Part 3 of 4
Wednesday, September 20 (continued)
I grabbed lunch in town, then stopped by the Chamber of Commerce visitor center to see if they had recommendations for aspen color. In fact they had fairly comprehensive information for many locations in the Gunnison Basin and I used this as a basis to plan my next two days. The status reports were not 100% accurate, but a reasonable guide, and I can recommend folks who are looking for autumn color in this area check in with them.
I drove north on CO-135. through Crested Butte, to Gothic Valley via FR-317. There were a number of lovely autumn scenes, even if many not yet peak. It is a gorgeous valley with great views and is also a great spot for wildflowers in summer. I didn't drive all the way up the valley, I had done that on a previous trip - all the way over Schofield Pass - but turned around. Camping is restricted in the lower valley. Above the town of Gothic is a forest service campground and dispersed camping is allowed beyond there.
|East River, Gothic Valley|
|Another view of Avery Peak|
|Gothic Mountain viewed along its narrow axis.|
Drove back through the village of Mt. Crested Butte and turned north on county road 811 into Washington Gulch, the valley to the west of Gothic. Much of the lower valley is private property. There is dispersed camping once you reach the national forest, but then there are some private mining areas to avoid. The view back toward Crested Butte from the high road was spectacular.
|Crested Butte from lower Washington Gulch Road.|
|National Forest lands that allow dispersed camping.|
|View back down at the gulch and Crested Butte from high up the road.|
I continued up the 4WD extension of FR-811 after stopping a NFS pickup truck coming down to verify I'd be able to make it through to the next valley to the west. The view on top looking west was great, though with the angle of the sun, the photos were less than ideal. Descending, there were a couple of tricky, tail-dragging spots, but nothing too difficult.
|Looking over toward the Slate River Valley from the far end of Washington Gulch Road.|
Slate River Valley
I turned left down FR-734. The switchbacks were steep, but in good condition. The last switchback deposits travelers at the Slate River.
|The switchbacks leading down into the Slate River Valley.|
I turned up a short spur that follows the river (really a small stream.) There are a couple areas suitable as dispersed camps that tempted me. I'd seen folks camp there on my previous trips. The view of the mountains on either side was incredible and the stream chortled nearby. But a breeze was picking up and the site would be very exposed to winds blasting down the canyon, so I reluctantly drove on.
|This is as far as you can drive up the Slate River Valley.|
I found a nice campsite where I could back my camper into a shielding grove of evergreens. There was a large meadow and a beautiful view down the valley. It wasn't far from the stream horizontally, but the river there was deep in a narrow cleft. I spent a pleasant evening, and though the wind did indeed blow, I was sheltered by the trees.
|My campsite, sheltered from the wind blowing down-canyon.|
|Red-tailed Hawk soaring overhead.|
|View from my campsite, looking down the valley.|
Thursday, September 21
|Campsite in the morning light.|
It was 30 degrees when I got up in the morning, but the sky was clear and the sun was shining on my camper. I took a few photos then started down the road, taking more photos as I drove along the Slate River.
|Many beaver ponds in this part of the valley below the old mining town of Pittsburg.|
|A section of what I believe to be the old road, running alongside the beaver ponds.|
When I stopped to photograph a meadow full of beaver ponds, I accessed it via what appeared to be an old road. This got me to thinking... since my first trip to this area with my pop-up camper in 2013, I'd been looking for a campsite I found in 1973. My memories were ancient, but I remember driving up to Crested Butte and taking a road that curved off to the left up a valley. I was in my 1968 VW Campmobile™ pop up, which though severely underpowered, still had the clearance to tackle many "jeep trails." I drove as far as I could, then found a little sliver of a campsite that was near a beaver pond. It was perfectly idyllic. In the last few years, I combed this whole area many times looking for that site without success. This was really the only place in the whole area with beaver ponds, but the road was nothing like I remembered, so had discounted it. What if, sometime between 1973 and recent times, the road was reconfigured/moved? Not an unreasonable assumption. I'm thinking now that this area is where I camped all those years ago.
|Another beaver pond farther down the valley next to county road 739A|
|This cute little critter was stuffing his cheek pouches with seeds.|
|This Song Sparrow was exploring the top of the beaver dam looking for brunch.|
|Here's a good view of a beaver dam.|
After a few photos, I drove a bit farther down FR-734. There was another spur, near another beaver pond, though this one is not part of a group. I initially thought the spur just went to a parking area for a trail, but now saw there was a forest road below that crossed the river and climbed west. I drove down to the road and stopped for photos. I checked out the bridge, but didn't take the road as I could hear heavy equipment working on the road ahead. This seems to be county road 739A; I may explore it another time.
|Old mining equipment and tailings next to the beaver pond.|
I continued down the valley on 734 to Crested Butte where I stopped at Clark’s Market deli counter and bought a sandwich for a later lunch. The Gunnison Chamber of Commerce list showed Kebler Pass road, county road 12, was two weeks before prime, but I thought I'd check it out anyway, since I was so close.
|East Beckwith Mountain|
Yes, it was certainly too early for the best autumn color, though the road runs through beautiful landscapes. I found a tiny side road to check out for future camping and to find a picnic spot. The road forded a creek and entered a heavily wooded area. I found a place to have lunch (the sandwich from Clark's was delicious!) and spoke with an elk hunter at the next site over - seems there are a few dispersed sites up this narrow, muddy road. I didn't take photos as it was just too closed in. I liked my campsite of a couple years ago better. It was a few miles farther west in an open aspen grove.
|Returning to Crested Butte.|
Spring Creek Road
I drove back to Crested Butte and turned south on CO-135. I took the Jack's Cabin Cutoff, county road 813, to get to the Taylor Park highway. I then turned north on Spring Creek Road, FR-744. I'd wanted to explore this road since the first time I discovered this area years ago, however both times I was here before, the road was closed due to rock slides.
The first two miles of Spring Creek Road are vacation homes and cabins, then the NFS Spring Creek Campground, which I didn't explore. I drove up the narrow valley which slowly widened out. There were a few dispersed camping locations along the way. There were a few photo ops, too.
|Spring Creek Road|
|"Flowing Rock" next to the road.|
I drove as far as Spring Creek Reservoir, which was very low. The NFS Mosca Campground is there. There also looked like you could find a number of dispersed campsites farther up the road past the reservoir.
|Spring Creek Reservoir|
I then took FR-748 that goes down to the Taylor Park area. The road goes through a stretch of generic forest, then comes out down at the Taylor River.
Taylor Park Road
I drove south along the river without wasting any time. You can read other accounts of this area in my earlier blog postings. My goal this afternoon was to head toward Cumberland Pass, one of the few high passes in this region I had not yet crossed. Cottonwood Pass road was closed as they are paving the length of it - someone said all the way to Buena Vista. If so it will provide a smooth way for even more trailers and RVs to reach Taylor Park.
|A grove of red aspen high on a hillside. Yes, they were really this color. Photo using telephoto lens.|
Cumberland Pass Road, FR-765, passes through the old mining town of Tin Cup. Though the area north of the town is national forest, it is a restricted camping area, so be aware of that and check the posted maps if you want to camp here. I didn't stop at Tin Cup as it looked a bit too restored and touristy for my tastes.
|Orange and yellow aspen along Cumberland Pass Road.|
Cumberland Pass Road
The road above the town quickly became very rocky and bumpy. I didn't air down at the time, hoping the road would smooth out before long, but instead ended up slowing lurching my way up the valley. My advice to you, should you go this way, is to lower the pressure in your tires as much as is safe.
|My campsite among the trees, next to Willow Creek, a short ways before the switchbacks begin.|
|Old beaver pond next to my campsite.|
The road south of town is either private land or not hospitable for dispersed camping, at least not until you are almost to the switchbacks up to the pass. There is a short stretch along Willow Creek with three or four good dispersed sites. I took the first one I came to. It was snug in among a thick grove of trees, so I would be out of the wind. It was a pretty site, next to a small (old and apparently abandoned) beaver pond. I sat on the bank above the pond hoping for some wildlife activity. I photographed a cooperative squirrel, but that was all before the sun dropped behind the mountain and the cold chased me into the camper. It was windy all night, I could hear it whistle in the treetops, but it was calm down at the camper.
|Looking up toward the pass from one of Willow Creek's beaver ponds.|
|Willow Creek in the late afternoon.|
Friday, September 22
|Morning at my campsite.|
|Several of these birds were feeding and chattering around the campsite, but they were difficult to photograph as they were moving so darn quickly.|
It was mostly cloudy, but only 42 degrees, in the morning. The forecast had been predicting rain. I headed up the switchbacks on Cumberland Pass Road. It continued to be rocky and bumpy. Finally I had enough and stopped to and air down. Even then the road was still awful and slow going. I don't think I'll be going this way again anytime soon.
|Looking back down from whence I came. You might be able to see the Willow Creek beaver dams.|
|Looking north from the pass.|
As you can see from the photos, it was overcast at the pass, so the view was not as spectacular as it could have been.
|Another view of the pass. I didn't explore the road you see climbing higher.|
|Starting down the south side of the pass.|
|Green Mountain was actually green from rocks and minerals, not vegetation.|
Coming down the south side, the road was not as bad as the north, but still not fun. As on the north side, there were/are quite a number of mines and claims in the area.
|Old mine along the road.|
I passed the Quartz Creek Campground, but didn't investigate. I was thinking now of heading back to CO-149 to check for color around Lake City and wanted to get there before the rain started. A little ways south of the CG was the junction of FR-839 and signage for the Alpine Tunnel Historical District. Research later from home indicates the narrow gauge railroad tunnel, once the longest & highest in the world, is sealed off, but there are still railroad support buildings being restored in the area. Might be worth checking out on another trip (driving in from the south!)
|The Children's Fishing Pond at the north end of Pitkin.|
Pitkin seems to be a cool little tourist/residential town. The pavement begins here, so aired back up, and drove quickly down to US-50 where I turned right to Gunnison.