We’ve known Dave and Lennie since early days in the Twin Cities (30+ years), but our careers, childrearing and geographic moves have kept us apart in the last 15. So a reunion weekend in the GSDNP was just the ticket since they now live in Denver.
Friday night’s grill-out at our campground turned into a chill-out amid snow flurries and high winds. But Saturday dawned just cool-ish and sunny, so we hustled over to the Mosca Pass Trail, a heavily-wooded trail that climbs 1500 feet over 3 miles in and 3 miles out in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The hike was pure magic, and at the top as we crossed over from BLM/National Preserve land to “plain old public land” at the summit, I spied a boatload of olivine rock lying all over the ground and hills. It was thrilling to take some specimens to share with my rock buddies (as we were no longer on federal park land), and was my first time finding this ancient (280M year-old) rock in the wild. For those curious, olivine is a magnesium silicate mineral that is the source of the gemstone peridot. It is found in igneous rocks like basalt. Ok, ok, enough rock-talk. Just remember: no rock collecting in national parks!
We also saw a plethora of flowers along the way, many of which we hadn’t seen elsewhere. The floral riches included pink springtime aster, helleborus, claret cup, artemesia, candytuft, solomon’s seal and just-emergent columbine. Mosca Pass is a good deal more protected from the wind than other hiking venues, and with strong sun, the flowers were in their glory. Pacifica juniper and douglas fir were also magnificent.
After the descent, we joined hundreds of other day-hikers reveling in the sand dunes for which the park is most famous. The dunes tower 755 feet high, and the winds blowing from the west side over the San Luis Valley continually deposit and shift the sand to the east of the park boundary, and into the creeks to be washed downstream again. We are so fortunate to be here in the springtime, when Sand Creek and Medano Creek are at their highest levels and the temperature on the sand is only 65, not its maximum of 130 in the summer. The “surge flow” of the rivers is so cool to watch, and is a very rare phenomenon globally. By the way, there is a lot of dark magnetite crystal mixed in with the quartz crystals in this sand, so it looks darker than the sand on Lake Michigan, and if you drag a magnet through it, you can collect the dark magnetic grains on the magnet. What a cool thing for kids to experience (and geo-nerd grandparents!!). This day was a peak experience.
It was great fun to hike with our friends. We move at slightly different paces, they being more acclimated now to the altitude than we flatlanders, but we greatly enjoyed seeing the paths through four sets of eyes. Sunday’s hike halfway to Zapata Lake took us to a new personal best in altitude: 10,350’. Lungs were very sore afterward, but the views made it worthwhile. Just can’t get enough of the clear air, smell of fir resins, gorgeous geology and challenging but thoroughly engaging terrain.
Creede hosts the youngest mountains in Colorado, and richest silver mines
The two of us moved on from Alamosa to Creede, on the edge of La Garita Wilderness and one of the most heavily mined areas in Colorado. After arriving we strolled around this town of 800, which is now my personal favorite small town in the state. Charming and funky, authentically kept in 1880 style without being pretentious or snobby, such a lovely personality with a great mix of restaurants, live theatre, gnarly and polished retail wares, town dogs and a hardware store from 1890!
We had intentions of going up CR 503 to the Trailhead for San Luis Pass to hike across the Continental Divide. Drove up past 6 closed silver mines, seeing eye-popping mountain scenery along the way, and came to the final 2 miles of road only to admit defeat in the face of 3-foot snowdrifts. Ah, well, lunch in the car and a drive back down CR 504 were wonderful consolation, as 504 completed the “Bachelor’s Loop” tour of all Creede’s former silver and zinc mines. In early days the valley boasted 10,000 residents, with 300 new inhabitants arriving DAILY! Talk about unsustainable growth!
A bit of detective work: George noticed a large number of beaver dams on Willow Creek, which flows along Bachelor Loop. We wondered if they were from previous years, as we saw no aspen trees for them to use in building them or for winter food. A short hike along the creek gave us the critical clue: freshly-clipped willow bushes all along the river banks and barkless willow branches in the deep pools next to the dams. Aha!! The beavers are still going strong, and subsisting quite nicely on the bushes! They are using young spruce and juniper trees for the main architecture of their dams, with bush branches filling in. Clever.
Back in Creede for the evening, I just had to stop in at the General Store, an old and shabby shop owned by a former miner himself and stocked with all manner of rough, slabbed and/or polished specimens of the amethyst, agate, silver, zinc, citrine and lead that came out of the mines. The proprietor was quite the storyteller, and had the missing fingers, gravelly voice and aged body to bear witness to his past in the caves and shafts. He knows the mining activity is never coming back to Creede, even if silver gets above $30/oz (it’s currently at $8). We bought three stones, his first sale of the season!
Silverthread Historic and Scenic Byway (Hwy 149) from Creede to Blue Mesa – got to Hike Continental Divide anyway!
Colorado puts out a great milepost road guide to accompany drivers along today’s route. It points out glorious wonders of nature every five to ten miles. We knew we wanted to stop for North Clear Creek Falls, reputed to be magnificent. But the guide told us there was so much more, including the mysterious mountain that looks imported from Britain’s coastline, Bristol Head, and many overlooks above the gorgeous Rio Grande (hence the highway’s name of Silverthread, which is what the RG looks like from above).
Spring Creek Pass at 11,200’ – which was a confluence of the Colorado and Continental Divide Trails – enticed us to take the CDT hike we had missed yesterday — so glad we did. Just two miles’ worth, but every step enjoyable. Definitely a peak experience.
In addition to jaw-dropping views from the path, we saw firsthand how badly Colorado’s mountain spruce population was devastated in the past 15 years by the Spruce beetle. Huge trees by the millions stand grey and dead on most mountain slopes. But when you hike through the forests, you also see the most remarkable and hopeful thing: baby fir trees, both the native Colorado spruce and the Engelmann spruce, proliferating in nurseries around their dead mother trees, and they are alive and well and reaching for the skies. I’d read in the Hidden Life of Trees that when mother trees are under assault or infested to the point of dying, they pump their last nutrients into the ground through their roots to support their offspring. Here seems to be incontrovertible evidence. Go babies, and brava, mothers!!
I will not plague you, dear readers, with repetitive detail of the subsequent and awe-inspiring overlooks on display through the end of this drive, but it must be said that Colorado Hwy 149 ranks among the world’s most superb mountain drives. We hope to see it again sometime in a late summer or fall season.
Just for kicks, here are the animals we’ve seen so far in CO:
Antelope Bald eagles
California quail (or Chukar partridges)
Cattle and goats of all varieties
Canyon wren Clark’s nutcracker
Collared lizards (brilliant turquoise)
Common side-blotched lizards, prairie and sagebrush lizards
Dozens of bluebirds, red and yellow finches
Elk scat and tracks; mountain lion scat; huge dung beetles
Female Gunnison sage grouse and a male Gunnison sage grouse in flight (what a treat!!)
Golden eagles (yay!) Gray jays
Grazing yaks, emu and buffalo
Grey fox Horny toads
Black and white-throated swifts (among the world’s fastest flyers)
Mule deer Peregrine falcon
Pine grosbeak Prairie dogs and ground squirrels
Red-tailed hawks Ring-tailed cat (wild)
Say’s Phoebe Small green snake
Turkeys Violet-green Swallows
Western tanager Wild horses