Friday, June 20, 2014

SW Colorado - June 2014 - Part 2

Here is the second part of two.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 (continued)


After leaving Black Canyon NP, I headed into the small city of Montrose and got directions to the ranger station - it is a combined federal facility south on US-550 toward Ouray. I was curious about an area west of there I'd never explored. I had originally intended to drive down US-550 through Ouray, Silverton, etc., but the folks at the NFS office in Pagosa Springs had let me know the road over Red Mountain Pass was closed (except for one hour at noon.) Rather than try to hit that seemingly arbitrary window, I decided this was a good opportunity to go somewhere new.

The ranger at Montrose was extremely friendly and helpful. She explained that Red Mountain Pass was not closed due to snow, rather the highway department was working every day to bring down loose slabs of rock above the highway. You could get through during non-working hours. Still, I thought visiting a new area would be fun.

She had a wealth of information on the area west of Montrose that I was interested in visiting. It's called the Uncompaghre Plateau, and her directions on how to get there were impeccable. Her suggestion was to take CO-90 out of Montrose, then she detailed where I needed to bear right to then follow the Divide Road up the spine of the plateau. When asked about the vegetation, as I had no idea what to expect, she said it was forested with aspen and conifers. She pointed out the available campgrounds and mentioned where dispersed camping might be found. All right. I bought the NFS map and set out.

CO-90 leaves Montrose in a series of right-angle turns in a southeasterly direction, once out of town it dives into and out of a canyon, then climbs up toward the top of the plateau. Once on top and before entering the forest the views to the south were spectacular.

View of the San Juan Mountains as I reach the top of Uncompaghre Plateau

Uncompaghre Plateau

The Uncompagre Plateau is indeed forested and as the name implies relatively flat, though naturally lots of canyons along the margins. The elevation is between nine and ten thousand feet. There are many side roads and even ATV trails. I was told the area was popular with that group, but I only saw one such vehicle when I was there mid-week.

The Divide Road bisects the southern portion of the plateau. Columbine Pass is not quite halfway up and is a pass from east to west, between the towns of Delta and Naturita. Just north of the pass is the free Columbine Campground operated by the NFS. The campground is an ATV paradise. I'm guessing it was an old gravel pit or something. There is a "training" track in one pit and a small lake or pond in two others. The campsites are large, level and each has a sign designating the number of vehicles for that site.

I had driven through to check it out, as most of the side roads I'd looked at for camping were still muddy messes from snow melt. Although it was quiet with only one group this day, it wasn't particularly attractive to me either, so made the decision to drive on. I turned back north on the Divide Road and almost right away I saw the post for an old-style NFS sign, but no sign, and a turn off on the opposite side of the road from the big campground. I pulled in to discover what must have been the old Columbine Campground. It was charming, small and nestled under tall evergreens. There were small shrubs, aspen, and lots of wildflowers all around.

My campsite, before I popped the top.

I picked one of the half-dozen sites and set up. There was an enclosed trailer, like would carry a small ATV, in another site. I thought someone would show up later to camp, but no one did while I was there. I spent a lovely, quiet evening there.

Sunset silhouette.


It was a beautiful morning and I decided to walk around and photograph some of the many wildflowers I'd noticed the night before. There were no trails, so I just wandered around the area near where I camped. The ground was nearly hidden by all the leaves and stalks pushing up into the sunlight.

A blanket of buttercups.

An interesting circle of immature Pinedrops

I was delighted to discover this tiny orchid.

I found two of the Calypso Orchids this morning!

As many flowers as there were, that was only a tiny fraction of what would be on display in a few weeks, I believe. I kept trying to watch where I stepped so as to not trample those soon-to-be-flowers, but then relaxed as I realized there were literally thousands of those and only one of me. An amazing place that will be even more amazing in a week or two.

Glacier Lillys were everywhere in large numbers.

A Snowshoe Hare at the morning buffet.

After breaking camp I continued north (actually NW) on the Divide Road. I looked back at the entrance to where I camped and noticed the sign "Columbine Picnic Area"; oops, well, I don't think anyone would care as those were obviously campsites. As there was no toilet, perhaps it had to be called a picnic area.

You may have noticed I cannot resist photographing these stacked-log fences.

Along the divide road, there were a number of miles of forest with large areas of aspen. Then suddenly the road comes to the southwest edge of the plateau and wow, I nearly laughed out loud in delight at the sight before me! The view all along the next stretch of the Divide Road is amazing as it travels along the edge for many miles. What an unexpected pleasure to find while exploring new territory.

Panorama from along the Divide Road.
Remember to click for larger image.

Dandelions and Larkspur

I was guessing that the mountains I could see to the far southeast were the San Juan's, but didn't know what the large mountains were almost due west. I looked at my map and was surprised, then amazed to discover that they were the La Sal Mountains in Utah. Another "wow" moment as I realized I was on the far side of those only a month before when I was at Canyonlands and Arches NP. What a great perspective.

La Sal Mountains, Utah

At the far end of the plateau the road turns northeasterly and enters the Dominguez-Uncompagre Escalante area and then dives steeply down into the valley. CO-141 winds down that large green valley. I should have taken more photos. I did stop at a turn-off after passing an enormous rock outcrop.

Thimble Rock

Unaweep Tabeguache

One of the few spots to pull off the road.

Unaweep Tabeguache Byway is the name given to this drive down 141 and then 145 as far as Placerville. At the town of Gateway the character of the land changes dramatically. From a wide open verdant valley it becomes the steep, rock canyon of Delores River. The sandstone cliffs lining this narrow canyon are as awesome as any in those popular places in Utah and the road follows the river as it winds through.

The Hanging Flume above the Dolores River

Explanatory sign.

San Juan Mountains

I continued on 145 past Telluride. I had hoped to take the West Fork above Dunton, as I'd never driven it. I called ahead to the Dolores NFS station. They said it was not open between Dunton and 145 due to subsidence. Consequently I continued down the highway.

Mountain overlook south of Telluride.

I checked to see if my favorite campsite on Scotch Creek was accessible even though that road was also reported as still closed, but someone else beat me to it. I knew from last year the next available site was way up the road so I didn't chance it (there are very few places to turn around.)

I checked the NFS map and it looked like there was a possibility for dispersed camping farther down the highway at Hillside Drive Road (yes, that redundant name is correct). There were two spots just over the one-lane bridge and I took the nicer one.

Campsite just across the Dolores River.

Another view.

I walked up the trail by the creek that empties into the Dolores River at that point, but hadn't put on my hiking boots. So when the trail crossed the creek I retreated. Still, the area where the creek emptied into the Dolores River was interesting and full of birds.

The rarely seen eponymous feature of the Orange-crowned Warbler.

Camp visitor.


After breakfast I walked up Hillside Drive Road rather than the trail which hadn't exhibited much bird activity the evening before. That was a good decision, as the road overlooked the tops of the conifers as it climbed. Most of my photos didn't turn out too well, but I had lots of fun watching the birds.

Yellow-rumped Warbler male singing for attention.

Rio Lado gently joining the Dolores River.

After my nice walk, I hit the road. I filled the tank in Cortez and headed east for Durango on US-160. It was only Friday and I wanted to spend one more day in the mountains. I thought I'd head back to the Pagosa Springs area and see if I couldn't find that East Fork Road area I'd been told about. Besides, the drive south on US-84 is much prettier than US-550 south of Bloomfield, NM.

My next door neighbors here at home had enthusiastically and strongly recommended that I stop at  Zia Taqueria in Durango (there are two locations.) I did and am I ever glad. The fish tacos were absolutely the best ever!

I continued east on 160 through another new area for me. Once I passed through Pagosa Springs I paid close attention to the road signs and also to the terrain as I figured that would give me the best clue as to where the East Fork of the San Juan River would be. Sure enough I found the road this time and also realized why I missed it before - the sign was on the left side of the highway when I needed to turn right.

East Fork of the San Juan River

I bypassed the NFS campground and headed on up the very rough road. The road is not technically difficult particularly, but very rocky. The first dispersed camping area along the road was full of trailers and families and ATVs and dogs running loose, so I kept going. Past the second bridge over the river began an area where there were more isolated camping spots - some small ones and others suitable for groups.

East Fork Road.

This area only runs for a couple of miles before the road enters private land. Although the road continues past the private land, the NFS does not approve that area for dispersed camping.

Campsite. You can just see the East Fork of the San Juan in the background.

I found a nice spot close to the river, yet with lots of shade as it was a very warm afternoon. I changed into my shorts, set my camp chair next to the river, and blissed out admiring the scenery. Though this is a beautiful area, it is heavily used and there were few wildflowers.

The view upstream from my camp chair.

The view downstream from my camp chair.


I got a moderately early start for the drive home. I stopped for this last photo just before entering the highway.

San Juan River Valley.

I'd be retracing my steps now back on US-160, then US-84. I stopped for gas and lunch in Española. I discovered Angelina's restaurant (traditional NM style Mexican food) simply by noticing there were lots of cars in the parking lot. Turns out it is very popular with the locals, so it was a good choice.

I completed the trip uneventfully with many fond memories. Here is a reprise of map of my journey.

My route for this adventure.

Thanks for reading!

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