Monday, August 11, 2014

Ophir, Kebler, Schofield, & Cottonwood - July 2014

The post title refers to the four main Colorado mountain passes I traversed this trip. I also crossed Raton Pass on the way home, but that pass on the Interstate is not in the same league as the others. Two of the above passes can be easily crossed in even the lowest slung passenger car; the other two require high-clearance 4WD.

As always, click on any photo for a larger version. This also invokes the slideshow so you can admire the photos without all the pesky words.

Composite photo of Sphinx Moths in Northern New Mexico.
Additional description in text below.

The forecast for the coming week was for hot, dry weather in the Albuquerque area, so I thought I'd head up to those cool mountains of Colorado. Little did I know at the time that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other folks had the exact same idea. Last year, my first year with my camper, I had jury duty in July, so didn't go camping. I went a couple of times in late August in northern NM and there were no crowds. I almost titled this post "Crowded Colorado."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Northern New Mexico

On my way to Colorado I thought I'd check the Rio Grande between Española and Taos for dragonflies first, so headed north up I-25, took the by-pass around Santa Fe and continued north on the Taos highway. I stopped first at the raft take-out spot called County Line. The river was very high and muddier than usual this far north. I only found a few rubyspot and dancer damselflies. I continued on to the BLM Orilla Recreation area at the bottom of the gorge. The water was so high here I didn't even stop - the rocks I'd hoped to check were submerged.

Bridge at Taos Junction

I took the old bridge at Taos Junction and climbed up onto the Taos Plateau (the road was very bumpy, but afforded a nice view of the rio).

Lower end of Rio Grande Gorge south of Taos
I cut over to US-287, headed north to US-64 where I turned west. I thought I'd peek up a couple of forest roads along there, then over to US-84 up to the southeastern corner of the San Juan Mountains.

Nothing too exciting along the forest roads I checked north of US-64 other than a patch of flowers with several Sphinx Moths feeding. These cool bugs are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds due to the way they hover around flowers with wings beating at high speed. I got several good shots from the driver's seat in my truck. I couldn't decide which one I liked best so I combined several into a fun composite that I placed at the top of this post.

I also got a better photo (compared to my earlier blog post) of the Brazos Cliffs formation just east of the Carson NF boundary.

Brazos Cliffs


I headed up into Colorado. From looking over my maps for dispersed camping spots, I was going to check the along the Blanco River. This turned out to be a bust. There were a couple of spots just off the highway, but without shade on this still hot afternoon. There were a couple more farther along, but by this time the road had climbed away from the river. They were nice enough, but afforded no views or river access and I've been spoiled by earlier camping trips. The road was abruptly gated at the group campground, contrary to what the map said. So I returned to the highway and continued north.

West Fork

It was by this time just barely too late to stop at the Pagosa Springs ranger station for advice, so I decided head NW on US-160 and take FR-648 to camp where I had earlier this year along the West Fork of the San Juan River. There were folks with a trailer and barking dog just across from my previous campsite, so I took the little spur to see if anyone was camped at a spot I'd seen last time when it had been occupied. It was available so I set up there. It was not right on the river, but only a very short walk away.

Campsite along West Fork of the San Juan River


West Fork

There was a little lake just past the end of the forest road and although the map showed it was on private land, there was also a public trail that appeared to follow the river. This seemed like a good way to see the countryside and stretch my legs. I drove up to the parking area at the trailhead. The trail follows a steep private road for the first mile or so. At the top were a few cute, summer cottages, then the trail turns off the road. I hadn't gone far when it suddenly struck me that I couldn't remember if I'd locked my truck or not. My paranoid nature would not let me continue on, so I turned back. I had indeed locked the truck - oh, well. I took a few photos on the walk, but none interesting enough to post.

Capote Lake

I drove back down the mountain, through Pagosa Springs heading west on US-160, navigated some road construction, and stopped at Capote Lake which is just off the highway. It was late morning and I hoped there would be dragonflies to photograph. It is a nice little park, run by the Southern Ute tribe, I believe. There were a few Odonates flying and I got one good photo, before returning to highway and heading west.

Capote Lake

Eight-spotted Skimmer at Capote Lake

Durango to Silverton

In Durango, after gobbling down a couple of fish tacos at Zia Tacqueria, I stopped by the federal lands office. I picked up a NFS motor vehicle use map of the area so I'd know where it was legal for dispersed camping, though I figured I'd probably camp along South Mineral Creek Road as I had on other occasions.

It's always a dramatic drive up US-50 from Durango to Silverton. As the sky wasn't ideal for photography, I'll leave you to search out photos from past blogs if you are interested. Just past Silverton, I turned left onto South Mineral Creek Road, FS-585. It was dustier than usual and there was lots of traffic. In fact, not only were there cars and trucks coming and going, the place was absolutely packed. Every conceivable camping spot all along the road was taken. It was so bad, folks were parking their 5th wheel trailers at the side of wide spots in the road to set up camp in the incredible dust. As I drove to the end of the maintained road I thought I'd have to stay in the campground instead of a free space as usual, but even that was full. Sheesh.

Ophir Pass Road

I drove through the dust and traffic back to the highway and turned north. One of the roads in the area that showed dispersed camping on either side was Ophir Pass Road, only a couple miles farther along. I turned off there and immediately there were a couple of open dispersed camp sites. I didn't stop at those, they were out of sight of the highway, but I didn't particularly want to hear the cars and trucks while camped. Encouraged, though, I started up the road sure there would be additional spots to camp.

As the road climbed the steep, tree-covered mountainside, an alpine view across the canyon could be glimpsed between the trees, but there was no where to turn off the narrow winding road to camp. After a couple of miles I figured the forest service map makers must have a mean sense of humor to mark both sides of this road as suitable for dispersed camping. A couple of times I passed jeeps or trucks heading down the road, one or the other of us pulling aside to let the other pass with a wave. I assumed they'd come over the pass from Ophir.

I'd visited the historic mining town of Ophir last year and had looked up at the road to the pass as it crossed a steep scree field high above the town. I'd even talked to a young man in his 4x4 pick-up who'd just come down the road - his knuckles were still white from the crossing. I decided then that I'd get more experience in my truck before attempting the pass.

As I continued to climb the road toward the pass, I wondered if this was the trip I'd attempt the crossing. My Guide to Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails listed it as "moderate", primarily for "one section of narrow, rocky shelf road on the west side" - the section that had left the young man last year with white knuckles.

About three, slow miles in I did see a spur road plunge down to the left into the trees. I thought there might be camping down there, but as I was traveling alone I didn't want to risk getting into a place I couldn't get out of. A bit farther up the road I could look down and it appeared the spur did lead to an area suitable for camping. (A more careful reading of the 4WD guide book later confirmed that there was dispersed camping on that "bypass.")

Ophir Pass

I stopped at the pass to take pictures. The pass itself is long and narrow. You get small views of the mountains on either side between the rocky sides of the pass - it is almost like looking through a keyhole. The jagged rocks display various colors which I tried to capture in my photos.

Ophir Pass - looking east, the way I'd come.

Ophir Pass and the multi-colored rocks.

Ophir Pass, looking west toward Ophir.

Well, this was the moment of truth; was I going over the pass or not. Due to the nature of the rock slopes, you can't see the road descending the other side, so have to take it on faith until you actually go do it. Obviously, I set off to do just that!

Wow! Right away the road crosses a scree field, though a mis-step here would not be a fatal mistake, unlike later on. I stopped for a photo of the first switchback. The rock in this top section is very loose and as I let my momentum carry me across a good size hole, I was glad I was going down hill.

Initial view west of the pass of the first switchback

I saw a little critter scurry across the road and pause. It's a Pika! I've always wanted to see one in person; this is my first. Lucky me, I'm able to ease the truck up close without scaring him. He's standing on the rocks right where I can stick my telephoto lens out for a photo. He's intrigued by the sound of my shutter release and looks right at the camera. I'm so excited and quickly "chimp" the display to make sure the exposure is good; later I wish I'd adjusted the aperture a bit, but as you can see the photo came out pretty good. It was especially fortunate for me he posed with his lunch on display.

Adorable American Pika carrying his lunch

Just a little farther down the road is a section of wildflowers that was incredible! The blossoms were everywhere and included many of the lovely Colorado Columbines and the brightest, cerise paintbrush I've seen anywhere. Here are a few photos which hardly do the sight justice.

Colorado Columbine

Mountainside flower field

Gorgeous Rose Paintbrush

I stopped where there was passing space at the first switchback to take photos.

Looking back at the pass from the first switchback

Stopping there was a good idea especially as I saw a red truck on the big scree field working its way up. I took my pictures and waited for him to climb up to me and go by. It was a fellow in a Tacoma with his dog. We saluted each other and I carefully checked the road was clear before starting down.

Can you see the tiny red speck? That's a pickup truck climbing the road

Looking down in the valley at the town of Ophir before traversing the big scree field

Looking back the way I came from about mid-way through the scree field

Once you get past the exciting scree field, which is not as narrow as some would lead you to believe, and get into the forest, you are not "out of the woods" by any means. I don't have photos of this section of the trail, though I probably should have taken ones of the two good size streams one has to ford to get down the road. In New Mexico they would be called rivers and have names; here they were just accumulated snow melt.

Here are a couple of photos I took last year of the town of Ophir and of the pass road.

Looking up at Ophir Pass Road from the town - June 2013

The town of Ophir with the pass in the background - June 2013

Sunshine Campground

Rather than drive around trying to find dispersed camping I decided to treat myself to the grand views of the NFS Sunshine Campground just south of Telluride, assuming there was space. Though the best site was taken (the one I used last year), the next one was open and had almost as good of a view.

My campsite at Sunshine Campground with a dramatic raincloud overhead.
There was a small wildfire on a ridge a few mile away, you can just see a puff of smoke above the trees.

The couple in my old campsite had hung a hummingbird feeder that attracted this tiny bird.

Fire suppression helicopter

I met a nice young couple from Phoenix and we watched a helicopter drop water on the fire, took photos, and talked about cameras and baseball. A very pleasant evening.

Campground evening visitor

Dramatic sunset as seen from my campsite


Sunshine Campground

Campsite in the morning

View from the overlook trail.

After a short walk to the overlook trail for photos, I left Sunshine Campground. I didn't go into Telluride, but planned to take the Last Dollar Road north. I missed the traditional start of the road as I forgot it was east of the new roundabout, not west. No problem, I'd wanted to try the other entrance farther down the canyon off CO-149. This is Road 639 that heads NE up Deep Creek Canyon and with dramatic canyon walls, it only runs between the highway and Last Dollar Road, and skips much of the suburban sprawl west of Telluride and its airport.

Last Dollar Road

The Last Dollar Road was in much poorer condition than last year. Not only was it rougher in many places, but there were deep holes filled with water across the road in several places. I didn't take many photos as I'd taken a bunch last year when there were more wildflowers blooming and still snow on the mountain peaks.

Canyon of the San Miguel River below Telluride, seen from Last Dollar Road

When the road came out on CO-62 I turned east toward Ridgway. From there I rejoined US-550, that I'd left to go over Ophir Pass, and headed toward Montrose and Delta. I stopped at the NFS ranger station on the south side of Delta for information. I was curious about Grand Mesa National Forest as I knew zero about it. It sounds interesting with its high elevation covered with aspen and evergreens and over 300 lakes. I didn't plan to go there this trip, but bought an official map to be prepared for another time. The motor vehicle use map shows lots of dispersed camping roads (assuming their not pulling my leg again.)

Kebler Pass Road

After a nice lunch in downtown Delta I drove east on CO-92. It was very hot and I was thankful for the truck's air conditioning. I turned north on CO-133 at Hotchkiss; if one continues on 92 it goes past the north rim entrance for Black Canyon NP and then connects with US-50 west of Gunnison. My plan was to turn off 133 on County Road 12 that goes over Kebler Pass to Crested Butte.

Looking east toward Marcellina Mountain

There were spectacular mountain views as the road climbed up onto the plateau, or park, between mountain peaks, then it was mostly just rolling conifer and aspen forest. There were a few side forest roads that I left till another time to explore. The clouds that had been building over the mountains darkened and dropped a little rain. The dirt road, which had been treated with Mag Chloride held the moisture from a passing thunderstorm and was quite messy, though the storm had passed on.

I had intended to check out Lake Irwin. It has a campground that the forest service says is heavily used, so I didn't plan to stay there, but the area is suposed to be very scenic with the peaks reflected by the lake. Somehow, though, I managed to miss the turn off. I also missed the exact location of Kebler Pass, as there was no dramatic geology or features to delineate it. The next thing I knew I was descending into Crested Butte.

Schofield Pass Road

My plan now was to explore up FS-317 to Schofield Pass, then to loop back down either 734, that I'd driven much of the way up from Crested Butte earlier in the year, or take 811 down through Washington Gulch looking for camping.

317 is renown for its wildflowers, and though I could see fields of them, they were way past prime. The road past the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory deteriorated rapidly, though there were lots of cars and truck coming the other way. There is one very small, old-school style campground and a number of marked camping areas along the road. No camping in un-designated areas is allowed. There were folks camped in each of the designated spots and I found the campground to be uninviting, so kept driving.

The road ran through a narrow canyon that still had snow. I didn't know if this was the pass or not, but stopped to take photos of the wild terrain.

Looking back the way I'd come.

The road ahead.

Then I came to the small Emerald Lake. I pulled off the road to check it out, but it wasn't very photogenic on this cloudy day. I saw a small road running along the lakeside, but didn't explore it. As I drove past the lake back on the "main" road, I saw the lakeside road continued into a wooded area. I saw an old style outhouse there and I wondered if camping was allowed in that area, but didn't go back.

The actual pass was only about a quarter mile past the lake along a straight, undramatic stretch of road through the woods. I was both amused and irritated at people who had papered the signs with stickers.

Schofield Pass

Shortly after the pass is the junction to FS-734 which I took. The road quickly dropped down to a soggy valley floor called Paradise Basin, I believe. So soggy, in fact, that the road literally became a flowing river. There was a rough track to the side as a detour. The clouds had been building again and the sound of thunder could be heard with a few drops on the windshield. After the stream crossing I was not really sure I was on the right road as I could see another one off to the right, though I've no idea how one got there, so I kept on while keeping my eye on the weather.

Paradise Divide

Farther along, up the road ahead I could then see a SUV slowly working its way down a ridge. I flagged down the couple as we passed and asked them if I was on the right road; I was. They were camped near the river road in a pop-up tent trailer. I also asked them if the ridge they came down was "the divide" as I knew 734 was supposed to cross Paradise Divide before splitting off 811; it was. I took a photo of the poor, old sign as I passed.

Paradise Divide

The sky was darker and the thunder louder and coming more quickly. I was hoping I could find a campsite before the rain started pouring. I paused at the 811 junction trying to decide which way to go. 811 seemed to climb up directly toward the darkest part of the oncoming storm and was an unknown. If I stayed on 734 I knew from my previous foray there were some campsites, so I stayed on 734.

Within just a few hundred feet there was a track up into some trees that looked like a good campsite. There were two places where I though I should be able to park relatively level, but as I was jockeying the truck around I discovered there were large clouds of mosquitoes all around. That, combined with the difficulty of leveling the truck, caused me to abandon the site and continue down the mountain.

Slate River Road

When the road got down to the Slate River I saw a site just upstream of that point, but it was unprotected from the weather and wind, which was picking up, so kept on. The next camping spot was the place I'd seen where I turned around on my drive up this road a month earlier. Unfortunately it was taken, as was the next spot and the next spot, et cetera and so forth. I considered fording the river just below Pittsburg to take the forest road up the other fork of the river to look for camping. I figured I could make it, but the river there was pretty wide and the far bank steep. Again, had I been traveling with another truck I would have tried it, but alone, no.

This left nothing to do except plan B; or was it C at this point? I continued down to Crested Butte leaving the thunderstorm behind, down CO-135 to Jack's Cabin Cutoff to 742 and up the canyon to Taylor Park. Though it was starting to get late, I knew from my last trip there were lots of dispersed campsites up the river from the reservoir... assuming they were not all taken.

Taylor Park

I had planned all along to take Cottonwood Pass the following morning, though I didn't know if I'd go north or south once I crossed the pass and got to Buena Vista. Consequently, I didn't want to have to drive any farther up 742 than I had to since I'd be backtracking in the morning.

As I came to each camp site past the reservoir I would see a large 5th wheel trailer parked, surrounded by trucks, trailers, ATVs and/or dirt bikes. But luckily I only had to go a couple of miles before I found a site that hadn't already been claimed, perhaps as it was a bit farther from the river than the others. Nonetheless, I was glad to finally be able to stop driving for the day. A good aspect of these campsites along the Taylor River is that although there is very little screening cover, they are a quarter to half a mile apart, so you're not looking into your neighbor's window or hearing their generator. Of course there was lots of traffic, ATVs & pickups, on the dirt road, mostly going up. I'm guessing people who'd been fishing headed back to camp.

Late evening view, with a sprinkling of 5er's, from my campsite.


Taylor Park

My campsite with Collegiate Peaks in the background.

The morning started out quiet and overcast. I took a short walk down to the river. By the time I got back to camp the ATV parade had begun along the road. I packed up and headed down to Cottonwood Pass Road which heads east from the west side of the reservoir. It's 209 until it crosses the pass, then it's paved and county 306 down to Buena Vista.

Cottonwood Pass Road

The road goes though some nice forested areas as it slowly climbs to the pass. There are side roads where dispersed camping is allowed. I stopped to photograph some lupines.

Lupines bordering Stagecoach Flat

View of Taylor Park and Reservoir from Cottonwood Pass Road

I also stopped alongside the road to photograph the vista back toward Taylor Park and the reservoir. I pulled into the official overlook below the pass. As I was about to pull back onto the main road I spotted a Marmot at the foot of a rocky area. He looked like he might be debating crossing the road, but was aware there was a fair amount of traffic. His indecision gave me the opportunity to stick my telephoto lens out the window and get some shots. In the end he disappeared and didn't try crossing the road after all.

Yellow-bellied Marmot debating crossing the road.

Cottonwood Pass

Cottonwood Pass looks like a Colorado mountain pass should look like - a clear and dramatic geographic demarcation with vast views on either side.

View west from the pass.

Cottonwood Pass. No stickers on this sign.

Looking east from the pass. I'll travel in this direction.

My thoughts at this point were to head south from Buena Vista, leaving the areas of Independence Pass, Aspen and/or Leadville for another trip. I thought I'd catch US-50 at Salida to follow the Arkansas River for a bit, then take 69 to 96, then climb 165, the Greenhorn Highway up into that part of the San Isabelle National Forest where I'd camp for the night.

Salida & the Arkansas River

I got gas and picked up a sub in Salida, then drove the scenic winding road along the roaring Arkansas River. (I checked Google Maps when I got home; the river actually does flow all the way to Arkansas, then into the Mississippi.) Before I got to the junction to turn off of US-50, the fatigue of all the mountain miles I'd driven the days before began to make itself felt. As I looked up at the mountain range where I'd intended to go, I thought of the long, winding road and wondered if the area up the mountain would be as choked with lowlanders looking for recreation as the other areas I'd been to this trip. I realized I didn't have the energy to find out. I also didn't have the energy to take any photos of this scenic highway.

Headed for home

Consequently, I stayed on US-50, following the Arkansas River, to Pueblo where I got on I-25 and headed for home. I crossed Raton Pass into New Mexico. I briefly considered taking US-64 to Cimarron Canyon and camping there, but if the state park there was full there were no easy alternatives other than a longer drive on more mountain roads. I stuck to the freeway and made it safely home before dark.

Thanks for reading along.