, most of the spruce trees were dead from spruce budworm, but looking closely we could see regeneration below.

I thought it would be all about the mountains, after all, we were going to be walking along the geographic spine that directs the flow of water to either the Atlantic Ocean on the east or the Pacific Ocean to the west. Overall, our direction was from north to south, however the Continental Divide wound its way in a zig-zag pattern. This provided us with extensive views of where we had been and where we were going. In one section, it seemed that Taylor Reservoir served as a center point from which the Continental Divide radiated in a three-quarter circle.
IMG_3588Looking at our route from a high point on the Continental Divide, just south of Cottonwood Pass

This was about more than the mountains. People, of whom we saw relatively few, became events in the day, each with their own style. There was Robbie from D.C. who retreated two miles in a lightning and rain storm and shared our shelter under a circle of spruce trees. John, retired and from Arizona, was a strong hiker whose pack was heavy with food for nine days. He joined us for an extra six miles of hiking one evening in the extensive Cochetopa Hills. A threesome on their mountain bikes crossed paths with us for two days, always with big grins and friendly greetings. There were fewer women, but we met a quiet middle-aged pair who, after several years of meeting up to hike sections, had almost completed the 470-mile Colorado trail.
IMG_3656Sunrise at Baldy Lake, the only lake in many miles of trail through the Cochetopa Hills, and the place where we met the most other travelers – four groups of one to three hikers or bikers.

We saw signs of people and relics from the past. The Utes lived in these mountains, creating trade routes and leaving remnants of stone walls constructed to trap elk during hunts. Miners and Mineral Basins were aptly named for the wealth of their geology, and trails and mines from the silver mining era of the late 1800’s were still evident. During that time, the Alpine Tunnel was constructed through the Continental Divide near Hancock. We traversed the Divide above the tunnel and saw both the west and east entrances, then followed the old railroad grade to Hancock.

Towns play a part in the through-hiking experience as well. After numerous days of wearing the same shirt, sweater, shorts and socks, it’s great to wash everything at a laundry, take a hot shower and eat a huge carb-heavy hot meal. Susy’s generous friends, Iris and Curtis, hosted us in Salida and acquainted us with the local art community. We stayed in an original house embellished with low, tin ceilings and decorative metalwork.

Back on the trail, hiking and landscape were our focus. Our route included two Wilderness Areas that were highlights: Collegiate Peaks in the beginning and La Garita at the end. Each day we started out early in the morning hoping to arrive at camp by mid-afternoon(to avoid storms), though raindrops often kept us cool as we set up our tents!
IMG_3598Sunrise on camp in Mineral Basin, beneath Mount Kreutzer

Blue sky days were infrequent. Instead, the sky was another dimension of the landscape: clouds built, swirled and dissipated.
IMG_3689Early morning mists on the slopes of San Luis Peak

The route varied from small mountain paths, to wider trails constructed by dedicated crews and volunteers, to double tracks and even gravel roads. We walked and walked. Daily mileages were diverse, from a 19-mile longest day (due to limited water), to 14-mile average days and shorter end-of-segment days. Most days had ups and downs (elevation wise). The “flattest” day included 1,800 feet of elevation gain in the Cochetopa Hills and on “steeper” days we climbed over 4,000 feet and walked at 12,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level. Some of my favorite moments were at sunrise or sunset, simply wandering near camp. At times, I had to change gears to a more destination-oriented approach, but it was always important to me just “to be there”.
IMG_3622Sunrise over Hunt Lake on Day 6

The following are a few more of my favorite views:
IMG_3707Looking east at sunrise above San Luis Pass
IMG_3651A limber pine in the foreground, Mount Antora at sunset
IMG_3647Hiking high, we felt as connected to the ever-changing sky as to the earth
IMG_3720The understory beneath the sculpted dead spruce trees was vibrant with new life

Gear and food were two other important considerations for us. Both had to be light, minimal and sufficient, and were more successful with advance preparation. I found rhythm and satisfaction in the frugal trail lifestyle, for example, oats tasted delicious every morning! In addition, the forest provided puffballs to add to dinner, and juicy currants and strawberries along the way. Life on the trail was not always comfortable, but it was fully engaging and often astounding. I may be hooked as I’m already looking forward to my next trek!
IMG_3638 View north along the Continental Divide on the Monarch Crest Trail