Note: If you click on a photo you can see a larger version - highly recommended.
Thursday, October 3 (continued)
Spring Creek Road
At Altmont I turned off CO-135 onto 742 toward Taylor Park. I recalled Spring Creek Road I'd driven a few years ago was very scenic. I could drive as far as the reservoir, then get to Taylor Park from there.
I headed up FS-744 through the narrow valley. However, I saw no aspen anywhere along this route. I expected some along Spring Creek Reservoir, but other than one gone-by patch at the far end, there were none there either. FS-748 over to Taylor Park was no better. (Looking back at my 2017 trip, once home, there were photos of aspen groves along the road and at the reservoir. I guess that's why I expected more this time.)
|Spring Creek Reservoir with a few folks fishing and little autumn color.|
Even more disappointing, there were practically no aspen in Taylor Park. Maybe I should have stayed one more day along Kebler Pass Road. Coming down the road into the park, I did spot one good sized grove of aspen northeast of where I'd join Taylor Park Road, FS-742. I turned to find it. Maybe there would be a side road that would get me there.
As I got near I could see the grove was quite a ways off the road. I did find a side road, but it quickly ended long before getting to the grove. Well, I should be able to get photos from up in the air, right? So I launched my M2P. Yes, there they were, though not particularly close. I didn't want to risk flying too far in the wind, so took exposures to stitch together once home.
|Panorama of the only patch of aspen I found in Taylor Park|
I turned around and headed south. Just past the north end of Taylor Park Reservoir I turned east on Cottonwood Pass Road. FYI, it's FS-209 at this end, but as you go over the pass you enter San Isabel NF and it changes to FS-306.
Cottonwood Pass Road
When I first decided to head toward Taylor Park, I'd really thought I'd find an area with lots of autumn color and camp there. As that didn't happen I'd look for a campsite along Cottonwood Pass Road. I was still expecting rain the next day, so didn't want to turn back west. The one time I'd driven this road it was still dirt, but I remembered a meadow along the way that I was sure would have dispersed campsites around it. I just didn't remember how far up the pass it was and I didn't want to drive too far up in elevation - remembering how cold it had been the night before.
The highway was very nice - smooth and wide. It looked like they followed the old road for the most part. I kept a lookout for side roads that might have campsites. I passed a small road on the left and turned around to check it out. It lead up a rise and over to a small open area where people had camped before. It wasn't a perfect spot, a bit close to the highway, but one of my faults is trying to find the perfect campsite. That quest often wastes time and by the time I find that spot (if I do) it may be too late in the day to really enjoy it. So, I'd camp here. I got set up in plenty of time to sit outside in the warm, low sun for a little while to relax and I didn't miss the first pitch of the baseball game, either.
|Campsite just off Cottonwood Pass Road|
Friday, Oct 4
Early in the morning I heard light rain on the roof, though only briefly. At dawn, sure enough, it was cloudy as forecast. But it was only partly cloudy, I didn't want to turn tail without reason. I dug out my maps to look for areas to visit on the east side of the mountain range. That way if the weather was bad, I would be headed in the general direction of home; and if it improved I could cut back west on US-160 and either go over Wolf Pass or head up to the area north of Platoro where I'd seen aspen a previous year.
Cottonwood Lake was only a few miles south of Cottonwood Pass Road, so I'd check it out. There was also a paved road headed west from south of Buena Vista that looked interesting. A few seasons ago I'd stopped at the ranger station in Salida for suggestions for aspen farther south. She suggested Marshall Pass Road, which I did later that day. I also asked about the sign I'd seen along the highway for Chalk Cliffs. She said they were worth a visit, as well as the old mining town of St. Elmo. I didn't visit then as I didn't want to backtrack, but that wouldn't be far from where I'd be today. OK, a plan.
I headed up the highway, admiring the new pavement... and the views. They did an excellent job not disturbing the area except for a couple small areas. One of those, unfortunately, destroyed a natural rock slide area where I'd photographed a marmot back when I traveled this road before.
|Looking back (west) toward Taylor Park Reservoir|
I stopped at the pass and took a few photos despite the clouds.
|Cottonwood Pass - the Continental Divide (12,126')|
|View to the east from Cottonwood Pass|
On the way down the east side there were a few small areas of aspen. I also noticed there were a number of opportunities for dispersed camping along the road. The largest area being along the creek across from, and on either side of, the Avalanche Trailhead.
I took FS-344 south from the highway. It begins as a wide gravel road through private land, summer cabins and resorts. Cottonwood Lake is a little over three miles in. The old campground is now day use only; the new campground is a little over a half mile farther. There were a few aspen on the slopes behind the lake, but I missed the beautiful, clear blue skies of the previous days.
There is no dispersed camping allowed along the road from the highway until about two miles past the USFS campground. Then there are quite a number of nice sites along the road which follows the creek. After a mile or so the road cuts uphill, becomes much narrower, and there is a sign advising there were no good dispersed campsite farther up the road. I didn't proceed farther to verify the assertion.
|Farther up South Cottonwood Creek canyon|
I returned to the highway and headed toward the town of Buena Vista. I could see from my maps that if I drove south on County Road 321 before the main part of town it would be much shorter to the Chalk Cliffs than going into town and taking US-285.
The county road was a good decision. Up to the very end it was straight and fast. Just past the first big bend was a great view of the Chalk Cliffs. I lucked out as the clouds parted just then to allow the sun to shine on the chalk.
|The entrance to Chalk Creek Canyon and the Chalk Cliffs|
Mt. Princeton Hot Springs
The country road then descends into the valley where Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort is located. There is not a town here, per se', but many homes are located in the area. I turned off 321 and drove west on County Road 162 (which is what you'd take from US-285 if coming in from the main highway.) There were plenty of private campgrounds and vacation cabins along the road, but those were soon less obtrusive as the road continued along side Chalk Creek.
|View along the drive|
It is a beautiful area and I stopped along the road several times for photos. The clouds and constantly changing light conditions were frustrating. Camping is restricted to developed campgrounds only; there are two USFS campgrounds close to the Chalk Cliffs and one near St. Elmo, the Iron City Campground. My understanding is that dispersed camping is allowed above the townsite of St. Elmo on Country Road 267, Tincup Pass Road, but I didn't go that direction.
|There was autumn color up the canyon.|
St. Elmo Township
|Pedestrian street at the far end of town.|
This historic old mining town of St. Elmo was a pleasant surprise. Generally I do some research from home when planning my trips. If not a detailed itinerary, then at least ideas and options. But this side excursion was impromptu and unplanned. The town is privately owned and much of the main street restored (or at least their facades are preserved).
|These folks asked if I wanted them to move out of the picture. I said, "No, if you don't mind appearing in my blog."|
There were quite a few tourists on this Friday morning in early October. I expect it gets quite crowded on weekends and in summer. There was parking along Main Street and an auxiliary lot outside town. The General Store is open for business, as is the guest house across the street.
|General Store was open|
Another surprise was "The Woodpile" which is located across the street from the general store. At first I didn't know what was going on. Families were sitting on these planks laughing, then I noticed it was swarming with chipmunks. Hands holding sunflower seeds were held out and the chipmunks were climbing up to eat (actually stuff their cheek pouches). I talked to a lady and her daughter who where there. She said her friend's family used to come up here thirty years ago and it was just like this. So many, many generations of chipmunks have been getting a free lunch and delighting visitors.
|Just look at those cheek pouches!|
|The Woodpile (though my bad timing shows only one chipmunk in the photo.)|
|Buildings at the east end of town.|
As I had miles to go, I didn't explore much around the area. Tincup Pass Road is rated as a moderate difficulty 4x4 road as is Hancock Pass Road (though rated easy as far as Hancock Townsite.) I would expect these roads to be very rocky and bumpy, however. There are a couple other 4x4 trails leaving the St. Elmo site that are rated difficult. Judging by the empty ATV trailers a number of folks were trying out all these routes.
|Aerial panorama of the Chalk Cliffs|
I headed out of the valley. I stopped near the Chalk Cliffs to take aerial photos and video, then drove to US-285 and headed south. South of Poncha Springs I kept watch toward the mountains between South Fork and Pagosa Springs. There was a strong wind and it seemed like more clouds were heading into the area. I decided to call the trip a success and head home.
After crossing into New Mexico a giant, dark storm cloud loomed on the horizon. I found a wide spot to pull over and tried to get a photo that would give you some idea of what I was seeing. The photo doesn't do it justice. Luckily, by the time I would get under it, the worst was over.
|Storm clouds when entering New Mexico|
My navigation app showed that if I didn't stop I'd end up driving the freeway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque in the worst part of the commute. I therefore decided to pause in Española for dinner. I usually eat at Angelina's, but had been disappointed the last couple of times so wanted to try somewhere new. I saw Dandy Burger, which appeared to be a home grown burger haven and there were lots of cars parked outside. I ordered a green chile cheeseburger & fries which should have been delicious, but was only good. The NM franchise Blake's Lotaburger is better.
I also stopped at Camel Rock north of Santa Fe. I remembered it from when I was a kid and we'd drive by or maybe stop for a picnic. Like too many of our natural treasures, no one stepped up to protect it from vandalism. Decades ago the large flat rocks that represented humps on the camel's back were levered off to slide down the hill. The light was from behind the camel, so I found a place down the road to launch and fly behind to get a better exposure.
My plan did work and traffic had subsided by the time I hit the freeway, so had a smooth cruise home. That did force me to unpack as it was getting dark, but that was so much better that the crazy commute traffic that can be very scary the way people drive.
Thanks for reading. I had a great time this trip, saw beautiful sights and even met some interesting fellow travelers. I hope you enjoyed following along.