Sunday, July 19, 2015

San Juan Mountains, CO - June 2015 - Part 1

June 24th to 27th

I wanted to escape the heat of central New Mexico and head for the cool mountains of Colorado. My idea was spend a few days in the southwest portion of the San Juan Mountains exploring the area around the West Dolores River where I never been. I didn't intend to stay long, just a few days, not even through the weekend. This was a quick decision as I realized the following week would be part of the July 4th holiday get-away for lots of others, and I wanted to avoid those crowds.

Remember to click on a photo to view at a larger size.

Part 1 of 2

Wednesday, June 24th

US 550 to Durango

The stretch of highway between San Ysidro and Cuba is as beautiful and varied as parts southern Utah, albeit at a smaller scale. Every time I drive though there I think I should stop and take photos, but then I think "not this time, the light is wrong for photography." Well, this trip the light wasn't bad, but my excuse was "I've got a strong tail wind pushing me up to the higher elevation." Ha, next time!

I stopped for lunch at El Bruno's in Cuba. This family run business has been serving the community for around 40 years and is worth a visit if you're nearby at mealtime. They feature New Mexican style Mexican food centered around our wonderful red and green chile. After lunch I continued on toward Colorado. In the areas of NM and CO where I frequently travel and camp, I rarely see a light-weight pop-up camper. This afternoon I saw three small FWC's traveling SE on US-550. I waved at each one, but no one waved back.

I turned left at Durango on US-160, then took the CO-184 shortcut to Dolores at Mancos. I'd avoided this stretch last year, as previously the asphalt had been narrow and rough. I was happy to see the entire length had been widened and resurfaced.


I stopped at the Public Lands Office at the top of the hill, south of Dolores. I spoke with two ladies who were happy to answer all my questions about areas in the district I was wanting to explore. On their recommendation I took FS-526, which they called Boggy Draw Road, to Cottonwood Road, FS-532. This was a pretty, forested stretch, but with no grand vistas, but a few wildflowers.

Field of wildflowers on Cottonwood Road

Cottonwood Road

When I got to the "main" highway, County Rd 38, I turned left, north, toward Dunton.

I stopped to check the campground called Mavreeso. It is right along the West Dolores River, but was full with lots of large RV trailers and the band of teenage boys running, shouting and throwing the frisbee convinced me to return to the highway. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to see young folks out in the fresh air having fun... just not by my campsite, thank you.

West Dolores Campground

Just a couple of miles farther north along the highway is the West Dolores Campground. I almost passed it by to look for dispersed camping up the road, but at the last minute turned in. There were lots of folks there camping in trailers or tents, too, but as I drove up the loop there was a secluded site right next to the river that was available. I backed in to check it out. It looked very nice, so I parked.

I recognize that one of my faults is that just about every evening while on a trip I search for the perfect (dispersed) campsite. Sometimes I find an excellent site, sometimes I end up driving to exhaustion and camp in a less than ideal spot. I decided this day I wouldn't do that. This campground was quiet with no kids running around or barking dogs, the site in which I parked was shielded on three sides with thick vegetation and the river would provide white noise to mask any sounds from my fellow campers. A very good decision.

My campsite at the West Dolores Campground

Thursday, June 25th

If you are a regular reader you know I like to report the morning low temperature. However, the indoor/outdoor thermometer I'd been using the last 2 years died and I forgot to bring the new unit. Be that as it may, it was very mild overnight - the furnace didn't even turn on.

West Dolores River

After breaking camp I continued up the county road. It was still paved at the campgrounds, but within a few miles turned to gravel. I turned east onto Stoner Mesa Road, crossing the river. I drove up for a couple of miles to see the scenery and take a few photos. There were great views overlooking the river valley. On top of the mesa were large groves of aspen, but I didn't explore very far. Looking at the forest service map I see the road connects to a network of ATV trails. I noticed that were two dispersed campsites near the Stoner Mesa Road bridge across the West Dolores River. One was taken, but the other could be a fall back site.

View looking south and down to the river from Stoner Mesa Road

Geyser Springs

I drove back down to the main road and then north to the Geyser Springs Trail Head. This trail is one that the ladies at the ranger station recommended for a short hike. They also recommended Fish Creek Trail, but I'd try that another time. You walk across a new footbridge to begin the trail.

Geyser Springs Trailhead

Ox-eye Daisies at the trailhead. I learned that these pretty flowers are actually an invasive species, pushing out the natives.

A view up the valley from the initial stretch of the trail.

A verdant, fern-lined section of trail.

Paintbrush and bluebells along the trail.

The San Juans received good snowfall last winter, so the aspen are healthy.

The trail winds up the mountain though meadows of wildflowers just beginning to bloom and through groves of aspen with their white trunks and bright green leaves. Occasionally, there is just a whiff of sulfur in the air, a hint that this is indeed a geologically active area. My hike was accompanied by birdsong - warblers, flycatchers, tanagers, and grosbeaks, at the very least. I tried to take their photos, but they were not cooperating at all.

This junco was the only bird who sat still long enough for me to take his photo.

After a mile and a third I saw an unusual color of blue showing between the trees. Yes, this was Geyser Spring - a bubbling pool, perched just above a small rushing creek. The mineral deposits had formed mortar for the rocks enclosing the pool, just like you see at larger scale in Yellowstone. I took a few photos and short videos. I then paused to snack on an energy bar and dried fruit.

Geyser Springs.

Here is a short 10 second video clip of the springs in action:

The sun went behind a cloud, so I thought I might get better pictures without the strong sun/shade contrast across the water. While making another short video I realized the pool which had previously been barely bubbling was a roiling cauldron. Wow, cool! I guess that's the "geyser" aspect of the spring. I don't know how hot the spring is, though I didn't feel any heat coming off of it. There is a warning sign, however, not to bath or soak in the pool as the carbon dioxide bubbling out forms a layer above the pool. One risks passing out from lack of oxygen and drowning.

Scarlet Gilia

Looking back down the valley as I returned to the trailhead. See the footbridge behind the spruces?
(Disclaimer, I photoshopped out a couple of unattractive buildings in the middle distance.)

After the hike I again drove north. I passed through Dunton without really noticing. It is apparently a private lodge now. Just past the junction I saw an open area along the river where I could tell people had camped before. There was one camper in an area that would hold a group or several individuals.

I stopped briefly at the Burro Bridge Campground just to look it over. There seemed to be one large group occupying most of the grounds. I drove on looking for Navajo Lake Trail. I drove across the small bridge over the river and just beyond I did see a muddy "road" leading into some trees on a bluff above the river. There might be dispersed sites on that road that overlooks the river - I may need to check that when it's a bit drier. The turn-off for the trailhead was just a little farther.

I continued up the road, past the turn off to the trailhead, to reconnoiter. I traversed "The Slump", a very narrow section of road on a sheer, loose cliff face through an unstable slide area. No trailers or large vehicles can pass through there. Once you climb on top you come to the Kilpacker Trailhead and then The Meadows, with fabulous views.

The Meadows, with mountains within the Lizard Head Wilderness seen beyond.

I continued on FS-535 hoping to flag down a traveller coming up the road from CO-145. I was warned off this stretch by the lady at the ranger station as she thought it was to too bad of shape and dangerous. I did see a SUV coming and waved it to a stop. A very friendly gentleman said that, yes, he'd come up the road and it was OK. Maybe a bit rougher than last year, but easily passible.

He also told me where there were some nice campsites with fabulous views of the mountains, but warned there were lots of mosquitos. The sites, about a mile south on Eagle Creek Road, FS-471, in the area of the Calico Trail Head, were indeed scenic and the mosquitos were indeed in dense clouds. I elected to keep exploring as there hadn't been a mosquito problem at lower elevations.

View of the central mountain chain east of CO-154. Photo taken from Eagle Creek Rd with FS-535 in foreground.
Peaks include: Lookout, So. Lookout, Ulysses S. Grant, Vermillion, and San Miguel (I think.)

Dolores Peak as seen where westbound FS-535 runs along The Meadows

The rough plan in my head was to camp in the West Dolores area tonight, hike a bit of the Navajo Lake trail tomorrow, then head down the "dangerous" road to CO-145. I decided to explore the other fork of the road at Dunton, FS-611 or Co Rd 52, toward the west. I drove quite a ways along there in generally a westerly direction. There were only a few dispersed sites, but either taken or unattractive. The time or two I did stop, there were also mosquitos. But it was a scenic drive and there were amazing views. I turned off 611 up FS-534 for more views, but turned around once I reached the ridge top as I the map showed the road didn't go too much farther.

San Miguel Mountains are central to the Lizard Head Wilderness.

Upper Fish Creek

I reversed course heading back toward Dunton not sure where I would camp. However, I lucked out. I'd seen a interesting rough track up along a rushing creek, but there had been a truck parked there when I drove by on my way west. Now the truck was not there. I turned off the county road and bumped about 75 yards up to a rocky clearing covered in blooming dandelions and with a view of a dramatic, bare peak. There was a level place to park the camper near the creek and no mosquitos.

My campsite along Fish Creek with a view of Dolores Peak

Busy little bee dining on the Dandelions

It was earlier than I usually stop, but the site was much better than any I'd seen back along the West Dolores and it was private. I set up my chair in the shade to admire the view. Then got to work setting up camp, then back to my chair to read a little of the novel I had in progress, etc. and so forth. I determined the mountain was Dolores Peak. I didn't know what creek this was as I didn't know exactly where I was. (Later, at home, I opened the inReach breadcrumb I'd send from the campsite and was able to determine that this was the upper reach of Fish Creek.)

You can just see Fish Creek running along the far side of my campsite.

Though the afternoon was very warm, it cooled off by evening, and I fell asleep later to the sound of the rushing creek.

Continued in Part 2

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